The 12 Apostles

Short Story: The Slave of Love

By Seno Gumira Ajidarma

Only her eyes are visible. What can one see from a pair of eyes that radiate the enchantment of the world with every blink?

That is how enchantment projects from the eyes being watched to swallow the eyes watching, which are instantly dazzled and instantly stunned, as if struck by a blaze of heavenly light that completely obliterates the self and every desire, leaving the body devoid of all thought, except that of surrender and willingness in the yearning to be enslaved in the sacrifice of the soul.

“That’s enough! Stop standing there like that,” says his wife. “Let’s go home.”

But he no longer knows the words go home. Gone is home, gone is wife, gone is family. Vanished is all the cheerful chatter of children filling his life like the crashing of surf filling the silence of the universe.

He leaves his shocked wife, who grabs his arm only to have him to jerk it away, who can only look at the man who is her husband, who is the father of her children, vanish into the crowd and disappear…

Who would ever have thought that happiness was so fragile, the miracle of love so transitory?

***

From a distance, he continues to follow her. She steps without ever looking behind again, even though in all the reflections of all the glass at the intersection, in the shop windows, or in the side mirrors of motorbike taxi drivers waiting for passengers, she can see how he has been following her since the market.

She realizes he’s been walking along the sidewalk constantly following her at a distance. If she turns into a lane, he follows her into the lane. If she climbs onto a bus, he follows in a minibus that travels the same route. If she gets into a taxi, he follows her on a motorbike taxi or in another taxi. If she catches an electric train, she knows too how he is in the same carriage, and immediately follows her when she gets off at whatever station she’s going to.

Later when she arrives at her house, she kisses her husband’s hand, takes the little one back from the hands of the babysitter. Then from behind the window with the curtains that are always closed, she needs to look through and she can see the outline of her stalker dart into the small cafe down the road. She’s certain that from inside the cafe he’s constantly staring, waiting, hoping. Dreaming.

She and her husband look at each other. The little one is asleep. The babysitter has left.

From the small café that is closing up, a pair of eyes stare out at her dark house and sip coffee.

***

From day to day he moves around the daily life of the woman whose eyes alone are visible. It isn’t enough to follow from behind, sometimes he pretends to pass her accidentally.

It’s when they pass that he stares at her eyes and at whatever else apart from her eyes he can see. And it’s when they pass each other that his chest heaves, his heart comes alive and something will pound more quickly than usual.

What can be expressed by a pair of eyes whose brightness excites, with a gaze that pierces and grips, that conquers? What can a pair of eyes say? It seems so much, but how can one be sure?

He hopes those eyes will recognize him, and if they recognize him then pay a little attention to him, and if possible, not only pay a little attention, but still more also hope for something in return from him. But not just hope for something in return, also crave for something in return.

Is it possible that what he has hoped for, that what has never existed in the relationship between the two of them, can happen? But those eyes seem to be saying everything! They seem to be paying attention, appear to be hoping for something. They even seem to be craving for him…

Over the days his suspicion seems to be becoming a reality.

***

One day when he follows her, she turns around and looks straight at his eyes.

He thinks, she’s looking for me! She wants to know if today I am following her! She wants me to follow where she’s going!

He quickens his pace, drawing nearer. But she doesn’t turn around again. After a time just walking behind her, he ventures to speed up and draw alongside her.

They walk together, against the current of the surging urban humanity sweeping along the streets. Who among so many people in this world would think that something so important has happened between the two of them?

With all these feelings flowering in his heart, he still is not able to be sure of anything.

How can he be sure of anything just from the look of someone’s eyes, even though it has certainly been proved that the blaze of a radiant pair of eyes has captured and uprooted him from his old, comfortable, serene, problem-free life to enter a world that, despite being uncertain, still promises the happiness of a heaven like the one created by the glow of her eyes?

The waves of humanity continue to sweep around them. He observes their eyes, and it seems that not one of them pass with the glow of the eyes of the woman beside him. How is it possible?

How is it possible that all these people flowing past from the front can miss so blithely the shining radiance of the most beautiful eyes? Are the eyes of city people any blinder than when they are looking for something fake which in fact has never existed? But they are there in front of him!

Walking alongside her he cannot see anything, up until it is dark, and the woman is gone. He searches everywhere and does not find her…

***

The house lights have to be switched off before she looks through the curtains and sees that he is in the small café, his glare penetrating the night directly in her direction. She closes the curtains quickly as if that stare were a flying arrow, able to pierce the glass of the window, penetrate the window and pierce her heart. But then she parts the curtains again. He won’t be able to see her. She can see him. There are many people in the cafe, but his back is turned towards them and he’s staring in her direction. A slight feeling of sadness passes over her, but just for a moment. She’s used to disregarding her own feelings, for the sake of the larger interest that she believes in.

She turns in the direction of her husband, who’s reading verses from the holy book to their son before going to bed.

Her husband raises his head, looks at her, and nods.

***

The dark cloudy sky surged as, for the umpteenth time in as many months, he follows her some distance behind. She glances back just before disappearing into a lane. With a gaze that shines brightly, fleetingly, but which takes complete possession of the soul which cried and worshiped for so long craving a reply. He feels how his feet are so light as he weaves between the thousands of people in the street to follow her. He wants to never lose her again, even though he can always return to the cafe in front of her house.

Rain thunders down the moment she reaches the back of the lane. She is waiting there, leaning against a wall, soaked to the skin, and staring straight into his eyes. He is frozen. What he is used to experiencing as a hope and a yearning makes him giddy as it becomes a reality.

Not only stare. She takes his hands, pulling them in the torrential rain that makes every other person disappear from the streets, vanish from the lane, and leaves only the two of them breaking through the rain holding hands. Although the rain is so heavy the water from the sky feels like the rubber bullets that hit him randomly as he watched the demonstration, he cannot remember them.

***

A door opens and they enter a dark room. He inhales the odor of old metal, but what is he going to worry about when in the darkness his wet clothes are no longer covering his body, and hands as soft as cotton carry his hands to the other unclothed body?

In the darkness and the thunder of the rain, he cannot hear the sounds and sighs, but he can feel everything.

***

He carries a backpack on his back. As ultimate service what is there he won’t? He doesn’t even feel the need to ask what is in the pack. He doesn’t want to worry about that from fear of losing the one who’s mastered him.

His feelings are still those feelings as the world suddenly disappears from his consciousness when the bomb in his backpack explodes destroying everything. Everything. Buildings, ants, and humanity…


The Slave of Love (Budak Cinta) was published in Kompas Daily, 20 January 2019. (Retrieved from lakonhidup.wordpress.com)

Seno Gumira Ajidarma, born in Boston, United States, June 19, 1958. Now serves as Chancellor of the Jakarta Institute of the Arts (IKJ). Seno became better known after writing his trilogy of works on East Timor, namely Saksi Mata (collection of short stories), Jazz, Purfum, dan Insiden? (novel), and Ketika Jurnalisme Dibungkam, Sastra Harus Bicara (collection of essays). In 2014, he launched a blog called Pana-Journal (www.panajournal.com) about human interest stories with a number of journalists and professionals in the field of communication.

Oetje Lamno, born in Yogyakarta on May 31, 1978, completed his art education at the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) Yogyakarta. He has participated in various art exhibitions in several places, including overseas. In 2010, he attended Beijing Biennale # 4 at the National Art Museum of China. In 2017, he returned to exhibit in China on “Silk Road, International Festival Art, Xi-an”. Oetje was a finalist of the 2015 Indonesia Art Award art competition, whose works are on display at the National Gallery of Indonesia, Jakarta.

The Slave of Love Budak Cinta ilustrasi Oetje Lamno/Kompas

The Slave of Love (Budak Cinta) illustration by Oetje Lamno/Kompas Daily

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translate jellyfish

Short Story: The Death of a Translator

By Wawan Kurniawan

He would not have swallowed the poison if yesterday’s incident hadn’t happened. A week earlier, he’d had a dream about a woman dressed in red with shoulder-length hair who came to him on a beach he did not recognize. Without the chance to get a clear look at her face, the woman had straight away hugged him from behind, so tightly that his bones felt like they were going to break.

Only on hearing a cracking sound, along with the feeling of excruciating pain, did he then wake up.

He saw the clock on the wall still showing forty-two minutes past three. Only the sound of the clock ticking could be heard. He decided to close his eyes again and remember absolutely nothing of what had happened in his dream. But the pain in his back was still there making him change his sleeping position several times.

He managed to fall asleep and woke again at ten in the morning. Usually, he woke up in the afternoon after staying up late translating some of the manuscripts that were on his laptop. The pain in his back made him wake up early. Even though his sleep had been disturbed earlier in the day, he tried to look for possible causes of the pain.

“Maybe my sleeping position was the problem.”

“Hang on, just maybe it’s because I was sitting for too long working.”

“No, it seems to be because last night I didn’t drink enough water.”

Among the possibilities, it didn’t enter his head for a moment about his dream.

While thinking about the pain, he suddenly remembered his promise to Eka, the publisher who wanted to print his translation. He had twice asked for an extension to work on improving the translation. And in six days’ time, the deadline would expire. He also didn’t want to ask for an extension, but on the other hand, he still felt as if he wasn’t finished the translation.

While struggling against the pain in the back of his body, he walked slowly toward the bathroom holding onto the wall of the house. His steps were exactly like those of an old man who had lost his walking stick, one hand on the wall, the other on his back massaging his own lower spine.

“What’s happen? Why do you have to be sick like this, Lord?”

There wasn’t a soul in the house. In the past, he had kept a cat and it had been given the name March — the month of his birth, as well as several his favorite authors. Now, the distance to the bathroom felt like a long way for him.

He took a few steps back and dropped himself onto a brown sofa in the space that was his office. He took a deep breath returning to the quest for the correct position to ease the pain. Sitting in the chair made him feel better.

He then lifted a book from the small table next to his chair. At the table, there were several novels which he was reading and a thin notebook with a white cover that had no pictures. There were also two fountain pens he often used to take notes or make lists in his book. If not used for making notes, the fountain pen often became a way of relieving anxiety by using the end to tap on the table.

The book he was reading still had around a hundred and twenty-three pages to go before it was finished. His felt better after sitting down and reading a few pages of the book. He leaned back and let his back be swallowed softness of the chair.

All of a sudden, he felt that he wanted to do a wee but the comfortable position made him feel like not getting up. To his right, the window hadn’t been opened, so the sun’s rays weren’t fully entering the house. But he could feel a warm sensation around his thighs after he allowed himself to urinate where he was. He closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of the flow of his urine.

He only left his chair when he had finished the book.

***

After returning to read his translation, he lay down on the floor. That afternoon, after contacting his friend William who worked as a doctor at a health center, he was told not to sleep on a mattress. He didn’t want to go to bed yet, but the pain in his back was becoming worse. The only way to feel better was to lay down. Before going to bed, he once again tried contacting his girlfriend Nadira.

Two days before, Nadira had left to return to Selayar Regency to organize their wedding which was scheduled to take place in the middle of the year. But Nadira just didn’t pick up the phone, or even respond to his WhatsApp chat messages.

The day before Nadira left, the weather in Selayar had turned extremely bad causing an interruption to the signal. Yesterday, Nadira had still been able to message, she had mentioned that the weather looked as if it was becoming worse and that communication might be interrupted.

In a media report from Selayar, he saw strong winds and continually pounding high seas. There was no news from Nadira. That night he began to have a strange sensation, a sense of dread over something. His pain was sometimes forgotten when he went back to looking for news of Nadira. As he waited for a miracle, he read the chat on WhatsApp from several days before.

Reading it made him smile, then laugh to himself, until, unwittingly, he fell asleep that night holding his cell phone.

And once again, the dream reoccurred, over five consecutive nights. In the end, everything that happened in the dream was clearly recorded in his memory. He was able to remember what happened but could not recognize who the woman was or where the beach was where they were.

That night too, before going to bed he again tried to contact Nadira, to tell her about his dream and the worry that he had been holding back for several days. But again, a bad feeling pressing in on his chest. Something might have happened. The news reporting about Selayar still had no new reports after the extremely bad weather of the last few days.

The pain in his back then spread towards one place, his tailbone. That same night, he could no longer sit. He allowed himself to lie down on the floor. He looked at the ceiling of his room, noticing the lights that appeared to be glowing. The lights in the room then went out and instantly his whole body became completely paralyzed.

A few moments later, the lights came back on. Again he saw the figure of the long-haired woman dressed in red who had appeared in his dreams. Only the difference was this time he could see her face, and the woman was Nadira.

His chest felt tight, not because he was scared, but instead because the bad feeling he’d had the whole time, seemed to be coming true.

Something had happened to Nadira. The figure disappeared quickly, in just the blink of an eye. Right then he thought his body was normal again and he stood up, despite the pain in his tailbone.

His laptop was still open, the text of his translation was still not complete. There was still no news of Nadira. The pain was becoming more and more unbearable. As he rose resisting the pain, he grimaced. He felt as if his life was in chaos. A voice in his head asked him to go straight into the kitchen. A bottle of insecticide was stored behind the back of the kitchen door.

The figure he had just seen was indeed possibly his girlfriend Nadira. Death has taken her before him. He wasn’t able to translate events as well as he translated the manuscript on his laptop.

He took stumbling steps towards the bottle of poison. Now as he started to draw near, it was me who then hugged him from behind until everything in him was crushed, while it was me who had embraced Nadira before him in the high pounding waves.

Why had he not translated me first?


The Death of a Translator (Kematian Seorang Penerjemah) was published in Kompas Daily, 24 March 2019.

Wawan Kurniawan, writes poetry, short stories, essays, novels, and translations. Joined the Kompas Daily short story writing class (2015), published a book of poetry entitled Persinggahan Perangai Sepi (2013) and Sajak Penghuni Surga (2017). One of his novels entitled Seratus Tahun Kebisuan (A Hundred Years of Silence) is a Unnes International Novel Writing Contest 2017 Novel of Choice. Check out https://www.instagram.com/wawankurn/

Nyoman Sujana Kenyem, born in Ubud, Bali, 9 September 1972, Nyoman studied at STSI Denpasar (1992-1998). His solo exhibitions include A Place Behind The House at Komaneka Gallery Ubud, Bali (2016), Silence of Nature, at Lovina, Bali (2015), and his solo exhibition at G13 Gallery, Kelana Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia (2013). See https://www.instagram.com/artkenyem/

Kematian Seorang Penerjemah ilustrasi Nyoman Sujana Kenyem/Kompas

The Death of a Translator illustration by Nyoman Sujana Kenyem/Kompas Daily

Giant Turtle, Kartini Beach Jepara

Short Story: The Sufi Teacher Passed By…

By Seno Gumira Ajidarma

One ordinary sleepy day a Sufi teacher landed in Jakarta on his magic carpet at the gates of the toll road leading from Jakarta to Cengkareng International Airport. He hopped down and strolled into Jakarta as his magic carpet flew off again back up into the heavens.

It happened to be a Friday and at midday, the Sufi teacher went looking for the nearest place to perform his Friday prayers. He went into the office block he was passing and on the ground floor found a small prayer room. The usual plastic prayer mats were laid out ready for Friday prayers but the room was still empty. A man who seemed to be the prayer room attendant was getting ready to perform his prayers, so the Sufi teacher asked, “Prayer room attendant, isn’t it Friday today and shouldn’t everyone be here performing their prayers?”

kebenaran

“True. Usually, there are lots of people here on Fridays to pray. The office workers in this building prefer to pray here on the ground floor rather than go out and look for a mosque.”

“But prayer room attendant, why isn’t anyone at all here today even though it’s time for prayer?”

“Ah, they’re all praying on the ninth floor.”

“And why is that?”

“Because.., it’s air-conditioned. They say the atmosphere there is more conducive to prayer, and it’s nice and cool on the ninth floor, while down here it’s hot and sticky.”

“Ah, I see,” replied the Sufi teacher in English, nodding.

And so he and the attendant performed their prayers together by themselves with the attendant leading the devotions.

When they had finished, the Sufi teacher continued on his way looking for Gus Dur, the director of the Islamic community organization called Nahdlatul Ulama. He wanted to ask whether Americans could use the English phrase ‘good morning’ instead of the Arabic greeting ‘Assalamu alaikum’.

A month later the Sufi teacher was again going past the same building and as it happened to be right on time for midday prayer he once again entered the building.

It turned out that this time there were dozens of people preparing to pray in the small prayer room. There were so many in fact that they were spilling out of the prayer room into the lobby as the fiery sermon lambasted the spread of worldly greed.

The Sufi teacher again asked the attendant, “Prayer room attendant, why are there now so many people praying here, so many that they are overflowing into the lobby? What has become of the air-conditioned prayer room on the ninth floor?”

“Sojourner, the office workers have come back here to pray because the air conditioning is out of order, and the room which used to be so nice and cool is now unbearably hot. Because of the humidity on the ninth floor, they now want to pray here; if they are lucky they might catch a passing breeze.”

The Sufi teacher again nodded, saying in English, “I see. I see.” Then he continued, “Well then, take note prayer room attendant. Reflect on this question: Is there any difference between those who pray in an air-conditioned room and those who do not?”

The prayer room attendant was silent, and, after midday prayers were over, forever more followed the Sufi teacher wherever he went.

One day on their travels they arrived at the edge of a river somewhere in Central Java where there was no bridge. To cross to the other side it was necessary to use a small bamboo raft. The raft landing on the other side was not directly opposite and had to be reached by using a punt some way along the bank before crossing over.

Punting along the edge of the river the Sufi teacher noticed a man fishing at the edge of the river who didn’t seem to be using any bait. But even though the fisherman wasn’t using any bait, the fish were just jumping from the water by themselves and landing in the man’s basket, filling it to overflowing. As the basket filled, the local people emptied fish into their own baskets and carried them away to their homes. The villagers flocked to the fisherman’s basket.

Amazed at this sight, the Sufi teacher asked the raft keeper, “Raft keeper, who is that man by the river fishing without any bait?”

“That’s Saint Jagakali.”

“Who’s he?”

And so the raft keeper told the Sufi teacher the story of the fisherman. It was said that long ago in that village there had lived a fisherman who lived solely from the fish he caught. Every day he would take his catch, return home and cook and eat it. One day one of the fish he caught was flapping gasping on the ground near him when it had begun speaking to him.

Mesjid Cikini Raden Saleh Jakarta 1947

Mesjid Cikini Raden Saleh Jakarta 1947

“Fisherman, please let me go. Grant me a great blessing and throw me back into the river. What good can I be to you? The small amount of flesh on my tiny bones will hardly fill you.”

The fisherman was astonished, but replied, “Talking fish, why do you speak to me this way? Does a fisherman not have the right to eat a fish he catches? This is the way it has always been, and the way it always shall be.”

“But life is like a wheel,” replied the fish. “What would happen if you should die and be reborn as a fish?”

The fisherman laughed aloud and threw the speaking fish into his basket.

Finally, after the fisherman had died he was indeed reborn as a fish. On the other hand, after passing away the talking fish was also reborn, but as a fisherman.

One day the fisherman who had once been a fish caught the fish who had at one time been a fisherman. The fish who had been a fisherman was also able to speak.

“Good fisherman, I beg you to let me go because I am just a small fish and life means so much to me. My small body will hardly provide you with enough. Please throw me back into the river and set me free.”

The fisherman who had once been a fish happened to recognize that the fish he had caught was the fisherman who had once caught him.

The fisherman said, “Talking fish, do you not remember that once you were a fisherman and that once you refused to grant the request of a small fish. I am that very fish, and now you must experience what I felt that day.”

“No! Please! Haven’t you thought that one day you might be reborn yet again as a fish and I as a fisherman who might catch you? Remember that life is like a wheel, spinning around and around and around.”

“I don’t care; I desire vengeance. Aha ha ha ha ha!” responded the fisherman as he threw the fish into his basket. The fish flip-flopped backwards and forwards with slowly weakening flicks until it was finished.

In its next life, the fish did return as a man and the fisherman too returned, this time as a fish. The man who had once been a fish who had once been a fisherman did indeed become a fisherman who loved fishing more than anything in the world. But he did not forget that once he had killed a fish and had finally as a fish himself been killed by a fisherman despite his pleas for mercy. Full of reverence, he resolved to return the fish he had caught to the river.

Henceforth the fisherman fished without using any bait. The strange thing was that ever since he had decided not to use bait the fish had just leaped from the water by themselves into his basket. Even then he couldn’t bring himself to eat the fish so he allowed the local villagers to take them. As there were more fish than a fish factory the local villagers took them gratefully.

The fisherman would sit by the river day and night fishing, refusing to use any bait. He did not want to eat any of the fish and he lived solely from the dew that formed on his lips in the morning, chanting the mantras of the poet Sutardji Calzoum Bachri:

How many centuries must pass,
How many watches must stop,
How many signs must appear,
How many steps must I take,
Before I am able to reach You?

Over time, the fisherman had been given the name Saint Jagakali after the great Muslim mystic of Central Java, even though the fisherman himself had acknowledged no creed.

When the Sufi teacher and the prayer room attendant arrived at the other side of the river, the Sufi teacher thanked the raft keeper and together he and the prayer room attendant continued on their journey to East Java.

The Sufi teacher wanted to meet the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Kiai Ahmad Shiddiq, to ask the venerable teacher what he would think if Michael Jackson and Jean-Michel Jarre were to record Arabic devotional songs.

After that, the Sufi teacher wanted to summon his flying carpet and return to Isfahan. He was planning to drop into Qom and let Khomeini know that wisdom had spread to every corner of the earth. But then he remembered, the Great Teacher was already dead, so he changed his mind.

The Sufi teacher next planned to fly from East Java to Japan, but first, he wanted to take the prayer room attendant to the modern Islamic boarding school at Gontor in East Java so he could learn English. After all, a prayer room attendant in an office block in Jakarta’s ‘golden triangle’ central business district crowded with the offices of foreign investors needs to know English.

When he arrived in Japan the Sufi teacher planned to go straight to Kyoto, find a Buddhist priest, and find out how he practiced Zen.

(Jakarta, February 1990)


The Sufi Teacher Passed By… (Guru Sufi Lewat…) was published in Kompas Daily in May 1990. It also appears in Ajidarma, Seno G. Dilarang Menyanyi Di Kamar Mandi: Kumpulan Cerita Pendek. Jakarta: Subentra Citra Pustaka, 1995. Print.  Kesadaran Mitis Seno by Aprinus Salam, Humaniora No. 10 Jan-Apr 1999, p. 91.

Dilarang Menyanyi Di Kamar Mandi

Dilarang Menyanyi Di Kamar Mandi

Short Story: Karyamin’s Smile

leftphotoBy 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. The 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 damn 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 backward 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 into 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 back home from the 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 around 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 dizzy and a sea of stars would swim 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 around 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?”

        “Avoid 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.


Karyamin’s Smile (Senyum Karyamin) was published in Kompas Daily in July 1987.