A Short Story About Acceptance and Loss by Eka Kurniawan
The Indonesian author's new novel, 'Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash,' is out this month.
All Photographs by Rony Zakaria
I showed up at the house just before dawn prayers. Not long after, my little sister showed up too. She opened the door, weeping. "Is Father dead?"
"Not yet," I said.
"The doctor said he was."
After seeing that Father was still alive, even though he was lying there unable to move, her sobs subsided. My sister said she'd received a phone call from my mother, and what she said Mother had told her was exactly what Mother had told me: Come home if you can, the nurse taking care of your father says his kidneys are failing. Before leaving, my sister had stopped by the campus health center because her eye had been itching.
After the exam was done, my sister asked the doctor, "By the way, what happens when someone's kidneys fail?"
Without looking up from writing her prescription the doctor replied, "They die."
"Oh my God!" my sister shrieked. She burst into tears, startling the doctor. The whole way home she wept, thinking Father was already gone.
I'm sure that if Father could have heard our conversation, he would have laughed. He loved to laugh. Or maybe he did hear it, but he just couldn't move, not even to part his lips for a chuckle. If he did hear it, I'm sure he laughed to himself silently. Laughed himself to sleep.
We gathered around Father. My mother and my oldest younger sister read Surah Ya Sin. I didn't join in. I can read the Qu'ran, but not as fluently as they can, and so I chose to simply listen. My other younger siblings are just as bad as me.
It was Father himself who had taught us to pray. If I'm not mistaken, I've read through the entire Qu'ran three times. Father opened a small surau behind our house where he taught the neighborhood kids prayer recitation. He also gave Friday sermons at the mosque. Every Friday morning, I would see him writing out what he would say. When the muezzin at that mosque died, Father took his place.
Because the mosque belonged to Muhammadiyah, many people thought Father was a member. He didn't have a problem with that; he even followed the Muhammadiyah calendar for fasting and Eid, including reciting the Tarawih prayers 11 times. But if he had to, he would recite the Tarawih prayers with Nahdlatul 'Ulama folks too—for example, with my grandfather, who always insisted on reciting them 23 times.
Sitting there looking at Father, I wondered whether he had ever wished that one of his children would take his place at the pulpit?
"How could you attempt a sermon, you can't even pray properly!" my mother would say.
And she would be right. If Father had wanted that, then he would have sent me to a religious boarding school—but in fact he let me go away to college and major in philosophy, knowing it was quite possible his son would stop praying or fasting. When I came home after my third semester wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Lenin on it, it was my mother who bemoaned:
"Look, your son has become a cummunist!" (She didn't say communist but pronounced it cummunist.)
Father, like always, just laughed.
He also let my younger brother major in animal husbandry, and after conducting some experiments with different breeds of chicken, my younger brother decided he agreed with Charles Darwin: Humans and monkeys shared a common ancestor, there was no Adam or Eve. Father didn't care and gave him some startup money for a poultry farm.
During the 1999 elections, Mother voted for the Crescent Star Party (Father did too, after voting for Masyumi for years, and then the United Development Party), and re-commenced her lamentations. This was because there was only one person in the entire village who had voted for the People's Democratic Party and everyone knew it was my younger brother the chicken farmer, because he was the only person in the whole village who had put their campaign sign up in his front yard.
"Another one of your sons is a cummunist!"
Once again, Father just laughed. I knew that he would be more concerned to see one of his children steal a fish from a neighbor's pond than he was to see one of us wear a Lenin T-shirt and the other vote PDP.
Even so, one of my younger sisters—the one who was now reading Ya Sin with Mother—decided to go to the State Institute of Islamic Religion in Yogyakarta for college. But Father didn't seem to be hoping that she'd become a religion teacher. All he said to me was:
"It's time for her to leave home and find a husband."
My third younger sister, the one who cried after seeing the eye doctor, was majoring in Indonesian literature. The fourth younger sister was getting her degree in management. It was only the youngest of us, my brother, who hadn't gone to college yet. He was sitting there cross-legged with us, restless. I could tell he wanted to leave, to go to his room and play PlayStation. Finally, since as the oldest sibling I had some right to give orders, I gave him permission to go.
"He's in love," my sister said after she finished reading Ya Sin. "Two days ago he met a girl on the bus."
"Uh huh. He said she winked at him."
My sister chuckled. "And then, he said, he felt like his heart stopped. He couldn't look at her for the rest of the ride. He wanted to approach her and introduce himself, but he didn't dare." She laughed again.
"This is the funny part. Finally, he arrived at his stop. He was afraid he'd never see her again, so he emboldened himself to look at her, and what do you know she was still looking at him. So, while he was getting down off the bus, he winked at her. And then, because he wasn't looking where he was going, he fell headlong into the ditch by the side of the road."
Now I laughed too.
If Father regretted anything about dying, maybe it was that he wouldn't get the chance to see his youngest grow up and leave home like the rest of us. But maybe he heard the story about my younger brother. And if he did hear it, I am certain that he smiled. And maybe that little smile, deep in his heart, gently eased him into his long sleep.
His youngest child was all grown up. He was already winking at a girl on the bus.
When I was still in my early teens, I didn't have any Saturday nights like the rest of my friends. There was no girlfriend, there was no strumming the guitar playing "Party Doll" (but that was no problem, since I didn't like the Rolling Stones or Mick Jagger until years later), and there was no watching television. Instead, Father took me to prayer recitation.
It wasn't a bad thing, actually. The prayers were held at the house of our local butcher. The end of the event (which was what I most looked forward to) was a special dinner with all kinds of beef dishes. I don't remember where the teacher who led the prayers was from, but I do remember that he had memorized all the verses of the Qu'ran in Arabic and what they meant by heart. If someone came to him with a problem, he could quickly point to a few specific chapters and verses as the solution. Everyone brought his or her own Qu'ran in Indonesian translation to double-check and confirm. The most popular words of all were: "All answers can be found in this book."
Then the teacher began talking about "our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan." I forget how long this issue was discussed, probably for weeks.
One night, I said to Father, "I want to go to Afghanistan."
He didn't answer me then, but he didn't take me with him to prayer recitation the following week or the week after that. I can't remember whether he himself stopped going or not—and then the whole household came down with chicken pox, except me, and Father told me to go spend some time at my uncle's house.
There, my uncle lent me a radio, and from then on I spent most of my Saturday nights hunched over it. I had just met a girl in the grade below me. I sent her messages and song dedications through a call-in show. She never sent anything in return, but I kept pursuing her. That whole quest, which lasted for months and months, made me forget all about my notion of going to Afghanistan.
Looking down at Father lying in his bed, I thought back to those times. I wasn't sure whether I should be thankful. If Father had let me to go to Afghanistan, maybe now I wouldn't be by his side. Maybe I'd be on a most-wanted list for blowing up a church or a hotel. Or maybe it would be worse than that. Since I think I'm smarter than most people, maybe my plot would have been grander and my fate even worse—maybe I'd have ended up in Guantánamo. Who knows?
I looked at Father. If he had still been healthy, he would have easily read my mind and he would certainly have laughed, until tears poured out of his eyes. "That would never have happened!" That's what he would say. "You're smart, but you don't have the guts. You're a scaredy-cat, and that's why you didn't go to Afghanistan. You're intimidated by soldiers and police, although you like to act like you're not even afraid of hell."
Finally, Father died. On the second night after I came home, just before dawn prayers. He was 63 years old, almost 64. He must have been quite pleased, since that was the same age as the Prophet. My mother was also pleased, because the last word she heard Father utter before he died was "Allah."
Mother said Father hadn't made any sound at all for days, nor had he moved. But, a half an hour before he died, he began to moan again. He took short, gasping breaths. Mother, who had been with my grandfather and grandmother when they passed, knew that he only had a few minutes left. "You can smell it," that's what Mother said. I smelled it too—it was like a baby being born. Mother placed a plate of ground coffee next to Father. I sprayed air freshener.
Along with one of my uncles, we whispered the name of Allah into my Father's ear. Finally, Father was able to say, "Allah… Allah… Allah." After that, he died. My mother shed tears. My uncle closed Father's eyes. My younger brother and sisters were with us. I called my wife, who had stayed behind in Jakarta.
Believe it or not, I always thought of Father's destiny as being linked to the fate of the Indonesian nation. He was born one month after the Independence Proclamation, and according to Chinese astrology, Father and the Republic of Indonesia had the same sign: Rooster with the Fixed Element of Wood. Their fates would not be all that different.
For example: On November 28, 1975, I was born. At the same time, Fretilin freed East Timor, and it was annexed by the Republic of Indonesia. Both of them—my father and Indonesia—had a new member of the family. After that, Father's business efforts (and there were all different kinds) achieved success. Then, at the height of his prosperity, in 1998 Father suddenly went bankrupt. And Indonesia did too, didn't it? Father had a stroke and his health never fully recovered. In 1999, he began supporting himself with a crutch. And that year Indonesia was led by Gus Dur, the president who walked with a cane.
Now that father had died, would the Republic of Indonesia also meet its end? Truly, I was worried. But, rather than thinking about that kind of thing, it was better for me to take care of Father's funeral. He would be buried right next to his mother-in-law, my grandmother.
From dust to dust. There were four gravediggers who needed to be paid. There were guests who needed to be greeted. There were relatives who needed to be informed. That's how it was.
Four days later, I headed back to Jakarta on a night bus. After a seven-hour journey I would arrive in Kampung Rambutan. I sat there, the AC humming above me. I reclined my seat. I was lost in thought for more than an hour.
Then, the conductor approached. I fished around in my pants pocket for my wallet. The conductor stopped next to me and glanced in my direction. I looked up at him. He seemed startled, and after a moment greeted me, "How are you?"
But honestly, I didn't think I knew him.
Before I had the chance to open my mouth, he continued, "My condolences for the loss of your Father."
I nodded and said thank you. I went to pull some money out of my wallet, but he quickly waved it away. "There's no need," he said. Then he told me how a number of years ago he had a toothache. Medication hadn't helped but the dentist didn't want to pull his tooth until the pain had subsided. Finally, someone recommended that he go see this one kyai, and he went. The kyai gave him a drink: just plain water from the kitchen tap. Suddenly, his pain went away, and the doctor pulled his tooth.
"That kyai was your father," the conductor said.
Honestly, I had never heard this story before.
The conductor patted my shoulder and moved off toward the next passenger. All I could do was put my wallet back into my pocket, and turn my head to watch him go.
Even after his death, I thought, Dad is still giving me bus fare. I smiled and leaned back into my seat again. I took out my iPod and chose the song "Seasons in the Sun" by Terry Jack. I put in my earphones and closed my eyes.
Goodbye, Papa, it's hard to die…
And then I was fast asleep.
Eka Kurniawan's new novel, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, is out this month from New Directions.