The aftermath of World War II and the turmoil of the Indonesian Independence changed Lian Gouw’s way of life. After living in a foreign country and speaking a foreign language for nearly four decades, she finally had the opportunity to pursue an old dream: to become a writer. Unfortunately, she also realized that she had lost the ability to write in Dutch. Gouw then decided to study creative writing and returned to college. After completing four edits over seven years, in June 2009, Only a Girl was published by Publish America. In April 2010, the Indonesian translation and publishing rights for Only a Girl were purchased by PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama.
When Gouw founded Dalang Publishing in 2012, she bought back the publishing rights for Only a Girl from Publish America. Since then, the novel has been published by Dalang Publishing and distributed by Ingram. It is available on amazon.com and some independent bookstores.
Widjati Hartiningtyas, who translated Only a Girl for P.T Kanisius in Yogyakarta, deserves special kudos for her hard work in finding the right words which resulted in Mengadang Pusaran. (PT Kanisus 2020).
Lian Gouw can be reached at: email@example.com
Nanna covered the tender buds on the rosebushes with empty eggshells to protect them from insects and wished there were a way she could shield her family from harm just as easily. She knew the ancestors and gods would not be able to keep them safe until the war was over. Nanna had always considered war to be a man’s affair, but this war not only involved Carolien, it had also found its way to Jenny.
The voices of Chip, Ting, and Mundi came from the kitchen area, interspersed with hammering and sawing. Chip had decided that he would use the kitchen cupboard as his hiding place should the Japanese come looking for him, and the dogs would serve as protection. Nanna had not asked for details. She was fully aware of the tension that hung in the air. It made the women nervous and irritable and the men more silent than usual. Nanna spent a lot of time on the front porch bench, looking down the street. When Jenny joined her she silently rubbed the girl’s hand, her heart filled with a mother’s fear for the safety of her children.
Almost a week went by before a Japanese jeep stopped in front of the house one afternoon. Four Japanese soldiers jumped out and walked up the driveway with their rifles slung loosely across their shoulders. Nanna grabbed Jenny’s arm and drew her close.
The Japanese halted for a moment in the driveway before the sergeant walked with confident strides up the porch steps. He bowed to Nanna and flashed a big smile to Jenny. He then took a letter out of his shirt pocket and handed Nanna the document.
She shook her head. “I can’t read.”
“Who else is home?” The Japanese spoke in heavy accented Malay.
“My daughters and granddaughters.”
One of the soldiers offered Jenny a piece of melted chocolate. When she shook her head and scooted closer to Nanna, he shrugged his shoulders.
“Do you know Ong Chip Hong?” the sergeant asked.
“Yes, he’s my son.”
“Where’s he now?”
“When will he be home?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who’s the head of the household?”
“I’m a widow. He’s the oldest son living with me, so he is.” Nanna held the Japanese in a steadfast gaze. “Who’s the letter for?”
“The head of the household.” The soldier replied, puzzled.
“Then I guess you have to come back when he is home.”
The soldier who had offered Jenny the chocolate held his arms out for her. “Come.” His broad smile showed a gold tooth. “At home I have a little girl, just like her.” The soldier patted Jenny on the head, then abruptly turned around and joined the others walking down the driveway.
Nanna waited for the sound of the jeep to disappear into the empty street before taking Jenny inside the house. She knew it was only a matter of time before the Japanese would be back. Her children’s Dutch involvement drew them, and it would not be possible to hold them off forever.
Two days later, Nanna and Jenny were dusting the altar tables while Carolien worked on a sewing pattern at the dining room table, when the dogs barged into the room barking furiously. Someone was at the gate.
Nanna put her dust rag down. “Lock up the dogs,” she said, “and tell Chip and Ting the Japs are here.” Nanna threw a quick glance at her late husband’s portrait on the altar wall.
The same four Japanese soldiers who had come two days before stood on the porch. The one closest to the door asked, “Is Ong Chip Hong home?”
“No.” Nanna put an arm around Jenny.
“We need to search the house,” the soldier said.
Nanna pulled her shoulders back and looked at each soldier with a steady gaze. “I won’t let you in,” she said firmly.
Some of the soldiers shifted the guns slung across their shoulders.
The dogs’ barking became faint. Nanna knew they would be locked up in the kitchen by now. She took a few deep breaths.
Ting opened the front door and spoke into her back. “Mother, please, let me help these gentlemen.”
Nanna did not move. She had always given Ting the same preferential treatment reserved for Chip, even though he was only a second son, but now he was asking her to take direction from him. Was this the day that her vision would come true?
Nanna put a hand on Jenny’s shoulder. She steered the girl past the soldiers. “Jenny, come,” she said, “sit by me.”
Jenny obeyed quietly.
The men entered the house as Nanna and Jenny took their seats on the porch. The dogs barked ferociously at the intruders, until a rapid rattling of gunshots rang out, followed by screams from Sue, Emma, and Els, mixed with agitated Japanese voices. Nanna felt her chest expand. She clamped one hand around the edge of her seat and grabbed Jenny’s arm with the other. The dogs were quiet now. Nanna took a deep breath. Something hard and large dislodged itself inside her as she tried to breathe and stay calm. Had the time of mourning come already?
Els came running through the front door. “Nanna! Nanna! They shot the dogs! The Japs are going to kill us all!”
Jenny jumped up. “Is Claus dead? Did the Japs kill Claus?”
“Jenny, stay here!” Nanna pulled Jenny back into her seat. Making room for Els on the bench, Nanna reached for the sobbing girl.
Voices came closer. The Japanese soldiers came through the front door. Nanna spotted Chip in their midst. She saw Ting, Eddie, Sue, Carolien, and Emma following them and she breathed easier. It seemed the dogs had been the only victims of the gunshots.
Nanna stiffened when the men walked by. She closed a hand around Els’ shoulder. Pulling Jenny closer, she cast a glance at Chip. He looked away but she caught a glimpse of his battered face and noticed the bright red spots on the handkerchief he held pressed against his mouth.
Nanna watched Chip climb into the Japanese jeep. He moved slowly, burdened by Dutch secrets. Nanna knew her son would not talk. His blood would be thick and silent.
Carolien sat on the floor of Ting’s room with Claus’ head in her lap. Ting, sitting next to her, wrapped one of the dog’s front paws in a towel. Claus whimpered and she stroked the dog between his ears.
One of his pads is cut wide open.” Ting looked up, his face ashen. “He might have stepped on broken glass.”
“What are you going to do?” Carolien was irritated. She had never understood Ting’s devotion for his dogs. She wanted to tell him to be happy the Japs had only shot the dogs, it could have been any of them, but she knew better.
“I’ve got to find the shard and take it out. Here, hold the towel against the wound. Try to stem the blood flow.” Ting rose. “I’ve got to get a few things.”
Once alone in the room, Carolien straightened. Her back hurt from sitting bent over for so long. A heap of bloody towels reminded her of the afternoon. The Japs storming into the house, waving their guns, screaming, “Ong Chip Hong! Come out!” The dogs barking and jumping against the closed kitchen door, the sudden gunfire, the dogs dropping to the floor, her standing there with shaking knees, afraid the bullets would hit the cupboard, penetrate the wood, and hit Chip. What would the Japs do to Chip? Although she was aloof with her brothers, she looked up at Chip and admired him greatly.
Ting returned, followed by Eddie and Jenny.
“Claus!” Jenny cried, dropping next to the dog. He lifted his head, whimpering.
“Here, if you hold his head in your lap, I can help Youngest Uncle check his leg.” Carolien shifted the dog’s head carefully into Jenny’s lap.
“Oh, Claus. You’ll be okay.” Jenny scratched the dog’s ears. Stroking his muzzle, she repeated, “You’ll be okay. You’ll see.” Claus sighed and slapped the floor with his tail.
Jenny watched as Ting washed the dog’s paw in a solution of water and iodine before pulling out the shard with a pair of tweezers. “I want to be a veterinarian when I grow up,” she said.
Ting laughed and Eddie said, “I think you’ll be a good one.”
Carolien frowned. Jenny was picking up too much of Nanna’s and Ting’s ways. With all the decent occupations to choose from, why did she want to become a veterinarian?
Eddie helped Ting and Carolien pick up the room before taking a seat on the edge of Ting’s bed.
“Where are all the other dogs?” Jenny stroked Claus between his ears.
“Dead.” Eddie clenched his jaws.
“No. He almost killed one of the Japs. You should’ve seen how that dog attacked.” Eddie rose. “Fortunately, the Japs didn’t shoot him, they only clubbed him. Youngest Uncle was able to get him away in the midst of the commotion and put him with Emma in the servant’s bathroom. He might have gotten away with a broken shoulder.”
“Why did the Japs take Oldest Uncle with them and why did they kill all the dogs?” Jenny asked, keeping her eyes on Claus.
“Before the war, Oldest Uncle worked for the Dutch government. As a matter of fact, he still does.” Eddie stopped abruptly when Carolien glared at him.
“The Japs wanted Oldest Uncle to tell them about his office. He hid in the big kitchen cupboard, we thought he would be safe there. No one expected the Japs to gun down the dogs.”
“Are the Japs going to kill Oldest Uncle?”
“Let’s hope not,” Carolien said. “The Dutch will be back soon and I’m sure they’ll set Oldest Uncle free.” She tried to sound convincing, but she knew that no one, including herself, believed her.
Chip’s capture by the Japanese moved slowly into the background of everyday life. Across the country families bound together to get through the war. With the Dutch government shut down and no salary coming in, Ting and Carolien began trading on the black market. The tobacco store that Chip and Ting had set up as a front for their undercover work now also carried clothing and foodstuffs. Carolien took in sewing. Along with Eddie and Ting, she was active in the Dutch Underground.
With the Dutch schools shut down Els took responsibility for Jenny’s schooling, tutoring her every day so she wouldn’t fall behind. Els had received her teaching credential just before the war broke out but had not worked in a school yet. The family disapproved of her teaching at a school for natives and there had been no openings yet at any of the Dutch schools.
By September, the mango blossoms had turned into plump, deep-yellow fruit but the war showed no signs of ending soon. Jenny was in the backyard, helping Nanna and Mundi prop up the laden mango branches, when a car stopped by the front gate and the bell rang. She ran to see who it was, but Nanna called her back and sent Mundi instead.
Jenny shot Nanna a sideways glance. The dogs lay near her, their ears perked, noses pointed toward the gate. An eerie stillness filled the moments before Mundi returned with a letter in his hand. He fell to his knees and bowed deeply before handing Nanna the brown envelope.
Nanna straightened herself. “Thank you,” she said. Her voice was steady but her hand trembled as she took the item. “You and Non Jenny finish up while I take this inside.”
Mundi remained on his knees as Nanna walked away. “It’s all because of the Dutch, Nonnie.” Mundi sighed, rising when Nanna was out of sight.
“Why do you say that?” Jenny frowned. She wasn’t used to servants talking without being spoken to first.
Mundi reached for the bamboo pole Nanna had left leaning against the tree trunk. “It’s time for the Dutch to go back to their country, Young Miss,” Mundi said and walked away.
Jenny watched Mundi disappear into the garden. Was Mundi against the Dutch? Did he side with the Japs? Maybe Mundi was traitor….
After dinner that night Nanna took a letter from the altar table and handed it to Ting. “The Japs delivered this earlier,” she said.
Ting used his fruit knife to open the envelope. Jenny saw him blinking hard as he glanced at the page. He cleared his throat before reading aloud to the gathered family. “The Japanese Emperor and government regret that prisoner Ong Chip Hong’s uncooperative attitude necessitated the use of more forceful methods than are customary. We further regret to have to inform you that during the course of interrogation, the above mentioned prisoner died on September 27, 1944. The Japanese authorities have disposed of his body.” Ting’s voice faltered.
Sue burst into tears. Els got up and walked to Nanna. Eddie pulled Jenny on his lap so Els could sit in the chair next to their grandmother. Carolien and Emma cried into their napkins.
Nanna walked to the altar. She lit a bundle of incense sticks and raised them high in prayer. “The Dutch are asking too much,” she said without turning around.
Jenny stared at her grandmother’s rigid back and chewed her knuckles. She noticed a new urn on the altar table. When did Nanna place it there? Was Nanna now asking the spirits why Oldest Uncle had to die? What would their answer be?