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from the August 2015 issue

A Tale of Redemption

The man turned. Coffee and cocoa leaves were piled up, all stuck together. Branches were rubbing against each other roughly in the wind. Samsu pushed the low door open, its hinges silent. He paused briefly. The quiet of the outside was shattered by the noise from the television on the wall. Almost everyone in the café was talking, commenting on the discussion taking place on the television.

If it were not for this being the between-season after the dry, when the weather was so changeable, no one would have noticed Samsu’s arrival. Just as he entered, a gust of wind blew up bringing in dry leaves and chill air. Several of the men looked up at the same time.

Samsu smiled in a friendly gesture. He hurried over to the corner near the bathroom and went to pull out a chair. He took off his scarf, cap, and thick jacket and placed them on the table.

Before Samsu had pulled out the chair, a man in a red T-shirt called out “Order a coffee. We’ll join you in a minute and keep going with the story from the other day.”

Samsu smiled again, giving a slight nod of his head. He straightened his right leg and took out a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches from his shirt pocket. He had barely taken three puffs before a glass of steaming black coffee appeared before him. Just as she had four days earlier, the woman retreated behind the counter. Before sitting down she wiped the coffee and water splashes from its glass top. The man in the red T-shirt drew up a chair beside Samsu.

“How’s it going, sir?”

“Hey, Buton. You can see the gentleman hasn’t finished his cigarette. Come back over here. There’s no hurry. We haven’t finished watching the show yet.”

“Ah, I’ve had enough. How can we talk with the television blaring?”

“OK, OK. We’re bored with it, mate,” said a man with a sarong around his shoulders as he drew up a chair in front of Samsu.

“Hey, what are you all going on about? We’ll never think for ourselves if we just accept everything officials say on television. Am I right, sir?”

“Ah, I haven’t watched television for ages,” said Samsu, flicking his ash on the floor.

The woman behind the counter stood up and brought over a metal dish as an ashtray, then went and sat back down.

“If that’s the case then we’ll move. Let’s sit in the middle over here.”

“OK, so everyone can hear the next episode of the story from the other day.”

“I’m not really very good at telling stories. The other day was just a fluke . . .”

“It was because Munik here sent us all home.”

“Come on, sir.” The man in the sarong brought Samsu’s coffee and ashtray over to the central table. Someone turned down the volume on the television.

“Hey, why did you do that? Wasn’t that what you were all talking about before?”

“It wasn’t anything important, sir. We’ve had the television blaring since early evening.”

“OK, and how can we compete with the television anyway?”

“We had no way of knowing you were going to come back. We’re dying of curiosity waiting for the next installment of the story.”

“Quiet. Not if you keep talking.”

“OK. So the gentleman can tell us the story . . .”

Finally Samsu picked up his pack of cigarettes and moved over to the central table. The eight men sat in a circle around him.

“So, where did we get up to? Oh, it was after the man got out of Wirogunan Jail . . .”

“No we didn’t get that far, sir. We almost got to that part last time.”

“What do you mean ‘that part’? You’ve got a dirty mind.”

Laughter filled the café. No one noticed the woman behind the counter turn off the television.

“Yes, as far as I remember . . . they’d almost got as far as the room. Together. Yes, what could they do?”

“Ah, a story’s no fun without a cigarette. Your pack’s almost empty. Hey Miss, can you bring this gentleman a cigarette. I’ll pay for it.”

“Gosh, you must have won the lottery . . .”

“No, it’s just that our parents taught us we have to look after our guests.”

The woman behind the counter turned and opened a pack of cigarettes.

“Don’t just give him one cigarette, Miss. I’m embarrassed . . . Bring him the whole pack.”

The woman brought over the pack of cigarettes and sat back down. There was faint music playing in the background, probably from a radio under the table.

 

I felt like I’d walked a long way. An awfully long way. Perhaps it just felt like that. I’d set out immediately after dark. When finally I entered the yard of the house the muezzin could be heard calling from the mosque. I had walked all through the night.

Any minute now it would be light. Any minute now people would be going to the well behind the house.

My knee was stiff and I had difficulty bending it. The wound beneath the cloth bandage on my right calf began to throb. It was very painful. I sat down under the window.

Before the muezzin had finished shouting (on account of the loudspeaker apparently being broken, along with all the lighting in the village), I tapped on the window. Softly. Very softly. I was afraid someone might hear it. So softly that I was also afraid she might not hear it either. A squeak from the window. It opened. Just a little.

I could see her eyes. Shining like those of a cat.

“Is that you?” Laksmi whispered .

My lips were cracked and stiff. The dried blood on my temple made it difficult to blink. I tilted my head. Hopefully the splinter of light from inside the room meant she received the nod.

Laksmi blinked. She looked shocked. Perhaps because my eyes were a sticky mess of brown and red. She opened the window all the way and I pushed my chest through it. Laksmi’s hands dragged me under the armpits. My knees and stiff bones felt the pain. I accidentally knocked over the mirror on the table near the bed when my toes touched it.

“Lak, what are you doing?” the voice of an old person called out from the well behind the house.

“Nothing, Aunty Min. It’s just the mirror. I accidentally knocked it over,” Laksmi quickly replied.

I held my breath, squatting at the foot of the bed.

Laksmi left the room, then came back with a glass of water, locking the door behind her. She blew out the oil lamp hanging near the door.

“I didn’t know where else to go, Las.”

“Uncle and Father have taken Aunty Sis to town.”

“I didn’t know where else to go, Las.”

I felt something hot flowing down my cheeks. I couldn’t stem the flow of tears.

The pressure from the piece of banana tree stem that had been lodged in my throat all night long shifted. I choked. Laksmi pulled a cloth off the bed and cleaned my face with it. Dried the tears that covered my face.

“A truck came, Las. They shot Professor Munir outside the School of Political Science. The ten of us were thrown like sacks onto the truck. There were already a lot of people in it. It was piled up with dead bodies. I didn’t know where else to go, Las . . .”

Laksmi nodded. Her long hair touched the floor when it was loose from its bun. This was the first time I’d seen her unveiled.

“You can’t stay here. They’re still coming in and out of the village every day.”

My neck felt heavy. I was barely able to move it.

Smoke from the oil lamp was billowing throughout the room.

Suddenly there was a banging on the front door. We both held our breaths.

“Open up!”

There was more banging on the door.

“I’ll go and open the door. You hide in the goat pen.”

“Don’t open it, Las.”

“I have to. They’ll only force it open otherwise. Quickly, go and hide.”

I nodded.

“Open up!”

“Coming!” Laksmi said. She deliberately walked heavily across the front room so they’d hear her. Just as her hands were flinging open the front door I opened the kitchen door and slipped through the hole into the waist-high pen just outside. I crouched in a corner. The mouth of a goat chewing on jackfruit leaves touched my head. My feet were covered in mud and goats’ muck. The smell of urine made me gag. Mosquitos were buzzing all round me.

There was a pair of sandals by Aunty Min’s back door. Maybe the old woman had run to the mosque when the truck had stopped just now. All the doors of the neighbors’ houses and of those across the way were closed. The image of death was like the movement of passing clouds. 

I heard a door, perhaps the door to Laksmi’s room, being flung open. I heard a glass smash. Ah, we’d forgotten to hide the glass. I shrank even further as they approached. They were coming into the kitchen. A pot fell. A rice container was given a shove.

“Did you really see him, Jaman?”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“Where?”

“I saw him go in via the window.”

“So you’re hiding a communist, are you?”

There was no sound. Then the breaking of china, the sound of tins falling, the sound of things crashing. The sound of Laksmi holding back tears. She was nearby. Maybe they had pushed her down onto the floor close to the kitchen door. Someone looked out the door. A goat bleated. The man came back inside.

“Nothing there, Commander.”

“Answer me or you’ll be taken away.”

“She’s the daughter of Kiai Munaf, the religious teacher, sir.”

I clenched my teeth to stop them from chattering.

“Hey, talk! Maybe you want to be softened up a bit first, so you’ll speak.”

“Jaman . . . said . . . there’s no one there.”

Laksmi’s voice was very soft.

“Shut up, you!”

The man Jaman went outside and lit a cigarette, standing not far from where I was crouching. His eyes glistened with unshed tears.

I could hear the sound of cloth being torn. And Laksmi’s sobs becoming fainter.

 

The café was silent but for the barely audible music from the radio.

“So the man just kept quiet in the goat pen?”

“Ssh . . .”

 

I shut my ears, but I couldn’t block out the sound of Laksmi’s sobs. It was crushing.

“Let’s go, Jaman.”

The sharp voice of someone calling. Jaman, who’d been Laksmi’s classmate at school, ground his cigarette butt with his foot. He went back into the kitchen. There was a sound of boots fading into the distance, then the truck drove off.

I crawled out of the pen.

It was still gray outside. The sky was hidden by a thicket of bamboo. The sun wasn’t visible yet, still wanting to stay put, not wanting to be disturbed. With a machete cut on my calf I hobbled away. Broke into a run until I could no longer hear Laksmi’s sobs.

 

“The bastard! He didn’t even stay to see how Laksmi was?”

Samsu took a deep drag on his cigarette, filling his lungs.

“He really is a bastard.”

“I have to meet my wife. I’m headed home.”

“We should all go home. Tomorrow morning we have an early start drying the cocoa.”

“Thanks for the story, sir. Will you be back tomorrow?”

Samsu didn’t answer. He ground his cigarette butt in the ashtray.

“Do come, sir. If not we’ll just ruin our minds listening to the corruptors talking on television.”

“Yes, do. But not such a sad story tomorrow.”

The eight men went over to the table by the door and paid for their coffees. The flaps of the door opened and closed, letting gusts of wind in. Samsu brought his hands together at his chest in a gesture of farewell.

The woman behind the counter turned off the radio. Samsu put on his cap, jacket, and scarf. He gave her some money. As she tidied up the coffee glasses the woman mumbled, “You don’t need to come again.”

“I want to beg your forgiveness, Laksmi.”

The woman gave him his change. She was covering her mouth with the fingers of her left hand. Covering the eight missing front teeth that had been knocked out by a rifle butt.

 

“Dongeng Penebusan” first published in Koran Tempo, 29 December 2013. © Mona Sylviana. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Toni Pollard. All rights reserved.

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