By Korrie Layun Rampan
The river was like one that flowed somewhere under the skies of this country. "Is it the one in my dream? No, it's certainly not but I must have seen one like it before somewhere in the interior of Jambi, Riau, Irian Jaya, in Bengkayang district, Katingan, around Tamiang Layang, Aceh or near Poso." I just couldn't figure out where.
But the river flowing before my eyes seemed so familiar, making me wonder why it looked so much like one I had seen before. They were like twins, difficult to distinguish from one another. "It is the first time I have come to this place, isn't it?" And I have come here because of Zarisa's letter.
Yes, that's right. The letter. I still had it in my pocket along with Zarisa's handwritten map, because I did not want to get lost in this place that the girl from Empas told me about.
She told me once she was not really from the district. She had only been born there. A long time ago her grandfather, along with his son, who was then three years old, moved to this village from Jombang.
"That son is my father," Zarisa said in her letter, like a famous person confessing in a biography. "But my mom is from this place called Tonyooi. She comes from one of the villages that end in Asa. That's why she can speak the Tanyooi language, though not as well as the native people," she carried on in her letter. "If you really wish to see me, you can come anytime. The house is not far from the red water river."
I was perplexed. Who should I ask for directions? Would I not be laughed at or frowned upon for asking directions to a girl's house in such an isolated village? The villagers would be suspicious about my going to a girl's house. They would ask if I was a friend, a relative or a stranger with some evil intention.
I wished I had asked the ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver to help me find the house. At least I would have had someone to talk to.
He was an ojek driver, so he must have known the area. I only knew for sure that I had set foot in Empas village because I saw a sign at a school with the name of the village on it. The sign confirmed I had arrived in the village I was looking for. Moreover, the red river Zarisa mentioned in her letter was right before my eyes.
The river was only about four meters wide. The water flowed swiftly over a shallow bed toward the sea. Above the swiftly flowing water was a simple wooden bridge. Nearby was another wooden footbridge leading to a two-story house on the far side of the river. No one knew why the house had been built there, perhaps to give the owner easy access to the water. I couldn't imagine what would happen to the house if the river flooded.
But I was sure the owner knew more about the river than I did. He probably could predict any flooding with a great deal of precision. I asked a woman who was bathing in the river, "Whose house is that on the riverbank?"
The name she mentioned reminded me of my elementary school teacher in Samarinda. I began to wonder. Could my teacher live here? Has he retired from teaching? And what about that sign in front of the house proclaiming "Village Chief"? Has he been elected village chief?
"Yes, he is the one," the woman said. "But he has just gone back to his hometown to see his wife because she is still teaching there and his children are still studying at the university."
I was happy to hear this and I thought that Zarisa's house was only a stone's throw from here. I examined the structures along the banks, newly built houses and crowded stores. My sense of direction convinced me I was going in the right direction and only had to walk a short distance to find Zarisa's house. But It was not the house that I was really looking for. My sole intention was to see Zarisa.
All of a sudden I was overcome with the feeling that I was acting silly. I asked myself, "Why am I behaving so foolishly just for girl I have never seen before?" I was a man madly in love with an unidentified woman. I didn't know whether she was disabled, blind, suffering from leprosy. I was not even sure if she had a flat or pointed nose or whether she was cross-eyed.
But I tried to console myself, reasoning that I was only visiting a friend. There was nothing wrong with that, right? I was visiting someone I met from the radio after our friendship grew through letters and telephone conversations.
And I thought that Zarisa had been fair in admitting that she had made her calls from a public telephone in Melak, because there was no telephone network in Empas. I got back on my motorcycle, though it always scared me because I had had a bad accident in Jakarta. In the village of Empas, the streets were almost always deserted. I came across very few other motorcycles. I saw a few cars in Melak and Srimulyo, but only one in front of a jewelry store in Empas. Most of the time I only saw forests and deserted streets.
A man in Sumber Rejo told me Zarisa lived near Bunyut village, south of the river where the Javanese migrants had first settled. He added that only a few of them remained there.
I headed for the location. I felt the bike tilting to one side, making the wheels veer wildly on the uneven and pitted road. The New Order government had built proper roads only in the big cities. In remote areas, people still traveled on poorly constructed roads. The New Order seemed to ignore the pain of the people who had to use these unpaved roads. They built roads in small towns, but only of poor quality and just to cover up their corruption.
I started feeling sorry for myself and regretted that I had to witness the conflicts in Maluku, Aceh, Sampit, Poso, Pontianak and Palangkaraya that claimed thousands of lives. Why are corruption, collusion and other evil practices still committed here just to satisfy personal interests? And when will freedom be enjoyed by all our citizens?
I arrived in front of a house that looked exactly like the one Zarisa had described in her letter. I was sure it was her house. She described the shape, color, address, door, windows and even the shape of the roof and the tiles. "You won't miss it," she said in her last letter. "There are only three houses there. One is my father's and the other two belong to my brothers. Dad's house is in the middle. There you are. I live there."
"Are you looking for Zarisa?" asked a woman who introduced herself as Zarisa's mom. "Where do you come from?"
I told her I had come all the way from Jakarta to see Zarisa, a girl I knew only from the radio, letters and telephone conversations. I told her we had fallen in love and I had come to propose to her.
"To propose to Zarisa?" the woman said dejectedly, her expression turning sad. So you're her boyfriend from when she was studying in Samarinda?"
I nodded. "So you don't know .... You're name is Salman?" she asked in a mournful voice.
"Yes," I replied.
"But Zarisa went to pick you up last week. She said she was going to see you in Samarinda."
"A week ago," I murmured to myself. "But I only got a permit yesterday and I just arrived here."
"Zarisa went to Samarinda a week ago, saying she would wait for you at a set place. But she never made it. Her boat sank on the Benjua Pihun River. Zarisa has been lying there for a week now."
"Zarisa went to pick me up?" I said to myself. "But she died on her way to shower me with love."
My voice became hoarse, muffled with pain.
--Translated by Faldy Rasyidie