Short Story by Anton Kurnia (The Jakarta Post, October 30, 2017)
My memory of that sad story is a little hazy. I was six at the time.
One day, I heard the phone ring and my father answered it, but he didn’t say a word. His face hardened. Then, he walked into the bedroom and I heard my mother scream. She began to wail. The phone continued to ring. Our neighbors rushed to visit our house. They all looked very sad. My mother wouldn’t stop crying.
I was in my room and was secretly observing from behind the door. I saw people’s faces milling about our living room, and my mother hadn’t stopped wailing. I was shaking. I knew something bad had happened, and the sound of my mother hurt me terribly. It was as if my hand had been cut by pieces of sharp glass, or my knee had been struck by sharp pebbles. The whole room was full of noise. And then, suddenly, the noise stopped. I peeked inside the living room. It was very silent. There was no more crying. I was very sure that my mother had died. I lay my body down on the floor of my bedroom, crying silently.
Then someone came and took me to a neighbor’s house. In the morning, I was escorted back to my house. My mother was not dead. She was lying on her bed, but I wasn’t allowed to see her. Uncle Jundi had passed away, my father said, during a jihadi battle in Ambon. There had been a long war between Muslims and Christians in Ambon, the capital city of the Maluku Islands in Eastern Indonesia. Uncle Jundi went there a week ago as a part of the Mujahiddin — a Moslem militia — from Java. And he was killed by a poisonous arrow. I didn’t really understand what it meant, but I was sure about one thing: I could never play with uncle Jundi again.
My uncle Jundi was my mother’s only sibling. He was two years younger than my mother. Their parents had died a long time ago. His real name was Arjuna, but he changed it to Jundullah. I didn’t know why. He said it was because his new name sounded noble and Islamic. It means “soldier of God” in Arabic. I didn’t know why God had to have soldiers and for what purpose. But, still I called him uncle Jundi.
He lived with his friends not far from our house. They were all good men, excellent in reciting Quranic verses, and all of them had grown a beard. Uncle Jundi had a tall and slender body. His hair was a little bit curly. He had brown eyes, a sweet smile and a short beard. His face looked like my mother’s. He was very good to me. He often played with me and taught me to read the Quran. He visited our house two weeks ago, but now he was dead. He was 23 years old.
Eventually, my mother returned from the hospital. My mother was very close to her brother and his death had devastated her. She looked terrible. I almost couldn’t recognize her.
For a few days, my mother only rested in bed. Then, one morning she came out and took a walk around the yard without wearing her headscarf. Her eyes were sunken and gloomy. Her clothes appeared shabby.
She didn’t speak a word to anyone, until one afternoon, I heard a voice in the living room. It was my mother talking to herself.
“Why did you have to go?” she said. “Why did you have to go and leave me?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
That night, I asked my father when he cuddled me in bed.
“Will mother die soon?”
He sighed. “No, Alif. No. Your mother won’t die soon.”
“Is mother very sick?”
“Will she get well soon?”
“Yes. Insha Allah. May God bless her.”
“I want Mother to get well soon. I want to make her a drawing.”
Drawing was my hobby. My father hugged me very close to his body. I could feel his beard against my face.
“Now you better sleep, Alif. Recite your prayers before you sleep.”
My mother cried all the time nowadays. She was also exhausted most of the time. She no longer paid attention to the state of our home. She ate poorly and stopped taking care of herself.
A middle-aged woman came to our house every day to help clean and cook for the family. I called her Mbok Kerto. She was a widow with children who were already married. She was diligent and very distinct. She only spoke in Javanese. She couldn’t speak Indonesian.
My mother avoided her. My mother also avoided our relatives and neighbors. She even avoided my father and me. She seemed nervous and scared when in the presence of other people.
One day, while she was sitting alone in the living room, I heard her hum a sad tune. My mother was imitating the soft tune my uncle used to sing. Uncle Jundi called the song “Nasyid.” It was religious song.
“Why does mother sing that song?” I asked my father that night.
“Uncle Jundi’s song.”
My father was silent. His hands were trembling.
“Your mother is remembering her brother. May your uncle rest in peace.”
He stared at me for a moment and added, “It’s time for bed, Alif. Let’s recite your prayers.”
One afternoon, about a week after she returned from the hospital, I saw my mother sitting alone in the living room.
I asked, “Mother, are you all right? Are you feeling better?”
She stared emptily at me for a moment. Then suddenly I saw her eyes shine brightly. “Alif?”
“Alif, do you draw beautiful things? Did you make beautiful and sweet pictures?”
I had never drawn beautiful things. I preferred to draw some balls in different colors — green, yellow and red. I didn’t answer my mother’s question.
“Alif, do you draw birds and flowers and beautiful things?” she asked again.
“I can make you beautiful drawings, Mother.”
“You should draw beautiful things, Alif.”
“Should I draw a lovely bird for you, Mother?”
“You should make this world look beautiful, Alif. Make this world look beautiful and lovely. How nice would it be if we were to live in a beautiful world?”
“I will draw you some beautiful flowers and lovely birds. I will do it right now, mother.”
“Oh, forget it. Never mind,” she said.
She stared out the window. “What’s the difference? Tell me, what’s the difference now?”
And she looked gloomy again. Emptiness filled her eyes.
She never came to my room again. She preferred to lie down on her bed, sleeping or just staring at the ceiling. Sometimes she just sat on the couch in the living room, staring out the window, at the street.
Two weeks after my mother returned from the hospital, I went to my parent’s bedroom in the morning. My father had already gone to work, and I saw my mother lying in bed. She was covered by a brown blanket. Her face looked pale. When I entered the room, I thought she looked like a dead woman. But then her eyes lifted open and she stared at me. She tried to speak, but no words came out. Then she closed her eyes again.
I stood there for a long time. She looked like she couldn’t breathe. There was such a strange aroma in the air.
I had come to show her a colored drawing I had just made that morning. There were two birds. One bird was in its nest and the other was flying around nearby with its wings outstretched. The nest was pale yellow, while the birds were colored orange and dark blue. There were green leaves and red flowers everywhere. There were light blue skies and white clouds. The bird in the nest had a pair of black eyes.
I stood beside her bed and stared at my mother who was breathing slowly.
“Mother,” I said.
Her eyeballs moved under her lids.
“Mother,” I said again.
Her hands moved slowly, and she opened her eyes. She stared at me. I held my drawing. But she just stared emptily at me.
“This is a picture of birds and flowers, Mother.”
“I had made this world look beautiful, Mother.”
My mother closed her eyes.
“Mother, are you feeling well already?”
She was silent.
“I had made this world look beautiful, Mother.”
She was still silent.
“I will make more birds and flowers for you, Mother.”
Someone came behind me. I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“What are you doing?” Mbok Kerto whispered to me harshly in Javanese.
“I just made a drawing for my mother. I want to help my mother get well.”
“Go out.” Her plump face was shaking. She didn’t want my mother to be disturbed.
“But my mother wanted me to make some pictures.”
“Just go out.” She ushered me to the door. “What kind of kid disturbs his sick mother? A good boy shouldn’t do this.”
Then she took me to my own room.
I sat on my bed and stared at my drawing. Suddenly I was very afraid, and my body was shaking. I had never felt like that before. I crawled to a small table beside my bed. Slowly my hand reached a pencil.
Long after that, Mbok Kerto called me to eat some lunch. Suddenly, I realized that I was sitting in front of a picture. The picture was full of many chaotic streaks, red and black. There, I could see a pair of grey eyes and dead birds.
Anton Kurnia is an Indonesian writer and chief editor of Penerbit Baca. This story appeared in his debut collection, Insomnia (2004), and was translated into English by Atta Verin and the writer himself.
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