By Tri Wiyono
A stab of sadness pierced Leila's heart every time she gazed at three-year-old Dede, who lay fast asleep on the rickety bed. His cute, innocent-looking face seemed to show he was in a sweet dream world populated by fairies, so different from his real existence.
Leila was haunted by a guilty conscience for not being able to give little Dede some comfort and happiness, bemoaning her life fraught with miseries.
They lived in a one-room rented cabin of three meters by five meters by the Ciliwung river, furnished with only a small wooden bed and a simple cupboard.
But it was better than they had known before. Previously, when night fell, Leila and her son had had to roam the streets or markets to find a place to sleep. Thanks to a favor from a friend, she was able to rent a room to shelter them from the elements and from the harassment of hoodlums.
Leila could still vividly recall the hardship and the early struggles she experienced when she first set foot in the city's main distribution market. She used to wander along the streets, peddling food which she carried in a big rattan bag on her back. Out of sheer luck, she met a savior, Pak Yan, who offered her a job as a waitress at his night food stall selling meatball soup and gave her a roof over her head.
Alas, that, too, did not last long. Leila had to leave Pak Yan because of his wife's jealousy, after she accused her of having an affair with her husband.
Not wanting to be blamed for creating disharmony and ruining the life of a good man, she fled the house, leaving only a letter behind.
Leila could not lay the blame on Mak Yan for her jealousy. More often than not, Leila was perplexed by Pak Yan's overwhelming attentiveness. To her, Pak Yan was like an angel. He had even rented her a house for the sake of little Dede to enjoy a healthy and peaceful atmosphere to grow up in.
Everything changed when Mak Yan heard that her husband had rented a house for her. Mak Yan started accusing Leila of having an affairs with her husband. Pak Yan vehemently denied it, saying that the accusation was groundless.
"Take it easy, forget about her remarks, You know how she is, Pak Yan said one day.
"I don't want to see your family falling apart just because of me," Leila said.
"Who says my family is breaking up? That's just because your mak is jealous, that's all. Forget about it, you can resume work tomorrow. I'll take care of her," Pak Yan said, comforting her.
But, it did not help.
The hardship in the city made her depressed. She had come to Jakarta only to see her husband, Darno, who worked in the big metropolis. To her dismay, she found out that Darno had another woman and he never thought about her any more.
Embarrassed to go home and face her mom and dad, she then made up her mind to stick it out in the city. Leila often found herself in deep contemplation about her life.
A sudden clap of thunder awakened Leila from her daydream. She felt Dede holding her waist tightly.
"Mak, I'm scared," Dede said sobbing.
"It's OK De', it's only thunder," Leila consoled her beloved son, caressing his hair.
"I am going along with you, I don't want to stay at home, I'm scared."
"You can't, De', I am working so I can buy you food, toys and bring you to Dunia Fantasi."
"But I'm scared of thunder, Mom."
"You'll be all right, the rain's going to stop in a minute and there won't be any more thunder," Leila said, appeasing him.
"I'm going with you! Yes, I am!" His insistence left Leila perplexed.
She had to find a way to calm him down by pretending not to go to work and finally she managed to sing him to sleep.
After telling the house owner, Mak Ijah, to take care of Dede, Leila tiptoed out of the house for work. She did not want to run the risk of being fired from her newly acquired job as a scorer at a billiards center.
Leila lived in a slum by the river that flooded even after a little rain. The riverbanks were always swamped by water, forcing her to negotiate the pools of water in the alley to get to the main road.
She would have preferred to stayed at home to take care of Dede. But, she had to work to survive. She realized that she could not depend on Darno although he had promised to give her money for allowing him to get married again.
" It's raining, are you still going to go to work, Leila?" asked Mas Gendon, a public minivan driver. They had known each other for quite a long time.
"I won't have anything to eat tomorrow if I don't go to work," replied Leila.
"You'd better think about my proposal to marry you. Starting tomorrow you can just relax at home, I'll give you some money every day," the driver said, laughing heartily.
"I'm sorry I can't. Your wife would be mad at me."
"You can keep it secret, can't you?" Gendon teased.
Leila had grown used to this kind of banter from Gendon, a neighbor who had helped her get the job at the billiards center.
Leila was helping her customers at the billiards table when she saw her friend, Yayuk, who lived in the adjacent neighborhood rushing toward her.
"The flood is sweeping your neighborhood, La', you've got to go home now," she blurted out.
"Goodness me, no! How is Dede?" Leila cried in panic.
"I don't know. My brother just called me, saying that floods have reached the roof of the house," Yayuk said, making Leila shiver with fear.
Leila dashed home in the downpour, ignoring the pelting rain. Floods had indeed submerged the houses in the village. She was petrified. Dede's face flashed across her mind and tears started streaming down her face.
"We've got to find a safer place, La!. The flood is getting bigger and bigger" Pak Brewok said at the end of the road.
"But how is my son, Dede, Pak?". He and Mak Ijah must have evacuated the house. You told her to take care of him, didn't you?" Pak Brewok asked.
Leila only nodded.
The mosque was packed with people. Leila saw some of her neighbors there and was hoping to find Dede and Mak Ijah among them. She scrutinized everyone in the building. Despite her efforts, she could not find either Mak Ijah or Dede. Leila only learned that someone had seen Mak Ijah flee the flood-stricken area.
"I'm terribly sorry, La, I myself was in a state of panic. I totally forgot that Dede was sleeping." Mak Ijah mumbled, leaving Leila completely stunned.
"My God, what's become of Dede, Mak? Who helped him then?".
"Someone must have." I saw many soldiers with their rubber dinghies there."
"Let's just pray for him, La. Your son will be OK," the others gathered around her said.
Near a food stall, Leila sat contemplatively, her eyes blank. She seemed to be murmuring, her dress and face dirty and her hair unkempt.
Suddenly she saw a small kid holding a balloon run past her. With her eyes wide open, Leila cried:" Dede wait!!!"
"Poor her, her son was washed away in the flood the other day," said a customer of the stall, as others nodded.
Translated by Faldy Rasyidie