Rintani Atmodi earned her doctorate in mechanical engineering in the United States. Despite her engineering background, she is an aspiring short story writer. She writes in English and Indonesian. She has a deep interest in literature and is an avid reader. Her debut short story, A Foothold in Foreign Soil, was written in English in 2017. Selendang Bersulam Putih (2017) is her first short story in Indonesian. She is currently working on short stories themed around Indonesian women.
Rintani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tap of Revenge
Arsap smirked at the party guests watching Marinten rhythmically tap the pestle against the mortar’s lip. His heartbreak had been eased and his rage had subsided.
An early crescent moon peeked through the coconut fronds. Insects crowded a kerosene lamp that hung hissing from the ceiling. A butchered cow’s dressed hindquarters hung from the beams on the kitchen porch. The wind carried the aroma of grilled satay across the fragrance of incense.
The rhythmical tapping, followed by the crashing cymbals of brass spittoon lids, was discordant. Marinten’s tappings were not in tune with the other musicians. This music was different from what was typically played at harvest time or after a cow slaughtering or during the preparation of dodol — a traditional toffee-like sweet. It was also different from the music played at a funeral.It evoked a different feeling.
The longer Arsap listened to it, the more it sounded like an announcement of sad news, but the taps were softer and intermittent. At times, the rhythm picked up and the tapping became faster. The spittoon lids clanged loudly, as if playing at a great harvest, only to taper off until the sound was as soft as a passing breeze.
Arsap knew it was intentional. The tappers were members of the music group Marinten directed. She was notorious for her skillful ability to play various forms of ketuk lumpang, a traditional Madurese form of music made by rhythmically tapping pestles on the lips of mortars and striking brass spittoon lids together. Marinten’s group was often invited to play at parties. That Marinten might have misdirected the group was out of the question.
Aside from her tapping talents, Marinten was very attractive. Wearing a floral-patterned kebaya — a traditional Indonesian blouse — and a batik scarf with a clove-flower design, her hair adorned with a jasmine strand, Marinten attracted everyone’s attention at the party. She was pretty even without makeup. Simple yet stunning. It was said that Marinten had inherited her mother’s beauty.
Marinten’s mother was also known as a skilled lumpang tapper. Her tapping relaxed tired workers after a great harvest, brightened wedding and circumcision parties, and soothed mourners at times of grief.
Whenever Marinten’s mother was invited to perform, guests flocked to the event. The music of ketuk lampang bewitched people. Those who had previously claimed they couldn’t attend the party suddenly found a way to come watch Marinten’s mother and her group.
When she was Marinten’s age, her mother was also the center of her audience’s attention — both the invited guests and the bystanders. Young men were captivated and enamored by the beauty of Marinten’s mother, as well as her skillful ketuk lumpang performances. She bequeathed these talents to Marinten.
Marinten and her group were always booked solid throughout every great harvest and wedding season, often turning down requests because of conflicting dates.
But this night, Marinten and her group played a very different tune. The melody sounded sometimes sad, sometimes angry, and then suddenly became incoherent, the way a person in despair might feel.
Like other people in the audience, Arsap never turned his gaze away from Marinten playing in the yard. He enjoyed the disjointed rhythm of Marinten’s tapping and considered it a victorious melody, a payback for his defeat.
The night slowly crept in. The tapping and crashing became even more distinct. The aroma of grilled satay drifted away. The audience remained transfixed, listening to the distorted, inappropriate melody that Marinten and her group played for the event. Babies slept undisturbed in their mothers’ arms.
Arsap pulled hard on his cigarette, then exhaled slowly. The smoke billowed into the air. Cigarette butts piled up along the edge of his saucer. Four pieces of wajik — a traditional sweet made of sticky rice — and dodol were left on the plate. No woman will be allowed to insult men! Arsap smiled, arrogantly.
Marinten’s mother’s rejection of Arsap’s wedding proposal to Marinten had enraged him. Being refused without reason was an insult! He and Marinten had been stealing glances at one another since their early teens.
So, roiling with anger after his proposal had been rejected, Arsap asked his father, Maksar, to find a girl who was willing to marry him as soon as possible. Maksar, who had been reluctant to ask for Marinten’s hand for his son, immediately started a search for his future daughter-in-law.
As soon as Maksar found a suitable girl, Arsap proposed to her. And, according to Arsap’s wishes, they set the wedding date right away — within two weeks after Marinten’s mother had rejected Arsap. He purposely invited Marinten to perform ketuk lumpang on the eve of his wedding to kill the fire in his heart and avenge the insult Marinten’s mother had bestowed on him.
Some of the women were busy in the kitchen preparing dishes for the next day’s wedding party.
The evening began to wind down. On the porch, Arsap and his father kept company with a few family members and guests. Maksar looked happy, and his laughter interspersed the conversations. Only two pieces of wajik and dodol were left on the plate, and the cups held only coffee dregs.
Suddenly, Arsap saw the old man Samulla walking slowly into the yard. Holding a lit cigarette between his fingers, Samulla watched Marinten and her group.
What does he want? Arsap nudged his father.
Maksar stopped laughing. He followed Arsap’s gaze, then glared at the old man.
Samulla did not immediately go to the porch to greet the host. Instead, he halted close to Marinten performing the ketuk lumpang. The way he slowly exhaled the cigarette smoke from his mouth indicated that he had just figured out something.
Arsap felt uncomfortable. His father had once told him about the old man.
“How embarrassing!” Marinten’s mother slammed the door and furiously confronted her daughter when Marinten returned home later that night. Listening to her daughter play the ketuk lumpang at Arsap’s house had kept her awake.
Marinten quietly slipped into the room and dropped into a chair. She removed the string of jasmine from her hair, looking sad.
“How could you play that bad?” Her mother demanded. “Haven’t you mastered the ketuk lumpang for a wedding?” Marinten’s mother was irritated, but she sounded less confident. Chewing a wad of betel leaves, she paced in front of her daughter. Occasionally, she spat in a can filled with stove ash that sat near the foot of a divan. A dagger leaned against the side of the divan.
Her face hard, her lips red and wet from the betel leaves, she drilled Marinten about the unanswered questions that kept popping into her head. “And why did your friends also play with such discordance? You’re supposed to harmonize with each other!” Marinten’s mother couldn’t contain her anger.
Marinten kept quiet.
“It must be you! What were you thinking?”
“Weren’t you the one who taught me to perform ketuk lumpang with both my heart and head?” asked Marinten. “To express the feeling of the occasion? To play with a light heart for a happy event, and vice versa? So that the meaning of the melody I play reaches every listener? Didn’t you tell me that?”
“That’s right,” said her mother. “So why then did you play the way you played tonight? You should’ve played a happy tune.”
“I played the ketuk lumpang with my heart. I have nothing to regret.”
“You were invited to play at a wedding, not a funeral!” Marinten’s mother raised her voice.
Marinten gritted her teeth and rose. “Should I be happy about Arsap’s wedding?” She glared at her mother and shook her head. “No, Mother!”
“Stupid you! Do you regret that I rejected his proposal?”
“Give me one reason why you rejected him!”
“He’s not good for you. You can marry anyone you want, but not him!”
“Anyone?” Marinten sneered. She knew that her mother was going to eat her words.
Marinten raised her chin. “OK. Tomorrow I will go to the old man Samulla and accept his proposal to marry me.” Marinten left the room.
Marinten’s mother froze. She stopped chewing her wad. She stood, stunned, looking at the door that Marinten had disappeared behind.
Marinten lay down on her bed. Her thoughts wandered as she sighed. She knew why her mother had turned down Arsap’s proposal.
The old man Samulla, Maksar, and her mother were once involved in a problem.
A long time ago, Maksar and Samulla were in love with Marinten’s mother. Both of them often followed her as she walked home from a performance. The two men, who differed in age, vied for her hand in marriage.
Marinten’s mother fell for Maksar, who was not only younger, more muscular, and handsome, but also had a way with words. Samulla, who was nearly forty years old at the time, did not do anything to change her decision.
Maksar thought he had won the battle without having to go to war. He planned to propose to Marinten’s mother immediately. But his parents stopped him. They had heard rumors that Marinten’s mother possessed supernatural powers, and claimed she was using magic to trick Maksar into marriage. The parents quickly found another girl for Maksar to marry.
Samulla was furious. He could not accept Maksar abandoning Marinten’s mother for unproven reasons. Samulla and Maksar entered into a heated dispute that almost triggered a carok, a duel with a dagger.
Marinten was convinced that rejecting Arsap’s proposal was her mother’s way to avenge her past and settle the grudge she held against Maksar’s family. And to create the illusion that nothing had happened, she encouraged Marinten to accept the invitation to perform the ketuk lumpang for Arsap’s wedding.
Marinten grimaced. Her mother’s scheming was clever. Staring at the ceiling, she felt her anger rise again.
Samulla, who had remained a bachelor all his life, had stopped her on her way home. After he told her the story of her mother’s past, Marinten understood why her mother had rejected Arsap.
The next morning, Marinten frowned when she found her pestle broken in three parts and the pieces scattered on her porch. She rushed to the kitchen only to find it empty. The stove was cold. In the living room, the dagger that usually leaned against the divan was gone.
With her heart pounding, Marinten rushed back to the porch and warily picked up the pestle’s broken pieces.
A thin fog still clung to the fronds of the coconut tree.
Marinten’s gaze followed the distant road.