Cempaka – #18

July 12

*Cempaka (Chempahkah) are tiny, white, South and southeast Asian Magnolia flowers that have an extraordinary perfume. Men climb the big trees to pick them in the early morning when the flowers are soft and closed. This is the desirable form. When they open, their petals stiffen and curve up and back.

1. The Magnolia flowers in the market were spent. They were already starting to open up and turn brown in spots – petals broken – on the seller’s tray. They were packaged in pairs in inflated plastic bags, the bags strung together with plastic string.

2. Agus knew a place close by, three streets or so away from the market. The seller had a Magnolia tree in the yard so her flowers were always fresh, he said, and cheaper than the market, especially when prices went up around holidays. She had her tray of flowers and ready-made offerings in front of her compound.
I got down from Agus’ truck and selected 5. I gave her 10,000 rupiah. The flowers should have been 1000 each. She gave me one more flower, “so the money would be gone.”

3. You told me that even though you still love me, you also would still never choose to be with me and for awhile that was painful. I closed my eyes and didn’t talk to you as you drove. Then I decided to feel differently and to see your position not as a rejection of me but as a reiteration of the justification for my decision years ago to leave you.
You drove us to the botanical gardens.
I don’t remember whether I smelled or saw them first. Of course I wasn’t supposed to take anything but I did anyway and climbed up into the bed where the tree was planted and pulled the branch down to take the blossom I could reach. I hid it in my closed fist where l could hold it to my nose and breath its beauty in. You just watched me and smiled because it will always be the case that no one else in your life would do such a thing.

4. He was a commoner who fell in love with a high-born woman named Chandra, which means moon. He loved her so much that he stole her away and held her captive in his house but he didn’t want to force her to love him so he waited for her surrender. She understood her situation so she proposed a challenge for him. If he achieved it, she would give herself willingly.
He asked what she required him to do to win her. She said that all she wanted was that Cempaka blossom at the top of that tall tree. Did he see it? He did and started to climb.
He reached a blossom and Chandra said – no, not that one. The one I want is higher. Do you see it. He could see it shining white through the branches and climbed higher. He reached the next blossom. No, it’s higher, she said. Don’t you see it above you? He did and climbed higher. Again he came to a blossom, again Chandra urged him to climb higher and he did, climbing higher and higher to fetch the Cempaka for his love. Then he came to the top of the tree and realized the flower he had seen shining through the branches was the moon and that Chandra, like the moon in the sky, was unattainable for him. In despair and shame he threw himself from the top of the tree and died. There his body was transformed into botanicals – his veins became vines, his teeth delima seeds, beeswax replaced his ears, Jasmine flowers where his nose had been, his ribs the leaf of a palm that sounds like music when it rustles. His cheeks became the flesh around the seeds of the Durian. His eyebrows became Intaran leaves, the blue water lily the glance of his eyes, its leaves replaced the membrane around his brains. His testicles were Salak fruits, an eggplant his penis. And on like that until the botanical equivalents of his body’s parts replaced him.

[This is a folk story and people who told this story knew more or fewer of the botanical equivalents to the body. What they may or may not have known was that these equivalents are used in mortuary offerings to represent the body of the deceased and also that these botanical equivalents appear in Balinese love poetry to describe beauty – the blue water lily like the glance of her eyes, her arms willowy like vines, her eyebrows perfectly curved like aintaran leaves, the half moon of her fingernails like cloves of garlic . . . ]

5. When I lived in east Bali I used to go to the narrow entrance on the east side of the market where the flower sellers sat. When I found one with Cempaka on her tray I would drop 10,000 rupiah on it. She would pick and count the flowers and hand me a bag full.

6. To wear Cempaka in your hair, select 2 or 3 strands and wrap them under one petal, over and around the stem, under the same petal, around the stem, until the strands are finished and the flower floats. It sheds its scent every time you move your head.

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