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from the August 2015 issue

The Wild Cherry Tree

Our house looked out upon the shore. But we could not see the shore from any of the open windows. The shore could still not be seen even when I stood up straight in our sandy front yard, the soles of my bare feet feeling like they had been invaded by fine hot needles under the searing midday sun. The shore was merely the thunder of the sea and the foghorn of a ship, even though I was perched on the tallest branch of the wild cherry tree that soared arrogantly in the corner of our yard.

The steep cliff was overgrown by thorny creeping brush that had concealed the beach far away down there. And a single not very fertile jackfruit tree on the cliff edge, with its old scrawny branches, stood forlornly watching over it. When evening approached, when what little light was left starts making silhouettes out of the things of the universe, the jackfruit tree would truly look like a lonely alien being, pondering over the cliff. Black. Dumb. Friendless.

My hazy stare would immediately hit upon the line where sky and cliff meet. What can could be seen was no straight line, not like the line made with a ruler and pencil on sketch paper, but rather a wavy line with a series of peaks and valleys. Bush, tree, wooden posts, clumps of earth . . . all have marred it. The sky that I could see, too, would always be changing color. Blue, gray, black, or blazing white. Like the colors splashing inside of me. The stalks of the wild creeping plants that blanketed the cliff always looked fresh and green in the rainy season, but were parched and brownish in the dry season looking more like a weaving of rusty wires than plants that once were alive, once were fresh.

Sometimes my grandfather would ask me along to the beach. We had to take the roundabout way. The cliff face was almost at a ninety-degree angle. Impossible to climb down its face. As soon as my feet touched sand, I would turn right away to look at the cliff. How high it was. The jackfruit tree would appear so distant.

When I was still in primary school, most of my time was spent up in that wild cherry tree. Not merely to contemplate the hidden beach, but also for other reasons. Once home from school and after having lunch, I would climb up with my cloth bag filled with storybooks, then sit on one of the sturdy branches to read and scrutinize the tall tales of storytellers and be influenced by their words. The Tintin comics, the Nancy Drew, Detective series, Tales from the Five Continents . . .

A light breeze blew and cooled my skin, then started to caress my eyelids. Gradually the letters began to run into each other or to replicate themselves. I became drowsy, but did not dare fall asleep. Not because of the fat green caterpillars that suddenly started inching up, creeping onto my skin at any given time, then spreading itchiness throughout my pores, but rather because I was afraid I’d fall. Though stronger winds would more often blow in a certain month, a certain season, the frightening feeling of being blown away and thrown down by the wind compelled me to climb straight down whenever sleepiness started to overcome me.

Strong winds are always awe inspiring. Grains of sand lift up, start flying about and sweep the air. Our terrace floor becomes sandy. The window panes turn dusty. Our house walls turn even grimier. Mak Sol, my grandfather’s nephew who lived with us, would find himself busy sweeping the terrace and wiping the glass doors and windows for weeks and weeks, more often than usual. Yu Ani, who for almost a year now has helped cook and wash the clothes in our household, would hurriedly bring up buckets and mop the floors.

Sometimes I would stare at the strong winds blowing from the window of the pavilion where Grandfather stayed. The pavilion had big windows. Its painted white windowframes were made of meranti wood. The wide glass panes in Grandfather’s room gave me ample space to watch the wind dash into the trunk and bend the branches and twigs of the wild cherry tree. The leaves would rain down. The caterpillars would be beat about and lie forlornly on the sand like victims of a hit-and-run. The odd thing was, the caterpillar season arrived always at the same time as the wild winds.

“The Westerly Winds have come,” said Grandfather, while stowing away his shopping book in the drawer that held all his proof-of-purchase records, the monthly television and radio subscription, his important documents, and the used medicine bottles that he had filled with different types of roots (and one very special bottle filled with all of Grandfather’s teeth that had fallen out!).

Grandfather would then start deftly separating his bills from his coins, or vice versa. The bills of cash he would put into a brown envelope with the label MONTHLY SHOPPING MONEY, while the coins he would feed into the mouth of a clay elephant that looked upward while launching its forelegs high, a present from a nephew who worked at a shipping company. After that, the envelope with the money he’d store in the safe. The elephant piggybank would be shoved back into the corner of the desk. Secretly, I had once tried to pick at that elephant piggybank and tried to make some of the coins fall from inside it. It hardly ever worked. But once, enough fell out for me to buy five packs of ham lam, sweets from a fruit whose seeds were almond-shaped and whose  size was twice that of almonds. The lettering in characters on the wrapper was incomprehensible to me. “But the ‘ham lam’ written in Latin under the characters, I deduced, was the name of the sweet.”

I think Grandfather knew that I had stolen some of his coins. One day he bought me a rooster-shaped piggybank made of clay and said, “Save your coins here. Later you can smash it once it’s full.” I suddenly felt so sad and ashamed.

I turned my gaze from the windowpanes, watching Grandfather sitting with his back to me. In reality, Grandfather was the head of our household, not Father. Every day he would check up on every little household need, from the matter of kitchen salt to going to our neighbor who stole our water from the pipes behind the house. It was Grandfather, too, who went to the police station to set free our driver, who had been accused of hitting someone on the road. Father, instead, had wanted to bribe the police so that the matter would be dealt with quickly. “Don’t! If we are in the right, we have to stand brave even to the death,” my grandfather said, scolding his weak-hearted son-in-law.

Grandfather slowly picked up his coffee mug and sipped its contents. Robusta coffee, thick. I once tried Grandfather’s coffee, one sip. Bitter. I spit it out in the washbasin. It was dark and black. A frightening color, but it was always there. I watched how Grandfather’s fingers had started to quiver.

“This strong wind brings on ailments. When you go play, do it inside the house. It’s safer,” Grandfather said while putting down his cup on its the saucer. A little while later he stood up from his chair, put his glasses on the dresser, then ambled through the doorway.

 

When my gaze went back to hitting the glass panes, I saw clumps of black clouds queuing up slowly in the sky. The wind was still crazy. Little clods of earth flew up and were then dashed to the ground. The sea down there by the cliff was raging. My schoolmate, Kang Haw, was lost at sea for joining in pushing a fishing boat to the middle. His body came floating by after two weeks. Bloated. Blue. Full of bitten holes. Even though Grandfather had forbade me, I daringly looked at the body carried on the stretcher by the crowd after it had been fished out of the sea. As soon as the grieving crowd turned the corner, I quickly clambered up my wild cherry tree and continued to look at them carrying Kang Haw. The wind turned suddenly sharp. My goosebumps spread.

That night when I woke up to go to the bathroom, the howl of the wind could be heard wailing more loudly, like the repeated groan of a giant. I ran through the long corridor that connected the bathroom in the backhouse to my bedroom located in the main house. My room was closer to the bathroom at the end of the corridor than to the family bathroom in the main house.

The cement flooring was as cold as ice. I often forgot to put on my flannel slippers. My soles felt as if they had frozen. Bang Husni, Grandfather’s adopted grandson, was already standing in front of his room adjacent to the bathroom. My soft footfalls and light rhythmic steps had woken him up from sleep. The silent house made any sound ring clear, “Like the shrilling of an alarm clock,” he said, grinning. He came closer. His fingers clawed my arms. “Don’t run so fast, you’ll fall,” he said.

Bang Husni often lent me his comic books. He rented the books from the reading kiosk in the market.  “These books may be read under one condition,” he said one day. His eyes had a strange gleam to them.

The wind continued to blow through the holes of the window-grilling along the corridor. The night turned black. The wind hissed, cold, sharp. My body shivered. The wild cherry leaves rustled. He turned off the corridor light.

Once Grandfather was going to cut down the wild cherry tree. “In the slug season, its disgusting. Look at that . . . slugs everywhere,” grumbled Grandfather, pointing through the window.

I disagreed. On the treetop, I wanted to build a tiny house. I wanted my own house. After all, it wasn’t all the time that the slugs brimmed over. Also, couldn’t the tree be sprayed with caterpillar poison?

“Better we plant a rambutan or a guava tree, they’d be more useful,” cajoled Grandfather, trying to avoid an argument.

Father and Mother supported Grandfather’s whim, but good fortune was still on the side of the tree. Gradually everybody forgot about the plan. It was only when the high winds came and felled all those caterpillars, did the conversation to hack down the tree bubble up again. The plan repeatedly failed to be executed. It always vaporized in the clamor of more urgent daily matters. Of course, I’d be so grateful.

I started to inspect all the leftover boards behind the house. I would take heed of how Grandfather sawed, hewed, and nailed wood. A wooden house would need thorough preparation. It would need to withstand even a hurricane. I would build it myself. Not a single soul did I tell about my plan. I started to look at Grandfather’s books on carpentry. Every time I looked at the wild cherry tree, the desire to live on its treetop grew stronger and took root in my heart. I imagined sleeping there at night. From its dainty window, I would be able to look at the winking stars. Oh yes, I had a pair of binoculars, a gift from my father. Bathroom? I could relieve myself in a used paint tin. That would be that.

Sometimes I’d fall into despair. Was I even capable of building a house? I became very agitated. My head ached. But as long as my dream house was still unbuilt, I could still find shelter in the wild cherry tree,  have some pleasure for a spell, and go on seeking ways to realize the treehouse some day. I could also peek and know a lot about things going on in our house from behind the green and bushy wild cherry leaves.

 

On Sundays, the old man who brought fish from the sea in two rattan baskets on the left and right of his bicycle always stopped in front of our house. I closed my storybook, deliberately watching his movements from above.

He shot a glance at Grandfather’s pavilion. He did not see me. His scrawny calves held up the bike and the wares he was bringing.

Grandfather didn’t go to the market on Sundays. He waited for the vegetable barrow or the fish bike to go past our house.

The fishmonger sounded his bell twice, stopped a bit, then pressed the bell twice again because Grandfather still hadn’t appeared. A few moments later, Grandfather opened the door to his pavilion, stepped into the yard smiling, and shouted out to the man. “How’re things, Suk? Any good fish? Do you have prawns? Mussels? Stingrays? Belanak? Flying fish?”

The Chinese man, with the sunburnt skin and wrinkles on his face like knifecuts on a tree bark, greeted Grandfather with a wide smile. “Yes, Sir. All of it just caught. The kembung are still fresh. Only a little of the stingray left,” he said merrily.

Grandfather looked over the fish in the baskets. The fishmonger took out his scale rod, Grandfather put the fish in the bowl. The fishmonger started to move the weight along the rod, looking at the tip of the scale. Then Grandfather took out a few bills from the pocket of his gabardine pants. The fishmonger nodded, showed his teeth full of gaps, then pedalled his bike away from our house. Ring-ring … he sounded his bell twice in farewell.

Grandfather carried the plastic bag toward the pavilion, then stopped to look up at the wild cherry tree. “Careful you don’t fall!” he cried out to me. I answered by waving my hand and sticking out my tongue. Grandfather laughed.

But Grandfather could not always buy his fish on Sundays. The fishmonger would not allow Grandfather to buy his fish sometimes, even though he still stopped by in front of our house as usual, ringing his bell, and waiting for Grandfather. When Grandfather appeared, he shouted, “Today there are no good fish, sir. The fishermen haven’t come back from the sea.” Grandfather answered his shout. “Yes, yes . . . wait a bit!” I knew what Grandfather was doing. He asked Yu Ani to dredge up two liters of our rice and pour it into a plastic bag to give to the fishmonger. Every time, whenever there were no fresh fish to be purchased, Grandfather would take the man a pack of something. For years and years, I would witness a Sunday scene like that.

One Sunday, the fishmonger did not come. The next Sunday his bicycle bell still could not be heard. The Sundays passed with no fish. For months and months, Grandfather replaced the fish menu with beef or chicken. Conversation about the fishmonger who disappeared bubbled up again and again at the dining table or in the kitchen. “Is the man sick?” Grandfather mumbled. Yu Ani instead thought a greater disaster had befallen the man. “Maybe he died. He was old, sir. Wonder where his children are, sir? An old man like that still being left to work,” she said, worriedly. Then gradually, the incident was forgotten with the arrival of another incident.

 

In the middle of the night, and it was always in the middle of the night, I woke up and had to run to the bathroom. Bang Husni was already waiting in front of his room. “There’s a new comic, little one,” he said in a half whisper. In truth, I was not keen on looking at the comics. I quickly pressed down on the handle of the bathroom door.

He chased after me and pulled my hand. “Mahabharata and Superman.”

I slapped away his hold.

“I’m not in the mood to read comics,” I answered snappishly.

“Come, come,” he cajoled. I no longer wanted to comply to his terms and conditions.

“It’s only a little while, after that you can read all the comics.” His voice sounded sweet.

He led me into the room, laid my body down like a doll on a mat. His hands covered my mouth.

The next day I found it difficult to urinate. I didn’t want to go to school. Grandfather himself offered to take me to school. Father and mother had gone to the office. My two younger siblings rode in the pick-up.

My body felt hot, as if with fever. “Don’t cut down the cherry tree,” I pleaded  Grandfather. Grandfather felt my forehead. “Let’s wait and see,” he replied while patting me on my shoulder. I cried.

Did Grandfather know?

“Put a potty in your room, so that you do not have to hold back water, because it will weaken your bladder,” he said coming home from the market. Grandfather put the chamber pot under my bed.

Out of the blue, Bang Husni ran away from our house.

“No sense of gratitude. Given education, provided with food, given clothes . . . and he runs away,” mumbled Mak Sol bluntly and at length.

Bang Husni was to have sat for his high school exams shortly, and Grandfather wanted him to finish his schooling. His departure made my Grandfather glum for many days. Where was he now? How was he faring?

My wooden house in the end failed to ever go up on that tree, but I still spent some of  my time sitting on one of the boughs, reading my books. Once in a while I would look toward the shore. Only the thunder of the sea and the foghorn of a ship would mark its existence. Some one hundred meters from where I was, the cliff overgrown with thorny shrubs had hidden the beach far away down there, and a single jackfruit tree on the cliff edge was a lonely being, standing forlornly as it looked down at the sea in the distance. And the sea was capable of swallowing up anything.

Once, without meaning to, I saw somebody standing on the cliff edge. The day was turning into night. The maghrib call to prayer had just ended. I was about to close the curtains of the pavilion windows. Grandfather was out of town, visiting a relative taken ill. Mak Sol was with him. Who was that figure standing stricken on the cliff? And why was he or she there?

The answer I got from Mother. “Yu Ani,” she whispered, briefly.

I was confused. Did Yu Ani plan to jump off the cliff? Mother was reluctant to say anything further.

“Yu Ani has a broken heart. Ah, of course you don’t understand. Yu Ani does not like sailors. She had been going steady for one month. Yes, the man, it turned out, already had a family. Many young girls go to the ship, then picnic on the beach down there . . . I’ll bet Yu Ani is still reminiscing about what happened,” said Mak Sol.

One day Grandfather comforted Yu Ani by playing fortuneteller. “You will find your true love not long from now,” he said.

Yu Ani was embarrassed. She blushed.

“And me, Uncle?” asked Mak Sol, enthusiastically.

Grandfather scrutinized the lines of his palm, wrinkled his brow. “Hmm . . . This will be a little difficult, but of course your true love exists. A faraway person . . . maybe someone from across the sea.”

The three of them fell to laughing heartily. Ha-ha-ha-ha . . . I laughed too.

“Hey, little child, don’t you eavesdrop on us . . . Get away from here. Go to your tree,” Mak Sol said, driving me away.

I ran off to avoid being pinched.

“You little ghost of the wild cherry tree!”

“Ghost of the kitchen!”

Ha-ha-ha-ha . . .

Memories always have a way of creeping back to us.

 

“Pohon Kersen,” in Rahasia Selma (Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2010). © Linda Christanty. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Debra Yatim. All rights reserved.

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