Libmonster ID: UK-1241
Author(s) of the publication: ANWAR RIDWAN

story

ANWAR RIDWAN

(Malaysia)

Masita had just finished bathing by the well. Quickly, she yanked off the towel hanging from the laundry pole and began to rub herself vigorously. As she dried her feet, she noticed that dawn was approaching. But the village was quiet and peaceful, and she was sure that its inhabitants were still deep in their dreams. The branches of the trees lined up near the well shivered slightly in the cool morning wind. The crowing of roosters and the chirping of birds grew louder. Masita looked east, through the branches of the nangka and the leaves of the savo, and saw a red streak of sky. After scooping up a pitcher of water to wash her feet, she went home. But she stopped after a few steps. In the morning haze, Masita saw the silhouette of a man walking toward the well.

page 67

A hundred paces from the well to her house is not a great distance. But for the past twenty years, it had always made her uneasy, as if something terrible was waiting for her here.

Her heart pounding, she waited for the man to approach. Masita knew only one way to protect herself if he tried to hurt her: by shouting. Loud enough to wake up the whole village. A cry that must be followed immediately by help.

"Are you finished, Mom?"

Masita let out a sigh of relief. She heard the question clearly. It was Jali, her only son, who asked. His question dispelled all her fears on this cool morning.

"Yes," Masita said. (She didn't know why she had answered her only son so curtly at such a good hour in the morning.)

Masita stood quietly for a while longer, until she heard the sound of water splashing by the well. Jali began to sweat. Masita walked slowly toward the house, her feet heavy. She hung her head low, remembering a certain event...

"God save our homes and the village," Masita began her prayer when she heard the roar of planes heading south overhead.

Masita looked up and saw through the morning haze a line of planes that looked very much like cranes. The planes were bound for Singapore (so her neighbors told her).

"If the war is to continue, don't let it touch my husband," Masita continued her prayer. "I've only been married a month. Let me serve my spouse and together with him create a family that is happy and untouched by military disaster.

The splashing of water at the well stopped. But Masita knew it would happen again , because her husband wasn't up yet. Meanwhile, the "cranes"in the sky gradually receded, and the hum became quieter. Masita felt that she was almost completely dry, except for her hair. As she walked towards the house, a stranger was standing in front of her.

Masita wanted to scream, but the man clamped his hand over her mouth. She didn't know how long the man had been with her, didn't remember when he had suddenly disappeared. All she saw was that the water from the pitcher that had fallen from her hands had spilled and mixed with the dew on the grass.

At the foot of the stairs, Masita washed her feet. She rubbed them carefully, pouring water from a pitcher over them.

After making sure to clean both feet of dirt and dirt, Masita set the pitcher down by the stairs. She turned toward the rising sun. There, in the eastern half of the sky, the pre-dawn haze could be seen slowly melting away before the rising sun. To the east, the village was already bathed in sunlight.

Masita went up the stairs and went straight to the bedroom. Budin, her husband, was already up and getting dressed.

"Who's at the well?"

- Jali.

"I'm supposed to be there after you, Masita.

"All right," Masita said quietly. "Today is his special day.

Budin said nothing. He stared at her for a long moment. (A strange feeling came over him, as if he had something to lose that day.) Then, very slowly, he began to tighten the sarong. He picked up the towel Masita had already used to dry herself and slung it over his shoulder. He walked slowly to the window and opened it cautiously. Sunlight flooded the room, driving away the darkness.

Masita could hear Sumi and Salmi preparing breakfast in the kitchen. They were chatting so animatedly that Masita could barely make out what they were talking about. They're big girls now, she thought. "Soon they will be courted and married. Their husbands will take them no one knows where. Will they then be able to visit their parents frequently? What if Budin and I get sick when they're away with their husbands? Who will look after us and take care of us?" Masita thought.

After powdering herself with talcum powder and putting on her underwear, Masita took out a batik sarong with large red flowers on a black background. She wrapped it around her, carefully smoothing out the creases. Then she took out a red kebaya jacket and put it on. Masita went to the dressing table, sat down in front of it, and began brushing her hair.

"May, I want a son," Budin began. It was as if she had just heard those words. The words Budin had whispered to her the first night they'd lain together on the marital bed. There was a tremor in Budin Masita's voice. The voice is so shy, so gentle.

"My son?" Why not my daughter? Masita teased.

Budin eventually answered, though it took him a long time to do so.

"There's a war going on. But it pleased God that we should meet at this time. And we don't know when the war will end. If something happens to us now (let the guardian angel protect us from misfortune), the son can take care of the family better than the daughter. And if this war drags on (God forbid it!) for, say, ten, twenty, or even a hundred years, he will be able to defend our country, or at least our village.

Budin couldn't understand why he was explaining it at such length. He felt the need to hide nothing from Masita, to tell her everything that was in his heart.

"Don't talk to me about the war. Masita's voice was full of tenderness. She hid all her fears in Budin's arms. He held her close and felt a strange, feverish feeling. Masita was calm. In the arms of her husband, she felt completely safe from the war.

The moment Budin had been waiting for had finally arrived. It was three months after the wedding. After Masita saw the "cranes" flying in a string towards the south island. And after... But Masita was afraid to tell Budin. However, she had to explain to him why she started throwing up in the morning.

"I'm expecting a baby, my love.

- what? Budin exclaimed. He dropped the towel from his shoulder and walked over to Masita, who was still sitting in front of her mirror. Sunlight poured fiercely through the window, warming the room. Masita was afraid that Budin had come so close. She was afraid that she had given away her memories of the past. She was sure that this was indeed the case.

"Are you expecting a baby again, Mas?" Masita was silent for a moment. Finally she answered:

"Ah, empty. If I were anything else,-

page 68

If I hadn't surprised you, you wouldn't have really woken up. Go to the well. Too late. Jali seems to have finished swimming. Budin sighed loudly.

"I love it when you joke, Mas. You're really good at this. That's why I'm never bored with you, " Budin said. He leaned down, patted her on the back, and left the room.

Masita stood up, shook off the sheet, and folded it carefully. She placed three pillows by the window to air them out in the sun. From the closet, I took out the bedspread I used to make my bed during the day.

Sumi and Salmi were still in the kitchen. Sumi, who was chopping cucumbers, called out to Salmi that the kettle was boiling. Masita heard Salmi's shout and loud reply. But soon the voices died away. Masita thought it was because Jali had appeared. The silence was harsh, but still pleasant. After a few minutes, the uproar began again, and this time it was Djali's voice. How friendly sisters and brothers are, Masita thought. Love that breeds fun. The tenderness that breaks out in laughter. Masita could hear everything from her room. I could hear not only the noise in the kitchen, but also the pounding of my own heart.

"You love him more than you love us," Sumi said for herself and her sister.

"Because it's lighter than us, isn't it?" Salmi chimed in.

"Ah, that's what you're talking about again," Budin retorted. "Why do you think I treat you any worse?" Both you and Jali are my children, whom both my mother and I love equally. Do you hear me? Identically. How can we treat you differently?

Masita just shook her head. Neither Sumi nor Salmi could say anything against their father's reasoning. But Sumi always brought up the subject, which hurt Masita's feelings.

"I'm sorry, Dad. We just doubted it. But Jali's skin really isn't the same as ours. It's not the color of a ripe savo.

"Enough, enough! Budin chided them. "Sumi, you should definitely beat everyone else. He's a boy, and it's no surprise that his skin might be different from yours. You hear, no wonder! After these words, Budina Sumi and Salmi fell silent.

And the house fell silent.

Masita no longer heard any sounds in the kitchen. Perhaps the trio was puzzling over a solution to some problem.

Her excitement returned when Budin returned to her room after bathing. Masita sat in her chair, lost in thought.

Budin cleared his throat.

"Washed up?"

- yes.

Masita got up and went to the closet. She opened the door, took out a pair of underpants, a T-shirt, black trousers, and Budin's white shirt, and put them all on the bed. Closing the cabinet, she said:

"I got your clothes. Come back for breakfast when you're ready. We'll be waiting for you at the table.

Budin just nodded. Masita left the room, closing the door softly behind her. The delicious smell of food tickled her nostrils pleasantly.

Masita was on her way to the kitchen, but for some reason she had a broom in her hand. She began to sweep the room. She could hear a conversation between three children. But only Jali's voice pierced her heart.

A deep and resonant voice that led her mind back to an unusual incident. It was a voice that had once spoken softly, sadly, and pleadingly:

"Mom, I'm sorry, but I have to tell you the truth.

Masita could hear the words spoken by young Jali again.

"Tell me." Why are you shaking, son? The Lord God Himself has made it so that mothers are responsible for their children and must show them the right path. I've never refused to listen to you, have I?

"Will you stand the truth when I tell you?" And will you help me fix it?"

"What is it?" Tell me before it's too late."

"Mom, I ... almost made Hachiju strong...

"You're the same as... - showered reproaches on her son Masita. Or so she thought. In fact, only tears welled up in her eyes, and she remained speechless. Warm tears that brought a new sense of pain. Masita recalled how, after her son's confession, she had rushed to find Hachiji's mother. She threw herself at her mercy, told her everything that had happened, and begged her forgiveness endlessly. It was all she could do.

Fortunately, Hatiji's mother quickly understood the situation. It is true that at first she was impetuous and cursed Masita (as it so happened that they were alone in the house), but gradually calmed down, because she realized the need to hide deep in her heart the painful news that might tarnish the honor of the family. The whole story had to be hushed up and suppressed with common prayers in the hope that it would soon be forgotten. It was only after Masita had cried her fill that Hachiji's mother agreed that the unpleasant incident should remain a family secret.

A few months after this incident, when Jali had calmed down, convinced that his black secret remained in the family, Masita tried to probe his feelings for Hatija. If he almost abused her, he should be held accountable for what he did. Village girls must keep their innocence. The man who touches her must respect her, protect her honor. Rural customs have changed little. But every time Masita tried to talk about it, Jali either evaded the question or, if forced to confess, hid his feelings by telling her different stories.

"What's the story?" Masita asked him once.

"It's from a novel, Mother. But why do I only like novels about love, Mother?

"Well, you're also interested in electronics books, aren't you?" But never mind. Come on, tell me your story."

"It's about the sailor, Mother. Or rather, about a guy who wanted to become a sailor since childhood and who only thought about the sea. The port where he lived flourished and grew larger every year. Many ships came and went from it. One day he asked himself: Why am I sitting here? What lies beyond this stretch of blue sea? And there, further, and even further? He became a sailor and traveled all over the world.

"He didn't get married?" Masita asked.

"Well, that problem was also on his mind. He met many beautiful girls in every port. If you were a man, Mother, could you imagine that? Hundreds of beautiful girls

page 69

in hundreds of foreign ports. If you were a man, Mother, could you choose?

"He ended up marrying a foreigner?" Masita suggested.

"You're wrong, Mom!

- Yes? I'm glad if that's the case.

"He met a girl in his small home port. She was young, cheerful, and had eyes as clear as a rabbit's. He probably had a real love for her. Do you know what happened next, Mom? The sailor left his travels to overseas countries and returned to his home port. They seemed to share his feelings.

"Who?"

"Of course, that girl. She'd been pining for him as soon as he'd left. She often came to the port, hoping that the sailor would return home. The day she had been waiting for had finally arrived. The sailor returned home to meet his love. And the girl met her sailor. They cried in the harbor, not hiding their tears, not being shy about the people around them. They eventually got married...

"Mom, breakfast is ready," Sami called from the kitchen. Masita snapped back to reality, and the broom fell from her hand. After a few minutes, Budin came out of the room and looked at Masita.

"They say breakfast is ready, Mas," he said.

"You go," Masita said. "I left something at the well.

Masita leaned her broom against the wall, went to the door, and without looking at Budin, went straight to the well. (Did you really leave something at the well, Mas? she heard the question in her heart.)

As Masita walked to the well, she could hear Sumi making fun of Jali. Then she heard Jali bragging about his achievements. His family, he said, should also be proud of his success.

Masita and Budin had long known that Jali was very gifted. The enthusiastic feedback from the teachers (which Budin reported to Masita) and their insistence that Jali be sent abroad to study electronics only served to strengthen their confidence in his abilities. He's not like Sumi and Salmi at all, Masita thought.

She remembered her husband's insistence that Jali be sent abroad. But the scholarship presented a problem that seemed hard to solve. This, Masita noticed, often made her husband depressed. And Jali, too. Then Budin consoled Jali:

"By God's grace, someday our dream will come true.

When she reached the well, Masita looked around, as if wondering if she really had left something behind. After a thorough search, she made sure that there was nothing left at the well.

Masita stared at the clear green surface of the water. Her face was reflected on the calm surface. But as Masita felt the excitement and tension on her face, she knew that the water beneath the calm surface was also agitated.

A leaf from a nearby nangki tree fell down and touched the water. The image warped. Masita looked up at the nangka tree, which was now large and tall. Was this the same tree that she and Budin had planted shortly after Jali was born? Masita remembered the past. And the savo tree planted after Sumi was born? It is now also high and thick. And when she carried Salmi in her, she greedily devoured its young, still unripe fruits.

"I like their bitter taste. Anyway, if they're left to grow up, they'll be eaten by flying foxes, " she told Budin.

Masita's ears picked up the hum of the plane. When she looked up, she saw hundreds of planes flying towards the south island. The planes looked like silver-white cranes. A sharp sound caused Masita to cover her ears. And at that moment, the man crept up to her and wrapped his arms around her body. Masita didn't know how long she had been here.

"Let go of me," Masita cried.

"What's the matter with you, Mas?"

Masita clung tightly to Budin. Sumi and Salmi watched them. Then Masita pulled away from her husband. She sighed heavily and glanced at the runway. She saw not hundreds of cranes, but a single plane speeding up for takeoff.

"It's all right, Mom," Salmi said soothingly. Five years isn't such a long time. Jali left us with your blessing. Everything will be fine. Tokyo is not very far from us.

Masita slowly wiped away her tears. "Five years. Tokyo. Jali. A reality I must come to terms with, Masita thought.

Sumi held her mother's hand while Salmi stroked her hair. Budin put his left arm around her waist. They didn't take their eyes off the plane, which was hovering in the air, leaving the runway. The plane was heading north. Here it began to decrease. It got smaller and smaller, and then it was gone.

Masita kept looking up at the sky, to the north. The others ' eyes were also fixed on the sky. Masita slowly folded her hands in a reverent gesture and began to pray. She was softly whispering a prayer. Quietly. Just for yourself.

"Oh, my God, the plane is taking my son away, and I'm relieved of the burden I've been carrying since the war. I am grateful to you for giving me the strength all these years to keep my secret and resist the raging war in my heart. With your blessing, I have created a happy home. But he'll be back in five years. And if, with your divine blessing, I live to see this day, I pray you only for one thing, give me the strength that you gave me before. Amen.

Translated from Malay by V. A. POGADAEV


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