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An Excerpt from “Beauty is a Wound”

By Eka Kurniawan & Annie Tucker
Having cleaned his armor and made a full helmet out of a simple headpiece, and having given a name to his horse and decided on one for himself, he realized that the only thing left for him to do was to find a lady to love, for the knight errant without a lady-love was a tree without leaves or fruit, a body without a soul.
– Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
 

One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years. A shepherd boy, awakened from his nap under a frangipani tree, peed in his shorts and screamed, and his four sheep ran off haphazardly in between stones and wooden grave markers as if a tiger had been thrown into their midst. It all started with a noise coming from an old gravesite with an unmarked tombstone covered in knee-high grass, but everybody knew it was Dewi Ayu’s grave. She had passed away at fifty-two, rose again after being dead for twenty-one years, and from that point forward nobody knew exactly how to calculate her age.

People from the surrounding neighborhood came to the grave when the shepherd boy told them what was happening. Rolling up the edges of their sarongs, carrying children, clutching broomsticks, or stained with mud from the fields, they gathered behind cherry shrubs and jatropha trees and in the nearby banana orchards. No one dared approach, they just listened to the uproar coming from that old grave as if they were gathered around the medicine peddler who hawked his goods at the market every Monday morning. The crowd wholly enjoyed the unnerving spectacle, not caring that such a horror would have terrified them had they been all alone. They were even expecting some kind of miracle and not just a noisy old tomb, because the woman inside that plot of earth had been a prostitute for the Japanese during the war and the kyai always said that people tainted with sin were sure to be punished in the grave. The sound must have been coming from the whip of a tormenting angel, but they grew bored, hoping for some other small marvel.

When it came, it came in the most fantastical form. The grave shook and fractured, and the ground exploded as if blown up from underneath, triggering a small earthquake and a windstorm that sent grass and headstones flying, and behind the dirt raining down like a curtain the figure of an old woman stood looking annoyed and stiff, still wrapped in a shroud as if she’d only just been buried the night before. The people grew hysterical and ran away even more chaotically than the sheep, their synchronous screams echoing against the walls of the faraway hills. A woman tossed her baby into the bushes and its father hushed a banana stalk. Two men plunged into a ditch, others fell unconscious at the side of the road, and still others took off running for fifteen kilometers straight without stopping.

Witnessing all this, Dewi Ayu only coughed a little and cleared her throat, fascinated to find herself in the middle of a graveyard. She had already untied the two highest knots on her burial shroud, and then set to loosening the two lowest ones to free her feet so she could walk. Her hair had grown magically so that when she shook it loose from the calico wrap it fluttered in the afternoon breeze, sweeping the ground, and shimmering like black lichen in a riverbed. Her skin was wrinkled, but her face was gleaming white, and her eyes came alive inside their sockets to stare at onlookers abandoning their hiding places behind the shrubs—half of them ran away and the other half fainted. She complained, to no one in particular, that people were evil to have buried her alive.

The first thing she thought of was her baby, who of course was no longer a baby. Twenty-one years ago, she had died twelve days after giving birth to a hideous baby girl, so hideous that the midwife assisting her couldn’t be sure whether it really was a baby and thought that maybe it was a pile of shit, since the holes where a baby comes out and where shit comes out are only two centimeters apart. But this baby squirmed, and smiled, and finally the midwife believed that it really was a human being and not shit, and said to the mother, who was lying weakly across her bed with no apparent desire to see her offspring, that the baby was born, was healthy, and seemed friendly.

“It’s a girl, right?” asked Dewi Ayu.

“Yes,” said the midwife, “just like the three babies before her.”

“Four daughters, all of them beautiful,” said Dewi Ayu in a tone of complete annoyance. “I should open my own whorehouse. Tell me, how pretty is this one?”

The baby wrapped up tight in a swaddling cloth began to squirm and cry in the midwife’s arms. A woman was coming in and out of the room, taking away the dirty cloths full of blood, getting rid of the placenta, and for a moment the midwife did not answer because there was no way she was going to say that a baby who looked like a pile of black shit was pretty. Trying to ignore the question she said, “You’re already an old woman, so I don’t think you’ll be able to nurse.”

“That’s true. I’ve been used up by the three previous kids.”

“And hundreds of men.”

“One hundred and seventy-two men. The oldest one was ninety years old, the youngest one was twelve, one week after his circumci- sion. I remember them all well.”

The baby cried again.The midwife said that she had to find breast milk for the little one. If there was none, she’d have to look for cow’s milk, or dog’s milk, or maybe even rat’s milk. Yeah, go, said Dewi Ayu. “Poor unfortunate little girl,” said the midwife, gazing at the baby’s upsetting face. She wasn’t even able to describe it, but she thought it looked like a cursed monster from hell. The baby’s entire body was jet black as if it had been burned alive, with a bizarre and unrecognizable form. For example, she wasn’t sure whether the baby’s nose was a nose, because it looked more like an electrical outlet than any nose she’d ever seen in her entire life. And the baby’s mouth reminded her of a piggy-bank slot and her ears looked like pot handles. She was sure that there was no creature on earth more hideous than this wretched little one, and if she were God, she would probably kill the baby at once rather than let her live; the world would abuse her without mercy.

“Poor baby,” said the midwife again, before going to look for someone to nurse her.

“Yeah, poor baby,” said Dewi Ayu, tossing and turning in her bed. “I already did everything I could to try to kill you. I should have swallowed a grenade and detonated it inside my stomach. Oh wretched little one—just like evildoers, the wretched don’t die easy.”

At first the midwife tried to hide the baby’s face from the neighbor women who arrived. But when she said that she needed milk for the baby, they pushed against each other to see it, since it was always fun for those who knew Dewi Ayu to see her adorable little girl babies. The midwife was unable to stave off the onslaught of people pushing aside the cloth hiding the baby’s face, but once they’d seen it, and screamed from a horror unlike any they had ever experienced before, the midwife smiled and reminded them that she had tried her best not to show them the hellish countenance.

After that outburst, as the midwife left in a hurry, they just stood for a moment, with the faces of idiots whose memories had been suddenly erased.

“It should just be killed,” said a woman, the first one freed from her sudden onset amnesia.

“I already tried,” said Dewi Ayu as she appeared, wearing only a rumpled housedress and a cloth tied around her waist. Her hair was a total mess, like someone staggering away from a bullfight.

People looked at her with pity.

“She’s pretty, right?” asked Dewi Ayu.

“Um, yes.”

“There’s no curse more terrible than to give birth to a pretty female in a world of men as nasty as dogs in heat.”

Not one person responded, they just kept looking at her with sympathy, knowing they were lying. Rosinah, the mute mountain girl who had been serving Dewi Ayu for years, led the woman into the bathroom, where she had prepared hot water in the tub. There Dewi Ayu soaked with fragrant sulfurous soap, attended by the mute girl who shampooed her hair with aloe vera oil. Only the mute seemed unfazed by any of this, even though she surely already knew about the hideous little girl, since no one else but Rosinah had accompanied the midwife while she worked. She rubbed her mistress’s back with a pumice stone, wrapped her in a towel, and straightened up the bathroom as Dewi Ayu stepped out.

Someone tried to lighten the gloomy mood and said to Dewi

Ayu, “You need to give her a good name.”

“Yeah,” said Dewi Ayu. “Her name is Beauty.”

“Oh!” the people exclaimed, embarrassingly trying to dissuade her. “Or how about Injury?”

“Or Wound?”

“For God’s sake, don’t name it that.”

“Okay then, her name is Beauty.”

They watched helplessly as Dewi Ayu walked back into her room to get dressed. They could only look at one another, sadly imagining a young girl black as soot with an electrical outlet in the middle of her face being called by the name of Beauty. It was a shameful scandal.

However, it was true that Dewi Ayu had tried to kill the baby back when she realized that, whether or not she had already lived for a whole half century, she was pregnant once again. Just as with her other children, she didn’t know who the father was, but unlike the others she had absolutely no desire for the baby to survive. So she had taken five extra-strength paracetamol pills that she got from a village doctor and washed them down with half a liter of soda, which was almost enough to cause her own death but not quite, as it turned out, enough to kill that baby. She thought of another way, and called a midwife who was willing to kill the baby and take it out of her womb by inserting a small wooden stick into her belly. She experienced heavy bleeding for two days and two nights and the small piece of wood came back out in splinters, but the baby kept growing. She tried six other ways to get the better of that baby, but all were in vain, and she finally gave up and complained:

“This one is a real brawler, and she’s clearly going to beat her mother in this fight.”

So she let her stomach get bigger and bigger, held the selamatan ritual at seven months, and let the baby be born, even though she refused to look at her. She had already given birth to three girls before this and all of them were gorgeous, practically like triplets born one after another. She was bored with babies like that, who according to her were like mannequins in a storefront display, so she didn’t want to see her youngest child, certain she would be no different from her three older sisters. She was wrong, of course, and didn’t yet know how repulsive her youngest truly was. Even when the neighbor women furtively whispered that the baby was like the result of randomly breeding a monkey with a frog and a monitor lizard, she didn’t think they were talking about her baby. And when they said that the previous night wild dogs had howled in the forest and owls had flown in to roost, she didn’t in the least bit take those as bad omens.

After getting dressed, she lay down again, suddenly struck by how exhausting it all was, giving birth to four babies and living lon- ger than half a century. And then she had the depressing realization that if the baby didn’t want to die then maybe her mother should be the one to go, so that she would never have to see it grow into a young woman. She rose and staggered to the doorway, looking out at all the neighbor women who were still clustered together gossiping about the infant. Rosinah appeared from the bathroom and stood at Dewi Ayu’s side, sensing that her mistress was about to give her an order.

“Buy me a burial shroud,” said Dewi Ayu. “I have already given four girls to this accursed world. The time has come for my funeral procession to pass on by.”

The women shrieked and gaped at Dewi Ayu with their idiot faces. To give birth to a hideous baby was an outrage, but to aban- don it just like that was way more outrageous. But they didn’t come right out and say so, they just tried to talk her out of dying so fool- ishly, saying that some people lived for more than one hundred years, and that Dewi Ayu was still much too young to die.

“If I live to be a hundred,” she said with a measured calm, “then I will give birth to eight children. That’s too many.”

Rosinah went and bought Dewi Ayu a clean white calico cloth that she put on immediately—though that wasn’t enough to make her die right away. And so, as the midwife was traversing the neighborhood looking for a lactating woman (although this was in vain and she ended up giving the baby water that had been used to rinse rice), Dewi Ayu was lying calmly on top of her bed wrapped in a burial shroud, waiting with an uncanny patience for the angel of death to come and carry her away.

When the time of rice-rinse water had passed and Rosinah was feeding the baby cow’s milk (sold in the store as “Bear’s Milk”), Dewi Ayu was still lying in bed, not allowing anyone to bring the baby named Beauty into her room. But the story of the hideous baby and its mother wrapped in a burial shroud quickly spread like a plague, dragging people in not just from the surrounding neighborhoods but also from the farthest-flung villages in the district, to come see what was said to be like the birth of a prophet, with people comparing the howls of the wild dogs to the star seen by the Magi when Jesus was born and comparing the mother wrapped in her burial shroud to an exhausted Mary—a pretty far-fetched metaphor.

With the terrified expression of a young girl petting a baby tiger in the zoo, the visitors posed with the hideous infant for a roving photographer. This was after they had done the same with Dewi Ayu, who was still lying in her mysterious peacefulness, not at all disturbed by the merciless clamor. A number of people with grave and incurable illnesses came hoping to touch the baby, something Rosinah was quick to forbid because she was worried that all the germs would infect the infant, but in exchange she prepared pails of Beauty’s bath water. A number of others came hoping for a little luck at the betting table or sudden insight on how to make a business profit. For all of this mute Rosinah, who had quickly sprung into action as the baby’s caretaker, had prepared donation boxes that were soon filled with the visitors’ rupiah bills. The girl, wisely anticipating the possibility that Dewi Ayu might actually die in the end, acted in order to make some money from such a rare opportunity, so that she wouldn’t have to worry about the Bear’s Milk or their future alone together in the house, since Beauty’s three older sisters could never be expected to turn up there at all.

But the ruckus quickly came to an end as soon as the police came with a kyai who considered the whole thing heresy. That kyai began to fume and ordered Dewi Ayu to stop her shameful behavior, even demanding that she remove the burial shroud.

“You are asking a prostitute to take off her clothes,” said Dewi Ayu scornfully, “so you’d better have the money to pay me.”

The kyai quickly prayed for mercy, moved along, and never came again.

Once again the only one left was young Rosinah, who was never troubled by Dewi Ayu’s insanity no matter what form it took, and it became all the more evident that the girl was the only one who really understood that woman.

 

Excerpt courtesy of New Directions. Copyright © 2002 by Eka Kurniawan, Translation copyright © 2015 by Annie Tucker. Publication date: September 8, 2015.


Published Aug 19, 2015   Copyright 2015 Eka Kurniawan & Annie Tucker

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