Novita Dewi started writing poetry and short stories during her elementary and middle school days. She published in Si Kuncung and Bobo, children magazines, as well as wrote for the children’s columns featured in Kompas and Sinar Harapan (now Suara Pembaruan). She now nurtures her interest in literature by writing articles about literature and translation for scientific journals. Novita is widely published. The short stories translated and published by Dalang Publishing are her first attempts of literary translation.
Rest in Peace, Mother!
The late afternoon breeze ruffled Jakob’s graying hair. He stared at the red earth of his mother’s grave. Twelve years had gone by since his mother’s passing, and fifteen years without the presence of his two brothers, who had left Siborong-borong, their village in North Sumatra, to seek their fortune in Java. Now, the two brothers stood beside Jakob, gazing solemnly at their mother’s grave while the gravediggers unearthed her coffin.
One of the Batak customs is to honor deceased ancestors, including those who died long ago, by moving their bones to a better burial place and holding a proper funeral ceremony. On such occasions, all relatives had to come home to prepare for the ceremony, and this was now happening in Jakob’s family.
Two months ago, when Jakob and his wife were about to leave their house to sell some produce at the market, his two brothers and their families suddenly appeared in his front yard. Even though the sun had not yet risen, Jakob could see his two brothers were as cheerful as the sun. While Jakob’s wife greeted them kindly, Jakob stood frozen in the doorway. He only returned to reality when his wife shook his shoulder and asked him to go slaughter one of their pigs to prepare a welcome feast. Although Jakob did as his wife asked and invited his two brothers and their families to come in, he spurned their arrival.
Jakob’s anger with his brothers was not without reason. When his two brothers decided to leave home fifteen years ago, their mother was suffering from a severe illness. Despite Jakob’s hopes and her desperate attempts to survive, their mother died in her sleep without saying goodbye. Not having enough money for a proper burial, Jakob buried his mother in his back yard with a simple ceremony, without the presence of his two brothers.
Now, three days after the arrival of his two brothers, after the sun had long set and the other family members were fast asleep, the three brothers sat by the light of the oil lamp. They were silent, until finally Lamsihar, the eldest brother, sighed. “We heard about Mother’s passing,” he said quietly. “Where did you bury her, Jakob?”
Jakob did not answer immediately. Consumed by anger and sadness, he looked silently at his brothers. As if reluctant to reveal the location of their mother’s grave, Jakob took a deep breath. Deep in his heart, Jakob knew that his two brothers had the right to know this information, and that despite their circumstances, they were still family. Jakob sighed, “Our mother is buried in the back yard.”
“Why did you bury Mother there?” asked Ruhut, the middle brother. “Didn’t she say that she wanted to be buried among our ancestors?”
His brothers looked at him, confused.
Jakob wanted his brothers to understand the heartache he had experienced at their mother’s makeshift funeral. “It hurts me to look at the two of you,” Jakob said, clenching his fists. He tried to control the pain in his heart, but couldn’t. Looking at his two brothers with red teary eyes, he said, “Perhaps you succeeded in making your fortune in Java — you have money, you have position, your families are privileged — but now all of that seems pointless.”
“What do you mean, Jakob?” asked Lamsihar in a trembling voice.
“What’s the use of owning as much money as there is sand on the beach, and holding a position as high as the clouds, if you never listened to Mother’s crying?” Jakob snapped. “Honestly, it always surprised me why Mother cried for two men who had deserted their family.”
Jakob saw Ruhut’s jaw set, while Lamsihar remained silent, a sad curve settling on his wrinkled face. Not wanting to add any more fuel to the fire, Jakob rose and, without saying anything, left his two brothers.
In their bedroom, Jakob’s wife tried to calm him. She knew how her husband felt toward his brothers. Nonetheless she told him that his mother would not be happy with his childish attitude and his refusal to listen to his two brothers. Afterall, they had come from far away to see their deceased mother. “It would be wrong for you to throw them out, dear,” she said softly. “Remember that you are blood brothers.”
“So what?” Jakob shook his head angrily. “It doesn’t bother me that they went to Java to better their financial situation; it bothers me that they not once came home to see Mother. And now, they come twelve years after she died? There’s no point in having them here anymore.”
Jakob’s wife sat down beside her husband and caressed his shoulder. “Darling,” she soothed, “don’t you realize that what you just said is evil? Don’t close your heart because of your ignorance.”
Jakob remained silent.
His wife continued reassuringly, “Open your heart, dear. Just give them a chance and time. That’s all.”
The next morning, Jakob was preparing to feed the livestock when, by chance, he saw his two brothers smoking in front of the house while sipping their hot, black coffee. He could faintly hear their conversation and couldn’t believe it when he heard Ruhut loudly regret not returning home sooner.
“If only,” Ruhut said wearily to his brother, “I had come home earlier, I might have seen Mother, and maybe Jakob wouldn’t be so angry.”
Jakob contemplated Ruhut’s words echoing in his mind. Then, shaking his head, Jakob was again consumed by resentment and continued on without any intention of forgiving his brothers.
After feeding his cattle, pigs, and chickens, Jakob paced aimlessly around, thinking about his mother and feeling troubled. He soon found himself standing beside his mother’s grave in the garden behind his house. Jakob stared at his mother’s resting place and exhaled a long sigh. Smiling a little, he felt that it was his mother who had brought him here.
“Mother, here’s your son Jakob,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t visit you for a few days.” Jakob told his mother that his two brothers had returned from Java after having been gone for a long time. He also told her about the grievances he carried in his heart.
“I don’t know, Mother,” he sighed softly. “I don’t think I’m a good person.” Looking up at the blue sky, he continued, “I feel that what I’m doing is not right.”
No one answered. There was only the sound of his nephews’ laughter from inside the house. Jakob blinked a few times before taking another deep breath. Irritated, he ran a hand across his weathered face. He was tired and fervently wished that his mother could talk to him now and advise him. Realizing once again that his mother was not available to help, upset him. Finally, Jakob turned to go home, even though no one had answered his questions.
Later that night, Jakob woke up and couldn’t believe his eyes. There was his mother, sitting cross-legged beside him. The grasses in front of them swayed gracefully as if tempting her to dance. Jakob was sure he had fallen asleep in his room and not outdoors, but he rushed to get up. His mother’s hair was neatly tied back and had started to turn as white as ivory. The wind sifted playfully through the strands. She looked at Jakob warmly and patted the ground beside her.
Hesitating, Jakob stiffly sat down next to his mother.
For a long time, neither of them spoke. Jakob was preoccupied with his jumbled thoughts. He had absolutely no idea if this was a sign of disaster, or a sign from God.
“Jakob, how are you?” his mother asked.
Jacob remained silent. He had never heard his mother speak with such a silken voice, even when she was still alive. Nodding his head, Jakob desperately tried to hold back his tears.
Jakob’s mother caressed the top of his head. Happily, she said, “It is all right; things are good.” While motioning Jakob to lay his head on her lap, she said, “I know that your two brothers have come home.”
Jakob nodded. He closed his eyes and enjoyed his mother’s loving touch that he had missed so much.
“I’m very happy to see your brothers have come home after living in Java for such a long time,” Jakob’s mother continued cheerfully. Her eyes sparkled. “I see that your children and your brothers’ children are doing well.”
When Jacob nodded without commenting, his mother continued, “Jakob, what’s wrong with you, Son?”
Jakob was surprised. He had not expected that his mother had heard him talking to her that morning. He wanted to lift his head and defend himself, but somehow, he couldn’t.
“What you said this morning reminded me of the time you tried to defend our family fourteen years ago.” Jakob could hear the smile in her voice. He remembered that day in the market when he punched a shopkeeper he knew in the face. Jakob had not meant to cause any trouble, but had lost his temper when the man insulted his family.
“How can one forget his family?” the shopkeeper had yelled at Jakob. “Didn’t your mother ever teach your brothers about that? Or does your family no longer uphold any tradition and thus allows your brothers to leave and forget their homeland?”
On that day, his mother repeatedly knelt to apologize to everyone in the market for the childish commotion Jakob had caused.
“What you did to that shopkeeper back then is the same as what you’re doing to your two brothers now,” she said. “You don’t want to listen to your two brothers because your anger won’t let you.”
“Then, what should I do?” asked Jakob miserably. “Isn’t it too late for them to visit you, Mother?”
“They’re not here without reason,” his mother answered patiently. “Remember what your wife said a few days ago?”
“Yes,” replied Jakob, holding back his tears. “She asked me to open my heart.”
“Then listen to her,” his mother said, stroking Jakob’s graying hair. “I’m sure your brothers came for the good of the three of you.”
Jakob nodded in relief. He no longer felt burdened. He burst out crying, wetting his mother’s clothes with his tears. His mother laughed and patted Jakob’s shoulder.
“Don’t cry for me, my child,” she comforted. “Cry for yourself. Remember that it’s never too late to make amends.” Jakob sat up as his mother rose. He watched his mother’s frail back slowly disappear in the wind.
Jakob closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was in his own bed with tears flowing down his hollow cheeks.
His wife, asleep next to him, woke up. Gently rubbing Jakob’s damp back, she felt him shaking and saw his ashen face. “What’s the matter, Jakob?”
“I’m fine,” Jakob replied in a quivering voice. “I’ve just had some revelations.”
A few days later, Jakob and his two brothers gathered in the living room with their families. Jakob sat quietly, occasionally taking a drag of his cigarette, as Lamsihar adjusted his seat and started talking about the reason for coming home. “I discussed this situation with Ruhut long before we planned to visit,” Lamsihar said. “Ruhut and his family were willing to join us. Still, Jakob, it is not possible to perform this funeral ceremony without your consent.”
Jakob looked evenly at Lamsihar. Although he knew about the custom his two brothers were talking about, his curiosity about their sincerity snuffed the last of the burning embers of anger he still carried in his heart. “What do you two mean?” he asked.
“We would like to ask your family to participate in moving Mother’s remains to a more suitable place,” replied Lamsihar. “That’s why we all came home together.”
“We knew that it was too late for us to see Mother,” Ruhut added, with a sad smile. “But this is the only thing we can do at least Mother can have a better resting place.”
Jakob began to sob.
His two brothers were shocked by Jakob’s reaction. Jakob confessed that anger had taken the better of him all this time. Bowing several times until his head almost touched the floor, he begged for forgiveness from his two brothers and their families.
“Jakob, stop it, please!” Ruhut exclaimed. “We are just as guilty as you are. Now, let us fix what is broken, starting with relocating Mother’s grave to a better place.”
That morning, the fog that usually covered the house was gone. It was replaced by the warm glow of the sun.
“Horas! Horas! Horas!” the gravediggers called out, signaling they had found the bones of Jakob’s mother. Jakob immediately joined his two brothers in responding to the call which meant a prayer of thanksgiving. The three brothers stood, holding white cloths in their hands, ready to receive their mother’s bones.
They carried the bones to the place they had prepared, and cleaned them with a mixture of turmeric and lime juice.
While Jakob cleaned the bones, he recalled his mother’s words. Her gentle voice had removed the shroud of anger that had covered him. Hers was the only voice that had been able to guide him out of the darkness. Tears of joy streamed from Jakob’s eyes.