Sway of the swing

The breeze passing through the leaves sounded like the pitter-patter of rain. The weather slowly became colder. A few seconds later, the atmosphere changed into something subtler and emptier, leaving the sort of silence that felt like eternity.

On the edge of the moonlight that was split by bamboo reeds, two people held hands and hesitantly walked toward the lush forest.

“Is this the right path?” the girl asked as she wiped her sweaty forehead.

The person beside her gave a slight nod, although his movement was unclear. “Indeed, this is,” he replied.

They went deeper into the forest while having to remove the twigs hindering their way. Sometimes, their steps were stopped by things moving around them. They thought there were night beasts lurking around, but actually it was only their fear. Right before reaching their destination, the forest appeared even denser. After trying so hard to clear their pathway, eventually they arrived before a wide overlay of dry land. Tens of swings hung from tree branches; each of them dangling off a large tree that was already dead. Oddly, those swings moved back and forth despite the fact there wasn’t any wind or anyone pushing them.

The girl let go of the man’s hand. She stepped forward and slowly said “Dear Lord! They actually exist…”

 

***

 

The swing hangs on a guava tree that has long been dead. The wind keeps blowing against it, swaying the swing.

I decide to remove the swing again this year. It’s been 10 years since we first hung it on the tree, and since then I don’t know how many times I’ve considered taking it off.

As we return home from our pilgrimage this morning, the desire that has always been there and never ceases urges me to walk into the garage and take the sickle.

Hope — my only child — only looks at me without a word. I ignore her, although I understand what her expression means. Anyhow, she never touches the swing. I never tell her that her life and the swing are somehow connected. She probably can feel it, though.

I keep falling whenever I try to climb the tree. My head hits a big root that surfaces from the ground. I lose consciousness for a while, but then I see images from the past that seem so clear and real. These memories take me to the time I always wish to forget.

About 10 years ago, May — my wife — and I made the decision. We were crying in silence as we decided it, and it was our last choice.

“I wish this would be our last endeavor, my dear,” May whispered to me.

I nodded.

That night, we had a similar dream. I didn’t know why we happened to talk about the dream after the dawn prayer; we rarely, if at all, talked about our dreams.

“He’s an old man with gray hair and a beard,” said May.

“The old man said we can have it if we really want it,” I added.

May nodded and continued, “He spoke of a place in the middle of the forest where all the trees have already died.”

“There are 98 swings on each tree. Supposedly, the number of the swings will never change no matter how many have been taken.” My voice was almost weak and small.

 

***

 

I don’t know how long it’s been since I fainted. When I regained consciousness, I see Aliyah, my little sister, sitting by my side.

“What happened to you?” her question strikes me as I’m still trying to recollect my memory. “Mrs. Salman saw you fall, so she shouted for help.” Slowly I start remembering everything. “Why did you even carry a sickle?”

“I was going to cut off the swing,” my voice sounds hoarse, but my answer silences her for a moment or two.

“Why didn’t you tell me? I’ve told you so many times to chop down the tree, as well as the swing. They’re hideous.”

I can only nod. I know she has never agreed since the first time May and I placed the swing there. Of course, I don’t blame her. Our house is small with a yard of only 40 square meters. It’s odd to have a swing under a big tree there.

However, May and I really had a justified reason for that.

“It was our endeavor, Al,” I reply to her, hoping she would stop shouting at me. “Just consider this a motivation.”

Since then, Aliyah never talks about the swing, although I know she still dislikes it.

 

***

 

The day after the swing was hung on the tree in our front yard, everything changed.

At first, I thought it was only my feeling. The swing always moved back and forth with or without wind. It just moved endlessly, slowly. Nevertheless, the guava tree started to die. The leaves withered and turned dry. It all happened within a week.

I felt something strange, so did May. However, a few days later May told me she was pregnant. I was really happy and I did not care anymore with all the strange feelings I had. Our neighbors spread rumors about the swing, but I could not care less because of my feelings of joy.

“Children who would try to ride the swing always fall…”

“As dusk falls, the atmosphere around the swing feels strange…”

Eventually, the child we had been waiting for was born. We named her Hope.

Suddenly, on the day before May and Hope could return home, May asked me, “Can we now take the swing down?” I could see the flash of fear in her eyes.

As I arrived in the afternoon, I grabbed a sickle in the garage and was ready to cut the swing’s rope. The rope, however, looked rusty and old. I lost count of how many times I fell each time I tried to cut it off.

On the very same day, I was late to find out that May had fallen from her bed in the hospital. Her head hit the bed frame that was made of metal. It was around the same time when I tried to cut the rope. She got up and eventually returned to bed, but she was gone before she could push the emergency button to call the nurses. I arrived there only to see her sleep for eternity.

 

***

 

I raised Hope on my own.

Hope never cried like most infants did when they were born. She was still awake around midnight. Even as she grew older, she never did cry. When she started crawling, all she did was head toward the window facing the swing.

The doctor said Hope was different, that she’s a child with special needs. As much as I agreed with the doctor, I also believed that there was something inexplicable about her.

I always feel there is a gap between Hope and me. Every word I tell her only evaporates right before they reach her ears. Thankfully Aliyah is here. She has been helping me take care of her. Although I never say anything to her, each time she looks at me she seems to understand what has happened.

Deep down, I always try to love Hope. I’m sure May would do the same. Unfortunately, I just can’t. I always feel there is something inside Hope, especially when she stands by the window looking at the swing. Really, it somehow terrifies me. I think whoever knows what May and I did that night, will feel the same about Hope.

 

***

 

I ask some young people who always hung out around the security post to cut down the guava tree along with the swing. I gave them some money for my request.

“Burn the swing until it’s gone,” I tell them repeatedly. “Remember, until there’s nothing left!”

They start moving vigorously. They borrow a chainsaw from a neighbor and start cutting the tree into parts. Within an hour, they’ve already taken down the tree and the swing away from my yard. I imagine they must have started burning them in the village’s landfill.

I accidentally run into Hope, who is standing by the window. Her gaze is empty. Then she begins to cry. I show no empathy to her. I already decided to get rid of the tree and swing in spite of my concerns about what will happen later. I start recalling the night May and I had the same dream, that one sentence that has been echoing in our heads: “The swing will invite a life in your womb. You only have to make sure the swing will always be in your front yard.”

I go to sleep with readiness in my heart. I know, just like what happened to May, my body will later fall and hit something. The next day, my body will be found without a pulse. Aliyah will be the first one to find my corpse, and Hope will perhaps smile with pleasure, just as she did the day I found May’s body lying in hospital.

Robodoi, The Pirate from Tobelo

Are these my last days?

Robodoi contemplated the words that filled his heart. Tonight, on the beach, he felt that’s where the signs were pointing. The sparkle of the stars in the sky was dimmer, the whisper of the wind seemed softer, and the air felt stuffy—all ominous signs to herald the final moment. He shivered as the evening breeze picked up and chilled his bones. He had never felt like this before. Though he liked to deny it, he knew—as did everyone else—that his life had been directed by the signs.

Robodoi had been born on a dark, starless night in 1785, in Tobelo, a region of North Halmahera, one of the larger Moluccan islands. The sky had been lit by only a crescent moon, and a chilly wind seemed to freeze all beings; the silence felt complete. “This is a bad night for the birth of a baby,” the villagers whispered. “The child is doomed to die young. But if it survives, it will be very strong.”

Papa Tatto—that is what Robodoi called his father—often repeated that saying, even years later. At first, Robodoi did not understand what it meant, but as he grew older, he started to appreciate the words. Especially tonight, shivering on the beach.

Lalaba, had been sitting some distance down the beach. Now, he sauntered towards Robodoi. Not wanting to disturb his leader, Lalaba remained silent and took in the features of the man he had accompanied for most of a lifetime. The wind whipped his aging body and played with Robodoi’s long hair. Lalaba felt he knew what Robodoi was thinking. Their recent isolation seemed to have killed off his strong spirit. It also could be because Yoppi, Pilatu, and their other comrades, were no longer with them.

When at last Lalaba gently touched Robodoi’s shoulder, Robodoi turned his head slowly. The moonlight lit the wrinkles in his face. Lalaba was as old as Robodoi, but his leader looked much older. “It is all over.” Lalaba’s voice was barely audible.

To Robodoi, the words seemed to come from afar, but they echoed endlessly in his ears.

***

It is all over….

This was something Robodoi had never imagined. Ever since he was a boy, his life had been pointed in one direction. Robodoi remembered how, when he was seven years old, Papa Tatto had taken him to the beach.

Papa Tatto seated Robodoi on a bamboo raft, then towed the raft by boat out to of the open sea. When they were out far enough, Papa Tatto released the raft.

The waves pounded and slapped Robodoi around. He nearly fell off the raft several times, but managed to hang on to the side, until a big wave rolled the raft and tossed him into the sea. Salt water filled his mouth and hurt his throat. It was the first time Robodoi had been scared of dying. The waves became more violent and pushed him into a vortex. He used his final bit of strength to swim toward the raft.

When Robodoi finally reached the beach, he was exhausted.

Papa Tatto only said gently, “You survived this time, not because you’re great. You were just lucky. You can never defeat the sea!”

Robodoi stared at Papa Tatto’s face as his father bent toward him.

“Therefore, befriend the sea.” Papa Tatto tapped Robodoi on his shoulder. “So she will never drown you.”

Papa Tatto’s counsel was wise, and Robodoi wanted to please him, so he tried to take his advice. He remembered what happened when Papa Tatto took him out on a boat for the first time. He was fourteen. He hadn’t thought much of it at that time, but when Papa Tatto handed him a spear, Robodoi realized this was not a regular outing.

Robodoi knew that Papa Tatto always had been Sultan Muhammad Amiruddin’s henchman. The Sultan of Tidore, who was also known as Sultan Nuku, had been fighting the VOC, a Dutch trading company, since the company arrived in the islands. Robodoi was excited when Papa Tatto asked him to join him on the boat along with several other young men. An Iranun slave ship was on its way to Sape, a region in Nusa Tenggara, with dozens of slaves on board.

At first, Papa Tatto ordered Robodoi and the other young men to wait. It seemed that he wanted to show Robodoi how he could destroy the slave ship and capture the slaves.

But the situation soon got out of control. Robodoi and the other mates became excited when war cries and flying arrows filled the sky. When a cannon shot was directed at their boat, he had no other option but to join the battle.

It was Robodoi’s first battle. His breath almost stopped as his boat gained speed. The yelling from the other young men beat the sound of the waves. They sounded like vultures that found carrion. At the same time, arrows whizzed through the deafening artillery fire. It didn’t take long before men from Papa Tatto’s fleet succeeded in boarding the much taller enemy ship. Soon, the air filled with death cries, followed by yells of victory.

It was a decisive day. The spear Robodoi had used to hunt game and fish had now been aimed at humans. Blood that had so recently flowed now dried and blackened on the blade and he realized his weapon had been designed to kill.

The feeling of victory was addictive. The Dutch continued to pressure Sultan Nuku and, after Papa Tatto was killed in one of the battles, Robodoi decided to join the survivors, the men who used to follow his father. They moved from place to place and tried to mingle with the locals of coastal villages before finally moving to Raja Ampat, a small cluster of islands in northeastern Maluku.

But the sea always called to Robodoi. Ever since Papa Tatto had introduced him to the sea, Robodoi quietly regarded it as his best friend. He regularly got on his boat just to listen to the winds and the waves and spent time diving to the bottom of the sea, to look at the fish and explore previously uncharted caves. He began to make offerings to the sea in the form of a freshly slaughtered cow head or water buffalo. Robodoi felt he and the sea had a bond no one could understand.

Robodoi could never really leave the sea. Perhaps he could stay away from her for a few months while hiding from his enemies—the Dutch ships, in particular. But just like someone pining for a lover, he missed her the moment he pushed his boat onto the beach. He missed paddling across the waves. Seawater splashing on his face never failed to revive his spirit. And he missed calling out to the sky, a cry that was quickly taken up by his men. Thus was his life, and no one could keep him from it, not even himself.

At times, Robodoi and some of his mates silently took the boat they kept hidden in the mangrove forest to sea.

That was how Robodoi and his men survived. Initially, no one from the village knew they were pirating. But everything changed when Robodoi discovered a treasure chest filled with gold and jewelry among the loot.

Using the gold, Robodoi managed to buy twelve completely outfitted boats. He bought several cannons and asked some vagrants to join him.

Within a short time, Robodoi had attacked several Gujarati and Chinese merchant vessels. He also dared to destroy a few Dutch patrol ships. His name was feared by the traders, but soon there was a battle that spread his fame even further.

Standing on his boat the day of the battle, Robodoi looked at ten big ships in front of him. They were Dutch ships that had just arrived in these waters. They did not seem to be bothered by the large number of his boats. Only after he ordered an attack, and hundreds of flying arrows were cutting through the sky, did the crew on the Dutch ship become agitated. They loaded their cannons and the crew readied to return fire.

Alas, they were too late. Yoppi and Pilatu, who led the boats at the rear of the ship, had begun to attack. It did not take long before Robodoi could see the floating dead bodies of his enemies as well as his men everywhere.

The battle made him famous. People came to see him and asked to join him. It was no surprise that only one month after the bloody battle, he had more than 400 men under his command. Men, who, he believed, were ready to die for him.

After that, he no longer only targeted the small ships. No ship could deter him. He defeated Gujarati and Chinese ships, he also conquered Dutch ships equipped with many cannons. Doing battle became a daily routine for Robodoi and his men.

Robodoi was, of course, not always that lucky.

Once he was caught by the navy of the Ternate Sultanate. Worried about his reputation as a pirate, the Sultanate dispatched a special convoy to capture him.

Luckily, Pilatu, Yoppi, and Lalaba successfully ambushed the ship that was bringing him to shore. A battle was inevitable. Several cannons exchanged fire. But because he had more ships, the sultanate’s convoy chose to surrender in the end.

Though he had managed to flee, Robodoi was certain that the Ternate Sultanate would make another plan to apprehend and destroy him. So he decided to lie low for a while. To position himself as far as possible from the Sultanate’s reach, he took all of his followers to the east coast of Sulawesi. Of course, he continued to pirate while at sea.

Lalaba did not agree with this decision. Robodoi knew that his friend was cautious and at times appeared like a coward. While the other men were eager to raise arms, Lalaba disagreed with them. “Everything has changed,” Lalaba told him gently. “Don’t you realize that we have become too big? The villagers are avoiding us. We can no longer mingle with them.”

“We can live wherever we want, Lalaba!” Yoppi interrupted him.

“Listen,” Lalaba said, “We have wreaked havoc on those white men’s ships. While they did not respond to our act, I’m sure they’re planning to retaliate. I heard that their ships are headed for these waters.”

Pilatu and Yoppi laughed.

“Don’t they always come?” Pilatu said. “And don’t we always succeed in destroying them?”

Lalaba looked silently at Robodoi, as if asking for support.

But Robodoi tended to agree with Pilatu and Yoppi. They had defeated the white men several times. They now sailed ships he had seized from them.

Robodoi had never really feared the white men’s ships. Even though those ships were large and armed with many cannons, they moved slowly. Robodoi had been able to defeat them with a single attack.

However, Lalaba was not entirely wrong. The new ships ships sailing under the Royal Dutch Navy’s flag were unlike those they had seen before. These ships moved much faster. With just one attack, they had destroyed twelve of Robodoi’s boats. Numerous men died in that battle.

Robodoi was enraged. This was his most humiliating defeat. He ordered the purchase of several more boats and planned a counter attack. When one of his followers reported a single ship flying the Royal Dutch Navy’s flag alone in the Raja Ampat waters, Robodoi saw his opportunity.

That night, Robodoi ordered an attack on the Dutch ship. Yoppi and Pilatu lead the other boats to form a half circle around the ship while Robodoi and Lalaba attacked it directly from the front.

Strangely, the Dutch ship neither panicked nor tried to escape. While it was obvious she was surrounded, no one seemed to be bothered. When Robodoi raised his hand and yelled, “Att-taa-aa-ack!” hundreds of arrows swished into the air. Their attack was met with a few canon shots. Robodoi assumed that there were not enough men on board to put up a fight. But when they boarded the ship to steal its cannons and gun powder, other Dutch ships appeared out of nowhere and encircled them.

“It’s a trap!” Pilatu shouted. He and his men hurried back to their own boat. Without waiting for further orders they dispersed in all directions, trying to confuse their enemies. The Dutch cannons easily destroyed several boats that came too close.

It was a horrible night. During his escape, Robodoi saw many of his men’s bodies floating in a sea red with blood.

***

On the beach, Robodoi sunk silently into his loneliness. The wind caressed his wrinkled face.

“It is all over,” Lalaba’s whispers slipped into his ears. “All the others have surrendered. We can no longer continue the fight; this running has become tiresome.”

Robodoi did not answer. Lalaba was sitting next to him, but his voice seemed to come from afar. He could not remember how long he had been on the run. He too was very tired. Despite the fact he had stopped pirating, it seemed the white men never gave up hunting him.

Everything Lalaba had predicted had come to fruition. Robodoi closed his eyes. He regretted having ignored Lalaba’s advice.

Now, Robodoi could only draw a deep breath. It seemed he didn’t have another option. Everything had changed. The sea was still his best friend, but he could not escape old age.

***

Finally, Robodoi decided to go to Tobungku, a region within the Ternate Sultanate. Lalaba accompanied him. It was 1852. Several of his followers escorted him, even though he had told them repeatedly to leave. He knew that, while weary, they still wanted to prove their loyalty.

When he arrived at Tobungku, the Ternate Sultanate sent fourteen kora-koras, Moluccan war boats. Robodoi was separated from the others. He was blindfolded with a black cloth and his hands were tied securely behind his back.

Robodoi knew something was wrong, but there was nothing he could do. Without saying a word, the guards from the Sultanate guided him. He could tell that they were boarding a big ship.

For a long time, nothing happened. Finally, someone ripped off the blindfold.

“So, this is the man who has caused us trouble all this time?” a white man stared at him, grimacing.

Robodoi looked around him. Several white men dressed in white-and-blue uniforms snickered. Some of them pointed a gun at his head. He realized that the Ternate Sultanate had conspired with the Dutch to catch him. Furious, he balled his fists. Even though he knew the Sultanate of Ternate and the Dutch were in cahoots, he never suspected the Sultanate would deliver him to his enemies.

“Do you know why we brought you here?” the white man who seemed to be the captain sneered. He pulled his revolver out of the holster and shot Robodoi in the thigh. “You’re only fit to die at sea,” he said.

Robodoi staggered and lost his grip on the railing. As he fell overboard, he heard laughter coming from the deck.

For a while, Robodoi felt himself sink. The pain from the wound in his thigh spread quickly to all parts of his body. The water around him started to redden.

The waves washed over him several times. When the sea water slipped off his face, Robodoi tried to breathe and surrendered himself to the waves. He recalled the first time he paddled a raft out to sea, using only his hands, and his adventures when diving among the fish and exploring magical caves. He remembered the battles he had fought during his lifetime. Robodoi was certain that the sea had been his best friend all of his life. If, today, the sea wanted to consume him, he would surrender willingly. When the waves once again folded him into a roll and slipped him back beneath the watersurface, Robodoi closed his eyes.

He was certain the sea would not harm him.

A History-to-Come of Helmbrellas: Their Features and Fates

Think about it: if rain accumulating above someone / resumes descent, where does it fall?

This wildly inventive Indonesian science-fiction story-poem leads us into a chaotic future characterized by constant rain, and the technological lengths people will go to just stay dry. Human ingenuity is endlessly fluid — and so we continue to shift and change, along with our circumstances.

A History-to-Come of Helmbrellas: Their Features and Fates

by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
translated from the Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao

1.

The following happened
to your granddaughter, long
after you opted
for euthanasia

—like the others.
She was still in high school
when it all began.
She watched as the spaceships parted the clouds,
and how through their doors
emerged purplish black blobs
that shifted, and stirred,
and loosed a battle cry
like the croaking of frogs and the cawing of crows.
The Ulxians (that was the
term used thereafter) struck.
But the good people of Earth
prevailed in the end.

The alien bodies—
85% H2O, scientists said—
littered the earth.
The day after the victory
she saw the sun’s steady rise.
With each putrid heap
that vanished
a cloud congealed overhead.
The sky turned pitch black.

And then it began to rain.

2.

Then your granddaughter observed
how fickle the weather turned.
Once it rained for a whole month,
setting the campus abuzz with whispers.

‘Tis da Sixth Extinction, her friends said.
She was in her room when she heard
on the radio: the shantytowns in Mumbai swept away,
killing hundreds.

New drains and reservoirs
mushroomed throughout the city; new brands
of disposable umbrellas and raincoats flooded the market
—Ztormz, Water-Zip, Kaza, et cetera.

Her coworkers blew their bonuses on
buying these companies’ shares.
She noticed everyone
in the city bringing umbrellas

or raincoats
wherever they went,
even on the sunniest days,
and she watched herself turn

into one of them.

3.

When the latter became a trend,
nobody was that surprised.

4.

The very first model,
the one that really
started it all,
was, naturally,
the plasma shield.
It was hardly original,
just recycled:
left-over
technology
from warring
with the Ulxians.

The military
had made use
of handheld devices
that erected
plasma domes
to keep the Ulxians
from invading their bodies.
They generated
a wave
that would attract polymer
fragments
from the atmosphere,
turning

the air into plasma.

5.

Those with relatives in the army were the first pioneers.
They procured the devices from their husbands/wives/children—
or from the uniforms that came with the bodies of the deceased.
They’d then mill around downtown or along Fifth Avenue,
like air bubbles with legs. The rain
trickled
down
the domes’
invisible curves,
catching everyone’s eye.

Hey now, dat’z some idea!
thought one onlooker, then two, then ten.
News sites caught whiff of the phenomenon.
“Sheer poetry!” proclaimed The New York Times.
The devices popped up on the black market overnight—
sold not as artifacts, like old Civil War relics,
but as everyday household items.
Megaconglomerates began lobbying the military,
eager to exploit the plasma shield.

6.

In reality,
the plasma shield
wasn’t appropriate
for use in crowds,
and certainly
not on sidewalks.
If there was a sudden downpour,
people who were squeamish
about getting the least bit wet
would hastily activate
their devices,
and the expanding shield
would injure
people
in the vicinity.

The most horrifying incident
made the front page
on almost
all
the news sites:

three shields were activated simultaneously,
colliding and knocking their users over.
The resulting domino effect felled
fifteen others. One victim slammed into a steel bollard.
He died
instantly from severe brain injuries.

7.

Governments the world over
banned the use of plasma shields.
This met with online petitions
and small-scale demonstrations
in front of city halls
in various states.

General Electric’s
R&D Division
seized their chance.
In less than six months
they released
an alternative product,
a helmet-umbrella,
a helmbrella,
that generated
an anti-gravity field.
It worked by momentarily
suspending the raindrops
falling
on the wearer’s head,
which would continue
falling
once the wearer
was out of reach.
This model
also quickly
fell
out of popularity.

Think about it: if rain accumulating above someone
resumes descent, where does it fall?
To earth.
By then who would be walking around on said earth?
Someone else.

8.

Other, newer
models rapidly
became publicly
available.
Unlike when you
or your father were small,
the helmbrella one used
defined who one was
inside.

9.

Not long after the
anti-gravity
model came out,

an electrolysis-
powered helmbrella
was released
and distributed
far and wide,
reaching even
the minimarts
way out in the styx.

The helmbrella
generated
two electromagnetic
waves
that functioned
as an anode and cathode,
splitting the water molecules
into hydrogen and oxygen gas.

This was the first model
to demonstrate stability
under a wide range of
conditions.
And so subsequent helmbrellas
were created in the image of this godly
opus.
The only thing was
the induction process
would sprinkle the user
with grains of salt

which were easily
mistaken for dandruff.
But this was so trivial
that this model is still in use today.

10.

A few people took
the fever too far.
Take the Star Wars fans—the last of their kind.
In conjunction with Honda, they launched
a model made up of miniature X-wings
which circled above their masters’ heads,
shooting laser beams,
incinerating raindrops
at light speed.

This model never caught on.
Obviously, it was cumbersome
and not energy-efficient,
but it did find its niche—
people who wanted to stand out.
Avant-garde designers began to create
all sorts of new models.
For instance,
a helmbrella comprised of
swarming mechanical
fireflies, hot to the touch
(thereby evaporating every
raindrop on contact).
It debuted at Paris Fashion Week.

11.

The Potterheads, who
by some miracle survived
into this era,
tried to make the Impervius charm
a reality. They attempted to invent a water-deflection device
that would produce the same effect
as two magnetic poles of like polarity.
Their efforts have never seen the light of day.

12.

Wondrous news from Jepara, in small-town Indonesia:
a middle-schooler, a loner and film buff
who worshipped Christopher Nolan
built his own: a helmbrella topped with a spike
that functioned as wormhole generator.

The rain would fall
straight into the wormhole
and out the other side,
through the corresponding generator
and into a gutter.

The teen prodigy
was whisked away on a whirlwind
tour of the US. He appeared on:

The Late Night Show

Today’s Science

Hello America

The New, New Thing

But he got depressed,
overwhelmed
by the popularity and offers
from companies that poured in nonstop.
He became a recluse.

13.

The most bizarre model
in recorded history
came from
some religious types. One of those
New New New Age sects.
They bought up all the remaining
anti-gravity helmbrellas.
and did a complete rehaul.

They attached shiny metal orbs that spouted
fire to the top of the helmbrellas.
Naturally, when switched on
the fireballs seemed to hover
above the wearers’ heads.

They baptized it the Holy Spirit Helmbrella.

This design was ineffective in the extreme,
considering it couldn’t handle
all the rain falling on the wearer.
Plus, whenever it poured,
the fire would get snuffed out in places,
giving the ball bald spots.

The other problem was
that if the helmet broke
or a powerful sneeze
caused the user’s head
to tilt forward.
The ball sometimes slid
off onto the user;
and even if the anti-gravity field
made a split-second save
it would sometimes hurl the ball at bystanders.

Surprisingly, its sales were pretty good.
People wore it to be ironic. There were two hundred
reported cases of wearers, three-fourths of them men,
suffering brain damage because of this model.

14.

No one knows
if this craze
will continue,
or if it lasts, how long,
and where it will head,
but one thing is clear: Earth’s remaining inhabitants,
a mere quarter of the pre-Ulxian-invasion population,
has found a new hobby,
after spending
so many centuries
being fed
up with everything:

in the end,

there is nothing new under the sun,

much less under the shade of a tree. Or an armpit.

15.

And that model
that was the classic-of-classics?
The conical elongated cane
that opened and shut
when taken out and put away,
which you brought everywhere,
well into your fifties, even when
taking your granddaughter
to the zoo for the first time?
No one uses it.

‘Tis hopelezzly archaic, everyone says.
What’s nostalgia in the face of practicality?
But you know something?
Your granddaughter still uses it sometimes,
when she misses you or her mother.
She and her wife
brave the rain, hand in hand,
to visit their favorite used bookstore or café,
and she talks about the two of you.
And not a single passerby

stares.

Koh Su

Translator’s note

“Koh Su” evokes the particular melancholy of Indonesians born well after 1965 and its immediate aftermath—left trying to trace a sociopolitical history of state terror and mass trauma that is always oblique, puzzling over a residue of loss that remains intangible and yet clings to everything. In Bahasa Indonesia, the spirit of a situation is known as its “rasa,” which also means flavor, or taste. “Koh Su” uses literal taste to capture the rasa of this psychological or existential position with a story about a vanished town cook and his fabled signature dish.

In the story it is implied that Koh Su, a mysterious, mythologized cook of fried rice, was murdered during the mass killings of 1965. At the risk of stating the obvious, to Indonesians Koh Su is a Chinese name, and Chinese Indonesians were targeted in these killings, ostensibly because of links to communism but also due to long-standing racial tensions expressed in numerous incidents of violence both before and since. The town has never forgotten him, however, and seems to be in a state of unresolved grief that takes the shape of a constant search for any trace of Koh Su’s legacy.

By the end of the story, it becomes clear that the most integral food of the town, the dish from which the city gets its very identity, revolves around a hollowed core, a missing man and a massacred community. The taste of fried rice, in its close approximation to the real thing, metonymically reanimates Indonesia’s hidden history of state violence, local complicity in mass murder, and collective amnesia about these atrocities—a history of tragic loss that, much like the character of Koh Su in the story, has up until recently been addressed in Indonesian public culture primarily through rumor, conjecture, suspicion, and urban legend.

 

I have to say, this man is exactly how I’ve always imagined Koh Su to be. For almost the entire half hour I’ve been here, I haven’t heard him speak or seen him even glance at the people waiting on line for their orders. He is distant—completely in his own world.

He pours the oil. He takes something from a nearby box, pounds it, crushes it, throws it into the frying pan. He does that a few times. No tomato, no soy sauce. There is only one bottle near him, which is filled with a brownish liquid and wrapped in a cloth that I would guess used to be white but now is also turning brown.

A month ago, when the news started to creep across the neighborhood, I didn’t pay any attention—it was probably just some food stall owner spreading gossip, making big claims to help launch his business. This kind of thing has been going on for as long as I can remember, it’s happened more than a dozen times. Even as a child, I was already accustomed to such minor dramas. Mouths would start talking in this little town, saying that Koh Su’s nasi goreng recipe had been discovered. Soon after, a food stall would spring up, serving nothing but fried rice. People would gather and stand in line. It would get quite crowded. Then, after only a week or two, the stall would fall silent—abandoned. Closed forever. It was like that time after time.

In this small city, the relationship between nasi goreng and Koh Su was so close the two had become synonymous. The name Koh Su had turned into a verb that meant making fried rice. If someone said, “This morning I ngohsu,” earlier that morning he had made nasi goreng. Or if someone said, “Come on, let’s ngohsu…” she was inviting you to fry some rice.

Here you could find almost all the same kinds of food that you could find in any other town. There was only one thing missing: a food stall serving nasi goreng. Because every time one appeared, it would be preceded by spicy stories and grow overrun with buyers as soon as it was built, but not long after that, it would perish as I just described, adding to the string of disappointed folks who had tried their hand at selling nasi goreng, and lending more power to the legend of Koh Su.

I look at the seller, there absorbed in his cooking. It’s as if everything I ever imagined about Koh Su has come to life in him. His hair is long, straight, and thinning, tied back in a pigtail. A blackkopiah skullcap is perched on his head. His mustache is sparse and his goatee is wispy but he has let them both grow long. His eyes are narrow, encircled by puffy, sagging flesh. He is tall and has a bit of a potbelly. There is a clove cigarette perpetually slipped in between his lips. I would guess he is about forty, or a bit older.

Bang! Bang!

The man always concludes his cooking process the same way, with two hard pounds of the wok, before pouring the rice out onto the plate. Then his assistant, a child of about twelve whom everyone calls Mbeng, serves it to the customers.

I look around. Many people are still waiting to be served. My turn is still a long way off.

From upstream to downstream, start to finish, the story of Koh Su has always been mysterious. There were those who claimed that he wasn’t actually Chinese—he was from Madura and his real name was Sukendar, but because he looked Chinese he was called Koh Su. Others said Koh Su was Javanese, but he had gone off to study with a Chinese cook in Tuban before returning to his village and opening the nasi goreng stall that made him so famous. His real name was Surono. But many people still insisted that Koh Su had in fact been Chinese. Of course, I didn’t know what was the truth.

The story about Koh Su’s disappearance from this city was in doubt too. Some said Koh Su had run off somewhere. Others said he had been a master of mystical wisdom and meditated until he vanished, rising directly to heaven in moksa. And then there were those who believed that Koh Su had died, but even they had their own versions. There were those who swore Koh Su had been murdered at his food stall and his body left on Genuk Mountain. There were those who said Koh Su had been buried along with dozens of communists in an old well out behind the elementary school. Still others maintained that he was invincible, and if someone had somehow managed to slaughter him, he would still have died without a scratch on his body. Which story was accurate? Of course I didn’t know.

It is said that Koh Su’s stall was located on the western side of the town square near the mosque, under the banyan tree that is still standing strong to this day. Koh Su was known as a quiet man. He didn’t talk much and was always busy cooking. He also refused to serve customers who had special requests. In Koh Su’s recipe, nasi goreng was nasi goreng. He never allowed orders for spicy nasi goreng, nasi goreng without salt, or meat, or egg, or anything like that. Everything was uniform, everything identical. The strange thing was, even though the recipe was the same every time, Koh Su always cooked his food order by order. His customers had to be patient—and besides that, nobody was allowed more than two orders to go.

Everyone knew that Koh Su didn’t use soy sauce or tomatoes. And everyone knew that he used a brown sauce, but not a single person knew what it was made of.

Once, a long time ago, I asked my grandfather what Koh Su’s nasi goreng tasted like. He just shook his head saying, “It’s impossible to do it justice.”

Another time, when we were drinking coffee at his stall one afternoon, my friends and I asked Pak Pardiman, the coffee seller who is also quite famous in this city. He described it almost exactly the same way. “This is Koh Su’s nasi goreng. This is heaven. The difference between them was only this much…” and he moved the thumb and forefinger of his right hand towards each other until the two fingers almost touched, as if he was pinching a cigarette.

I see more people arrive, order, and then join the line to wait. Soon, new arrivals are forced to turn around and go home empty-handed, because even the nasi goreng orders that haven’t been cooked yet have already been claimed. It’ll be quite a while until my order is ready, but I still feel lucky, because at least I am getting a portion.

I don’t know whether it’s because of Koh Su or not, but nasi goreng is clearly the signature dish of this city—it’s so special here that it is difficult to buy or sell. The first cooking lesson any child is taught is to ngosu. If there is a special holiday, like Independence Day or the Birthday of the Prophet, there is sure to be a ngosu competition. People are frequently tempted here to see if their recipe has what it takes. A long time ago, these arrivals used to create quite a stir. Now people mostly just take it in stride.

I was still in elementary school during the first hullabaloo about Koh Su’s nasi goreng recipe having been discovered. Just like the stories about Koh Su himself, the story about how exactly this happened was ambiguous. But after a few weeks, near the hospital, there stood a nasi goreng stall that claimed to use Koh Su’s recipe—for days it was packed. The line was so long that little kids, including me, moped about every day, pouting at our parents because we hadn’t gotten a chance to taste it. After a few weeks, the stall grew quiet, and when I finally got to try that fried rice, it was no different from what I cooked myself when I would ngosu with my classmates.

The second time, there was even more of a commotion because this new food stall was right where Koh Su’s used to be: under the banyan tree near the town square. On the banner was clearly written: Koh Su’s Nasi Goreng. That banner only survived a few days—the police forbade it because they thought “Koh Su” reeked of communism. So the banner was taken down, but crowds still lined up, including cops. That stall only lasted a few weeks, like the one before. After everyone had tasted the rice and realized it was ordinary, the stall grew deserted, and then it closed.

The third time, and every time after that, was no longer a surprise: there would be gossip, and anasi goreng stall would appear, first welcomed with hope and long lines, then met with disappointment.

I look around again. People are waiting without too much talk, as if anticipating a moment that will determine the rest of their lives. People who have received their orders are eating their meals mindfully. Reverently. Those who have finished pay and leave in tranquility. They look as if they have just been praying.

After just a few more people, my turn will come.

In this city, ngosu is a time-consuming activity, because of the secret recipes and techniques that people claim came from Koh Su himself, and pass along to one another.

It is said that the rice that Koh Su used came from a paddy in Dusun Ngandang, a small village on the slopes of Genuk Mountain. That rice was cooked in the usual fashion, then poured out onto a banana leaf and fanned continuously with a bamboo ipit until it was almost cool. After that, it was wrapped up tight in the banana leaf. This rice then became the main ingredient for Koh Su’s nasi goreng. To produce truly delicious fried rice, a banana leaf bundle had to sit for at least five hours. It is said that Koh Su would always finish wrapping his bundles of rice after midday prayers. And then after Magrib, at sunset, these bundles were opened one by one to make nasi goreng.

Many people make nasi goreng with shrimp heads. The shrimp have to be true ocean shrimp and they have to be fresh. The shrimp heads are separated from their bodies, then their hard outer shells are peeled off and washed squeaky clean. After the oil is poured, the very first thing to do is crush the shrimp heads on a cutting board and throw them into the oil—they give a sort of base flavor. For one portion of fried rice you need two or three fresh shrimp heads, depending on how big the heads are. And another thing, the oil used to ngosu must be coconut oil.

Now there are only three people ahead of me, only three more orders to be served until my turn to sample a portion of the nasi goreng that has shaken up this town.

When this stall was opening, we thought it was sure to be just like all the ones that came before. But after a few days, the gossip about this nasi goreng only heated up. “It is truly Koh Su’s fried rice!” the people who had tried it exclaimed.

The news quickly spread, embellished by what seemed like extra proof: the new seller—we still didn’t know his name—cooked the nasi goreng portion by portion, just like Koh Su. He didn’t allow more than two orders of nasi goreng wrapped up to go, and only sold about fifty portions per night. He started after Magrib and finished just before eleven o’clock. The people who lined up had to wait at the stall—if they left before getting their order, it was considered canceled.

The news began to pick up momentum, along with some additional rumors along the way. Some people said the seller was Koh Su’s biological son. They claimed quiet Koh Su had had a wife and child in another city, and it was this child who had inherited his talent for making nasi goreng—along with his secret recipe for that brown sauce.

People still don’t know his name. It’s as if he didn’t even have one, choosing to live his life and sell his food in anonymity. All he had was Mbeng and a set of cooking utensils. Then he rented a kiosk near the market, and that became his food stall.

Now, it’s time for my nasi goreng to be prepared and cooked. My heart is pounding.
After people began discussing the taste of the nasi goreng from that brand new stall, my grandfather grew curious. I still wasn’t interested until he confirmed its deliciousness, saying, “His spices and the way he cooks it is just right. It’s almost exactly like Koh Su’s.” Then I couldn’t resist.

For people my age, Koh Su is a huge mystery. When I was a little child, people who had experienced Koh Su’s nasi goreng firsthand were still constantly telling stories about it. All my early life was tied up in tales of nasi goreng and ngosu and the leaked secret recipe and efforts to make sense of the incomplete instructions. Of course, sometimes we didn’t use coconut oil, we certainly didn’t use the brown sauce because we didn’t know how to make it, and there was no way we could use rice from Ngandang.

This is the third time I’m trying my luck on the line. The first two attempts ended with a hollow tongue. Each time I came, the line was already full, and Mbeng said politely, “I’m sorry, Brother, it’s already finished.” The first time I came at nine o’clock at night. The second time at eight. This third time, I came exactly as Magrib was ending. And even then there were already a lot of people waiting.

Bang! Bang!

The sound signaling the end of the cooking process rings out. The plate is set down. The rice is spilled out onto the plate. Mbeng brings the nasi goreng towards me. My heart races as I receive the coveted dish from his hands.

I look closely at the rice before me. It is perfect, truly a beauty to behold. Every single grain is the same exact color, evenly mixed with spices and evenly cooked. Its aroma is also perfect. I slowly dig my spoon into the nasi goreng before me. I bring the rice into my mouth.

Later, I stop by Pak Pardiman’s stall, thinking the evening will be complete with coffee and some friendly conversation. When I arrive, the atmosphere is lively. From the snatches I hear, people are talking about the new fried rice at the stall I have just visited. Everyone agrees how delicious it is.

“Is it just like Koh Su’s, Pak?” asks a young child.

“Almost….” replies Pak Pardiman.

“So, how do you think it still falls short?”

“It’s the rice… but how could he get rice from Ngandang?”

“Well aren’t there still plenty of paddies in Bangunrejo?”

Pak Pardiman doesn’t answer. His face stiffens. Dusun Ngandang no longer exists. According to the old folks, almost every single person who lived there was lost in the bloody events that also swallowed Koh Su. Afterwards, the village was no longer called Ngandang, but Bangunrejo.

Pak Pardiman is silent for a few moments as he prepares the coffee I ordered. Then he sighs. “If only it was just a matter of changing back the name…”

Nalar’s Mask

It has been 3 days since Nalar catched fever. Usualy, the fever would be gone after top of her eyes was wrapped by wet cloth or slices of onion. Yesterday her grandmother, my mother, had taken her to Mak Moyong – Shaman for Chlidren. It was magic, said Shaman. But the fever still clinging even after she forced to drank Jamu* from Mak Moyong.
If this evening i get my weekly payment, I will bring Nalar to Doctor Kiki imidietly. Puskesmas* already closed when i leave pabrik. I dont have heart to wait until tomorrow. Nalar’s fever was so high. Furthermore, it was all caused by myself. As mother and the cause of her sickness, I must take responsibility. More over, It’s been a year that our relationship is not really warm anymore.
The cause: a year ago, when she watch me nopeng* (mask dancing) with her grandmother in village, Nalar forced me to teach her nopeng. I refuse. The lineage of mask dancer has to stop at me, i thought. Also, mask dancing call to show is not as much as before when i was young. Since lesser dancing offer, i decided to be a cigarete factory labour. Annual income, even if it just a little, more helping to stay alive for the three of us: Me, Mother, and Nalar.
Other than income, i dont want to let Nalar do the ritual that i had done years ago. Mutih* fasting, ngrowot*, Senin-Kamis fasting, also that in some date must sleep in the floor without any blanket, and the exstreem meditate in the water all night long (tapa kungkum). Years ago, when i began learnig it, i dont have any choice. Not that I don’t like dancing. But, I must be realistic. This house didn’t have man anymore. Not my father not my husband. They have been destinied to die befoer their wife. It’s imposible if I let mother in her late age to work again. Me is enough, with the burden.
Look at this condition, it was reasonable i thougt if i don’t want to Nalar to be a mask dancer. Like other kids, I want her to go to school until i couldn’t pay anymore. After graduate, she could work in factory, cashier, or salesgirl.
My hope was shattered 3 months ago, Nalar taken by her grandmother to visit graveyard of Mbah Buyut* in Gabusan Village. Two hours taking bus. Back from there, Nalar madly searching the mask immidietly. The mask that i have packed dilligently in my room lemari. In front of me, She wear sampur* in her hips and take the mask in her face by gritting in her mask. When I ask, my mom denied teach her dancing. Nalar herself not saying any word. She just dance exitedly and only stop when her mask forcibly from her face.
Mother should be trying make the disire gone, like i told her, but not, She even more exited to teach Nalar dancing. With the gamelan, which remnant from the past and not complete anymore, mother accompanying Nalar Dancing. Nalar like lerep move the most, smiling she is, hitting the floor with his small feet. If only dancing, actually i’m not really worried. What i worried, she also teach her all of ther ritual which she teach me when i was at Nalar age. She is already to skinny to follow the fasting ritual and other hard ritual. As mother, i am ashamed if society think she has a vitamin deficiency. Where should i put my face? Like I am not giving her enough food.
Thats why i dont like hope into something. I was betrayed again and again by hope. My simple, humble hope, Nalar could work in the factory, be a chashier or maybe a sales girl. At least with this work as ciggarette folding labour, i can paid tuition until she graduate from highschool. I know, she is yet seven years old. Still could follow my hope. But once again, I hate to hope. Really hate it when my father was dead because malaria, and my husband never going back home since three years ago, fishing to the open atlantic sea.
Only a man left in this familiy. Danu, Nalar’s brother which now 6 grade in elementary school. In this village, people left their hope to their son, but not me. But for me, Danu cant be rellied. I can trust kid which i dont know who is his father.

Maybe because i am not really welcoming him, Danu also not really care about my existence. He more care to Nalar. For him, Nalar is more than just a sister with the same mother. Nalar is a toy, maybe for him, which i never buy for him when he cried. Toy which could respon for every touch and his care.
Since Nalar was learning to dance, Danu left his bad habit playing with his friend in Pak Gatot cafe. In the past, I seen him coughing when sucking ciggarette given by his friends. When i walked past the cafe, Danu over do the smoking, lift his leg up, trying to look as a truck driver which like to gather in that cafe.
Recently, Danu prefer his activity on accompanying Nalar when learning to dance. He watch and carving Randu wood to make mask at the same time. I don’t know, who and where he learnit from. Should be just try and error. From raw and crude mask, Danu litle by litle could carve the mask as big as Nalar’s face.
Actually, i was happy. Danu  didn’t play at the cafe anymore. But still, i have many made over reason to angry at him. Evenmore when i got back from factory, in really tired condition. Carving trash in the lawn, a really suitable things for me to throw it in his face. With touching his eyes being hurt by the dust, Danu only can save his anger and take broom and clean the thrash. Nalar cry, the only thing she can do in the moment.

My anger toward Danu at its peak when Nalar got sick. The reason, 4 days ago, when i got job to dance at the nearby village. Rich and rice seller has been won as head of the village. I was asked to dance with Yu Wasis. Mother not really agree with my decision to dance “tayuban” again. She prefer Nopeng (mask dancing). Nopeng is more dignifiable rather than “nayub”, she said. Go to hell with dignity, whats more important than getting money to buy food in this condition?

After i left, not that i know, Nalar was searching for me. When she heard from Danu that i got an ask to “nayub”, she’s crying, begging to watch. She thought i was “nopeng”. Danu was able to convince grandmother, that he could take care Nalar accompanying her watch me dancing. Immedietly they follow without me noticed.

I don’t know when they arrive. My attention was kept by horny man that i can neckle with my sampur*. They easilest give money, and place it in my kemben*, slipping it into my breast. Night become more late, my mission was not achived with just tens of hand competing into my breast. The rich rice seller is my secret admirer, people said. He would be giving me many money if i able to make us sleep together. Sadly, my plan was wrecked. When the night become darkest, I saw Nalar and Danu, standing beside others. I realise it only when some men was left. My flirting lips become awkward immedietly, when i saw Nalar’s pale face. She looked alike wanted to cry when Kang Jono touching my breast. I left stage, running. I take their hand. Rushing back home. Let the money be Yu Wasis’s.
Along the way, forcefully i took these two child of mine with mixed feeling. Nalar hug me so thight, burried her face in my breast. Meanwhile Danu not even gave a noise. Only the sound of his naked feet facing the grass.

Arrived at home, i went to bedroom dan lay down Nalar that already sleeping. After that, I left the room and take Danu’s hand whose standing groggily in the middle room. Not caring my mother shout busily asking what really is happening with correcting her fused hair. I go into mask saving room. What I know, Danu really scared with this room. Halfly i push him inside. I didnt care with his cry. Without saying anything, i locked the door. I could still hear his cry from outside.
In the morning, i woke up by Nalar’s voice and her hot armpit caused by fever. “Mas Danu. Mas Danu,” she said with eyes still closed. The soft voice she call her brother makes me get up from my bed. I canceled y intention to keep Danu in the room. At least feeling his brother presence make her more calm.
I can’t find Danu in the punishment room. I found the lock didn’t installed. My mother must be let him go this morning. But when I asked, she denied: “When I woke up this morning, the door is already like that,” Mom said, grating her coconut. From that moment, I didn’t find Danu go back home again.
Nalar temperature isn’t stable since Danu gone. I’ve already brought her to Puskesmas and doctor which more expensive, they can’t find any definite problem. Many kind of drugs, from doctor and alternative from shaman, has been tryed. But, the result still the same. Nalar only looks calm and getting better every time she hold the mask built by Danu.
Since Nalar’s unstable condition, my finance is become even worse. It has been weeks since the factory closed temporarily. Some of my friend tell me, the family cigarette company which been 50 years ago would be sell. Tayub’s call become lesser and lesser. Luckly, two days ago, Mr. Saidi, Gamelan player that usualy acompanying me dance, tell me that there would be a politic campaign that want to show mask dance.

“Why not tayub, Sir?” I ask.

“Tayub would be more massive. But the campaign want the event to polite. Because you know the campaign said, appreciation for our own traditional art, so they are trying to collect some traditional art group in this region,” Mr.Saidi said.

“But the one chosen is the polite one. It’s not fair,” I protest.

“I dont really know. Just follow it. Oh ya, they also want the mask be colored green, caring for environment look alike they said.”

“What? first for traditional art appreciation, then for environment care. Is it a joke?”

Mr. Saidi raising his shoulders, “for the vote sake. What ever popular for people liking.”

That evening, I instruct her grandma to keep and watch over Nalar’s at home. I ignore Nalar’s cry, protesting the masks changing the color into green. Only one mask left for not be green. The little mask as big as her face made by Danu for her. I don’t want to take risk, her temparature would be high again when i dance. At least after i get the money from the event, I can take her to docter in town.

I got second turn, after Angklung Music Group which become the first show after the party leader give his speech. Eventough its not the formal campaign, the tradional party for people held by the party being crowded by people hungry for entertainment. Whats more, before the event began there are free daily necesity being given.

Enjoyly I got my mask on. Slowly I get bup from sitting. From the position not facing the crowd, i turn my body after making sure my mask not move. At that moment, I spread my eyes from the masks hole, I see Nalar and Danu standing at middle of the crowd. They holding hand. My dance stop. My Body freezzing. In the back of my mask, I see Nalar smiling. In one of her hand holding her favorite mask, one that made for her by Danu. Slowly she bring the mask, up to her face, using it. Still holding hand, both of my child turn back. Take a walk away not even sure where to. Thats the last time i see them both.

error: