Berijin, Tanoh Gayo

Versi mentah (dan lebih banyak foto diri) dari catatan kecil saya yang dimuat di Minum Kopi.

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“Jikalau bukan yang terbaik, maka kopi Arabika Gayo pastilah termasuk salah satu dari kopi terbaik di dunia.” Begitu komentar yang dilontarkan seorang konsultan berkebangsaan Kanada yang saya dampingi saat melakukan survei rantai nilai global (Global Value Chain—GVC) ke Tanoh Gayo bulan Maret lalu.

Saya beruntung mendapatkan kesempatan berkunjung ke Aceh Tengah dan Bener Meriah, dua kabupaten penghasil utama kopi Arabika Gayo di Provinsi Aceh. Sebagai penyuka kopi (sachetan), saya tak berpikir dua kali menyambut tawaran untuk menjadi juru bahasa bagi konsultan yang ditugaskan mengunjungi petani, pengolah, kolektor, distributor, perusahaan ekspedisi, dan eksportir kopi dalam survei yang merupakan salah satu program di bawah proyek kerja sama perdagangan Indonesia-Kanada, yang disebut dengan Trade and Private Sector Assistance Project atau disingkat TPSA ini.

Kunjungan survei memakan waktu dua minggu pada tanggal 20-31 Maret 2017, dengan seminggu pertama dibagi antara Jakarta dan Medan untuk mengumpulkan data dan informasi dari eksportir kopi menengah dan skala besar serta pengusaha transportasi dan logistik, dan pekan selanjutnya dihabiskan di Dataran Tinggi Gayo.

Kepada saya, konsultan Kanada yang saya dampingi dalam survei berujar bahwa secara kualitas kopi spesialti Indonesia, khususnya Gayo, termasuk dalam jajaran kopi spesialti papan atas dunia. Diucapkan oleh seseorang yang telah lama menekuni dunia kopi dan resumenya mencakup pengalaman kerja di negara-negara penghasil kopi utama seperti Brasil, Honduras, Guatemala, dan Peru, saya memilih memercayainya.

* * *

Dinginnya udara Dataran Tinggi Gayo menyambut kami begitu kaki melangkah ke luar pesawat ATR 72-600 yang mengantar kami ke Bandara Rembele, Takengon. Kami disambut oleh konsultan lokal, Pak Abdul Gani, yang membantu menyiapkan dan mendukung pelaksanaan kegiatan survei tersebut selama seminggu di ibu kota Kabupaten Aceh Tengah ini.

Bandar Udara Rembele, Takengon

Dengan kendaraan yang telah disewa untuk keperluan survei, kami dijemput dan dibawa menuju hotel melewati jalur yang berbeda dari rute umumnya. Pak Gani, begitu dia sering disapa, mengerti bahwa konsultan Proyek TPSA ini sangat menikmati pemandangan kebun kopi; maka kami berkendara melewati rute yang menembus dan melintasi jajaran kebun kopi yang terhampar dari bandara sampai hotel yang berada di tengah kota. Bagi saya, pengalaman itu tidak hanya baru, tetapi juga sangat berkesan.

Hari Sabtu, 25 Maret 2017 itu sebenarnya tidak ada jadwal kegiatan yang terkait pekerjaan. Namun, setelah memperoleh beberapa kabar terbaru terkait proyek dari Pak Gani, konsultan dari Kanada memutuskan untuk mengunjungi salah satu resi gudang di Takengon. Resi gudang tersebut dikelola oleh PT Ketiara, salah satu eksportir besar kopi Gayo yang kantornya berada di Desa Umang, Kec. Bebesen, Aceh Tengah, agak jauh dari resi gudang.

Resi Gudang Aceh Tengah di bawah pengelolaan PT Ketiara

Menurut pengelola, keberadaan resi gudang ini memudahkan petani karena membantu memberikan modal kerja bagi petani di awal musim tanam, dengan memberi petani pilihan untuk mengembalikan pinjaman modal tersebut dalam bentuk kopi hasil panen sebagai ganti pengembalian berupa uang. Mereka juga menerima kopi petani untuk ditampung sementara waktu ketika harga kopi kurang menguntungkan, dan akan dijual kembali saat harganya membaik. Pengelola resi gudang juga menambahkan biaya jasa untuk penyimpanan kopi ini sangat terjangkau untuk petani.

Di samping itu, bila hingga waktu yang sudah disepakati bersama petani yang meminjam modal kerja belum bisa mengembalikan, kopi hasil panennya bisa diserahkan ke resi gudang untuk dilelang dengan harga yang setidaknya sama dengan harga pasar saat itu. Hasilnya kemudian digunakan untuk membayar pinjaman modal, dan sisanya untuk petani yang bersangkutan. Ini dimungkinkan karena resi gudang ada atas prakarsa dan kerja sama pemerintah daerah setempat dengan PT Ketiara serta pihak terkait, dan dilandasi semangat untuk membantu lebih memajukan serta menyejahterakan petani kopi.

Minggu pagi pada keesokan harinya, kami menyaksikan pacuan kuda tradisional Gayo yang diadakan dalam rangka merayakan ulang tahun Kota Takengon ke-440. Rupanya nasib baik memang sedang berpihak karena kami berada di Takengon bersamaan dengan digelarnya babak final dari ajang kompetisi tersebut. Puncak kegiatan lomba pacuan kuda yang berlangsung di lapangan H.M. Hasan Gayo, Blang Bebangka, Pegasing berlangsung seru dan meriah.

Pacuan kuda tradisional Gayo

Menurut driver kami Pak Hamdan, pacuan kuda tradisional Gayo diselenggarakan dua kali dalam setahun di Aceh Tengah, yaitu bulan Februari-Maret untuk memperingati HUT Kota Takengon dan pada bulan Agustus-September untuk memperingati HUT RI. Pacuan kuda di Takengon diikuti oleh kuda-kuda dari tiga kabupaten, yaitu Aceh Tengah selaku tuan rumah dan dua kabupaten sekitarnya: Bener Meriah dan Gayo Lues. Joki pada pacuan kuda ini umumnya masih duduk di bangku SMP dan joki-joki cilik itu menunggangi kuda pacuan tanpa mengenakan pelana.

Hari Senin pekerjaan diawali dengan mewawancarai salah satu petani kopi dari Desa Pante Raya, Kec. Wih Pesam, Kab. Bener Meriah. Pak Mursalin namanya. Dalam wawancara sesi pagi itu beliau menjelaskan bahwa ia sudah membudidayakan kopi secara organik di kebun seluas 1,5 ha miliknya sejak tahun 2007. Pak Mursalin tergabung dalam Kelompok Tani Sarapakat yang beranggotakan sekitar 30 orang. Ia hanya menanam kopi Arabika, yang menurut beliau merupakan 95% dari jenis kopi yang dibudidayakan warga sekitar, dengan tanaman penaung berupa pohon alpukat dan lamtoro. Seusai wawancara kami berkesempatan mengunjungi kebun kopi Pak Mursalin, yang memerlukan perjalanan 15 menit dengan motor dari tempat wawancara.

Kebun kopi Arabika Gayo Pak Mursalin

Kemudian, sesi wawancara kedua dilakukan lepas makan siang dengan seorang kolektor di desa yang sama. Pak Misnan adalah salah satu pengepul kecil di Desa Pante Raya, yang hampir setiap hari menerima kopi  dalam bentuk asalan (yang belum disortasi secara teknis) dari petani. Kebetulan dia memiliki sebuah mesin pengupas kulit kopi basah (pulper), sehingga ia juga dapat melakukan tahap awal pengolahan kopi dan menerima kopi dalam bentuk gelondong (cherry) dari petani, dengan menetapkan imbalan tertentu atas jasa giling yang disediakannya.

Sesi wawancara dengan Pak Misnan, kolektor kecil

Hari berikutnya sesi pagi kunjungan GVC dilakukan ke PT Meukat Komuditi Gayo (MKG), yang berlokasi di Desa Despot, Kecamatan Pegasing, Kabupaten  Aceh Tengah. Wawancara dilakukan dengan petani yang tergabung dalam kelompok tani binaan PT MKG, yaitu Pak Bahagia Ginting. Pak Ginting adalah pendatang dari Kabupaten Karo, Sumatera Utara yang kampung halamannya terdampak erupsi Gunung Sinabung. Peralihan dari bertani sayur mayur di kampung asalnya ke berkebun kopi di tempat tinggal yang baru berhasil ia jalani dengan baik. Di Despot, beliau mengusahakan kopi di atas lahan seluas 2 ha, di mana 1 ha lahan adalah miliknya dan 1 ha sisanya ia budidayakan dengan sistem bagi hasil dengan pemilik tanah.

Usai wawancara dengan petani binaan PT MKG

Sesi wawancara kedua siang itu dilakukan dengan seorang kolektor besar di Desa Atu Lintang, Kec. Atu Lintang, Aceh Tengah. Pengepul yang bernama Pak Sofyan ini tergabung dalam Koperasi Baitul Qiradh (KBQ) Baburrayyan, salah satu penghasil dan eksportir utama kopi Gayo ke luar negeri. Pak Sofyan menuturkan, di samping menerima asalan dari petani ia juga menerima kopi dalam bentuk gelondong. Sejumlah peralatan pengolah seperti pulper, mesin Sutton, mesin pengupas cangkang kopi (huller), dan tempat penjemuran yang luas juga tersedia. Selain pengepul, beliau juga memiliki kebun kopi yang tak terlalu jauh dari tempat tinggalnya.

Tempat menjemur kopi dan alat pengolah kopi Pak Sofyan

Dua hari selanjutnya, Rabu-Kamis, kami menemui petani binaan PT Ketiara dan pengurus KBQ Baburrayyan (Rabu) serta petani anggota Koperasi Redelong Organik (REO) dan pelaku industri pengolahan sekaligus eksportir kopi Gayo, CV Aridalta Mandiri (hari Kamis).

Kunjungan ke Baburrayyan yang saat itu sedang mengadakan sesi cupping

Produk kopi yang dihasilkan PT Ketiara, Baburrayyan, dan REO telah bersertifikasi organik dan Fair Trade. Melalui sertifikasi tersebut, ada nilai lebih dari harga kopi yang akan diberikan buyer kepada eksportir yang diperuntukkan sebagai premi (premium fee). Bagi petani bersertifikasi, premium fee ini akan sangat bermanfaat untuk pengembangan hasil produk tani mereka, juga untuk keperluan kegiatan sosial di kelompok tani tersebut.

Petani binaan PT Ketiara, Bu Mariyati, lebih lanjut mengungkapkan bahwa kelebihan Fair Trade adalah dengan sertifikasi, beliau berhak atas pembagian premi dari keuntungan penjualan kopi setiap tahunnya. Petani  lain yang bernaung di bawah kedua koperasi di atas (Pak Sofyan dari Baburrayyan dan Bu Rasimah dari REO) juga menyuarakan hal senada, sembari menambahkan bahwa dari tahun ke tahun penggunaan premi yang dibagikan ke petani/anggota koperasi diputuskan sesuai kesepakatan bersama. Ada yang dimanfaatkan untuk keperluan perbaikan jalan atau fasilitas umum, ada juga yang dipakai untuk pengadaan perlengkapan pendukung untuk bertani kopi maupun alat-alat pengolahan kopi.

Wawancara di rumah pengurus REO

Di antara beberapa pihak yang ditemui dalam kunjungan GVC ke Aceh Tengah dan Bener Meriah, terdapat dua unit usaha (PT MKG dan REO) yang menerima bantuan dan fasilitasi TPSA untuk menyiapkan diri guna berpartisipasi pada salah satu ajang pameran kopi terbesar di dunia, yaitu International Coffee Specialty Exhibition di Seattle, Amerika Serikat bulan April 2017. Hal ini dilakukan dalam rangka membantu mempromosikan produk kopi Arabika Gayo ke pasar Kanada.

Kesempatan mengunjungi salah satu negeri kopi di Nusantara, dan menyaksikan dari dekat beragam kegiatan di kebun kopi, tempat pengolahan kopi, koperasi, hingga kafe dan rumah kopi yang begitu mudah ditemui di Aceh Tengah dan Bener Meriah, benar-benar membuka mata saya pada perjalanan panjang yang harus dilalui kopi sebelum sampai ke cangkir para penikmatnya.

Terima kasih, Tanah Gayo. Berijin, Tanoh Gayo.

Three Marias and One Mariam

By: Yusi Avianto Pareanom

(source text: a story in the Rumah Kopi Singa Tertawa collection, see https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13080815-rumah-kopi-singa-tertawa)

 

Three Marias and One Mariam

1

Maria Gregoria Setyorini, 29, Zurich, 2005

EXCEPT for blood, you can choose or negotiate everything in life. Your favorite snacks, a football team you want to hate to death, your job, your spouse, your religion, your sexual preference, everything. You can even choose to practice no religion or be asexual. But blood, it’s an eternal shackle.

The fetter of blood came to tie me up the night before last with an incoming email from Tita, my half-sister. In truth, she just typed it for Mom because it was my mother who wanted to talk to me. As she had done before, after pleasantries to begin with, Mom peppered me with her complaints. In the end it was about a request to send her some money to run the household. A household life she lived with a man who wasn’t Dad.

Three years ago, when I landed a contract job at a hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, Mom’s first letter came from Semarang. At the time it was still an actual letter. I remembered kissing the envelope so long that my colleagues and boss thought it was from my lover, or a notice telling me I had won millions of dollars in lottery. My excitement waned quickly when I finished reading that three-page letter. Mom never changed. Everything was always about her, followed by a request for money.

Does Mom really not miss me?

 

THE hands of the watch on my wrist inched toward 6:30 in the evening. I walked to the window. Zurich’s autumn sun remained reluctant to go down. How odd, usually it wasn’t for this long that the sun shone. I could have broken my fast as I had done it for 14 hours, but I was unable to bring myself to do it with the sky remaining so bright.

I went back to my room. On the bed, Mila slept with her legs folded. I smiled looking at her. My apartment mate didn’t feel at home to be alone in her room. She often went into my room and eventually fell asleep here. I really wanted to wake this spoiled girl up and get her to accompany me breaking the fast in the Globus shopping center. But I called it off. Didn’t have the heart for it. She had just slept for an hour after returning from work. Last night she didn’t have enough sleep as I forced her to stay up with me for 2.5 hours while I had my suhur[1] though she didn’t fast due to her period.

I took my coat, scarf, hat and gloves. I glanced at the wall-mounted thermometer before opening the door, 9° C. Cool breeze, cold one to be exact, rubbed my cheeks as I opened the front door. Luckily, I just needed to walk for about 100 m to the tram stop.

I pressed the button for Zone 10. On the screen appeared the ticket price. I inserted some coins, a printout came out along with small changes. Before long tram number 14 heading for Seebach came. Soon I boarded the tram. Going from my place to Globus only took 10 minutes. At Globus, my stomach started to rumble. If at 7:30 the sun still had not set, I’d break my fast.

To kill time I started window-shopping around some of the stores across different floors. I didn’t use the elevator on purpose. I felt my body had gained some weight, I needed a little exercise. My stomach remained stout in observing the fast, but my eyes weren’t that strong. Too much good stuff around here. There was a pair of long shoes fashioned in a style that made me drool all over it, but its price tag got me shriveled. My stomach went off rumbling again. It was 7:05. Ok you lazy-and-slow-to-go-down sun, you won.

I entered a cafe serving Italian food. I hung my coat and hat near the door. I took a seat at the right-hand corner. Inside here I could both see and be seen by people walking across the glass window. I ordered a pan of pizza with extra cheese toppings and a hot cup of Darjeeling tea. I had it down quickly, in a hurry even, that I burned my palate.

I used to get such burning sensation when eating Mom’s homemade chicken porridge. And to think of how many years had passed since the last time I had it.

 

MOM left my dad and four little ones to get married again. I was only five back then, my brother Mas Aryo was seven years old, and my twin sisters Ambar and Hanum hadn’t been even three. I could still recall the four of us often broke out in tears days after Mom left. We cried louder when we knew Dad also wept his heart out. Growing up, I often caught Dad sobbing in his room. I never had the gut to ask.

I couldn’t tell why Mom left him. It seemed it didn’t have anything to do with money. Dad was a small-time clerk, but the man who became Mom’s second husband wasn’t rich either, almost as poor as Dad. I also thought he wasn’t better looking than Dad. He was just younger, much younger. Was it out of love? Perhaps, our neighbors even said Mom had lost it, she was infatuated with him. Now I liked to think she just got swayed by her own impulses.

Yet, what the neighbors and our relatives said had some reasons. Just then, what instigated further tumult was the fact that Mom converted from Islam to Catholicism for her current husband. The way I saw it now, Mom did it just because her second husband asked her to do so, not out of faith. If her husband—till now I still found it difficult to call him my stepfather because of the word “father” in it—worshipped a soup ladle or a banyan tree’s root, pretty sure Mom would still follow him through. Now I might say that out of rashness, but whatever the case might be, Mom’s decision to convert was a double whammy for Dad, though all his life he was an Abangan[2].

I didn’t know for sure what then made my father let Mom take Ambar and me to stay with her for nearly three years. As far as I could recall, it was fun because it fulfilled my longing for her. As Mom adhered to Catholicism already, she took Ambar and me to church too. Both of us were just fine with it. Mom had me baptized though she herself wasn’t a devout Catholic. When enrolled to the elementary school, they documented my name complete with the baptismal name that it was eventually part and parcel of all my papers.

By the time I finally returned to Dad’s place as a 3rd grader, I no longer went to church. Just like Dad, I became an Abangan, again. During high school I studied Buddhism, but it was nothing serious, then in college I jumped into the agnostic bandwagon like my mates in the boarding house, having been previously asked to practice Kejawen[3] by Aunt Wiwin. The religion field on my ID Card read Protestant thanks to the inventiveness of a village administrative officer. Without asking, the officer just typed that into the field when I first applied for an ID Card. I didn’t protest, and had no intention of replacing it when renewing my ID. I just accepted that people had my religion changed time and again.

What never changed is I was sure I’d always been a believer. My worship, if it might be called that way, picked up stuff from here and there, following what my heart said. I, for one, really liked to fast, especially during Ramadan month. For me it was a fulfilling practice, whether there was indeed a reward for it or not. As I mentioned earlier, in life you can choose whatever you believe in.

For as long as I could remember, Mom started visiting me and my siblings when I nearly graduated from junior high school. She always took our three younger half-siblings with her. Although it took some time to get used to, we had good times with them. They were adorable kids. Only Mas Aryo kept his distance. As a rule, when my mother came to visit, Dad went out, sometimes lingering around a neighbor’s house playing chess, sometimes unclear where he was.

In the past, I thought my mother paid a visit because she missed us. But over time, we weren’t sure anymore. Maybe she was just sowing seeds of favor to be reaped later. Because as we all entered into employment, she regularly asked for money from the four of us. She always used our half-siblings as the excuse. My twin sisters, mainly Hanum the accountant, deemed Mom’s almost constant request for money as a terror. I always asked her not to be so hard on Mom. But I couldn’t put too much blame on her either.

To be honest, I’d really like to think that my mother paid us regular visits because she missed us. The reason for that was I started being able to get over the past in time. I no longer blamed Mom for leaving Dad. Maybe they did have problems I couldn’t understand as a kid and should go their separate ways. My brother and sisters, especially Ambar, thought I was too softhearted.

People said my mother brought bad karma to the nuptial affairs of her children. I thought it was twisted logic since, falling victim to her leaving us, we should have been well rewarded instead of having ill-fated consequences. But due to karma, or whatever it was, luck seemed reluctant to come by in this matter. Mas Aryo’s marriage came crashing down. I didn’t really blame his wife for that. Married to a man who seemed to have an unwavering determination to sulk wasn’t easy.

Even if I didn’t want to give my two cents on such matter, needless to say I was sad. Especially when Sunu, my boyfriend at the time, then walked away from our relationship. Truth be told, four years ago, around the time Mas Aryo got divorced, Sunu had planned to propose to me. Yet, his parents told him to give up on his plan. Rumor had it, they doubted I could be a good wife upon learning my family’s history. A side note, they thought I didn’t come from a well-regarded family too.

I wasn’t mad at Sunu, also not angry with Mom, but my sisters were incensed and went on to blame both. It seemed Ambar and Hanum harbored such a deep-seeded fury that, to my knowledge, they had relinquished any desires for relationships with men, or women for that matter.

I didn’t go as far as both of them. If a good guy with a pleasant personality came and managed to work his charm on me, I’d say yes. However, until now no one came and I had no intention to seek for one or put too much thinking into it.

To be frank, if I were angry, probably it would have made things easier. Because what happened next was I got overwhelmed by emptiness and pain that would last a long time to come. Thus, when a scholarship offer for a five-month hospitality course in Switzerland came, without doubt I made the most of it. When the course completed and I got a job offer from a big hotel, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands instantly. That kind of offer didn’t come twice and, you know, retreating in Switzerland wouldn’t be so bad. If only there were no incessant requests for money from Mom.

 

MY legs casually strolled toward the Bahnhofstrasse, a luxury shopping district frequented by tourists. So many people there. So boisterous the humming of their chatters. But the autumn’s cold felt even more pronounced in my heart and hurt my joints. I leaned against the wall and took a deep breath.

As soon as I saw tram number 11 in the distance, I headed for the stop. Without hesitation I got on it. I didn’t know where to go, the ticket I bought was valid for 24 hours. Warmth spread inside the tram. A few minutes later it veered toward Paradeplatz. I really wanted to get off of it, but I resisted the urge. I carried on heading for Belevue.

I’d always liked Bellevue because of the old buildings lined up beautifully on the river banks. At Bellevue I walked toward my favorite long bench. I sprawled my legs out. I fed the birds with bread crumbs I brought inadvertently in my jacket. The sun still lingered in the sky so I didn’t regret my decision to break the fast earlier. But the wind grew colder and leaves falling from the trees hovered around me. After 15 minutes, I decided to go home.

I boarded tram number 9 taking me to Schmiede Wiedikon. There I stopped by at a supermarket. I bought three pieces of beef sirloin for suhur. I knew I had gain some weight, but I truly pined for red meat.

 

BACK to my apartment, Mila stayed asleep. Sometimes, she slept for so long that it worried me.

From a drawer I pulled out a piece of paper. I’d write Mom back. I could, as a matter of fact, reply the email, but it meant my half-sister would read it too. This time I wished only would Mom read it. Nearly half an hour, I was still stuck. I had yet to find an appropriate intro. I wanted to say I was sorry about her current state of affairs. I wanted to say I loved her with all my heart, no matter what happened in the past. On the second thought, probably I wouldn’t write the latter because I wasn’t sure if she ever felt guilty.

Finally, I managed to set my hand in motion. I wrote that I apologized if the letter would upset her. However, I insisted I didn’t want to be involved anymore in matters that weren’t my responsibility. If she fell sick, she could be rest assured I’d lend a hand without being asked. But Mom’s family affairs were her and her husband’s responsibilities. I concluded the letter apologizing for being unable to help, and that I prayed she got some ways out.

Unbelievable, for a very short letter it took me almost three hours to write. It was past 12 o’clock. Behind me Mila woke up and did some stretching.

“You’re hungry, aren’t you?” I asked her.

A smile broke across her face. She got up from bed and went into the kitchen. Shortly I heard the sound of meat being placed in a hot pan.

“Rin, I’d cook all the meat,” shouted Mila.

“You’re not fasting, are you?! What’s the point of cooking a lot of suhur meals?” I yelled back at her.

“I’m hungry!”

I smiled hearing her reply. I was the one who fasted, yet she was the hungry one.

“Hey, girl, is this a suhur or usual dinner?” asked Mila on returning to my room.

“What do you mean?”

“I read an announcement in the supermarket today, tomorrow the Turks will address Eid prayers at their mosque downtown. So, they only fasted for 29 days. How long will it be for you this year? I’m excused for now, so I don’t have that kind of problem. Anyway, how long do you think the fasting month will be back home, 29 or 30 days, huh? ”

Whether it was suhur or a very late dinner, tonight Mila’s cooking was darn good. I must laud her talent, especially given that she went down the kitchen straightaway after getting out of bed. What was more impressive, once finished with her dinner she went back to sleep. This time it was in her own room.

I still couldn’t shut my eyes. It was warm in my room thanks to the space heater. I felt like slightly missing the TV shows that used to accompany suhur time in my home country. I used to think such shows blemished the sacredness of suhur. Too boisterous, cheesy even. But tonight suddenly I wished I had them on TV.

I lay down in my slightly rumpled bed after Mila slept on it. I started yawning for once or twice. But my mind still wandered somewhere else. Would my letter hurt Mom? Do I have the heart to hurt her? Moreover, she had seen decline in her health for the last two years. But, why should I care about her feelings? Didn’t she leave us just like that? Didn’t she ever say sorry?

I didn’t find any comfort in such justification. I missed my mom. As a matter of fact, I missed her caressing my hair. Perhaps my brother and sisters were right, among the four of us I was the softest. I got up from bed and walked to the desk. I picked up a piece of paper and found myself writing again. This time I did it very smoothly. I said I was glad to hear from her. I told her that winter was coming soon. Houses would be covered in snow, the scenery would be quite a view. I told her when I got more money I wanted to take her for a walk here, holding hands with each other and sharing stories. Lastly, I wrote that I promised to send her as much money as I could.

Once I finished the letter, I began to hear cars passing by in front of my apartment. Six o’clock already. It turned out I didn’t sleep all night. Fasting or not for today? Going out to offer Eid prayer alone in the midst of strangers seemed an awkward prospect. It felt off to celebrate Eid today, as there was no takbiran[4] overnight. I walked into the kitchen and heated the water in the kettle. Whether it was still a fasting month or not wouldn’t be a problem for me, I decided not to fast. I was tired.

After the water boiled I put in two tea bags at once. Sugarless. I looked at the envelopes of those two letters I wrote last night. Which one should I send? The one with a nettled tone, or the longing one? Or both? Or neither?

I decided to take a little walk. I picked up my coat, hat, scarf and gloves. Tram number 9 came into view. I still got on it though the carriages were laden with passengers at such an early hour. I made a stop at Bellevue and took a seat in my favorite bench. Today was a day off, so I needed not worry too much about work. The birds came to feast on the crumbs I intentionally brought with me this morning. Cold air washed my face. Vaguely, I heard the sound of takbir[5] from a distant place.

 

2

Siti Mariam, 35, Cot Keng, Pidie, 2003

THE fire in that large furnace started to wither again. The wood was too wet, not dried up long enough in the sun.

“Agam, go fetch some dry twigs. At this rate, we couldn’t break the fast in time,” I said as I called on my son.

Without needing to tell him twice, Agam had run to the back of the house and returned with a pile of dry twigs. Good boy, he would be 10 after this year’s Eid. His body had toughened up, his skin grown darker, just like his father’s.

I put the twigs into the fireplace, echoing melodic ticking sounds. I stood up, took the stirring rod, then paddled it round and round in a large pot where I prepared my congee. The sweat began pouring off under my shirt.

“Smells really good, Mak. We’ll have a delicious iftar[6] meal,” said Agam, his Adam’s apple went up and down.

“Hold your horses, you’ll be less rewarded if you keep thinking about food while fasting,” said Fatma, my daughter, Agam’s older sister, “and help me chop these onions. The quicker it finishes, the sooner we can fry them. Can you do that? ”

“No, I can’t; I’ll cry my eyes out if the vapors hit them. Get me to take another dry wood. Don’t ask me to cut onions. It’s a women’s job,” replied Agam.

His answer made me smile. The good lad refused to cut onions because he thought it was a job for women. When he got slightly older, he’d know that what I was doing, preparing congee to break the fast during Ramadan, used to be a men’s job. Every afternoon their strong arms stirred up congee in a large cauldron so the pepper, garlic, galangal, turmeric and salt that had been crushed were evenly distributed. But, it had been more than 10 Ramadan months that many other women and I in my village prepared it on our own.

Steam rose up from the pool of boiling congee. A thin wisp went into my eyes. It didn’t hurt, but made me take two steps back.

“What’s the matter, Mak?” asked Fatma.

“Nothing,” I said.

But suddenly my hands were trembling, and my body felt so weary. Age didn’t seem to get on with my bones.

“Fatma, lend me a hand for a moment; Mak feels a bit tired,” I said.

I watched from a long divan as Fatma’s back twitching as she stirred it up. It made me smile. I used to be that agile. Soon Fatma would be 17 years old, fitting enough to get married. Who’ll later be his magistrate guardian? But I dismissed the thought quickly.

 

ALMOST 11 years ago, grown-up men in my village—including my husband Bang Nurlis—disappeared. I had no idea where they had gone. For so long anything could happen in Aceh: bomb exploding in the market, people gunned down to death, kidnapping, another bombing, another case of fatal shooting.

The disappearance of our men took place in the wake of a report saying that one of the villagers kept a forbidden flag at home. The villagers, including me, didn’t really know anything about such flag. All we knew was a group of armed men in green outfit stopping by one night in our village left the flag. We did treat them. Though we were only farmers and rattan collectors who led a destitute life, it was impossible to not extend hospitality toward them. Moreover, we spoke the same language.

Then a group of armed men in another green uniform came. Soldiers, as we learned about them later. They came with fury raging in their faces. But, the people of my village weren’t promptly aware of this bad omen. As I said earlier, we didn’t know that a piece of flag could infuriate an army. Two days after their arrival, we found the village head was shot dead in the dike of a rice paddy after dawn. As the sun rose slightly higher in the sky, three residents were found to have met the same fate behind the rocky hills. When the sun was right above our heads, our village had been deserted by grown-up men.

“I’ve got to go,” my husband said to me at the time.

“Where are you going, Abang?” I asked him fearfully. I was conceiving Agam at that moment.

“I don’t know, but I’m afraid of something bad if I stay.”

Those were my husband’s last words. He ran away with nothing, not even extra clothes. My husband didn’t leave anything other than the eldest Fatma who was still a little girl fond of chasing dragonflies around, and Agam in my womb.

I wasn’t the only one enduring such fate. Dozens of women in my village suddenly found themselves losing their husbands. Some of them quickly had a foregone conclusion, they were consigned to widowhood as their husbands were found dead elsewhere.

Men dressed in green uniform who marched in neat blocks remained persistent in frequenting my village after the men disappeared. Thankfully I was pregnant at that point as more or less those soldiers didn’t touch me. Some women weren’t as lucky as I was. They were often forced to scale up tall trees, hiding until the morning came, till the tramping of their shoes left our village. They didn’t want to be abused.

Given no words heard about my husband, often I imagined he was somewhere in Banda Aceh or Meulaboh which was a tad safer. Or even in Medan. One day Bang Nurlis would surely come back, carrying one or two money pots and tearfully carrying his son, whom he had not seen yet, in his arms.

Five years ago, some men who fled had returned. But my husband wasn’t among them. At some homes, Ramadan’s congee for iftar meal had since been prepared by the hands of men again. But, not in my house.

My husband’s fate remained unclear till now. I genuinely wished he was still alive. However, recent years had seen the news from the world outside my village hanging my hope by a thread. In the past, before they marauded the village, I didn’t know much about the world beyond the lines of those rocky hills. Now, I knew a bit better the reasons why those two groups in green were hostile to each other.

Nowadays, thanks to a small fortune I inherited, I had livestock and garden plots. But, it still couldn’t afford a sense of security for me. Two groups in green uniforms fighting each other both horrified and made me sick and tired.

 

“MAK, the congee is ready,” said Fatma, sweat poured down from her brow, then caught up in her thick eyebrows.

I stood up and approached the pot.

“Let me smell it, hm, smells good, Agam will be delighted; attagirl,” I said.

A smile lighted Fatma’s face. She was filled with joy to get my approval. But, suddenly I felt my knees going limp again. I sat down on the divan at once.

“Are you okay, Mak?” asked Fatma, anxiously.

“I’m okay, just a little bit tired.”

The time of Maghrib arrived. Agam was really excited scooping up the congee sprinkled with fried onions and thinly sliced chicken. I wore a thin smile. Then, unable to control it, tears ran down my face as I spooned the congee into my mouth. I looked away so the kids couldn’t see it. This evening I truly yearned for my husband.

 

3

Maria Larasati Tunggadewi, 18, Semarang-Jogja, 1988

I knew a man’s body since I was nine. It was my father’s. One afternoon, my father’s entered my body.

“It’s okay, don’t be afraid, I’m going to cast out the demon in your body. It’s this demon that’s made your Mom fall ill,” said Dad.

I loved Mom. I was often sad to see her getting more and more wilted every day. I didn’t know what happened to her. But I wanted that beautiful woman to gain back her health. I wanted her to take me to the market for shopping or on a trip to the zoo and amusement park. I also wished she occasionally carried me again in her once mighty hands. So, I let the demon torn off with stinging pain under my belly button.

“Don’t you dare say anything to anyone. If you talk, the demon will be more than happy to stay in your body, and Mom will get sicker,” said Dad, breathing heavily.

I was scared and crying out. But I wanted Mom to get well. So I kept silent, and over time not a single word came out of my mouth. For years. The people of Karangapi then called me Laras the Mute. Their gazes that I stole a glance at every now and then always exuded sympathy.

Before I went completely silent, Mom asked my father to take me to a specialist after I kept my lips locked for a month. My mother even asked the doctor to have me rechecked after I was declared fit and healthy. Unsatisfied, she took me to another doctor. Since it returned the same results, the doctor suggested that I be taken to a psychiatrist. However, a psychiatrist also failed to pry something out of me. How dare I to speak if it would only make Mom sicker? Remaining silent didn’t make things better with her; so how could I speak up?

Neighbors suggested that my old man held selamatan[7] until the misfortune that befell our family was driven away. According to a relative of my father, bad luck beset us for I had the same Javanese birthday, or the so-called weton, with Mom, namely Saturday Pahing. According to the tradition, I was supposed to be disposed of in an ostensible manner, usually into the trash, then be found by others who would give me back to my parents. Such rite wasn’t performed. So now the selamatan should be doubled. It was also important to do, so that my father and my brother Roman were spared from Mom’s and my plight.

Dad complied and held a kenduri[8] every Saturday Pahing afternoon. Adults got the sacred food called the bancakan in bamboo boxes while kids—who anxiously waited outside the house until the leader of the prayer, the lebai, ended a series of long-winded prayers—got their shares in pincuks[9].

Mom’s eyes that usually looked tired brightened up a little every time she saw the kids briskly raiding the nasi urap[10] and salted fishes. But it didn’t last for long, after that she’d drag her frail body back into her jasmine-scented room. Later I knew Mom suffered from tuberculosis and other disorders that struck her in succession. Actually Mom didn’t particularly agree with this selamatan thing. Yet, she liked kids.

Almost after every kenduri, Dad would pull me into the guest room at the back of the house. That was the routine when the demon inside me must accept its punishment. However, sometimes Dad chastised the demon at other moments. My father’s face changed every time he took me into the back room. Sometimes he looked upset, other times he cried in fear and was overcome with despair. He always sweated out profusely.

After I was 13 I got to wonder: why once or twice the demon in my body actually had it good?

 

AMONG the kids of Karangapi I was famous. First of all, of course it was because the jovial selamatan event. Secondly, they thought I was gorgeous. They often said although dumb I was beautiful, or I was pretty yet unfortunately dumb. Those little apes talked nonsense, but in truth I was glad to hear it. They often said it to my face. Perhaps, they thought besides mute I was deaf too.

The only little girl whose popularity compared to mine was Padma, the daughter of Pak Bari, the Head of our Rukun Tetangga (RT)[11]. Padma’s family didn’t hold a regular kenduri, but they had a wild cherry tree that was so generous it always bore fruit almost all year round. When the little apes of Karangapi queued up for the small, sweet black cherries picked, Padma would act like a queen who was pleased to reward her slaves. One kid a sprig of cherries. Usually, their share got lost between their black teeth in a flash. Sometimes, one or two kids had the cheek to ask for more. The adults also came for the cherries, they asked for the unripe fruits to make mixed rujak[12]. To them Padma would act like a sweet girl with a brilliant smile handing out the cherries. Padma was popular because she was also a beauty. I even admitted she was prettier than me. Once Padma also got me to play with her. However, since I kept my mouth shut all the time, she got bored.

 

OVER time, my family’s fortune increasingly declined just as my mother’s health. Mom’s diseases had been draining the coffers. My father’s business also suffered a slump that later on I knew of as recession. Who wanted beautiful colonial style, decorative table lamps and the likes amid such a pressing hardship? What made it waste away, Dad had ordered the goods in large quantities for his shop before the crisis hit.

The most serious consequence for the kids of Karangapi was the end of the bancakan ritual every Saturday Pahing. I was 14 when it happened. Distribution of nasi urap and salted fishes stopped, but the exorcism of the demon inside carried on. And it seemed the demon was increasingly powerful due to the more frequent times Dad needed to fight it off. Its toughness was also visible from the way Dad’s body floundered helplessly afterward. However, it looked as if the punishment also became more severe. For several days in a month the demon got injured and bled with wrenching pain.

One day came the time for the demon in my body to take a long leave from the punishment. Aunt Sih, Mom’s older sister, came to take me to a special school in Jogjakarta. For the first time I left my hometown, Semarang. My mother let me go reluctantly, but she was grateful to her sister.

Dad looked up to the clouds with an empty gaze when a rickshaw took Aunt Sih and me to the bus station. Maybe Dad was sad as the demon in me had not gone away. He cut a dejected figure as he could no longer meet his obligation.

In my new school I stayed wordless. But, according to Aunty, my face began to glow and didn’t pale anymore. I found it exciting to see my friends learning sign language and striving to make some sounds. I could say those words easily. But I didn’t dare do it, for I was afraid the demon might come back. So, I got to learn sign language too.

In three years, I only went home to Semarang three times during Eid holidays. The demon didn’t get a chance to be chastened because Mom always slept next to me. Dad also no longer forced the castigation upon me. Dark circles began to appear under my old man’s eyes. How could he seem more wasted than Mom?

Even if Dad wasn’t around to hand down the punishment, every month the demon still hurt and bled for 5-7 days. Perhaps it was what remained after its defeat.

My body broke into blossom in three years. Oftentimes Aunt Sih smiled while looking at me, but after that her eyes always seemed to mourn. I didn’t know why.

One day I entered Mbak Gati (my cousin)’s room to clean it up. It was our daily task. While dusting the dresser I came across a thick magazine with an end sticking out of the bottom drawer. Curiously, while looking around, I took it out.

My goodness! I choked myself upon stumbling on a series of colorful photographs inside. Wasn’t this an exorcism rite? But why do the people in these photos look ecstatic? My head was still spinning around when Mbak Gati came in.

“Ahem! What are you doing, Laras?”

Instinctively I let go of the magazine from my hands. Mbak Gati’s face paled and stiffened, but not for too long. Her true nature as a cheerful girl resurfaced. She took my hands and got me sitting up in bed with her.

“You’re shocked, aren’t you? Never seen anything like that? Come, let me tell you something,” said Mbak Gati in whisper.

Why did she have to whisper? All this time, like the others, she also thought I was deaf. But, whether or not she realized it, she acted like I had no problem with my ears. With me she shared some details, with a little laugh here and there, especially when it came to her own experience. She ended it with a kiss and gave me a little warning that I must not tell anybody about it. Again it was weird, didn’t I stay silent all this time? But after all, I nodded. Since then, she often told me a new story. She absolutely had no idea that I had been familiar with the ritual for a long time. But I didn’t have the nerve to take away her fervent excitement when explaining those particulars. She also shared new magazines which featured photos of the exorcism rite. When no one except us was in the house, she played some videos too.

Again, those overjoyed faces. Perhaps, this was how an exorcism should have been done so it succeeded in no time. There was a rustling under my belly button. The demon in my body longed to be punished.

 

DURING my silence I had confidence that the first voice to come out of me was an expression of gratitude for Mom’s recovery. It turned out I was wrong. Mom died when I was 18. I didn’t know exactly what the sound I made was like when Mbak Gati hugged me and broke the sad news. Probably weeping, might as well be the sound of an animal getting its throat slit.

In front of my mother’s body I broke down in tears.

“Please, please forgive me, Mom.”

People stared bewilderedly at me, stunned to hear me speaking. I didn’t care. My eyes speared the old man sitting in the corner. Dad fixed his eyes on the carpet’s motif and didn’t slightly raise his face. He also stayed voiceless when Mom’s body was taken to the cemetery.

 

ONE month after Mom passed away words came from Roman that my father was seriously ill. He lay in my mother’s bed and seemed in agony. The room that had had jasmine scent all over it was now musty and filled with the smell of urine. His eyes were overwhelmed with fear when I came approaching.

“Talk to me, my little girl. I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness. But, at least speak to me. Scold me, condemn me, curse me. A word is enough for me,” said Dad. His eyes were pleading.

I smiled at him. But I refused to talk to him until he gave out his last breath a day later. I didn’t forgive him.

 

4

Maria Donita Projowati, 22, Jakarta-Dresden-Edinburgh, 2000

MARIA Donita Projowati was born when rain stole the day. She was born eyeless. Not blind, just that her eye sockets were empty and completely blackened. Her mother fainted. Her father knelt down begging for mercy.

People then tried to associate the birth with current events. Didn’t odd birth always happen concurrently with strange events? Some believed they heard sweet, relentless howling of the wolves akin to the one when 100 Kauravas were born. No one believed it, imagine how wolves survive Jakarta. It might be dogs’ howling, but what did it have to do with the birth?

“Maybe her mother craved for a Jeihan’s painting, but didn’t get what she wished for,” said a relative.

Everyone was astounded. Nobody dared to think of such possibility. Wasn’t it too far-fetched that a great artist could bring such a bad luck? After that, nobody had the nerve to try and work out how Maria Donita was born that way. All agreed this was an ordeal. Maria Donita’s parents were considered special because they were chosen to face a great affliction. Such consolation certainly made it even more wearisome. But eventually Maria Donita’s father and mother chose to believe that to make it a little more bearable.

Their relatives and neighbors then didn’t hesitate to hold one selamatan event to the next. Perhaps this wholehearted kenduri was what made Maria Donita grow up gorgeously. Maria Donita’s smile was always exuberant, her attitude was as modest as it was adorable. People fell in love. Even before two years old, Maria Donita already spoke fluently and remembered the names of people taking her to play together. When she was given clay to play with, she created beautiful decorative figurines. Someone said one day the girl would definitely turn into a great sculptor like Rodin.

Maria Donita’s mom and dad started to cheer up. Their grief reasonably faded away. However, her mother was still easy to be taken aback. That occasionally happened when a new acquaintance or neighbor asked the question. Maria Donita’s mom once suffocated when a guy was so shocked at Maria Donita’s condition and vomited without any warning signs.

Slowly, little Maria Donita started to realize that she was different. She often had difficult times to see things in her mind’s eyes when her father and mother told her stories, until they brought objects, dolls, figures related to the stories for her to touch. But Maria Donita knew through her skin pores, fingers, ears, lovelocks and the tip of her tongue that days were sometimes warm, sometimes gentle, oftentimes sandy. When the latter came, she felt empty. Unbeknownst to her parents, Maria Donita cried out in silence when it came about. Without a sound, without shedding tears.

When Maria Donita went to kindergarten, her mother and father decided to cover her eye sockets with a cloth. Her mother didn’t want other children and their parents terrified when looking at Maria Donita. “Not to imitate Gandhari, but she’s supposed to look like the Goddess of Justice with this,” said her father. Maria Donita didn’t mind. The bandage on her eyes softened the blow of the sun’s heat a little.

Maria Donita‘s parents developed a hobby of telling stories to her. From Mahabharata, Greek mythology, stories on Genghis Khan, Shakespeare, of the examples set by the Apostle Muhammad to the history of The Beatles were crammed into Maria Donita’s brain. She often didn’t understand them, but since her parents always told stories in sweet voices, Maria Donita was elated.

In special elementary school for the visually impaired, Maria Donita befriended Wisang. The boy wasn’t so bright, but had a clear voice. Maria Donita liked him, especially when he sang. Little Wisang could charmingly sing English songs that he learned from his uncle who was a musician. His whistling was also as sweet as a trumpet’s sound. Maria Donita had a crush on him and also wanted to make some music.

She then asked her parents to bring a music teacher in. Her parents were thrilled. They even bought a piano the next day. Then the house was never devoid of music. As they said, Maria Donita’s artistic knacks were immense. Only by listening to a piece of music several times, her pointed hands were capable of emulating her teacher’s playing. Cempaka, Maria Donita’s sister who was two years her junior and also learned to play the piano, could only watch in awe as her sister effortlessly ran her hands over the piano keys. This was in spite of Cempaka’s adeptness at reading musical notes since her eyes were normal. And yet, Cempaka felt her hands were like iron bars so eventually she decided to just become a spectator.

Maria Donita’s playing skills increasingly improved. She could play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 almost impeccably at the age of 12. The audience seemed to be really taken to a funeral procession when listening to her performance of the song. But Maria Donita wasn’t only capable of tearing people’s heart to shreds. Children’s play songs that she mixed up on her own for encore never failed to make the audience go stomping. People were captivated not because she was an eyeless young pianist, but because her playing skills were simply superb.

 

UNTIL high school, Maria Donita remained friends with Wisang. But she found her attraction for him slid away ever more. Wisang couldn’t do a lot of talking. Not that Wisang didn’t want to, but he didn’t know what to say if Maria Donita changed one subject to the next. Also, now music hadn’t been something that Wisang did. His clear voice had been broken too. Yet, it wasn’t the only thing that annoyed Maria Donita.

Whenever Wisang talked, at all times it was about his desire to become a masseur. Coincidentally, or perhaps unfortunately to be more appropriate, his father was also blind and worked as a masseur. He had long intended to get Wisang out of school because only by providing massage to people with stiffness they could make a pretty decent living. Wisang apparently agreed to such view. Maria Donita didn’t despise the profession. But, there was another world she found more fascinating.

 

ONE day Maria Donita decided to switch to playing harp after a friend of his father played harpist Marcel Grandjany’s Automne before her.

“I want to learn to play that instrument,” said Maria Donita.

Her request was granted. Also, luckily she could find a professional harp teacher. Maria Donita was indeed exceptionally talented. She could quickly learn to play that time-honored stringed instrument which dated back to the ancient Egypt almost 3,000 years ago. Maria Donita could strum the strings made from cat intestines beautifully with either her fingers or fingernails. She initially had a difficulty to get the sync with the pedals as Maria Donita was too familiar with piano pedals. And sometimes she forgot to exclude her little finger that shouldn’t play a part.

Maria Donita’s harp playing immediately brought her to numerous performances. Reviews of her performances that Cempaka read out to her made her more enthusiastic. When a magazine dubbed her the young, angelic harpist, Maria Donita spontaneously commented, “If an angel was like me, people might think twice about going to heaven.” Her mother wept inconsolably. Only when her dad came to help calm her mom that she stopped wailing.

Maria Donita was remorseful. But that familiar, distant feeling which had emerged since her childhood was increasingly deeper. When the pang of aloofness stabbed her, she often let out unconscious humming. Always the same lacerating melody. One night, she happened to hear her mother sobbing in her prayer. It turned out that was the tune of her humming. Maria Donita sometimes also wished to tell someone about the sudden attack of such feeling. But she wasn’t sure that memories could be scrubbed out. So she kept it to herself.

After graduating high school, Maria Donita requested to attend a music academy in Dresden, Germany. During the first year, her father and mother took turns keeping her company, but later on she requested to be on her own.

During college, she fell for Nash, her professor. The man had a body scent which always made Maria Donita crave for a peanut butter toast. Maria Donita even had the chance to experience the sensation of Nash’s touch. But she never really got the thrill, so she refused to go further. They broke up after Nash who was frustrated after he hadn’t made it to get laid with Maria Donita called her harp playing rubbish, and said people appreciated it simply because she had no eyes.

It hurt Maria Donita so bad. After that, there were several others who tried and approached her. But she was still wounded. So she just stuck to music until she graduated. She began to explore new compositions. She also made more appearances and was considered a prominent young harpist.

After completing her college education, yet more offers to play at various shows came her way. One of them was an annual festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. She made her name even widely known during her second year of performing on stage in Edinburgh.

So one night, upon walking off stage during the Edinburgh premiere, reporters swarmed around her. The questions asked, as Maria Donita typically received, were more like compliments or even sweet talks.

“You played like Apollo and his lyre,” said a journalist.

“Maybe it’s better than Apollo’s play,” said another.

Maria Donita’s face broke into a smile. “Ah, I don’t want to be seen that way. I’m afraid of ending up like Marsyas. ”

Now the reporters were smiling. According to the myth, a satyr named Marsyas one day found an aulos thrown aside by the goddess Athena. He didn’t know that Athena had cursed the aulos. Back at Mount Olympus, Athena had so much fun playing it that she didn’t realize how her cheeks bulged. Other goddesses mocked her. Regrettably for Marsyas, he picked it up and fell in love with it. Repeated compliments he received made him sure he was a better musician than Apollo. Up to that point, this particular god was considered the greatest at playing music. Marsyas even dared to challenge Apollo to a music contest. After the contest, the judges decided Apollo still played more beautiful music. Apollo who had seethed with rage since the beginning then cursed the tailed creature into a river.

“What’s wrong with becoming a river?” a voice cried out.

Maria Donita startled. Not by the question. But, she felt something instantly familiar with the voice. She was convinced the lips that just said those words were cracking a faint smile. But the tone of his voice was warm, like coffee after brewing.

“Excuse me, could you please identify yourself?” said Maria Donita.

“The name is Sulaiman; I’m a journalist from Indonesia, Semarang to be exact.”

“What’s so good about becoming a river?” probed Maria Donita.

“Isn’t that a river gurgles when at peace, and might devastatingly overflow when it’s enraged or grieving?”

“Sorry, I think I just want to gurgle all along,” said Maria Donita.

People laughed. After one or two empty questions, people stepped aside to allow Maria Donita and Sulaiman space. These reporters weren’t fools who couldn’t read between the lines.

 

SULAIMAN untied Maria Donita’s eye cover.

“Beautiful, you’re really beautiful, Maria Donita.”

Maria Donita knew days could be warm, could be sandy. Maria Donita knew that now it was warm.

 

 

[1] The pre-dawn meal before fasting for Muslims.

[2] Javanese who are nominally Muslims, but practice a more syncretic version of Islam, intermixed with Javanese beliefs and customs.

[3] Javanese mysticism.

[4] A religious gathering at which the phrase Allahu akbar is recited.

[5] Repetition of Allahu akbar chanting.

[6] Evening meal to end the fast for Muslims.

[7] A collective prayer which includes giving away sacred food which is believed to be able to bring security for the host and his/her family.

[8] A selamatan feast.

[9] Small, shell-shaped food containers made from a piece of banana leaf.

[10] Javanese warm salad with spiced grated coconut and rice.

[11] Neighborhood Association.

[12] Unripe fruit salad.

“This Kid Wants to Pee All over Jakarta?”

By: Ahmad Tohari

(source text: http://sastrabanget.com/2016/09/05/cerpen-anak-ini-mau-mengencingi-jakarta-oleh-ahmad-tohari)

Needless to say not a single passenger on the night train coming in from the east agreed that it should stop just before the Pasar Senen station. But in fact it completely halted. No one knew what was going on further ahead.

A lot of the passengers who had woken up grumbled. Three men concurrently looked at their watches with wry faces. The engineer in the cab and two conductors in the front car let out a collective sigh of flustered annoyance. They had pictured themselves having hot cups of coffee in one of the offices at the station. A neat-looking guy came out of one of the train’s toilets holding a toothbrush. In one corner a pious-looking man addressed his fajr prayer while sitting in his seat. And the sounds heard most often were those of female passengers with their kids.

The train stopped at a place where the lives of those living on the sides of railroad tracks pulsate. Their truly free and sovereign lives were beginning to crawl. Yet, most of them still lay in cardboard shacks leaning against the guardrails separating them from the tracks. Some of them left only their legs visible while keeping their upper bodies sheltered under trashy, very low roofing sheets. And to the right hand side of the train, behind defoliated and dusty bush, a man and his little one awoke. Next to them was a woman still asleep, her head padded with a bundle of clothes on a cardboard mat. The sleeping woman’s face looked tired. But she still wore heavy lipstick and blush on her face. God knows, maybe last night she whored herself out until the morning came.

The man got up and walked across the street to a shop that had opened at that time of day, there were even two night watchmen sitting with their coffee cups.

The guy brought a pack of instant noodles in his right hand. At a coffee shop across the street, the corner of the noodle package was carefully torn to make an opening. Sachets of ingredient and sauces were taken out. Afterward, a one-thousand note was handed out to the coffee shop lady who immediately took a thermos and opened the lid. They looked to be tight with one another, were nice to each other and appeared to have been used to working together. Then slowly and cautiously she poured the hot water from the thermos in her hand into the plastic noodles packet through a hole torn in the corner. Enough.

After that, with his typical moves the man tore out the seasoning and sauce sachets with his teeth, poured the seasoning powder through the cutout and turned around heading for the little boy who was awaiting him while staying close to his mother. While walking the guy shook the noodles package that he held with his right hand.

Still walking, the man continued his shaking of the noodles, then jiggled the plastic bag, obviously to make the noodles cooked quickly. Then he squatted beside his son who had his eyes fixed on the packet. His wife or whoever she was still slept. It seemed the guy was aware that in front of him a pair of young eyes were keeping tab on the noodles packet with great expectation. The kid’s still innocent eyes were trailing the sway of his father’s hand that grasped the package. The boy’s face started to grow impatient. It looked as if he had warded off his hunger for a long period of time. His youthful, still innocuous lips mumbled following the movement of the noodles bag his father kept shaking. Sometimes he had his tongue stuck out and spittle dripping in the corner of his mouth. This child had gulped down his saliva a dozen times.

The noodle packet stopped swinging. The boy’s eyes lit up. His lips moved as if they were about to have something to eat. His Adam’s apple moved up and down. And his father shifted the package from his right hand to the left. Afterward, he pressed his right thumb against the forefinger and put them through the cutout at the corner of the noodles packet with caution. When pulled out, his right thumb and forefinger already pinched two pieces of steaming noodles. There were flashes in both the kid’s eyes. But the old man didn’t put the noodles straight away into his son’s opened mouth. Instead, he swung them in the air once again.

“Dad!” the boy cried out to his old man. He seemed vexed. He stared at the pieces of noodles hanging from his father’s hand.

“Hold your horses, it’s still hot. You could burn your mouth.”

“Dad!” the boy beat his own thighs with both hands to vent his irritation. His tears began to flow down his still pure cheeks. There he was, a boy five years of age crying before the swinging pieces of now softened instant noodles.

“Dad, hungry, I’m hungry!”

“I said, wait a minute. It’s still hot,” his father replied. He stopped swaying the pieces of noodles and now blew them with his protruding mouth. His son went sobbing, but then somehow he stood up. He turned around and pushed his pants aside in the thigh. The five-year old boy took a leak.

“Hey! Don’t pee over there. You’ll wee-wee on your mom’s back,” the old man told him off. The boy strained, held his shame and the urine stopped pouring; he made a 90-degree turn, then the yellowish liquid flowed again from the still innocent shame.

“That’s how you do it, you shouldn’t pee near your mom’s back. Come on, these noodles are getting a bit cooler,” said the dad. And then his right hand which clamped three pieces of noodles no longer swung, but moved up and down. The son squatted with a little upturned face, an open mouth and half-closed eyes. The father carefully dropped the ends of the spiraling noodles into his son’s mouth. The tiny, still gullible mouth quickly shut; the old man’s right thumb and forefinger let go of the noodles; the other ends of the noodles drooped downward to the boy’s small chin. But they all quickly shot up. A “slurping” sound came out when the noodles were sucked in by the strong draw of the still innocent yet starving mouth. The boy almost choked himself.

“Slow down! Good?”

“Very good, Dad.”

“Yeah. Come on, open your mouth again,” ordered the old man after his fingers again squeezed a few pieces of noodles that were no longer steaming. Like the first mouthful, those pieces of noodles were immediately sucked in and disappeared into the boy’s mouth along with the “slurp”. Shades of pleasure and satisfaction settled on the face of the five-year old.

“Dad, I’m like the kid on the coffee shop lady’s TV, right?”

“On TV; how’s that?”

“See, Dad; there is this kid sucking in instant noodles on TV. He’s good looking. He wears really good clothes. He lives in a really good house. So, now I’m like that kid eating noodles on TV, right?” asked the five-year old lad with an innocuous-looking face. For a second his father looked stunned. But a moment later he burst out laughing. His entire body was shaken. The soup of his noodles spurted out of the plastic bag’s opening he held with his left hand.

“Why are you laughing, Dad?”

“Nothing. Just that you’re better than the noodles-eating kid on TV.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, because now you can wee a bit farther from your mom’s back. Isn’t that great? Now you eat this again, I’ll feed you.”

“Ok, but I want the soup too, Dad.”

“It’s still too hot. Don’t be greedy anyway. The soup’s always for your mom. She likes it.”

“But she’s still sleeping.”

“She’d wake up. Open your mouth again,” commanded the old man. The little guy didn’t respond.

“Does Mom like to suck the soup from the plastic package, Dad?”

“Yes, she does.”

“Do you like to see Mom sucking it from the plastic package?”

“You’re a nosy boy.”

“Bet you like it, Dad.”

“Alright, fine. Yeah, I like it.”

“So why do you like it, Dad?” the boy asked in earnest. His eyes said it all. His father looked unwilling to respond, but after all he gave his answer.

“You see, when your mom sucks the soup from the plastic bag, she appears to have lots of fun, just like a little girl.”

The boy’s eyes rounded. He gave the impression that he was thinking with a little boy’s brain which of course is still utterly ingenuous.

“Yay, superb, Dad. You like to watch Mom sucking the noodles soup from its plastic bag.”

“Shush!”

“But that’s true, right? You also love to see Mom’s being like a kid.”

The child fixed his eyes intently on his father’s face, waiting for a response. It was muted. Only splattering noise of the soup from inside the plastic noodle bag that was shaken again. Then the lady stretched herself and got up, sitting down and resting her body on her left hand. The morning light was bright. The woman’s figure became clearer. She was about forties. The lipstick and blush on her cheeks were heavy indeed. Or, it might be heavier the night before when she began walking the streets. And a very dusty life and far from water had made this lady’s look echo her surroundings which were also covered with dust.

“Well, Mom’s awake now. Hi Mom, you like to suck in the soup from the noodle’s plastic bag, don’t you?”

No response. Even less, the old man had handed the noodles packet to his wife or whoever she was who just awakened. And it all turned out to be true; she looked ravenous when she sucked the instant noodle soup directly from the plastic bag. A pair of a little boy’s eyes that looked so clear and true gazed at the movement of his mother’s mouth and cheeks. Those bright eyes subsequently stared at his father’s face. Such immaculate gaze wanted to prove whether it’s true that his father really likes to watch his wife or whoever she was sucking the plastic bag like a child. It was all also true. The five-year old boy’s eyes lit up, his cheeks glowed and his chaste lips were chapped. He had a laugh as he saw his father’s face turning into one of a man taking a great delight.

“Terrific, Dad,” shouted the boy, clapping his hands. “Dad really likes to watch Mom sucking in instant noodles soup from its plastic bag. Like a kid you said, huh? Hooray!”

His father stayed put, didn’t change the direction of his gaze, didn’t even blink. The man stared at his wife or whoever she was who was now sitting half looking up, her mouth connected perfectly with the cutout in the corner of the instant noodles packet put above her face. The newly awakened lady who still wore heavy make-up attempted to suck in the soup till the last drop. Tongue-smacking and lips-clicking sounds were heard as she sipped the thick chemical seasoning sludge in the last drops of the soup. Afterward, with the palm of her right hand she flicked the package she was sucking in again and again so the remaining noodle crumbs dropped and fell into her mouth.

The packet had been perfectly empty, then cast aside by that lady in heavy make-up with indifference. The plastic bag got caught in a defoliated and dusty branch of the bush. The smile she wore made her mouth look like some part of a mask. But she really looked content. By and by, a yellow dog with white streaks passed them by. Right at the feet of an iron pole supporting a light signal it stopped. In a very graceful manner, it lifted its rear left leg, tilted its hips and then relieved itself wetting the iron pole. The five-year old lad stared at the dog and was transfixed. Then he reached for his groin and was about to pee too. But the boy was stupefied by a sudden loud noise of his father.

“Don’t you dare pee over there! You do that and you’ll make on your mom’s clothes bundle. You nearly peed near her back, and now you’re gonna wee near the bundle?”

The boy put his pants right. He didn’t have a strong urge to urinate, he was just bewitched by the urinating dog that took a leak on the bottom of the pole.

“I wasn’t allowed to pee near Mom’s back. Peeing near the bundle also not allowed. So where can I pee, Dad?”

His dad smiled. His expression really showed the face of a free, independent man, a typical face of life by the sides of railroad tracks.

“Listen, you may pee all over Jakarta; in Menteng, on the sides of the Thamrin Road, in the field behind the Gambir station, along the side walks of Kebayoran Baru, you may also urinate in Senayan. Got it?”

The five-year old boy’s eyes rounded. Confused, because he didn’t know the places his father just brought up. Silence fell on them momentarily. The old man waited; Mom descended into laughter. And at that moment suddenly they heard somebody’s coughing from behind them. Simultaneously the three railroad track dwellers looked back. And dumbfounded. There, the nearest car’s door was open already. Or had long been opened. A conductor and a passenger stood upright at the door. They gave the impression that they had been watching a play presented by citizens of a different world. Then the two guys backed off to the walls behind each of them for a third person was about to step out. The third person was a waitress who was as pretty as a flight attendant. In her hands was a black bag, which surely contained food leftovers. The bag was thrown down and fell 4 m in front of those three railroad track dwellers. Leftover rice, fried chicken bones, also a fried chicken drumstick remaining fully intact, pieces of grilled meat, all scattered in the coral patch.

Who knew what the intention of the leftover dumping lady from the dining car was? Were the leftovers thrown out and meant for those three railroad track people? Glory be to God the Omniscient. The eyes of the five-year old boy glistened and rounded upon looking at a fried chicken drumstick lying among the jumble of leftovers. But the dog that made water on the feet of the light signal moved faster. The lad was held back. What’s more, his father grabbed the little guy’s shoulders so he couldn’t race forward.

There was some kind of tension. The little railroad track dweller felt his father’s hands getting cold and slightly trembling. Who knows that actually the old man was worried because he said his son might piss anyplace in Jakarta as long as it’s nowhere near his mother’s back? Are these words heard by those who were standing at the car’s door?

“Let’s get out of here,” said the old man to his son and his wife or whoever she was. “We’re just making a scene here.”

In a minute the three railroad track dwellers packed up their gear. The old man took a small cardboard box from under the dusty, deciduous shrub. His wife or whoever she was grabbed her bundle of clothes, and the little one took his favorite treasure which was a former radio canopy antenna. After that, all three of them moved against the train’s direction. Once they got a bit far away they were having a laugh.

“When I was sleeping, what were you two talking about? This kid would pee all over Jakarta?” asked that woman. The old man and his son looked at each other, smiled and laughed louder. It’s true, they are three railroad track people leading a happy and liberated life.(*)

The Barber

By: Budi Darma

(source text: https://lakonhidup.wordpress.com/2016/09/11/tukang-cukur/#more-7400)

Gito, a boy from Getas Pejaten, a suburb on the outskirts of Kudus, every day, except for Sundays and holidays, walked almost 14 km to and fro between his home and school, a Primary School in Daendels Road. As there were many roads leading to his school, Gito had the luxury of choosing which roads he liked best. If need be, he also took small streets that stretched farther, just for the fun of it.

Like other kids, Gito only ate once a day after school. Just like other children too, Gito had no sandals, let alone shoes. Even the teachers were barefoot then. If there was any teacher wearing shoes or sandals, they must have been timeworn.

Gito’s clothing, likewise his friends’, was completely ragged, patched, just the way the teachers’ clothes were. All the clothes’ colors had faded, and if the clothes were dyed again, they could look a little bit brighter, but they would soon fade again.

Gito knew too well how to stave off hunger. If he wanted to, he could go fishing in the river not far from his house. Coming home from school, sometimes Gito passed through Pasar Johar market, not far away from the station with trains heading for Pati, Juana, Rembang, and Pecangakan, Jepara. In the market he could pick up crumbs of brown sugar, which was good for beating off hunger pangs.

Not far from his house was a work shop of peanut meal, used for feeding livestock. Sometimes Gito also collected crumbs of peanut meal, even though he was aware that peanut meal could cause stomach ache and goiter, in which his neck could swell a good deal.

At home, when they ran out of paddy rice, Gito’s father and mother and him, their only son, used to eat sweet corn cooked as rice, and when that ran out too they would have cassava meals.

One day when Gito headed for home and walked past the curry goat stall of Kakek Leman, an old man who always put Javanese turban (udeng) on his head, the old-timer called out to him. He got fed and then, as usual, was told to clear overgrown grass in the backyard of the stall.

Kakek Leman also asked him: “Gito, did you see the barber under the pine tree around?”

Kakek Leman removed his udeng, then turned around and said: “Look at this,” while pushing his hair aside.

There was a visible scar, ain’t no ordinary cut, but a rather deep one.

Kakek Leman told him, one day out of thin air there was a barber suddenly plying his trade under a pine tree near the 3-way junction connecting Jalan Setasion with Jalan Bitingan. Some of Kakek Leman’s customers, according to the old hand, also wondered why all of a sudden there was a barber there.

Among five of Kakek Leman’s customers who had their hair cut there, three had their heads carved. The barber apologized for those incidents, saying they were pure accidents, but all three believed the barber did it on purpose.

According to the barber, said Kakek Leman’s customers, barbering is the noblest profession. Only a barber is allowed to hold other person’s head with his hands. If it isn’t for a barber, surely the owner of the head would feel humiliated and thus flip out.

The next day something new came along, which was the arrival of a new teacher in town whose name was Dasuki reportedly coming from a big city, though not sure which one it was. Gito’s school had six classes, from first to sixth grade. There were eight teachers, consisting of six classroom teachers, one vice principal and the principal. If a teacher was absent, one of the two had to replace the teacher who didn’t make it to school. Since that day all the teachers came to work, Dasuki entered all classes, and the classroom teachers who had Dasuki entering their classes had to attend a session with him.

In his classes Dasuki kept saying that Russia was the greatest country in the world. All the cities and villages there were thoroughly clean, all of its people were happy and had nice meals until they were full up.

“Look at that horse cart,” Dasuki said while pointing his fingers toward Daendels Road. “See, that horse takes a leak and shits while on the run. That’s gross. In Russia, everything is arranged in good order. There can be no horses making water and taking a crap the way they do that here. ”

Dasuki went on to tell stories of other Russia’s great achievements.

Many students were spellbound listening to him, their mouths slightly gaped. The teachers were also left in awe, with some of them wearing uneasy smiles and others pretended to listen to him, but their minds conjured up images of tasty foods, as Dasuki described to them.

Dasuki only spent a few weeks teaching there, after that he left and never returned.

One day, on his way home, Gito deliberately took the road with many pine trees on its sides. From a distance the barber seemed to be talking to himself, with audible cussing. When he saw Gito, the barber called him out.

“Come here,” said the barber. “I’ll give you a haircut.”

The barber came over, Gito stopped dead in his tracks, but when the barber drew near, Gito broke into a gallop at full strength.

The barber initially meant to chase him, but then gave it up while uttering profanities.

End of September 1948 came, and a tense, menacing situation ruled everywhere. Many soldiers wearing red neckerchiefs came out of nowhere. People said they were members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) armed forces. They were wandering around, in and out of the hamlets, and most huddled in a sandulok (red-light district) located in the eastern part of the suburb. After that, for the entire 24 hours, the sounds of gunfights were heard several times.

Days went by with even more stories circulating about people went missing, people got murdered, and everything else which was anything but clear.

The currency notes of the Republic of Indonesia were declared invalid, replaced by that of a Communist installed regime, which looked like a coupon. The prices of all goods increasingly fluctuated.

One afternoon, there was an amazing spectacle: the barber dressing as a soldier, wearing a red neckerchief, carrying a gun, went to a space behind the hospital with several other soldiers, herding some people whose hands were tied.

Stealthily Gito trailed behind them. When they reached the open they halted, and Gito took a hiding behind the bushes. Gito fixed his eyes on those who had their hands tied, being intimidated by the barber and his comrades, lined up neatly, and then peppered with a burst of shots.

The circumstances were more and more hostile. The electricity remained down. Sometimes gunshots could be heard for 24 hours a day.

Situations became increasingly grave when, as rumor had it, Siliwangi troops especially drawn in from West Java entered Kudus, to destroy PKI forces. In various skirmishes, the PKI troopers fled the battlegrounds.

PKI guys were arrested, and some of its leaders were paraded into the square, brought under a banyan tree and then shot down. Gito came to watch those things unfold too and witnessed an unbelievable thing: the barber, in casual dress, no longer wearing a PKI trooper’s outfit, barked out orders to people waiting for the death sentence to stand up straight and in order, then wrapped a cloth around their faces so they couldn’t look at the firing squad.

Siliwangi troops carried out the death sentence in the square several times, and everyone was allowed to bear witness to the execution. Gito knew, PKI troopers killed silently and in secretive manner, unlike the Siliwangi soldiers. In some of the executions, the barber was seen pacing around with triumphant poses.

Hazy words got around, one day the barber took some beatings from Siliwangi soldiers, with accusations that he made a list of people he hated to be put in front of the firing squad, without any evidence.

Days continued to go by, the situations grew ever more tense, and finally December 1948 arrived. Siliwangi soldiers had left Kudus, hunting down PKI troops who were increasingly cornered to the east in Pati, Juana, Rembang, and across Cepu and Blora.

After Siliwangi troops departed Kudus, one day, when the dawn approached, the entire Kudus was shaken to the core as red-nosed aircrafts hedgehopping over the town’s sky, coming and going, over and over again. The red-nosed aircrafts, known as cocor merah among the locals, were the pride of the Dutch air force. As soon as the sun rose, the planes started shelling the town with ferocious shots. Heavy artilleries whizzed here and there. Bodies were scattered all over the place. Some parts of Getas Pejaten were also under heavy fire, but it was limited to certain places. Gito’s house also took several hits.

Gito’s father took him and his mother to escape from the back door straightaway, crossing the street, going into a winding alley, fleeing to a house belonged to Ruslan, a friend of Gito’s father.

The Ruslans gave them a warm welcome, providing them with thick rubbers to bite on in case of bomb explosion, and also earplugs.

They stayed in the underground shelter for almost two days without eating. Ruslan gave them some pills to make them sated.

Finally, around three in the afternoon, a convoy of Dutch tanks, followed by their many armored vehicles and trotting foot soldiers, made an entry into Kudus from the Town of Demak. Kudus and the whole surroundings were officially occupied by the Dutch forces.

For almost a week Kudus felt like a ghost town. Ruslan’s family left their home, went unknown. The Dutch troops went into villages, capturing all the young men they had their suspicions on, who were then taken somewhere else.

When all the dust settled, Gito started to go to school again and, as usual, he went on foot, ate only once a day and sometimes, when he came home, took different roads and alleys.

One day, on his way home from school, there was a jeep running slowly at Jalan Bitingan. Gito swiftly jumped into a ditch, hiding himself. Inside the jeep were two people wearing the Dutch army uniforms, they were the barber who drove the vehicle, and sitting next to him was Ruslan.

Gunfights broke out almost every night: Indonesian fighters were pounding on the town’s door.

Day after day went by, until Gito got himself into a junior high school not far from the town square.

In December 1949, all the Dutch forces were withdrawn, and Indonesian soldiers moved into the town from their many makeshift quarters, mostly around Mount Muria. Gito heard, the withdrawal of Dutch soldiers resulted from the Round Table Conference in the Netherlands, between Indonesian representatives and those of the Dutch. Dutch troops were required to leave Indonesia, except West Irian (now Papua).

Both the barber and Ruslan disappeared without a trace.

When Gito was in the second grade, Kudus was on edge once again. Many unknown soldiers, all dressed in green neckerchiefs and carrying guns, roamed through the town. Just like before, many of them flocked in the sandulok.

The events took an increasingly grim turn with every passing day until finally, around 01:00 am one morning, Gito suddenly awakened hearing the sound of relentless gunfire not far from his home. But around six in the morning it all went dead silent.

And so the news made the rounds, the heavy shootout in what had been the Nitisemito cigarette factory, not far from Gito’s house, had come to an end. Most of the unknown soldiers were trapped in that former factory while some of them managed to run away, most likely heading toward Mount Merapi and Merbabu. Gito had just known then and there, those soldiers were known as the army of the Islamic State of Indonesia (NII), and they were set to bring down the Government of Indonesia, making Indonesia an Islamic State.

When Gito arrived at the former cigarette factory, many people had swarmed the building. All the bodies of those trapped in the facility had been brought to the open air, laid on the roadsides. One of them was none other than the barber.(*)

Pilgrimage

By: Dewi Kharisma Michellia

(source text: https://lakonhidup.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/ziarah-2)

APRIL 21, 1978.

THOSE were the epitaphs inscribed on two wooden grave markers planted at the top of the hill that morning. Under the same weather, 20 years ago, I remember perfectly, I almost didn’t recognize half the people standing around me under their black umbrellas.

Walking along the footpath back home, I recalled how big, long cars took me, off with people I barely knew for a day. Earlier at midnight, the family who lived next door—the only neighbor close to my family—brought them to me. Still half-awake next to my parents’ coffins, I heard them talking, but then I stopped listening.

They came over to me and introduced themselves as my father’s relatives, who’d shelter me after all the funeral processions completed. At the time I was scared to death.

I remember exactly what took my parents away. When I heard the news, on my return from hunting rabbits with friends of mine, I ran down the path several kilometers away, just to make sure I could still save my parents.

When I got there, fire had consumed the shed where my dad used to work. I went around inside the house, looking for my dad. I found my neighbors struggling to put out the fire with water from the wooden buckets they carried. Some of them told me my mother was also trapped inside.

They thwarted all my attempts to get to the shed. They flocked around me and stopped me from breaking through the walls of fire. They quelled all my screaming and held me back with all their might.

Hours later the fire eventually snuffed out, and what I found was just the skulls of my mom and dad with little meat and scorched skin left, they are tied back to back to an iron stake that I’d never seen before. One thing I knew for sure. Of course God didn’t deliberately put the iron stake in there and roast both my parents in the shed. There must be others who did the job.

I suppose it had something to do with my father’s work. Until now, I don’t have the slightest idea of what my dad did in his workplace, even though my mother told me once that someday I’d know.

Today, upon entering the living room, I saw vines spreading across the wooden house. It was there that I took a seat that moment, with my chest puffed up, facing people I didn’t recognize.

“We’ll take you in.” I remember a fair-skinned tall man with round-rimmed glasses sat in the middle, face to face with me. “There your grandpa and grandma have waited for you. Your extended family will take care of you.”

I never knew that my grandparents were still alive. My mom and dad never told me anything about their pasts, for a dozen years into the formative stage of my life, I took it for granted; as if my parents were in fact born of stone.

“I’m your dad’s little brother.”

“I don’t buy it.”

“We know you’d need evidence. Your dad and his wife went into seclusion here as soon as he graduated from the college in the Netherlands. You can find everything about him in these documents. ”

Then he flicked his fingers and some guys came in carrying iron chests on their shoulders. Everything was then placed before me.

He stepped back a little and opened the padlocks that secured the chests with small keys from his pocket, showing all the documents concerning my father’s life.

I was perplexed. It turned out he was no ordinary person.

I read a few pieces on the papers from the clippings along with my father’s personal documents, I read stories about my parents. On the loss of two important figures in the history of the nation’s independence. Both of them. They retreated into the woods immediately after the 30 September event took place. Two years later, I was born into the world. Even at the time I could get the picture, beginning to wonder what my dad was actually doing. What kind of mother was the woman who gave birth to me from her womb? They did…. Things I didn’t know the reasons why.

Everything seemed to really turn into a dream when the guy said, “We don’t think you’ve got any other choices than to come with us.”

***

AND they began to dress me up like a typical girl. Ribboned dress, black ballet shoes and a pearl necklace. My hair which normally coiled into a bun was then combed and tied up in ribbons. They powdered my face and put lipstick on my lips, my cheeks flushed thanks to the sweeps of blush-on and they shaped up my eyebrows too.

Every day I studied extra learning materials at home. I was also taught about archery, manners and economics as well as state politics. Sometimes, I played around with tubes and beakers containing chemical too. Something that people thought must be running in my family. It just occurred to me then that my parents were both chemists too. However, weeks after they taught me about chemistry, I still hadn’t demonstrated any knack for it.

In addition to home schooling, I didn’t go to the HIS anymore, where the bumiputera (natives) could study together with those of Dutch descent. I went to the ELS instead, where half Chinese like me, according to my family—they were no longer strangers to me, should go pursuing knowledge. In front of the mirror I nodded in agreement with them, I have cream-colored complexion and slanted eyes, I just realized it after staying with them.

***

APRIL 21, 1981.

YEAR after year went by. After three years attending MULO, at AMS now at all times I heard of kids my age uttering rhetoric, “What can I do for my country.” Inside the classroom we talked about many issues. From the writings on movements, the revolutions in western countries to the Aufklarung, occultism and the universe. Whatever shape their struggle might take, my friends were always fighting for something.

Over the next three years, we studied so hard for making it in the university admission tests. My aim was to go to the Netherlands, following in my father’s footsteps.

But as time moved on, so much had changed. I no longer knew who I was. I’d mingled with people I just knew. Even if I set my sights on going to the school my father attended, my goal didn’t have anything to do with my past, but something I fancied more to achieve; an ideal state. But, what did we expect from our country? I still didn’t get it then, but I just rode the waves.

***

AFTER compelling my family to allow me to burn some of my parents’ skull bones and bring their ashes to the Netherlands with me, I finally set off for the Land of Windmills with their ashes. I put the urns storing my parents’ ashes in my apartment.

In the Netherlands I often paid a visit to my aunt, my dad’s little sister, in Groningen, from whom I always got enough to live on. I lived a very ordinary life, when I went home from the classes I sat in Sneltrein bringing a bouquet of tulips all the time, I did it all the way through April for five years I stayed there. And though everything was well provided, I still signed up for part-time work at the embassy, where I met someone who would go on to break my heart.

“Even if I broke your heart, please don’t return to Indonesia. Be a citizen of the Netherlands.” After many nights sleeping with me, after imbuing with all his knowledge of the falsity of the world, he uttered those words. A few weeks later, I was left devastated in my rented apartment, learning that the guy had married a woman who conceived his child.

My next lover was an artist. There in the same city, after graduating from the college in Utrecht, I was settled and had a career as a painter; sometimes I wrote too. I stopped putting the sciences I learned during my four-year time in college into practice. I grew more familiar with going on adventures in the canals, discussing theology or philosophy figures, than remaining inside the lab working and analyzing molecules.

But fate took another twist out of control, a professor who spotted my talents and advised me during my thesis preparation in the latter years of my study forced me to partake in his lab works. While painting, while studying European culture, while enjoying life at my 20s, I agreed to become her assistant in several elaborate research studies conducted in collaboration with other countries in the Indo-European region.

Some of the people I met during the studies, which forced me to move from one place to another, which also got me separated from my artist lover, turned out to have known my mom and dad. But when I delved deeper, they just said they only knew them by their names. And soon after that, I found myself no longer working for the professor.

A week later, I went back to Utrecht, found my love married to another man. I was stunned by the change in her sexual preference within just a few months. After spending many hours cursing and throwing chinas in every corner of the room, I packed up my stuff, and decided to leave the country for good.

I moved to another country, of which the languages I had taught myself for years.

***

ZURICH is indeed a city with that magical aura. I started to practice the French and German I learned since the very first day, and it was perfect, I guess I did have the flair of a polyglot.

Everything steadily improved, including my state of mind. Yet, a few weeks later I learned about the deaths of my uncle and aunt in Groningen, falling victim to a serial killing. For a whole week I was there to pay a condolence call and pack up the stuff my aunt left for me. Quite overwhelming to see how my cousins who were still toddlers were orphaned immediately. But alas, there was nothing I could do when later they were taken to Indonesia by another uncle and aunt of mine. They also forced me to go home, but I refused and instead decided to return to Zurich.

Intent to fully draw myself away from the turmoil sprung inside of me, upon returning to my apartment in Zurich I started donating all my stuff to several foundations, and with a little saving as well as a little bit of other provisions, I decided to embark on an adventure around the world. Back in my college days, I was quite fond of the transcendental concept and, although it wasn’t so interesting, I also finished reading Thoreau‘s Journal.

***

APRIL 21, 1998.

I was 31 years old, had travelled around the whole world, but after returning to my homeland, I was forced to take part in contriving the reform. And I did that together with friends who used to always aspire to the same ideal state.

Meanwhile, my uncle and aunt moved to the Netherlands, taking my Dutch cousins back to their homeland.

At the time, I felt I was betrayed. Also I still had no clue as to why my father and mother were burned at the stake twenty years ago. Was it for the same thing, which forced them to move away to the woods? But why only the two of them?

The people around me felt great about themselves. While I continued to roll with them, I still felt I messed up with my life.

Later in May that year, I saw what we all sought after earlier in the 70’s came to fruition. However, those people were not the same school friends whose thoughts I used to adore 20 years ago. People change.

***

DONE with partying and reveling in the enemy’s defeat, over the next few months I stayed in a vacant family house in Jakarta on my own. All the members of my family, somehow, had switched nationalities and agreed not to return to Indonesia, no matter what.

I felt that fate, time and people I’d known had double-crossed me. Thus, perhaps only those who had time to think about themselves, those who shared my feelings, would feel that we had lived such a long, long dream. The place where I was at now, not the place I expected many years ago.

Gulping down the remaining shot glass of tequila, while here and there recalling how my hand completed a thin hatching of a girl with a sombrero on her head while I was in Mexico, I decided to go back to the place where it all began. I thought I should, before I die, find out the cause of my parents’ deaths. In the past, it might not be both of them who died. It could have been me, and I went to different places and met completely different people, and lived my own death for twenty years.(*)

Ayam

Oleh: Clarice Lispector

(diterjemahkan dari “A Chicken”, The Complete Stories [New Directions, 2015])

Ia ayam hari Minggu, masih hidup karena saat itu belum jam sembilan pagi.

Ia terlihat tenang. Sejak Sabtu ia meringkuk di sudut dapur. Tidak memperhatikan siapa pun, tak seorang pun mengacuhkannya. Bahkan ketika mereka memilihnya, dengan cuek menggerayangi bagian-bagian intimnya, mereka tidak bisa memastikan apakah ia ayam yang gemuk atau kurus. Tak seorang pun akan mengira bahwa ia mendambakan sesuatu.

Maka terkejutlah mereka saat melihatnya mengepakkan sayap dan untuk sesaat terbang, membusungkan dada dan, dalam dua atau tiga entakan, mencapai pagar teras. Sejenak ia dihinggapi keraguan—cukup lama bagi juru masak untuk berteriak memanggil bantuan—dan sejurus kemudian ia sudah berada di beranda rumah tetangga, dan dari sana, dengan lentingan yang kaku sekali lagi, ia melesat ke atap. Di sana ia berdiri seperti hiasan yang tidak pada tempatnya, terhuyung-huyung bertopang pada satu kaki, kemudian kaki lainnya. Keluarga itu segera berkumpul dan wajah-wajah masygul terlihat saat menyaksikan makan siang mereka nangkring di cerobong asap. Pemuda di keluarga itu, mengingat kebutuhan ganda untuk berolahraga meski tidak teratur sekaligus bersantap siang, dengan riang memakai celana kolor dan memutuskan mengikuti jejak si ayam: dengan hati-hati ia melompat ke atap di mana ayam itu, bimbang dan gemetar, segera menentukan rute selanjutnya. Pengejaran pun makin sengit. Dari atap ke atap mereka melintasi area lebih dari satu blok. Tanpa bekal memadai untuk pergulatan bertahan hidup yang keras, ayam itu harus menentukan sendiri jalan mana yang harus ditempuh, tanpa sedikit pun bantuan dari spesiesnya. Anak muda itu, bagaimanapun, adalah pemburu yang kurang gesit. Dan meski buruannya tak lebih dari seekor ayam, seruan orang-orang terdengar memecah keheningan.

Sebatang kara di dunia, tanpa ayah atau ibu, ia berlari, terengah-engah, membisu, berkonsentrasi. Kadang-kadang, di tengah pelarian, ia menggelepar megap-megap di ujung atap dan ketika anak muda itu tersandung di atap bangunan lain ia punya jeda untuk mengatur napas sejenak. Dan saat itu ia tampak begitu bebas.

Dungu, penakut, dan bebas. Tidak jemawa layaknya ayam jantan yang berhasil meloloskan diri. Apa yang ada di benaknya yang menjadikannya makhluk hidup? Ayam adalah makhluk hidup. Memang benar, kamu tidak bisa mengandalkannya untuk apa pun juga. Bahkan ia pun tidak mengandalkan dirinya sendiri untuk segala sesuatu, sebagaimana ayam jantan mengandalkan jenggernya. Satu-satunya keunggulan ayam betina adalah ada begitu banyak ayam betina hingga tiap kali mati satu tumbuh seribu pada saat itu juga seolah-olah itu ayam yang sama.

Akhirnya, saat tengah mengaso di sela pelariannya, pemuda itu berhasil menggapainya. Di tengah nyaring kotekan dan bulu-bulu yang beterbangan, ia tertangkap. Kemudian dengan gaya penuh kemenangan ia ditenteng dari atap ke atap dengan salah satu sayapnya menjuntai, lalu dilempar ke lantai dapur dengan kekerasan. Masih pusing, ia goyang-goyangkan tubuhnya sedikit, berkeok-keok dan diliputi ketidakpastian.

Saat itulah hal itu terjadi. Didera kepanikan ayam itu bertelur. Kaget, kehabisan tenaga. Mungkin telur itu keluarnya prematur. Tapi segera sesudahnya, karena memang terlahir untuk bertelur, ia tampak bagaikan induk ayam yang sudah banyak makan asam garam. Ia duduk di atas telur itu dan mengeraminya, bernapas, matanya membuka dan menutup. Jantungnya, yang begitu kecil bila tersaji di atas piring, membuat bulu-bulunya naik turun, mengalirkan kehangatan ke benda yang tidak akan pernah menjadi lebih dari sebutir telur. Gadis kecil di keluarga itu adalah satu-satunya yang berada di dekatnya dan menyaksikan semuanya dengan jeri. Namun begitu bisa menjauh dari situ, dia beranjak dari lantai dan berlari sambil berteriak:

“Mama, mama, jangan bunuh ayam itu, ia bertelur! Ia peduli pada kita!”

Semua orang berlari kembali ke dapur dan tanpa sepatah kata pun mengelilingi induk ayam muda dan baru itu. Sambil menghangatkan telurnya, ia tidak terkesan ramah atau angkuh, tidak terlihat ceria atau sedih, ia tidak memperlihatkan emosi apa pun, ia adalah seekor ayam. Yang tidak akan menerbitkan sedikit pun perasaan istimewa. Ayah, ibu, dan anak menatap ayam tersebut untuk beberapa saat, tanpa memikirkan suatu hal khusus. Tidak ada yang pernah mengelus-elus kepala seekor ayam sebelumnya. Akhirnya si ayah mengambil keputusan tiba-tiba:

“Jika ayam ini disembelih, aku takkan pernah makan ayam lagi seumur hidupku!”

“Aku juga!” seru gadis kecil itu bersemangat.

Sang ibu, yang sudah letih, hanya mengangkat bahu.

Tanpa menyadari nyawanya telah diampuni, ayam itu mulai tinggal bersama keluarga tersebut. Si gadis kecil, sepulang sekolah, akan melemparkan mapnya sambil melangkah tanpa ragu ke dapur. Kadang sang ayah terkenang: “Dan kalau dipikir-pikir, aku membuatnya lari dalam kondisi seperti itu!” Si ayam pun menjadi ratu di rumah itu. Semua orang, kecuali dirinya, tahu itu. Ia terus mondar-mandir di seputar dapur dan beranda belakang, memanfaatkan dua bakatnya: sikap masa bodoh dan kewaspadaan.

Namun setiap kali semua orang di rumah itu berdiam diri dan seperti telah melupakannya, ia mengumpulkan sedikit keberanian—sisa-sisa pelarian hebatnya—dan berkeliaran di beranda berubin, tubuhnya mengikuti gerakan kepala, berhenti sejenak seakan sedang berada di tanah lapang, meskipun kepalanya yang mungil mengkhianatinya: bergerak-gerak dan manggut-manggut dengan cepat, ketakutan purba spesiesnya telah lama berubah menjadi gerakan mekanis.

Sesekali, walau semakin jarang, ayam itu teringat lagi akan sosoknya sewaktu berada di tepian atap rumah, hendak menyerukan kehadirannya. Saat itulah ia mengisi paru-parunya dengan udara dapur yang kotor dan, sekalipun ayam betina bisa berkokok, ia tidak akan berkokok tetapi merasa jauh lebih bahagia. Namun tak terlihat ada perubahan ekspresi pada wajah di kepala yang kosong itu. Berlari, bertengger, bertelur, atau mematuki butiran jagung—itu adalah kepala ayam, kepala yang sama yang dirancang sejak permulaan zaman.

Sampai suatu hari mereka menyembelih, memakannya, dan tahun demi tahun pun berlalu.(*)

A Love Story from the Nearby Galaxy

By: Dinar Rahayu

(source text: https://lakonhidup.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/cerita-cinta-dari-galaksi-sebelah)

JUST like a nightmare still haunting while one’s awake, that’s how it feels to travel with the Space and Time Bending Machine. Chempasuchitl awakened with nightmares lingering in his head when he was ejected through the pod’s door in the same way as a toilet bowl which holds too much feces eventually overflows. The quick hands of the machine attendants caught Chempasuchitl who was soaked with water and phlegm formed as a side effect of the travel.

“Good morning, Sir, welcome to the City of Light port,” greeted a female pod attendance while handing a towel to him. “Please take the time to get yourself refreshed first, and if there’s anything I could help, just call me.”

The young lady exuded a fragrantly fresh odor, apparently she had splashed on her body a perfume extracted from glowing lizard’s gland. Nightmares and phlegm remaining from the travel still drenched him. He gulped the water down as if he hadn’t seen water for thousands of years and then took anti-dizziness drugs.

He had arrived at Planet Light. The fifth planet in the Illuminata Perpetualis galaxy. The stellar system comprises 15 planets revolving around a small star, as the system’s administration center. Each and every planet and star in this system links to each other with the Space and Time Bending Machine so the inhabitants can move to and fro without having to get too old upon arriving at their destination. He himself lives in Planet Words. He works as a Super Computer Servant at the heart of the system. Together with tens of millions of other servants, he takes care of administrative odds and ends that govern every aspect of the residents’ life for the system viability. This time around he had to go to Planet Light, to its capital, the City of Light, to attend an exhibition of energy production that is presumably cleaner and more efficient.

The port lies within approximately 679 tsuks from the city center. It’s in fact impractical to install a Space and Time Bending Machine to travel such a not-quite-long distance, so Chempasuchitl boarded a super-fast air balloon. He stared at a holographic catalog of travel packages offering tours to various planets as he drank a cup of tea made from excrement of light tree caterpillars known to be capable of refreshing the body, and treated himself with crispy, grilled caterpillars. He listened to bits of newscasts: “Harvest of light fruits in the countryside across Planet Light, an accident on Track 303 of the Space and Time Bending Machine line.”

Chempasuchitl has a girlfriend, living in one of the City of Light’s moons, Lili-Pol is her name. Lili-Pol has a large telescope that can be used to peer into distant galaxies, she’s been fighting for her discovery, a peculiar planet which is the third from the central star of that galaxy. According to her, one of the planet inhabitants has the following attributes: walking on two legs and having two hands, a certain creature always stumbles into multi-story buildings because this species walks with eyes fixed downward while pressing buttons that are much smaller than their fingers, often entering the wrong toilet, and early in the morning they eat something coming out of an orifice of a creature that makes “cackling” sound, with a beak and wings.

Illuminata Perpetualis’ Star Forecasting Agency could not accept Lili-Pol’s findings yet for the idea that there’s another planet occupied by such creatures is ridiculous. But, Lili-Pol didn’t give up. The Agency doesn’t mind about her activities, as long as she could gather further evidence.

Chempasuchitl’s recollection of Lili-Pol left him startled. It just occurred to him that today he should have taken her to go for a walk to see the Trees of Words blossoming on the outskirts of the City of Words, but the Administration Center sent him on an urgent assignment to Planet Light.

He immediately waved his hand. A holographic screen appeared before him. He thought of Lili-Pol and immediately a call sensor displayed her image, also her home phone number. Chempasuchitl nodded, immediately the caller connected with Lili-Pol’s machine. Shoot! It turned out the young lady wasn’t at home. The machine did a search and found she was on the fast track heading for Planet Words. On Track 303.

“On Track 303!” the phrase burst out of his mouth along with the tea and a chew of grilled caterpillars.

“The accident on Track 303!!!!” he shrilled at the hologram machine that immediately got the red indicator flashing suggesting his screaming was too loud. The machine immediately brought him all the news about the accident on Track 303. Around 2,000 passengers of the Space and Time Bending Machine were sucked into a dimensional vortex as the machine had a failure at Track 303. Each atom of the passengers then scattered randomly in the past, present and future. The transportation agency was gathering data on who the passengers are, what their defining features are, and it expected that their family members or relatives visit the nearest transportation office carrying a lock of hair, a piece of skin or whatever so the passengers’ bodies can be reconstructed properly.

The Time and Space Bending Machine calls off death. Yet, the news received is sometimes as painful. For example, it goes like this: “Thirty percent of your father’s atoms are scattered in the past, 50% in the future, and less than 10% dispersed in the present, and the rest spread out in between the machine’s cabin walls.” That’s not the news of death, but it remains similarly intractable to be faced and passed on. Even if one is saved, there’s another problem lurking; the passengers’ memories, minds, experiences sometimes get accidentally exchanged, left behind, mixed up, stuck along the machine line. The speed that twists the distance between planets seems to put these things out of the equation, although such accident rarely happens at Illuminata Perpetualis.

Chempasuchitl looked around. All passengers on the air balloon were now fixated on that particular news, and when the balloon commenced its landing sequence and the step-ladder was attached to it, all the passengers got off slowly while continuing to gaze at the holographic screens and listen to the news. Across the holographic displays at the port, air balloon anchorage, city and city parks, news on the accident on Track 303 was running.

Chempasuchitl attended the exhibition with his mind wandering off somewhere else. Lili-Pol’s face continued to be etched upon his memory. The Space and Time Bending Machines are equipped with safety nets, but could she be one of the passengers whose atoms were so dispersed that the safety nets could no longer contain her, and the atoms were tossed about across the universe. Attracted by one star’s gravity and blown away by another star’s explosion?

Three days in Planet Light’s revolution had gone by since the accident. Chempasuchitl extended his stay in the City of Light. In front of him sat Lili-Pol, apparently lacking nothing whatsoever. She remembered Chempasuchitl, she recalled many things that happened in her life, but she didn’t know how deep she was in love with him. Lili-Pol was neither absent-minded, nor forgetful, only that part of her memory was scattered somewhere. Perhaps, it was swapped inadvertently.

Chempasuchitl—assisted by the Transportation and Record Agencies of Illuminata Perpetualis—had delved into all existing data, looking for reminiscences and memories that got mixed up. Various media had queried who have memories of sitting together at the City of Light’s beach, overlooking the sea and watching the glowing lizards ate fruits from the Trees of Light that are submerged in shallow waters, of those nights when they sat together staring at the sky, watching the Trees of Words shot up words in the air, making a series of sentences in the sky of Planet Words. The problem is, millions or perhaps billions of people shared similar moments, sorting out which specific memories belong to Lili-Pol is the trickiest. But as other persistent and diligent citizens of the galaxy, Chempasuchitl never gave up. Until this story was written, he was still searching, in different memory data centers, in the depths of Lili-Pol’s eyes.(*)

A Dead Dog in Bala Murghab

By: Linda Christanty

(source text: https://lakonhidup.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/seekor-anjing-mati-di-bala-murghab)

A tiny dog falls down on the street. A soldier shot it with an automatic rifle.

I nearly drop my camera. I’m struck with disbelief.

Seconds ago I saw it trotting off, sniffing at the sand, then glancing around as though it was in confusion.

I haven’t even photographed it.

Before long I hear the screams of a child, loudly coming out of that house, a sandy brown structure just 20 m away from where I stand while holding the camera.

Frantically, one boy about six years of age is galloping toward the dying dog while a woman wearing a blue burqa that I think is his mother calls out her son’s name in distress, it sounds like “Alef”, but the kid whose name is being called pays no mind at all and keeps running. Alef’s dark blue clothing makes his pale white skin grow paler.

The lady desperately trails her son who has just darted in front of me.

Alef is possessed by ineffable agony. Unlike his dog that keeled over feebly at once, he’s roaring wildly. No one is running after him, apart from that lady. The mother and her son bear their own anguish. Nobody comforts them, because all choose to soothe themselves.

Some people nearby turn their backs on the scene straight away, or pretend they don’t see what’s just happened. They’re accustomed to turning a blind eye and going into silent mode at certain moments. If you ask them what they just saw, one or two who dare enough to speak will surely answer in unison, “We didn’t see anything, except the bright white sky. We heard nothing, other than a donkey’s brays. ”

Before the soldier shot the dog, I was snapping some pictures, aiming at each object with my camera.

I took photos of children, women and mothers, standing at the doors to their houses or hovering over in the streets. There are many children here. I saw a little girl, probably five years old, carrying on her back her sister who’s still a baby. I didn’t see any grown women nearby. She wobbled and walked all bent over due to the weight of the baby on her back, then stopped and fixed me with her probing look.

I also photographed a little girl in the red dress striding down a narrow hallway, between the sand-colored buildings. She was alone. Her brownish-black hair looked tousled. She has patches of white on her rosy cheeks. Her feet that weren’t covered by sandals or shoes were dust-gilded. She seemed to have no one in this world. My camera flashed time and again on her and she didn’t care at all. She kept walking with a daydreaming look in her eyes.

Sometimes I ask myself, what will happen to these kids in the future, 10 or 15 years to come.

From portraits of children around here you’ll know how much power your enemy has or who’s going to be your adversary in the future.

In one village, even the kids cast cynical looks when my camera turned to them. In another village, a girl lurked behind the door of her house with a toy car pointed to us as if it were a gun while her brother greeted us in front of the metal, green-painted door with body language as though he was a foe trying to lure me and say, “Hi, come and get me,” while having a laugh. However, in some villages, the kids smiled and waved at me. I’ll send some of their portraits to you later, both the sour-faced and friendly ones.

These portraits immortalize what’s bound to vanish. Innocent faces of the boys will one day turn into the faces of bearded men, which the denser and longer beards they have, the more respect they’ll command. The little girls will gradually fade into memories. They will grow to become women who must satisfy the desires of men, whether they like it or not.

The soldier is standing at the end of the street, not far from the dying dog, and he behaves as if he didn’t do anything that utterly shocks a soul and took another.

He acts like the dead dog has been lying there long before he came, like mountains, sand, meadows, hot air, high winds of winter and snow in this place, which have been part of your life for being born and raised in this country, which are taken for granted and you deem no longer important.

The soldier is probably 19. I turn my face away when he spontaneously gazes toward me, exactly in the course of the onrushing boy, as we’re in the same direction, parallel to his line of fire.

I also don’t understand why I should be surprised witnessing a soldier shot a dog. Isn’t it just an animal, a mindless creature whose brown fur even looks dirty and unkempt? A bullet has killed a living thing that wasn’t involved in this war. I’m not going to report this to the supreme commander in the headquarters, because I don’t report to him directly. Probably I’m going to tell the shooting to my superior, who always replies each and every complaint of mine with the same answer:  Sorry you had to see that sort of thing. However, now that I’ve thought that through, I shouldn’t write another letter to my superior, save for official reports. The more I complain, the more difficult my situations get. I could be sent home at any time and that means I won’t be able to afford my mom’s treatment, Mark’s tuition and my own mortgage. Maybe that soldier also has a father or a mother who is ill, he might not have other choices for his future, aside from being stuck in this place, like me and anyone else.

 

YESTERDAY he and his men saved me when our convoy passed through a hostile territory. I was in a bulletproof car while a battle raged around me. My heart was pounding so hard. My throat went dry. That was my first time being trapped in an armed combat as one of the few civilians serving here.

I’m responsible for overseeing turbine construction and I never go anywhere without an escort. I sleep, eat and work in the company of armed men, who pave the way for construction activities by “cleaning” each of my work area before I arrive.

If you ask me where the enemy who call themselves “students” were and how they looked like, I can’t give you the answers. Their ambush was swift. They were hiding cleverly. You hear gunfire or mortar blasts, but won’t see the shooter or launcher. You’ll only see sand and meadows, also the mountains in the distance.

The “students” forbid girls to go to school and also rape young women. In one village I met a girl, 14 years old, who no longer has the will to live. Her face melts, like molten chocolate. One of the “students” poured mercury into Shirin’s face, since she dared go to school.

Our enemy call themselves “students”, but prohibit people form learning and getting educated. They worked with us to drive away tanks of the enemy from the East. However, no alliance comes for free. Some people here even openly said they don’t want us here, don’t want the “students” to wield the power either. That means they refuse to embrace both the modern world and the return of the Stone Age. What kind of world is that? Probably a somewhere-in-between world, a world where printing machines have just been invented and people still travel by coal train. Still it’s an underdeveloped world, I suppose.

Once the gunfire stopped, we identified three casualties in the convoy of the combined forces. Upon arriving at the fortress, I felt dead tired and took a bath in no time. After that I had my meals. I’ve been gaining weight, as I no longer play basketball game. You said, my abs would definitely have more flabs. Like a building. It used to look like a two-story building, and it will be like a three- or four-story one.

The soldier is the same age as Mark, my little brother. Mark now lives in a dorm, no longer renting an apartment. You would’ve seen the portrait of the two of us, which I sent on Thanksgiving. The father of Elena, Mark’s girlfriend, took our picture in his home. Behind us there was a drum set, if you take a closer look at it. Elena’s father likes to play music. Besides the drums, there are acoustic guitars, saxophone, harmonica and piano in his house. That night I sang to the guitar tune of Elena’s father. It wasn’t too shabby. I sang Tom Waits’ piece, “Romeo Is Bleeding”. And today I see a dog’s blood.

The little dog’s body looks like curled up in a pool of tomato sauce. Suddenly I’m reluctant to point my camera around. Other soldiers close to me remain uninterested. Some briefly glance toward the dead dog, and then return to their inspection routine into the surrounding houses.

So, the fine-looking lad was the owner of the poor dog. If it weren’t for this place, I would’ve grabbed and hugged him, consoled him into forgetting his sorrow, as I always do for you when you’re depressed or ill at ease. I’ll probably get him a toy or a new dog, perhaps a tame and friendly golden retriever. I’ll build a decent grave for his dead dog, with a headstone bearing its name. I’ll let him cry until he lets all his woe out then and there and bid farewell to his dog. But in Bala Murghab there are no decent graves for beloved dogs that perish, no dolls on a sandbar put up as tokens of love from those left behind, no dog-shaped granite statues with beautiful words carved for the departed and remembered.

The boy nearly gets in front of the dog’s body. But the soldier doesn’t allow him to touch the thing he yearns for. Before his pale little hands are able to pat the body of his beloved dog, I see the soldier quickly grabs and throws it as far as possible, across the street.

The dog’s blood drips to the ground, and gushes forth in the air.

The dog’s dead body then lands on the face of an old man. He’s startled, then takes a few steps behind and I’m sure, the tip of his robe is splattered by the blood of the dead dog. I see him storming into the house.

Alef, his name does sound like “Alef”, cries his heart out. His body shivers. The lady who I think is his mother has been on his side, promptly embraces Alef, then takes him away from the puddle of blood. Alef keeps crying. The woman continues to comfort him and doesn’t dare to look at me when she and her son walk past me again. She walks hurriedly while guiding her sobbing son. I don’t photograph them. Suddenly I’ve lost my appetite for shooting.

Five days from now I’ll go back to Herat, returning to the Italian army headquarters. Sometimes I can have some wine in their barracks, a little treat to ease my boredom. Yet, there isn’t even a can of beer at the headquarters of US forces. General McChrystal bans its soldiers from drinking.

I also can’t write you too often, Honey. The Internet access isn’t available at all times to write emails. We take turn when using the only computer on hand. My phone signal isn’t always good, so it’s a rarity for me to call you.

I sleep in bunk beds. One barrack sometimes holds eleven people. The sound of people breaking wind is heard every night. The smell will make your common senses disappear in a flash. The stench sometimes makes me want to fart around: I picture myself getting a bag of donkey’s dung hung right in front of their noses while they’re asleep, let them dream of swimming in its puddle and talk in their sleep all night long.

In the next four months I’ll have my field break. I long for comedies and some popcorn. Can you take time off as well, go home and get together with our old friends? You didn’t go home on Thanksgiving day….

I take a deep breath involuntarily. I’m a little tired. The air feels stingingly hot, despite the cold wind blowing.

Alef and his mother are nowhere to be seen. No one dares to touch the dead dog across the street. The soldier who shot the dog suddenly makes a gesture toward me. He asks me to take his photo.(*)

A Millisecond Before 04.00 PM

By: Seno Gumira Ajidarma

(source text: https://lakonhidup.wordpress.com/2012/12/09/seperseribu-detik-sebelum-pukul-1600)

Actually both of them don’t want to look at their own watches, also the clock, because it will only serve them with painful reality.

“I don’t want to be separated.”

“Neither do I.”

“I don’t want that.”

“Don’t want it too.”

“Won’t have that. No matter what, won’t take that.”

“Don’t. Just don’t take that.”

They’re gazing into each other’s eyes. There’s no time. Can 60 minutes make up for 60 years? There’s no time.

Isn’t there any time?

No one ever knows if time has a beginning and an end. None. Never. Insuperable. Unnecessary.

No more time left. Both are staring at their watches. The roaring aircrafts are flying by from a distance.

There’s still time!

“Five more minutes.”

“A mere five minutes!”

The ticking of the clock sounds like a bang traveling the sky in echoes.

“I don’t want this, I don’t want this, I don’t want this….”

The old man is shaking his head. The old woman keeps looking down, always down, like she does all the time since her tender age. Isn’t she, the old man’s thinking, the one whose face is as dark as a black hole in the sky that sucks me into it in a million twirls? In 60 years everything has changed, but after 60 years their eyes still speak the same language.

“I don’t want this too…,” the old lady is muttering in a whisper, “but how?”

How. That’s the thing. How.

The five-minute window is opening. Planes are landing. The others are taking off. A light blue pool. A garden in the sun. People are eating and drinking and laughing in numerous languages. A stewardess is dragging her suitcase.

“Argh…,” again the man is exclaiming with both hands on his head, “why this has to happen.”

The woman is raising the face she has kept down to that point.

“This meeting?”

“This parting!”

The old lady is then holding her head down. That’s the reality. They parted 60 years ago without meeting each other ever since, without saying a word, and now they’re about to be drawn apart once again.

“I’ve always remembered you.”

“The same is true.”

They have kept each other in mind without knowing the secret of each other’s heart though their hearts have met now. They’ve heard everything their hearts have to say in none other language than feeling, just feeling, and no other than feeling which doesn’t translate to reason in the mind.

“How could I be so naïve then, huh?”

“I was guilty of being simple too.”

Now both are fixing their eyes to the ground. They’ve met each other again now that 60 years have moved past and felt there’s no need for them to be away from each other come what may, even when it’s not remotely possible.

“But how?”

That’s the problem! How!

“One more minute!”

The old lady is rubbing her eyes. The old man is holding her hand.

“No! We don’t have to be separated anymore! No need to go that way!”

There’s no more time!

Their hands clasp tightly, in a very firm grip, as if nothing could be tighter.

“I don’t want this, I don’t want this, I don’t want this!”

It was just like a whisper, but within their world the universe grows turbulent. With all the powers they’ve got, they’re pushing away the beats of seconds so one beat grows in distance from another, and they’ve become far away, increasingly distant, so far-flung it makes every beat reverberate alone in the universe of silent time which is so silent it feels as if nothing else is quieter until the expanse makes an echo unable to find a medium where it could travel at all because time seems to have stuck!

***

In the restaurant the rotating clock hands look shaken in violent vibration, so violent they cannot be seen because if time that would have been free-flowing has been contained it should create fierce repulsion between those hands!

A thousandth of a second before 04.00 pm local time, the hands of the clocks around the world shake fiercely in their respective local times! Time has stuck! People stop walking. Spoons stop right in front of people’s mouths. Drinks pause midway when poured down. They’re floating because time has ground to a halt. Heck!

Yet for all the restrained movements, colossally throbbing in an irresistible impetus of time that in reality is curtailed, the brainpowers of those whose motions stop remain functioning and they’re still capable of speaking to channel their panic! Like a giant dam stems the flashflood, the flow of time which actually is uncontainable in its confinement eventually leaks out all over the place in a highly random manner….

“Goodness gracious! What’s this? What’s happening?”

Cars stop running, but the radio remains on because its journalist whose hands stop while holding up the microphone can still talk and tell her account of events learned through the auditory organs in her ears.

“Ladies and gentlemen across the country who can tune in to this broadcast, kindly allow us to tell you a story of the extraordinary events as narrated by our reporter on the ground who, despite being unable to move her body, remains capable of delivering an eyewitness report through a microphone she happens to put before her mouth. Our beloved listeners, in the streets cars have stopped with the engine still running as if they intend to move forward with time, but are found helplessly unable to do so for time is held back. Even airplanes stop dead in their tracks, but don’t fall since apparently time gets stuck along with everything that moves in it! However, not the entire of time is contained as time whose flows and streams are irrepressible seeps and leaks here and there so we’re still able to talk! People are left motionless in the streets, but can still talk to each other in panic because they think this is the end of the world! Ahh…, aren’t all those kinda weird? Haha! ”

A millisecond before 04.00 pm time is curbed. The remaining millisecond turns into a million years a billion years a trillion years and infinity! What kind of meaning is there in those 60 years crammed into a stalled, stuck time which toils to proceed with the kind of struggle and power beyond the reckoning of men? The wind stops blowing, the clouds stand still, the river flows grind to a halt, the oceans go into silence without breaking waves, eagles are on the fly without flapping their wings, the universe and the entire sky turn out to be a picture.

In a world that freezes just like an image, but one that quivers with the power of the universe whose time is held back when it shouldn’t be containable, words and only words scatter outside time and space as ideas. These are ideas that pervade the layers of space and time and come to pose questions.

“What is this? What’s going on?”

“It’s weird that time has stopped, isn’t it! Why not the apocalypse as well? Apparently somebody’s got so much time for fooling around! ”

“Do you think somebody’s behind this? Who do you think might have so much time to do this? ”

In the market, though all body movements stop, mouths refuse to be silenced.

“What on earth is this?! What does this mean? ”

“No idea who wanted to do this; certainly the person doesn’t care much that this could do people harm.”

“Yeah! This is egregious!”

Ideas are coming out among people who have lifted the spoons filled with fried rice to their mouths but unable to complete the next move, among those whose beverage in their bottles has poured into the thirsty mouths but the water stops before entering their throats, among people who walk while buried in thoughts of their lovers that have been waiting for them but have their legs gone stock-still and unable to go ahead although they wish to push on, among ladies that have graced the cat-walks because it’s their job as female models but then freeze like a mannequin put up for display, among those who have performed a somersault in the air in gymnastics contests but now stop midair without being able to be pulled down as the whole mankind in the universe have their movements come to standstill. Shoot…

There will be no more events. Stories come to an end, and without any story the entire world’s existence is pointless. Time which is repressed must be fought back and it’s being resisted, but what will presumably guarantee the success of that fight if time which should have been unconstrainable gets suppressed so that even rain stays unmoving just like a page of perspective? Still, somewhere out there in the quietest place a serrated blade about to stab one’s belly gets stuck, unable to pierce inside. In the messy, contained time, ill fate is put off, but it also remains unclear whether it could be evaded after all.

A millisecond before 04.00 pm. The waiters in the restaurant look over two elderlies who still grasp each other’s hands as both don’t want to part company with one another. They just want to be there forever, in such a very long time there’s nothing that long because they want it to be forever. Their eyes are cast down and their hands are gripping tightly as if they weather time which is trying to drag and pull them apart.

“Why did you vanish just like that while I lay in wait for you all this time…?”

“I had no clue that you were always waiting for me, never knew it and would’ve never disappeared had I known that you kept waiting for me, otherwise I’d never go away….”

“How could you not know I’ve been always waiting for you like that….”

“How do I know that you’re always waiting for me like that….”

“You know, every time you came to me you sent me to cloud nine, until one day you no longer turned up, disappeared like the earth had swallowed you….”

“I didn’t know that, never knew, you always kept your head down I thought you didn’t like me around you ….”

“I had always waited for you, like the girl in the fairy tales, until I knew I had to face reality and get over you….”

“Now you’d still be leaving and forget about me ….”

“No. Impossible. No way.…”

But the check-in will close by 04.00 pm. If she doesn’t check in, chance is the old woman could be late, and if she’s late and misses the flight, the story will be dragging on.

“If only time ….”

They don’t want time to reach 4 o’clock. They want time to be kept in check so the universe doesn’t revolve and thus shudders it makes the sky gleam with flickers.

However, time keeps on running, until a millisecond before 04.00 pm.

“If only…,” says the old man eventually, clutching the hands of the old lady firmly, as if he wants to become one with her and not be separated again after 60 years have gone by without any encounter.

A millisecond before 04.00 pm, if time is to remain stuck then the universe will explode into light dusts and soon dissolve forever like a vanishing whisper, as if love is so great that the world must be sacrificed.

A millisecond before 04.00 pm, the hour hand is moving toward 4 o’clock.

Both the seniors are staring at each other, with eyes soaked in tears unable to be held back….

(*)