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from the January 2009 issue

Cik Giok

Don't forget to send the ticket for Cik Giok so that she can come to Jakarta. Don't forget to buy something for Cik Giok to wear . . .

It was the planning meeting for my wedding. Why was Papa so worried about Cik Giok? Why was she so important? It was I, their only child, who was getting married, after all! Even more surprising, whenever Papa said something, Mama, who almost never accepted his suggestions, said nothing. And Grandmother, the constant supporter of Mama's wishes, said nothing either.

Cik Giok had lived with our family a long time, even before I was born. Technically, I should have called her A'i Giok or Aunt Giok because she was, my father said, my grandmother's adopted daughter. But because everyone called her Cik Giok or Sister Giok, I called her that, too, and no one ever objected to or corrected my mistake.

Grandmother and Cik Giok's parents were from the same part of Pontianak, Papa told me, but Cik Giok's parents were quite poor and had a difficult time getting by because of their large number of children. After Cik Giok was born—the last of eleven—her mother was sick for almost a year. To safeguard the health of both the child and her mother, Cik Giok's parents offered her to Grandmother. And so Grandmother had taken her in.

In our house, Cik Giok occupied the back bedroom, just off the kitchen and next to the storeroom. To avoid calling it the worst room in the house, let's just say it was very simple . . . and small. The lower half of the room's outer walls was of solid construction but the upper section was exposed, covered only with chicken wire, mosquito screening, and a curtain of unbleached muslin which she washed every Saturday morning.

I once asked, why Saturday.

Because that was the best day, she said, so that on Sunday, when she had a little time to relax in her room, she could lie on her mattress without being irritated by the sight of dirty or dusty curtains.

Grandmother, my mother's mother, forbade me to play in Cik Giok's room. She said it was too close and dank, not good for one such as myself who was prone to asthma. Well that was just too bad, I thought, because I really liked playing in that room with her. Especially in the afternoon, when my own bedroom was so hot, I loved watching the curtains in Cik Giok's room as they danced with the wind. They seemed to be waving to me, inviting me to relax in the room's cool air.

If Cik Giok wasn't otherwise busy—besides helping Mama cook, wash, iron, and clean the house, she also tended to Grandmother's needs—she would help me with my homework. But more often than not what we actually did together was tell stories. Whenever I started complaining about my studies—mathematics especially!—she would tell me a story about her distant village or repeat a story about me as a baby. She said that I was a difficult child, always whining, never willing to settle down until I was given to her to hold.

During these story times, I'd often start to nod off; when that happened, she'd immediately shove her thin, damp pillow at me and I would rest my head on it. Then she'd trace my eyebrows with her fingertips until I fell fast asleep. But in the late afternoon, before Grandmother awoke from her daytime nap, she'd always evict me from her room.

I didn't realize how fond I'd become of Cik Giok until she went away. I was in sixth grade. It was close to finals and, as I recall, Cik Giok had been crying, for some reason, almost the entire day before. Mama and Grandmother wouldn't let me go to her room. When I tried to find out why Cik Giok was unhappy, Mama just shook her head. While stroking my hair, she said, "It's nothing," and tried hard to smile.

The next day, when I came home from school, Cik Giok's room was empty. Grandmother said that she'd gone back to her village. Mama added that Cik Giok's mother was gravely ill. I couldn't sleep that night; the following few nights, either. After a week, I thought my chest was going to burst from my longing to see her. When I came home from school that day, I went into her room and hugged her thin pillow. Then, suddenly, I started to cry.

Grandmother, who by chance was not taking her afternoon nap that day, rushed in and dragged me from Cik Giok's room. She asked me why I was crying for Cik Giok. It was silly, she told me. After all, Cik Giok wasn't concerned with me; the proof being, she hadn't come back.

I wanted to scream, to tell Grandmother that she was lying, but I said nothing. It took all my strength to keep myself from crying again. I was afraid that Gradmother would become even angrier and whack me with her rattan switch.

One month, three months, six months passed. An entire year passed before I stopped hoping for Cik Giok to return. But, finally, I did, over time, almost forget that at the back of the house there was a room in which I often used to play. And gradually, Cik Giok was expunged from the family's communal memory—until last week, that is, when all of a sudden her name was mentioned in conjunction with the preparations for my wedding. Cik Giok had to be invited. Cik Giok would need to have a dress made, and so on.

And so, Cik Giok was going to come. Fourteen years after she had left, she was coming back to our home—where she would stay in the bedroom off the kitchen which the servant was now cleaning on Mama's instructions.

I asked Mama if she was going to be living with us.

Mama told me, no, that after my wedding, she'd be going back to her village again.

And Cik Giok really did come. Papa even went to Tanjung Priok Harbor to meet her.

I was watering Mama's Japanese frangipani when Father and Cik Giok pulled up near the house in a bajaj. I ran to greet them and we hugged each other warmly.

You're getting married, Lin, she stated softly while stroking my forehead. I smiled but my throat suddenly felt dry. Her face had lost its fullness. Her eyes looked sad. She had lots of gray hair. I took the cloth bag she was carrying in my one hand and with the other pulled her into the house. There, in the living room, Mama took a deep breath when she saw her, and then asked her how she was.

She was fine. Everything was fine; all was well. Congratulations, she remarked. Grandmother, who hadn't moved from her place at the table, snorted. Loudly. Immediately, Cik Giok placed her palms together and paid obeisance to Grandmother, then went ahead of me to her old room. I followed behind, just as I had done many years before.

Early the next morning, Cik Giok was already busy in the kitchen, preparing breakfast for Grandmother, Papa, Mama, and myself: a thin rice porridge with fermented cabbage; shredded, grilled salted fish; cucumber pickles and salted eggs with oily yolks—all from her village. We ate ravenously as Cik Giok watched from the door.

Eat with us, I told her.

I've eaten already, she said. And when Grandmother raised her face from her porridge bowl, Cik Giok scrambled toward the back. I stood, ready to stop her, but seeing Grandmother's face, decided to sit down again. I finished the porridge in my bowl.

That afternoon, I had a fitting for my wedding dress. When I said that I'd like to ask Cik Giok to go with me, Mama gave me a look of displeasure but called Cik Giok anyway, in a loud voice.

Go along with Lin, Mama told her. Cik Giok had a look of discomfort on her face.

She's having a fitting for her wedding dress, Mama explained.

Cik Giok's face suddenly flushed and a smile sprouted at the corners of her lips—but then just as quickly disappeared when I teased her, saying that that maybe she would like to buy a wedding dress too. Mama pinched my arm. And it hurt!

Mama led Cik Giok by the arm outside and we walked, one after the other, toward the main street to look for transport. We said nothing the entire way.

At the shop, my dress was almost finished. Even though it was a little loose at the waist, the white satin gown, with all its sequins and emroidered flowers was, for me, near perfection. I turned around in front of the mirror. Cik Giok watched but said nothing; didn't even smile.

After the fitting, we stopped at the cake shop to make sure things were ready for the tea ceremony and, after that, at the engravers to check on the invitations we'd ordered. Before going home, we called in at another tailor shop, one that specialized in apparel "for the entire family." A dress for Cik Giok was chosen—the same style as Mama's but of a slightly different color and in a darker shade.

Cik Giok said nothing all the way home.

For three nights, I wasn't able to sleep. Mama said it was normal, because my wedding day was so near. Everyone who was going to get married was like that, she said. It was because I was overly happy, she said. Maybe so, but my body felt tired and my eyelids were heavy.

I left my room to look for something to eat in the kitchen, but as soon as I opened the refrigerator door and saw it stuffed with food, I lost my appetite. Then I noticed that the light in Cik Giok's room was still on. She was still awake. Not bothering to knock, I opened her door to find her writing something. She looked surprised to see me.

She asked me, what's wrong?

Can't sleep, I told her, as she folded the paper on which she'd been writing.

Why can't you sleep, she asked again.

I shrugged my shoulders, then lay down on her bed. My feet hung over the edge of the bed I had once thought so large.

Who are you writing to, I asked.

My family in the village, she said. They're worried. I'm not as young as I once was and I haven't been away from home in a long time. I need to let them know that I arrived in Jakarta and that I'm safe and sound.

That's about all I remember of our conversation. I fell asleep, and stayed asleep for I don't know how long, until I was awoken by Cik Giok's voice.

Wake up, she said. Your grandmother is looking for you. I jumped out of bed to go to the bathroom. But, too late! Grandmother was standing outside the door to Cik Giok's room. She was incredibly angry. All that day, and into the evening, she wouldn't say a word to me. Mama, too, followed suit, putting on a sour face.

That night my Aunt Kuku, my father's older sister, arrived. In the living room, we discussed the tea ceremony, which was to take place twelve days hence, with my fiancé's family. Out of the blue, as this discussion was going on, Cik Giok appeared in the kitchen doorway with a plastic stool in her hand and a nervous look on her face. Aunt Kuku told her to join us, but her invitation upset Mama and Grandmother, and Mama told Cik Giok in a loud voice that there was no need for her to sit with us. Grandmother started to cry. Then Papa suddenly disappeared—though earlier he had been sitting, mild-mannered, beside Grandmother. I ran back to Cik Giok's bedroom. It was empty. When I returned to the living room, I found Grandmother still crying and Mama trying to stop her tears. I wanted to find out where Cik Giok had gone but Aunt Kuku told me to stay. Take care of Grandmother, she said.

I asked Aunt Kuku what was going on, but all she would say was that one day I would understand, that everything would be clear. One day? When? She then put her arms around Grandmother, leaving me feeling quite alone. What was with them? What was it about my wedding? What was with Cik Giok? Finding myself perturbed and with a sudden headache, I went into my room and locked it from the inside.

The next morning I woke up late and found that Cik Giok had taken her bag and left. Mama told me that there had been an emergency, that she had to go to Bandung, but that she'd be back before my wedding day. Whatever you want to think, I told her, but I was sure that Cik Giok would not be coming back to our house and would not be there for my wedding.

A month after my glorious and happy wedding, Mama called to tell me to come home. It's important, she said, but wouldn't say anything more.

When I arrived at the house, Grandmother, Papa, Mama, and Aunt Kuku were waiting for me in the dining room.

You have to go to Pontianak with your father, Mama said. Cik Giok has had a stroke.

I didn't want to go. Why should I? But, in the end, it was my husband who made me change my mind. This might be the last time that you see her, he said.

Papa and I left two days later, by which time Cik Giok was already in intensive care. My stomach churned throughout the trip.

Cik Giok didn't wait for my arrival. She was gone an hour before our plane landed. One of her sisters, who closely resemembled Cik Giok, was at the airport to greet us. When she hugged me, her tears dampened my own face and hair. Papa silently looked away, wiping away his own tears.

At the funeral home, a line of hired wailers were striking themselves and chiming little bells. Cik Giok, dressed in a cheongsam, looked beautiful. That was when I started to cry. Papa cried even harder as he tried to put his arms around Cik Giok's stiffened corpse. Forgive me, he said, over and over. Everyone was crying and sobbing as they tried to make their way closer to me to embrace me—so hard that it was difficult for me to breathe. Cik Giok's sister, with her tear-streaked face, kissed my cheeks, and whispered. Pay respects to your mama, she said.

Read more from the January 2009 issue
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