BEFORE THE FAR EAST, I had traveled mostly in this country. I was always coming to places that recalled, through certain scents or sounds or trees or faces or just the way the wind blew through the sea oats on a North Atlantic beach, another place, another time. But everything about the Far East was so exotic that for the first time I found myself in cities that recalled nothing. In Peking even the light was strange, as if filtered for an eternal gray and golden dusk. Everything was new, and this was both exhilarating and lonely. And then I went to Bali, and there was Emily, who was so familiar.
She was English, the 8-year-old daughter of Geordie and Sally Dawson, an antiques dealer who dreamed of making his living as an artist and an exercise teacher who dabbled in pottery. Geordie was 35 and Sally 28, only a year older than I. It startled me that I could be so close in age to Emily's mother. They had stopped on the island of Bali in the South Seas on their way to Australia, where they hoped to find a new life. I had come from Peking with a friend who is a foreign correspondent there. It was the middle of last winter, and China had been very cold, the restaurants unheated, the apartments drafty, the coal dust-choked air unkind. We were searching for warmth. Bali, with its deserted palm tree-shaded beaches and erotic costumed dances, has become a cliche' for adult daydreams of romance and escape. I would find my unexpected escape in Emily.
We met late one afternoon, after I had been swimming for what seemed like hours. As I floated drowsily on my back, Emily appeared in the sea before me like a little girl out of a watercolor--a pale, delicate-featured wash of blue eyes, white-blonde hair and fair skin. She was splashing about in just the bottom of her bathing suit, the way a little girl could, the way I used to during my own childhood summers in the Philadelphia suburb where I grew up and at the New England shore, where we went each August to visit my grandfather.
Emily gave me a winsome smile, and we drifted into conversation. She told me she was from the city of Bath. I told her I had been to Bath the year before. "We stayed in a guest house on a hill," I said. "It was called Rosewynn. It was fall, but I remember that it was very cold and that a white rose was blooming in the garden. We went to that wonderful costume museum. Have you been there?"
"Oh, yes, it's lovely, isn't it?" Emily said. Emily's word was lovely, like Emily herself, like the sound of her lilting voice--wind chimes in a summer breeze. She told me her family was staying at Laghawa, the cluster of 10 bungalows, hidden in a tropical garden not far from the beach, where we were also staying, the only Americans among a group of Australians and English.
In Love in Bali
"I love Bali," she said. "I love going to hot places. It's cold and dull in Bath at this time of year." I told her I loved going to hot places, too. Emily was filled with wonder, enraptured by each boat on the horizon, each leaping fish, each change in the cumulus clouds. She told me she had never been to Australia and couldn't wait to see another new place. She asked at what age I had first gone abroad, and when I answered that it had been when I was 16, she was amazed, and later she would tell her mother, "Sara didn't go abroad until she was 16!"
Emily told me she wanted to be an actress someday. She told me she loved monkeys and longed to have one as a pet; she despised spiders and lizards. I said I preferred otters to monkeys but shared fully her loathing for spiders and lizards. She told me she hated disco, she loved jazz. Here, I was in total agreement. We talked about money and what makes people happy.
"I don't think money makes people happy," she said. "I know rich people with big swimming pools, and they're not happy."
"What do you think makes people happy?"
"I think love makes people happy."
"Are you in love with anyone?"
And that was Emily, all innocence and possibility, a girl who believed that if she could only concentrate hard enough she could fly. It seemed fitting that she had landed in Bali, in the village of Sanur, at Laghawa, which means, in Balinese, "promise."
While Emily and I talked, my friend--Daniel--sat on the beach, watching a volcano in the distance disappear into the evening mist. It was about 5, and the sun was beginning its pink and golden dissolve behind the palm trees. The Balinese, who admire white skin and so avoid the sun, came down to bathe then, and their laughter drifted across the water. We breathed the scent of incense that always floated on the wind in Bali, burning amid the offerings of flowers and fruits the Balinese made to their Hindu gods.
Emily's 6-year-old sister Alannah, blond and blue-eyed like Emily, called to her to come out of the water and get dressed for dinner. Emily, who had been so grown-up and polite, turned petulant. "Oh, shut up!" she called back in the same proper English accent with which she had been discussing love and jazz. And the sudden transformation from sophisticate back to child won my heart.
Emily said goodbye and splashed out of the water. Moments later I followed, running through the sand to Dan. "I just met the most wonderful little girl, her name is Emily, she's from Bath, her family's staying at Laghawa, too, and they're on their way to Australia."
He smiled. "She came out of the water talking about you. She told her parents you were very nice. She said, 'Sara's been to Bath.' "
That Certain Shyness
Emily visited my bungalow the next night. We were shy at first. I showed her the wooden frog I had just bought for Dan. It was stout, with red spots all over, a parasol held aloft in one hand, and the expression of an endearing curmudgeon. Emily loved the frog. She said it reminded her of Mister Toad in "The Wind in the Willows."
"It's my favorite book," she said. "I'm bringing it to Australia. I read it every morning."
I told Emily I worked as a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., where the president lives. She told me she was writing a book about her trip and again I felt that sense of floating between past and present, somewhere in a time where Emily and I could be the same age. I, too, had written books about my family's trips, which were, not to Bali, but to places like Salem, Mass., where my grandfather lived on Leach Street in an old frame house with flowered wallpaper. Salem was as magical to me as Bali was to Emily. She ran across the garden to her bungalow to fetch her book: "Emily's Trip Around The World." She read aloud her descriptions of the tropical fruits she had eaten ("Today I tasted papaya. . . ."), of the Balinese taxis called bemos ("special taxis without backs"), of a cremation she had seen ("They gave him cigarettes for the trip to Heaven"). Her spelling made me smile; Emily was a delightfully terrible speller.
After that, she read me new chapters each day. The Dawsons visited one of hundreds of temples on the island and Emily wrote The Gods of Bali: "The Gods of Bali are called Buddhas. There are three of them. The Balinese have very old temples that are where they say the different gods live. The three main Gods are called God of fire, God of water, God of wind."
After a trip to the monkey forest, Emily wrote The Holy Monkey Forest: "One monkey got on to Mummy's knee and looked down Mummy's dress. One monkey got on to my knee and pinched my nose and another monkey got on my back and nipped me and the mother pulled him off and nipped him. One monkey was climbing up Daddy's leg because we brought some nuts."
We spent long afternoons at the beach. I taught Emily the jellyfish float and tried to teach her the butterfly stroke. We pretended I was a boat going around the world and Emily my passenger, just as we used to do at the public pool in Levittown, Pa., where pretending was as close as any of us came to a place like Bali. We chased after the brightly painted wooden sailboats, and one day Emily caught one and managed to hang on for a short ride while I cheered.
Emily gave me watercolors and pieces of coral she found at the beach and a basket of tropical flowers she had collected. I taped the watercolors to the walls of our bungalow, displayed the coral on the bamboo table of our porch and scattered the flowers in a bathtub filled with cool water. I brought her shells from beaches Dan and I traveled to; she held the shells to her ear and said, "I can hear the wind."
We told each other about our daily discoveries and adventures. Soon I could see Bali through Emily's eyes, and she through mine. I told her about the day Dan and I went bicycling in the rain, across lush green rice fields, through villages where pigs, cows, chickens and children shared the same muddy path. I told her about the cave beside the ocean at Tanalot, where a guide shined his flashlight on the long green snakes sleeping in the darkness. I told her about the blind masseur Dan visited in hopes it would ease the pain in his back, who worked behind a white curtain in a room lit by a single bulb. I told her about the moss shimmering in the stone pools at the temple at Tampatsiring, about the three rainbows we saw one afternoon after a storm.
Emily told me about the elaborate cremation ("Everyone was happy. No one was crying. In England people are sad at funerals. Are they sad in America?"), about the suckling pig her parents ate at an outdoor market ("I thought it was horrid. It had a cabbage in its tail"), about the crab ("Today I saw a big purple crab, it was the most beautiful crab I've ever seen!").
Emily had endless questions: "Who was your first best friend? Who is your best friend now? Who was your first boyfriend? What is the most exciting thing you've ever done? What is the most horrible thing you've ever written about? What was the most beautiful place you ever lived? What is America like?"
She wondered, "Do the people in America make fun of Prince Charles' big ears?" When I told her they did, she laughed. "I thought they did."
Emily had nicknamed her family The Last Minute Family because, she said, they did everything at the last minute and were always late. They had moved to Bath by accident; they traveled there on vacation eight years ago from Ireland--where Sally and Geordie were born and raised--and never left. Geordie was a lanky brown-haired, blue-eyed man who called his daughters "pet" and soothed them with whiskey when they were so sunburned they couldn't sleep. He would sit in the grove of palm trees by the sea, painting gay watercolors that he would rip up later, muttering cheerfully that they were no good. But Geordie was a talented artist.
Sally was tall and voluptuous, with knowing blue eyes and curly brown hair that fell to her shoulders. She was 18 when she married Geordie. She liked to talk about the trip she and a girlfriend had taken to the island of Eleuthera a few years back. They stayed three months, living simply. She loved her family, but she also loved her freedom and was filled with ambivalence upon her return to Bath. Sally, who let her children run free on the beach, made being a mother look effortless. She and Geordie were tired of England. "England's dead," Sally said.
One day Dan found a huge, beautiful starfish. It was rust-colored with bold black spots, and it matched, in color and design, Dan's batik bathing suit. We showed it to Emily when she came to swim that afternoon.
"Oh, it's lovely," she said. "Where did you find it?"
"Out by the reef," I said. "See, it matches Dan's bathing suit." That enchanted her, and the next day she read me the latest chapter in her book--The Starfish That Matched Dan's Bathing Suit: "Dan and Sara went for a swim and found a starfish. It was the same color as Dan's trunks--orange with a bit of pink and black. They wanted to keep it so Dan took it home and boiled it and cleaned it with a knife."
A Sad Farewell
Dan had to leave Bali two days before I did to return to Peking. After he had gone, Emily must have sensed my sadness because she stayed close. She brought me shells with my name painted on them and a bottle of lilac bubble bath from the Isle of Wright. Dan, who had begun painting again in Bali, had left me a watercolor of the path we walked each day to the beach, through a stone arch shaded by an umbrella-like tree that I never could identify. Emily read his sentimental inscription. "It's lovely what Dan wrote," she said. "Did that make you feel better?"
I shopped for wooden frogs for Emily and Alannah, but none was as perfect as the one I had bought for Dan. I decided I would write them a book--"Emily and Alannah Go to China." In it, they visit Dan, who lives, in my book, in a red pagoda at the Summer Palace, with a Chinese-speaking Balinese monkey as a pet. They ride bicycles and chase a Giant Panda who escapes on a bicycle from the zoo because he is sick to tears of eating bamboo all day while people stare. They invite him to live with them at the Summer Palace. He accepts gratefully. They go ice skating on lakes surrounded by temples. They board the Marble Boat, the beautiful but useless boat that an ugly empress built with the money she was supposed to have spent on the Navy. They go backstage at the Peking Opera and watch the actors with shaven heads paint their faces like warriors. They eat 1,000-year-old eggs and Peking duck with plum sauce and pancakes as thin as paper. They refuse to eat sea slugs, even if they are considered a delicacy. I read the book to Emily and Alannah. Later, Emily hugged it to her chest. "This book makes me happy. I'm going to read it whenever I'm sad. I'm going to get it published."
All day she talked about the Marble Boat. "I wish I could sit on that boat."
We all went to dinner that night. Each of us must have thought it was a special occasion because we had been living in bathing suits, cotton sundresses, sarongs and thongs, but on this night we dressed up. Emily wore her necklace of white shells and her blue batik dress with the gold threads in it. I wore my white dress with the Mexican embroidery. We sat on bamboo chairs in the garden of the restaurant. We ate avocado salads and grilled turtle and fried squid and duck and fried rice. For dessert Emily had lemon pancakes. Geordie talked about one of his happiest days in Bali, when he had spent the afternoon painting at a warung--the Balinese version of an outdoor cafe'. The woman who served him was, with her dark eyes and dark hair and her grace, hypnotically beautiful, as all the Balinese women seemed to be. She would, from time to time, lift her shirt and breastfeed her child. What fascinated Geordie was her complete lack of concern with him, with his painting, with his Western face. The sweet scent of frangipani blossoms floated on the night air. It seemed as though we would be friends forever.
The next morning was my last. I saw the sunrise. I had to catch a plane to Singapore and then back to Washington, home. I gave Emily my straw hat with the wide brim. In it, she looked like one of Renoir's little girls. We promised to write. People always say that, but I knew that Emily and I would write. We both wished we were closer in age. Emily talked of visiting me when she was 21. "But you'll be 38," she said, suddenly melancholy, and I didn't have the heart to tell her that she'd figured wrong; I'd actually be 40. She gave me chocolates for the plane ride. "So your ears don't pop." The family lined up in the garden to see me off. I hugged Emily and told her that Australia would be wonderful. She ran down the sandy path and chased after the bemo. I sat in the back and waved until her blond hair disappeared into the sunlight.
A few weeks ago, when I had almost given up, a letter from Australia appeared in my mailbox. The mispelled enchantment with this new place--Sydney--was endearingly familiar. Emily went to the zoo and saw a green slimy snake wrapped around a branch and seals balancing balls on their heads. The flat where she lives is very nice and has a view of the sea and island. Every day she sees lots of boats come in, and one day she saw a big black submarine. She goes to school and has made lots of friends. She sends her love.
Bali seems like a dream now, four months afterward. Everything has changed, as it always does. Even Emily, who this month turned 9, just two weeks before I turn 28.