Short Story by Shoba Dewey C (The Jakarta Post, September 11, 2017)

Śūnyatā ilustration Budhi Button - The Jakarta Post.jpg
Śūnyatā ilustration Budhi Button/The Jakarta Post

She walked past her usual spot at the beach, a quiet area away from the tourists, where she would gaze out at the ocean and absorb the sunset scene every evening.

She loved that time of the day — the pure serenity allowing her to reflect on the day’s work and to feel the gratitude of having lived yet another day. But that day she wasn’t going to just sit and ruminate as the sun set. She had a mission — something she was unsure of. Yet, it had to be done.

A few women were hunched around a stack of trinkets and sarongs, complaining about the day’s business. They looked at her quizzically. She was a frequent visitor on that part of the beach and the women knew her. But still, a foreign couple clad in local traditional attire accompanied by a priest was quite a sight. She casually waved and walked past them, leaving the women to wonder what was going on.

The waves splashed softly on the beach, filling up a pit that someone had dug earlier. Baby crabs scuttled in and out of little holes and tiny clams peeped through the wet sand as the water receded back to sea. The sky was as golden as the small antique pot she was carrying. She held the pot tight, afraid it would fall and of its precious contents spilling. A mild breeze wooed away the heat she had felt earlier during the ceremony.

She looked at the colorful traditional jukung boats lining the coast on one side of the beach. The fishermen were getting ready to sail for the night. They would come back early in the morning and sell their catch in the market. Nets were being drawn and checked to make sure they were good. Last minute repairs were being made. The priest led them towards a jukung with a purple sail.

Purple — the color of deep solemnity and contemplation. Sunyata gleamed purple on its white hull. How intriguing! Sunyata — emptiness of self-essence. Nothing and no one has a fixed identity. Everything and everyone exists only in relation to another’s perception. An unfathomable Zen concept! And there she was, sitting in the Sunyata out on a strange mission. As they sailed away from the crowded shores, an unexplainable unease settled in her chest. She knew nothing was coincidental.

Their jukung sliced rapidly through the orange water as surfers took their last ride on the evening wave. The colorful sails of hundreds of other jukungs out at sea were a feast for the eyes. The priest lighted some incense sticks and started to chant a prayer. The warm scent of sandalwood felt soothing.

Don sat across from her. The lines on his forehead were prominent from stress and days of not sleeping well. Having to take care of Dana had taken its toll on him. He was too tough to shed tears, but she could see the pain in his eyes. Don and Dana had grown up together on the island and they had adopted its ways. Dana had insisted that on her passing Don would arrange for her to be cremated.

Her mind wandered off to Dana’s cremation scene. It was strange to see her skeleton burning while the gamelan music played on, young children ran around and guests chatted and ate. It was definitely not the typical grief-stricken scene but a celebration of a life well-lived and of a better afterlife. Her hands trembled as she held the pot — Dana’s ashes.

She, of all the people, had been assigned to sprinkle the ashes into the Indian Ocean. That was specifically what Dana wanted, said the priest. Neither Don nor she had the nerve to ask the priest how Dana, having passed, had communicated to him. But one learned not to ask these things. Priests were revered for their spiritual knowledge and it might have been impolite to ask. So, they had obediently followed each step of the ceremony.

Don opened his wallet and showed her a photo of Dana looking pretty and happy. She had never seen that side of Dana. Things were always so strained between Dana and herself. She admired Dana for the tenacity to turn around an inherited family business from near bankruptcy to a thriving sustainable enterprise.

Dana had also taken good care of her little brother, Don. But she couldn’t stand Dana’s over-critical and over-controlling demeanor. Nothing she did was good enough for Dana — her salad was way too sour, the tone of her hair made her look too old, her furniture color was depressing.

Even giving Dana a gift felt wrong. She had once bought Dana a little black sequined party clutch, something she thought Dana would love. A few days later, Dana showed up with a handful of similar clutches of different colors. “Maria, look what I found — these were on sale at the store,” Dana had told her flatly. She had never succeeded to make sense of that incident or really any other incident with Dana.

Aware of Dana’s ashes in her hands, she felt guilty of her ill feelings. She desperately needed to feel a positive emotion for Dana. But even the fresh sea breeze resonated with her growing resentment, whispering in her ears…

Dana could have made life more pleasant for you, but she didn’t.

At that point, the priest’s chant grew stronger and the water made big splashes on the sides of the boat. Shades of pink and purple had appeared in the sky creating a burst of pastel colors. Maria took a deep breath and watched the bamboo float of their jukung rise and fall, and rise and fall again. It had a lulling effect and she felt the tightness in her chest slowly diminishing until she couldn’t feel it anymore.

That was when she became aware that strangely all was dead quiet. No sound of the priest’s chant. No sound of the water. No motion. Nobody! Not even Don. Emptiness! Terrified, she called out to Don, but no sound came out of her mouth.

The next moment she felt herself being pulled into a tunnel, spiralling away at heartbreaking speed. On and on she whirled until she became aware of a rugged opening. She was slowing down as if whatever force was driving her didn’t want her to escape through that opening. She willed herself to go on and before she knew it, she felt herself catapulted out into a vastness beyond her imagination and then she landed…on nothing! And Dana appeared just inches away from her nose.

Dana’s eyes bored into hers. She couldn’t look away from Dana’s fierce expression even if she wanted to. An erratic and impatient stream of speech flowed from Dana into her like a telepathic surge.

“I need you to make peace with me, Maria.”

“I served as the antagonist in your life so you could discover the true Maria.”

“What?” She felt dazed and weightless.

“Your hate, your anger, your jealousy — I awakened these negative emotions in you. They made you miserable. They made you dislike yourself, dislike others, dislike me. They took away your confidence in yourself as a good person. They were your darkest shadows and I forced you to deal with them.”

For a while, there was silence as if Dana was letting her words sink into her and she felt herself floating away in the stillness until a sudden tide of speech stream pulled her urgently back in front of Dana’s face.

“By holding on to the bitterness between us, you are letting me control your life. I don’t want to. You have to let me go in peace and get on with your life.”

With that Dana disappeared and all was quiet again except for the furious beating of her heart. Dana always had that effect on her. She took a deep breath and drifted away into the emptiness, allowing it to take her over entirely. Slowly, her anger faded away until she could feel nothing. That was when a knowing seeped into her and resonated deep within her.

Let go of your perceptions of Dana — emptiness of self-essence — and you set yourself and Dana free.

A taste of salt on her lips and a shiver down her back jolted her back into the boat. She was soaking wet. So was Don. A big wave must have splashed and sprayed water all over them. Nobody seemed to have noticed anything strange.

She looked at her watch. It had only been a 15-minute ride and the sky was still pink and purple but she felt like she had been away for a long time. Before she could say anything to Don, the priest signalled to sprinkle the ashes. There was no time to make sense of what just happened. She emptied the contents of the pot slowly into the sea. Dana’s ashes danced on the surface of the water for a while before a small wave rolled them all away.

“Rest in Peace, Dana,” she whispered.

As they headed back, the sun had fully set and the sky had become a darker grey. The lights of the night life on shore had started to glimmer. Don put his arms around her. She noticed his udeng head band still sitting snugly around his blond head, accentuating his boyish look. He had carried out all his responsibilities toward Dana and she could sense his calm.

She looked up and kissed his jaw, rough with a week’s stubble. As the Sunyatapulled up to shore, she, too, should feel an immense peace within her. The unease she felt earlier had vanished but there was an unfinished feeling. As she walked hand-in-hand with Don on the dark shores. Sunyata echoed in her mind. She looked out to sea.

The women vendors she met earlier were packing up their wares into huge bundles, which they cleverly balanced on their heads. “Good boat, Missus?” asked one of them. “Yes, excellent!” she smiled and nodded.

***

 

Shoba Dewey C. is a children’s book and story writer, who focuses on early childhood development and learning.

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