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Short Story: Mrs Geni in December

Mrs Geni in December

By Arswendo Atmowiloto

For Mrs Geni every month is December. Last month, this month, or next month, they all mean December. So if you have to deal with Mrs Geni, it’s better not to rely on dates, but rather on the day. If you want to book her you have to say, “Two Fridays from this Friday.” If you say the seventeenth you could be in trouble because the seventeenth won’t necessarily be a Friday. If you book her for the seventeenth she just mightn’t show up on the day.

The problem is a great many people deal with Mrs Geni. For anyone wanting to arrange the wedding of a child there is only one choice. Mrs Geni. Bridal makeup artist. There are many other bridal makeup artists, but none that can match Mrs Geni. Even after considering the many other beauty salons, people stay with the choice of Mrs Geni.

According to past clients Mrs Geni is no ordinary makeup artist. She can transform a would-be bride and make her so beautiful she is truly stunning. Unrecognizable. One of her specialities is infusing cigarette smoke onto the face of the would-be bride. According to tradition, she explains, this is bronzing. The application of a bronze, not gold, hue to the skin. Almost every bridal makeup artist uses the technique, but none can match her skill. At one wedding the host fainted because she thought the daughter she was marrying off had disappeared. The mother of the bride-to-be fainted, the father was embarrassed, and all the relatives started to search for the bride at friends’ houses. Even after she was found, the mother of the bride-to-be could not accept it. “That is not my child. That is not my child,” she exclaimed.

“Well, if it is not your child, that makes her my child. Let’s go home.”

Only later the mother of the bride-to-be realized and said, “How is it possible my child could be as beautiful as this?”

Despite this, Mrs Geni does not always please everyone. Her voice is loud and the people who have to listen to her do become annoyed. “This child is already pregnant. Why are you hiding it? Why are you embarrassed? To have children, to be able to fall pregnant, this is a gift. This is not something to be covered up, to be squeezed down inside clothes. It’s your own child after all.”

If I am not mistaken the incident happened at the district head’s house. As a result the news spread and continued to reverberate long after the incident was over. Another wedding ceremony was almost cancelled simply because Mrs Geni could see a sad face on the bride-to-be. Usually two or three days before a ceremony Mrs Geni needs to meet the bride-to-be in person. Why not with the bridegroom-to-be? “Well, his fate rests right here doesn’t it.”

When she met the soon-to-be bride who she felt was wearing a sad face, Mrs Geni said, “Can’t be like this. You have to start off happy.” No matter that the invitations had already been sent out, the reception hall paid for in advance, and, more importantly, the food prepared. The story would not have been unusual if it had ended in cancellation. What was unusual was that two days later a bus crashed over a cliff into a gorge. It turned out that if the wedding had actually gone ahead and not been cancelled there was a big chance the bridegroom-to-be would have gone into the gorge because he had in fact planned to travel on that very bus at that very time. Mrs Geni’s story continues next with the time she was asked to prepare the makeup of the daughter of a government minister – possibly a senior coordinating minister – but she replied, “Just tell the daughter to come to my house. A lot of people here are going to be put out if I leave them.”

Last seventeenth of August, the residents of her neighborhood waited to see whether Mrs Geni would put up the national red and white flag at her house because according to Mrs Geni that was identical with the seventeenth of August. It turned out that Mrs Geni did have a flag put up. “What’s wrong with flying the flag on the seventeenth of December?” she asked.

The officials in the village were happy too because if Mrs Geni hadn’t put out the flag on the anniversary of independence there could have been a problem. On the following thirty-first of December Mrs Geni did not object to having a party at her house. But to her, the following day was not New Year’s Day, but rather the first of December again.

Many people say that Mrs Geni’s magic is to always look young. And Mrs Geni does indeed seem to have always looked the same, whether it was doing the makeup for a neighbor or doing it for her own child. Her face and presentation have been the same. Photos taken at that time are able to prove this, along with the photos taken over the succeeding twenty years. And maybe the twenty years before that.

“Marriage is the most illogical of ceremonies. It causes a lot of trouble. You all stress about working out an auspicious date, what sort of matching clothes to have, and it all has no connection with the marriage itself. Just look at the people who make the speeches at weddings, the people delivering advice to the newlyweds. That is the most boring part, the part that is listened to the least. But it is always included. That’s weddings for you.” It is somewhat odd for these words to come from Mrs Geni because she in fact makes her living from weddings. “Yes, it is strange. Isn’t marriage a strange thing. Because something strange is thought of as normal, the people who do not marry, who are widows or widowers, are even thought of as strange.”

On a different occasion Mrs Geni said, “The strange expression ‘soul mate’ hides the fear or questions that we don’t have the courage to answer. ‘Oh, such and such is my soul mate.’ We commonly speak like that. Or if it fails, ‘Oh, such and such was not my soul mate.’” Mrs Geni then laughs at length. “So, is my soul mate actually Mr Geni? Because I married Mr Geni he becomes my soul mate. Not, because Mr Geni was my soul mate therefore I married him. It would have been different if before that I hadn’t married Mr Geni. Then he wouldn’t have been my soul mate.”

Why marry Mr Geni at the time?

“Well, because it was time to get married, like everybody else.”

Does that then mean it wasn’t out of love that I married Mr Geni?

“As with soul mates, as soon as you marry, well, that has to be accepted as love. That is more important. Because if you rely on love beforehand, it might not last. What you have, that is what you love whether there is love there before or not.”

The question arises because there is word that Mr Geni is to marry again. “Yeah, don’t worry about that. And I will do the makeup for the bride,” she says easily, in a flat almost emotionless tone. “To try to forbid it would be hard and it would be useless anyway. Just let him do it.”

Maybe that is the reason Mrs Geni is still happy to do the makeup for the soon-to-be brides who are to become second or third wives. “Let people experience joy once in their lives.” For Mrs Geni marriage is joy, happiness. “If someone does not even experience joy when they marry they aren’t going to find any other joy.”

According to Mrs Geni no marriage really fails because marriage itself is not a success. “All you need is a little courage and a lot of foolishness. That is what is needed for a marriage. In order to divorce on the other hand you need to have a lot of courage and a small amount of foolishness.”

Has Mrs Geni ever thought about divorcing Mr. Geni?

“I’ve never thought about getting divorced. Have I thought about killing him? Often.”

And so, Mrs Geni, bridal makeup artist, has done the makeup for all the women in her village. You could say for everyone who has been married, as well as for those who have not. The latter Mrs Geni makes up as bodies when women pass away having never married. Before burial Mrs Geni makes them up completely. Many people do not approve. For many it is to be regretted. Still others fear being made up. “Frightened it will come to pass during the marriage. Frightened of being too happy, too free, too enjoyable, so that is why we commit ourselves to a marriage that regulates responsibilities so much, regulates obligations, including the providing of a living and the raising of children. Only it is strange, but basically we are afraid of our own happiness and restrict that through the existence of the power of God.”

Even though she says that humanity’s most restricting and frightening discovery is marriage, Mrs Geni continues to prepare people’s makeup, still uses the infusing of cigarette smoke. For someone able to make time for herself – even though it is still tied to December – Mrs Geni is able to do the makeup for people, bodies, bridal statues and trees, as well as buffaloes. Mrs Geni also chants the bridal mantra, breathes the three breaths onto the crown of the bride’s head, with the same seriousness she uses to fast before making someone up. “Let the buffaloes experience happiness, just as we have believed all this time that marriage is happiness.”

Fortunately all of this only happens in December.


Mrs Geni in December (Bu Geni di Bulan Desember) by Arswendo Atmowiloto was first published in the national daily newspaper Harian Kompas on 20 May 2012. Retrieved from https://cerpenkompas.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/bu-geni-di-bulan-desember/

Featured image credit: “Tribute to Arswendo Atmowiloto” by Karikatoer (Khoirul Anwar), https://www.instagram.com/karikatoer/

Short Story: The Laughter of the Girl from the Garbage Dump

The Laughter of the Girl from the Garbage Dump

By Ahmad Tohari

Korep, Carmi, and Driver Dalim are three of the many people who frequently visit the garbage dump on the outskirts of town. Dalim is definitely an adult, the driver of one of the yellow garbage trucks, with a crew of two. He is a civil servant, and he likes to take his thick-framed glasses off, and then put back on again. Carmi is really still too young to be called a young lady. Korep is a boy with a scar from a past injury above his eye. Together they are the youngest of the garbage scavengers among the people at the dump.

Driver Dalim is actually a garbage scavenger too. He manages his two assistants so they scavenge the best second-hand goods while the garbage is still on the truck. The instruction is given especially when his truck is transporting the garbage from the mansions on What’s It Called Street. The leather belt that Driver Dalim is wearing is also scavenged. He says it’s made in France and was thrown away by its owner just because it had a small scratch. He also says that the majority of the people who live in those mansions only want to use the best goods, without the smallest mark whatsoever.

When Korep and Carmi arrive at the garbage dump, the stench isn’t so noticeable yet. The sun’s rays are still being blocked by the trees on the eastern side, so the garbage dump isn’t sizzling yet. Later around midday, the garbage dump will be boiling as the stench rises and fills the air. Driver Dalim often reminds Carmi and Korep not to hang around in the middle of the dump. “A lot of scavengers have died from sickness, their lungs diseased,” he says. Who knows why, but Driver Dalim feels the need to remind Carmi and Korep. He himself doesn’t know why he feels close to the two children. Maybe it’s because Korep and Carmi are the two youngest scavengers at the garbage dump.

Dozens of scavengers are already gathered on the southern side. They’re waiting for the garbage truck to arrive. A female scavenger puts a cigarette butt between her lips then moves among the others asking for a light. A hand stretches out towards her mouth. A match lights and smoke starts to unfurl. But the woman then screams. Apparently the hand of the man holding out the match has then tweaked her cheek. She chases the man and pinched his back. They wrestle. All of a sudden there appears a happy spectacle. Korep and Carmi join in the shouting. There are bursts of cheering and boisterous shouting. It becomes so noisy that the sparrows foraging for food on the ground suddenly all fly away together into the air. A dog feels disturbed and disappears quickly behind a garbage excavator, long since broken down and now also garbage.

Driver Dalim wheels in his truck. And in an instant the atmosphere changes. The crowd of garbage scavengers scatters. They run behind until the truck stops. The moment the rubbish is tipped out there erupts a chaotic noisy scene. Dozens of scavengers including Korep and Carmi transform, like a pen full of hungry chickens tossed feed, they struggle, push past each other, shove and nudge past each other. They scramble to scavenge through the garbage for anything at all, except for diapers, pads or dead rats.

Korep finds two half-rotten mangoes. Carmi has a different story. Carmi’s eyes are struck when an object falls from the back of the truck onto her head. It’s the right-hand shoe of a good pair of shoes of a reasonable size. Carmi picks up the shoe straight away. Oh, she has often dreamed of wearing shoes like this. In her dream, Carmi sees her calves are clean and large, and more beautiful because of the shoes. Carmi is really excited She picks through the pile of garbage more excitedly with her hands to find the left shoe. Sweat runs down her forehead and cheeks, but Carmi fails. So she straightened her back looking around; maybe the other shoe is over there. Or maybe it’s been found by another scavenger. Fail again. So Carmi stops and leaves the rubbish heap. She even throws back the three used plastic bottled water glasses she has found.

At the edge of the garbage dump, she tries on the shoe on her right foot. Her heart flutters again because the shoe feels so comfortable on her foot. She takes it off again and cleans it with scrunched up newspaper. After it’s a little cleaner, she puts it back on again. Carmi stands up, turns, and lifts her right foot up so she can inspect carefully how the shoe looks on her foot. She really hopes that tomorrow or whenever the left shoe arrives at this garbage dump. Who knows. Yes, who knows. Can’t anything at all turn up here?

Korep comes over and straight away laughs at what his friend is doing. Carmi disapproves. She is offended but does not want to respond to Korep’s behavior. Or Carmi’s eyes are attracted more to the two mangoes in Korep’s hands. Carmi is relieved that Korep is responsive. What’s more, Korep does not continue to talk about the shoe on her right foot.

“Let’s just eat mangoes. Come on,” Carmi suggests as she places the single lone shoe into a yellow plastic bag. Korep grins, but he too is interested in Carmi’s idea. So Korep and Carmi move to the eastern side where there is a shady tropical almond tree. Korep takes out a small knife he was given by Driver Dalim. He has one mango in the left hand. In one smooth action, the mango is cut open right up to the part that is rotten. Carmi stares at the freshly-cut, bright yellow surface. Carmi salivates but then shudders as two maggots emerge from the surface of the cut. Korep laughs then makes another incision, deeper. This time the rotten part of the mango is completely gone. “Who says half-rotten mangoes aren’t tasty to eat, right?” says Korep as he offers a slice of the mango flesh that is not rotten to Carmi. “Yeah, right?” Carmi just laughs. Korep stares at the row of Carmi’s teeth that are indeed nice to look at.

***

Every day Carmi carries a yellow plastic sack containing the right shoe. Eventually, everyone finds out that the little girl is still waiting for the left shoe. They feel sorry for her. It’s almost impossible. But to Carmi all garbage scavengers promise they will help her. Driver Dalim even has an amazing idea. He is going to instruct his truck crew of two to go to every house on What’s It Called Street. He’s going to tell both to ask the maids, the drivers, or the gardeners there if they know where the left shoe is which Carmi is waiting for.

But Driver Dalim’s brilliant idea does not need to be carried out. A few days after Carmi discovers the right shoe, Driver Dalim is tricked by his two assistants. At the time he is driving the truck along the highway. Suddenly before his eyes, outside the cabin window, there is a left shoe bobbing up and down. Obviously, the shoe is tied to a long rope with the end being held by his assistants on the back of the truck. Driver Dalim immediately steps on the brake. The tires screech on the surface of the asphalt road. On the back of the truck, his two helpers sway and tumble forward.

Driver Dalim jumps down, immediately takes off his glasses. The truck’s crew of two also climb down. One of them handed the left shoe to Driver Dalim who then smiles broadly. Holding the handle of his glasses, he gives praise to God as many as three times.

“Where did you find it?”

“Yes, in the garbage bin in front of the houses on What’s It Called Street. Forget what number it is.”

“No matter. Where you found the left shoe isn’t important.”

Driver Dalim stops talking because he wants to take off his glasses and put them back one again. Now he rubs his brow, obviously thinking hard. Driver Dalim’s behavior makes his two helpers wonder. What’s he thinking about now? Isn’t there only one thing left, to deliver the left shoe to Carmi?

“Later you give the shoe to Carmi.” This is Driver Dalim’s instruction to the helper who is wearing short pants. The person appointed glances up because he’s a bit surprised.
“It would be better for you to do it, Mr. Dalim.”

“Yes, that’s right. It would be better if it were you, Mr. Dalim,” says the helper wearing trousers, backing up his friend. Driver Dalim sighed then takes of his glasses. Before replacing them again, he speaks in a hushed voice.

“Ah, you don’t know. The thing is, I didn’t have the heart to see Carmi the moment she receives the shoe. Carmi might jump up and down, laugh, or even scream with excitement. Her eyes might sparkle, or on the other hand, she might become teary. Ah, just because of a second-hand shoe taken from a trash can, Carmi’s heart will glow. I wouldn’t have the heart to watch it. It will be very bitter. Do you two have the heart? ”

Without waiting for the answer, Driver Dalim changes his mind. The left shoe will be placed under the tropical almond tree on the eastern side of the garbage dump. Carmi and Korep often rest there in the middle of the day. Everyone agrees so Driver Dalim jumps up into the cabin holding the left shoe. The two helpers climb onto the back and the truck heads off towards the garbage dump.

When the sun is right over the garbage dump, all the scavengers move to the four sides to arrange the results of their scavenging, placing it all into sacks or tying it up with nylon rope. Carmi also moves to the side. She has found dozens of used plastic drinking water glasses, arranging them neatly so that they are easy to carry. In her left hand, there is still a yellow plastic sack containing the right shoe. Along with Korep, who is carrying a bunch of half-rotten mangoes, Carmi moves toward the eastern side headed for the shade of the tropical almond tree.

When the air at the garbage dump is extremely hot and there is no wind, a foul odor spreads out everywhere. The sparrows flock in and the dogs too. Who then is there to hear Carmi laugh out loud then scream hooray over and over again? Her loud laughter feels like an outpouring of overflowing happiness that moves the heart.

Those who hear Carmi’s laughter are the dozens of garbage scavengers in the rubbish dump. And it is only them who are able to truly understand and fully appreciate the laughter of the scavenger girl. So behold, the scavengers stand and smile as they watch Carmi and Korep leave the garbage dump. Carmi laughs, of course, because there is a pair of shoes on her feet. But where could the two garbage scavengers want to go? Every person at the garbage dump knows that Carmi and Korep do not have a home to go to. (*)


The Laughter of the Girl from the Garbage Dump (Tawa Gadis Padang Sampah) by Ahmad Tohari was published in the daily newspaper Kompas on 21 Agustus 2016. [Retrieved from https://lakonhidup.com/2016/08/21/tawa-gadis-padang-sampah/.] Ahmad Tohari was born in Banyumas on 13  June 1948. He now lives in the village of Tinggarjaya, Jatilawang, Purwokerto in Central Java province. His most popular work is the novel trilogy The Ronggeng Dancer of Paruk Hamlet (Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk). His collections of short stories include Karyamin’s Smile (Senyum Karyamin), Night Song (Nyanyian Malam), and Eyes Lovely to Behold (Mata yang Enak Dipandang). Other works include the novels Kubah (1982), Di Kaki Bakit Cibalak (1977), Bekisar Merah (1993), Lingkar Tanah Lingkar Air (1995), Belantik (2001), and Orang-orang Proyek (2002). The short story They Spelt The Begging Ban (Mereka Mengeja Larangan Mengemis) was published in Kompas daily on 15 September 2019.

Featured image credit: Life Must Go On! by Ubay Amri Nur.

Short Story: Letter For Wai Tsz

Letter For Wai Tsz

By Leila L. Chudori

The weather in Jakarta seems to be reflecting the state of the nation, hot and sticky, not a tree anywhere to shade under. As for myself, I don’t know why I suddenly thought of writing you a letter. I know all too well that in our graduate newsletter Keep In Touch they’re always mentioning that you’re one of the graduates who hasn’t been seen since Tiananmen. But I live in hope because I will always believe that God will stretch out his hand and protect you. Your last letter, the one smelling of rotten vegetables and dried fish, the one you seemed to have sent from somewhere in the outskirts of Beijing, just before your escape – so heroic, so inspiring – more and more makes me feel so small, so insignificant.

Dear Wai Tsz,

It’s been exactly fourteen years since the four of us were gazing up at the stars, since you, Finn, Maria, and I made that promise. We promised that we would not get married until we had reached those stars.

Our roommate Finn, with her long Snow White blonde hair and blue eyes, told us that her life’s mission was located in the constellation of Andromeda.

“What I want is for men and women to have the same rights. And I think that’s an ideal we all share,” she said in her romantic way.

Our Danish roommate’s idealism was really extremely annoying, and because of that I couldn’t be bothered talking about the problem of the completely rampant poverty and corruption in my own country. It would have been very hard to make her understand. Could you just see it, with her own country so rich and peaceful, how could she have begun to imagine?

Then I remember that Maria from the Philippines said with her firm, self-confident voice, “I long for change in my country, and I hope that I can be a part of that change.” And straight away you and I yelled out trying to be first, “I wanted to say that too!”

“Come on! How could Indonesia have any problems? Your economy is wonderful compared to ours,” Maria replied. “And you, Wai Tsz, China is a sleeping giant that’s just beginning to wake up. When she’s standing up on her own feet, Western countries will be lapped up in one gulp. The Philippines is the only one with such an uncertain future under a president like Marcos…”

But as it transpired the first country to see the smoldering embers of democracy burst into flame was her own country, the Philippines. And just as she had wanted, Maria was a part of the process of bringing democracy to her country. I remember when she sent a newspaper clipping showing her and a group of friends from the University of the Philippines in the middle of that historic demonstration in Edsa Road. It was like a movie. I imagined our roommate, Maria, the one who couldn’t even get up in the morning, now part of such momentous change in her country. Image. She became part of the Philippines’ peaceful revolution in February 1986 when Marcos was finally forced to flee to Hawaii, and a widow finally moved into the presidential office. As all this was going on, for me her neighbor, nothing had changed. I was working for the largest news magazine in my country naively thinking that here everything was nice and peaceful and prosperous. I thought, well, at least it wasn’t as bad as some of the countries that some of our campus friends had come from where there were several coups every year.

Wai Tsz, after we graduated, I came home again to breathe our pollution-filled air and I became a journalist. You went home to breathe your own pollution-filled air in Beijing and you transformed into a human rights activist.

The interesting thing about your country was that as soon as your country opened up and allowed in a handful of American companies, everyone began to say that this was Deng’s great breakthrough. When Chinese students were allowed to read translations of Milan Kundera and watch James Bond movies, it was as if democracy had started to arrive in China. One of your spirited letters related how interesting Fang Lizhi’s lectures were, how he had no hesitation at all using words like “democracy” and “freedom”. But it was only after Tiananmen happened that we realized that the so-called breakthrough talked about by Western experts was just an immensely simplified view of the problem.

Meanwhile, Wai Tsz, in my own country, new economic policies were being implemented which produced hundreds of new banks, new buildings, new companies, new television stations, new rich people, new cars, still more new policies, even more new buildings, more highways, ever more even richer people, and other, oh, absolutely astonishing, truly astounding…

All of this, Wai Tsz, in fact turned us into journalists. Supposedly professional, agile, flexible, competitive, head in the clouds. It made us forget a lot about humanity. For example, yeah, for example, in planning meetings to talk about a war in some country somewhere, we would sit around like a bunch of know-all football commentators abusing one of the “stupid” players as we ate fried chicken and laughed. And, really what we were talking about was the fate of thousands of women and children being slaughtered in the country. This profession made me, just as Professor Humphrey had predicted – he didn’t agree with my choice of becoming a journalist – turned us into “know-alls who don’t know much about anything”.

Professor Humphrey wasn’t completely right, but I have to agree that in a couple of cases he wasn’t too far wrong either. This profession set me up in an ivory tower, made me look at the people as a news item, part of a “deadline”, a conversation on a mobile phone, as no more than a series of meaningless statistics. Tiananmen, an event that was so important for you, was a moral movement. But for us, it was nothing more than a bit of excitement, a fresh infusion of adrenaline, a new pump keeping our journalistic blood circulating. I almost forgot that for years I had a roommate who was probably still on the run, still hiding in garbage bins on the edge of the city. Wai Tsz, where are you?

In your last letter, after the events of June 1989, that smelly smudged letter, I read your handwriting through the ink which had run, “Nadira, help us through your writing.”

Oh, Wai Tsz, I am so ashamed. For sure we wrote about, we covered, we photographed the events in your country proudly. But I am not convinced that the hundreds of journalists who swarmed to cover those events were moved by concern. Maybe there were some who were, but the others were driven by competition, the desire to get an exclusive, and maybe even out of a desire to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize.

Then, this year arrived, 1997, and suddenly I received a shock…

Only now in the midst of so many corporate collapses, bankruptcies, millions of people losing their jobs, bank liquidations, hoarding of food that sends prices soaring, newspaper companies complaining about never-ending increases in the price of paper, student demonstrations, mothers protesting the increases in the price of milk, only now have I again become “human”. Only now have I thought of you. Only now have I thought about our walks along the banks of the Otonabee River, recalled our arguments about equality and about the differences between the East and the West, and, oh, how I remember the Galaxy Theory you explained to me that time you tried to cheer me up after you found me crying. You made me lie down on the grass and look up at the stars.

“At times of sadness and pain, Nadira, fly up to one of those galaxies and leave the Earth. Then from way up there, look back and the Earth will seem so small that you will wonder what on earth you are crying about. After that, fly back to Earth, take a deep breath and the problem will be solved.”

Wai Tsz, your Galaxy Theory was so simple, and so good for so many reasons. But it won’t be any use for the problems of my country, or for the problems of your country. I have never before been as hopeless as I am now. I have never felt as powerless as I do now. Every day I open the window and I hear the complaints of ordinary mothers about the rising price of food, of people who have just lost their jobs, hear news about the speculators dancing for joy with every fall in the value of the currency. Hundreds and hundreds of people have suddenly become actors, smiling sweetly in front of the television cameras saying how much they love the nation.

William Shakespeare was truly a genius when he wrote: All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players, They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.

Do you remember when Professor Johnson read this verse from As You Like It? Am I becoming a useless melancholic character like Jacques?

I can see Shakespeare doubled up in stitches laughing because the world, the stage for this drama, is full of nothing but a rabble of idiots. According to me the stage for this drama is full of people whose acting skills are terrifyingly good. Every morning the papers are full of stories about our economic problems but even the people complaining are still running around scratching for rupiah to exchange for foreign currency, still feeding on the corpse of other people’s suffering.

Wai Tsz, why was I born in a community which created such a meaningful word for community duty as our own word gotong royong but which is in reality just a collection of completely selfish individuals? My heart is broken. If I had been as selfish maybe I would already have flown off to join our friends chasing ever higher qualifications in the United States. But when all’s said and done, my heart is here, Wai Tsz, planted firmly here, rooted firmly in this soil. No matter how strong, there isn’t a crowbar or a hoe that could dislodge my heart from this land.

For months, Wai Tsz, I have been afflicted by horrible nightmares, more like Salvador Dali visions than dreams. One night I dreamed I had fallen from a skyscraper and even though all my limbs came off, I was still alive. Another night I dreamed my hands were chained together and the ends of my legs were being eaten by a pack of black dogs. And another night I was suddenly transported to an empty field where hundreds of crows were attempting to suck my baby from my stomach. To try to stop these dreams I bought a pile of comics. I thought it would make me laugh. In fact, all that happened was I laughed so hard I cried.

Wai Tsz, I remember the time you said, “Something started with a good intention and a good conscience is always harder to believe in than something started with a bad intention.”

Maybe that is the reason people find it hard to believe that a protest movement could be driven by conscience. Maybe the word conscience is not used very much these days, or maybe it’s time to archive it forever in some dusty old museum.

Wai Tsz, where are you? Pretending to be a shop assistant? Or teaching in a tiny primary school in some far away village? Or maybe you’re actually still hiding somewhere in Beijing? I have no idea whether you will ever read this letter. I will send it to your old address in Beijing. Wai Tsz, wherever you are, if you do not get to read this letter, I am sure you have read what is in my heart.

Your friend, Nadira. (Jakarta, November 1997)

 


The short story “Letter for Wai Tsz” (Surat Untuk Wai Tsz) was published in the Jakarta daily newspaper Kompas in March 1999. The story was written about six months prior to, and published some ten months after, the resignation of President Suharto in May 1998. For background on Tiananmen Square see the Washington Post’s 2019 commemorative anniversary piece A massacre, erased. For background on the controversy surrounding the use of the term “people power” in Indonesia after the April 2019 elections see People power is dead, long live people power.

Short Story: Shoot Seven People Dead

Shoot Seven People Dead

By Ahmad Tohari

Dar farewells me with a firm grip. Then he turns and walks away saying he wants to go home to Jakarta and return to editing a famous periodical. But a moment later, he looks back, before approaching me once more.

“One more time. Are you still sure that what I did was my fate?” Dar asks with a solemn face.

I smile and shake my head. He has asked me the question many times, every time we meet. I just answered the question two minutes ago.

“You mean what you did when you shot seven people dead at the same time? How many times do I have to answer? The event happened fifty-four years ago. Whatever happens is called fate,” I answer, also serious.

“So you’re still sure?”

“Very.”

Dar looks at me but his face is still worried. Then he turns his large tall frame. Unfortunately, he walks away with steps that are not nearly as bold as the figure he cuts. I think Dar is overweight. And like me, he too is greying. What’s certain is that fifty-four years ago Dar and I were both in the final year of secondary school.

Today we’re taking our leave in the yard of a small food shop. Dar ordered rawon beef and rice soup, the oil floating on coconut-cream sauce glistening with fat.

***

The volleyball is fed in and Dar smashes it with a movement at least two seconds faster than the team on the other side of the net are expecting. The ball fires unobstructed into the other team’s court. A roar explodes, especially from the female students watching. Virtually all the girls in our school always go for Dar on the volleyball court, and maybe off it too. Dar again becomes the center of attention as he prepares to serve. But this time, we have to wait as someone calls him off the court. A cry of disappointment goes up from a group of female students. The person calling Dar off is someone we all know well. Along with two of his friends, this person often takes us for marching practice. And he uses tough discipline. He also teaches us how to raise and lower the flag. In fact, this trainer also teaches a special group of students, including Dar who is tall, how to crawl. Not any ordinary crawling, but how to crawl while you’re carrying a rifle, and gripping a commando knife between your teeth. So brave. That’s the way to storm enemy territory. And also how to disassemble and assemble a weapon. This activity makes the smaller, shorter ones among us feel jealous and insignificant compared to Dar.

Still at the side of the volleyball court, the trainer hands Dar a rifle that doesn’t have a magazine. Then with a tough-looking face, the trainer salutes bravely. This helps create an air full of heroism. We grow even more jealous of Dar, and I know the female students are going to admire the tall guy even more. Finally Dar goes back onto the court, now wearing the rifle, even though it doesn’t have a magazine.

From what Dar tells us, we learn that the weapon is an automatic rifle. It is called a Kalashnikov, or AK-47, and it is made in Russia. Gunfire from the weapon sprayed horizontally, says Dar, can bring down a banana tree trunk by making a gash like a machete slash. And one magazine full of bullets fired vertically can split the trunk from top to the bottom, making a cut like a machete slice too. Yes, Dar’s story about the fantastic rifle always manages to make us seem even more insignificant. Although Dar is still a high school child like us, we really believe he has actually done everything he tells us about.

Once the volleyball court is vacated by the hero, it is as if all our enthusiasm has evaporated. All the more so as the female students also move away. I still remember him. And of course Dar receives more, and more exciting, training. Dar relates that the person training us has asked him to enroll in the military academy later. So he will have to do heaps of physical training. Dar just says yes to the trainer to make sure there are no bad feelings. But in fact Dar has told me he really wants to become a painter.

***

Dar is picked up. And as their journey takes them into the teak forest, he asks the person who met him, “Where are we going?” Dar receives the reply. “A great task lies ahead of you over there. Only a great youth could gain the opportunity to carry out such a great task. Not even me in fact.”

Although he isn’t satisfied with the answer, Dar is actually reluctant to push for an explanation.

The jeep travels slowly, crawling through the shadows cast by the trees. It stops where the narrow road runs along the edge of a steep embankment. There are several unarmed men standing together down there. Below the edge, only a few meters away, a river flows swiftly. As the sun is already low in the west, Dar and the others are frequently struck by the glare of the bright sunlight reflecting from the water’s surface.

The trainer hands Dar a full magazine loaded with bullets. Dar accepts it with a show of boldness. Without hesitation, he skillfully mounts the magazine. From the open end, the bullets are visible. They’re pointed, copper-headed, reddish in color. The size of fingers. Dar tells me that the bullets burst as soon as they hit their target. If they’re targeted at somebody’s back, the wound is a gaping hole as large as the hole in the back of a kuntilanak vampire. That’s what Dar tells all of his high school friends. Fifty-four years ago.

The trainer smiles as he gives Dar the thumbs up. Dar returns the smile. When the trainer snaps a dashing salute to Dar, he responds with the same enthusiasm. Then Dar and the trainer take a few steps descending the embankment. About five meters in front of them, a woven bamboo panel is visible being held upright by stakes at both ends. Along the center of the woven panel is a thick white horizontal line about two meters long.

Dar senses that he is confronting something and a situation which he does not comprehend. “What is all of this?” he asks.

And the man answers flatly, “I am going to test your accuracy. Please fire at the white line until you’re out of bullets. Let’s go, champ!”

Dar’s face warms because he feels that he has been presented with a challenge. He takes a deep breath, moves his left leg forward, and leans to the front slightly. He raises the AK-47. His palms are moist. He consciously assumes a brave firing pose. Right index finger tightens on the trigger. Rat-a, tat, tat, tat, tat. Instantly the thick white line on the woven bamboo panel is erased by the spray of bullets.

There follows a second of perfect quiet. In that moment, Dar almost screams for joy because he feels that he has become a great marksman. But a moment later, complete confusion descends. Words fail him as he notices a blotch of blood seeping through the tear in the woven bamboo there before him. He also hears something collapse. He throws down the AK-47 and runs to see what is behind the wall. Several bodies are slumped over, covered in blood. Two are rolling down toward the river. Then two splashes sound out and the river instantly becomes red. Dar suddenly feels dizzy. He sways, then faints.

***

Dar and I meet again a few months later at the small food stall, Dar once again about to return to Jakarta. His stomach is fat and I chide him, “You should eat less. If you don’t, you won’t have a long life.”

Dar defends himself. “Actually I’ve suffered from memory loss all my life because I once shot seven people dead. When I eat, I can forget I have memory problems. That’s all. I won’t ever stop liking food. And I’m also going to keep asking you if you’re still sure that what I did then was fate.”

“Yes. It was fate! It’s a deep scar! It’s our curse!” I answer rather loudly. But the words make my flesh crawl and I can’t hold back the tears.

***

Maybe Dar’s excuse is right, that by eating all the time he can forget the deep emotional injury. But why does he have to eat another rawon beef and rice soup, and then another? Finishing the large bowl of soup, he stands up as if he wants to assume a comfortable position to belch. I stand up too, but not to burp. Instead, I stroke his belly. “You have to take care of your stomach so it doesn’t get any bigger. That’s if you don’t want to die early.”

The fact is it’s just a joke. And Dar and I laugh together. But maybe it’s bad luck or something, because later it turns out that my words are definitely no joke at all. A few days later, I hear the news that Dar has suffered a stroke. Of course I want to go and visit him in Jakarta right away. But before I can leave, more news arrives. Dar has passed away.

Oh Lord, fifty-four years ago, Dar shot seven people dead. And today he passed away. Well, what can I say? There definitely isn’t any need for me to ask for forgiveness for Dar because You are All Knowing.

 


Ahmad Tohari, “Shoot Seven People Dead” (Menembak Mati Tujuh Orang) was published in the Central Java daily newspaper Suara Merdeka on 13 October 2019. [Retrieved from https://lakonhidup.com/2019/10/13/menembak-mati-tujuh-orang]

Ahmad Tohari was born in Banyumas on 13  June 1948. He now lives in the village of Tinggarjaya, Jatilawang, Purwokerto in Central Java province. His most popular work is the novel trilogy Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk [The Ronggeng Dancer of Paruk Hamlet]. His collections of short stories include Karyamin’s Smile (Senyum Karyamin), Nyanyian Malam, dan Mata yang Enak Dipandang. Other works include the novels Kubah (1982), Di Kaki Bakit Cibalak (1977), Bekisar Merah (1993), Lingkar Tanah Lingkar Air (1995), Belantik (2001), and Orang-orang Proyek (2002). The short story They Spelt The Begging Ban (Mereka Mengeja Larangan Mengemis) was published in Kompas daily on 15 September 2019.

Nasi Rawon

Nasi Rawon

Featured image credit: VOXSPORTS VOXER, 17th ASEAN University Games : Volleyball (M) – Singapore vs Indonesia, Photography by Lim Yong Teck (SUSC)

 

 

 

Short Story: Funny Story About Gun Shots

Funny Story About Gun Shots

By Surya Gemilang

Pajenong was putting on deodorant in front of the mirror, listening to the newsreader on television describe the mounting number of rape cases across the city over the past year, when Sarimin’s gun suddenly pumped a bullet into the back of his head. Pajenong collapsed instantly.

Having sneaked into the apartment and quietly watched the owner from under the bed, Sarimin crawled out and examined Pajenong’s cellphone. The cellphone screensaver was showing Date with Vianna at nine o’clock at Cafe X, written in white Times New Roman font against a black background.

To get to the phone desktop, Sarimin would have to enter the correct PIN. If Sarimin succeeded in entering the correct PIN, he was definitely going to send a message to Vianna saying, “Sorry, honey, I can’t make our date today. All of a sudden I want to break up with you. By the way, I think Sarimin is the most suitable man for you.” Sarimin then tried entering a number of PINs at random. When Pajenong’s cellphone was blocked, Sarimin threw it through the open window. She couldn’t have cared less about the head of anyone who might have been hit by the cellphone as it plunged freely from a height of ten stories.

In the end Sarimin didn’t know what else to do. Initially he had intended to come into Pajenong’s apartment armed with a gun, but with absolutely no plan to kill him. He planned only to emerge from under the bed suddenly, scare Pajenong, force him to cancel his date with Vianna, and force him to break up with her. But the sudden anger eating away inside his head had made Sarimin reach out uncontrollably from under the bed and shoot Pajenong in the back of the head, without time to think about how to secure his victim’s body, or how to save himself if he were pursued by the police.

What Sarimin did then, after staring at the clock on the wall showing seven o’clock in the evening, was to move quickly toward Pajenong’s body and kick him violently with the result that he hurt his own foot. Sarimin considered the kicks revenge for the rape that Pajenong had committed against Vianna. Then Sarimin fired the remaining six bullets in his gun until Pajenong’s head was completely destroyed. He thought of the shots as an outlet for his frustration, because he just could not understand why Vianna had wanted to date the man who had raped her.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door to Pajenong’s apartment. The sound of gunfire must have caught the attention of someone who happened to be near the door. A terrible jolt instantly struck Sarimin’s heart because he wasn’t ready to go to prison at all. A cold sweat broke out and began to run down his body as if his skin was leaking.

Then a moment later there was another knock at the door, louder this time. Straight away Sarimin moved quickly to close the bedroom door, turn off the television, and roll Pajenong’s body under the bed. He returned Pajenong’s deodorant to its original place after cleaning off the blood with some tissues. Then he cleaned away the traces of the death from the floor with a towel that he grabbed from the wardrobe and hurled it under the bed too.

Sarimin thought about stepping quietly to the door and peeking at the person who was knocking. But hearing the next much louder knock made him change his mind about approaching the door because he felt the knocking sounded threatening, like the knock of a debt collector on the door of the house of a debtor who hasn’t made any payments on a debt for a very long time. 

Sarimin regretted that he’d used up all his bullets. The regret was just as heavy as when he’d expressed his love to Vianna two weeks ago, resulting in the complete destruction of the friendship they’d been hiding for years out of shame. “Oh, if only that night I had decided to stay quiet, Vianna would not have become angry. She wouldn’t have run out of the house, wouldn’t have met Pajenong in the middle of the road, wouldn’t have been raped in the car. And it wouldn’t have led to the murder I committed here that day,” Sarimin thought.

This time the door didn’t sounded like someone knocking, rather it sounded like someone bashing hard. But it hadn’t come off its hinges yet. Sarimin’s heart almost flew out the open window, which if used to escape now, would definitely mean he was committing suicide. Sarimin also glanced around, looking for anything he could use to save himself, baseball bat, golf club, lamp stand.

Being hit with one of those objects should be quite painful. But it immediately crosses his mind that all that might not necessarily save him if it turned out there were more than one person waiting on the other side of the door. He wondered if maybe he should explain carefully to the person banging on the door that Pajenong deserved to be killed, exactly because he raped Vianna and had then arrogantly called him to boast about the rape?

But killing was just as bad, Sarimin continued thinking to himself. Finally Sarimin’s gaze fell on a large wardrobe. Just as there was the sound of the front door being smashed down, Sarimin without thinking climbed inside the wardrobe. The sweet fragrance of all Pajenong’s clothes fills the inside of the closet, reminding him of the scent of the fragrant flowers sprinkled on to a coffin.

Then he began to hear the sound of footsteps outside. Very light footsteps, as if the owner of the feet were trying to step through the air before ambushing an opponent from above. Even though Sarimin was very frightened, he was still able to focus on what he was hearing, and he could conclude that it was the sound of one person’s footsteps. There could not be more than that. And because there was only one person, Sarimin should be able to climb out of the cupboard right then and fight the person, or simply point a gun at him as he stepped away from the apartment. But neither of these possibilities would be easy. The person out there had to be a strong and brave person, as evidenced by how he was brave enough to break into the apartment.

A few moments later the sound of footsteps suddenly disappeared. There was no way the person had left the apartment. If he had gone, what Sarimin should have heard was the sound of footsteps growing softer and softer, then disappearing, rather than vanishing all at once. The person must be able to fly! Then the door to the wardrobe could be heard being locked from the outside.

***

Vianna had been going to shoot Pajenong when they met at Cafe X at nine o’clock later that night, without caring what the people around her would do. But Vianna had been in a hurry and wasn’t able wait to slay Pajenong because she was so angry. So she had decided to take a taxi and go straight to the apartment of her ex-boyfriend armed with a gun, where the radio was broadcasting the news of the continuing increase in the number of rape cases in the city over the past year. She arrived at her destination at seven o’clock in the evening.

As no one would open the door, Vianna pounded on the door to Pajenong’s apartment until it broke. She surprised herself that she could be that strong. Instead of finding a surprised Pajenong, Vianna discovered that there was no one there. Maybe Pajenong had sensed that she was going to come and kill him, so he was hiding now. The woman then stepped inside very slowly, as if she was stepping through the air before ambushing Pajenong from above.

Pajenong’s apartment was not very large, so it did not take Vianna long to finish searching every corner. She found no one. Not even under the bed. As she sat on the edge of the bed, Vianna wondered whether Pajenong was had been so eager for their date that he had already left for Cafe X?

Suddenly something somehow made her gaze lock onto the wardrobe. Her body suddenly shivered. With a silent step, Vianna approached the cupboard, then locked the door. Next she took several steps back, drew a deep breath, and pumped out the seven bullets in her gun.

Blood dripped from the crack under the cupboard door.

Vianna smiled coldly, dropped her gun on the floor, then left the apartment feeling peaceful.

***

Vianna still went to Cafe X at nine that evening. She celebrated her glorious victory by ordering expensive food. While waiting for the food she had ordered, she took out her cellphone, looked up a trusted news site, and read the news about the continuing increase in rape cases in the city over the past year.

She suddenly missed Sarimin and imagined the man sitting across from her. She thought, “Ah, I shouldn’t have been angry at the time. There’s nothing wrong with him falling in love…”

Just as the food arrived, Vianna noticed a well-dressed man enter the cafe. The man waved at her as he approached. Vianna’s breath suddenly froze. And she almost passed out as Pajenong sat down in front of her, face covered in freshly-dried scars.

 


Surya Gemilang, Funny Story About Gun Shots (Humor Tentang Tembakan-Tembakan) was published in Kompas daily newspaper on 8 March 2020. [Retrieved from https://lakonhidup.com/2019/10/13/menembak-mati-tujuh-orang]

Surya Gemilang was born in Denpasar, Bali, on March 21, 1998. His books include: Chasing Shooting Stars (Mengejar Bintang Jatuh) (a collection of short stories, 2015), How to Love Monsters (Cara Mencintai Monster) (a collection of poems, 2017), A Taste of Death (Mencicipi Kematian) (a collection of poems, 2018), and Looking for a Head for Mother (Mencari Kepala untuk Ibu) (a collection of short stories, 2019). His other writings can be found in more than 10 mixed anthologies and numerous media publications.

Featured image credit: Cafe Batavia by Prayitno