The Aeronauticists

Adam Bobbette

Reviewed by David L. Hays

20 Nov 2016

Yogyakar­ta was a loud town. The sounds of motor­bikes were as con­stant as the trop­i­cal heat. Cut­ting through the noise, mobile food ven­dors broad­cast sounds tai­lored to the food they served. A con­stant whis­tle meant rice por­ridge, a pre-record­ed nurs­ery rhyme sig­nalled dumplings, and bells her­ald­ed meat­balls. Five times a day, the mosques on every cor­ner maxed-out their speak­ers, set in minarets, and pushed the oth­er sounds into the back­ground, behind the muezzin’s call to prayer. At night, the ani­mals took over: crick­et, frog, cica­da, and lizard voic­es in a thick polypho­ny of clicks, pat­ters, and whoops.

By day, I was usu­al­ly work­ing alone at my desk in a small wood­en bun­ga­low. Every so often, I would hear a lone whis­tle cut through the nor­mal sounds. The tone changed, which meant it was not rice por­ridge. Some­times it felt close, then fad­ed into the dis­tance as if mak­ing cir­cles in the sky. Its pitch was inten­tion­al and musi­cal, a sat­is­fy­ing, deep gneee. I would rush out­side to spot its source, but there was noth­ing. I asked friends about it, but they didn’t know what I was talk­ing about; they’d nev­er heard it. Once, I ran out­side to chase it, and the only peo­ple around were a cou­ple of old ladies pick­ing weeds beside the neighbour’s house. I asked, Do you hear that? Not the motor­bikes, not the roost­ers, that?” I point­ed to the emp­ty sky, then said, Gneee, gneee.”

It’s a bird,” one of them said.

What kind of bird makes that noise?” I asked.

Don’t know,” they said in uni­son, not look­ing at me, pick­ing weeds.

Well, who knows about it? Who can tell me about it?”

Go ask some men, they like to play with birds.”

They were right. Only men played with birds. These are some that I met.

Supri, 47, was tall, slen­der, and dressed in com­fort­able slacks and a but­ton up shirt. He had big white teeth and an empa­thet­ic smile. We first met in March, when I saw him stand­ing in the cen­tre of a cul-de-sac with a crowd of grey pigeons milling around his legs.

He worked at an art gallery that was also a pri­vate home in an old, dark but airy, Javanese wood­en house. Its red tile roof was shaped like a pointy hat with an expan­sive brim. The prop­er­ty was full of sprawl­ing trees with bird­cages hang­ing from them like Christ­mas balls.

On his days off, Supri told me, he packed up his favourite pigeons and drove 30 kilo­me­tres on his motor­bike to the top of the local vol­cano. Fac­ing the direc­tion of home, he’d release a male and female together.

Togeth­er they are smarter. They’re just like peo­ple, you know. We’re the same. Togeth­er we are sure to find a way home.” He explained this calm­ly and with mime-like hand gestures.

He put his index and mid­dle fin­gers togeth­er, then brought them to the tip of his nose, tap­ping it a few times, They always come back, because they can smell where home is.”

How do they smell from that far away in the sky?” I asked.

I don’t know. You should research when you get home.” He made his fin­gers look like they were tap­ping on a com­put­er key­board. You tell me how they do it. How­ev­er they do it, from up there, they smell here.” He point­ed his thumb behind him to the ruined old neighbour’s house, where he had kept the cages.

They were so far away when he released them that he attached spe­cial­ly built whis­tles to their tail feath­ers. They were made of bam­boo or wood, carved and orna­ment­ed by local arti­sans with line draw­ings of drag­ons or oth­er myth­i­cal fig­ures. Their flat tops and square mouths caught the wind and made the gneee. They looked like the kind of thing hob­by­ists worked on in a cor­ner of their house, hunched over a work­table, care­ful­ly frit­ting mate­ri­als into smooth edges. Their shapes were some­times aggres­sive and aero­dy­nam­ic, some­times bul­bous, almost apple-like, with con­cern not for veloc­i­ty, but tone and vol­ume. They were some­times double‑, triple‑, or even quadru­ple-bar­relled and sound­ed like a minia­ture pipe organ on which all pipes were blown at once.

One night in May, some­one drove up to Supri’s house, maybe in a truck or a car, nobody knew exact­ly what hap­pened, but in the morn­ing, his six­ty pigeons were stolen. They thought that maybe they were sold in mar­kets in near­by towns. Each bird could bring in five to thir­ty dol­lars, an excel­lent pay­check for a thief of six­ty birds. It could have paid off someone’s debts, tak­en care of health­care bills, or been invest­ed in more prof­itable con­tra­band ani­mals. Supri had no plans to replace the pigeons; he didn’t make enough mon­ey, he told me with­out emo­tion, glanc­ing at the lot with the emp­ty cages spat­tered with white guano. Instead, he set­tled for hang­ing out with his caged birds dan­gling from the trees.

As I was leav­ing one after­noon, his friend, who looked like Supri but with less teeth and lanky, as if Supri had been stretched and aged, began singing with one of the birds in a cage hang­ing above him. It was a shiny, char­coal black and bright white kac­er, a species famous in the area for its high-pitched song. He whis­tled and craned his neck toward the bird, and it did the same thing back.

I asked him, Where can I find pigeon whis­tles and the peo­ple who make them?”

He point­ed his thumb over his shoul­der and said, There, in Pasthy.”

*

Pasthy (an acronym) was the ani­mal mar­ket in the south of the city. It was a mix­ture of per­ma­nent stalls and pavil­ions where men dis­played their ani­mals. Every­one knew the black mar­ket for stolen ani­mals and endan­gered species was also there. The under­ground stuff made the place an uneasy and para­noid spec­ta­cle of deprav­i­ty. It smelled like sad­ness: piss and shit, ani­mal food and wood shav­ings. Minia­ture owls with scab­by skin were hang­ing in cages in the day­light, and giant bats hud­dled, exhaust­ed, in cages too small for them.

Some stalls spe­cialised in bird food and steroids, oth­ers sold intri­cate ani­mal hous­es in the style of Supri’s tra­di­tion­al house. Hat-roofs could be bought for the top of fish tanks or pigeon hous­es. It seemed that humans and ani­mals should share archi­tec­tur­al styles.

I talked with the own­er of a bird food and steroid stall who had fad­ing tat­toos cov­er­ing both arms. His wife sat in the back­ground, behind the counter, wear­ing a sheer pink poly­ester hijab, her eye­brows pen­cilled in.

Where can I buy the best pigeon whis­tles?” I asked.

Oh, not at Pasthy. Here, they are just normal.”

Where can I buy the best?” I asked.

Hmm,” he made the sound of think­ing, you have to go to Munti­lan,” an adja­cent town, to the market.”

The one beneath the bridge?” I asked, hav­ing been through the town many times.

By the sta­tion, that one. Go there. There are many stalls with the best whis­tles. They make them at home, the real­ly expen­sive ones, small, like this big” — he point­ed to the tip of his pinkie fin­ger — but the sound is high and loud. You can hear it com­ing through the clouds, then they come down fast.” He dashed his hand down toward the ground like a swoop­ing pigeon. There peo­ple even cut lit­tle pieces of thick paper to put inside the whis­tle. It war­bles the sound.” He then whis­tled in a wob­bling way and point­ed his nose to the grey sky.

*

Photo: ©Adam Bobbette.

The road to the mar­ket in Munti­lan wound through dense­ly packed small towns, then opened into long stretch­es of high­way with shops hud­dled up to the road’s edge, fol­lowed by radi­ant green fields. Like a syn­co­pat­ed rhythm, that pat­tern repeat­ed with unex­pect­ed vari­a­tions for fifty kilo­me­tres: straight road, small wind­ing town, open field.

In one field, I noticed four, tall bam­boo poles paint­ed in broad, hor­i­zon­tal, bands of red and white and arranged in a square. The alter­nat­ing stripes of col­or seemed to ref­er­ence the Indone­sian flag. At the top, a sash, also red and white, was strung amid the poles. It looked cel­e­bra­to­ry, par­ty­ish, its ruf­fled edge flut­ter­ing in the wind, like the set­ting for a birthday.

A small group of men were hang­ing around. They were smok­ing, tex­ting, and chat­ting. Some of them held pigeons. Cages were scat­tered on the ground. As I approached, a guy in his for­ties asked me, What are you after, broth­er?” He wore a t‑shirt embla­zoned with a por­trait of Soekarno, Indonesia’s first pres­i­dent, and big white let­ter­ing that read, Ter­rif­ic Indonesia.”

Can I watch?” I asked.

His friend wore a green back­pack that was a wood cage with eight com­part­ments for pigeons. This was how he trav­elled with his birds.

Awan was the youngest in the group, still a teenag­er. He flit­ted through the group wear­ing cam­ou­flage shorts, a black t‑shirt, and a base­ball cap turned back­wards. But he avoid­ed me and would only speak Javanese, a lan­guage I don’t under­stand, even though we could both speak Indone­sian. They all seemed to make fun of me, com­ment­ing in Javanese so that I couldn’t under­stand, then they’d flip to Indone­sian and avoid trans­lat­ing what they’d said. My respons­es were always fun­ny to them because I could nev­er respond to what was real­ly hap­pen­ing. Any­thing I said or did was then bound to be fun­ny, like they were watch­ing a real-life bloop­ers victim.

Soon, Awan gath­ered his own pigeon back­pack and looked ready to leave. I asked if I could join. His friends laughed, then Awan laughed, then he said, O.k., let’s go, are you ready, now?” I got ready, then he put his back­pack down, returned to hang­ing out, and ignored me. Sud­den­ly, he gath­ered his stuff and peeled off on his motor­bike with­out me. Con­fused, I tried to fol­low but was not even on my own motor­bike by the time he made it out of the field and onto the road. I tried to make it look like I was leav­ing any­way, to avoid return­ing to the oth­er guys reject­ed and fooled. I said farewell as if it was what I had meant to do all along, then drove off. They bare­ly noticed me. A few hun­dred metres up the road, Awan was in a field, alone and with a pigeon in his right hand. He beck­oned me with his head, then turned away and threw the pigeon like a ball. It dart­ed away from him, speed­ing hor­i­zon­tal­ly, with­out lift­ing in height, and flew in a straight, grey line above the fields. In a few min­utes, it land­ed in the hands of one of the guys back in the ring.

They were train­ing them for rac­ing. Over weeks and months, Awan would dri­ve fur­ther and fur­ther away to launch them. Each guy in the ring held a female pigeon in his hand. The male zoomed in, then furi­ous­ly flapped its wings to slow down like it was sud­den­ly about to hit a wall. It would smash into the female and fall to the dusty ground.

Awan turned to me and said in Indone­sian, I sell alco­hol in the shop,” a local home­brew. You should come by. Any­time. We’ll drink together.”

He told me he couldn’t afford to fin­ish high school, so he raced pigeons to hang out with friends and chase a lit­tle extra cash. He was nine­teen. He said I could sleep at his house if I want­ed. Because I was a West­ern for­eign­er, I thought he assumed the promise of alco­hol was a good con­nec­tion between us, that we could com­mune over a trans­gres­sive act in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Mus­lim, booze free, country.

How do I find you?”

Go to the mar­ket and ask for me.”

Ah, I’m also look­ing for pigeon whistles.”

You can do that there, too.”

He made a phone call, in Javanese again, then launched anoth­er pigeon. He told me he was leav­ing, kick-start­ed his motor­bike, gave me a nod, and drove away.

On the way to Awan’s mar­ket, I saw anoth­er pigeon ring, this time behind a dilap­i­dat­ed ware­house. The sky was bright blue, and the local vol­cano, with its grey­ish-blue, rocky mouth, smoked in the back­ground. I walked up, and Tony stepped out from the group of men to greet me.

Can I watch?” I asked.

Sure, bro. What’s your name?”

He told me he was in his for­ties and in the off-sea­son for work when he deliv­ers tobac­co to cig­a­rette fac­to­ries. To pick up extra cash, he some­times deliv­ered eggs and pro­duce in a small truck, back and forth across Java in fif­teen-hour trips. He did not expect much cash from the pigeon races, but he told me, if you’re real­ly good, or the best, you can win the cham­pi­onship prize: a new Hon­da motor­bike, the kind with bright colours and an aggres­sive sit­ting pos­ture. It was the kind that thugs liked to mod­i­fy so that the exhaust made a vio­lent, pierc­ing sound. Then, depend­ing on the guys he was with and the reli­gious inflec­tion of his thugish­ness, he drove around town in car­a­vans, fly­ing bed-sheet-sized flags embla­zoned with vio­lent Islam­ic iconog­ra­phy, like crossed, black machetes with the Kak­bah, the cube at the cen­tre of Mec­ca. If they were feel­ing less macho, they revved their engines in parks at night. Some­times they did both.

These guys didn’t use pigeon whis­tles; they were jock­eys.” Supri, with his urbane lank­i­ness and gen­tle smile, was of a dif­fer­ent world. This was com­pe­ti­tion: not about musi­cal sounds, it was pigeon steroids, mus­cu­lar, loud motor­bikes, work­ing class thugs and reli­gious zealots. Some of these peo­ple could have stolen Supri’s pigeons. The birds not only drew men as dif­fer­ent as Supri and Tony toward them, but also were mir­rors in which they could see their lives reflect­ed. Like Supri, Tony thought his pigeons were just like peo­ple — mean­ing, like himself.

Tony pulled a pigeon out of its cage, han­dling it flu­ent­ly. The bird bobbed its head but didn’t resist. With his thumb, as if he were open­ing a switch­blade, he spread one wing. The feath­ers were in alter­nat­ing strips of white and beige; their stems were small, seem­ing­ly frag­ile, and translu­cent like fish bones.

It takes about a month for a feath­er to grow. That’s how you tell how old they are. You want to race them at about ten feath­ers,” he said.

How do you know which is male or female?”

Like this.”

Photo: ©Adam Bobbette.

Pulling anoth­er pigeon from its cage, he brought the two close togeth­er. Like mag­nets of the same pole, they retreat­ed, flail­ing their wings and snap­ping their heads at each oth­er. He put one away then brought out anoth­er. When they came into each other’s sphere, they made that pigeon flut­ter­ing war­ble sound. You can’t know by their wings, shape, or colour, only by their reac­tions to each oth­er,” he explained. It’s the mag­net­ism, the deep attrac­tive­ness, that the jockey’s exploit.

All pigeons are desirous, but some are bet­ter at act­ing on it. We train them and fig­ure out which ones are the smart and stu­pid ones, just like peo­ple. Some are strong and fast, oth­ers are lazy. We only find out by train­ing them. You can’t know before you work with them,” he said.

Once the male birds got used to find­ing their way back to the females, which were kept in the ring, Tony went fur­ther away, like Awan had, so that the pigeons would start to get a good lift in the air on their way back. Then they had to dive at the cor­rect angle, like the down­ward curve of a three-point bas­ket­ball shot, through the sash­es at the top of the square. The game relied on the intel­li­gence of each bird to know its way back to the female and to sweep in through the top. Peo­ple like Tony and Awan and their jock­ey fore­bears had worked with male pigeons long enough to fig­ure out what they were like and how they could build rela­tion­ships with both the female and the jock­ey. They were a trio, even if Tony only ever spoke as if he wasn’t a part of the rela­tion­ship, just the dis­tant pup­pet master.

Tony wore a red, nylon jack­et so that his male pigeons rec­og­nized him from the air. On com­pe­ti­tion day, there were three oth­er men in the ring with Tony, each with a female in his hand and wear­ing a bright-coloured jack­et. When one jock­ey iden­ti­fied the lit­tle mov­ing spot in the sky as his pigeon, he screamed to get its atten­tion and waved the female up and down like a pom-pom, coax­ing the pigeon to begin its descent. Some­times the pigeons were con­fused and couldn’t fig­ure out to where to descend, or per­haps they didn’t want to stop fly­ing, and they stayed cir­cling in the sky. They were then passed by anoth­er that would plunge at just the right moment, slow­ing down in a flur­ry of flap­ping wings and smash­ing into the female.

What about this was like a human rela­tion­ship, I won­dered? Cir­cling and get­ting lost in the sky, pre­fer­ring to fly rather than return home? Smash­ing into a mate? I could see the analo­gies, and they seemed crude. Every prac­tice and race rehearsed the act of a sim­ple return: find the quick­est path, don’t lose sight of the goal of desire, don’t get lost in the clouds. The sin­gu­lar vision of reunion and reward, it could make sense but missed so much about human experience.

Maybe this is what jock­eys thought about: their pow­er came from mas­ter­ing the deep desire to return. The jock­eys mas­tered it in them­selves and the pigeons. In a space away from their wives, homes, and day jobs, they could prac­tice male and female rela­tions. When they said that pigeon rela­tion­ships were the same as human rela­tion­ships, it must have also meant that they were think­ing of them­selves as pigeons when they were at home. The jock­eys cre­at­ed a space out­side of their every­day lives that could reflect back into it. But as they con­trolled the pigeons, the pigeons con­trolled them; the jock­eys became pigeon-like in their lives while the pigeons became like jockeys.

I asked what the ring was called. Kolon­gan,” Tony said.

What does it mean?”

It means the name of the ring,” he replied, like I was some kind of human scrub jay, a bird with­out short-term memory.

Yeah, but the word, Kolon­gan, what does it mean? Where is it from? Can it be used for any oth­er kind of thing?”

No.”

*

It was a weird word because kolong is the space under a bed. The scary space where mon­sters and ghosts live. Or, it can be the dark and scary space under a bridge where mon­sters, ghosts, and creeps live. With the addi­tion of an, it becomes gen­er­al, like housing. How does a dark and scary place under­neath become a par­ty­ish place in a rice field for pigeon rac­ing, and what does that mean about mas­ter­ing human and ani­mal relations?

I asked my librar­i­an friend Nang. He was liv­ing in a vil­lage close to the Kolon­gan where Tony was train­ing his pigeons. Dur­ing the day, he was a farmer, but he ded­i­cat­ed his evenings to schol­ar­ly pur­suits. His small, pri­vate library (con­tain­ing under one hun­dred vol­umes only) was used by a net­work of devo­tees of Kejawen, an ani­mist phi­los­o­phy on the verge of extinc­tion because of the ascen­den­cy of Islam over the past fifty years. Today, Kejawen sur­vives on the slopes of the many vol­ca­noes and on the edges of cities in Java.

I used to love play­ing with pigeons,” Nang said. But then I got busy.”

His wide mouth opened all the way when he laughed, and some­times, when some­thing was real­ly fun­ny, he ducked his head for­ward, then threw it back in an arc, laugh­ing along the way.

We were in his nar­row, dark, pink-walled sit­ting room, on a red plas­tic sofa. His lam­i­nat­ed wed­ding pho­to, taped to the wall, showed the bride and groom in tra­di­tion­al gold­en Javanese out­fits and balls dan­gling from their heads. That evening, how­ev­er, Nang was wear­ing sweat­pants and a loose shirt, and he had just washed after cut­ting grass in the fields. His wife remained in the kitchen with the kids, except to bring us tea.

Nang’s Kejawen was sys­tem­at­ic. It was reg­i­ment­ed with cal­en­dars, fast times, med­i­ta­tion dates, and prayer books; its one-thou­sand-year his­to­ry was a clear sto­ry he liked to recount. He had been study­ing it since high school and was now close to thir­ty. I fig­ured he would have some­thing to say about the Kolon­gan.

First, I asked him, What is the sky made of?”

It’s like this, it’s like this,” he began, tak­ing a breath and reflect­ing. There are three lev­els.” He, too, used his hands in a mime like way to explain things. He made an L,” with his thumb as the hor­i­zon­tal line. The bot­tom is the earth, the human earth, with us and nature on top of it. Next up,” he point­ed to the bot­tom seg­ment on his fore­fin­ger, is called Indra Loka [lit­er­al­ly, the place of the gods”], that’s where the air, wind, and souls are blow­ing around. Then,” he moved up his fin­ger, it’s on to Jono Loka, the top. Up there is eter­nal. Every­thing below is striv­ing to make it there, but won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly. If they don’t go up, they go back down.” His fin­ger cir­cled between the lev­els. The sec­ond is full of souls, the dead and some that don’t come from humans. Even the wind is there. Even the wind that destroys crops and hous­es, big vio­lent winds, are souls.”

When Nang talks about souls, he means dif­fer­ent kinds of things. His souls are ghosts and spir­its from humans and ani­mals that have died, includ­ing pigeons. They can also be made by gods, fab­ri­cat­ed by them, then insert­ed into the world.

Souls are how his­to­ry is trans­mit­ted across time. They are how we know the past. Noth­ing dies, accord­ing to Nang, but only changes shape. Talk­ing about souls is Nang’s way of wrap­ping his head around how the world con­tin­ues through mate­r­i­al trans­for­ma­tions. It is how all things around us, like fur­ni­ture, plants, pigeons, friends, are con­tigu­ous with their indi­vid­ual pasts and the greater past beyond them. It means that the world does not dis­ap­pear and remake itself at every instant. This is how pigeons are not only like us but also are us, and we them. They aren’t just mir­rors because souls pass between shapes, from feath­ers and frag­ile bones to eyes that look for­ward in a body with a ver­ti­cal spine and arms that reach for­ward. It is the same with trees and rocks: souls can go from human form, to tree form, to min­er­al form.

The air that we inhale and through which pigeons course is dense with these souls. Wind, clouds, rain, and breath are not blind phys­i­cal forces but the striv­ing of past indi­vid­u­als. Every gust of wind is an inten­tion with­in the deep time of chang­ing bod­i­ly form.

The mech­a­nism that selects which spir­its will rise to Jono Loka, and which do not, and what shape they will take (stone, pigeon, tree, or human) I still have not got­ten into with Nang. And what the mech­a­nism is, whether a gene, a god, or some­thing else, I also don’t understand.

It is a ver­ti­cal cos­mos for Nang, with an over­all striv­ing upwards, away from the Human Earth to an increas­ing airi­ness. Its shape is like a cloud grow­ing fat and full, then liq­ue­fy­ing into rain; what is lighter ris­es, then falls down, ris­es again, then falls.

The Kolon­gan is with­in Indra Loka, then?” I asked. It’s the bot­tom edge of Jono Loka, the space under­neath. That is why it is called that. It rubs the bot­tom edge of the cos­mos; the pigeons are cir­cu­lat­ing through Indra Loka. Is that why Kolon­gan are called Kolon­gan, because they are the bot­tom of the cos­mos, like the Kolong is the under­side of a bed or bridge, but they are not so scary and with pigeons? And the birds are us, but a lit­tle high­er up, a lit­tle clos­er to the lighter realms, and we are train­ing them to move between the realms, like we our­selves are try­ing to get clos­er to the lighter realm?”

No.”

Then he said, I don’t know why it’s called that.”

I reached for a biscuit.

*

There was no need to make it to Munti­lan; the mar­ket was every­where. The pigeon whis­tles, Kolon­gan, and Kejawen were three meth­ods in the hec­tic mar­ket­place of men using the air as a medi­um for reflec­tion on what it meant to be human.

The air is the medi­um of knowl­edge,” San­toso, in his six­ties and a shoe repair­man in a mar­ket dur­ing the day, explained to me one evening. He wore a sarong and chain-smoked unfil­tered, sweet cigarettes.

It’s like this,” he said, humans are made of band­widths. Rea­son and nature are the two basic ones. With­in this basic struc­ture are many oth­er band­widths: emo­tion, aware­ness, pow­er, remem­brance. Each band­width is beyond us as indi­vid­u­als, we are in them like a wave in waves.”

He paused. You with me?”

Yes,” I said.

When we com­mu­ni­cate, we don’t send sig­nals out to receivers, we match fre­quen­cies. We don’t broad­cast like radio DJs. When we want to know about oth­er peo­ple and things, the things and peo­ple are also search­ing for us. Know­ing is about syn­chro­niz­ing. Know­ing is not in one direc­tion. Some­times we don’t match.”

He smoothed his green sarong over his thighs.

It’s like this, it’s like this,” he con­tin­ued, drag­ging on his cig­a­rette, the cloves and oth­er spices crack­ling with the heat. Wrapped around one fin­ger was a fat sil­ver ring with a milky-coloured stone.

Ear­li­er on, I knew your friend Suparno was going to come here tonight. I closed my eyes and con­cen­trat­ed and could see him. I syn­chro­nized with his fre­quen­cy. This is all you have to do. Fre­quen­cies are like elec­tric­i­ty; you can’t see them, but they are all around you. That is the same as the fre­quen­cies of oth­ers. You just have to learn how to syn­chro­nize with them.”

The thoughts of oth­er peo­ple and their emo­tions were all being broad­cast, he said. He had lots of prac­tices — med­i­ta­tion, tri­als with chick­ens, fast­ing, and a lot of talk­ing — to try and tune to their fre­quen­cies. But his most com­mon was just sit­ting and think­ing about oth­er peo­ple. This was a way to be close to them while being far. There wasn’t, in fact, any dis­tance between peo­ple because, for San­toso, air is full. Every object, even thoughts and emo­tions, touched every oth­er at some point as they bounced through the hyper­ac­tive fullness.

But San­toso syn­chro­nized fre­quen­cies almost exclu­sive­ly with men. My friend Suparno would tell me that San­toso knew when he was com­ing before his arrival. Suparno, too, knew if San­toso was at home or the mar­ket or out. He would use his cell phone only to con­firm if he was right. They thought about each oth­er a lot, pic­tur­ing one anoth­er in a qui­et moment, imag­in­ing where they were and what they were doing.

For San­toso, the air was the medi­um that con­nect­ed him to Suparno. Even more, it did so for all humans, ani­mals, and nature, across their dif­fer­ent loca­tions and great diver­si­ty of bod­i­ly forms. It was the medi­um between the pigeon and the jock­ey. Instead of sep­a­rat­ing them, it actu­al­ly elim­i­nat­ed the dis­tance between them. It was how the pigeon could be human and the human a pigeon. Air was their medi­um of trans­mis­sion. In oth­er words, San­toso meant that air was empa­thy, which means, broad­ly, the capac­i­ty to be moved by some­thing out­side of one­self and feel invest­ed in what is doing the mov­ing. In its orig­i­nal def­i­n­i­tion in psy­chol­o­gy, empa­thy was con­sid­ered an ener­gy in the body with a capac­i­ty likened to elec­tric­i­ty. It could rise or fall depend­ing on a com­bi­na­tion of inter­nal and exter­nal cir­cum­stances. Empa­thy was not an imma­te­r­i­al emo­tion, like we think of it today, that formed a par­tic­u­lar dis­po­si­tion towards mate­r­i­al action. It was, instead, phys­i­cal stuff that filled and deplet­ed us as breath and linked us to all oth­er things. So, for San­toso, think­ing about Suparno from far away was the same as being filled with Suparno. And, for oth­ers, pigeon rac­ing and whis­tles, kolon­gan and tun­ing in, were ways of being con­tin­u­ous with oth­er things.

Photo: ©Adam Bobbette.

Biographies

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