Nalar’s Mask

Nalar has been running a fever for three days. Usually, a wet compress or some shallot slices on her forehead quickly dispels such fevers. Yesterday, her grandmother took her to see Mak Moyong, a healer of children, who said it was a bout of epilepsy. But Nalar’s fever persisted, even after her grandmother made her drink Mak Moyong’s tonic.

When I receive my weekly paycheck later this afternoon, I will take Nalar straight to Doctor Kiki. The public clinic will be closed by the time I finish my shift at the factory, but I can’t bear to wait until tomorrow. Nalar’s fever is very high. As her mother, I need to take responsibility. We haven’t been getting along during this past year and I might have contributed to her condition by upsetting her.

It all started when Nalar, saw me perform the mask dance with my mother in the village and demanded that I teach her. I refused. The hereditary line of mask dancers should end with me and go no further. Besides, mask-dancing gigs are not as plentiful as they used to be when I was a teenager. When the interest and requests dwindled, I took a job at a cigarette factory. My regular paycheck, little as it is, proved to be a more reliable source of income than the compensation I received for dancing. It supports the four of us: my mother, Danu, Nalar, and me.

In addition to a mask dancer’s unpredictable income, I didn’t have the heart to let Nalar endure the series of rites I had gone through. Rituals such as performing three kinds of fasts: puasa mutih, when one only eats rice; ngrowot, when one only eats tubers; and a full fast on Mondays and Thursdays. At certain times, I had to sleep on the floor without any mattress, or perform the tapa kungkum, which is meditating while submerged in water.

I had gone through these rituals because I had no other choice. It wasn’t that I didn’t like dancing, but this household had lost its men. Both my father and my husband were gone; they had been fated to die before their wives. I couldn’t possibly let my mother, this late in her life, share the burden of earning a living. That burden should be mine alone.

Given these circumstances, I definitely didn’t want Nalar to become a mask dancer. I wanted her to stay in school, like all the other children, for as long as I could afford it. After she finished school, she would be able to get a job as a factory worker, a shopkeeper, or a sales clerk.

My hope vanished three months ago, when my mother took Nalar to the grave of Nalar’s great-grandmother in Gabusan Village, a two-hour bus ride away. When they came home, Nalar went straight to the room where I stored the masks and rummaged through the tidy collection. Then, right in front of me, she wrapped a long sash around her waist and put on the mask, holding it with her teeth.

My mother denied having taught Nalar to dance. Nalar herself did not say anything. She just pranced about and only stopped when I ripped the mask off her face.

Instead of discouraging the child, my mother was all the more eager to teach Nalar. With what was left of the set of gamelan musical instruments at home, my mother played music to accompany her granddaughter’s dancing.

The girl loved doing the lerep movement, stroking the tassels on either side of the mask while stamping her feet.

I wouldn’t have been too upset if my mother had only taught Nalar to dance, but then she began teaching the rituals she had taught me when I was Nalar’s age. The girl was too thin to practice the fasting rituals. As her mother, I’d be embarrassed if people thought that Nalar was malnourished. I’d lose face if she looked as if I wasn’t giving her enough to eat.

This is why I don’t like to hope—I’ve been betrayed too many times. I hoped Nalar would be able to work as a factory worker or a shopkeeper or a sales clerk. By holding onto my job of rolling cigarettes, I would at least be able to put her through high school. It’s true, she’s only seven now. She still could change and turn out the way I hoped, but once again, I hate hoping. I really hated it when my father died of malaria and my husband failed to come home after he headed out to sea three years ago.

Now, only one male remained in our family: Danu, Nalar’s brother, now in sixth grade. Many other families in my village put their hopes in their sons. I should have been like them, but I could not put my hopes on Danu. I could never trust a child I’d given birth to without knowing who the father was.

Perhaps because I did not accept Danu’s existence, he did not care about mine either. He lived with us, but he cared mostly about Nalar. She was more to him than just a half-sister—she was the toy I never bought him. A toy that responded to his touch and attention.

After Nalar began her dance lessons, Danu spent less time with the boys who hung out at Pak Gatot’s coffee shop. I used to catch Danu coughing from smoking the cigarettes they gave him. As soon as I passed by the shop, he made a show of puffing away, with one leg pulled up onto his seat, just like the truck drivers who loitered there.

Lately, Danu preferred to hang around Nalar during her dance lessons. He would watch while carving a mask out of kapok wood. I don’t know where he learned how to do that. He must have experimented on his own. His work improved from producing the ill-fitting masks he had carved in the beginning to the masks he now carved to the size of Nalar’s face.

I was glad that Danu no longer spent a lot of time hanging out at the coffee shop, but I still found many reasons to scold him— especially when I came home from the factory, exhausted. The wood shavings that littered the porch were perfect to scoop up and throw in his face. Blinking, he would hold back his anger and get a broom. Nalar could do nothing but cry.

My anger at Danu peaked when Nalar became ill. It started four days ago, when I was offered a dance gig in a neighboring village. The rice merchant there had been elected as the village head. I was requested to perform the tayub dance with Yu Wasis.

My mother didn’t approve of me dancing the sexually-suggestive tayub. She thought it was better to stick to mask dancing. She said it was more respectable than the tayub. I couldn’t care less about that; what mattered was to have money to buy rice.

Nalar apparently, had heard from Danu that I had a dance gig, and looked for me, sulking, because she wanted to watch.

Danu managed to convince my mother that he could look after his sister, and they went after me.

I didn’t see them at first, my whole attention was focused on how many lustful men I could entice by placing my scarf around their necks. The men were certainly generous with the money they tucked into my torso wrap.

As the night progressed, I grew unsatisfied with the dozens of hands that groped at my breasts. I heard that the rice merchant, who was hosting the event, was my secret admirer. He would surely tip me a large sum of money if I could get him to bed me. Unfortunately, I was unable to act on my plan.

Just before midnight, I saw Nalar and Danu standing, stunned, in the back row of the audience. The playful, seductive smile froze on my lips the moment I saw Nalar’s ashen face. As Kang Jono, slipped his hand into my cleavage, Nalar looked like she was about to cry. I immediately ran off the stage and dragged my two children away. Let tonight’s fortune fall to Yu Wasis.

The entire way home, I herded my two children in a state of turmoil. Nalar buried her face between my breasts as I carried her in my arms. Danu didn’t make a sound. There was only the shuffle of his bare feet as he hurried to match my stride.

As soon as we got home, I went straight to the bedroom and put Nalar, who was already asleep, in bed. Then I came back out and grabbed Danu, who had been standing motionless in the living room.

My mother kept shouting, “What on earth is going on?” but I didn’t answer. I dragged Danu into the mask storage room, ignoring his crying. While I locked him in the storage room, I could hear him sobbing.

The next morning, I woke up to Nalar’s hot forehead stinging my armpit. “Mas Danu. Mas Danu,” she murmured with her eyes closed. Her soft voice calling for her brother propelled me out of bed. I changed my mind about keeping Danu locked up in the room. Nalar would be comforted when she saw him.

I couldn’t find Danu—the door to the mask room was no longer locked. My mother must have unlatched it early in the morning. But when I asked her, she denied it.

“The door was like that when I woke up,” she said, as she grated a coconut.

After that time, I never saw Danu at home anymore.

Nalar’s temperature began to fluctuate after Danu left. I took her several times to the public clinic and to the more expensive doctors, but they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. We tried all kinds of medicine — modern and traditional — but the results were all the same. Nalar seemed calm and her condition improved only when she held the mask Danu had made for her.

Since Nalar became sickly, my financial condition worsened. The cigarette factory was temporarily shut down. Friends told me that the family who built and owned the fifty-year-old cigarette company was going to sell it. There were fewer requests for tayub performances.

Fortunately, Pak Saidi, a gamelan musician who often played the accompaniment for my dances, told me about a rally that wanted to have a mask dance.

“How come they’re not asking for the tayub?” I asked.

“Tayub draws a bigger crowd,” Pak Saidi said, “but the leader wants respectable performers for the event. And because the event is about—what do you call it— concern for our national arts, they’re bringing together performers from the area.”

“But they’re only choosing the ones who perform respectable dances. That’s not fair,” I protested.

“Well, what do I know—I’m only doing what I’m told. And they ask that all masks be painted green, to show concern for the environment.”

“What’s with these people? One minute it’s about the arts, the next it’s the environment.”

“That’s how you rally people to vote for you. Candidates do anything that makes them look good,” said Pak Saidi.

I ignored tearful pleas from Nalar, who didn’t want the masks in the house to turn green. I spared only one—the mask that Danu had made for her. I didn’t want her temperature to go up again while I was dancing. At least, after I received my compensation for my performance, I would be able to take her to the doctor in the city.

On the afternoon of the dance, I asked my mother to watch over Nalar at home. Since she began having fevers, I didn’t dare be away from the girl for too long. Nalar sulked when I said good-bye and wouldn’t let me kiss her cheeks. Refusing to look at me, Nalar hid her face in her grandmother’s lap.

After the political party leader who was hosting the event delivered his opening speech, an angklung group was the first to perform. I was scheduled to come after the musicians playing the bamboo instruments finished their piece. Although it wasn’t an official government event, it was crowded with villagers who hungered for entertainment. The distribution of free packages of the nine basic  staples: rice, sugar, cooking oil, milk, egg, salt, fruits and vegetables, meat, and cooking fuel before the party started was surely an added motivation to attend.

I mindfully donned the mask and slowly rose from my cross-legged sitting position. Starting with my back to the audience, I turned around after I made sure that my mask was securely fastened. It was then, when I looked around through the eye slits of my mask, that I saw Nalar and Danu standing among the audience in the back. They were holding hands.

I stopped dancing. My body froze. From behind my mask, I saw Nalar smile. She held her favorite mask in her hand. Slowly, she put it on her face. Then, still holding hands, my two children turned around and walked away to God only knows where.

That was the last time I saw them.

A Short Story About Acceptance and Loss by Eka Kurniawan

I showed up at the house just before dawn prayers. Not long after, my little sister showed up too. She opened the door, weeping. “Is Father dead?”

“Not yet,” I said.

“The doctor said he was.”

After seeing that Father was still alive, even though he was lying there unable to move, her sobs subsided. My sister said she’d received a phone call from my mother, and what she said Mother had told her was exactly what Mother had told me: Come home if you can, the nurse taking care of your father says his kidneys are failing. Before leaving, my sister had stopped by the campus health center because her eye had been itching.

After the exam was done, my sister asked the doctor, “By the way, what happens when someone’s kidneys fail?”

Without looking up from writing her prescription the doctor replied, “They die.”

“Oh my God!” my sister shrieked. She burst into tears, startling the doctor. The whole way home she wept, thinking Father was already gone.

I’m sure that if Father could have heard our conversation, he would have laughed. He loved to laugh. Or maybe he did hear it, but he just couldn’t move, not even to part his lips for a chuckle. If he did hear it, I’m sure he laughed to himself silently. Laughed himself to sleep.

***

We gathered around Father. My mother and my oldest younger sister read Surah Ya Sin. I didn’t join in. I can read the Qu’ran, but not as fluently as they can, and so I chose to simply listen. My other younger siblings are just as bad as me.

It was Father himself who had taught us to pray. If I’m not mistaken, I’ve read through the entire Qu’ran three times. Father opened a small surau behind our house where he taught the neighborhood kids prayer recitation. He also gave Friday sermons at the mosque. Every Friday morning, I would see him writing out what he would say. When the muezzin at that mosque died, Father took his place.

Because the mosque belonged to Muhammadiyah, many people thought Father was a member. He didn’t have a problem with that; he even followed the Muhammadiyah calendar for fasting and Eid, including reciting the Tarawih prayers 11 times. But if he had to, he would recite the Tarawih prayers with Nahdlatul ‘Ulama folks too—for example, with my grandfather, who always insisted on reciting them 23 times.

Sitting there looking at Father, I wondered whether he had ever wished that one of his children would take his place at the pulpit?

“How could you attempt a sermon, you can’t even pray properly!” my mother would say.

And she would be right. If Father had wanted that, then he would have sent me to a religious boarding school—but in fact he let me go away to college and major in philosophy, knowing it was quite possible his son would stop praying or fasting. When I came home after my third semester wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Lenin on it, it was my mother who bemoaned:

“Look, your son has become a cummunist!” (She didn’t say communist but pronounced it cummunist.)

Father, like always, just laughed.

He also let my younger brother major in animal husbandry, and after conducting some experiments with different breeds of chicken, my younger brother decided he agreed with Charles Darwin: Humans and monkeys shared a common ancestor, there was no Adam or Eve. Father didn’t care and gave him some startup money for a poultry farm.

During the 1999 elections, Mother voted for the Crescent Star Party (Father did too, after voting for Masyumi for years, and then the United Development Party), and re-commenced her lamentations. This was because there was only one person in the entire village who had voted for the People’s Democratic Party and everyone knew it was my younger brother the chicken farmer, because he was the only person in the whole village who had put their campaign sign up in his front yard.

“Another one of your sons is a cummunist!”

Once again, Father just laughed. I knew that he would be more concerned to see one of his children steal a fish from a neighbor’s pond than he was to see one of us wear a Lenin T-shirt and the other vote PDP.

Even so, one of my younger sisters—the one who was now reading Ya Sin with Mother—decided to go to the State Institute of Islamic Religion in Yogyakarta for college. But Father didn’t seem to be hoping that she’d become a religion teacher. All he said to me was:

“It’s time for her to leave home and find a husband.”

My third younger sister, the one who cried after seeing the eye doctor, was majoring in Indonesian literature. The fourth younger sister was getting her degree in management. It was only the youngest of us, my brother, who hadn’t gone to college yet. He was sitting there cross-legged with us, restless. I could tell he wanted to leave, to go to his room and play PlayStation. Finally, since as the oldest sibling I had some right to give orders, I gave him permission to go.

“He’s in love,” my sister said after she finished reading Ya Sin. “Two days ago he met a girl on the bus.”

“A girl?”

“Uh huh. He said she winked at him.”

“And then?”

My sister chuckled. “And then, he said, he felt like his heart stopped. He couldn’t look at her for the rest of the ride. He wanted to approach her and introduce himself, but he didn’t dare.” She laughed again.

“And then?”

“This is the funny part. Finally, he arrived at his stop. He was afraid he’d never see her again, so he emboldened himself to look at her, and what do you know she was still looking at him. So, while he was getting down off the bus, he winked at her. And then, because he wasn’t looking where he was going, he fell headlong into the ditch by the side of the road.”

Now I laughed too.

If Father regretted anything about dying, maybe it was that he wouldn’t get the chance to see his youngest grow up and leave home like the rest of us. But maybe he heard the story about my younger brother. And if he did hear it, I am certain that he smiled. And maybe that little smile, deep in his heart, gently eased him into his long sleep.

His youngest child was all grown up. He was already winking at a girl on the bus.

***

When I was still in my early teens, I didn’t have any Saturday nights like the rest of my friends. There was no girlfriend, there was no strumming the guitar playing “Party Doll” (but that was no problem, since I didn’t like the Rolling Stones or Mick Jagger until years later), and there was no watching television. Instead, Father took me to prayer recitation.

It wasn’t a bad thing, actually. The prayers were held at the house of our local butcher. The end of the event (which was what I most looked forward to) was a special dinner with all kinds of beef dishes. I don’t remember where the teacher who led the prayers was from, but I do remember that he had memorized all the verses of the Qu’ran in Arabic and what they meant by heart. If someone came to him with a problem, he could quickly point to a few specific chapters and verses as the solution. Everyone brought his or her own Qu’ran in Indonesian translation to double-check and confirm. The most popular words of all were: “All answers can be found in this book.”

Then the teacher began talking about “our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan.” I forget how long this issue was discussed, probably for weeks.

One night, I said to Father, “I want to go to Afghanistan.”

He didn’t answer me then, but he didn’t take me with him to prayer recitation the following week or the week after that. I can’t remember whether he himself stopped going or not—and then the whole household came down with chicken pox, except me, and Father told me to go spend some time at my uncle’s house.

There, my uncle lent me a radio, and from then on I spent most of my Saturday nights hunched over it. I had just met a girl in the grade below me. I sent her messages and song dedications through a call-in show. She never sent anything in return, but I kept pursuing her. That whole quest, which lasted for months and months, made me forget all about my notion of going to Afghanistan.

Looking down at Father lying in his bed, I thought back to those times. I wasn’t sure whether I should be thankful. If Father had let me to go to Afghanistan, maybe now I wouldn’t be by his side. Maybe I’d be on a most-wanted list for blowing up a church or a hotel. Or maybe it would be worse than that. Since I think I’m smarter than most people, maybe my plot would have been grander and my fate even worse—maybe I’d have ended up in Guantánamo. Who knows?

I looked at Father. If he had still been healthy, he would have easily read my mind and he would certainly have laughed, until tears poured out of his eyes. “That would never have happened!” That’s what he would say. “You’re smart, but you don’t have the guts. You’re a scaredy-cat, and that’s why you didn’t go to Afghanistan. You’re intimidated by soldiers and police, although you like to act like you’re not even afraid of hell.”

***

Finally, Father died. On the second night after I came home, just before dawn prayers. He was 63 years old, almost 64. He must have been quite pleased, since that was the same age as the Prophet. My mother was also pleased, because the last word she heard Father utter before he died was “Allah.”

Mother said Father hadn’t made any sound at all for days, nor had he moved. But, a half an hour before he died, he began to moan again. He took short, gasping breaths. Mother, who had been with my grandfather and grandmother when they passed, knew that he only had a few minutes left. “You can smell it,” that’s what Mother said. I smelled it too—it was like a baby being born. Mother placed a plate of ground coffee next to Father. I sprayed air freshener.

Along with one of my uncles, we whispered the name of Allah into my Father’s ear. Finally, Father was able to say, “Allah… Allah… Allah.” After that, he died. My mother shed tears. My uncle closed Father’s eyes. My younger brother and sisters were with us. I called my wife, who had stayed behind in Jakarta.

Believe it or not, I always thought of Father’s destiny as being linked to the fate of the Indonesian nation. He was born one month after the Independence Proclamation, and according to Chinese astrology, Father and the Republic of Indonesia had the same sign: Rooster with the Fixed Element of Wood. Their fates would not be all that different.

For example: On November 28, 1975, I was born. At the same time, Fretilin freed East Timor, and it was annexed by the Republic of Indonesia. Both of them—my father and Indonesia—had a new member of the family. After that, Father’s business efforts (and there were all different kinds) achieved success. Then, at the height of his prosperity, in 1998 Father suddenly went bankrupt. And Indonesia did too, didn’t it? Father had a stroke and his health never fully recovered. In 1999, he began supporting himself with a crutch. And that year Indonesia was led by Gus Dur, the president who walked with a cane.

Now that father had died, would the Republic of Indonesia also meet its end? Truly, I was worried. But, rather than thinking about that kind of thing, it was better for me to take care of Father’s funeral. He would be buried right next to his mother-in-law, my grandmother.

From dust to dust. There were four gravediggers who needed to be paid. There were guests who needed to be greeted. There were relatives who needed to be informed. That’s how it was.

***

Four days later, I headed back to Jakarta on a night bus. After a seven-hour journey I would arrive in Kampung Rambutan. I sat there, the AC humming above me. I reclined my seat. I was lost in thought for more than an hour.

Then, the conductor approached. I fished around in my pants pocket for my wallet. The conductor stopped next to me and glanced in my direction. I looked up at him. He seemed startled, and after a moment greeted me, “How are you?”

But honestly, I didn’t think I knew him.

Before I had the chance to open my mouth, he continued, “My condolences for the loss of your Father.”

I nodded and said thank you. I went to pull some money out of my wallet, but he quickly waved it away. “There’s no need,” he said. Then he told me how a number of years ago he had a toothache. Medication hadn’t helped but the dentist didn’t want to pull his tooth until the pain had subsided. Finally, someone recommended that he go see this one kyai, and he went. The kyai gave him a drink: just plain water from the kitchen tap. Suddenly, his pain went away, and the doctor pulled his tooth.

“That kyai was your father,” the conductor said.

Honestly, I had never heard this story before.

The conductor patted my shoulder and moved off toward the next passenger. All I could do was put my wallet back into my pocket, and turn my head to watch him go.

Even after his death, I thought, Dad is still giving me bus fare. I smiled and leaned back into my seat again. I took out my iPod and chose the song “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jack. I put in my earphones and closed my eyes.

Goodbye, Papa, it’s hard to die…

And then I was fast asleep.

Man of the Fields

Hasan hurriedly harvested the chili peppers growing on a patch of land near the stream that was starting to run dry. The farmers of Buket Kuta placed their hopes on the harvest of this small area of the valley when the dry season hit. Their village was tucked away in the deep silence of coconut groves that, neglected, had turned into overgrown woods, some nine miles off the main road between Medan and Banda, along Eastern Aceh. Idi, the closest small city, was about thirteen miles farther. Without any available public transportation, the villagers never ventured out. They had no idea what the world beyond Buket Kuta looked like.

Hasan gazed across the valley at what remained of Kampung Kulam. The village where he had grown up was now abandoned. In 1999, a year after Indonesia’s President was forced to step down and the government in Jakarta fell into chaos, rebels in Aceh began attacking army posts in retaliation against the government. The rebels claimed that the government had exploited the natural resources that belonged to the most northern province of Sumatra, and the Acehnese had not received their fair share of proceeds. Their discontent erupted in a series of protests.

Hasan was the breadwinner of one of fifteen families from Kampung Kulam who now lived in Buket Kuta. The soldiers had found no evidence of him being involved in revolts against the government.

Hasan still remembered the beginning of the rebellion against the government. At that time, there had been no coercion in collecting what the rebels called pajak nanggroe—contributions to support the uprising. Resentment against the government was widespread, and the rich city folks who supported the rebels’ cause gladly made donations. The war was merely a spark of discontent; something similar to an ember held in a damp chaff to keep from flaring. Rebels moved around freely to meet with businessmen and wealthy people in the city without fear of drawing the millitary’s suspicion.

The few government soldiers there were back then only recognized one or two of the rebel organizers. The army affixed posters with photographs of the rebels to the walls of shops and meunasah, the prayer house, encouraging the community to report any sightings of the people shown on these flyers to the authorities.

The war dragged on, however, and the rebels became cornered and financially pressured. They began to exhort money from everyone. When the wealthy residents fled, the rebels turned a blind eye to the peasants’ hardships and poverty and made the nanggroe dues compulsory for villagers as well.

Hasan sighed and pulled his harvesting sack across the path between the chili beds. Kampung Kulam was but a memory; it had become a dense forest that snakes and boars called home. Numerous villagers had been killed and buried there. Hasan thought of his father, mother, and younger sister. Tears fell onto the rubber boots he always wore when leaving home.

***

As he harvested, Hasan chewed a reed and recalled the army’s wrath after a rebel blocked their truck and killed a battalion of soldiers with a bazooka. Hundreds of soldiers arrived the next day to punish Kampung Kulam, burning homes and shooting everyone in sight. The village that Hasan had called home became a slaughterhouse. Blood flooded the ground as women and children were killed along with the men. Luckily, at the time, Hasan and his wife were out in the fields.

Even though the field was more than half a mile away from home, they could hear the soldiers’ shouting as gunshots reverberated through the air. Each time there was an eruption of gunfire, Hasan’s breath caught in his throat and his heart pounded. When he noticed the artillery fire being returned, Hasan and his pregnant wife ran to hide in the forest.

Once the soldiers returned to their posts, Hasan found that his village had been razed; there was not a single home left standing. Everything had been burned to the ground. Bodies littered the yards of what used to be homes; more were scattered in the fields among the coconut trees and crops. Only those who happened to be far away from the village had survived. The sight of it all shook Hasan, and he suffered from a kind of amnesia for days.

When his senses returned to him, Hasan broke into tears and cursed the war. Only over time did he learn to forget. Living here required the ability to forget pain. Life demanded him to work. Thus, he and his wife built a new hut in Buket Kuta, where they now lived.

***

The soldiers at the post on the outskirts of Buket Kuta searched the village hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of times. They searched Hasan’s home almost every day, but never found any weapons. Nevertheless, each time the troops patrolled the village, Hasan and other males were always a target of their anger.

The military abused the farmers to make them hate the rebels for causing the military persecution. Helpless to fight back against the heavily armed soldiers, the villagers could only run away and seek sanctuary in the forest.

Each time the military departed after their raids, Mando Gapi and his men appeared. The square-jawed commander of the rebels demanded the villagers pay the nanggroe dues without considering how they suffered. He was having trouble finding new members willing to join the fight against the military. So many lives had been lost; those still standing shuddered at the sight of a weapon.

“Your growing debt would be paid off if you joined us,” Mando Gapi barked.

“I have a child, sir,” Hasan pleaded.

“You always use that excuse!”

“I don’t know what to do.”

“You’re lucky to even have a family. We have no one, just weapons. It doesn’t matter what you’re dealing with, you still have to pay up. That’s the price of not participating in the war!”

“But…I have no money, sir.”

“Aren’t your chili peppers about ready for harvesting?”

“But, I haven’t picked them. Besides, I owe Dullah, the village grocer, a lot of money.”

“You always complain. You won’t even join the war. What do you contribute to the greater good, to defend the honor of the Acehnese as the government tramples us? They’re seizing our oil and gas, destroying our forests to manufacture paper. And when we demand independence, they send their troops to kill our men and rape our women. Is it right that you remain silent in the face of all this?”

“If I didn’t have a wife and child, I would join the war, sir,” Hasan answered nervously.

“Come on, you aren’t fooling anyone. You can’t prove to have contributed anything. You even avoid paying the nanggroe dues. Look at us. We’ve sacrificed all of our possessions to buy weapons and lead a miserable existence in the forest under constant watch of those damned soldiers!”

“I don’t know, sir,” Hasan mumbled, confused.

Mando Gapi slapped his forehead, shook his head, and put his hands on his hips. “Look, I’m trying to be nice. Go, pick those peppers, sell them, and give us some of the money. I’ll come back for it tomorrow or the day after!”

Hasan, standing frozen on his porch, stared at Mando Gapi as the man turned aroundand walked away.

***

As soon as Mando Gapi left, Hasan slumped. He suddenly felt incredibly frail, powerless to the point that standing was a challenge in itself. Crouching, he leaned against a wall. Mando Gapi’s threats, on top of his debt at Dullah’s shop, made Hasan’s head spin and his ears ring.

Reza, his three-year-old son, walked toward him from inside the house.

Hasan pulled his son onto his lap. Stroking the boy’s head, he gazed into the distance, thoughts tumbling through his head.

He was stuck between the army and Mando Gapi.

He needed to harvest his peppers immediately.

***

The army had tracked Mando Gapi to Buket Kuta. Their search forced all adult males in the village to flee to the forest again. After hiding there for five days and five nights, Hasan had returned home that morning. He was exhausted. Sleep deprivation and an undefined restlessness had caused his entire body to be sore. His wife, Saudah, greeted him, weeping. Reza bawled for food.

“We don’t have anything anymore, dear. We finished the rice,” Saudah told him.

Hasan responded with a pained look. His stomach ached as well. Not only was his face ragged, his mind too was worn out. Hasan furiously condemned this cursed war.

If only he did not have so much debt accrued at Dullah’s shop, he would surely have rushed over there. But Hasan was overcome with shame at the thought of asking the middle-aged man for a bit of salted fish and rice on credit. Considering Hasan’s prior debts, Dullah might not be willing to provide him with these staples. The shopkeeper always complained of his losses to anyone who borrowed from him.

Hasan knew that each time troops entered the village, Dullah was forced to surrender his inventory to them, along with however many rupiah were in the drawer. The army picked everything clean and acted as if they owned it all.

Each time, Dullah watched them loot his shop without any attempt to resist. This conduct saved him from the abuse served up by the soldiers, who instead busied themselves with kicking villagers who happened to be wandering by the shop. As the kicks hit their marks, the soldiers threw accusations at the farmers’ dirty faces, alleging they were rebels.

***

Hasan took off his stained and tattered shirt and slapped his head with a burly hand. The stench of urine where his son had wet the dirt floor made his headache worse. Pacing the tight space, he barely missed stepping on Reza’s foot, causing the child to scream.

Saudah split the cucumber Hasan had found in an abandoned field as he was leaving his hiding place in the forest. She handed a piece to Reza, which immediately quieted him. As the toddler bit into the cucumber, its juices squirted and dripped from his mouth.

Hasan sat down on the floor; his dark skin was covered with little welts similar to bug bites. Saudah came to him with a bottle of kerosene and rubbed the kerosene all over her husband’s body to soothe the welts.

Hasan knew how much his wife loved him; Saudah knew how much he loved her. And yet they had lost the ability to respond to or receive such emotions. Amidst the peril and misery that smothered each day, every emotion other than fear felt strange; war left no room for love.

“How far did you go this time?”

“To the Damar Forest.”

“That far?”

“The soldiers kept coming after us. Our men opened fire and shot one of them. The soldiers were furious. Whoever wanted to stay alive was forced to join the rebels, who ran into the forest.” Hasan rubbed his calves and continued, “The soldiers made no effort to distinguish farmers from rebels—to them, we all look the same. Our filthy bodies even smell the same. But it’s no wonder the soldiers were furious; we did shoot one of them.”

Hasan paused and sent Saudah a scrutinizing look. “What did they do here?”

“They gathered people, including children, in the meunasah. Several boys were beaten. Their fathers were accused of causing the death of a soldier.” Saudah sighed.

“What did they do to you?”

“They just scolded me.”

“They didn’t take anything from our house?”

“No. There isn’t anything left for them to take. They were really mad. They shot whatever livestock they saw.”

“Our goat?” Concern was written all over Hasan’s face.

“Dead.”

“Did you cook it?”

“They took the carcass.”

Hasan pulled away and darted out the door. He ran to the back garden, past the coconut trees that had refused to bear fruit for the past year. The drought had turned the leaves yellow and caused the ribs to drop to the ground. Hasan stopped running. He beat his head with both hands.

“Damn it all!” he screamed, stumbling through the bushes. Close to the narrow walk bordering the rice paddies, a few cassava plants had sprouted. Stalks of rice still rose from the soil like tiny bundles of thin sticks; the leaves were parched. He had plowed the land and tended to the seedlings on this plot. Yet, the ground of the rice paddies was hard and cracked. The plants had perished, the seed wasted.

At the cassava patch, Hasan clenched his fists when he saw the uprooted plants. Boar tracks explained the damage. Hasan cursed. His stomach hurt; he thought of his wife’s and child’s stomachs.

He eventually decided to take home the boars’ leftovers. Hasan dug for the remaining roots with his hands like a scavenger.The immature tubers were hard, like tree roots.

At home, Hasan handed Saudah the meager harvest.

She silently boiled the thin, tough roots.

Though it was only noon, Hasan yearned for sleep. During the five days he was trapped in the woods, he could only catnap along with the other farmers and the rebels. A ceaseless anxiety kept everyone awake.

After a while of tossing and turning on his cot, Hasan still could not fall asleep. Neither was his passion aroused when he looked at his wife. Although he had been away from home for five days, and normally his desire for her could be sparked at any time of the day or night, he remained unmoved, even after she lay down next to him.

“I’m going to pick the chili peppers,” he told her, jumping out of bed and grabbing an empty sack next to the door.

***

Now Hasan moved between the chili beds with an urgency to fill his harvest bag. His calloused hands trembled slightly as he picked the peppers, regardless of the fruit being red or green. His fingers, skilled and swift, plucked each pepper from every hanging stem. Sometimes, in his haste, he seized the rotten ones that had not fallen off the stem. He tried to stay focused on the task at hand, but failed miserably. A shadow followed him relentlessly, circling nearby.

Hasan was alone as twilight draped the field. While gathering the peppers, he could not keep himself from looking around as if there was another presence, someone standing behind him like a ghost. He worried about suddenly being surrounded by a military squad. Soldiers on surveillance often concealed themselves in the bushes for hours before unexpectedly appearing without a sound.

They would never believe that he was merely a man working the fields. No one would still be wandering in the fields when it was almost dark. Unless, of course, they were starving rebels stealing the farmers’ crops.

Hasan wanted to get the job done quickly. He knew the price of chili peppers was at a high. If he could harvest them all, he would be able to buy a sack of rice, enough for his family to live on for a month. His wife would have no need to complain, and his son would not beg to be fed.

The row of peppers he had picked looked like wild animals had foraged there. Some branches were broken, some fruit scattered on the dirt. Hasan realized the damage. He knew the broken branches would wither and drop their leaves.

He seemed to make such little progress while time passed so quickly. Now, all chili peppers—ripe, green, or still in bud, and even the rotten ones—were bagged. The sack was full. He could sort the good from the bad later that evening at home.

Hasan straightened himself. His heart pounded when he realized how late it was. Delight and fear filled him. He imagined his wife and son, anxiously waiting for him to come home with rice.

Hasan hurriedly tied the top of the sack with a used plastic strap. He looked in all directions, then dragged the bag down a path between thick weeds. He deliberately did not carry the sack on his back, to avoid being noticed from afar. Hasan crept forward, lugging the bag behind him.

When he reached a portion of the path that was blocked from view by high shrubs, Hasan was able to walk upright and felt relieved. Even if there were soldiers out there, they would not be able to spot him. The surrounding grove gave him cover.

Hasan thought of his wife and child. Come what may, he must always return to the fields to plant rice, cassava, and chili peppers. The rice and cassava could be eaten. The peppers could be sold to Dullah. If the price was right, his wife would be able to buy groceries, clothes, and other things at the Idi Market. Hasan had no wish to join the war. He merely wanted to live a happy life with his wife and child.

Suddenly, like the silhouette of a ghost passing by, several figures dressed in camouflage jumped out of the nearby bushes. Soldiers.

Hasan gasped and let go of the sack of peppers. Something hard slammed into the nape of his neck. Before he could utter a sound, Hasan collapsed.

Visiting a Haunted House

This isn’t your usual ghost story, you know. It’s a completely ordinary tale, nothing special. My grandmother expired, as most grandmothers do, four days after I turned twenty-nine. I chose to skip the scene of her funeral—women in headscarves chanting prayers and men in peci heaping soil on her body, far away down yonder. I, beloved granddaughter that I was, hoped she’d forgive me for not shelling out fifteen hundred dollars to see her wrapped in a shroud. There’s no point in running after the dead.

I received the news of her passing in New York. I was hurrying toward West Fourth Street Station when I got a text from my dad. Clutching the phone, I stopped and turned to look at a small playground on my left. A bunch of guys were playing basketball, surrounded by spectators, and a couple of pedestrians looked on, puffing cigarettes. The game seemed to unfold in slow motion. A woman jostled my shoulder, giving a barely audible apology, and scurried down the subway stairs. It seemed for a split second like I’d fallen asleep. I felt I too should run—that way, in the direction the woman had gone, to catch my train. In my diary, I wrote a short note to my grandmother: I’m sorry, Grandma. I can’t see you off on your final train ride because I’m also on a train. My train keeps hurtling onward. It doesn’t stop. Not even for death.

 

*

I’ve always liked my grandmother’s name. Victoria. I don’t know how she wound up with it. Maybe her mother was inspired by an incident in 1895 when Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands visited Queen Victoria of Great Britain. My generation was surrounded by old women like my grandmother and great-grandmother who’d been Dutchified. Maybe they were just trying to be fashionable, and all of us are just natives, inlanders, who want to be European. But I liked to say her name over and over: Victoria, Victoria. It reminded me of Victor Frankenstein, scientist extraordinaire. My grandmother wasn’t a genius like Victor who could create human life itself, but having been a teacher, she knew a thing or two.

A year after Victoria’s death, I visited her home with my dad and an uncle. In we marched: Papa and Uncle and me, girl wanderer. Victoria’s children were impatient to sell the house because none of them cared to look after it. Who in the world would want to buy it, mused Papa. Like other deserted houses, my grandmother’s home seemed haunted. Someone who claimed to be able to see spirits reported that Victoria’s house was inhabited by a kuntilanak, a long-haired demon who lived near the well. A woman no longer here, in our world, but not “over there” either. Wherever “there” was. You could be sure she wasn’t resting in peace.

Is Grandma wandering too? I asked.

Hush! Don’t talk about your grandmother as if she were a demon.

My grandmother was devout. People say the devout rest at Allah’s side.

How does that song go again?

Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go . . . wandering.

Papa and Uncle did not want to imagine Victoria as a spirit even though her name fit all too well with ghost stories. But I felt her gliding through these rooms, watching my every step. The kuntilanak had set up house by the well, but my grandmother was never the domestic type. She might have found heaven dull with its repetitive pleasures: limpid streams, a surfeit of honey, olives ripe for picking (Victoria was never a fan of olives). When she was young, nothing was more thrilling for her than riding a minibus to market in a floral-print cotton dress, toting a plaited purse, and wearing dark sunglasses. It made perfect sense that in death she’d prefer a wandering state.

 

*

A dozen years ago, before Grandma fell ill, this house pulsed with life. I remembered where she slept. This was her bedroom; right beside it was Uncle’s room, plastered with posters of Duran Duran and Phoebe Cates. (Whatever happened to Phoebe Cates, anyway?) Another uncle went to college in a different city, so he had no room of his own. Every Lebaran, Victoria made kaastengels and layer cakes of all sorts, sinfully rich goodies laden with butter, milk, and sugar. Nobody in my family baked like that anymore. Who has eight hours to spend on a cake?

My father had gotten the idea of renting out Grandma’s house, but it still hadn’t attracted any interest. It was too big and creepy. And now it had fallen into disrepair. I interrogated my father: Uncle really doesn’t have the time to do some weeding and clear away cobwebs? Why would he want to do that, Papa replied. In a tone of envy he added, your uncle inherited a clove plantation from Grandma. Wow, a plantation. Good for him. I often fancy that God alone has a garden, especially when I’m dashing around in bus terminals and airports with a backpack. God’s garden is eternal; all that is transient winds up in the clutches of corporations or the state.

Victoria’s house was slowly being emptied out. Only in the last few months did her children realize that every object had been pilfered by amateur thieves. The house was begging for its funeral; even the clock on the wall had died. Aunt Leila and Cousin Rika have been here, said Papa. They’ve already taken everything valuable. Antique lamps. Flower vases. The men in my family got there late. It had always been like that, really, but I’d forgotten. As the years come and go, you get fuzzy about people’s habits.

Now take what you want, said Uncle.

I don’t want anything.

If you don’t, somebody else will.

Fine. At least I understood two things. First, there’s no point in storing the property of the dead in their home. Second, there’s a good chance all their stuff will be stolen, and definitely not by a kuntilanak.

I opened my grandmother’s wardrobe. As a child, I lived for two years in this house. I’d go into her closet and inhale the scent of her clothes. They smelled of laundry powder. I liked them better than the clothes that clung to Victoria’s body. My grandmother’s own scent, with its mingling of onion, oven-melted butter, and smoke from clove cigarettes, left me slightly woozy. Gudang Garam was her brand of choice. Still stored in her closet were a few clothes hung and folded, a prayer rug with the Ka’bah embroidered on it, and a toy piano. The piano was mine. I remembered it, a light blue one, a plaything of mine when I lived there. Papa and Uncle were still chatting. I grabbed a tissue from my purse to wipe my eyes. Damn nostalgia.

The clothes hanging here weren’t of the best quality, except for a gray suit that belonged to my grandfather. Only one, because the others had already been spirited away. Victoria had always wanted her husband to remain a dandy, ever elegant, like when they first met and danced and danced. Sometimes I wonder if they didn’t feel guilty living it up back in those colonial times, but back then few other ambitions were available. Natives knew no dreams beyond boarding ships, going to parties, or traveling to far-off lands. My grandmother had always wanted to go abroad, but she had to make do with riding a minibus to the market in her beautiful dresses. As for my grandfather, he died in the mid-1980s, and I have few memories of him. All I remember is that he’d ferry me around town on a Vespa, light blue like my toy piano, and that he’d give me Sugus candies, those strawberry, orange, and grape-flavoured squares. (Do kids still chew Sugus candy these days?)

Everyone wanted to get away but couldn’t, so they planted their feet at home, in the soil, in the garden.

You have to keep what’s left.

I wasn’t sure who was making a fuss this time, Papa or Uncle. I paid no attention.

I was more attracted to the cloudy mirror and dusty dressing table in my grandmother’s room. On the table lay a small book of Islamic scripture, empty perfume bottles, and broken sticks of red lipstick. Red, like the mouth of a baby-devouring kuntilanak. Who was making herself up in front of the mirror now?

Papa and Uncle’s voices rose ever higher, like touts at a bus terminal, more and more desperate to get their hooks in where they could.

This one. Take this jar. This cup. This painting.

What about the wardrobe, asked Papa.

Or this. An antique chest from Bali. It used to be your great-grandmother’s.

The wooden chest was like something that belonged to a sorceress. Dark and beautiful. I considered whether to take it. Then I’d finally have something solid, heavy, venerable—something befitting a Sumatran matriarch like my grandmother, or my great-grandmother, or Aunt Leila.

But where would I keep it? I don’t even have a house.

Bring it to New York, said Papa.

That’d be so expensive! And who knows where I’ll move afterward. Sydney, probably.

I can hold on to it until you come back home.

Back home? Home where? When?

Something loomed in the cloudy mirror. I turned away. The question returned, but now it disturbed me: who is making herself up there now?

A kuntilanak.

I didn’t want to find a kuntilanak in the mirror. I wanted to see Grandma’s spirit. Victoria. I wanted Victoria, whose body I had not seen as it was being covered by earth. I’d smash a mirror to hold her in my arms. I stepped closer in order to get a good look at the woman’s face. My knees trembled a bit. At that moment I realized that my grandmother was no wandering spirit, at least not in this house. The wandering spirit was me.

My feet do not tread the ground anywhere. I have no home, I know no love of any soil. But what is a house? The house had long since rotted away, long before the kuntilanak arrived; it was disintegrating along with Victoria’s maggot-infested corpse. Taking what was left behind would rescue nothing. Papa and Uncle didn’t know that. But I knew. For my feet do not tread the ground.

 

*

I decided to take a memento from Victoria’s house. The toy piano, which at least was actually mine. A souvenir from childhood turned airport stowaway because there was no grave in which to bury it. Together we, toy piano and I, would transit through Hong Kong.

My plane left three days later. Maybe I’ll go back in a few years and find the house razed to the ground. But Victoria won’t care because she’ll be in New York, Tokyo, or Paris with her flowery cotton dress and sunglasses. (Did I mention that she wasn’t an olive fan?) Maybe it’s Amsterdam that she haunts, since she was fond of speaking Dutch. Then we will meet, in another dimension if not in this material, visible world.

Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go wandering. See, Victoria? I really am your beloved grandchild.

Ah Xiang’s Last Day

After lining up the eight plates of milk custard pie on a long table in the living room, Ah Xiang returned to his room to take a rest. He actually felt fresh, as he had just taken a bath, the first time in over a year that a drop of water had touched his body. He was sure that his demise would come that day as Li Hwa had told him. Li Hwa is his cousin who has the ability to foresee the time of someone’s death.

He had found out about the day of his death six months ago, and the next day he called his elder brother and eight younger siblings one by one. “On the fourth day of the ninth month, my time shall come,” said Ah Xiang. His ‘announcement’ was meant to be an invitation for his brothers and sisters, to visit him on that very date.

“Rather than talking rubbish, you better take a bath! If you want to draw attention that way, people will avoid you instead,” said Ah Seh, Ah Xiang’s brother.

There were more brothers and sisters who disregarded Ah Xiang’s announcement than those who cared. Ah Xiang truly believed in Li Hwa’s foretelling—that elderly lady had accurately foreseen the death of one of Ah Xiang’s close friends. His brothers and sisters who had heard the story took it as a mere coincidence. It does not take an intelligent person to be able to predict the death of a dying person, so they thought.

Not only did he believe in Li Hwa’s prediction, but Ah Xiang also wanted to die soon. He did not have enough courage to commit suicide, however. He had heard a story that the god of the hereafter, Giam Lo Ong, does not think twice about sending people who commit suicide to hell.

He had been single all his life. The only woman he had ever slept with, Was, did not want to marry him. She was a maid who took care of Ah Xiang’s mother. After the death of his mother twenty years ago, Was went back to her hometown. Was had persuaded Ah Xiang to take her as a wife, but his parents could not consent to a domestic helper as a daughter-in-law. And later, Was realized her life would not be prosperous enough just living off of Ah Xiang’s inheritance from his family. Moreover, Ah Xiang remained unemployed. He lived on money sent to him by his brother, Ah Li, who had lived with him for years and then moved to Singapore to work, thus leaving him alone. Ah Li still sent him money, which he sometimes used for betting in chess matches against the handymen working next door.

Since Was left, Ah Xiang turned gloomy. And what was worse, after Ah Li left, Ah Xiang practically did not have anyone left. Yet, his sorrow could still be soothed at least once a year. Chinese New Year—the principal holiday for the Chinese—was still celebrated at his residence, as was sangjit, an offering rite, whenever one of Ah Xiang’s nieces was about to marry. These two celebrations took place at Ah Xiang’s house, in Jakarta, because the house was the family’s main house. So Ah Xiang always awaited at least these two annual events. He would be busy making his best custard tarts to enliven the mood. To him, custard tart is obligatory for every family celebration. Custard tart is an ancestral heritage. Its sweetness brings joy. And joy brings good fortune.

“The filling of the custard tart should be soft, so soft that it melts when you put it in your mouth,” said Ah Xiang’s mother when she was teaching him how to make custard tart for the first time. “And you must remember to always use the eggs from hens that are on pasture, as the yolk is darker yellow, the taste is milder and the smell less foul.”

Sometimes he imagined climbing his family tree back to the times of his ancestors in east Kengtang, China. He would meet his great-great-great grandmother, the person who made the first custard tart, after the kitchen master god Chàu-Kun sent the recipe to her in a dream.  Ah Xiang could not accept it if anyone would say that our custard tart was only the people of Hong Kong’s adaptation of a Portuguese custard pie. He would not take the side of an historical possibility that threatened the purity of this recipe. And why would anyone want to question his belief anyways?

“No white men can make good cakes!” said Ah Xiang. This was despite the fact that he had never tried any European cake.

Some years after Ah Li had left him, the custard tarts were missing from the family parties. Ah Xiang did not feel like making them anymore. The Chinese New Year and sangjit celebrations were no longer held at his house, but rather at Ah Seh’s in the Kebon Jeruk area, where the living room and parking space are wider. The title of “principal house”, which signifies the house of the first generation, was ignored. At first Ah Xiang still regularly attended the events at her sister’s house, picked up by his niece with a car. But year after year he felt increasingly like an outsider amid the hilarity of his own extended family. Finally, he decided not to join the family gatherings anymore. He preferred being alone all year long at his house. Nobody visited him. He only went out to pay the water, electricity and telephone bills; and bought meals at the local food stalls. Most of the time he just sat on a chair on the terrace, watching the orange trees.

Why hasn’t anyone showed up? Ah Xiang thought.

Ah Xiang also decided not to take a bath or clean the house anymore. He thought, why should I take care of things that everyone ignores? His bad odor grew stronger and stronger. Nobody could stand being anywhere near him. His brothers and sisters were caught between pitying him and being disgusted by him, but the latter sentiment seemed to be stronger. They saw Ah Xiang’s behavior as his way of seeking attention. As a result, they cared less.

Whenever Ah Xiang heard the sound of a car approaching his house, he often thought it was one of his siblings coming to pay him a visit. But most of the time he was wrong. Then he would heave a deep sigh, watching the car pass by in front of his house.

One evening, after he had not bathed for months, Ah Xiang’s heart was filled with hope as he heard Li Hwa calling him from the fence of the house.

Li Hwa did not share a person’s expiration time easily, instead, she would keep it to herself. One would have to coax her for hours so that she would tell.

“Telling you about something like this is inappropriate,” said Li Hwa.

“If you have been given the gift to reveal the secret of the sky, that means you do have the right,” said Ah Xiang.

Although her ability sounded very powerful, Li Hwa told one’s time of death in an unceremonial way. She would simply need to close her eyes for some time. That way, she explained, she could let her consciousness wander in the sky, enter Giam Lo Ong’s palace over the cluster of clouds, pass through a long hallway with stacks of parchment scrolls on racks lining both sides, then stop in a small wooden-floored room: where a painting of a dragon and a phoenix hung on the wall and a gold-covered book sat on a table. She could look in that book for the name of a person whose time of death she wanted to know. The pages would turn by themselves as she wanted.

How he would die, Ah Xiang did not need to question. He thought he would perish due to his deteriorating health. He often vomited for no clear reason, then he would gasp and grow completely weak after eating. Yet, he had never consulted a doctor even once.

“In a month’s time, I will die!” said Ah Xiang when he was on the phone with Ah Li, reminding him about Li Hwa’s prophecy.

“Koh, you better not believe Li Hwa, she only talks bullshit. If she is indeed a clairvoyant, why is her life so difficult now?” asked Ah Li.

“What does ‘bullshit’ mean?”

After he found out about his time of death, Ah Xiang started thinking of making a simple celebration. Chinese New Year comes every year, while death is a one-off happening (at least in one lifetime). Death is more worth celebrating, Ah Xiang thought. Thus, some days before the D-day, he started preparing custard tart batter. During one day he prepared eight tarts. Eight, he thought, is a lucky number. After baking the tarts, he waited until they cooled down and set, then stored them in the fridge. On the D-day, he would simply bring the tarts to the living room.

“Ah Li and Ah San must be the ones who miss my custard tart the most,” said Ah Xiang, cutting each tart into eight slices. He was tracing every member of the extended family, guessing who would come to his funeral. He wished that everybody would. But then he wondered if they would cry and pray for him? Or maybe they would come only out of courtesy? Isn’t it a stock reason for people to attend many kinds of events in this world?

Will they come today?

As time went by, Ah Xiang grew worried. He could no longer stand lying on his bed, watching the dull yellow walls of his bedroom and the 1995 calender with the photo of a white girl in a bikini that he had left hanging there since that year. He started wondering, it’s already late afternoon, but why haven’t his siblings come to see him off? Not even news from Li Hwa.

Ah Xiang got off his bed, walked and reached the telephone to check whether the cable was cut or gnawed by rats. He wanted to dial, but had doubts. How awkward would it be to ask his siblings: why don’t you come on the day of my death? He looked at the rows of custard tart on a long table in the living room. He stood pondering when a car honked outside. Surprised and hopeful, he ran out to the front yard.

“Good afternoon, is this the Pasaribus’ house?”

“Wr… wrong house.” Ah Xiang shook his head.

He walked feebly back to his bedroom and laid down for two hours. He was imagining his extended family coming and filling the house, having a great time in the simple celebration he held just before his funeral.

It is now 4 pm, Ah Xiang goes out of his room. No sign whatsoever that anybody is coming. He walks to the living room and grabs a slice of custard tart. He eats it while sitting on a garden chair, watching the juicy oranges and the sky that turns a dark yellow. The sunlight bathes his face.

Deep in his mind he hears voices, “Ah Xiang, Ah Xiang, you are the first child that follows Mom.”

Not long after eating the piece of custard tart, Ah Xiang feels sleepy. But instead of going to his room, he remains seated and lets himself fall asleep. It is not windy, but feels airy and fresh. As he wakes up, his body feels so light, as if some burden has been lifted from his chest. He chuckles so long that tears seep out of his eyes. He does not really know why he is laughing.

He does not wish for anything, nor expect anybody to come.

As night almost falls, Ah Xiang leaves the terrace. He turns back and watches himself sitting motionlessly, his eyes shut as if he is sleeping soundly. Ah Xiang wipes the face and leaves his body.

He still has no idea of where to go.

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