Batang, Western Sumatra
by James Penha
The roots of the two banyan trees poured themselves
like rivulets into the Batang River—
one from the eastern bank, one from the west—
competing for the endless torrents gods grant Sumatra.
The village elders who met at the full moon
beneath each tree loved their own banyan so much
they needed to destroy its rival and so sent
machete warriors across the rapids
where, matched and met, blood whirled
downstream for decades.
Even children swung on the roots
like mad monkeys to attack the other shore.
Entangling limbs in knots, they hung
like ripened fruit
before they fell on the reddened rocks.
Left to themselves, the roots of the trees
wound around and within themselves
until there was no end among them
and later innocents called the bridge of roots
a natural wonder and crossed from side
Originally published in Lunarosity 7.3 (2008).
PHOTO: Root bridge, Indonesia, by Encik Adnan, used by permission.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Oddity Central, among other sources, claims that the Batang Root Bridge (Jambatan Akar) “was built in 1890, by Pakih Sohan, a Muslim teacher from Lubuak Glare, disappointed by the fact that students from Pulut-pulut couldn’t attend his classes on Islam and Quran recitations due to the Batang Bayang river that separated the two settlements. He planted two small Jawi-jawi—a type of broad-leaf banyan tree—and started stringing their roots around a stem bridge made of bamboo. It took approximately 26 years for Jembatan Akar to become the sturdy bridge it is today, and with each passing year, it becomes even stronger, as the banyan tree roots continue to grow.” But when I first crossed the bridge two decades ago, before I had read any such putative histories, I heard from a riverside storyteller, a very different story that forms the narrative of my poem.
PHOTO: The author on the root bridge in Batang, Western Sumatra, Indonesia.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work has lately appeared in several anthologies: The View From Olympia (Half Moon Books, UK), Queers Who Don’t Quit (Queer Pack, EU), What We Talk About It When We Talk About It, (Darkhouse Books), Headcase, (Oxford UP), Lovejets (Squares and Rebels), and What Remains (Gelles-Cole). His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha