By Ratna Indraswari Ibrahim
Yulia was back from her mother's. She stretched her legs on the sofa, exhausted. She had not slept a wink on the train because the man next to her snored throughout the night. Back in the comfort of her home, Yulia slept.
Suddenly her husband Norman said, "Yesterday I read in an article that the toxoplasmosis parasite lives on the skin of a cat and can be communicated through the placenta of a pregnant woman. As a result, the baby will be born deformed. It seems that a cat can be hazardous to health. So I've thrown away si Manis (Sweetie) in the market. I did not wait for your return because I was sure you would not have the heart to see me throw away your dear cat."
Yulia was quiet as Norman continued: "This year we will have a healthy and intelligent child. To be able to have such a child we must create a healthy environment."
"You should have discussed it with me," Yulia retorted. "True, I have often told Mbak Tiwi (her elder sister) that you are wise at everything you do. But you haven't shown your wisdom in our second year of marriage. You may not have imagined how difficult it will be for si Manis, which we raised since it was a kitten, to find food on its own. I once saw stray cats in the market fighting for the head of a prawn that a vendor had thrown away. Si Manis cannot do that. It will always lose in fighting for food. Slowly, but surely, it will die."
Yulia could not say anymore. Norman mumbled. Later the toxoplasmosis parasite was found all over the house.
Norman had long fallen into a deep sleep. Yulia, feeling hot, left the bedroom. Suddenly, she heard the meow of a cat. In front of the kitchen she saw si Manis.
"Manis, I often told Norman that you are the smartest cat in the world. I was right, wasn't I? You were able to come home. You must be starving! Let me find your plate so that you can have something to eat. Then after you eat, I hope you will hide under the roof and sleep there so that Norman will never know that you have come home. This will be our own nice secret!"
That afternoon Yulia wanted to have a chat with the cat. She called the cat which, at hearing Yulia's voice, came down immediately.
"You have been a week in this house. Just now I almost could not help laughing when Norman said, 'Yulia, you don't have to feel sad anymore! Just now I passed the market, exactly the place where I threw si Manis. I saw the cat among other stray cats. Manis could skillfully fight for food with the other cats. Well, you don't need to worry that Manis will die of hunger.'
"I don't want him to know that you are here. But I was worried when he asked, 'Why have you often left the room lately?' Before I could think of an appropriate reason, he answered, 'I know. It is because you are restless and tired. You are fed up with taking care of this house'.
"Then my husband went on to say, 'I have often told you to find a new maid so that there will be someone who will take care of and keep guard of this house when you go out for a walk. Well, you have been too sensitive lately. You have been short-tempered and easily offended. Well, listen, many of my colleagues, particularly those who are pregnant, have taken my advice not to raise cats for the sake of their children's health'.
"Manis, I am not as smart as Norman. But I don't want him to be like Father, overprotective and too strict with his children. Well, this afternoon I had a letter from Mbak Tiwi -- you know her, don't you? -- my elder sister who works in Australia and who travels to Austria on vacation to enjoy musical recitals. In the meantime, in the past two years, I have simply remained at home, thinking about trivial matters in this life. In fact, I should not have got married. It is better for me to live with you. As a wife, I have no personal freedom.
"Manis, I can't tell Mother about this. She always said that she was happy to live in the era of Siti Nurbaya *, when women could still stand on earth. In the meantime, my generation, yet able to fly to the moon, is driven between heaven and earth. In this house I can talk only with you. Perhaps the best thing for me is to have a child! If I have a child, I will have something in this life. Just saying this is like balance for me. However, Norman has often said this, 'If you fail to get pregnant this year, it will be better for you to go to work again. So, if I am laid off, we will still have money to survive'. Manis, it seems that Norman didn't really agree with my decision to give up my job to get pregnant."
As she held si Manis one day, Yulia felt a change in the body of the cat.
"So you are pregnant now. I also want to get pregnant. I will ask Norman to see the doctor again. After giving up my job for three months, I still haven't shown any signs of pregnancy. I envy you because you will soon be a mother.
"Despite my repeated insistence, Norman has refused to see an andrologist. He is sure that without the help of a doctor, we will have a child.
"Norman even said this, 'Your obsession to have a child is too strong. If you are lonely, you may ask a friend of yours to go sightseeing. I have been very busy these past weeks. My company has been in turmoil. You must support me morally. I know that you have always been a woman full of dreams but now try to understand this difficulty. I could be laid off at any time. On the other hand, you leave me dizzy with your talk about the children you would like to give birth to, about si Manis that I dumped in the market ...'"
Yulia just kept quiet. She preferred to observe si Manis as her belly got bigger and bigger. "Manis, eat a lot so your baby will not go hungry. Well, when can my belly swells like yours? Manis, maybe your husband knows better than Norman that a child is a balance for every women, no matter what her position is. As I have been unable to get pregnant, I have told Norman that I will take care of a cat. But, he said flatly, 'Again a cat. This animal is dangerous to you who would like to get pregnant'.
"Manis, I think you are right. Norman is too arrogant to understand my feelings a a woman. Perhaps he does not want us to have a child. Now I suspect that he has married me not because of a desire to become a father. He has married me because this is part of his strategy to climb higher on the career ladder. Especially at that time his superior in the office asked him to get a wife. According to his superior, a gentleman would have a better career once he had a wife. And once he said, 'Although I have met Mbak Yulia only once or twice, I think she is the right woman to be your lifelong companion. She may be wings for your career'.
"Manis, at that time I should have thought that maybe I would only be an accessory for his career. You might have advised me like this, 'Well, get a divorce from Norman. He has ruled over you'. Manis, you are like Mbak Tiwi, who can solve a problem quickly and clearly. In the meantime, I am always doubtful in everything I do. You say that love makes me foolish. You are right! I often imagine that I will stop loving Norman, get a divorce from him and start work again. In my spare time, we may enjoy a musical recital together."
Yulia visited her sickly mother a few days later. She returned home to find Norman fast asleep. She called out to si Manis because she wanted to chat with her and give her some food.
Then Yulia saw si Manis and her kittens.
"Manis, congratulations. Well, none of your kittens have tricolored stripes. People say a cat with tricolored stripes brings good luck to the owner."
Si Manis was contented and licked her kittens. When she was small, Yulia thought that was how a cat bathed her kittens.
Yulia envied her.
Yulia had gone out with Mbak Tiwi, who was visiting them on vacation. Norman, alone at home, could not sleep. Suddenly, he heard a meow. He was surprised that he could still hear the sound in his house. He looked for the source of the cry, and found four kittens and the mother cat.
Norman was angry. Yulia was stubborn. She knew that raising a cat was hazardous for a woman trying to get pregnant, didn't she? He was convinced Yulia let the cats stay in their house. Now that Yulia was out, Normal would throw away the cat and its kittens.
Norman tried to catch the kittens but si Manis, who knew her offspring were threatened, scratched and bit Norman. Norman was furious and quickly caught the kittens and shoved them into a bag.
Si Manis scratched him again, and Norman became enraged. He threw out the cat with all his force. The cat hit the wall so hard blood spurted from its eyes and nose!
Yulia and Mbak Tiwi returned home right at that time. Both of them shouted hysterically, their cries mixing with the cries of the kittens, which knew instinctively that their mother was dead.
"Norman, you are a savage. I can bear it no more. I'll stay in a hotel tonight and will never return here. Yulia, let's bury the cat. Get your things. We'll stay in a hotel tonight."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to kill the cat. The cat could impair the health of our unborn children. Mbak Tiwi, I cannot allow my wife to stay in a hotel. I'll discuss it again with her about how a cat can make a mother give birth to a deformed baby."
"Good, very good, you know your rights as a husband. But, do you know your obligation as a husband? Believe me, although we are close, Yulia has never complained about your shortcomings. Even before she got married, Yulia convinced me and mother by saying, 'I don't think there was ever a perfect gentleman in this world. Even a prince may not be one. Therefore, I will marry Norman with all his shortcomings as a human being.'"
Yulia was busy burying si Manis and did not pay attention to her elder sister and her husband. The beautiful eyes were misty. After burying the cat, she said slowly and softly, as if to herself, "Tonight, I would like to sleep in the hotel with Mbak Tiwi. Tomorrow, I will go to mother's. Then, we will talk about cats and anything else."
Norman tried to remain steadfast. But Yulia looked tired.
"When I come home, I hope you have cleared this house of all these kittens."
"Yulia, I believe we can consult the doctor first before throwing away all the kittens. I'll ask him whether cats always communicate the toxoplasmosis parasite. If not, why don't we just raise them?"
"You have said that I am always too lazy to wash my hands after holding a cat. You have also said that this parasite will be communicated to a pregnant woman when she is not in the best of health. We now need a healthy environment.
"I am two weeks late for my period."
Norman and Mbak Tiwi let out a shout!
Malang, December 22, 1999
Translated by Lie Hua
Mbak: Traditional Javanese title of respect for a woman, now in general usage.
Siti Nurbaya: the title character from a famous Indonesian novel about a young woman forced into an arranged marriage.