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from the August 2015 issue

The Moon and the Magician in the Red Jacket

“Abel saw vultures in the back garden as he was climbing out of the window of the house he had just robbed . . .” 

A driving rain was pouring down outside, hammering the roof of the house and seeping through part of the outside wall. Every summer Husin would reinforce the cement so the seepage would not cause too much damage, but every rainy season he could only watch as the rain roundly mocked him. Completely defeated, he would stare blankly at the water droplets slowly emerging through the gap in the wall like some kind of organized magic, then slowly descending like a swarm of termites inching toward the floor.

How he hated rainy days. Anyone looking at Husin’s back from behind could see that it was trembling in an attempt to contain his disappointment. He was holed up in his house with a supply of cigarettes and the hundreds of flakes of dandruff that had fallen onto the table. Dandruff had been his constant companion for the last decade. Whenever he scratched his head and bent over a bit, dandruff would fly everywhere. Like snow, his wife had once scoffed. Husin took a deep drag on his cigarette, trying to contain his anger. Ah, that woman, what would she know about snow? If she ever left the house she never went farther than the market to buy spinach and chilies.

Husin ground out the remaining stub of his cigarette in the faded ceramic ashtray. He stopped himself from reaching for the pack and taking out another cigarette. He’d smoked three since the rain had begun to wreak its havoc, but it had achieved nothing. How many hours had passed? Two, three? He hadn’t written a single story. He hadn’t completed even one fairy tale. He hadn’t produced an attention-grabbing page-turner. All there was in front of that crooked nose of his were papers, scattered all over the desk and the floor and in the rubbish bin.

His back was becoming more and more curved, like a crescent moon. Husin propped his chin on his hand, frustration coiling around his head like a snake. Where had the god of inspiration disappeared to—had he been struck by lightning and dissolved by the rain? This was unusual. For the last ten years, Husin had always been able to produce page after page of writing, using a #2 pencil in his gnarly rheumatic fingers. He would write from five a.m. until after the early morning prayer. After he’d managed to produce one story, Husin would bathe, change, and set off for Primary School No. 4, which was quite close to his home.

He’d been teaching third grade at Primary School No. 4 for so many years that he’d lost count of how many hundreds of students he’d taught multiplication and division, how many he’d punished by sending them outside to fry in the sun. Husin didn’t want to know how many dozens of his students had become government officials or how many were now earning more than he was or how many had ended up just like him. Husin couldn’t remember how long he had been thinking about retirement. It had all gone by so quickly and in such a blur, like water gushing down a drainpipe.

Husin shifted in his seat to look at the clock on the wall. Ten past seven. The school bell had already rung, producing millions of little ripples, and he had to raise his booming voice to restore quiet in the classroom. But the rain drumming on the rooftop was louder than the hubbub within. Would his students miss him?

 

“Abel saw vultures in the back garden as he was climbing out of the window of the house he had just robbed . . .”

During all the years he had been teaching, all Husin ever asked for was a little bit of time to do his writing. Being so busy as one of (only) seven teachers in the school meant that the thieves of the world had joined forces to rob him of his youthful enthusiasm, leaving behind nothing but a trace. Inspiration turned against him; time addled his brain.

But it was fairy tales—nothing else—that occupied his thoughts. Age had slowed him down physically but those stories would never die. There was a new story waiting there every morning. A story about a boy sailing to faraway lands on a green rubbish bin. A story about a girl who lied to three angels of death. A story about a handful of pepper and a pan of salt that held the culinary secrets of a chef who was also a religion teacher. A story about an old woman who had lived for too long and whose memory was too short. A story about a pair of sweethearts who hated each other.

Husin was a skilled fairy tale writer. His stories were never run of the mill; adult readers found them odd, but it was their very oddness that appealed to his young readers. Every day he would walk to the school and sit on the bench at the gate waiting for his pupils to arrive. Since retiring, Husin no longer worked for the school, but he still came to tell his stories. The principal allowed him to sit at the gate. The children loved his stories. Their parents would put money in his plastic cup after he’d finished telling a story.

That was how Husin supported himself and his wife now that he no longer worked as a teacher. He peddled his stories every day in order to keep food on the table. How could anyone survive on a primary teacher’s pension? What could he hope for from his two sons, one of whom was a security guard and the other who printed business cards? If the parents at school put five thousand in his cup, Husin could buy cigarettes and coffee every morning and every evening.

For Husin, writing stories wasn’t just a way of getting a bit of pocket money; it was a pleasurable thing to do. By immersing himself in his favorite stories, Husin could escape the monotony and tedium of his life. He transformed into a handsome prince who married the most beautiful princess in the country rather than the ugly, fractious old woman who reduced him to silence every day. He transformed into the king’s favorite rather than a mediocre retired civil servant with no fixed employment. His fairy stories enabled him to weave a new story from the threads of his raggedy existence.

Wearing her faded floral housecoat, his wife brought him his morning coffee. She put the tall glass on the table, then left, just like that. She didn’t utter a word, although she should have asked him what he was thinking. Maybe that was what happened when a married couple had lived together for too long. Things got overlooked, like a bit of crumpled paper. The room became silent again after his wife left. The silence has a breath of its own, and a sound, too—that of retreating footsteps. There was no other sound. As he sipped his coffee, Husin asked himself despondently: Did he still love his wife?

 

“Abel saw vultures in the back garden as he was climbing out of the window of the house he had just robbed . . .”

When his front neighbor turned on the radio that meant it was eight o’clock. The jarring sound of dangdut pop music reminded Husin of his youngest son, who had once harbored ambitions to become a dangdut singer. That boy of his was always doing weird things and he was full of grandiose dreams, like grass aspiring to be broccoli. Husin had forked out a great deal of money on the useless kid. Far from becoming a famous television dangdut singer, he’d ended up in a lowly job printing business cards. 

Because of his son, Husin had written a story about a boy dressed in red who was a whiz at magic tricks. He was famous throughout the world, until one day the moon watched his performance and fell in love with him. The moon did everything it could to make the boy love her but he merely exploited her as part of his magic show. The moon was so downhearted that she gobbled him up. When there’s a full moon, people on Earth can see the moon casting her red glow and the silhouette of the man she loves floating there.

And that was the story of “The Moon and the Magician in the Red Jacket,” written by Husin when his disappointment in his youngest child forced him to become a permanent peddler of tales. He told the story to the children in Primary School No. 4. They loved it, imagining the pot-bellied moon with the vague outline of the man she had swallowed. Parents would see their otherwise naughty children laughing joyfully at the story, even though they themselves didn’t understand it. A few five hundred rupiah coins would land in Husin’s cup.

Husin began writing more and more daring stories, stories that would make the kids at Primary School No. 4 sit entranced for half an hour, or stories that made them want to get to school early so they could hear quirky stories the likes of which they would never read in a book. There were stories that made them laugh and stories that made them cry till they wet their pants. There were stories they would talk about to each other, in the classroom, or at the dining table, or when they were squatting on the toilet. These were stories that made the old storyteller famous.

Husin never stopped writing. The stories seemed to beg him to release them every morning. He told a story about soldiers who were at war all winter until their fingers froze. He told a story about trees in the forest that wept when the sun betrayed them. He told a story about a woman who had one ear, so big she had to walk leaning over at an angle like a boat battered by a storm. Stories just seemed to spring up; to Husin they were like mushrooms in the rainy season. All he needed to do was pick them then sauté them or cook them in a banana leaf. You just picked the stories then baked them. Stories were like treasure stored in a chest to which Husin had found the key.

The big hand of the clock was moving toward eleven—it was nearly nine o’clock. He’d finished his coffee but it wasn’t his job to take the empty cup to the sink. His wife would be back in ten minutes to collect it. He took his #2 pencil and nervously tried to read the sentence on the page.

“Abel saw vultures in the back garden as he was climbing out of the window of the house he had just robbed . . .”

Abel was the name of Husin’s first son, who had died in an accident many years ago. The truck Abel was driving had collided with an interprovince bus and plunged into a ravine. Husin never stopped thinking about Abel and constantly asked himself what might have happened if he had had more money and been able to fulfill Abel’s request to continue his schooling through to university level.

 

Yesterday was Monday, now it’s Tuesday. No story on Tuesday, because of the rain—not because Husin was incapable of writing anything except a sentence about Abel, who saw a vulture in the back garden as he was climbing out of the window of the house he had just robbed. The story faded out at the full stop—there was no comma, no new paragraph.

Husin lay in bed, his thoughts floating in the air like ghosts. He had always questioned things, but more and more now he was questioning his stories. What happened to Abel when he saw the vulture? Why did he have to rob a house? What was going on in the back garden that looked like a cemetery? Husin turned on to his right side, trying to calm his churning stomach. He didn’t need to go to the bathroom but his stomach was heavy, as if there was something that needed to be evacuated.

Husin got up and left his wife sound asleep in bed. What time was it? Two minutes past midnight. Yesterday was Tuesday, today is Wednesday. Maybe Wednesday was the day he would be able to write a story and peddle it in from the front gate of the school with the little stools for kids to sit on. Husin pulled back the curtains and looked at the reddish full moon. He could make out the vague silhouette of a man there.

Husin sat in his desk chair, waiting for a story to pop up in his head like a mushroom in the rainy season. The stories would surely not betray him like the sun betrays the trees in the weeping forest. Nor could his story hate him like a story about a pair of lovers who hate each other. That would be impossible, right? Husin lit a cigarette, rubbing his eyes as if he were ordering them to stay alert.

He would stay sitting here until the muezzin issued the call to prayer, then he would do the ablutions for the dawn prayer. After that, the story would surely come pouring out of the prison cells in his head. He couldn’t wait to see the faces of his young admirers, transfixed by his story. His plastic cup would surely be full of five hundred rupiah coins. Husin squinted, trying to read his handwriting. His back was bent like a crescent moon. He scratched his head and dandruff drifted down like snow.

“Abel saw vultures in the back garden as he was climbing out of the window of the house he had just robbed . . .”

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