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Coffee Noir

 

Despite his technical background, Oni Suryaman is driven by literature. In his spare time, he writes essays, book reviews, and fiction. He also worked as a part-time translator for Indonesian publisher Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia and Kanisius Publishing House. He has recently published a picture book titled I Belog, a retelling of a famous Balinese folklore, an adaptation of which was performed at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) Singapore 2017.

Read some of his essays and book reviews at: http://onisur.wordpress.com and http://semuareview.wordpress.com

He can be reached at oni.suryaman@gmail.com.

 

 

Coffee Noir

 

Freedom is always worth celebrating. That’s why, after he was released from prison, he wanted to visit this coffee shop. His joy would be completed with a cup of coffee. Only in this coffee shop could he enjoy the best coffee served in the best way.

Some people insisted on preserving memories, and it was as if this coffee shop especially existed for such people. Almost nothing had changed. Only the color of the wooden chairs had grown darker and older. The only thing that wasn’t there before was a sketch of a man’s face with a thick mustache on a poster next to the window.

A line was written at the bottom of the poster, like a verse of poetry: In coffee, there is revolution; there is also everlasting love. He smiled. History has its own humor: the man who used to be considered a rebel was now hailed as a hero.

Several people had glared at him when he entered. He recognized some of them; this coffee shop had always been a hotspot for rebels. He stayed calm. Anything could happen. Someone might challenge him. The ten years he served in prison had honed his sense of awareness to perfection.

He touched the gun under his jacket, just in case. Be careful when facing hatred, he thought, as he looked at a young server who would kept staring at him.

The young server’s eyes reminded him of the man he had killed. The young server was only eleven years old when his father died. Now he looked like a young bull ready to exact revenge. The server nodded slowly when he ordered his coffee.

The hot air at noon made the coffee aroma in the shop stronger. He would never forget the soothing smell of coffee; it was as if the scent was stolen from heaven.

When he had been assigned to this town, many years ago, his commanding officer had told him not to miss this coffee shop on the list of places you must visit. It serves the best coffee, his commanding officer told him. This coffee shop is not only special, but also dangerous.

He had been sent to this town to kill a rebel deemed dangerous to the national security. At that time, demonstrations took place almost every day. This town had always been riotous with crazy ideas about independence.

The rebels, as they were labelled by the national army, didn’t just roam the jungle, but also infiltrated towns, attacked military posts, and ambushed military patrols.

The national army conducted a sweep. Dozens of people were captured, abducted, and never returned. The people of the town would never forget the day the army beat up eight young men in an intersection downtown. The youths were dragged, lined up, and then shot in the head. Such atrocity was sometimes used to create fear. But who can kill ideas? One can shoot a head and explode the brain, but ideas stay alive inside the heads of many people. This atrocious was vehemently protested and triggered more retaliations.

Amnesty International pressured the central government to cease the brutality. When military operations were considered powerless, he was assigned to the town.

As a trained spy, he knew right away that this coffee shop was not just a place for the town’s people to gather and drink coffee. There were coffee shops on almost every street in this town. It seemed no one in this town didn’t enjoy coffee. At the coffee shop, time almost stood still. People could sit there all day long to gossip, tell secrets, plot for resistance, or just be alone. It was also a good place to settle disputes. Any dispute could be settled over a cup of coffee. Any information about this town could be easily obtained in the coffee shop.

And from the information he had collected, he identified the man he had been sent to kill. This man, considered the most dangerous rebel, turned out to be neither a big man nor someone who roved in the jungle leading guerillas; that’s why the national army never succeeded in capturing him. The man he was looking for was a man of small stature, almost skinny, with dark skin and slightly wavy hair. The man looked tough, but always spoke in a polite tone. This rebel, who continuously incited young men to join the resistance and demand independence, was just a server in a coffee shop.

***

The young man serving his coffee now stood next to him; the cup shook a little when he put it on the table.

He could tell that the young man was nervous but was trying to control his emotions.

“In this cup of the best coffee I can serve you lies a secret, which you can only find after you drink it.” The young server said, staring at him. “But I am not sure if you dare to empty your cup.”

Outside, the road was crowded with traffic. The air was filled with horns honking from mini-buses and exhaust pipes rumbling from motorcycles. A dangdut song blared from the coffee shop across the street. But he felt the silence that reigned in this coffee shop. Everyone was quiet and had their eyes fixed on him, as if expecting a fight would break out.

“Sit down,” he finally said to the young server. “As the people in this town would say, let’s settle everything with a cup of coffee.”

The wooden chair scraped as the young man dragged it from the table and sat down. The young man said, “Just like when you murdered my father!”

The dangdut song still blared from across the street. “Accuse me to your heart’s content, and if you feel it necessary, just kill me …” “You must hate me.” He sucked hard on his cigarette.

“Why should I hate a coward? You should be pitied.”

“If I told you that I didn’t kill your father, you would not believe me. But that’s fine. Let’s say you believe that I am indeed your father’s killer; if so, then you must know why he had to die.”

“There are always excuses to be a murderer. Only a coward kills using devious ways.”

“You cannot trust what is written in the newspapers. You have to know that I admired your father. I am not responsible for his death; this country is.”

“The first thing a coward always does is to find justification. That’s why a coward always survives.”

He lit another cigarette, even though the cigarette he left in the ashtray was still long. He wanted to sip his coffee, but something was keeping him from doing it; his instinct forced him to be careful in this kind of situation. His fingers twitched, something that always happened when he was nervous, and he almost dropped his cigarette. “I have served ten years in prison for something that I didn’t do.”

“A coward would never dare admit the crime he committed!”

“I’m just the fall guy for someone else’s crime. You picked the wrong guy if you hold a grudge against me.”

“This is not about a grudge. This is about justice.” The young man’s stare became more intense. “You served your time, indeed. I’m sure that for your entire life, you are going to be punished for your cowardice and fear. But that is not a reason for me to stop pursuing justice.”

“What do you want to pursue justice for? Justice could never raise someone from the dead. The dead can never be raised again …”

“Except by God,” the young man interrupted, trying to lighten the conversation with a joke. “Justice is not catered to one’s individual business. This is not about you and me. This is not even about you and my father. If you think this is personal, you should have challenged my father to a one-on-one duel to the death. That would be braver and more honorable. But I know, a coward like you would never act bravely like that. Sadly, indeed, a coward is always saved by his cowardice.”

“I am not a coward!” His voice hung in the air.

“Drink the coffee then,” said the server, “and let’s see what happens.”

When he looked at the cup of coffee in silence, the young server laughed wryly. “You think that you come here to my father’s coffee shop to prove your courage? No! I’m sure that you did not come here to apologize. You came here precisely because you want to prove that you’re innocent of killing my father. You think that your ten-year prison sentence is enough to close the matter. For me, a crime should never be forgotten. A murderer will always insist that he has forgotten his victim. I’m sure that you have forgotten what my father looks like.”

He stole a covert glance at the poster on the wooden wall; he would never be able to forget the face of the man with a thick mustache. That face always showed up in his nightmares. He would never forget the moment he approached that man.

Gain your enemy’s trust by knowing what he likes. When he started his conversations with the mustached man about coffee, the man liked him immediately. While enjoying the coffee during that rainy afternoon, he learned the secret of coffee-making from that man. “It is the hand that makes the coffee that makes the difference,” he was told. “Even the best coffee beans would taste bad if the coffeemaker is not in touch with the soul of the coffee.”

He suddenly understood why there was no coffee grinder in this shop. The man always crushed the coffee beans with his hands.

“Touch the beans with all of your soul, and you will feel something tender inside. You will know which beans are the best, worthy of being served to the customers.”

He wasn’t sure he believed that, but it was a fact that the coffee from this coffee shop was indeed the best according to his palate. He had enjoyed coffee in many coffee shops, but none tasted as good as the coffee in this shop. It was as if eternal bliss was captured in every cup of coffee. Even when he was in prison, he secretly asked the warden to get him coffee from this shop. For a price, of course.

“In this shop, no one ever dares to let the coffee get cold without touching it.” The young server’s voice interrupted his reminiscence. “This is enough to prove that you’re not just a coward who doesn’t dare to drink my coffee, but that you’re indeed a coward who is haunted by his own fear.”

The young server rose and left him by himself.

***

The sky was dark and empty when he came out of the coffee shop. But the emptiness in his heart was hollower than that of the sky above him. It would have been more respectful if the young man had beaten him to a pulp than made him feel insulted like this.

He would never dare to return to that coffee shop. The coffee served by the young man overwhelmed him with fear, reminding him when he had put arsenic in the cup of the man with the thick mustache.

He saw a girl hurriedly cross the street. She wore a T-shirt with the face of the man with a thick mustache. The death of a coward like him would never earn an honor like the death of the man he killed.

When he passed a general store with a wide glass window, he stopped. He looked at the somber shadow of his body, his dark-brown skin concealed by his faded jacket. His sunken eyes below arched eyebrows, partly covered by hair that had started to grow long. The reflection in the glass window was like a ghost from the past he didn’t want to see.

He walked toward the intersection and turned, looking back at the coffee shop for the last time, before disappearing in the dim light of the town. When, in the end, he really disappeared from this world, would anyone out there still remember him?

***

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