Indah Lestari was born in Singapore and lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. She completed her B.A. in English Literature from Padjadjaran University, Indonesia, and an M.A. in English Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. She translated JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and another novel (in editing process) into Indonesian. Her poems have appeared in Bacopa, Revival, and The White Elephant Quarterly in 2013.
The rain left the scent of humid earth on the tip of banana, bamboo, and mango leaves. The wind shook them wildly. They rubbed against each other, their rustling carried by a long, unbroken whistle.
Titi pulled the elastic band from her hair. The black hair sprung loose, covering both of her ear lobes.
The moon, round like a button, hung in a clear sky.
Empty shampoo sachets, cigarette packs, and plastic bags stuck on twigs littered the road. Silt lined the bottom of the gutter. Swarming mosquitoes.
Titi zipped up her woolen jacket. She clasped her chest, looked up. The road began ascending as if reaching for the sky and made Titi’s back arch. Her fat thighs rubbed against each other, slowing down her pace. The chest that almost touched the bulging belly hampered the flow of the air passing through her nostrils.
She passed this road for nearly two years and the incline had not become any steeper, yet she was gasping. She didn’t understand why. Even goats that are fed bread daily will be able to speak English…
Titi stopped and raised her chin. Her three friends had almost disappeared, swallowed by the sharp peak of the road. Their shadows grew longer. The jeans wrapped tight around their thighs made them look like the wax dolls Titi saw in the shop where everything was priced five thousand rupiah. Titi glanced at her cotton trousers. Size 35.
Her calves trembled.
Perspiration beaded on her temples. She was still in the middle of the hill, still catching her breath. Titi closed her eyes. Her chest felt like it was being stepped on.
Titi thought of Mother.
Just like tonight, it also happened after the rain.
I was not even eight years old.
Titi lay down facing the wall in the room. As usual, Mother stroked her hair. Outside, raindrops dripped into the bucket and the well besides the house. Once in a while she heard frogs croak, footsteps splash through the mud, and Wak Ohim burp.
Titi recognized his footsteps. Only her uncle dragged his flipflops like that. Thank God it was only him and not the usual neighborhood crowd that gathered to watch television at their house. Hopefully she’d be able to sleep undisturbed by their chatter and laughter. In their village it was normal for neighbors to walk in and out of each other’s house and share amenities such as television. Unhampered by any sense of privacy, people walked freely through rooms, including bedrooms. Sometimes, when Titi was changing her clothes, the room curtain would suddenly be pushed aside and someone walk right in.
Wak Ohim was the one who did this most often. Although it embarrased Titi, she had to keep still as this was the polite thing to do. Even Mother was unable to voice her anger and could only glare at him.
Thank God it’s only Wak Ohim.
That night Titi was exhausted. Before the Koran recitation session, she swam a race against Suki. They did four laps crossing the river back and forth. The river was at high tide. Titi wanted to win to square her loss of the previous week, but she lost again. Mother’s soft hands soothed her aching ankles and shoulders.
Titi’s eyelids became heavy. The shadows on the wall blurred. She almost fell asleep when she heard a sound that was not in sync with the rhythm of rain dripping into the bucket and the well. It was a burp, a snort. Like that of a boar.
Mother’s stroking stopped. Titi was about to turn around, whining, but Mother held her back.
“Shh…go back to sleep,” Mother hissed, gritting her teeth.
Titi tried to sleep.
The boar’s breath grew louder and more intense. Then it burped.
Can a boar burp?
Titi lifted her heavy eyelids. A figure loomed over Mother.
The sound came closer.
Titi wanted to turn but she was too tired and too sleepy.
The wooden bench moved and creaked.
Mother’s fingers curled around Titi’s shoulder; nails sank into her flesh. Sore. Titi stiffened. Not because Mother’s elbow pressed into her back, but because a pair of flaming red eyes had penetrated the dimly lit room.
Mother’s hand covered Titi’s eyes quickly, and turned her to face the wall.
“Please, Wak… Outside, please…”
A hand as wide as a teak leaf pulled Mother out of the room. Titi wanted to scream. Something kidnapped Mother. But she could not make any sound. It was as if her mouth was stuffed with snake fruit seeds. Her hand could only rub the empty spot next to her. It was still warm but Mother was gone.
Mother’s shawl was left behind. Mother must be cold. Titi covered her face with the shawl that held her mother’s scent. Outside the wind howled and branches creaked. Where did Mother go?
Titi sat up and started to crawl out of bed when the shriek of fighting bats made her lie down again. She wrapped Mother’s shawl tightly around her. Frightened, she stared into the darkness and listened to the raindrops dripping into the bucket. Finally, Titi dozed off.
In the morning, before the cock jumped out of the jackfruit tree, Titi felt Mother pulling on the shawl. Mother’s back? Her mother’s warm arm circled Titi’s neck. Mother’s hair was wet.
“Where have you been?”
After sunrise, Mother burned the clothes she wore that night. She took several baths and washed her hair. She never talked about the boar that came into the room. Had there actually been a boar? Had Mother been abducted?
Mother remained quiet.
Titi became doubtful. She no longer believed her own eyes and ears. Maybe it was just a dream, but supernatural boars were known to only steal money, not abduct humans. Genderuwos were the ghosts that abducted humans. Yet she was not sure. Genderuwos only captured children who played outside after the dusk prayer call or those with fleas in their hair. These ghosts kept the children inside a kapok tree. But Mother stayed in the room that night and she had no fleas.
They never mentioned the incident.
Mother changed. She spent a lot of time sitting in front of the dressing table mirror, mumbling to herself.
She definitely changed.
She ate often and a lot. Her mouth was like a drain that swallowed all trash the rain flushed out. Within less than a year, Mother’s skin and bones figure had ballooned.
That was not all.
Mother forced Titi to eat two helpings of rice with each meal. After school, before the rice was ready, Mother told her to eat steamed cassava or yam. After the Koran recitation session and before eating rice, Mother ordered her to finish the bread that was left unsold. Titi felt like vomiting. Mother glared at her, or yelled and swung the broomstick, when she refused the food.
“Don’t fuss. You will be grateful and thank me later on. Eat. If you eat a lot, you’ll get fat. When you’re ugly, nothing will abduct you. It’s painful. It hurts. You have no idea… Now eat.”
Titi was scared.
Had a boar really kidnapped Mother? If so, that hot-breathing beast had brought back a different person. She is not Mother. The woman who returned that night never bought a single shampoo sachet. Mother always washed her long, straight, black hair. Mother’s hair smelled nice. But this woman’s hair was sticky. She had lice. Every time Titi smelled the woman’s hair, her stomach churned. She became nauseated.
Titi did not want to sleep close to this mother.
Titi wanted the boar to come again and bring back her own mother, but she was not sure the beast would return. Would it return if it saw breasts as big as bruised papayas and hair reeking like rancid coconut?
Titi shivered. She was alone on the deserted road. Bending, she leaned into her thighs and rubbed them. The hill was still there.
The sputtering of a motorcycle broke into her thoughts.
The motorcycle stopped beside her. The driver wore a leather jacket. His breath smelled like decaying mice. He held a lit clove cigarette between his dark lips.
Titi hesitated for a second. Her knees were shaky. The walk to her boarding house seemed still far, and thinking about it moved it still farther.
Titi nodded. She stepped on the bike’s foot peg and grabbed the handle at the back of the bike.
“Did you work the afternoon shift?”
The bike slowed down. The evening wind stroked her ears and hair. The moon was no longer round; drifting cottony clouds concealed part of it.
“Coming off the afternoon shift?”
“In the Pamalik area?”
“Yeah. Next to the mosque.”
“There’s a festival up there.”
“Near the Islam boarding school.”
“Which shift do you work tomorrow?”
“Let’s watch dangdut koplo.”
Titi remained quiet.
She did not like the dangdut shows. The wax doll-like singers wriggled like bamboo stems swaying in the wind. Provocative. Titi disliked the men dancing on the stage even more. They pressed their bodies against the girls. Brushing their chests against the half-exposed breasts, they groped the girls’ bottoms.
To Titi’s ear, the music sounded like a long burp, a boar’s burp. Red, hot, lust burned in the men’s eyes.
“Come on, let’s go.”
The motorcycle driver briefly turned. A splatter of saliva bounced off his yellow teeth and landed on Titi’s cheek. His left hand groped her thigh. Titi froze. Shifting his buttocks, he moved back. His back pressed against her bosom. The bike jolted. It turned away from her boarding house. The man turned again. His eyes were on fire. Titi recognized the glow. She had seen it in the eyes of the dangdut dancers, and Wak Ohim.