Short Story by Devina Heriyanto (The Jakarta Post, November 20, 2017)
The military is rounding people up,” my boss said, sipping his coffee in the house’s small but sunny kitchen. No cream, two sugars. If you were what you drank, then the sweet, black coffee suited him perfectly. He was not a bitter man, despite how he might seem and all the rumors that circulated behind his back.
“So I’ve heard. People are starting to leave town,” I replied, stifling a yawn, the result of a seemingly never-ending night.
Yesterday, I waited two hours for groceries, usually delivered by our regular grocer. It wasn’t until the neighbor’s maid told me that the grocer and his family had left town that I realized my order would never come. I had to walk 15 minutes to find another shop that was still open, after stumbling upon rows and rows of neglected, closed stalls.
I was lucky that I arrived just 10 minutes before they closed. The price was way higher than it should have been, but I had no choice. My bed was untouched until past midnight, after I finished with the groceries and house-cleaning. The street was empty and steeped in an eerie silence, a contrast to other days when dangdut music and waves of laughter from street stalls selling bootleg booze and jamu flooded the night.
“Will you be leaving too?” he asked.
“Me, leave? Who will cook and clean this house, then? How can you live here without me?” I said.
I had lived in the house since I was very young, brought here by my mother, who died five years later. Not only did my boss ensure that my mother had a proper funeral, he also ensured I would always have a home here. Leaving was unthinkable, not after what he had given me.
I was beating eggs, trying to make a thick foam, and my boss absentmindedly flicked through the day’s newspaper when someone knocked on the door.
We shared a glance. Then I walked to the door. It didn’t take long as the house was a small one, unlike that of other businessmen in our mining town — let alone a foreigner like him. I knew this because, well, people talked.
I opened the door, letting in a gleam of sunlight that blinded me for a second. Two men clad in army uniforms popped up. No smiles, no greetings. Just sweat across their foreheads and stained around the armpits. Must be hard running around in uniforms in this hot and humid weather, especially if you are not used to much running.
“We need to talk to the owner of the house,” one of them said. I recognized his face as one of the regular customers at the bar near the market. Then I remembered what my boss had said about the military. Just like that, drops of sweat beaded on my back. The air felt suffocating.
“Yes?” he asked from behind me, in a slightly patronizing manner. A tone he rarely used inside the home, I often forgot that we came from two completely different worlds despite sharing the same space.
“We are sorry to disturb you, Sir. We have come to inform you that your cook,” the other soldier pointed at me with his chin, “is a suspected communist and will be arrested.”
So it’s true. They have come for me.
I looked at my boss, who kept his eyes on the soldiers.
“But not till after lunch,” he said, “I’ve a big party planned.”
Then he closed the door.
* * *
For a while, there was only the whirring sound of a fan spinning and the clock ticking. But I was not scared of what was to come after lunch. I did not fear the soldiers. I was scared of what would happen about the party.
Why could not they wait for just one more day? The party demanded our utmost attention, even more than the annual celebrations like Christmas, Passover, or New Year.
But there was none.
He broke the silence. “I think you have to beat the eggs again, or else the cake won’t rise.”
When I failed to come up with an answer, he went on, “We want this party to be perfect, don’t we? Time to get back to work.”
He walked to the kitchen, sat and continued drinking his coffee. I stood frozen for a while, before following his steps. I set aside the beaten eggs, now deflated, and cracked new ones.
It was not until I had made a perfectly thick foam that I realized he did not even ask whether I was really a communist.
* * *
Our small town was a rather red one. Streets were packed with parties and gatherings after the election result had been announced, declaring that the Party had won big. I joined the festivities, volunteering as a cook, but only because someone, a friend — or rather someone I was trying to be friends with — asked me to do it. Besides, everyone was there. It was just something you did.
Then I was invited to cook for meetings, ceremonies, or assemblies. I did not even know who came or what they talked about. I did not even realize that I was branded as a communist by any association, despite my lackadaisical attitude toward politics. I only knew the envelope filled with money that came after every dish had been served, not what came out from the very same mouths that ate them.
What was on my mind was the house: its general tidiness, dinner and the boss. I did not care about what was happening in the capital. I did not care about who ruled the country.
Simply put: I was young and stupid, like every other teenager before me. The problem was the people I had surrounded myself with were now carrying the brand of state enemies.
Lunchtime came. The cake was ready, with pink and white fondant, and several little candles on top. I put the cake on the long mahogany table used only for dinner parties, fit for a dozen people. My boss sat behind the cake and I lit the candles. Nobody sang. It was a party but the chairs were empty.
We shared a somber, halfhearted smile. Clapping would hurt too much.
My boss blew out the candles, after muttering some prayers. He did not even go to church anymore, saying that he did not believe in a God that was so cruel. Maybe at this point, prayers were just something you said out of habit, or something you needed to say, but not to anyone in particular.
Or maybe, to those who were not here anymore.
With one swift movement, he pulled out the candles, cut the cake and handed over the first slice to me before cutting one for himself. We ate in silence. The cake was so soft, almost fragile. I was proud of myself, but felt vain and guilty to have been disrespectful for feeling that way.
“He would have been three this year,” he said. I nodded. There was no need for me to say anything, and there was nothing to say anyway. Words, however carefully crafted, would just crumble into thin air and fail us both.
I remembered the moment I noticed his wife had been vomiting for three consecutive days. The boss thought that she was just sick. I urged her to visit the doctor in any case.
The doctor came in the evening and we had the most wonderful dinner. Everyone came and congratulated my boss.
Nine months later, the doctor came in the evening and we had the most sorrowful night. I cooked dinner that nobody would eat, and ended up giving the food away. Everyone came with flowers and condolences, but none had ever come back. I did not know whether the magnitude of the grief was so much it that oozed out of the house and prevented people from stopping by, or it was because my boss had practically turned into a ghost — as if he had been the one who died, and not his beloved. Maybe both were true.
There was a knock on the door. I took my mantle from behind the back door, which connected my small, plain bedroom to the kitchen.
“This is my cue,” I said.
He nodded and stood up to put the dishes in the sink. I kept looking at his back, wishing he would turn to me and say something. Just a goodbye would be enough.
The water kept running as he stood by the sink, still refusing to look at me. Someone knocked on the door again.
I opened the door and found the two soldiers waiting for me. They did not say anything.
“Wait,” said a voice behind me. I turned around and found my boss handing a carton, “Bring this, I won’t eat it anyway.”
The soldiers took the carton, cordially thanking him.
“She makes a mean cake, don’t waste that,” he said, closing the door between us.
When my mother died, I was devastated. As I grew older, I thought that one day you would just get used to all the losses you suffered. When the boss’s wife and their baby died, I grieved with him. I cloaked myself with the weight of loss, thinking the day would come where it would slip off and I would not even notice it anymore. I learned to care less and less each time, so that every loss would become more bearable.
I never thought about being the one leaving, and the burden I would leave behind. Maybe next year, he would have all the more reason for a party.
Devina Heriyanto is an Indonesian writer and avid reader. She is also the Community Officer at The Jakarta Post.
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