Despite his technical background, Oni Suryaman is driven by literature. In his spare time, he writes essays, book reviews, and fiction. He also worked as a part-time translator for Indonesian publisher Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia and Kanisius Publishing House. He has recently published a picture book titled I Belog, a retelling of a famous Balinese folklore, an adaptation of which was performed at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) Singapore 2017.
Oni Suryaman: email@example.com.
The Man from Ratenggaro
“Welcome back, Julia.” Tearfully, Rita released her embrace and grasped Julia’s hands. She looked at her friend closely. “You are as beautiful as ever. I appreciate you coming.”
Rita made conversation on their way to the car. “Gha Bili is still teaching,” she said, using the Sumbanese word “gha” to refer to her older brother. “Just like Yusak, he works at a middle school.”
Rita’s words took the friends back to the past when the four of them were close, even though they had attended different colleges. Rita and Bili were from Sumba Island in eastern Indonesia. They went to Kupang, together with Yusak, Bili’s friend, to continue their education. Rita went to nursing school, where she immediately befriended Julia. Rita became the thread that tied the four together.
“I wish Bili knew that you are here to visit me. Oh, my God! You really came here for Bili, didn’t you?”
The drive from the Tambolaka Airport in the Southwest Sumba Regency to the Ratenggaro village, took them through the vast savanna. Julia settled back into the corner of her seat and looked out the car window, watching her memories return.
“We’ll drive by the Maliti Bondo Ate pasola field later,” Rita said softly. “Do you remember?”
Julia nodded and began reliving her first pasola on her first visit to Sumba Island when she stayed in a hotel in Weetebula.
Bili had explained to her that pasolas were a series of traditional javelin fights on horseback between villages throughout Sumba Island to herald the beginning of the planting season. The annual celebrations were held between February and March, in a festival-like atmosphere.
Sitting in the bleachers before the match, Julia had learned how to kayikiling — bray like a horse — with the other women, as they cheered for their men competing on the pasola field. Rita had run out onto the field to tell Bili about Julia’s accomplishment. During their lively conversation, Bili had looked up and waved at Julia. She waved back, her heart pounding with love. She reached for the large portfolio bag at her feet, to make sure her painting of Bili on horseback beneath a flowering konji tree was still there.
Julia smiled, remembering when Bili had tried to explain to her that konji blossoms were not cherry blossoms.
They were having coffee between classes, talking about Bili’s photography hobby, when Bili showed her photos he had taken of blossoming konji trees. “They grow in my village,” Bili said. Noting Julia’s interest, he continued. “In the western part of Sumba, konji trees are not as common as they are on the eastern side. But for sure, they grow around Ratenggaro, my village. I will take you there so you can see for yourself how beautiful they are.”
“Sumba cherry blossoms!” Julia had exclaimed.
And Bili had corrected her, “Sumba konji ⸺ not cherry — blossoms.”
Now, leaning against the back of her car seat, passing stretches of open fields, Julia thought about the konji painting she had kept in her bag of Bili, wearing traditional Sumbanese attire, sitting high on his horse, shaded by the lofty branches of a mature konji tree in full glory, draped with blossoms.
She had planned to give Bili the painting after his competition at the Maliti Bondo Ate pasola field that day. But the gift had never been given.
Julia decided it was time to open the door to the memory she’d kept locked away for seven years.
The pasola of 1979.
On the Maliti Bondo Ate pasola field, horses carrying their to paholong, pasola riders, chased one another. Bili was in the front row. He looked taller than the others. He wore a red henggul, triangular headband, and hanggi, a handwoven heirloom cloth wrapped crosswise around his waist and bare chest. Spurring his horse into a gallop, Bili raised his blunted javelin, aiming to throw.
“Ririri! Ririri! Ririri! Riririiiii!” Trilled the women spectators, their cheers shredding the air. Everyone, including Rita and Julia, jumped up excitedly when Bili unhorsed his opponent.
Bili and his team circled the field once in triumph before halting near the crowd gathered around the opposing team, busy helping their fallen teammate.
Julia and Rita joined the crowd.
“Ah, poor Gha Yusak,” Rita said casually.
“Won’t those two hate each other now?” Julia frowned. “How could Yusak not be angry, after Bili knocked him down like that?”
Rita explained a time-honored component of the pasola was to uphold the tradition of family values regarding honesty, loyalty, and chivalry.
After the pasola had ended, Bili and several of his teammates had gone to Yusak’s village to check on their friend, while Julia, Rita, and the other women gathered at the lowest rung of bleachers.
The women were curious about who Julia was. Rita answered their questions, explaining tirelessly that Julia worked in Kupang as a nurse and was Bili’s girlfriend.
“Is she staying with Bili in Ratenggaro?” asked a villager.
“No — but she will as soon as they are married!” Rita laughed. “Julia doesn’t want to live with Bili until Bili has proposed to her family in Kupang and married her!”
The sound of horses galloping onto the pasola field, drew their attention. Julia remembered clearly how the team of horses — two riders on each horse — reined in right in front of them. Three men quickly dismounted. Without saying a word, they grabbed Rita and pushed her up onto the saddle behind a rider, as another man leaped onto the saddle behind her. Rita’s screamed were cut short as the man behind her gagged her. Her struggles meant nothing in the arms of such strong men.
Terrified, Julia had run after them, screaming while the other women watched her, laughing.
“Where are they taking Rita?” Julia cried.
“She is being kidnapped! Bride kidnapping!”
“Bride kidnapping?” Julia blanched.
“For marriage!” a woman answered lightheartedly. “Either someone wants her as a wife, or a family wants her as a daughter-in-law. A kidnapped bride is taken to the man’s house and kept in a room. It is only natural that the man and woman will sleep together, and after that — what else but a wedding ceremony can follow?”
“Who is the man? Where does he live? I’ll report him to the police!” Julia grew more frightened when everyone started leaving the pasola field as if nothing had happened.
She had hoped it was just a practical joke ⸺ a Sumbese prank that young people pulled. She stood petrified, not wanting to leave, even when several spectators offered to take her to Ratenggaro to wait for Bili there. Wearily, she walked to the roadside alone.
A strong wind whistled across the open pasola field, bending the tall grasses surrounding it. Standing on the roadside, Julia peered hopefully into the distance, listening for the pounding hooves of Bili’s horse, coming to pick her up.
When an old man on horseback appeared on the road, coming from the direction of Ratenggaro, Julia mustered up her courage and waved at him to stop. The old man seemed to be in a hurry, but listened patiently as Julia told him briefly what had happened to Rita,
The old man nodded. “We’ve had three bride kidnappings already this year. Your friend Rita makes the fourth.”
“Do you know how I can find out where they took her? Will anyone contact the police?”
The old man shook his head. “No, I imagine that the kidnapper’s family will contact your friend’s family later today.”
Julia fell silent. She just wanted to distance herself from the confusion of this bride-kidnapping business. What if it happened to her?
Julia asked the old man for a lift to the main road to the airport.
“Be careful,” he said when he let her off at the main road.
Julia was touched by the old man’s kindness. She thanked the good man many times, then boarded a bus to Weetebula.
In the car, Julia closed her eyes, reliving the confusion, the not knowing what had happened or what was going to happen next. She still couldn’t reconcile the Rita she’d known as an educated nurse working at the village’s health center with the Rita who had been a kidnapped bride. Why did Rita accept that forced marriage? Julia still harbored resentment in her heart. Sighing, she wiped her eyes and lifted her head.
Rita reached for Julia’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Let it go. You’re here now. Gha Bili will be very happy.”
Julia lowered the car window. The refreshing sea breeze cooled her damp cheeks. She pressed her head back into the car seat and continued to reminisce.
In Weetebula, she locked herself in her hotel room and waited for Bili. That evening, a letter arrived from him, asking her to wait at the hotel while he handled the matter of Rita’s kidnapping. He would meet her there in two or three days.
She remembered being anxious when on the third day Bili had not shown up when it began to get dark. She had left the hotel room and was standing at the front of the gate when a bemo, motorized rickshaw, pulled up. Four men jumped out and forced her into the vehicle.
She shouted, “Where is Bili?” while kicking at the bemo’s door and banging her fists against its closed windows. She could not keep her balance and was thrown from side to side, as the vehicle sped through winding, narrow roads and a vast savanna. Terrified, she screamed and cried, losing her mind. Her arms ached from the men restraining her. Finally, exhausted and depleted, she could only whimper as the vehicle raced on. It was dusk when the bemo finally stopped at a village gate. Bili, where are you? The bemo door opened, slowly.
Fury fueled her courage. “How dare you kidnap me?” she shrieked. “You think you can force me into a marriage by kidnapping me? No! I will report you to the police. Just wait until my boyfriend Bili finds out about this!” Julia continued yelling and struggling as her kidnappers hauled her up the ladder of a stilt house and directly into a room.
Her screaming had drawn the attention of the villagers, who crowded into the area and surrounded the house like a barricade to prevent her from escaping.
Inside the stilt house, Julia had tried to calm herself. She assessed the small room that was now her prison. The walls were made of bamboo slats tied together by ropes. The ceiling was thatched grass. The floor was made of bamboo poles, strapped together. On the floor, a thin pillow in a fresh pillowcase indicated where she was expected to sleep.
The room was about five feet by seven feet, just big enough to accommodate two people. It had neither a door nor a door curtain. Instead, a group of women guarded the room’s access.
Outside, a gong sounded. Julia heard the crowd grow louder and rowdier.
Julia huddled in the corner. Leaving the food offered her untouched, she listened to the escalating commotion outside.
“Don’t be afraid, Inya,” one of the women guards soothed. “Your man will come soon. Just relax; everything will be fine. Don’t scream; the people outside will only laugh at you. Don’t fight it; you’ll only make yourself sick.”
When Julia heard the woman address her as “Inya” — the word used by locals to address a woman they respected and loved, she became calmer.
“Eat something,” the woman coached. “It will give you some strength.”
The later it became, the more crowd noise grew around the house.
Julia hurt everywhere. Terrified by the thought that a man she had never met would soon overpower her, she tried to focus on how to escape. It had never crossed her mind she would ever have to go through such a horrific experience.
At midnight, she was startled by the appearance of a man who grabbed her and spun her around so that she stood with her back against his chest. She could not see his face.
Julia struggled to break free, and the scuffling of her kicking feet and flaying arms on the floor and walls drew laughter from outside the little room. That boisterous merriment frightened her so much that she bit down hard on the arm of the man who held her tightly against him.
“Calm down, Julia, it is me! Julia, my love!” the man loosened his grip into an embrace. “Don’t worry. It’s me, Bili!”
“Bili!” Stunned, she fell limp into Bili’s embrace, sobbing.
The voices outside of the room were filled with amusement, as people speculated about the goings-on between the man and the kidnapped woman inside the room. The crowd knew that every couple’s first night together started tense and uncomfortable, but usually ended quite pleasantly for them. Everything else could be arranged later.
“Julia, love,” Bili murmured, holding her tightly.
“How could you have the heart to do this to me?” Julia gasped, angrily. She had felt weary in Bili’s arms, and “Please, don’t do anything. Can you just keep still,” How could her own boyfriend kidnap her and try to force her into marriage? She tried to remain calm and figure out what to do next.
The voices of the waiting crowd thinned. The morning light slipped through the slits of the bamboo wall and fell on Bili’s face.
How much she loved this man, and at the same time hated the way he had forced this experience on her.
Julia took another deep breath as the countryside sped past her window. The next part of the experience had scared her the most. She removed a water bottle from her bag and took a sip before sinking back into the past again.
The day after the kidnapping, she had forced herself to appear relaxed. She had formulated a plan that she was going to execute, step by step.
Julia was well received by Bili’s entire family. She had been surprised to discover that the kind old man on horseback who had taken her to the main road, was Bili’s father. Regardless, she enjoyed the rice and boiled chicken that Bili’s mother had prepared. She wanted to ask about Rita, but felt too nervous to do so. Instead, she looked around at the Ratenggaro village, taking in the traditional houses with their high-hat roofs, feeling the restful sea breeze, and hearing the waves break against the foot of the cliff that carried the village.
When she and Bili were alone again, she said, “I need to return to my hotel room in Weetebula to get my travelling bag and the painting I brought for you.”
“Would you dare to go on horseback?” Bili winked, then laughed happily. “As I promised, I will take you to the place where the konji trees bloom. I want to photograph you there. Let’s go on horseback.”
After all those years, Julia still remembered thinking, You told me that konji trees do not bloom in March, while saying calmly, “Yes, after we collect my things from Weetebula, I want to change before you take my picture.” For good measure, she had added, “We will return here afterwards to spend the night, right? Your bride-kidnapping me means that I am already your wife?”
“Yes,” Bili had said proudly. “During the next few days, my family will go to Kupang to ask for your hand. After that, we’ll get married there right away.”
Julia had smiled, but inside, she was consumed with fury.
When they arrived at her hotel in Weetebula, Bili waited on his horse. Julia went into her room, grabbed her bare necessities, climbed out through the bathroom window, and jumped over the backyard fence of the hotel. She waved down a passing cab, sped to the Tambolaka Airport, and took the first flight out to Kupang. That had been the last time Julia had seen Bili.
Bili’s family tried to make amends for their cultural misunderstanding of kidnapping a non-Sumbanese woman. They traveled to Kupang, bringing the traditional handwoven fabric, a horse, cow, and buffalo as tokens of their apology. Bili’s parents and siblings, including Rita, asked Julia to accept Bili again.
Rita told Julia that the mastermind behind the kidnappings had been Bili’s friend Yusak, who Bili had unhorsed during the pasola. “How could I refuse to marry Yusak after I had spent the night with him at his house?” Rita asked. “I was too ashamed to do so.”
But Julia remained steadfast. The trauma of her abduction had placed her in a state of constant fear. How could she be a loving wife to a man she feared? How could she be a loving wife to a man who engaged in activities that she considered immoral?
That day, on her way to the Tambolaka Airport, she closed the final chapter of her love story with Bili.
Now, seven years later, here she was in a car with Rita on the road to Ratenggaro. Julia clenched her fist, took another sip from her water bottle, and returned to the present.
“Let me tell you about Bili after you left,” Rita said. “He never spoke about you. After school, he always spent his time tending to livestock on the savanna and sitting alone with his horse under a konji tree, writing a book. He continued to participate in every pasola season — and came out a winner. Are you still angry?”
After her question was met with silence, Rita continued, “It has been a long time. After my first child was born, my anger dissolved into love. Yusak is a good man. I may not understand what made him kidnap me as a part of our wedding arrangements, but now we have two daughters. Yusak and Bili have repented, realizing that bride kidnapping is an insult to women and that no woman should have to go through this trauma. What about you? It has been seven years, Julia. Bili’s and my parents have passed away. Are you here to see Bili?”
Julia still did not answer. She had worked three years at the Kupang City Health Center, then continued her education at the Faculty of Nursing in Kupang for another four years. She did well in her career and education, but she had been lonely. She knew she still felt love for Bili, and had finally decided to visit Rita in Ratenggaro to find out if her lingering feelings for him were real.
They were almost there. The distant sound of crashing waves welcomed them as they drove by a row of stone graves. Rita braked inside the gate of the Ratenggaro village, in front of the stilt house where Julia’s imprisonment had occurred seven years ago.
“Gha Bili!” Rita called, as she and Julia got out of the car.
Bili emerged from the kambu luna, the stable beneath the stilt house, which he had just finished cleaning. He saw Julia and froze.
Julia looked at him silently. Bili looked taller and thinner. His hair was well kept. She searched the dark eyes that had once made her fall helplessly in love and offered Bili her hand.
Bili’s jaw set. Solemnly, he took Julia’s hand and held it with both of his. He bowed his head. “I hurt you, Julia,” he said with a husky voice. After hearing no response, Bili raised his head and said quietly, “Thank you for coming. but go home. I know that you are still single. Soon, my family and I will go to Kupang and propose to you properly.” Bili brought Julia’s hand to his chest and held it there tightly.
Then, Bili let it go. He turned away and walked to his horse tethered in the shade of the banyan tree next to the stilt house. He leapt into the saddle took the reins, and spurred the horse out the village gate. Julia watched Bili gallop away past the cemetery and the gates of Ratenggaro.
She and Rita entered the stilt house of Julia’s nightmares. Julia shuddered when she and Rita entered Bili’s room. It was the room where, seven years ago, she had spent hours in terror.
Julia startled when her eye caught sight of a painting showing a pasola rider sitting high on his horse with a blooming konji tree in the background. She now remembered having left the painting in her hotel room when she fled Sumba Island seven years ago.
Seven years ago, she had wished Bili would take her there. But it was March then, and the konji tree was not blooming. Julia smiled. The konji bloomed in the summer, now.
At that same moment, as if by osmosis, Bili halted his horse under a blooming konji tree — the place he had promised to take a girl who loved to paint and lived in his heart.