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from the August 2015 issue

The Crow

No one and nothing in this world can protect you from the revenge of a crow. Not even if you hide in your mother’s womb. You will die a day before your birthday. Like the nut of a kenari tree, you will fall and crack on a rock. Caaaaaaaaw!

Just before the hundredth jump, Ihsan Gagak “The Crow” Riman began to see stars. His knee joints were aching and inflamed. His head was heavy. His body was leaning at a 31-degree angle. Everything before his eyes turned a reddish-black. All kinds of sounds grew fainter. Death, foretold in a bad dream, seemed to be right in front of his nose.

However, a fraction before he collapsed on the pavement, a man with black wings caught him. With well-practiced moves he flew off, carrying Ihsan Gagak Riman away. Meanwhile, a number of people who had witnessed the miraculous act could only stand there dumbfounded, repeating the names of the Lord, their mothers, and their pets. After crossing a man-made lake, cutting through a gap in the trees, leaping over the roof of a gigantic cage, and almost running into an egret, the man-bird landed on a bench behind a bougainvillea bush. On the concrete bench, which was beginning to crack and be overtaken by moss, he helped Ihsan Gagak Riman remove the crow’s-head mask, take the wings off his back, and massage his neck and temples. Ihsan Gagak Riman could now see the world once again with vision as fresh as a ripe lime.

“Thanks,” he said, his voice still shaky. “My name is Ihsan Gagak Riman, but people call me Cangkriman. I’m the mascot of this bird park.”

“I’m Garifin, Muhammad Gagak Arifin, an ordinary visitor.”

With a sense of amazement and gratitude Cangkriman studied every inch of Garifin’s body. But what caught most of his attention was the man’s wings. These wings did not require the up-and-down movement of a pair of arms for their owner to fly. These wings were far sturdier and resembled real wings much more than the handmade wings he wore all the time. The base of the two wings was attached to Garifin’s shoulder blades, covered by a long, reddish-maroon shirt that went down to his knees. The feathers were arranged neatly and shone when hit by the late afternoon sun, making them look like wings used more for flying than for creeping down the street. With such an appearance, was not Garifin much more convincing as a bird or a god or an angel than he was?

 “You can really fly?” asked Cangkriman with his eyes gleaming.

 “Yes, if necessary. But I can also walk like a penguin,” said Garifin flatly.

 “Are you a descendant of Boreas?”

 “The gods died because they frequently caused too much trouble for humans. All that’s left of their descendants are stories.”

 “Or, maybe you are an angel?”

 “Angels have neither desires nor a need for revenge. I do.”

 “Then why did you help me?”

“Because no gods or angels would help you.”

 “Did you come here just to help me?”

 “Not really. I came here to verify my dream. Time and again I have dreamed about a bird park. Its trees are glimmering, the sun is shining brightly, but the paths are confusing. And I always end up back at an intersection with rows of kenari nut trees on both sides. And there’s a black bird, perhaps a black starling, but more likely a crow, that always mocks me. That’s the damned bird that I’m hunting.”

 “Why are you hunting it?”

“It has hurt my entire family. They have been blinded because of that damned bird.”

“You’ve just managed to catch it.”

“Your humor moves me.”

Cangkriman laughed bitterly, and Garifin followed suit.

“Caaaaaaaaw!”

Cangkriman choked.

When he got home, Cangkriman felt very anxious. Not because his rheumatism was flaring up, but because of Garifin. He had gazed into the eyes of that man when they laughed together and felt them suck up all the joy in his heart. They were like the eyes of a killer searching for its prey, as sharp as the eyes of the angel of death. Hadn’t he also used the name Gagak—the Crow—imitating the sound of the crow that had once woken him and scared him half to death? But why did he save me, Cangkriman couldn’t stop wondering.

In the bathroom, Cangkriman still tried to remember whether he had ever met Garifin or someone who resembled him. The thing was, he felt there was something familiar about the man with the black wings: He was about fifty years old, with a mole on the left side of his upper lip, his mouth slanted to the right when he laughed, and the fingers of his right hand always moved uncontrollably. It was as if he had suffered an electric shock. But Cangkriman couldn’t remember anyone with those traits.

However, when he looked in the bathroom mirror, Cangkriman suddenly realized that he bore a number of similarities to Garifin. Both of them had straight thin hair combed to one side. The difference was that Cangkriman’s was to the left and Garifin’s was to the right. Their moles and mouths were also in the same position with the same flaw.

Not to mention the matter of the crow. While Garifin was still hunting for a crow, Cangkriman had already shot one. It happened at the foot of Mt. Galunggung five years ago. The unlucky crow became the target of his frustration because he was exhausted from searching the slopes for more than three hours without finding a single pig. In his exhaustion and frustration he had come upon a crow perched on a branch of a mahogany tree. The crow just continued to caw as if mocking his bad fortune. The mocking only ended after its head was destroyed by Cangkriman’s favorite hunting gun, a 30.06-caliber Mauser.

And this marked the beginning of his misfortunes. That night, he had a bad dream. A giant-size version of the crow that he had killed that afternoon appeared and attacked his left eye. After Cangkriman cried out, his eye bleeding, the crow swore a curse of death against him. He woke up with images of death that would not leave his eyes. From that night on, he had harbored a feeling of guilt toward that crow and all birds. He had atoned for his sense of guilt by loving all kinds of birds, building kinship with them, seeking out all sorts of knowledge about them, yet at the same time he felt that some birdlike thing was always spying on him wherever he went. That was until he moved to this city and became the mascot for the bird park and worked as a freelance writer.

At this point, Cangkriman stopped thinking about Garifin and the crow because he had to write something for the tabloid Coco & Rico. Tonight, he wanted to write an essay about birds and all their incarnations that both threatened and protected human beings. His knowledge and memory drifted between the crow, Garifin, and Griffin, a mythological being with the head and wings of a hawk and the lower half of a lion. It was a being that always shadowed Cangkriman, and it felt more like it was threatening than protecting him. He had to e-mail the essay before eleven o’clock that night, which left about four more hours. He filled the first bit with the origins of the Griffin and various versions of its visualization. But as he started on the first line of the twenty-third paragraph, his right index finger stopped on the “G” key, his eyes closed, and a minute later two drops of saliva fell onto the table . . .

Cangkriman found himself in a room in which all the walls were lined with bookshelves. The floor was littered with books, peanut shells, empty cups, cigarette butts, and chicken feathers, but in the middle stood a dressing table with a huge round mirror that faced him. With a child’s eagerness he approached the mirror and found the objects in it suddenly upside down and expanding like bread dough. Only he was free from that curious occurrence. Initially he thought the mirror was a weird combination of magnifying glass and concave mirror, but it turned out that it wasn’t. Because as soon as he examined the objects surrounding it, they were indeed upside down and expanding many times over, including a gigantic comb lying on top of the dressing table. He wanted to use the comb to style his hair just like Garifin’s. Unfortunately the surface of the mirror was suddenly wavy, and it sprayed hot air that almost burned his face. Cangkriman quickly grabbed a dictionary to protect his face. In that very quick movement he could see a creature with the head and wings of a hawk and the lower half of a lion reflected in the wavy mirror. Its beak was open as if it was going to swallow him whole. Cangkriman wanted to scream, but his throat was blocked.

The sound of the telephone ringing broke the tension. Then, a genderless voice spoke: “Cangkriman, get out quickly. That monster is going to destroy you.”

Cangkriman woke up with a start and heard his cellular telephone ringing loudly. He picked it up and his regular editor reprimanded him and gave him one more hour. Otherwise, the space for his essay would be filled by a public service announcement. In a state of exhaustion from his bad dream, Cangkriman was able to finish the essay. Soon after he had sent the e-mail, the editor rang again and praised his essay as the best he had ever written.

Cangkriman didn’t really care about the praise because his thoughts were again filled with the bad dream he had just had and, again, Garifin. The walls of books reminded him of the library in the place where he worked, a huge room with shelves of books ten feet high. It was only about a quarter-mile from his bedroom. The bird park also had a library with a fairly extensive collection, thousands of books about all kinds of birds from every corner of the world, from pre-historic times until today. Including a number of bird species that only lived in mythology and modern works of literature.

Now Cangkriman recalled that he had once met someone in that library who looked like Garifin. That was almost six months ago, a week after the death of his father, on a Thursday just before dusk. It was cloudy outside, and the chill of the air conditioning had made him pull his jacket tightly around himself and read Bustanu Thair, or Bird Park—a tale that had been banned during the time of Sultan Iskandar Mudaal—l the more avidly. It was written in Malay Arabic. The information about the author had been deleted along with several details in the story. The story was about King Isra who flew to heaven with a pair of wings he had earned after chanting seven holy verses. But after a few moments in heaven, Sang Maharaja Cahaya, the Great King of Light, drove him out because he was unwilling to return to earth to take care of his people. When Cangkriman was about to move on to the chapter that told about that eviction, lightning struck and he looked out the window. A creature with black wings was peering in at him.

“And then Gabriel Alaihisalam’s wings of light flapped. Then all the contents of heaven trembled and were shocked by what happened. Then the body of King Isra floated like a kenari leaf under the sky. And like the nut of a kenari tree, you will fall and slam against a rock,” said the black-winged creature in a voice that shook the windows.

With a sense of trepidation, Cangkriman quickly compared the three first sentences with the top lines on the following pages of the text that he was reading. They matched. He shifted his gaze to the disturbing creature and only found a mocking look in its eyes before it disappeared.

This convinced Cangkriman that Garifin was a reincarnation of the crow that he had killed. And that crow was the most perfect incarnation of the devil who was now aiming for his life. This latest form now deliberately appeared in Cangkriman’s dreams and in his real life. Garifin was also deliberately seeking opportunities to kill him, so his fear would develop like those things in his dream and he would die in overwhelming fear.

Suddenly someone knocked on the door to Cangkriman’s room. No greeting was spoken. He immediately assumed that it was Garifin. Without making a sound he walked over to the glass cabinet and took out the 30.06-caliber Mauser that for the last five years had been only an ornament in his living room. The knocking grew harder and more frequent. But Cangkriman calmly loaded the hunting rifle and moved forward with the rifle ready to shoot. Two steps before reaching the door, he heard the genderless voice, “Cangkriman, get out quickly. That rifle will kill you.”

“Damned devil. You are playing with me again,” cursed Cangkriman.

Cangkriman opened the door but there was nobody there, just the sound of owls calling to each other from behind a cluster of trees. The night wind whipped against his body, spreading cold and the musty smell of bird feathers. Beneath the sprinkling of light from the full moon he could see a winged figure flying between branches of the angsana and rain trees. He followed the direction the creature was flying in until it reached the main road. Once in a while he had to stop to check where the damned thing was. He stopped at the intersection where there were kenari trees on either side. He found Garifin standing right beneath one of them; it was the very spot where the scoundrel had saved him earlier that afternoon. Garifin’s arms were crossed and his wings were half-spread.

Cangkriman stopped twenty feet in front of Garifin and aimed his rifle at the hideous creature. But as usual his target just smiled mockingly at him. With the skill of an experienced hunter, he closed his left eye and held his breath for a few seconds. While continuing to take aim, he felt the cold of the wooden gun handle penetrate into his left cheek. Moving with complete confidence, his index finger pulled the trigger. But . . .  the rifle didn’t fire at all. He pulled the trigger again with the same result. Cangkriman panicked. Garifin stepped toward him. Suddenly Cangkriman began to shake and he slumped to a sitting position on the ground, still holding his rifle. Garifin moved closer. A cold sweat broke out on Cangkriman’s brow and temples. Garifin’s eyes, which were now only twenty inches away, once again sucked all the joy from Cangkriman’s heart.

 “I had atoned for my sin by not hunting anymore. I love all kinds of birds, especially crows, with all my heart, leaving me nothing left to share with anyone else. I even took on work that makes my rheumatism flare up and makes children laugh at me. What more do you want from me?” Cangkriman asked, nearly in tears.

“Fly, and I will finish off my revenge,” said Garifin.

“I am not a descendant of Boreas. I’m not an angel or a crow.”

“Come on, Ihsan Gagak Riman. Follow your greatest dream. Haven’t you always practiced so you could be like me?”

“It was all in vain. I no longer have a dream. I will go forward to meet my fate.”

Cangkriman began to cry.

At that same moment, Garifin abruptly flapped his wings and clapped his hands. Cangkriman groaned. Near his shoulder blades, a pair of wings slowly began to grow. As time passed, they grew bigger and stronger until they were as strong and beautiful as Garifin’s wings. Cangkriman stood up with rejuvenated blood flowing through all the veins in his body. He began to flap his new wings with joy. He lifted into the air. Five feet, ten feet, higher and higher. He could fly! Really, really fly. He turned, flew up and down, swooped down, then rose again. He laughed, cawing at the same time. After he had had enough flying, he elegantly landed on a branch of a kenari tree. He looked at Garifin and smiled.

However, the one he was looking at was ready with the hunting rifle that Cangkriman had left behind. With the skill of an experienced hunter Garifin aimed at Cangkriman. He and his target both held their breath. And bang! A few birds were startled from their sleep and flew off. A bullet penetrated Cangkriman’s forehead. His body slowly slumped over and plummeted, striking the tree branches and landing with a thud on the asphalt.

Ihsan Gagak Riman bin Yahya Sulaiman died at the age of fifty-one years, eleven months, and twenty-nine days. Hundreds of people, most of them visitors to the bird park, joined in his funeral procession to a village cemetery not far from the park. I couldn’t bring myself to join in. From the top of a Javanese tamarind tree, I looked at the body slowly being lowered into the grave. It all took place beneath my unblinking gaze, until one of the gravediggers stuck a wooden marker over the grave. I felt a strange stinging in my heart.

That was how I achieved revenge on my enemy. I studied his history. I traced every inch of his ruin. I penetrated his dreams. I seized his ambitions. I delved into all that he knew, even his deepest secrets, until I really knew and controlled him. I dissolved into his universe until you could no longer tell the difference between me and him. And so, when I succeeded in killing him, in fact I killed myself.

Caaaaaaaaw!

“Kkkkhhaaaaaakkk” first published in Koran Tempo Minggu, 16 September 2007. © Zen Hae. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Marjie Suanda. All rights reserved.

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