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Dragon Woman

In 2005, Umar Thamrin received a Fulbright grant and a Catherine and William L. Magistretti Graduate Fellowship for his graduate studies in the United States. He completed his Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Studies with the designated emphasis in Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2016. Before returning to Indonesia in 2017, he received a one-year appointment as a research and teaching fellow at the University of Oregon.

Back in his home country, Umar became disturbed by several social conditions he encountered there, and is saddened that the common people have remained marginalized while society ignores the lessons of its history. These conditions have prompted him to think, to remember, and to write. He is currently teaching linguistics at Alauddin State Islamic University.

He can be reached at: umar2x.umar@gmail.com

 

Dragon Woman

 

Eba squeezed lime juice into a small brown bowl with a chipped rim. Her curly graying hair was put up in a bun. Damp ringlets fell over the collar of her shabby red kebaya. With a corner of the pale orange shawl draped around her shoulders, Eba dabbed at the beaded sweat on her temples and thought, It is already afternoon. Joro will be home soon.

The skipjack tuna soup was simmering. Thin spirals of steam rose with the scent of basil, ginger, lemongrass, and turmeric from the golden broth. Using her fingers, Eba deftly removed the lime seeds from the bowl, tossed them into the garuru, a basket made from woven sago palm fronds, and poured the juice into the bubbling broth. After a few stirs, she spooned the broth and thick chunks of skipjack tuna into a serving bowl. She brought her face closer to the steaming bowl and closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. She enjoyed her cooking.

Eba scattered the remaining embers of the earthen stove until the flames were completely extinguished. “Joro will enjoy it,” she whispered. A thin smile curled Eba’s thick lips as she placed the bowl on the table, next to a small plate of ​​banana blossom slices she had fried with a handful of onions and a pinch of salt.

Eba bloomed with joy. During her twenty years of marriage, she had learned to recognize this feeling of satisfaction after she prepared a meal. She really liked to cook. This was what made her different from many of the other women in Sameth, a village on Indonesia’s Haruku Island, where she and Joro lived. Most women on the island preferred to sit and gossip instead of spend time in the kitchen. Compared to them, Eba was certainly a much better housewife. She lived to serve her husband and children.

Eba froze at the edge of the table. Her eyes grew misty and a familiar sadness washed over her, as she looked at the table. Once, the portions she cooked had been much larger. Children had stood around the table vying to fill their plates. But her children had all died. Now, thinking of them, Eba’s heart felt like a pincushion with numerous pins stuck into it.

Eba shook her head slowly, and wiped her eyes. That’s enough. Don’t cry anymore. Crying will only make their bones tremble in their graves; they will not be able to rest peacefully. A bittersweet smile replaced her tears.

Eba reached for a food cover hanging on the wall and placed it over the dishes on the table. “All that’s left to prepare is the papeda,” she said quietly, referring to the traditional Moluccan sago congee dish. “I’ll take a short break and boil the water later. Then I can prepare the sago congee as soon as Joro arrives. He will sulk if I serve him cold papeda.” She took a deep breath and turned away from the table.

***

Eba walked through the kitchen, where the cooking fire was still smoldering, and stepped outside through a door made of gaba-gaba. Like the rest of the house, the door was made from slats cut out of sago palm midribs while the thatched roof was held up by bamboo beams. Their house stood secluded on a cliff, in the southern part of Sameth, with its main door facing the sea. The black coral cliffs extended into the water, serving as a bulkhead that protected them from the mighty waves during the east monsoon.

Behind the house, where Eba now stood, she and Joro used to sit and look at Ambon Island in the distance. On a clear day, they could see the peak of Mount Salahutu, bathed proudly in the sunlight. Today, the mountain, wrapped in dark clouds, looked a little ominous.

Joro had chiseled out a narrow path between the steep rocky slopes so they could walk from their house down to the beach, where they fished, dug for clams, and responded to the call of nature.

Eba slumped onto a bench built with gaba-gaba. The bench was shaded by three ketapang trees. Joro had planted the tallest of these sea almond trees the day after they buried their youngest son two years ago. The boy had been harvesting barnacles off the cliff when he fell and was swept away by the sea.

“He was taken by the sea devil,” said the village elder when, the next day, fishermen from a neighboring village found the boy’s open-mouthed, bloated body floating in the ocean. After two days of mourning, Eba and Joro decided to plant a ketapang tree in remembrance of their son and that sorrowful day.

Eba closed her eyes. Inhaling the scents of the sea, she tried to dismiss the melancholy, lingering in her mind. She caught a whiff of the skipjack tuna drying on the bamboo racks lined up along the side of the house. Her eldest son had built the racks before he died on a Sunday, just a month ago. Joro had been getting ready to go fishing at dawn when he found his son’s dead body. The boy’s eyes were open, and bruises circled his neck. The boy had never been sick. Eba began to cry, remembering how the villagers had given her strange looks while muttering, “Strangled by the devil.”

After the customary week of mourning, Joro planted the third ketapang sapling, just to the right of the second which he had planted a year ago when their only daughter died. The girl had been stung by a centipede that had fallen from the ceiling onto her bed. The child jolted upright and, wide-eyed, screamed in pain. She died while the centipede disappeared.

A dry ketapang twig dropped onto Eba’s lap. Each time Joro had planted a ketapang tree, he told her it was a symbol of hope for life and a prevention of more death. But after her continual losses, Eba came to believe that her husband was just making up stories to soothe her. Her children had fallen one by one, like the dried ketapang leaves.

Eba remembered her beautiful and diligent daughter; her youngest son, who was naughty but adorable; and her obedient, eldest son who was handsome, just like his father. A hatred flared in her heart — a hatred as terrible as what she had felt during the wake for her daughter, when she overheard the village women whisper, “Bitten by a demon.”

Eba had not wanted to confront the villagers who treated her badly. Everyone in this village was related to her husband, and Eba didn’t want to hurt Joro’s feelings. She therefore kept silent and dealt with the hatred she felt, alone.

***

Eba was an orphan. She was born and raised in Kairatu, a village on Seram Island. Her father had died four months before she was born, and her mother died four days after giving birth to her. Eba’s grandmother, the village midwife who had helped Eba’s mother give birth to her, raised Eba. “Eaten by a dragon,” was the reason several village women attached to her mother’s death. Eba’s grandmother, as usual, kept silent.

Eba’s grandmother raised her with great affection. The old woman loved to dance. She usually danced in her dimly lit room while humming a mantra but several times, Eba saw her dancing at night in their hut’s backyard during the full moon. Occasionally, her grandmother called to Eba to dance with her.

Although Eba did not understand why her grandmother asked her to join in the dance, she gradually began to like dancing. Soon, Eba could imitate her grandmother’s moves with her eyes closed. But she still could not hum her grandmother’s strange song.

Eba’s first husband, Ica, had been killed by a boar while he was hunting in the forest. A year after Eba lost Ica, she met Joro in Kairatu at a katreji, a traditional Moluccan dance influenced by Portuguese culture. Joro had been invited to the dance party along with other young people.

It was love at first sight. Joro wanted to marry Eba immediately, but Joro’s relatives, and the village elders of Sameth, were opposed. Besides the fact that Eba was a widow, Kairatu and Sameth had a pela relationship, a traditional alliance between villages that did not allow a man from Sameth to marry a woman from Kairatu. “Taboo,” the villagers said. “The ancestors will be angry. Bad luck will befall all of us.” Moreover, the widely-spread rumor in Sameth was that Eba was a suanggi, a witch who practiced black magic.

As usual, Joro was silent. He was a diligent, simple, reserved man. He asked Eba to elope with him to his best friend’s house in Tala, a village on the west side of Seram Island. After their marriage, they settled down and built a new life in Tala.

However, four months later, they received news from Sameth. Joro’s mother was dying. When they arrived, several relatives eyed Eba suspiciously. “She’s possessed by a suanggi,” they said, as if Eba had cast a spell to make her mother-in-law ill.

Joro had been the only child of a Sameth elder who was killed during the bloody riot between Muslims and Christians on the island in 1999, twenty years ago. The village elders now wanted Joro to move back to his ancestral house in Sameth, to protect their family’s heritage.

Joro was well aware of his extended family’s rejection of his wife, but he ignored it. He and Eba moved to Sameth. Turning a deaf ear to the elders’ requests to rid himself of Eba and find a suitable wife, Joro simply continued his routine of fishing and working the land. He never expressed his love by hugging Eba or stroking their children’s heads, but he was never abusive or unfaithful. And to Eba, he was the perfect man. He had not changed much from the time Eba had first caught an affectionate glint in his eyes.

When their youngest child died, the rumor spread that Eba was the bearer of bad luck. The rumor reached the ears of Eba and Joro, as well as their two remaining children. Eba would never forget how the village women turned their backs on her when she came to the river to wash clothes and kitchenware. For months, they all refused to speak to her. Finally, Eba could not take it anymore.

Joro felt the same. He took Eba and their two children to the outskirts of the village and built a hut for them to live in. Joro no longer mingled with the Sameth villagers. He went alone to hunt in the forest and fish in the sea. He worked his garden by himself.

When the third death struck Joro’s family, the village people grew contentious. Screaming fiercely at Eba, they called her a dragon woman and a suanggi. The villagers blamed Eba and Joro for breaking the pela relationship. They shooed and spit on Eba whenever they passed her.

Joro explained to Eba that the villagers believed that a dragon lived in her body and that the beast would slowly kill off her family in various ways. The dragon was passed down through generations of women.

Eba secluded herself at home. She no longer attended church and never went to the river to wash her clothes and kitchenware. She raged at all the villagers’ accusations against her. She didn’t understand why her life was surrounded by death. Nor did she understand why everyone thought of her as a jinx. She was not a suanggi. She did not believe the superstitions about dragons and the violations of pela relationships that could kill her children. If only they knew that during her childhood, her grandmother used to take her to church and taught her to pray. A picture of God hung in every room in her grandmother’s hut — except in the dim room where she danced.

Eba believed in God. When she was a child, she would sometimes sit and cry while staring at one of the pictures of God, hanging in her grandmother’s hut, begging God to let her parents live again or begging God not to let her grandmother die because she could not even bear to imagine living her life alone. And even though her parents never lived again and her grandmother eventually died, Eba still loved God, and always called on Him in her prayers.

***

“Mama Eba! Mama Eba! Open the door! Open the door!” The screaming and rattling of the front door jolted Eba out of her daydream. She jumped up from the bench and ran to the front door.

“Mama Eba! Open the door! Hurry up!” the voice screamed louder. Eba flung the slide bolt to the left.

A sweaty brown face stared up at her, with wide, bloodshot eyes filled with shock and fear. Eba recognized the skinny girl. Pite was the daughter of one of her husband’s cousins. Before Eba could utter a single word, Pite started to scream again. Shaking violently, she cried, “Mama Eba! Mama Eba! Uncle Joro fell out of a clove tree. Uncle Joro’s dead! Uncle Joro’s dead!”

The world around Eba turned black. Trembling, she took a step back, still holding onto the door. Her eyes filled, and her throat tightened. She couldn’t make a sound.

“Mama Eba! Mama Eba! Look!” Pite pointed at the throngs of people gathering below them at the base of the cliff. Some wore the black clothes typically worn by village elders. The crowd rushed up the path that led to Eba’s hut, accompanied by the drumming of tifas. The single-headed goblet drums broadcasted Joro’s death throughout the village.

“Joro!” Eba’s howl was drowned out by the clamor of the villagers approaching Eba’s house, carrying Joro’s body.

The women wailed, calling Joro’s name, while the men shouted a series of angry accusations. “Suanggi bitch! Joro’s killer! Dragon bitch! Banish her! Eba! Get out!”

Eba stood paralyzed, stunned with fear. “Jorooo!” The scream caught in her throat before it could pass her dry, trembling lips.

Without warning, Eba was thrown back thirty years in time, when she first realized that people driven by hate were capable of doing anything. She had been with her grandmother when a similar incident had happened. Hundreds of people from Kairatu had swarmed her grandmother’s house, called her a suanggi, and then destroyed the house and everything in it.

Overcome by an unspeakable longing for her grandmother, Eba spun away from Pite and ran to her bedroom. She opened the cupboard and took out a wooden box tucked back in a corner of a shelf. Tears fell on the box as she hurriedly opened it and placed it on the table. A dragon’s head was carved in the bottom of the box.

Eba snatched out the hairpin holding her bun, and her hair fell loose. She closed her eyes, and her body began to slowly sway. A supernatural urge led Eba to perform the dance that had caused the people of Kairatu to accuse her grandmother of being a suanggi.

Outside, screams interspersed with wailing grew louder. Eba’s movements grew faster. Her grandmother’s image appeared to her and whispered, “Remember, every woman is a dragon capable of scorching the whole world with her fire. But even if she is compelled to cry, her tears will not extinguish that fire. Do not allow hardship to weaken you!”

Eba’s dance became wilder. She looked up. One image after another appeared in her mind. Her children who died, one by one; Joro, who always smiled in front of a plate of papeda and yellow fish soup; the dance she performed surreptitiously in front of her grandmother’s open dragon box; the village women who gossiped about the box; the village elders who always stared at her with a hateful gaze.

Eba grabbed her grandmother’s dragon box and hugged it tightly to her chest. The dragon box was the only thing she had saved from the fury of the Kairatu people who accused the old woman of being a suanggi — the grandmother she loved so much, who had taught her to dance, pray, and cook the world’s most delicious papeda and yellow fish soup.

The wailing, along with the threatening clamor of boisterous screams and the drumming of tifas, were so close. Rocks pelted the roof of sago palm leaves, as the voices of dozens of men and women shouted, “Get out, Eba! Suanggi bitch! Joro is dead! Kill her!”

Eba opened her eyes when she felt the heat surround her. The fire had spread through the hut very quickly. Her eyes stung and she choked on the thick smoke. Amid the flames flaring from the wood cupboard, her grandmother emerged and smiled lovingly as she opened her arms.

Eba danced into her grandmother’s arms. The dragon box fell to the floor as Eba rested her head on her grandmother’s chest. The scorching heat turned into a comforting warmth and lulled her. Eba closed her eyes again. A sweet smile tugged at her lips.

A loud crackling sound was followed by the rumbling of the hut’s collapsing frame. Thick black smoke billowed. Sparks of fire merged with the crimson sky.

***

The drumming of the tifas stopped. The crowd surrounding the house gradually quieted. Now, only the waves crashing against the cliffs was heard. Cloaked by the thick plumes of smoke rising from the ruins of Eba and Joro’s hut stood a row of village elders dressed in black. With eyes ablaze with anger, they stared at the lingering flames licking at the charred ruins.

In the middle of the line of elders stood a man dressed in a long black cassock. He was fair-skinned and well-groomed. Looking straight ahead, he turned his right palm towards the burned hut. His left hand held an open, thick, black book. With a deep, loud voice, the man intoned, “My brothers and sisters in the faith! This is a warning! God will punish anyone who worships idols. Remember, our God is a jealous God. God will punish people who doubt Him. As it is written in this book …” The man paused, then lowered his head. He stared at the book in his left hand. He took a deep breath, then read aloud from the book, “Get away from me! God has cursed you! Go into the everlasting fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels! Amen!”

The ​​crowd murmured, “Amen.”

A light rain drizzled from the dark sky. The crowd turned away from the ruins of a hut almost completely devoured by fire. Several men carried the stretcher with Joro’s body, covered with a black sheet. They all walked slowly and silently down the cliff towards the village.

 

*****

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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