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ADELAIDE Independent Monthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Mensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BANGKA ISLAND STORY
by Michael Paul Hogan

 

 

 

for Toti O’Brien

 

 

 

 

There were nine bottles of Bintang beer on the shelf behind the counter of Abdu Rama’s beachfront banana shack. On the counter itself there was a watermelon, sliced, in a bowl of ice, and beside the watermelon there was a basket woven out of banana leaves containing a bunch of eight or ten or twelve bananas, all lying on their backs and basking in the sun like the gila seksi foreign ladies on Amerika Serikat TV. Below the counter there was a hand-painted advertisement for Coca-Cola, the paint faded to a pale imitation of red, the raw wood showing through the familiar looping white letters, and in front of the counter there was a three-legged wooden stool upon which Abdu Rama would sit and wait for customers, all the while smoking kretek cigarettes and gazing out at the South China Sea.

 

*

 

Weni Nelayanputri was fourteen years old and lived with her grandmother in a two-room house that her father had built before he was lost at sea. She remembered the two days and two nights of vigil at the water’s edge, framed through the window of the room in which she and her grandmother slept. And then on the third day there was the truth of what the fishermen said – that disaster is an empty boat. They hauled the boat by lamplight and torch-light to where the palm trees began beside the two-room house that her father had built before he was lost at sea. And from which, only six months later, her mother had also fled, taking the passenger ferry up the Musi River to Palembang, there to drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes and bercinta laki-laki asing to be lost, hilang, in a sea of her own drowning.

She left behind a handbag containing nearly nothing: an empty lipstick and a Hello Kitty hair-slide and a couple of one-hundred-rupiah coins. She also abandoned a red dress that Weni’s grandmother had been washing at the time and which Weni now wore, very proud, very seksi, Coca-Cola red, as she walked along the beach to the Saturday market that sold rice and vegetables and chickens and fruit and birds in cages and mermaids that wept for the sea.

 

*

 

“Selamat pagi!”

“Pagi, tuan Abdu!”

“Anda ingin Coca-Cola hari ini? Es dingan!”

“Tidak, tuan. Mungkin besok.”

“Okay. Selamat jalan, anak.”

 “Selamat tinggal, tuan Abdu. Terima kasih!”

“Kembali!”

You’re welcome! Abdu Rama waved at Weni Nelayanputri and then reassembled his pose on the three-legged stool, the stool upon which he would wait for customers, all the while smoking kretek cigarettes and gazing out at the South China Sea.

 

*

 

Exactly ten years ago. The silence then the noise, the silence/noise of a keel being dragged across tide-hardened sand; the flames of the torches and the beams of the lamps reflected off the blades of the machetes and the leaves of the banana trees. They say,

“Bencana adalah perahu kosong,”

It means: “Disaster is an empty boat.”

and afterwards they move like shadows between the firelight and the trees,

“Datang pergi, Weni. Come away.”

and glance in through unglazed windows at where four year-old girls and their grandmothers illuminate the darkness with the fear in their eyes.

 

*

 

“Hati-hati! Be careful, child. Your feet will menjadi hitam. Turn black!”

The road to the market ran behind the beach but Weni, in defiance of her grandmother, preferred to walk along the sand, swinging her sandals by their straps, separated from motorcycles and the very occasional taksi mobil by a screen of banana trees. She almost didn’t see the boy until she was past him, glancing back at a movement that caught the corner of her eye. He was sitting on the ground under the shade of the trees. He wore a faded blue T-shirt and a pair of khaki shorts. In front of him he had made a mat of banana leaves and on this mat there were nine fish, each about a foot in length, their scales still silvery fresh from the sea, the blood around their gills undried. She looked down at the fish and then back at the boy. His hair was long and fell over his eyes and his smile when he smiled was like a coconut split with a machete. He said,

“Don’t be afraid. Aku tidak hantu. I am not a ghost.”

He said,

“Buy my fish if you don’t believe me. Since when did hantu menjual ikan? Did ghosts sell fish?”

He smiled his smile again. He said,

“My name is Budi Haryanto. I like your red dress.”

A motorcycle backfired on the road behind the banana trees and a bird, startled from within the branches, slapped its wings against the leaves. The boy and the girl looked at each other and then, for no apparent reason, merely an act of spontaneous and unaffected friendship, laughed. The girl, Weni Nelayanputri, said,

“We are fishing people. We catch. We do not buy. If my grandmother sends me to the market for rice and I come home with fish…”

She hesitated. She said,

“If you give me a fish I will let you sentuh saya baju merah. Touch my red dress.”

She thought she saw a bird in the banana trees but she was mistaken. It was a trick of the sunlight on the leaves. Nothing. The leaves shook briefly. Then became still.

“I will kiss the strap of it where it crosses your shoulder,” said the boy. “And I will give you three fish.”

Weni had never felt the material of her dress so close to her skin. She said,

“You must close your eyes and keep your hands in the pockets of your celana pendek.” And then: “If I allow you. Which I won’t.”

“I am sincerely sorry,” said the boy, Budi Haryanto, “for offending you. But I am in love – ”

“Gila! Crazy!”

“ – with my fish. All night I catch them wading in the water with a spear and a lantern. Sometimes not even a lantern, just the moon. And all day I sit on the beach and – ”

“Oh, oh, you are a beast! A beast and a liar! Binatong dan pembohong! I wouldn’t want your fish for a thousand kisses!” And then, unsure if that was correct, she turned on her heels, her bare heels on the shaded sand, slapped her sandals together like castanets, and marched as quickly as was not too undignified, the banana leaves rustling with his imagined laughter, mixed up with the real laughter of children on motorcycles, jolting naik dan turun up and down along the potholed road.

 

*

 

Every evening Weni would pour a glass of arak for her grandmother and the two of them would play cards and her grandmother would say,

“Weni, child, you are dreaming. You cannot put a red three on a red nine.”

Or:

“Who is this anak laki-laki who steals even the heart from the card you are holding?”

Or:

“Ah-ya! Is it love makes you put a silly jack on nenek’s queen?”

But that evening, the evening of the morning Weni came home from the market silent and shy and angry and afraid, her grandmother only said,

“This arak tastes like water. Terbaker kepiting. Like bubbles from a crab’s arse. Weni – ”

“Nenek?”

“ – Tomorrow. Besok. You will go for me along the beach and buy me fish. After that you will buy me arak baru. From Abdu Rama. Oh, and Weni child, – ”

“Aku tidak mendengarkan. I am not listening”

“ – the fish you buy need not be as beautiful as the boy who sells it.”

“Nenek! Mengapa anda malu saya? Why do you shame me?”

Weni’s grandmother placed a red six on a black five. She said,

“This arak is neither water nor crab’s piss, but somewhere peralihan. Meaning inbetween.”

 

*

 

“I have a favour to ask you, Abdu tuan.”

“I listen.”

“Can you tell me if you ever buy fish from a boy who sells beneath the banana trees?”

“That is not a favour, child, that is a question. But the answer is no. Who is so crazy to sell beneath a banana tree? Who is so crazy to buy?”

“It was a foolish question. But a favour I have…”

Abdu Rama laughed a short dry laugh. He said,

“Yes, child, I know. Your tightfisted nenek has been buying arak from Dedi Surya who, as everybody in the universe knows, makes it from his own piss then waters it down with the piss of crabs. Now she wants Uncle Abdu’s five star gold label satisfaction guaranteed in Amerika Serikat rinsed-out Coca-Cola bottle. True or not true?”

“True, Abdu tuan,” said Weni Nelayanputri. She tried not to openly disrespect her grandmother by smiling, although the joke had been a familiar one these many years and she was on the edge of knowing that not smiling made the joke better, not the disrespect less. She said,

“If I meet a boy under a banana tree, what shall I do?”

Abdu Rama took a draw on his cigarette. He said, and his voice had the joke erased from it, as a Coca-Cola sign may be erased by wind and sea, he said,

“If he sits under a banana tree, he is not a boy. You shall walk away, anak sayang, stay fortunate, get not eaten, tidak dimakan, by some ghost who steals an empty boat and sells imaginary fish.” He flattened his eyes against the horizon, staying silent for the space of a minute. He said,

“They say disaster is an empty boat. A worse disaster is an empty heart. That is what it truly means to be a ghost.”

He seemed about to say more and Weni, her chest filled with something she could not describe, neither fear nor disappointment nor love, but something more than and containing each, felt as though she were underwater, looking up through the surface of the sea. The sky shimmered. The sunlight was shattered like a yellow vase. The keels of the boats were visible, their paintwork rippling blue and red and green. She opened her mouth not to speak but to breath. She said, “Abdu Rama!” and Abdu Rama said,

“Ah, sudahlah! Never mind! Hujan membersihkan daun. The rain cleans the leaves. Daun minum hujan. The leaves drink the rain. Disaster? Tidak ada jenis perahu. Disaster for your nenek is an empty bottle! Tell her I shall bring it personally when the sun is behind the trees. More time for marking the cards she will cheat me with. Weni – ”

“Paman? Tuan?”

“ – is he handsome, the boy who pretends to be a ghost, who wishes to make you believe he is more than a man?”

“He is a real ghost and that is why he sits under banana trees and pretends to think he can cheat me. He is a fool!”

“Even a ghost can be a fool. They are human in that. Tingkat tertentu kredit. True. Benar. And who is a wise man under a banana tree?”

“I will burn my red dress,” said Weni Nelayanputri, ignoring the question, and stamping her heel into the sand, “and sew a new one made of all the black pieces.” She said,

“The Coca-Cola can is red and the Coca-Cola inside is black. That is exactly the color of my new dress. Gila seksi Amerika. Who can tell me this is not my beach? Abdu Rama tuan – ”

“Weni. Putri.”

“ – I am to meet a boy with a motorcycle. Who will drive me to the market. Very proud with absence of walking. That is my decision. Who will not care if my feet are black like Coca-Cola, only my heart like a Coca-Cola tin. Oh, and tuan – ”

“I listen because the sea is silent. Carry on.”

“ – Are you happy? Sometimes my nenek asks me. Because I see you every day in the to-and-froing of rice and minyak goreng. Always alone. Always gazing. It seems to me – ”

“It seems?”

“ – It seems.” She hesitated. She said,

“Forgive me, tuan. Tampaknya tidak ada. It seems nothing. In the meantime, I am newly decided! Semua sampah! I shall wear my red dress every day and care nothing for boys. Boys or ghosts or motorcycles. It is not for me to care. But I often wonder – ”

“Wonder?”

“ – how a boy can be a ghost and still have eyes the color of the sea…”

There was a silence the width of a wave and Abdu Rama said,

“I do not know.” He examined the tip of his cigarette and flicked the ash with his fingernail. He said: “And am too old to become wiser than a child.”

 

*

 

She woke up screaming and the windows were fire. Her nenek said “Calm, calm, child,” and the silhouette of her was black against red. The gray of her hair a swish of a brush. She said,

“Stay sleeping, child.”

and there were voices, urgent voices, and then shouting somewhere distant, and then the profile of her nenek against the flames outside. She said (Weni said),

“Is my father home now?”

and there was the sound of her mother and the thwack-sh of bare heels against impacted sand. And a voice saying,

“Bahkan perahu beruntung!”

and then the silence concentrated in her mother’s shoulders. And afterwards nothing merely to remember. Just a different silence. And shapes and shadows and nothing clearly. Like a village in the morning when the storm has been.

 

*

 

“Selamat pagi, tuan Abdu!”

“Selemat jalan!”

Weni Nelayanputri swung her sandals so the heels slap-clicked like Spanyol kastanyet. Like Spanish castanets. She said,

“Nenek says: Buy bananas if they are green, not ripe. Oh, and she says also: If Abdu tuan is feeling stupid, meaning bodoh, he can come and lose all his Coca-Cola seksi lazy money playing hati yang mengalahkan.” She hesitated. She said, “Abdu tuan – ”

“Uh-huh?”

“It is nothing. Oh, but something – “

“ ? ‘

“ – I am instructed to tell you that my father’s boat is to be painted blue and red and green and made fit with caulk to sail again. Berlayar lagi. Tuan…?”

“I listen.”

“Was my mother beautiful?”

Abdu Rama removed the kretek cigarette from his mouth between the two fingers of his hand and held it the way a broken mast is balanced above the sea. He said,

“I have no recollection.”

He said,

“Benar-benar. Truly. Aku punya tidak ingat sama sekali.”

He used his thumb and his middle finger to snuff the cigarette. He flicked it away. He said,

“In fact I am lying to you, child. Anak-anak. She was more beautiful. Even than everybody. Even than the sea.”

There was a silence. Weni said,

“There is a boy on a motorcycle, tuan, who says I am in my red dress seksi merah cantik wanita.”

“He speaks tidak semestinya. Without manners. But not untrue.”

“But if he should ask me to let him touch my dress, I will tell him exactly what pipe he should smoke with! Like Nenek says: Ratu pintar; jack konyol. For good measure. Smoke that!”

She went down the beach eighty-ninety yards until she was a red triangle between the banana trees and the sea. She turned around. She put one hand either side of her mouth. She said (she shouted),

“And even not a motorcycle unless it’s seksi merah Amerika Serikat. Harley Davidson. Johnny Depp ya. Noise like aeroplane! Benar-benar!”

Then she laughed and waved her sandals and disappeared behind an outcrop of the banana trees.

 

 

FIN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author:

Michael Paul Hogan

Born in London, Michael Paul Hogan is a poet, literary journalist and fiction writer. A former columnist for Island Life in Key West, Florida, he is the author of six volumes of poetry and has published extensively in the USA, UK, India and China. His short fiction has most recently appeared in Big Bridge, Peacock Journal and Scryptic Magazine.

 

 

 

 

     
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