In 2005, Umar Thamrin received a Fulbright grant and a Catherine and William L. Magistretti Graduate Fellowship for his graduate studies in the United States. He completed his Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Studies with the designated emphasis in Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2016. Before returning to Indonesia in 2017, he received a one-year appointment as a research and teaching fellow at the University of Oregon.
Back in his home country, Umar became disturbed by several social conditions he encountered there, and is saddened that the common people have remained marginalized while society ignores the lessons of its history. These conditions have prompted him to think, to remember, and to write. He is currently teaching linguistics at Alauddin State Islamic University.
Umar can be reached at: email@example.com
The Sacred Waterfall
The reverberating tones of a bamboo karinding, mingled with the sighs of the cold night wind. As was custom, the Sudanese mouth harp was played during a meeting of the village elders. With the karinding placed between his lips, the player tapped the end of the instrument with his fingers to create the thin vibrations that added to the tension in the Bale Sarasehan.
At the end of the meeting, a village elder rushed from the civic center to Uwa Enok’s open kitchen window. “It’s confirmed!” cried the panitren to the old maid. “Citrik will marry Dayat!” Panting, he hurried away.
Seated on a bench inside the open kitchen window, Uwa Enok covered her face with both hands and wept, trying to make sense of what the panitren’s announcement meant for her niece.
Thirteen-year-old Citrik huddled near the hawu. The kitchen’s clay stove warmed her. The pepes — roasted mushrooms wrapped in banana leaves — she had eaten at dinner weren’t settling well in her stomach. Now, hearing the panitren’s words, she shivered, picturing the middle-aged man she’d always addressed as uncle becoming her husband.
Dayat and his wife, Bi Nenden, were childless. The couple were complete opposites. Dayat was talkative; Bi Nenden was quiet. The women in the village gossiped about Dayat’s affair with a woman who lived outside of Cihanjuang, a small village near Sukabumi in West Java. Some of them blamed Bi Nenden’s infertility for Dayat’s infidelity.
Why do I have to be the one who gives him children? Disgusted, Citrik nestled her slender body into her sarong and buried her face in her arms. She thought about the incident with Dayat that had happened a few days ago. Remembering the old man’s breath on her arm, Citrik shuddered.
That day, she and Uwa Enok had been walking home after doing laundry and bathing in the river. Citrik’s sarong was wrapped tightly around her body; her wet black hair fell loosely over her damp shoulders.
Unexpectedly Dayat had emerged from behind the treeline and blocked their passage. Leaning into Citrik, he teased, “My, my, don’t you smell nice!”
Startled, Citrik ducked behind Uwa Enok.
“What do you want, Dayat?” Uwa Enok had snapped.
“I want to marry your niece.” Mang Dayat chuckled. The cloying smell of his pomade completely smothered Citrik’s and Uwa Enok’s clean fragrance. The old man stroked his mustache and peered into Citrik’s pale face. His greedy gaze slid down her slender neck, landing briefly on her white shoulders, and — eyes widening — settled on the curves of Citrik’s hips swaddled in the wet sarong.
“Don’t be vulgar!” Uwa Enok screamed, furiously.
Mang Dayat ignored Uwa Enok and continued leering at Citrik. “I’ll build the most beautiful house in Cihanjuang for you, Citrik. I can give you everything you want with the money I make in my cattle business.”
Citrik remained silent behind her aunt, pressing her full basket of freshly-washed clothes against her trembling body.
Uwa Enok raised her chin and glared at Dayat. “Citrik will inherit my house,” she hissed through pressed lips.
Dayat laughed. “An old house from an old maid is not suitable for a girl as beautiful as Citrik.”
Fury flushed a dangerous red in Uwa Enok’s face. “Watch your mouth!” she snarled. “I’ll report you to the elders!”
Dayat burst into boisterous laughter. “With my sirep, mantra, I can hypnotize the elders, and, under the spell of my magic, I can make them do anything I say!”
Uwa Enok gasped.
Taking full delight in springing his secret on Uwa Enok, Dayat put his hands on his hips, and snickered, exposing his fat shaking belly, “I’m the law in Cihanjuang! I don’t listen to old maids like you.” Pointing at Citrik, he declared, “She’s mine!”
Citrik’s throat tightened, trying to swallow the terror of being treated as an object that could be owned by another.
Uwa Enok stood rigid until Dayat walked away. Then she turned around and hugged Citrik. In tears, they held one another on the side of the path until they calmed down. Uwa Enok wiped Citrik’s tears. “Let’s go home. People are looking at us,” she said and soothed,
“We’ll find a way out of this problem.”
The morning after the village elders’ decision, as the sun crept between the bamboo slats of the kitchen wall, Citrik, still upset, tried to distract herself by preparing breakfast. This kitchen, with the floor’s earthy aroma and the four strong hanjuang tree trunks anchoring each corner, felt as safe as a mother’s womb.
Uwa Enok had told her about the hanjuang tree. Its trunk, widely praised for its strength, was used as building pillars. Its red and green leaves symbolized harmony between mankind and nature. Uwa Enok had also told her that hanjuang trees were like the Cihanjuang women, who had to be strong to maintain unity in their families. Cihanjuang women reigned in the kitchen, where they turned nature’s gifts into sustenance for their families. “This kitchen, and everything in it, will be yours, Citrik.” Uwa Enok had promised her.
Citrik unhooked the wooden latch and pushed the window open. The cold morning breeze brought some color to her pale cheeks. Her thick eyebrows and curled eyelashes added to Citrik’s natural beauty. For a moment, she stared at the sky.
Citrick and her father first moved to Cihanjuang from the Bandung Regency in August 1949. Cihanjuang, a small village in the mountains surrounding Sukabumi, West Java, was her father’s home village, where Uwa Enok, his only sister, lived. Her father had wept on Uwa Enok’s lap as he told her about the Islamic Armed Forces of Indonesia setting fire to their village.
Citrik was five years old. It had happened so fast. She remembered waking up in her father’s arms, her vision blurred by the thick smoke. She gasped as the hot air filled her lungs.
Clutching her to his chest, her father raced out of the burning house, with the fire raging around them. Outside was a chaos of panicked people running, screaming, and crying.
Citrik’s mother didn’t make it out of their house.
“That night, a mob from the Islamic Armed Forces in Tasikmalaya attacked the Indonesian Army’s headquarter there,” Citrik’s father told his sister bitterly. “No one expected the mob to attack our village. That mob leader, Sekarmadji Maridjan Kartosoewirjo, wants West Java to become the Islamic State of Indonesia. According to him, the current government is allowing the Dutch to maintain control and therefore he is planning an insurgence.”
When the Indonesian Army came too close, the Islamic Armed Forces mob retreated to the forest. Because the mob needed a large supply of food to survive while hiding in the forest, they demanded that each village household leave rice and other food items on the porch before they abandoned their villages. They destroyed the houses of those who did not comply.
After having lived for so many years in the Bandung Regency with Citrik and her mother, Citrik’s father’s days back in his home village were filled with grieving his wife’s death.
Soon, he began talking to himself, and neighbors started whispering about “the crazy man.” Then, one morning, Uwa Enok found her brother, after living less than two years in Cihanjuang, lying cold on his bed. He had died in his sleep.
Grief made Citrik grow into a quiet, lonely girl.
Citrik’s slender fingers placed three sticks of firewood, one by one, into the hawu hole. She pressed her thin lips against a short piece of bamboo and gently blew air onto the coals until they flamed. Citrik wondered where Uwa Enok was that morning. Even though Uwa Enok rarely spoke, Citrik felt safer when her aunt was around.
Citrik lifted the langseng and placed it on the hawu. The large copper pot was used to boil water, but it was also used as a water pan for steaming. The golden yellow pot looked like an upside-down magician’s hat. Cooking, Citrik thought was just like performing a magic show.
It was Uwa Enok who had introduced Citrik to the adventure of cooking. In Cihanjuang, Uwa Enok was known as a skilled cook. The village elders always praised her culinary talent. Uwa Enok said that cooking was an important skill for Cihanjuang women to possess, not only because well-prepared food brought joy to their family, but also because it was an expression of gratitude for nature’s gifts.
Uwa Enok taught Citrik many things. While living in Bandung, Citrik had assumed she would go to school like the other children. But that notion disappeared when she and her father arrived in Cihanjuang, which had no schools.
“Nature is our best teacher,” Uwa Enok had advised Citrik, while showing her ngahuma, farming rice by intercropping. Rice was planted next to corn and bananas to fertilize the soil, resulting in a more abundant harvest. The ngahuma was an important tradition that reminded humans of their humble origins and to respect nature as the source of life. Thus, children in Cihanjuang learned the meaning of patience and courage through farming.
A loud knock on the kitchen door startled Citrik from her daydream. She whirled around as the door flung open with a loud bang.
Bi Nenden rushed in, her placid face contorted with outrage. “You think you can steal my husband because you’re younger?” shouted Mang Dayat’s wife.
Stunned, Citrik began to tremble.
“Shameless bitch!” Bi Nenden grabbed Citrik’s arm and shoved her hard.
“Nenden!” Shouted a voice from outside. Uwa Enok walked through the door. “Saur kudu dibubut!” she said, standing protectively in front of Citrik. “This is my house. You must be respectful!” Uwa Enok’s lips moved, as if chanting silently, and the air in the kitchen turned damp. “I don’t want Citrik to be your husband’s wife, either,” she said.
The fury in Bi Nenden’s eyes dissolved into a blank stare. She started to cry. “Hampura, forgive me,” Bi Nenden moaned as she slumped into a squat on the earthen floor. “If only you knew how tired I am of dealing with a husband who’s blinded by lust.”
“Where did your husband learn hypnotism?” Uwa Enok asked, looking intently at Bi Nenden.
“He learned it from someone in the southern part of Java,” Bi Nenden answered softly between tears. “That knowledge destroyed my husband.”
Uwa Enok took a glass from the bamboo rack and filled it with water from a clay jug. She blew her support on the glass before handing it to Bi Nenden, who emptied it immediately.
Uwa Enok squatted on the floor next to Bi Nenden. “Let’s go to the waterfall to ask Nyi Mas Hanjuang for advice,” she whispered encouragingly. The Nyi Mas Hanjuang waterfall was a sacred place on the other side of a sacred forest on the mountain ridge. Uwa Enok often went there to pray. The old woman looked into Bi Nenden’s eyes, nodded, and tilted her head toward the door. The two women rose and slowly walked out of the kitchen.
Watching the two women’s backs as they walked away, Citrik’s heartbeat quickened.
It was already dark, but Uwa Enok and Bi Nenden had not returned home from their visit to the Nyi Mas Hanjuang waterfall. Even though Citrik knew that Uwa Enok was accustomed to visiting the waterfall, she still worried.
Looking at the ulukutek leunca she had cooked earlier that morning, Citrik wondered if Uwa Enok had eaten yet. The traditional Sundanese salad was her aunt’s favorite dish. It was made from oncom, fermented tempeh, and fruit and leaves of leunca, black nightshade, a flowering plant that grew in West Java.
Citrik decided to lie down while waiting for her aunt’s return. Unable to stay awake, the girl finally fell asleep.
Midnight came, and Citrik was still fast asleep on her bed. The light of the oil lamp cast a shadow of her curved hip against the wall. A gecko’s deep, throaty call woke Citrik. The girl looked for Uwa Enok next to her, but she was alone on the bed. Why is Uwa Enok not home yet? Citrik grew more worried. It was quite a long walk to the Nyi Mas Hanjuang waterfall.
Citrik thought about another midnight, one year ago, when she had prayed for her first time at the Nyi Mas Hanjuang waterfall. Citrik had just completed her first menstrual cycle, and now that she had become a woman, Uwa Enok told her it was time to learn the special prayers.
To get to the Nyi Mas Hanjuang waterfall, they had to travel through an enchanted forest on a mountain ridge protected by traditional law. The area could not be used for farming, and no trees could be cut without permission from the village elders. “We must walk barefooted, and we are not allowed to speak,” Uwa Enok had explained to Citrik before they entered.
That night, accompanied by the lively chirping of crickets, Uwa Enok and Citrik walked barefoot through the sacred forest. Citrik walked behind Uwa Enok, who carried a torch.
Citrik still remembered how cold her feet were as she stepped across the damp ground. Her warm clothes and heavy kebaya, long-sleeved blouse, had not been enough to protect her from the cold mountain wind that pierced her to the core. But although she was tired and cold, Citrik knew better than to complain. She knew her aunt’s character well. Unlike herself, who was always compliant, Uwa Enok became angry when she didn’t get her way.
It was almost midnight when they arrived at the Nyi Mas Hanjuang waterfall. The water broke out of a steep cliff. The light from Uwa Enok’s torch illuminated the large steep rocks around it. Citrik could hear the roar of cascading water, which told her that the feeder stream was heavy, and the waterfall was high.
Uwa Enok bowed and sat down on a flat rock. Citrik silently unfastened the sarong sling that held their offerings. She took the small bowl filled with a roasted whole chicken, a young coconut, and a handful of cananga flowers, and arranged everything neatly on the rock.
Uwa Enok lit incense. Then, seated cross-legged, they began to pray. The only sound came from the rushing water. Citrik sank deeper into her meditation as the falling water misted her face and body. The scent of the incense filled Citrik’s nostrils. Her thoughts drifted as her mind followed the cadence of the mantra she recited.
“I accept your offering.” A soft female voice interrupted Citrik’s silent chanting. The voice was clear and its tone unassuming.
“I have done everything you asked for.” Citrik heard Uwa Enok’s voice.
“It’s in your hands,” answered the soft female voice.
Uwa Enok clasped her hands above her head. She held them there for a moment before bringing them down to her lap with one swift movement. When she opened her hands, she held a thin piece of metal the length of her palm. Uwa Enok bowed and expressed her gratitude.
“This kris is entrusted to you,” said the soft female voice. “Use it to maintain harmony between humans and their natural environment.”
Uwa Enok again thanked the spirit. She touched Citrik’s arm, motioning that they were leaving. The journey back home was not as laborious as their trip to the waterfall. They arrived at the village as dawn crawled up the back of Mount Cimentang.
Citrik’s mind wandered as she remembered that first visit. Soon, she fell asleep again.
The early morning mist still veiled Cihanjuang when Uwa Enok opened the kitchen door. The old woman entered slowly. Perspiration dampened her forehead. Though exhausted, she smiled looking at her niece, fast asleep on the bamboo cot. Uwa Enok pulled up the blanket that had rolled down to Citrik’s feet and covered the girl. She gently stroked Citrik’s head before lying down beside her.
Thursday nights were sacred nights in the Cihanjuang village, and Citrik prepared the offerings in the kitchen as usual. Four boiled eggs, a cup of black coffee, five rose buds, a handful of cananga flowers, a young green coconut, and a hand of lady-finger bananas.
She placed the offerings in the corner of the room next to the hawu.
Uwa Enok lit the incense. She reached inside her camisole and took out the Nyi Mas Hanjuang kris, wrapped in white cloth. She slowly unwrapped the kris and placed it carefully among the other offerings. The scent of incense spiraled up to the kitchen ceiling, its smoke mingling with that of the kitchen fire.
Citrik sat cross-legged next to Uwa Enok. Placing their palms on their thighs, they bowed toward the offerings.
Uwa Enok began to whisper a chant in Sundanese.
Hanjuang beureum héjo,
Hanjuang is red and green,
Hanjuang nu ngaleupaskeun,
Hanjuang frees those in bondage,
Ti kiwa tengen luhung mancur,
Hanjuang brings knowledge,
Poek mongkleng sateuacan isuk,
During the dark hours before the break of dawn.
“Uwa, is the mantra different from the one we usually chant on Thursday nights?” Citrik asked.
“It is the way Nyi Mas Hanjuang ordered it,” Uwa Enok answered, without looking at Citrik.
Sensing that now was not a good time to question her aunt any further, Citrik closed her eyes and began to follow Uwa Enok’s chanting. A few moments later, the temperature in the kitchen rose — it became very hot. As she recited the mantra, Citrik fell under its spell. The night was growing older and a cold fog shrouded Cihanjuang. Throughout the night, the cananga fragrance lingered in the kitchen.
The rising sun peeked out from behind Mount Cimentang. Citrik looked beautiful, dressed in a white kebaya and green sarong. She waited for Uwa Enok to get ready.
The room’s door curtain parted, and the fragrance of cananga filled Citrik’s nostrils again. Uwa Enok wore her usual white kebaya, but she looked different — she looked elegant. Her hair was tied in a bun on top of her head, and her wrinkled skin was radiant. Uwa Enok smiled and asked Citrik to follow her.
Carrying a bowl of apem, steamed cakes made of palm sugar and rice flour, Citrik walked behind Uwa Enok. Worried that she would drop the bowl, Citrik held it tightly against her chest. Every so often, Citrik moved next to Uwa Enok to glance at the older woman’s face.
At the Bale Saresehan, many people had already arrived to pray. All eyes were on Uwa Enok as she entered the hall with her chin raised. Her high bun accentuated her cheekbones.
At the end of the hall, a batik cloth patterned with green and red leaves covered a body lying on a pandan mat. Earlier that morning, a village elder had beaten the bamboo drum and announced Mang Dayat’s death to the villagers. Mang Dayat had died in his sleep. His body was already stiff when the first light of dawn broke through the horizon.
Bi Nenden sat next to the body, staring at the floor.
Citrik placed the bowl of cakes with the other offerings near the shrouded body, then sat down next to Uwa Enok. The pandan’s fragrance mixed with the cananga scent from Uwa Enok’s skin. The karinding music tapered off. Soon, the funeral prayer would begin. Citrik glanced at Uwa Enok.
Uwa Enok was looking at Bi Nenden.
Bi Nenden raised her head slowly, and the two women looked at each other.
Uwa Enok nodded briefly.
Stunned, Citrik saw the two women exchange faint smiles.
The foliage of the hanjuang trees around the Bale Saresehan swayed in the wind.
Death usually invites grief and mourning — but not this time.