Fall/Winter 2020Fiction

Countries That Move Their Capitals – Sarah Thieneman

I watch the shadow puppets on the wall and the geckos crawling slowly up the balcony door looking for bugs. I can see the light from the pool and hear Claire talking on the phone. I watch the shadow puppets until they become real. Their shadows step out of the frames and stretch. They’re just waking up. I wish Ben was here to see it. They are heroes and princes and monsters and gods in disguise. The prince Rama with his tall crown and the monkey Hanuman with his large red jaws play for me until I am sleepy. Hanuman wiggles his tail. He uses it to tickle my face. His white fur glows like the moon.

They are a part of a story called the Ramayana. It’s very old. A man who lived in India a long time ago wrote it. It spread across Asia like a teabag changing the water in a cup, so that many people have their own version of the story. Sort of like when something happens that Mommy and Dad are mad about and me, Ben, and Claire all tell it differently. I like the Ramayana because it’s a story about good and bad. Rama is good. The demon king Rawana is bad.

It’s darker outside when I wake up. Rama and Hanuman have gone to sleep and told me to stay in bed. I hear Ben at the door. He is leaning against it like he can’t walk. He coughs and wet stuff goes on the floor. He crawls to his bed and sets his passport on the nightstand. The gold letters on it reflect the light from the pool. He is made of smoke and sour. I don’t like it.

I want to ask Ben if there are geckos in America, but I’m supposed to be asleep. I don’t want Ben to be mad at me. He sits on his bed and stares at the wall. I hear him cough again and there are more wet sounds. The room smells dirty. Ben stumbles to the balcony door. He opens it. I can hear the geckos louder. Ben leans against the railing and I see the flicker of a flame, like a little lantern by the pool at the hotel we go to in Bali. Ben lights a cigarette and I can smell the smoke from bed. Ben’s not allowed to smoke near the house. He coughs more, then makes dry, scratchy sounds. He leans over the railing until I can’t see his head. Ben keeps coughing, and the wet stuff falls to the ground. Under the balcony there is a table, my ball, and Mommy’s potted plants. Ben, I whisper. Ben, what do you like about Indonesia? Ben leans and coughs. He doesn’t answer me. Then he falls, too. The cigarette winks on the edge of the railing. I want to ask him if his favorite animal is still the tiger and if he will write to me when he goes to college in a few months. The air is made of metal and gasping sounds. I shut my eyes and ask Rama to rescue him.


In the morning I go to the balcony and look for Ben. I ask the shadow puppets what they did in the night and look for the tall, jeweled swords of the warriors watching over him. The house is quiet. All of the furniture is gone from under the balcony. I hope it comes back clean and Ben is sorry for falling and we can sit together and eat coconut pancakes. Mary kneels by the pool with her yellow water bucket. She closes her eyes for a long time and then scrubs the tiles with a black brush. The water turns pink like the juice of a jambu biji and runs in little grids into the grass.

Last week I told Mommy my toes were falling off. She peeled my socks off from where they stuck to the slashes and wiped them with a wet cloth. We went in a taxi to the doctor and the doctor told us my toes are not falling off. He said my toes got cut halfway through where my toes stick to my feet and they couldn’t heal because of the fungus. The fungus will be chased away by a cold cream I should rub on my feet. The fungus spreads because we live in a tropical country. It is called Indonesia. Tropical means we live between the lines of Cancer and Capricorn. Mommy says those are latitudes, which is a type of distance. Claire says they are zodiacs. In her room, she predicts my future and shows me magazines with pictures of crabs and a goat that has a tail. It looks like it can’t run or swim. It looks like the Merlion, another made-up animal. I saw it when I went to Singapore to visit the zoo. There is a statue of the lion-fish on the Singapore River that weighs almost as much as the Space Shuttle.

My toes have to be kept dry. I can’t swim or play sports or wear socks. I have to wear blue plastic flip flops when I leave the house. The slaps on my feet sound like the screeches of bats that fly above us when we walk in the botanical gardens. I see geckos on the other side of the window, crawling higher and higher. It must be scary to live on the outside of buildings. My brother Ben always comes home late when I’m almost asleep. He arrives with sweaty bags and a lacrosse stick and heavy books. Sometimes he comes home when the night is almost turning into morning, smelling like smoke, with just his passport in his pocket. Ben bumps into things and is loud. His shadow looks like the puppets’ shadows. When that happens and he lies down on his bed in our room, he doesn’t get up until lunch the next day.

I watch Claire get ready for school. Where’s Ben? I ask. She doesn’t answer. The fungus hasn’t left my toes yet. Ben will go to college next year. Claire is a freshman. She wears a white polo and tan pants. She looks outside with a tired face. I wear my pajamas to breakfast. They have planets on them. The kitchen windows face the pool. The water is warm because the air is warm. Sometimes the cats fall in and we fish them out with big nets. Mary sets out toast with mango jam and fruit that grows in the shape of little stars. Her daughter who is seven like me lives in Medan. Claire stacks the green stars high until they topple over. Ben’s chair is empty. I like to watch him scratch out his homework and eat three toasts from his left hand. Mary irons shirts while she watches us.

Dad works in a big office where he can see flame trees and tropical birds that he says escaped from the bird park. He looks at charts and yells on the phone, but Mommy says some people like that because before I was born his boss sent him to Jakarta and gave him this big house and driver. Even the geckos are scared of the yelling. When he yells, they stop holding on to the ceiling and fall to the floor. Mommy is out shopping. She goes shopping every morning. She brings home flowers. They are called orchids and plumeria and ylang ylang. She presses them in sandwiches of Ben’s old textbooks and Dad’s encyclopedias and small, thin books with covers on them with hills and horses and red rocks which is what Mommy says America looks like.

She puts blue bookmarks in the books I shouldn’t touch. I’m not supposed to disturb the knowledge because of the flowers inside of them. When the flowers are dry, she lets me watch as she mails them to Grandfather. Grandfather lives at 12 Stony Road, Lewisburg, Kentucky, United States of America, Don’t Bend the Envelope. Mommy says he gets confused a lot, but he likes to touch the dried flowers. I don’t know what the dried flowers feel like because I might break them. Grandfather used to be a plant scientist. Mommy says I might be a scientist, too. I have never met Grandfather. He is too old for planes. I don’t know if he curls his body like the crooked men in wheelchairs on the street who ask for money. Maybe he wears white suits like the men did when Indonesia was the Dutch East Indies. I wonder if his old skin crinkles like the dried flowers.

When Claire gets on the bus, Mary goes to the market and tells me to stay inside the gate. I wave at Abdi and Reza from their guard hut each time I walk around the house and pass the driveway. I kick off the hard sandals and walk in the dirt. The dust covers the cuts and makes them hurt less. Claire asked me again to go to school with her. I don’t have a backpack or a teacher. She told me I should be in second grade. Mommy said she doesn’t like what Ben and Claire’s school will teach me. I am her special gift for living in Indonesia and not being able to work. She shows me plants in a microscope and lets me name all of the flowers she brings back from the market. I call them Red Fireworks and Ben’s Hair and Christmas in Bali and Happy Bird. She teaches me about seeds and pollination and the chemicals that give petals color.

While Mommy is gone, I look at the trees and watch the stray dogs outside the fence. I watch the other quiet houses and the patrols of their Abdis and Rezas. The neighborhood has so many guards I think they must be looking for Komodo dragons that escaped from their island or the shadow puppet Rawana with his ten heads and twenty arms. Ben told me they are just looking for thieves. I am not scared of another little boy looking for food. If he came to the gate, I would tell Abdi and Reza to go away and I would share my rice with him. Ben and Claire always tell me, Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t stare at people with broken bodies. Put your toy in your pocket. Mommy says the cardboard houses in Jakarta are flooding from the growing sea and the earth below us is collapsing like a bent envelope and more water will flood up from deep in the ground. Our house is not sinking yet. I would help the boy build houses of waxy leaves in the backyard.

I feel too hot. I’m not allowed to swim by myself because of the fungus and because I might become one of the flopping cats, except there will be no one to pull me out of the water. I go inside where the floor is ice and my arms have goosebumps. The aircon pushes cold through the house and moves all the papers and twists up the curtains. I count all the books and the shadow puppets and the snake fruit with scaly skin. I peel it and eat the dry pieces. I open heavy drawers to find the photos of Mommy and Dad and Ben and Claire before I was born. Mommy looks young and strong and Dad doesn’t look like he yells so much. Ben and Claire both have long brown hair. Maybe this was a time when they were happy in Indonesia, before Mommy had me and Dad got very busy and Ben and Claire decided they would count the days until they could go back to America.

I study my collection of butterflies. Sometimes in Indonesia they are hatched to die, and boys my age catch them to sell. I find my butterflies myself. I watch them fly and eat and fly until they lie down and don’t get up anymore. Then I take them for my collection. I have green ones and blue ones and yellow ones. The gate makes a big sound like a whale–Mommy’s home. She carries a small bag like it is very heavy and tells of big furniture that will be delivered later, chests and daybeds and tables cut from teak wood. Our house is more furniture than house. There are three eating tables in the dining room, another one in the kitchen, and painted cabinets lining every hallway. There are big doors with carved flowers on them that lead to the walls behind them. There are chairs made from roots with more chairs stacked on top of them. When Mommy comes back from buying furniture, she always says many years from now Dad will stop working and we will take all this furniture to America with us. Today she has a tape measure and she talks about how much cardboard it will take to cover the statue of Rama and Sita that touches the ceiling. She finds space for the new furniture and then she shows me the flowers.

Today she brings jasmine and hibiscus and plumeria. They are white and red and yellow. The house smells like water and dirt and warmth. We listen to gamelan music and eat chicken curry Mary gives us in bowls with whole chili peppers. I can name all the chilis, cabe and lombok and jatiliaba. Chilis trick the tongue to make false heat. I feel the burn all the way down to my belly. I watch her as she plucks the heads off each flower. She holds them in her hand for a moment and traces the petals. She tells me where flowers come from and about Indonesia’s biological diversity. She smells each fragrance and describes it to me.

I ask her where Ben is. Mommy carefully flattens the flowers into a newspaper sheet and puts that into The American Heritage Dictionary. She tells me Ben had an accident. She presses one hundred and forty-three flowers. I count each one as Mommy listens. Then it is time to look at the flowers that have been drying and flattening in Mommy’s books on children’s psychology and spelling and happy parenting. She takes out petals that are now gray yellow and gray pink and gray white. I wonder if the flowers can speak to me. Maybe they drank the words of the books and now they can be my teachers.

Mommy wraps each dried flower in its own clear envelope. She writes their names on little cards and glues them to the envelopes. She ties all the envelopes together with a blue ribbon. I wonder what Grandfather’s house looks like. He must have millions of dried flowers from Indonesia. Maybe his walls and carpets are made of the flowers. She writes a long letter to Grandfather in words that look like spiders that I can’t read. Her hand shakes like a new Piring dancer holding plates. The paper smells like peppermint. I ask Mommy if I can write Grandfather a message. If I can ask him what he wears and how many chilis he can eat and if there is fungus in Ohio. Mommy says Grandfather is not ready to meet me yet.

I take a nap and I eat mango slices and I sit by Mary’s feet as she washes Ben’s uniforms and puts them in a box. I ask Mary what Ben is doing. She says Ben is in paradise. I look around at the bright green plants and rainbow bugs and the flowers that make Grandfather happy even when they are dried and have less color and I know this is paradise. I have been to restaurants called paradise and beaches called paradise and heard Mommy order orange drinks called paradise. Indonesia is full of paradise, so I think Ben will be back soon from his accident. Mommy leaves again to see Mrs. Woodsen down the street. Mrs. Woodsen is from Canada, which is near Kentucky.

I want to be like Ben when I grow up. I want to play lacrosse and stay out late and go to college and be an older brother. Sometimes he plays shadow puppets with me. He does all the voices and he makes me laugh. He swims with me at night when he is supposed to be doing his homework and Mommy says I can’t swim because there is no one to watch me. Last week while we swam in the dark, Ben said when he goes to America for college he doesn’t know when he will come back. I asked him what will he do there without me. His body swayed like a little palm tree. He said he will go to classes with teachers wearing vests and to parties and go driving in the country because in America you can drive for hours. He will forget Indonesia and live in a room with a boy his age who is not me and visit Grandfather. I asked him why he would want to forget. Indonesia is all I know.

Ben’s hair was wet, and the water dripped down to his face. He floated on the water and he helped me float too with his arm under my back. I could hear his heart beating fast like a drum. He said it was Mommy and Dad’s fault that I do not know America. His voice was very loud and his face was red and the quiet leaves shushed him. He said when the sun rises over Aunt Lila’s farm and there is no one for miles except the gold hills and the horses, he doesn’t think of spicy ayam goreng or the squiggly lines of rice fields in Ubud. He described wildflowers that are not as pretty as tropical flowers but are beautiful because they survive, and the berries that grow in thorn bushes and when he finds them his arms are covered in scratches and the berries taste like rain. The chlorine water was halfway in my ears. When he said farm I thought rice and when he said wildflowers I thought orchids growing in a big field.

I wanted to ask Ben what he will remember about our house with the waterfall inside it and the batik clothes with drawings made from wax which must be how animals see the world and when it is mudik time and all the people in Indonesia are traveling home like turtles laying eggs and I watch them and I want to know where Ben and I will go. I said, Ben, will you tell them about the restaurant with the little huts by the river and the volcanoes that dot the islands like a necklace and the tea plantations that look like mazes. Ben dipped me lower into the water and pulled me up and said No. It was so dark I couldn’t see the biodiversity around us and the wind made me shiver. He lowered me into the water sideways as he stumbled and the water hugged me and it said, I will fill Jakarta and it will pop like a balloon. 

I listened to the water’s rhythm over Ben’s voice as he talked about driving a car and snow outside a window and going to sports games. Ben said snow was like ais kacang without the fruity flavors and palm seeds. I wonder if the jelly sweetmeat hides under all the ice in America like the last bite Ben saves for me. Ben said he liked a sport called football, where twenty men pile on top of each other in a pyramid fighting for a brown ball. I did not know the things he talked about. They didn’t sound as fun as hiding behind a striped sheet next to the banana tree and showing Ben how I move the shadow puppets’ arms or going shopping with Mommy and finding many kids on the street without shoes who I play with before she finds me and tells me to stop. Will you stop being my brother when you go to America? I asked Ben. His eyes moved fast in every direction. He stood out of the water and lifted me onto his shoulders and pointed in the direction of the ocean we couldn’t see and said even mean Komodo dragons and Jakarta being underwater wouldn’t stop him. The water trickled out of my ears and it said, I will get you.


Claire arrives home first. She eats shrimp chips in bed and studies her magazines. She always reads them. They are old and crumpled and some of them got wet when we went to Australia for vacation and Claire’s room flooded. Some of them are as old as me. Aunt Lila sends her the magazines. Claire studies them like they are for a very important test. She says she will need to memorize what is in them for when she goes to America. She is not Indonesian. She doesn’t know why she has to live here. She says in America, no one will want to hear her talk about batik and geckos and smog and sinking cities. Instead, she will need to know about American music and American clothes and American cars and American movies.

Mommy comes back from Mrs. Woodsen’s house, and Dad gets back from work. Ben is still not home. When I ask Claire where he is, she says he drank too much vodka with his friends and now she will go to America sooner. I ask her what is vodka. She says vodka is the clear bitter drink the adults drink at parties and it is not like water. It is so they can have more fun and pretend they are good friends and that no one will move away and forget the others. I ask her what Ben will do when he leaves for college in a few months. Claire doesn’t answer. She tells me to practice what I will think about when there is no more Indonesia. She says to pretend Jakarta has already sunk even though that hasn’t happened yet.

Claire says forgetting can be a form of protection. Forgetting might be her only choice. She says we will leave Indonesia and she will probably never come back. She will live with and be in class with and marry and work with people who have never been to Indonesia and don’t know where it is and don’t understand why an American girl lived there. She will need to assimilate. It’s like being a chameleon. She will need to pretend she never knew Indonesia. That’s why she lives and breathes her magazines. I ask her where I will be. She says I will go to America, too. All I know are curries and monkeys with big noses and shadow puppets and boys who ride motorcycles and Jakarta which is sinking into the sea. I ask Claire if Jakarta will sink first or if I will go to America first. She says I will go to America first. Maybe I would rather be underwater with the mangosteens and the orchids than go to a place I do not know.

Ben is still not home. I want to ask him about America and cities underwater and who he wants to be. Mommy and Dad leave to go to a dinner. Claire lets me watch movies with her. We eat more chips that taste good even though they are smelly and slippery char kway teow noodles with sweet bits of egg and she lets me play with her hair. She tells me when Ben had long hair, people teased him. Mommy cuts my hair very short. It is late but I am waiting for Ben, so I ask Claire where she lived before Indonesia. She tells me about snow in Ohio and Dad building a treehouse in Virginia and all the cheese she ate in Switzerland and the beautiful mountains in Chile. She asks me what I like best about Indonesia. I say its biodiversity because of the new species always being discovered, but what I really mean is when I am searching the backyard for new palms and butterflies and when Ben is playing shadow puppets with me and it seems like the beginning of the world when the only thing to worry about were gods and monsters fighting.


I wake up when four men pick up my bed and carry it out of my room. I want to roll into the air and see if the shadow puppets will come to life and catch me so I can ask them where they took Ben. Mommy yells at the men and they put the bed down. I try to sleep in the hallway, but it feels funny not being next to Ben’s bed. In the kitchen there are twenty men lifting the furniture and stamping ugly pink wax on the wood. They take my clothes and my toys and Mommy tells me not to cry because she has a few of my things in a bag. My toes hurt and the movers smell like big smoke and I want to go in my room and lie down on Ben’s blanket.

We sleep at Mrs. Woodsen’s house. She talks in a fancy voice and tells me how to use silverware like a gentle man. Mommy cries and Claire stays at school late and then with friends so she doesn’t have to stay at Mrs. Woodsen’s. Before dinner, many adults come to the house and give Mommy hugs and they share drinks and give her flowers. They whisper words I don’t know. Mommy doesn’t send these flowers to Grandfather. I want to know what is back at the house. I want to know the answers to my questions. All of the adults are quiet and their faces look pinched and their eyes are very big like slow lorises. They give me new toys. When it gets dark again, I take the key I found in Claire’s backpack and walk away.

The night smells like fried noodles and heavy flowers. The street is dark and the trees curve over it so it looks like the mouth of the rainforest. Far away, expensive red cars rumble their engines. There are no people on the sidewalk. I stick to the shadows, thinking of Ben. Ben in our room, Ben playing lacrosse, Ben messing up my hair as he tells me goodnight. I push the broken part of the fence open and sneak in. I hide behind the palm trees and run past Abdi. Standing at the door alone is like being the only person left. I hold my right arm steady with my left arm so the key goes straight in the lock. The apartment air is cold. The temperature is set to 18 degrees Celsius because Dad’s company pays the bills. Mom says in our new home, I will have to get used to being hot. The marble floor is shiny like the moon. The cats watch me from on top of naked mattresses that lean against the wall.

Claire asked, When will we go home? Mom said, Soon. This is my home. Dad has already left for his new office in Chicago. In the kitchen there are boxes of jade stamps and notebooks from his desk. There’s a statue that looks just like him but only eight inches tall, in batik robes and tiny wire glasses. The furniture is covered with pieces of cardboard taped together. There are stickers on them and everything is wrapped up like mummies.

I use a plastic knife from Mrs. Woodsen’s kitchen to cut open the boxes. I have to saw the tape hard. The cardboard is cold and a little wet. Inside the boxes are dishes and clothes and books. The covers are bent. Some of the books have flowers, some do not. I am looking for knowledge. I spread open the dictionary in the dark until I see the right letters, B and D and I and S. The flowers between the pages feel like silk. My hands are tired from walking fast and holding the key. I push the book to the window. Outside there are streetlights and lamps from other houses and the moon. The dictionary makes a thud as I open it. I flip many pages and look at all the small words. They are hard to understand. I repeat the alphabet in my head: A is for apple. B is for Bali. C is for congee. D is for dog. I see babushka and baroque and boatswain. When I find the words, I try to hold them in my head. I trace the letters and hear Mom and Dad chewing them. Ben suffered brain damage. Ben was drunk. The umbrella stand impaled him. Ben had a suicide. I suck on the words until I can’t taste anything but cold.


In the morning, Mom says our new house in America will feel like going into a cold room at the hottest time of day, but with no hot. I will see snow and I will be two thousand nine hundred and thirty miles away from the equator. She says sometimes countries move their capitals. A capital is the most important town in a country. She tells me they have government buildings and are the center of trade. Jakarta is a capital. Singapore is its own capital. It is a city-state island. Sometimes capitals sink into the sea, and that’s why Jakarta will not be a capital anymore. Sometimes capitals lose against history, like Babylon or Machu Picchu.

Mom says we will move the capital of our family back to America, where I am from. Ben won’t come with us because he is dead. She asks me if I know what that means. I ask her, What is the capital of heaven? I think of a tall building with Ben’s voice echoing up to the roof. Mom’s mahjong group promised to spread Ben’s ashes over the Great Barrier Reef, which Claire says is turning brown from Dad flying on private airplanes. Mary scrubbed our room with her yellow bucket and told me goodbye, and now it smells like a lemon lost in orchids. We will go on the plane later. Mom has packed me a red backpack. The letters B-E-N fade into the left strap. Ben crossed oceans with that backpack under his seat before I was born. Soon I will go far from Cancer and Capricorn, the crab and the goat, the warm ocean and the rainforest. I can’t stop the growing water and Jakarta and our house and Ben disappearing under it. My shoes feel heavy with water, even though there is no rain.


Sarah Thieneman is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Southern Connecticut State University. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College. Sarah is American, but grew up in Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore. She lives in Connecticut with her husband. Her website is sarahthieneman.com.

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