By: Martin Aleida
Fighting against the stabbing pain, the woman in the bed wrinkled the skin on her forehead. Her eyebrows were sparse, gnawed on by chemotherapy. Twisting her face into a grimace, withstanding the pain, her nose looked sharper. Then she closed her eyes behind drooping eyelids. No traces were left to show that once, curling eyelashes had grown there. These had been the subject of never-ending praise from her husband, Abdullah Peureulak, who now sat speechless at the side of the bed.
Wanting to share her pain, Abdullah gently placed his hand under his wife’s, taking up her fingers and threading them between his. In her husband’s grip, the woman’s fingers became warm. It was only the warmth brought by her husband’s blood that flowed through his fingers. Abdullah knew that his grip was nothing more than an expression of sympathy. How painful the disease was, only his wife knew. At the edge of the bed Abdullah was no more than a husband slowly losing his mind. He didn’t know how to share this pain with his wife.
The smell of chloroform and the glare of the sun caught in the opaque windowpane surrounded Abdullah, who leaned forward and kissed his wife’s cheeks and lips for the hundredth time.
Those eyes. His wife’s eyes . . . ah, he still remembered the first time he embraced his wife and beheld her eyes, closed, hiding her bright round irises, thirty years ago. Those eyes had their own contribution to their life together. Those eyes had never ceased to be a source of amazement, to the point that Dewangga Suciati, the woman who became his wife, became awkward before her husband, not knowing how to respond to the shackles of praise and flattery that, whispered, fell in a torrent from her husband’s lips, even later, when both their children had grown to adulthood. But, now those eyelids, those eyebrows, those round irises that stirred his soul were the only remainder of her struggle against the disease that had tortured her for the past two years.
Suddenly the woman lying flat on the bed stirred. She glanced to the side as if to assure herself that her husband was still waiting at her bedside. That glance made Abdullah strengthen his grip, warming her hand in his. With a quavering, weak voice that could still persuade with its tone, the woman spoke: “I am still strong enough to listen. I will never regret. Tell me, Bang. Things will be better now.”
The request made her husband’s neck droop. For two weeks Dewangga, lying in bed and deathly pale, had waited for her husband’s throat to unclamp, to stop hesitating to say what he needed to say. In Abdullah’s heart, he regretted the words that had jumped irrevocably from his mouth two weeks earlier: that he, with his wife’s permission, wanted to say something that throughout their marriage he had kept hidden. Two weeks ago Abdullah had made the promise at the side of her bed, when his wife was at the peak of her resistance against the cutting blade of her disease. But, the words remained stuck in Abdullah’s throat. His desire had not been achieved. The words were frozen on his tongue. Abdullah felt like he was sinning to say what was in his heart, because he knew the buried words, if uncovered, would worsen his wife’s suffering as she laid stretched out and fading before him.
But seeing how hard his wife was struggling against the disease, and how narrow her hopes of survival were, as the cancer brought her closer to death, Abdullah made the decision to swallow his doubts and be honest with his wife, who had been his companion for the past thirty years. “Now! I must say it now!” his heart screamed out. Whatever would happen, Dewangga, his beloved wife, could not die carrying a betrayed promise. If she had to go, it would be with a clear blue sky trailed by wisps of clouds as white as cotton.
So Abdullah slid his chair closer, bringing his lips to his wife’s ear. He spoke in a slow voice, like one who was unpacking an old secret, swearing a new confession that even the walls of the hospital, white and damp, were not allowed to hear. Because of his gentleness, from the ceiling it seemed as if Abdullah was offering praise, spilling out all of his longing for a lover he had not met for years, who upon meeting, he finds stretched out and alone, fighting against a disease in a hospital bed. The tremble in Abdullah’s voice could he heard as he whispered, linking word with word to tell his story…
The political enmity between the army and the Left resolved itself after a group of soldiers captured and killed several generals who were accused of treason and harassing women. But, for reasons unknown, the leader of the kidnapping lost his decisiveness and did not know what to do after the battle had started. This hesitancy that he could not shake opened an opportunity for the allies of the generals to hit back, which they did bloodily. They extinguished their enemies, and communists and leftists were accused of being behind the attempted coup d’etat. What followed was a battle against thousands of citizens, including children and nursing mothers, mostly in villages and small cities. If saved from death, they were forced into concentration camps or jails, or exiled to small wasteland islands for crimes that required no evidence. This is the abuse of humanity in this country that will never be forgotten, with random victims and indiscriminate cruelty of incomparable baseness in the history of this people.
Abdullah, who was born and raised in Peureulak, had good fortune. He was only held for a year at an army base in Jakarta. When he was captured, there were no signs that he was still in touch with friends who were deemed to be involved in “the reds’ efforts to regain their strength and rise again.” Two sheets of paper ripped from a schoolboy’s notebook were saved in his wallet. There his father had written in his unique scrawl, learned as a schoolboy under the Dutch. The flow of his letters indicated simplicity but tenacity. The pull of the lines didn’t change from the first letter to the closing salutation.
The letter explained that his father, along with his mother, was going on pilgrimage to Mecca by boat and that it would take the same amount of time as it would for three full moons to rise from behind the coconut fronds. As all pilgrims had done before them, they were going on this trip fully prepared for death. Holy death. They might be buried at sea, sunk with a heavy stone, or buried in the barren Arab land with no gravestone, no name. The letter also explained how their possessions were to be divided among Abdullah and his siblings.
The divine intention of his parents was already in action before the ink on their last will and testament was dry. By the time the two pilgrims set out, ready for death on God’s road, upon leaving Uleuleu harbor, the letter had already become a lifesaver for their son, Abdullah Peureulak, roving far away on the island of Java.
Abdullah was confused. He couldn’t understand the relationship between the political beliefs that had had him thrown into military prison and religion. Though the long debate with his parents still rung in his ears, he had been determined to establish an organization of film workers. On this path, he had been sure that he would easily be able to enter the world of the silver screen. His parents had given in, accepting his will, with only one message that to his ears sounded like an order: “All right, but don’t forget to pray.”
The interrogators took his father’s last will and testament as proof of their assessment: this was a young man of average height, wavy hair and eyes that protruded a bit from his skull with a sharp gaze, thin lips and a slightly pointed nose, and who made no attempt to hide that he had been a part of a film organization under the influence of Communists. There was no need to keep him in prison. He would just be a waste of sandy rice, the daily provision of nutrition to maintain prisoners so they could still suffer torture as punishment for the ‘political evil’ that they had committed.
“Dul . . . you can go. We don’t want to know where you go. Go home to Aceh, to your mother’s lap, or to the house where we first caught you. We don’t care. Just remember, you have to report to us once a week. You don’t need to ask until when. We’re the army, and this is the decision. Don’t try anything again. Shiftless bastard. You’re lucky we’re letting you go. Got it?!” With that he was led out of the camp.
The decision was so unexpected that his heart leapt and pounded upon hearing it. The sudden reality of it made him nervous. Of course he could not refuse it. Would he rather be accused as an enemy and be tortured?! His heart was torn. He would have to leave his friends who were facing the same political misfortune. The decision of the military authorities was part of their tactic to crush his spirit. He was deliberately separated from his friends. He had to go out into the open world, with no one and nothing. Everyone he knew had been taken into camps or prisons, and if they weren’t dead he had no idea where they were. His heart ached to think of his friends still cooped up in prison, while he was released, sauntering about free. Many among those he left faced torture and disease. Two days earlier he had heard that at least ten prisoners had died of cholera in Tangerang prison, and the epidemic was still raging. The guards didn’t care. He heard also that they weren’t given medicine. The prison families had to take care of their own, trapped within those walls, husbands, wives, children or close friends, smuggling in medicine for each other.
A hundred steps after leaving the camp, Abdullah Peureulak wanted to turn, to look back. But no. Now he had to struggle to find an answer to the one question that dogged his life in the freedom that had just been handed to him: Where should he go? Like a newly released bird flapping it swings, where should he perch after being let out of the oppressive concentration camp? Going to the house where he was originally arrested was not possible. Because it was the organization’s office, all of his possessions would certainly have been taken by the military. The same would be true for the other possessions of the organization; they would have been stolen by those who considered themselves the winners of the crisis that enveloped this country. His relatives were all too far away, across the sea. All his friends were hanging in suspense, waiting in jail with no end to the darkness in sight. Where will you go, unlucky man?
Finally he summoned up his courage and dragged his anxious steps toward the house where he had once rented a room, called Cikini. There he found that the only one left in the large house was the landlady. According to her story, one night all the residents were picked up by a few thugs and a fully armed military team. They were taken in a military truck to who knows where. Then, falling as if to kiss Abdullah’s knees, his former landlady begged him never to come back. Don’t tempt the military to return, to confiscate this house. For the safety of the owner, for the safety of the neighbors, for everyone, don’t come back again.
Abdullah was silent for a moment. He no longer felt like a young man in his prime, carrying a bundle of two sets of clothes, his only possessions in the world. He felt like an old depraved leper who must be kept out of sight. With a shriveled heart, he left the landlady.
He started this unimaginable adventure when he resolved to leave Peureulak to try his luck in Jakarta, to be a film actor. If he couldn’t be as good as Orson Welles from Hollywood, he could at least be like Zainal Abidin in Si ‘Anak Medan. But the life that he found was not full of parties. He spent his nights in broken-down freight cars left unrepaired in Manggarai, Jatinegara or Beos, or next to the shacks rented to hookers in Galur, Planet Senen or Kota Paris. For months he lived by a canal near the National Monument. A few times he was arrested in police operations against vagrants and prostitutes, only to be dumped out again at Serpong. Abdullah and dozens of other human beings, treated as if they were worth no more than spare change, were left to crawl back along the edges of asphalt or graveled roads, giving themselves back up to the streets of the capital city—where else? This was their only choice.
His brain was not yet petrified, he was still looking for a way out so that he would not die of starvation. Applying to a film company was impossible. He could be reported as a PKI infiltrator, an accusation that would get him tossed back into jail or get his throat cut. He had already decided to say that by the age of twenty-five, he had acted in only one film, and that one just a black and white. The door was closed tightly on those dreams. The talent that was given to him, in the form of a handsome face with clear eyes and a captivating stare, and enough intelligence for an actor, would have to give in to the situation handed to him by the march of time.
Daydreaming, watching the commotion of people entering and exiting Senen Market, he offered to carry bags for overloaded shoppers. Scared, hesitant, his heart raced the first time he offered to help to a middle-aged woman carrying two bags full of vegetables. Maybe because his eyes were honest, the woman received him with a friendly smile and allowed him to carry her shopping bags. He followed behind the woman’s steps. Crossing the railroad tracks, turning in and out of small alleys, they reached the neighborhood of Bungur. The woman lived in a small house located on a busy street. She supported herself with a small cafe in the front of her house. There were only two people living there, the woman and her daughter.
The good fortune of that one shopping trip was incalculable for the unlucky actor washed up in the corner of the market. The woman from Bungur was not like most. Besides giving him some money for his services, she also served Abdullah a plate of food. Not ten times had he helped the woman carry her shopping bags from the market, and his heart was already tethered to that small cafe. Quietly, he stole glances at the mirror to enjoy the reflected image of her daughter’s eyes as she offered him a plate of rice and a glass of hot sweet tea. There were no flies buzzing, no grit on the tabletop. One morning, the girl’s bright eyes shone at him from the mirror with a calm, piercing look. She looked as if she was offering more than rice. Glancing sideways, persuasively, she whispered, “What you feel, I also feel. If you wish, take me wherever you are going …”
Holding those eyes with his own, the saliva dried up in the young actor-turned-vagrant’s mouth. As if to hold back his shame, he dropped his gaze to the floor. He didn’t believe life was as easy as the girl in the mirror said. Love always offered a forked road, faithfulness or betrayal. Which one would triumph in the end? His heart fell in confusion. But don’t misunderstand. This did not mean he would refuse her. The eyes of the serving girl were too good to neglect, her gaze too charming not to return, impossible to ignore. He had beheld thousand of eyes when he was still in school and while shooting films. But those eyes, with the beautiful hand covered in soft delicate hair, that offered him breakfast, were round and challenging, bright and perfect, like a fragment of divine inspiration reflected in the mirror.
His eyes were still nailed to the floor. His heart beat. He was made so awkward by the look in those eyes that he left suddenly, without a thank you, without a goodbye. He must now start the second part of his struggle after being let out of jail. Would he answer those awe-inspiring eyes, or forget them? And give in to being a coolie, carrying packages every day for the woman from Bungur? But, for a sailor who for months had been bobbing up and down with no hope, there was nothing more promising than a mirage of dry land, somewhere he could sink his anchor. So, on the forty-first day, the man from Peureulak was seen sitting together with the girl, the couple leaning against each other, when the last customers left the cafe.
On the sixtieth day the couple, drunk with love and romance, flew in a pedicab towards Situ Lembang Park. There the girl’s eyes could not escape his gaze, his praise, his embrace, while the two pairs of feet splashed in the lake that whispered to the leaves of the bamboo stands, bent by the wind. Dewangga let herself be swept away in the current of his adoration. When she closed her eyes, as if to give herself up, the longing in the heart of that young man from Peureulak reverberated inside him even more. He wanted to fly her away, lift up that girl who was sprawled on his lap, take her anywhere. . . .Love should be limited to this, gentlemen. But yet, the young couple was not able to resist. On the seventieth night, as her mother traveled home to Muncar, East Java, they were swept so far out in loving and answering each other’s love that the boundaries collapsed. They let themselves burn with passion, while love was left behind. Afterwards, drops of bridal blood, that village myth, were nowhere to be found on the even blue sheet. But, Abdullah didn’t think anything of it. Where, and who, had already thrust through that delicate membrane never fostered any suspicion in his mind. For Abdullah, that was Dewangga’s personal right, his lover who had given her heart as his safe harbor. There was no authority anywhere that could claim that right from her. Abdullah instead gave her the warmest, longest kisses and whispered words of love as they lay exhausted, falling from the peak of pleasure. No woman would ever find this from a man who simply uses her for his own release.
When for two months Dewangga had no need for sanitary napkins to keep the dark red flow from staining her underwear, and early in the morning was taken ill and suddenly vomited, her mother was beyond happiness. She was so please she hugged Abdullah Peureulak long and hard. Abdullah interpreted this as a sign of welcome to this small family. He felt that embrace was not a demand that he be responsible for what had happened to Dewangga. He considered it a decree that must be followed and love that must be returned.
Dewangga’s mother called a painter. The whole house was repainted, including the front cafe. A few members of her family came from Muncar. The cafe was closed for a whole day and used for the simple wedding ceremony between Abdullah, son of Peureulak, and Dewangga, daughter of Muncar. When his mother-in-law offered to buy him a coat for the ceremony, Abdullah gently refused. He wanted to wear a light blue long-sleeved shirt and black trousers, which he bought himself. By then, besides helping Dewangga’s mother, he had also started selling used books and other goods on Kramat Raya Street, about two kilometers from Bungur.
The cafe, the mother, and Dewangga, her daughter, were a blessing for Abdullah. Hunger had become a thing of the past. The house that doubled as a cafe became his safe haven. His life was slowly crawling upward. It continued as such until one day Abdullah ran into a film actor on the street who invited him back into the world of movies. After thinking long and hard about his safety, he accepted the invitation. In the beginning, he worked as a script boy. A few years later, he was trusted to write scenarios for movies or television shows. His confidence seemed slowly to restore itself, even though he still had to report to the military base once a month. This obligation he fulfilled without his wife’s or his mother-in-law’s knowledge. He was able to buy, on credit, a simple house in East Jakarta. Abdullah, his wife, their two daughters, and his mother-in-law, now old and frail, lived there together. The cafe had been rented out. Abdullah was able to take full responsibility for these four human lives.
The change in their standard of living blew in a fresh breeze that occasionally raised questions. Dewangga, his wife, often encountered things that raised her suspicion. After the collapse of the regime that had ruled for thirty-two years, Abdullah was frequently visited by guests, and from their conversations it seemed that they were old friends. Once he received a visit from a close friend by the name of Sibarani, a music conductor who had studied in a conservatory in Germany. Another day a man named Agam Wispi, a poet, came to call, a man who had been abroad during the political crisis of 1965, and had been forced to remain in the Netherlands. Once there was a telephone call from a man named Sobron Aidit. At least three people called to give news of the death of the actor Zainal Abidin. Many other visitors made Dewangga doubt who exactly her husband Abdullah Peureulak was, the young man adopted by her mother from Senen Market, the handsome tramp with a good heart. Not once but twice, when Dewangga was offering snacks and drinks to her husband’s guests, she noticed Abdullah communicating something with his eyes to his guest, a request not to continue talk of certain politics, looking out of the corner of his eyes at Dewangga, an order not to let his wife hear that kind of talk. Because she was someone else, from a different group. What group, he didn’t know.
But Dewangga never aired her concerns to Abdullah. For her as a wife, there was nothing more that he needed to prove: her husband provided for her and showed her his love everyday, even when their children were grown. Starting the first time their eyes met in the mirror in the cafe in Bungur thirty years ago, Abdullah was always faithful and affectionate to Dewangga, with her eyes that never failed to enchant him.
The series of strange visitors reminded Dewangga of one episode in their life as a family. Once, because of a school assignment, one of their daughters asked to be taken to Lobang Buaya Museum. After walking through the exhibits, looking at the dioramas of the battle of the generals in 1965, their daughter concluded, “The PKI was so cruel!” Dewangga nodded her head calmly. Abdullah, however, seemed to answer in a cold, small voice, as if he wanted to correct his daughter. A stutter could be heard in his voice, “yes, yes . . . cr . .cruel.”
It didn’t occur to Dewangga to investigate what was in her husband’s heart. She didn’t want Abdullah’s love and faithfulness to waver because of that kind of suspicion.
The dim neon bulb, the stark white walls, the opaque windowpane, and the smell of chloroform in the hospital room pressed down upon them. Coming to the end of his story, still at his wife’s side, Abdullah Perueulak stroked Dewangga’s hand and kissed her eyes, which had been closed the whole time he spoke.
“I’ve said what I wanted to say. Forgive me if I have deceived you. Forgive me if you feel tricked. I had just gotten out of prison for being part of the September 30th Movement when I met you, ‘Ewa.” Abdullah seemed to struggle to pull breath into his chest. For a few moments he was as still as stone, waiting for his wife’s response, as she lay stretched out on the hospital bed.
Dewangga cocked her head a bit and raised her eyelids to look at Abdullah. There was no sadness in those eyes. She looked at him firmly, with resolve. With a smile, she said, “As long as I have known you, you have always been preoccupied with my eyes. Thank you.” Weakly she removed her hand from Abdullah’s grip, and slipped her fingers to her deflated, flat chest. “Take this pendant. I never showed you before, there is a clasp here. Open it and look,” she said.
Abdullah was surprised. His hands shook as he held the ornament. When he opened the clasp, there appeared a kind of green crescent moon. But it looked as if there was a kind of handle at one end of it, the whole design nicely placed on a red medal face. That symbol seemed to have its own charm, forcing Abdullah to bow his head. He remembered that this was the symbol of a farmers’ movement that was launched to demand basic agrarian rights, to limit landholdings to five hectares per person. Landholdings any larger than that were to be seized by landless farmers. The farmers’ movement had banners with this kind of crescent symbol. The movement had led to violent village battles between those with vast expanses of land and the suffering poor.
“I felt my father’s kind and loving fingers fasten this necklace with its silver pendant on my neck when I was seventeen. My father never came home again. It was 1965, and an executioner sent from the landlord came to rip him away from us. After that, my mother and I also were arrested. Our freedom was given in return for my body, after the camp commandant forced himself upon me.”
The words themselves made Dewangga’s narrow, emaciated chest tremble, her heart racing when she remembered that most painful time in her life. She wanted to bite her lip until she tasted blood when the memory returned of the figure of the camp commandant who suddenly tossed his green uniform into the corner of the interrogation room and grabbed her, stripping her with the devil in his heart. Dewangga, who had only just become a woman, muffled her scream when the evil authority drove his hard flesh, the same thickness as his big toe, into her groin. He left her, humiliated, sobbing in the corner, when he was finished. She held back drops of blood and stinging pain between her thighs and a stabbing pain behind both her black eyes, the result of refusing the uniformed man’s angry invitation. Tears streamed down her cheeks, strengthening the truth of what her father had once said: how dark the world is, constantly under the threat of violence. Dewangga closed her eyes. And when she looked at Abdullah, waiting like a stone at her side, she knew that the cruelty of that uniformed man could never be compared to the sincere tenderness she had always felt from her husband. In the hands of her husband she had truly been adored as a woman. How honorable Abdullah had been, every time he approached Dewangga with love. He would give himself to her, holding himself back so that they could reach climax together, not allowing either one of them to be disappointed. . . .Uncountable times her husband had kissed her toes, bathing her with kisses until dawn, stroking her whole body after their far travels through love when night fell. Dewangga’s body became flushed remembering all that, comparing this most essential love with the cruelest heartlessness.
The smell of chloroform and the weak neon glow sunk their hearts even further in that small hospital room.
Dewangga looked deeply into her husband’s eyes. She brought his hands, prayer-like, to her chest. “Forgive me, my husband. Forgive my mother as well. And believe me, I am proud to be your wife. I have never regretted it. Never. Not even as much as a strand of hair, split into a thousand.”
Outside, the slowly falling dusk began to spy on them. Dewangga closed her eyes.
First published in Latitudes Magazine