Sun, 04 Nov 2001


By Lie Hua

"Yes, I want to wash the dishes tonight, period. You can do it tomorrow," Nita said emphatically and loudly, her eyes looking sideways at a young girl slightly older than herself sitting beside their mother.

Nita dexterously collected the plates, bowls, spoons, forks and all. Piling them up on her bent left arm, she took them to the kitchen.

Nita's sister, Alisia, kept quiet. She was only offering to wash the dishes that night. Nita took it as an offense and became irritated. Alisia knew that although there were only the two of them, recently they more often than not found themselves at opposite poles.

"Let me help you, Nit," Alisia offered.

"Mind your own business. You just want to curry favor with Mom, am I right?"

"No, Nit, I really want to help you. Honest," she said.

She knew she had to stop or her sister would rattle on for hours on end, annoying everybody in the house. "Like living in a beehive," their mother would scream and the two sisters would then keep quiet.

That night Nita was really angry. In the kitchen, she carelessly dumped the plates, bowls, spoons and forks into the sink. Some spoons and forks fell rattling to the floor. She did not care. She was fuming with anger. "You want to take my turn, eh, and then call me lazy. No way. I know you are close to Mom but I won't allow you to curry favor with her," Nita said to herself.

Luckily, it was raining hard outside and the sounds from the kitchen were only slightly audible from the sitting room, where Alisia and Mom were seated on an old sofa, both sure of what was about to happen. Nita would storm out of the kitchen, shouting harsh words, her face set in a pout. She would let out her anger, seemingly oblivious to the impact on their fragile mother. Then Alisia would hug Mom, giving her the necessary protection, if not physically, then mentally.

"Don't curry favor with Mom, Lis," Nita was heard shouting wildly from the kitchen.

Alisia and her mother sat even closer to each other. The old woman stared blankly at a small television. Her wrinkled skin and unkempt hair made her look pathetic. She looked at Alisia, as if asking for help, but said not a single word.

Alisia, at 19 two years older than Nita, was lost deep in thought. They used to be a happy family. Nita was a cute younger sister, always ready to lend a hand. She was an active girl and very fond of helping their mother.

Father? Yes, father was a traveling salesman. Ten days out of town and then two days at home. Father was handsome, at least to me, Alisia said to herself. He loved his two daughters. "My two pearls," he would say, stroking their hair and patting them on the shoulder. Then he would add, "I work hard just for you."

Father would come home with gifts for Alisia and Nita. Before he came home, he would phone. "I'll be home tonight. Don't turn off the lights, OK."

Then Mom, Alisia and Nita would wait, eagerly, full of longing. When they heard someone coming down the short walkway in their yard, they would rush to the door and there he was -- Father. He would hug each of them tightly and then pull gifts out of his large travel bag. Those nights were always too short. When the morning sun appeared, Father would go to bed and sleep the whole day. Then they would eat together: a happy family.

It was always sad for Mom, Alisia and Nita when, after taking a last gulp from his large glass, Father would tell them he would leave them again for another town the next day.

They knew Father had to work very hard. Life was getting more and more difficult. The gifts that father brought them became less and less expensive every year.

And every time Father came home, he looked older, his hair graying faster than expected. Yet father never mentioned this. He was always optimistic when he came home.

Years went by like this and Alisia and Nita grew bigger. Then, exactly three years ago, they had waited and waited but Father did not come home. They waited for several days, still there was no Father.

The three of them were enveloped in great fear. Something must have happened to Father. Why was there no letter or phone call? Exactly a week after the date he was supposed to return home, a letter came. It was from Father. The contents of the letter were brief: "I'm really sorry. Please, don't wait for me anymore. I'm a sinful husband, a sinful father."

Just that and a check for Rp 10 million. Then no more news about their Father. They did not know where the letter had come from as it had not been posted. Someone had hand-delivered it to their house.

Mother contacted their relatives, her friends and anybody who might have news about Father. All these efforts were in vain. There was no news about Father. Even the company where Father had been employed simply showed them a letter of resignation from him. No reason was given.

"Mr. Sayadi is indeed a good traveling salesman. We regret losing him. Just pray that he will some day return," Father's manager, a young man, said to us.

A year passed, two years passed and mother became emaciated. She lost interest in everything. Alisia's 17th birthday went by without a party. Nita's birthdays passed unnoticed. The family lived in gloom.

In the second year of Father's disappearance, Alisia noticed a change in Nita. She became rude and was quick to become angry. She was contradictory. She even spoke harshly to their mother, by then only skin and bones.

For several months after Father's disappearance, they would continue to be visited by relatives trying to comfort them. As it became clear that Father was not coming back, these visits became rarer and rarer until finally the three of them were left alone to lead their murky lives.

In the meantime, Mother became more like a living corpse. She had practically lost all interest in life. If not for Alisia, she would have died long ago.

Alisia grew into a frightened young woman. She could not continue her schooling because there was not enough money for both her and Nita.

Nita did stay in school, but her grades were very bad. She spent most of her time whirling around town with friends. More often than not, she would come home early in the morning. Nobody could rebuke her. She grew into a young woman too free to do anything.

Nita loved mother but did not have the heart to see her like she was now. That's why she always found an excuse not to sit with her. Her heart bled but she hid it by hanging out with her friends from school and the neighborhood.

Alicia kept hoping beyond hope that Father would some day reappear and that her mother would regain her spirit to live. Then the whole family would be reunited and they would again enjoy the warmth of love.

When Alisia went to the small grocery store in their neighborhood to buy some daily necessities the next morning, her eyes caught the headline in the morning paper: "Bomber Found Dead in Hideout". She looked closely at the picture. The face of the man lying on the floor was familiar. She picked up the paper and held it close. It was a familiar face. All too familiar. The face smiled at her. A very familiar smile. The face of the man in the picture smiled at her again. Smiled. Smiled. Smiled.