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.

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