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.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
Don’t you ever go near that tree. That was what Mom said every time when, as a child, my eyes lit up when I looked at the shady tree growing behind our house. Listening to her command, my eyes would dim as I asked, “Why?”
“At the lowest branch of the tree, there is a big brown snake’s nest. The snake will strike at anyone who disturbs it.”
Mom’s answer always made me flinch, killing my burning desire to linger near the tree, and suppressing my longing for a while.
But the more I subdued the desire to play near that tree, the more frequently Mom repeated the entire story about the tree and the big brown snake. I began to memorize each part of it. Who knew, perhaps Mom was tempting me. Perhaps she wanted to test how obedient I was.
Meanwhile, the child inside me was curious about the truth of her story, and I asked myself fervently, “Is it true? Or did Mom just make it up so that I wouldn’t become a naughty girl who fooled around near that tree, like the teenaged boys?”
“There was a big brown snake on the branch, ready to bite anyone who went near it.” Mom always used that line to start her tale. “Once there was a young girl with an oval face, long neck, brown skin, and long curly hair to her hips. She had big eyes, a fine nose, and thin lips. She was a beautiful girl.”
In time, I began to wonder if the girl in the story was me. Once I started to think that way, I often looked at my face in the mirror in my room. Dark curly hair to my waist, big eyes, a fine nose, and brown skin. I looked exactly like the girl in the story. It was as if Mom was telling a tale about me.
“The young girl lived with her mother in their wooden house,” my mother’s tale continued. “The old woman started sounding too preachy to the young girl. The mother always forbade the girl to go near the shady tree behind their wooden house, where every day, from midmorning until nightfall, a young man sat with his goats.
“He had a square jaw with sharp eyes like an eagle, big arms, and a broad chest to lean against.
“Before her mother caught her, the girl often went there and talked to the young man about his goats, the tree that shaded them, and her cloth of innocence. The girl felt that she had found her life. But then her mother forbade her to go to the tree. Secretly, something grew in the girl’s chest — a wild rose that twisted and turned.”
At this part of the story, I always saw Mom’s expression change. There was a sparkle that she could not hide, she looked like a girl falling in love. I rarely found any shred of happiness in my mother’s hard face.
“The girl could not control the growth of the rose,” Mom continued. “Especially when her big eyes looked at the ceiling of her room, daydreaming. The image of her head leaning against the young man’s chest filled her mind. The grasp of his big hands and calloused palms felt very soft as he held her hands. She could not bear it. She could no longer hold her yearning captive.”
At this part in the story, Mom’s face changed again. The joy she rarely showed turned to sorrow on her face, a face filled with sad burdens, like that of someone whose yearnings tortured her heart without mercy.
“Unable to hold back her longing, the girl disobeyed her mother’s orders,” Mom continued. “Around noon, on a day that she would remember as the darkest day of her life, she went to see the young man.
“They satisfied their deep longing until it overwhelmed their senses, and suddenly her cloth of innocence was unveiled; and a big brown snake bit the unaware girl. The snake’s fangs sank into her skin, and the venom was injected. The girl’s face turned blue in terror. It scared the young man so much that he ran away and vanished into the jungle, leaving the girl with the big eyes full of the venom that might take her life.”
To be honest, I didn’t like it when Mom told the story. Not only was it always the same story — about a beautiful girl and the shady tree growing behind a wooden house — but her story frightened me. I often had nightmares, and I told Mom about the horrors in my sleep. In my dream, I violated my mother’s forbiddance, and I would sneak to the tree and find the big brown snake, its wide-open mouth showing two scary fangs.
“The dream means, don’t you ever dare to violate my prohibition,” explained my mom. “If you do, the big brown snake will bite you, injecting deadly venom, and you will die alone and be cast into hell. Banished. Deserted. Alone.”
Mom always spoke the same words every time I told her about my nightmares. She would repeat her tale, about the tree behind the wooden house and the beautiful girl who was bitten by a big brown snake because she violated her mother’s prohibition.
Realizing that Mom would never stop telling me her frightening tale, I quit telling her about my nightmares hoping to stop her from telling her same old tale.
I wanted to join the teenagers I watched every day from afar. They were at the tree, laughing, jumping up and down, playing catch in their uniforms. White and red uniforms. The colors enticed me. Every night before I closed my eyes, I prayed for the same wish: That my dream would take me to them, wearing the same uniform, laughing together.
But that never happened. Instead, I always dreamed about the snake nesting in the tree. A horrible dream.
In truth, I longed to tell Mom why I wanted to go to that tree — the tree behind our wooden house, whose trunk and boughs stood proudly in the middle of the meadow. I wanted to tell her that there, I often found teenagers playing catch, running to catch dragonflies, and rolling on the grass. Their laughter buzzed in my ears. But I could never explain that to her.
It was as if Mom could read my young mind. “Believe me, they will never like you,” she told me. “Their parents will quickly call them home, if they see you are with them. After that, you will cry. Mom doesn’t want to see tears on your face, because your tears will not make them pity you. Now, that hurts, right?”
I didn’t understand what she said. I only noticed that her face looked dreadful, like a grimacing ghost who died in rage, sorrowful under burdens and filled with vengeance. I decided to bury my wish together with the frightening ghost.
There was, however, a story that I would have liked to hear from Mom. It was not, of course, the story about the tree behind the wooden house and the beautiful girl who was bitten by a big brown snake because she violated her mother’s prohibition. No, it was the story about my father, whose face I could not even imagine. There was no picture or anything related to him in our house. I therefore never knew what kind of a person he was.
“Your father died, and now you live with just me in this house,” Mom always said when I pleaded with her to tell me about my father. Her expression would become gloomy. She’d look like someone suppressing anger, loneliness, love, vengeance, and other feelings in her heart. The mixed emotions made her face look scary, but also evoked pity when I looked at her closely.
“Can we visit his grave?” I would do what she did and kept repeating the same request even though I knew her answer would always be the same.
“It is not good for a young girl to visit a graveyard,” she’d say. “Did you forget what I taught you? The prophet forbids young girls to visit the grave because they will wail out there.”
So I used my young wit to make Mom tell the story about my father. Besides, I wanted her to stop repeating the same tale about the tree over and over again, as I became more and more curious about the man who caused me to live this house.
“There is nothing special that I can tell you about your father,” said Mom. “He had a square jaw and eyes like an eagle; his hands were big, and his palms were calloused. He had dark hair, and his chest was as broad as the meadow.”
And that was it. Nothing that could help me form a complete picture of him in my mind.
I also had no one to compare him to. I lived alone with my mom in this wooden house — two women who were not good at telling stories.
“How did he die?” I persisted in asking Mom about the story she didn’t want to tell. At such times, Mom frowned and glared at me with dislike. And I would shut my mouth.
“Your father died in the jungle, where he ran because he saw a snake strike at someone,” she finally told me. “A horrible death, the kind of death that would cast one into an untouchable world. That’s it. Don’t you ask about that again.”
So, that’s the story that Mom kept telling me about the tree behind a wooden house. About a beautiful girl bitten by a big brown snake because she violated her mother’s rules.
She told the story even more frequently after I came of age, and I started getting used to her story, which I considered to be a fairy tale, nothing to be worried about. I didn’t even ask her to tell the story about my father anymore, knowing she would never tell me anything more. And I didn’t tell her that, secretly, I had been to the tree twice, peeking at a young man whose Adam’s apple started to show, whose eyes stared like an eagle, who had a square jaw and smiled at me.