Short Story by Yudhi Herwibowo (The Jakarta Post, September 25, 2017)
I hear him whisper slowly, “Where is my big sister?”
I’m not sure whether the question is meant for me, so I remain silent. Deep down, I want to ask the same question, but I know it’s no use. I’ve asked it so many times before, both in my silence and by whispering painfully just like the boy next to me. I once tried to scream these words aloud, but it only ended up hurting my throat.
Nobody answers our painful loss. Ever.
I remember the day I got separated from my big sister. We went to the night market. “We will find many customers there,” she said.
I smiled. “Will we make a lot of money? May I buy cotton candy later?”
“Of course. You can buy as much as you want.”
The night market was too crowded. From the moment we went through the gate, my sister was quick to wrap her hand around my fingers. “You don’t let go.”
I obeyed her. I tried my best to hold on to her, but the ocean of people was too much to handle. The crowd jostled and eventually we were separated from each other.
I called out to her repeatedly, yet the only answer I received came from the dangdut singer performing on the stage: “Buka sitik jooosss…[take off some clothes, oh yeah…]”
“Kaaaaaaaakkkk…” I screamed again, in vain, for my big sister.
I began to cry and in my own devastation I tried to reach out to anyone who would listen to me, and help me. However, no one seemed to care. They simply gave me a disgusted look and drove me away.
The night grew weary and the crowd grew thin as the market approached its closing hour. The lights were going out and the loud chatter slowly dissipated. Suddenly, a woman came up to me and asked, “Did you lose your sister?”
I nodded. She looked like an angel. The way she smiled reminded me of my late mother—and then there were her distinct features: large eyes, thin and tall figure, soft voice…all of which resembled my mother’s features. I felt saved.
Everything was going to be all right.
“Where did my sister go?” the boy throws out the same question, this time he is directing it at me.
This is the first time he has ever addressed me directly. Perhaps he was trying to adjust himself to his surroundings, or make sense of what is happening — and now he realizes he’s got nowhere else to go and I’m the only friend he has.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve lost my sister as well.”
The boy thinks about this for a moment, and then: “Why did our sisters disappear? I have a friend who also lost a sister, just like you and me.”
What friend, I want to ask him—but I keep my mouth shut. There’s no one else here but us, and besides it’s too dark for us to see anything.
“Do you think they got tired of us?” the boy continues.
The comment shocks me. My sister would never leave me. Not like this.
A couple of years back, when my mother died, we were almost removed by social services to an orphanage. We were so little, it seemed like the most appropriate thing to do. But my sister wouldn’t have it. “It’s hell!” she said. Her voice trembling. “You remember Umira who went there last year? She died after the people who work at the orphanage raped her.”
I frowned, not understanding the word. “R…aped?”
My sister soon realized her choice of words and immediately corrected it, “They violated her and did terrible things to her.”
I did my best to understand exactly what she was trying to tell me, imagining Umira’s fate in the hands of cruel people who worked at the orphanage where she was sent to.
“Listen, Mimi,” said my sister cautiously. “Umira died from a fall, during an attempt to escape the orphanage. This tells me that an orphanage is not a good place. Otherwise, why would she run away from it?”
Before social services could come for us, we had already gone. Since then, we had been living in the street, begging for people’s kindness.
“Hey,” the boy calls for me.
“You know, if I could meet my sister again, I would promise to be good forever.”
I look at him blankly. This promise means nothing to me. I’ve always looked up to my sister and obeyed her every word. Since long before Mother passed away, I have always been a good sister. In turn, my sister is good to me, too. She always brought me something—a slice of watermelon, a stick of cotton candy, or some plastic toys to play with. I would never think of being anything other than a good sister to her.
Still, there was a time when I refused to listen to her. I refused to be left at home and insisted on going with her.
“Hey,” the boy calls out to me again. “Say something. Are you thinking of your sister right now?”
“Hey, have we met somewhere before?” the boy asks. “You know, before coming to this place.”
I have no idea. All I know is the woman had taken me to a big mansion and promised to reunite me with my sister. Yet the moment I got to the mansion, I realized I had been tricked. My sister was nowhere to be found. Then the woman disappeared and left me in the company of big burly men who would surely hurt anyone they disliked.
The next thing I knew, I was put inside a dark room with very little light. I saw a huddle of small faces whose eyes looked puffy. Some of them were pale-looking and seemed very ill. They had been crying. They were also mostly my age.
“Yeah, I can’t remember you, either,” says the boy. “I always cried in that room.”
He was in the room! Of course! My mind reaches back to the child in the back of the room who couldn’t stop crying. Some of the other children tried to calm him down. I didn’t care so much about him, though. At least, not at first. I only started caring about him when the guards scolded us for letting him cry. “If he keeps it up,” said the guard. “No one will get a meal.”
“Please, be quiet,” I said to him. “Do you want us to starve to death?”
He lifted his face and his eyes quickly gazed into mine. “I can’t,” he said, still sobbing. “We’re going to die.”
“You’re just a crybaby,” said another child. “Look what you’re doing to the other children here. We’re not going to die. They’re going to send us to work, most probably.”
“They’ve been lying to us!” said the boy, raising his voice. “They are going to kill us.”
He was right, of course. We had all been lied to and that was the only reason we ended up in that god-forsaken place.
“Now, think and use your senses,” added the boy. “Take a deep breath and smell the stench of fresh blood.”
We took a deep breath. I couldn’t smell anything. Another kid, though, confirmed the boy’s suspicion. “He’s right,” he said. “My dad works at a slaughterhouse, and I know this smell. It’s definitely blood.”
There is only silence now. The boy has stopped talking for some reason. I feel cold. Somewhere in the distance: a howl. Apparently, even the tiniest sound can reach this space. It’s so quiet my mind is playing tricks on me.
I have stopped asking about my sister’s whereabouts. Come to think of it — it’s better for her to be anywhere else but here. She is free to go anywhere she wants. And she can still beg for money from people.
I believe this is the end for me. I don’t know how many children are here at the moment, but I think everyone has given up as well. Not a single person is asking for their sister or brother. They are all silent.
One evening, I hear a ruckus coming from somewhere up above. I hear faint voices of people talking and shouting at each other, followed by a loud hard metallic pounding. My chest tightens. Something is happening. There is hope, at last! With each loud pounding, my body feels a little less trapped. Come on, I think to myself. Get me out of here.
Then, I feel the edge of sharp metal hit me on the arm. “I’ve found something!” somebody screams. His voice sounds urgent, almost terrified by the possibility of what he may have touched. Like any good spectator, I hold my breath for what’s to come. I hear footsteps rushing closer. And closer. And closer.
“Oh my God,” somebody says. The voice is muffled by the evening breeze, but I can sense the sadness and the shock. “That cursed doctor buried all his victims down here.”
— Translated by Liswindio Apendicaesar.
Yudhi Herwibowo is an Indonesian short story writer, novelist and owner of BukuKatta publishing. His most recent novel is Halaman Terakhir (Nourabook).
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