Short Story by Imas Istiani (The Jakarta Post, August 28, 2017)
It was the day that would forever change her life, but the Village Girl could not see anything would go wrong. Instead, she was bursting with excitement.
“Ma… Why are the trees running? Where will they go?”
The Village Girl could not stop staring at the outside, flattening her forehead, nose and lips against the window. It was her first experience riding in a car. Having lived her whole life corralled by green hills and sandy beaches in a very remote area of Sukabumi had limited her chances of witnessing modern developments. Even though her village is located some five-hours away from Jakarta, one of the world’s most popular megacities. This was where she was heading. She was so happy when Ma took her to the city while her other siblings were left at home with Granny.
Before the Village Girl and Ma left the house this early morning, Granny wrapped her arms around her small body and hugged her so tightly she could not breathe. Granny’s eyes grew misty and the Village Girl thought it was funny the way her grandmother was staring at her as if for the last time.
“Granny, why are you so sad? You used to love it when I was not around to bother you,” said the Village Girl mockingly. Granny had always yelled her for being too noisy around the house, especially when the Village Girl was playing with her siblings.
“You little brat,” Granny nagged at her, but her eyes had become wet and her voice was hoarse.
“It’s already five, we have to go!” Ma said. She folded her arms, while tapping her right foot against the floor. She watched with disdain as her daughter, the Village Girl, was trying to part with the grandmother.
“I know what time it is… don’t you dare pressure me!” the sound of Granny’s voice startled the Village Girl. Both her mother and Granny were giving each other ‘the look’ — the kind you’d throw at people you didn’t like. The younger woman quickly grabbed the Village Girl’s hand and dragged her away from the older woman’s presence.
Ma never mentioned why they went to Jakarta; neither what would they do once they got there. But she guessed that Ma was missing Pa terribly and that they would meet him there. The Village Girl had repeatedly asked Ma to meet Pa — a man of whom she knew nothing, even his name. Granny told her that Pa left the family to earn more money when he found out that Ma was pregnant again; the Village Girl was barely one-year old at the time. Pa complained that their small village had nothing to offer except vast paddy fields which were always dry due to the long drought and terrible irrigation. That was Granny’s version — the version about her father’s leaving that the Village Girl had come to believe. Ma refused to mention anything about Pa.
Nina, her favorite playmate, told her, “Your father is a jerk. That’s what Mom told me.”
The Village Girl did not really understand what Nina meant, but she was sure it was pretty bad. She remembered how Nina had called her own father a jerk after a particular incidence — one in which he refused to buy her new shoes for the Eid celebration.
The Village Girl swore to herself she would never call her father names no matter what he had done. Feeling his presence would have been enough. Sure, it was hard not to have her father around, but The Village Girl noticed it must have been harder for Ma. Since Pa left the family, or as far as she remembered, the Village Girl never saw Ma smile at anyone. Now that they were on the bus to Jakarta, the Village Girl wished she would see the smile on Ma’s face again. But Ma’s mind seemed to have wandered far away. Ma was gazing straight at the worn gray seat in front of her.
“Ma, why are the trees outside running? I wonder where they want to go. Are they following us?” the Village Girl wiggled her mom’s thigh, demanding an explanation.
“Yes, the trees are running to their new place. Don’t you know that everything is changing in this world? Just like your little brother: he was helpless when he was just born. Now he can crawl and sit by himself. And you, you will grow and you can be anything you want to be if you behave.”
“Really? I want to be Sailor Moon! How can I be Sailor Moon, Ma? My hair is long like Sailor Moon, but it is dark, not yellow,” she touched the tip of her fishtail braided hair, inhaling the scent. Ma washed her hair this morning with strawberry shampoo. She never ate a strawberry, but she knew the picture from her older sister’s school book cover where she saw a very pretty young lady with pink hair covered by a strawberry hat.
“Ma, can I be Sailor Moon by wearing a strawberry hat?” The Village Girl shook Ma’s skinny hands, which were holding her shabby brown canvas tote bag tightly.
“What did I just tell you, eh? You can be anything as long as you behave well.” In a normal situation, every time she said, “You have to behave well,” Ma’s tone was sharp, cold and mean. But not this time. There was none of that.
The Village Girl tried to enjoy her first bus trip, but the bumpy road made dizzy. There was no AC on the bus. Throughout the journey, the Village Girl wiped the sweat across her forehead using her shirt sleeve. Even worse was the mixture of rotten smell hanging in the air which came from fish, people’s feet, sweat, and the pungent odor of cheap perfumes. But she did not let them ruin her day. The running trees were no longer visible to her. Had they discovered the places they wanted to go to?
After the trees, the Village Girl saw so many houses moving and running as well. She pondered whether the houses were running with their occupants too. Otherwise, where would they sleep once they discovered their houses had left them? She then thought of their old house which was always there every time she went home after helping Ma selling fried sweet potatoes. It was normal for the Village Girl and her mother to walk around the village for six straight hours (or more if there were sweet potatoes were not selling as fast as they should). Ma insisted that if the Village Girl helped her sell the cake, more people would want to buy the fried sweet potatoes. If they managed to sell all the fried potatoes on any given day — which was very rare — Ma would let the Village Girl play at Nina’s house. Nina lived in the largest house in the village, and if the Village Girl was lucky, when she arrived at the house Sailor Moon would be playing on TV.
Besides the running houses, she saw many other running cars racing each other as if they were pulled hard by invisible ropes. The deafening sound of those cars, boisterously and clamorously, was such a great contrast from her daily life. Usually, the loudest sound she would hear came from petrol chainsaws chopping down the coconut trees that grew abundantly in her village. But what surprised her most was to see the way some cars would leave thick black clouds behind them, hovering low above the ground.
“Maaa… Can I touch the black clouds over there?”
“What black clouds?” Ma’s attention was now drawn to her.
“Look at them! They are scattered around the cars!”
The Village Girl had always dreamed of touching the white clouds across the blue sky. Now that the dream was coming true, the Village Girl tried not to blink her eyes very often, thinking she could not witness this miracle again anytime soon. And also, the realization of how clouds were formed stirred her eagerness to go back home right away to tell her playmates that she knew how clouds were made.
The new knowledge triggered her another question: why did the color change from black to white once the cloud was up in the sky? This question was quickly forgotten as soon as the running houses were gone. What was in front of her now were very tall buildings pressing against each other like tiny bristles on her blue toothbrush. The lean buildings looked so fragile as if they would collapse easily once the wind came and blew them off. Ma could sense her anxiety. Ma squeezed her hand.
“We will get off the bus soon. Collect your belonging now,” Ma’s voice was hoarse like there was a roll of hay clogged in her throat. The Village Girl reluctantly grabbed her worn-out cuddly baby doll and a bottle of water. Her braided hair was no longer neat, her ironed cloth was crumpled and wet with sweat. Ma helped her tighten the braid before they got off.
When the bus left them at a stop, the Village Girl could not blink at all seeing the big city in front of her. No more bus window separated her view from the real tall buildings that still looked intimidating to her. Now she could see clearly the endless range of buses, cars, and motorbikes. She squinted her eyes for the blazing sun was not only burning her skin, but also blinding her sight. She trusted Ma to lead her by her hand with her eyes half closed.
Ma took her inside a food stall where a long line of dishes made her mouth water and her stomach growl like a mad bear’s. She waggled her two hands to seize all the food aromas toward her: dried beef curry, grilled chicken, tilapia soup, pan fried shrimp and many others that the Village girl had never seen before. But Ma disrupted her pleasure and asked her to sit and wait on the wooden chair. When Ma came and brought her a plate of warm rice and a fried egg, she unwillingly took the plate. She chewed the rice slowly while closing her eyes, imagining that what she had for lunch was a slice of dried beef curry.
“Why, you don’t like it?” Ma glared at her. The Village Girl knew she better say nothing or Ma would repeat her mantra: “Behave well!”
While eating at the table by the large window, the Village Girl observed the world outside. Besides the long heavy traffic, she noticed there were many street children by the traffic light. When the red light was on, they took over the entire street by singing, wiping car windows, selling newspapers, selling snacks or just begging for alms. There were also children close to her age whose clothes were torn and who seemed to be in need of a good shower.
“Ma, what are they doing?” the Village Girl pointed toward something.
Without directing her gaze to what the Village Girl was pointing at, Ma answered shortly while eating. “They are earning money so they can eat,” she said.
“Where are their parents? I also earn money with you.”
Ma stopped chewing. The wrinkles on her forehead were getting thicker as she stared at the Village Girl. “They would not do that if their parents had already enough money. Now, stop looking at them and finish your lunch!”
The Village Girl’s plate was still full while Ma’s plate was already empty. She tried to hasten but her little mouth could only take in half a spoon every time she scooped the rice.
After a few moments, Ma cleared her throat and spoke to the Village Girl. “Listen, I want you to know that no matter what people say, you have to keep in mind that I have been trying to do the best for us. You understand that, eh?” For the first time today, Ma initiated a conversation. Not only that, Ma seemed to really mean it.
“I know, Ma.”
“Listen, I have to go somewhere where children aren’t allowed to come.”
“Why Ma? Don’t leave me alone!”
“Remember I told you to behave, okay? No, it will not take a long time. You don’t have to worry, though, my friend will come and pick you up so you will not be alone waiting for me. Hush.. Hush… No more crying!” Ma took some tissues from a box on the dining table and wiped away her tears.
“Promise me that you will behave, okay? My friend will arrive soon and he will take you to a water park while waiting for me. You told me once that Nina went there last month. Now it is your time to have fun in the park,” Ma smiled lightly.
“Water Park?” The thought of playing all day long at the water park soothed the Village Girl’s cry by itself. “But, but, we will meet there soon, right?” She felt herself torn between excitement and sadness.
“Oh, sure… You are such a well-behaved daughter. See you there soon, okay? Bye!” Ma kissed her left cheek and hugged her for a moment. The Village Girl followed Ma’s steps with her eyes until her shadow disappeared. Not long after Ma had left, a tall thin man appeared. She could not see his face since it was covered with a bushy mustache and round sunglasses. A strong smell of tobacco came from his black leather jacket.
The man cleared his throat intentionally to catch her attention when the Village Girl looked down on her plate with a perplexed gaze.
“So, are you ready to go to the water park?”
The Village Girl said nothing, tears began to well up in her eyes. Don’t cry, she told herself. After a while, the man took her hand and led her outside. Again, the fiery blazing sun blinded her so she kept on tripping behind the man. But even though her teary eyes were half closed, the Village Girl was sure she saw Ma on a running bus, watching her for a moment, before eventually turning away from her.
The writer is an English lecturer and Fulbright scholar. Her previous story also appeared in The Jakarta Post.