By Teguh Winarsho AS
Cursed and kicked out of her village one and a half years before like a mangy dog, she was forced to stagger along in the dark, wounded and in agony.
Now in her small, leased dwelling on the city's outskirts, she felt lonely most of the time, her days lingering longer than necessary. A letter from home about her father's illness made her even more distressed. She had a strange hunch the days of her dad were numbered. From afar, she could catch the scent of his imminent death spreading over his wrinkled skin.
But she hesitated about going home. Her village would only be reminiscent of old wounds, and, somebody.
Darkness gradually swallowed the gorgeous view of dusk. The woman, Maesa, had been sitting on a porch chair for almost half an hour, her mind drifting into anxiety. She felt a strong urge to return home to her father. But, then, she had her utmost loathing of the village, its people, and also Rustan, whom she hated more than anyone else in the world. Feeling weary, she let her frail back recline on the rattan seat and stared at the road in front of the house. It was so lonesome and deserted. Only once in a while did motorcycles pass swiftly in the dark of night. Then silence again. The sound of crickets at long intervals and the fading yellowish neon light on the porch became her loyal company.
After another gaze at the lonely road and hardly urged by her own volition, she suddenly began to move her lips to make a low whisper: "I must go home to see dad ..." Then she stood straight, stretching both arms and hurried into the house. Her mind was made up. Moments later, she was packing: a few pieces of clothing and a sachet of jamu (herbal medicine) for her father. Her packing completed, she became hesitant.
Dazed and disinclined for some seconds, she flung herself onto her bed, one with a pink-flowered cover, staring at the ceiling. Its clean white surface had turned dull, as dismal as her mood. The memory of a horrible experience repeatedly gripped her mind: the incessant striking of kentongan (bamboo/wooden tubes used for village warning signals), furious fierce faces, muscular arms wielding crowbars and wooden blocks and curses, still ringing in her ears, gave her the creeps. "They were enraged and accused me of promiscuity just because I got pregnant before marriage! They broke into my house and dragged me out into the yard like a mangy dog!" Though infuriated, she only muttered to herself as if she hadn't wanted to share it with others, not even with the muted night. "And my lover, that guy? Why was he swaggering around like a proud hero?"
Silence further penetrated the wee hours. A chill engulfed the porch neon light. She remained quiet for a while, until her eyes closed tightly, and her breath eased off.
Waking up in the morning, she decided to cancel her trip home. She could not confront the villagers, who might still be angry with her. Of course, she wouldn't want to be sent away and condemned for a second time. She thought she could just mail the medicine and apologize to her parents for failing to go home. The railway trip would surely be exhausting. A glimpse at her plump eight-month-old baby boy on the bed made her smile. She carried the child in her arms and walked out hurriedly to the post office.
She was surprised to find nobody in the office and a CLOSED sign on the counter. Blaming herself for forgetting it was Sunday, she went home sluggishly. She kept walking, in the direction facing the glaring sun. Her feet stumbled over pebbles, making her almost fall.
The air in the house was far more congenial than outside. As she stepped in, however, her sight became blurred by indecision. Slowly, she put the packet of jamu on the table, promising to send it the next day. She laid her baby on the bed, and fixed the canopy over it. The infant's lips, eyes and eyebrows reminded her of someone. It's a coward disguised behind his appearance: Rustan.
The night would again pose haunting shadows as she sat on the porch. Any faint sound of kentongan would bring back the nightmare to her mind, which she felt like a deadly virus. It made her heart pound and her body feverish. She harbored pent-up indignation and also deep-seated aversion to a person. "But I must go home..." was her whisper, almost inaudible in the dim night. She buttoned up her nightgown for some warmth and drove off bugging mosquitoes.
"No lapse is unforgivable, not even the worst and lousiest blunder!" Maesa was sort of talking to herself, while rolling her head to make a cracking sound in the neck. Twinkling stars in the sky were like satellite signals. The road was again abandoned, and silence prevailed. "But aren't I blameless?"
This question seemed to correct the confession she had just made. "At least I'd done nothing wrong toward others except myself. I got knocked up, but why were they fussing about it, cursing, calling me names and kicking me out like a sick dog? And that man ... Why didn't they swear at him and force him to leave? Was it just because a man can't be pregnant, or the guy is a respected village head's son and thus untouchable?"
She had found no answer when the cry of her baby sent her hopping from her seat. She scurried into the bedroom to find the chubby infant stamping its feet out of thirst. She readily lay on her side to nurse. While singing with an inarticulate voice, she observed the tot's lips, eyes and eyebrows. It was a very long gaze before the image of a man gradually sneaked into her mind: Rustan.
It was the same stony and slippery rural pathway, with slight illumination. But as there happened to be a wayang kulit (leather puppet) show at the village hall, it was busier than usual. Her head bent, she walked, avoiding the notice of locals and the beam of lights. On her way she kept praying that her baby would stay calm, otherwise it could arouse their attention. Still, she walked past some people who had once hauled her and forced her out of the hamlet. She was seething with anger when she saw them.
She was relieved. The child in her arms was still quiet when she entered the yard of her parents' home. But she was suddenly faltering. Nobody seemed to be inside. She was stupefied, long enough, followed by a quiver. It was right here that a group of people would have stoned her to death. Had it not been for her parents' impassioned plea for her release, she would not have been simply sent away from the village. But what about the man? Where did he go that night?
Her hand trembled as she knocked on the door. Her mom welcomed her first with a passionate embrace. Her dad hurriedly left his room with a little cough to see her, his old slit eyes blinking to show his happy mood. Apparently aware of the villagers' displeasure at their daughter's arrival, both parents spoke in a low tone, tending to keep silent. Even when the young lady laid the baby down on the bed in the corner and gave the jamu to her father before asking to be excused for a while, the old couple only nodded gently without a word.
It was drizzling as she went out along a gravel path. Though dark, she remembered its twists and turns, and the big house with luxury walled fences. Some of its rooms were still brightly lit. She approached the building and hid in a dusky corner. Her heart beat heavily when she caught sight of a man's shadow emerging from the front door. He was going out for an unknown purpose, seemingly in great haste. At lightning speed, she snatched a pocket-knife from her pants ...
Maesa's parents were surprised to see blood stains on her dress when she was back home. But with some sort of tacit knowledge or perhaps reluctance to speak, they chose to keep silent. Amid the sounds of wayang kulit musical instruments from the village hall and the blowing night breeze, she knelt down, held their hands and touched their knees with her forehead to pay traditional respect and tender her apology before taking leave. She left that very night, with her baby boy still sound asleep.
The old couple were again tight-lipped, looking at the back of their daughter until she disappeared.
She strode along the same slippery pathway, avoiding local people's attention as the wayang kulit show made it more crowded. She prayed for her baby's peaceful rest while walking past those who had once treated her harshly. She couldn't help getting furious upon seeing them.
With her child staying calm as far as the road side, Maesa returned to her suburban house by bus. Amid the roar of the bus engine and the wayang musical sound, she heard indistinctly the sound of kentongan in the rhythm she had been familiar with since childhood: the knell of death.
-- Translated by Aris Prawira