Laura Harsoyo was born in Makassar, South Sulawesi, and grew up in Palembang (South Sumatra) and Surabaya (East Java), where she graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Airlangga University. She loves to read literary works and is interested in writing fiction. During her 21-year career in the hospitality industry, she wrote articles for Chef!, a culinary magazine in Jakarta, as well as translated some articles in organizational publications. She currently works as a freelance translator in fiction and nonfiction writing. Laura translates from Indonesian into English.
Laura can be reached at: email@example.com.
The Old Pu Tao Tree
In Boneo’s front yard, a pu tao tree—better known as a jamblang or Java plum tree—seemed to have trouble holding up its aging frame. The height of the trunk did not break the roofline of the house. Its branches created a thick canopy, but the foliage was dry; many leaves had fallen to the ground.
The pu tao tree was as old as its owner’s house. The house had originally been built with black tile flooring and walls made of jackfruit wood boards, but now had a ceramic tile floor in a metallic color, brick walls, and glass windows.
It had been a long time since the pu tao tree had borne any fruit. After the tree flowered, young fruits would fill the leafy canopy. However, the pu tao tree was too weak to mature even a single fruit. And even if the tree had borne fruits, no one would be interested in eating them. The fruit of the pu tao tree was no longer served at the table; its sourness made it undesirable.
Even though the pu tao tree was old, Boneo had no intention of cutting it down. He still respected his mother’s advice.
Harmunik had said not to cut the pu tao tree down before Boneo married and had his own family. After all, the tree was a living memory of his late father, as well as of Boneo’s birth.
His father had planted the pu tao tree when he found out that his firstborn was a boy. A son would carry the responsibility of upholding his parents’ reputation while covering up their shortcomings. He would raise his parents’ stature and inherit the family’s royal surname.
Lately, many little things incited Harmunik’s anger. It was as if everything was not where it should be, and that provoked her resentment. The pu tao leaves that the wind had blown to the ground bothered her. The loud voices of children returning from school annoyed her. Everything felt wrong. The main cause was Boneo, who had no plans to marry. He was like a mature tree that was reluctant to bear fruit.
“What’s wrong with you, Boneo? You have a steady job, you have enough money, and still you don’t want to marry.” Harmunik spoke in an agitated voice. It seemed her only child had no ears for her words or the neighbors’ gossip.
“I haven’t found the right one yet,” Boneo answered casually. “Even though marriage is a law of nature, it’s impossible to enforce.”
Boneo’s extended bachelorhood had provoked an unfavorable rumor that he was like the people in the story of Lot, who were struck by a meteor shower for being attracted to the same sex. How was it possible that an athletic, handsome man, with a good education (which had landed him a good position in his office), stayed single until he was in his forties? Something must have gone wrong in Boneo’s mind.
The rumor became disputable, however, when Boneo came home with a woman who had a smooth, creamy complexion. The neighbors—who were always eager to check out good news—smiled proudly.
If a well-established bachelor didn’t marry, it could only point to two facts: either he was mentally ill or steeped in immorality. It turned out that Boneo’s relationship with the fair-skinned woman did not last longer than a month. After that, Boneo walked alone again, smiling and without regrets.
“Your father must be crying in his grave, Boneo.”
“His lineage will end with you.” Harmunik stopped. “It’s pointless that your father planted this pu tao tree; now it’s a sign of your corruptness.” There was despair in her voice.
“Is being single a sign of corruptness, Mom?”
“What are you looking for, after all that you’ve acquired? Education? More money? Don’t you want to find a partner?” Harmunik answered Boneo’s question with questions.
“I haven’t found the right one yet,” Boneo said to end the conversation.
Harmunik disputed all other reasons except for this one.
Boneo’s smile deepened the wrinkles around his eyes; he started to leave.
Tears ran down Harmunik’s cheeks. Her howling sounded like a pair of crows proclaiming the demise of Boneo’s descendants.
Harmunik began to daydream frequently. She often rested her glazed eyes on the old pu tao tree. Ants had nested in the bark, and klarap— flying lizards—had bred in the tree’s hollow. She felt that a part of her heart had started to become hollow. The neighbors’ daily innuendos and gossip were large needles that pierced into her chest.
“A family is like a tree. The older it gets, the denser its foliage becomes. More descendants,” Harmunik’s husband had said when planting the pu tao on the day Boneo’s placenta was buried. The pu tao tree was a symbol of the continuity of the family’s lineage. As long as the descendants were still alive, the pu tao tree must be kept. Conversely, as long as the pu tao tree was still standing, the procreation must continue.
The blood that had been spilled while giving birth to Boneo could not be removed. From the onset, Harmunik’s marriage was opposed by everyone. Harmunik, daughter of a serabi kuah vendor—a Javanese rice pancake vendor—was fortunate to marry a man with royal bloodlines. Harmunik’s marriage went forward without her in-laws’ blessings, and, as a result, she was not allowed to use the family’s royal surname. She was an offshoot that had been deemed incompatible with the parent tree.
“That’s why I chose the pu tao,” Harmunik remembered her husband saying. “The pu tao might be worthless, but it is a prolific producer and will always provide a snack.”
Just like Harmunik, who couldn’t hold back the aging process, the pu tao tree was getting older and losing its vigor. A strong wind broke some of its branches, and Harmunik’s yard was filled with broken, tangled branches and rotting leaves. Even though it was past the Duha praying time—around nine in the morning—Harmunik had no intention of cleaning up. She was waiting for Boneo to return from an out-of-town business trip. Harmunik was filled with turmoil; she felt as if she was pounding water in a mortar. After he returned from his business trip that afternoon, Boneo asked, “Mom, should I just cut down the pu tao tree?”
Harmunik remained silent.
“Mom, I promise I will get married next year. It’s just that I haven’t found the right one yet.”
“I don’t care; it’s up to you.” Harmunik did not feel like responding.
“All right, then I’ll cut down that old pu tao tree.” Boneo sprung to his feet and went to fetch an ax. With a few strikes, he felled the pu tao. Boneo stripped the branches and cut them into pieces of equal size. He piled the wood on the edge of the porch. It could be used as firewood or charcoal to roast corn. Boneo wiped the sweat off his forehead and shoulders, then went inside to cool off.
Harmunik was still sitting silently in her chair. Her wedding photo lay on her lap. Her eyes were closed. A few moments earlier, when she heard the thud that the old tree made as it hit the ground, Harmunik had called the name of Allah repeatedly, in a weak voice.
The light of dusk broke through the window lattice and formed a pattern on Harmunik’s skin. The pu tao tree that used to shade the room was gone now.
“Mom, our house is brighter now. Nothing is blocking the sunlight.” Reaching for a glass of cold water, Boneo continued, “Mom, yesterday I met with Amhar, a college friend, who’s also still single.” Boneo’s smile widened. “Tomorrow, I will introduce Amhar to you,” he said. “Mom, you better take a nap in the bedroom.” Boneo approached Harmunik’s limp body.
The pu tao tree had been cut down, and Harmunik no longer worried about him.