By Ahmad Tohari
Karyamin measured careful deliberate steps. The weight bearing down across his shoulders was a long supple bamboo pole with woven rattan baskets full of river rocks swinging pendulum like from each end. The steep dirt track leading up the river bank was wet from the sweat that had dripped from Karyamin and the other workers as they trudged up and down the bank hauling rocks from the river to the storage bay at the top.
Long experience had taught Karyamin that he could make the climb to the top all right if he kept the center of gravity for his body and the load either on the right, or on the left foot, and if he shifted it very carefully from one foot to the other. He had also learned that to maintain his balance he had to concentrate on each breath and every movement of his arms.
Even so, Karyamin had slipped over twice that morning, collapsing in a heap and tumbling back down the trail followed by the rocks disgorging from his disheveled baskets. Every time Karyamin’s fellow rock collectors had doubled up in fits of laughter, pleased for the amusement that could be extracted from laughing at one another. This time Karyamin crept up the bank more cautiously. Despite his trembling knees, he gripped the earth with his toes as he went, every ounce of attention focused on maintaining his balance. Tension was visible on his face, sweat covered his body and poured through his shorts. Ridged veins bulged from his neck under the strain of the weight bearing down on his back and shoulders.
And maybe Karyamin would have made it to the top, if it hadn’t been for that blasted bird! A kingfisher dived from a branch dangling above the river, splashed into the water and emerged with a small fish in its beak. The bird then darted whisker-close across the front of Karyamin’s face.
“Damn!” cried Karyamin, feeling his balance begin to slip. He tottered momentarily, and then, collapsed, onto the ground surrounded by the clatter of his two baskets of disgorging rocks. Beginning to slide backwards down the slope, Karyamin pulled himself to a halt by grasping handfuls of grass. Four or five of Karyamin’s friends laughed together; the rock collectors pleased they could find some happiness in laughing at themselves.
“Haven’t you had enough, Min? Go home,” urged Sarji, quietly jealous of Karyamin’s fulsome young wife. “Your heart isn’t in it, you’ve been daydreaming all morning.
“And it’s dangerous leaving that wife of yours by herself at home, Min. Remember those young bank workers who call in to the village every day? They’re not just after loan repayments from your wife! Don’t trust those loan sharks. Go on, go home. They’re probably trying to chat her up right now.
“And it’s not just those young bank workers who have their eyes on your wife! Don’t forget the door-to-door lottery ticket hawker. I hear he’s always hanging around your place when you’re away. He isn’t just selling lottery tickets either; he’s got to be pushing some other kind of business too!!”
The sound of laughter intermingled with the clatter of rocks landing on the edge of the river and the splash of water as the rock collectors moved around through the river. One large teak tree leaf lept from a branch and sailed down to land on the surface of the river. Impelled by the breeze, it began to move upstream in opposition to the current. Further up the river, three women were preparing to cross on their way home again from market. The rock collectors fell silent, entertained by the sight of the women gathering up their sarongs.
Karyamin sat on the ground, stunned, staring at his empty disheveled baskets, the gentle breeze bringing goosebumps to his arms even though the sun was already starting to become hot. Then the same kingfisher again flew past just above his head. Karyamin was about to curse it but stars suddenly began to fill his eyes and a roar like the roar of swarming bees filled his ears, and he could hear his empty stomach rumbling full of nothing but wind. Everything in front of Karyamin turned yellow, bathed in bright dazzling light.
Karyamin’s friends meanwhile had started guffawing about the women crossing the river. They had seen something wonderful, or something with the power to induce them to forget, even if just for a moment, the pain in their fingers made sore by scratching over the rocky riverbed; forget the rock trader who they had not seen for a fortnight after vanishing with a truckload of their rock, unpaid for; forget the woman selling packets of peanut-flavored pecel salad and boiled rice wrapped in banana leaves who were going to arrive in the afternoon asking to be paid; forget the lottery tickets which, not for want of trying, they never won.
“Min!” Sarji called out, “where’s your tongue? Take a look at those big white fish. They’re as big as thighs!”
Everyone laughed again. The rock collectors really did find some joy in laughing at each other. But this time Karyamin didn’t join in the laughter; he settled on a smile. They could all laugh and smile together. That, all accepted, was their ultimate defense, a symbol of their victory over the traders, over the low price of rock, over the slipperiness of the steep climb up the river bank. That morning too, Karyamin’s smile was a sign of his victory; victory over his gnawing stomach and his blinding star-filled eyes.
Karyamin had succeeded in creating an illusory paradise of victory by laughing and smiling in the face of his fate. The strange thing was, he felt so annoyed by the kingfisher flying back and forth over his head. For a moment he wanted to grab his bamboo pole and hit the bird, but suddenly he changed his mind. He realized that he would never be able to do that with all these stars swirling in front of his face.
So Karyamin just smiled and got to his feet even though his head was still pounding, and the sky still seemed to be spinning. He picked up his baskets, then his pole, and then set to climb the bank again smiling wryly as he noticed he was stepping through the depression he had made in the earth where he had fallen a few moments earlier. At the top of the bank he stood for a moment, startled by the sight of the pile of rocks that didn’t yet amount to even a quarter of a cubic meter. Even so he had to head for home. Under a waru hibiscus, Saidah had laid out her food for sale, rice and packets of pecel salad. Karyamin swallowed and felt a knot form in his stomach.
“Going home so early, Min?” asked Saidah. “Not feeling well?”
Karyamin shook his head, then smiled. Saidah noticed his lips were quite blue, that the palms of his hands were pale, and, as he drew slightly closer that his stomach seemed to be making a noise.
“Have something to eat, Min.”
“No. A drink will be fine. Just look at how little you have to sell, and, anyway, I already owe you enough as it is.”
“Yes, yes, Min. But you’re hungry, aren’t you?” asked Saidah.
Karyamin just smiled, then took the glass of boiled water Saidah was holding out. A warm comforting feeling swept over his throat and down through his stomach.
“Won’t you have something to eat, Min? I can’t stand to see someone hungry. I don’t mind waiting for the money. I can wait till the rock trader shows up. He hasn’t paid for your rock yet, has he?”
The kingfisher once again flashed past singing. Realizing that it was probably only searching for food for its babies, tucked away in a nest somewhere, Karyamin no longer felt hatred for the bird. He pictured the bird’s chicks huddled weakly in a nest that the bird had built in some sheltered ledge in the side of a cliff. The breeze began to blow again and teak tree leaves started to swirl through the air. Several glided down to land on the surface of the water. Compelled by the wind, the leaves always struggled upstream against the current.
“So you really won’t have anything to eat, Min?” asked Saidah, as Karyamin stood up.
“No. If you can’t stand to see me hungry, well I can’t stand to watch all your stock disappear with me and the others not being able to pay,” he replied.
“Yes, yes, Min. But… “
Saidah didn’t finish because Karyamin was already walking away. But she did catch sight of him turn and glance back at her. She noticed him smile. Saidah smiled back and swallowed anxiously. Something had stuck in her throat and she couldn’t make it go away. She watched Karyamin as he made his way along the narrow path winding through the undergrowth along the river basin. Karyamin’s friends called out friendly obscenities but he only stopped once, turning and beaming back to them a large smile.
Before climbing up out of the river basin, Karyamin caught sight of something moving on a small branch overhanging the water. Oh it was the kingfisher again. Bright blue back, clean white chest, and sago-red beak. Suddenly the bird dived down plunging into the water. Then with a victim in its beak it shot past the rock collectors, rose to avoid a clump of tall reeds and vanished behind a clump of pandanus grass. Karyamin felt a sense of jealousy towards the bird, but as he looked at his two empty baskets he could only smile.
Karyamin did not have any idea why he was going home. There wasn’t anything there that was going to stop the gurgling in his stomach. There was also no point his wife worrying. Oh yes, Karyamin remembered. His wife was a good reason to go home. Last night his wife hadn’t been able to sleep because of a boil right on the top of her backside.
“So what’s wrong if I go home to look after my sick wife,” he thought.
Karyamin tried to walk a little faster although from time to time he suddenly felt a dizziness and a sea of stars swam before his eyes. As soon as he reached the other side of the bamboo bridge he noticed a crisp ripe water guava. He was about to pick it from the tree but changed his mind when he noticed bat bite marks. He also saw snakeskin fruit scattered on the ground below a snakeskin fruit tree. He picked one from the tree, took a bite, then threw it as far as he could. The dry-bitter sourness of the unripe snakeskin fruit tasted like poison on his tongue. Karyamin continued. His ears rang as he ascended a small slope but he didn’t worry; this was the hill leading up to his house.
Before he reached the crest of the slope he suddenly came to a stop. Two bicycles were parked at the front of his house. The ringing in his ears seemed to be growing louder; he seemed to be feeling dizzier. So he stopped, completely still, and stared. He thought of his sick wife having to deal with the two debt collectors from the bank. He knew she didn’t have the money to make today’s payments, or tomorrow’s, or the next day’s, or whenever’s; just as he had no idea when the rock trader who a month ago had taken their rock would show up again.
Stars still swam in front of his face. Karyamin started to wonder whether coming home was such a good idea. He knew there was nothing he would be able to do; nothing he could do to help his wife deal with the two debt collectors. He turned round slowly ready to head back down the hill but Karyamin noticed a man coming up behind him wearing a long-sleeved batik shirt. The worn out reddish fez on the man’s head convinced Karyamin that this was the Village secretary.
“Now I’ve finally caught you, Min. I’ve been calling in all morning looking for you but you’ve been out. Then I looked at the river but you weren’t there. You’re not trying to avoid me now, are you?”
“Yes, you are being very difficult, Min. In this area you’re the only person who hasn’t made a contribution yet. You’re the only one who hasn’t put anything into the African Relief Fund to help starving people in Africa. Now, today is the last day and I won’t put up with any more silly business.”
Karyamin could hear the sound of his own breathing, quietly, and also the rhythmic throb of his own heartbeat, but he couldn’t see the smile that began to spread over his lips. He smiled widely, deeply aware of his own condition and the situation that was now staring him in the face. Sadly, however, the Village secretary took Karyamin’s smile the wrong way and started to grow angry.
“Are you laughing at me, Min?”
“No, sir. Definitely not.”
“Then what’s that smirk all about? Come on, hurry up and hand over your contribution to the fund.”
But this time Karyamin didn’t just smile; he began to laugh out loud. He laughed so hard in fact that it reignited the beehive hum roaring in his ears and the world slowly dissolved into a sea of swirling stars in front of him and his stomach began to heave throwing him off balance.
Seeing Karyamin stumble and start to tumble down the embankment back towards the valley, the Village secretary tried to catch Karyamin. Unfortunately, he failed.