Nurul Hanafi is a writer of fiction and literary translator based in Yogyakarta, Central Java. His work includes a novel, short stories, three plays, and two books of folktales. He studies early modern English literature, ancient Greek plays, and contemporary writers. His translation of “Mata yang Indah” was edited by Sal Glynn.
A few moments before she died, Mother stroked my head and said, “Haruman, look into my eyes!”
A soft glow lit my mother’s eyes. It reminded me of serene candlelight, not the kind that wildly flickers as it tries to withstand the wind.
I knew my mother would die peacefully.
All of a sudden, the air filled with fragrance. The scent was subtle but very fresh. I remembered the story Mother told me when I was a child.
“Haruman, some day in the future when I die, heaven will send fragrances to the earth.”
“Who will send it?” I asked.
“Angels. Haruman, know there is a time to begin and a time to end, and such is mortal life. When a life comes to its end, an angel hovers around the mortal about to die. Sometimes the angel doesn’t bring anything and it’s a bad omen. Other times he comes with voices or scents never imagined by any mortal. Always perform good deeds as long as you live so the angel will bring you a great omen.”
I don’t know why, but as soon as Mother told me about the angel, I forgot her words. I only remembered that my mother always performed good deeds and frequently advised me to do the same. The good child that I was, I always obeyed her.
Then one day, I don’t know how old I was, Mother told me to leave. “Forget me, Haruman, but don’t forget my counsel. Go, travel to far-away places and look for new experiences. You will know when it is time to return to me.”
I have been on the road since then. During my wanderings, I was a sampan rower, worked as a lumberjack in dense forests, built thatched roofs, and worked many other odd jobs.
Following Mother’s counsel, I always performed good deeds, but everywhere I went, people were suspicious of me. Their suspicion was apparent each time our eyes met.
I have no idea why they distrusted me. Did they suspect me to be a thief, a killer, a cheater, or anything else? I never knew. That’s why I always felt guilty, or even worse, a sinner, even though I’d never committed any crime. I never thought ill of anyone, regardless of who they were.
Perhaps my feeling of always being suspected caused me to feel guilty and sinful, and made me drift from place to place. I never stayed in a place for more than three days. No one chased me away, but I knew I would be a bother if stayed longer.
One day as I walked from village to village, a big bird swooped out of nowhere and attacked me. Just before its claws scratched my eyes, I covered my face tightly with both hands. The bird flew quickly into the air, and dived toward me again.
As the bird kept on its attack, I covered my face with my hands. In the end, the bird hurt my hands but was unable to scratch my eyes out. I dropped to the ground and rolled around moaning for I don’t know how long. Blood dripped from my wounded hands and the pain was unbearable.
During my wanderings, it was easy to follow my mother’s order that I should forget her. For as long as I had been on the road, I had never given a thought to having a mother, father, siblings, and relatives. I felt very lonely without realizing I was, in fact, alone.
While rolling on the ground to overcome the pain, I remembered the story Mother told me when I was a small boy.
“Haruman,” she said, “The sages foretold of great wanderers who were fated to stay no more than three days in a place, for otherwise there would be a riot. Keep in your mind the stories I have told you.”
When I remembered my mother’s stories, I forgot about her kindness and advice.
It’s true I had occasional hints to stay no more than three days anywhere, but those couldn’t be attributed to a single person. I had no intention to disturb anyone.
That being the situation, I found myself handicapped after being assaulted by the bird. I still could use my hands to work, but I was slow and tired easily.
My whole body had become unbalanced. Sometimes I suddenly got very hot as if my blood was boiling. There were times I lost my balance and staggered, and even fell down. To endure the pain, I rolled on the ground.
In order to keep from being a burden to others, I had to keep working. I refused to be a beggar.
I traveled from village to village until I arrived at a quiet secluded place, and returned to the job of sampan rower because of the following incident.
One day as I was sleeping under a weeping willow tree, a man stumbled over me. The impact made him fall.
I noticed he had a pair of remarkably beautiful eyes. Yet at the same time I sensed there was something wrong with them.
“Are you a young man?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
I realized that while he stared at me, he could not see me.
“I’ve been near-sighted for many years. It gets worse as time goes by. But in this village, I’m the only one who’s willing to be a sampan rower. I can’t do any other job. People rarely travel by water, but it doesn’t mean that my sampan and I are totally useless.”
The rower was called Gues. I noticed how much we looked alike, even in the way we walked. Right after he took me to his sampan, Gues disappeared. I didn’t know how he could find his way and row his sampan, for I was quite sure he was totally blind.
The night was approaching and still no one needed the sampan. I became anxious when it became darker and there was still no sign of Gues. After mooring the sampan securely, I walked back to the weeping willow tree and fell asleep at the place where Gues had stumbled over me.
I don’t know how long I had been asleep when I felt a soft hand stroking my head. Whose hand was it? I was sure it belonged to a woman. The night was pitch dark and I couldn’t see anything.
Suddenly, a mouth firmly closed over mine. Lips nibbled and sucked. Between passionate moans and fierce kisses, a soft voice demanded, “Gues, how can I be your wife and yet you don’t treat me as one? To be a husband is to produce descendants. Who will keep me company after you die?”
I managed to run before Gues’s wife raped me. She tried to catch me, but never did.
“Gues! Gues! Am I not your wife, am I not?” her wailing continued.
Years of walking the same road and rowing the same sampan enabled Gues to do so by memory. He had tripped over me because there had never been any obstacles under the tree.
The wife realized her mistake when I ran in a direction different than the one usually taken by Gues. She directed her laments to the gods. She cried out with deep remorse for trying to relish the body of a man other than her husband.
Hearing her regret, I halted for a moment. I was overcome by a sense of guilt. Even though I never tried to rape anyone, I thought I had dishonored another man’s wife. I was deeply hurt and ran crying from the village.
The wound never healed. My life turned into a hell. It felt as if my sins would never be forgiven. I wandered without trying to remember how long I had been walking aimlessly, until one day I remembered my mother.
I started to travel home, retracing the long abandoned road.
My old village was in a frightful state of despair. Only a few houses stood among the ruins. Drought had cracked the soil and killed the greenery. Even the river was dry. Everyone and their beasts had left the village, except for my mother. She had remained for my homecoming.
As soon as I saw my mother, I knew she had been preparing to die for a long time. But she would have kept on living had I not come home.
When I arrived, she seemed to ready herself, yet she still took time to stroke my head. I remembered her story about the angel that was sure to visit any mortal at a certain time. “Haruman, please forgive me. My prayers to summon an angel have failed. Until you die, no angel comes to visit. But one will escort you at the time of your death. That angel is your spouse-to-be in heaven.”
As soon as Mother finished speaking, I felt a stinging pain in my eyes and I was suddenly blind. I could not see anything.
“Haruman, please listen to my confession. A long time ago, I raped a man I didn’t know. I loved his eyes that were like radiating brilliant lights and committed the sin. The sparkle of his eyes was greater than those of the marbles the gods play with. That night I fell fast asleep and dreamed.”
While she slept, my mother said, she found herself punished by the unbearable sin, for in her womb she carried a fatherless baby to be born without eyes.
An angel took pity on her. It flew away and came back with a pair of beautiful eyes.
“Heed me, poor woman,” said the angel. “Driven by pity for you, I took a pair of mortal eyes from their sockets. I don’t know who he is. I don’t know if he is a pious man or otherwise. His soul is still hovering. His fate of falling into hell or flying to heaven has yet to be determined. The only thing I know, oh, poor woman, is that he has a pair of remarkably beautiful eyes. Once I plucked these eyes, I was unable to return them to the owner. But I can assure you that he doesn’t need them anymore. If he’s thrown in hell, he will be given a new pair of eyes, satanic ones that match the immoral behavior during his lifetime. If he is lifted to heaven, he will be given a pair of even more beautiful eyes.”
Before she breathed her last breath, I said, “Mother, leave in peace. I forgave you a long time ago. The angel you’ve been waiting for is here to pick me up.”
I’m certain my mother did not hear my last sentence.