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 Tale Behind the Ikat
Hermanus Messakh sat pensively in front of his bebak, a hut with walls of woven bamboo. Five pigs and several chickens roamed in the old man’s front yard. He had sold several of his pigs to Bambu Kuning, the restaurant that made se’i, the smoked meat that Kupang, the capital of Indonesian province Eastern Nusa Tenggara, was noted for. Several of his chickens had recently died. Rumors had it that they were poisoned by people who wanted to get even with the old man, who was too stingy to share his eggs with his neighbors.
“Hey, Bapa.” Pinto Mauk, an unemployed neighbor who was fond of drinking sofi, an alcoholic beverage made out of fermented lontar, approached him. “Since your chickens have been laying, may I have just one egg for breakfast this morning?”
“Get lost,” the old man snapped. “All you do is get drunk, yet you still expect to eat well.”
Pinto did not say a word, but deep down, he was offended. Staggering, he left the old man’s bebak and headed for David Taka’s lontar orchard. He was going to ask for a piece of sugar disc that Mini, David’s wife, made.
The next day, Hermanus Messakh discovered that more of his chickens had died. Pinto was the main suspect. Pinto listened, bewildered, as the old man accused him.
“Just admit it, you killed my chickens!”
Still groggy from his sofi hangover, Pinto wearily stared at the old man and said, “I didn’t kill your chickens. All I asked for was one egg and you refused to give it to me. Don’t blame me for the death of your chickens. I have no idea what they’ve been eating.”
Hermanus Messakh said nothing more. Perhaps he thought it was pointless to argue with a drunk. He planned to sell some of the remaining healthy chickens at the market the next day and use the money to purchase the ikat cloths at Enci Yulia’s shop at Tode Kisar Beach, near the Old Town of Kupang.
“What are you buying those ikats for?” Eben Messakh, Hermanus’s nephew, asked.
“It is better to collect these ikats than to raise chickens. I will sell the ikats on the sidewalk in front of the Yulia Hotel, near the Koenino Market. Many foreigners stay there and will want to buy our traditionally dyed and woven cloth. It is much more profitable than raising chickens.” Hermanus Messakh was still annoyed.
Soon, the old man had gathered twenty pieces of ikat from various districts in Nusa Tenggara Timur. He bought them in the villages of Oesao, Kefa and Soe, where he had traveled in search of weavers skilled in mixing the natural colorings that gave the ikat textiles their antique look. Hermanus said, “This is the best ikat in Soe. The ikats are expensive, as they are made from natural material that comes from the local forests. The colors won’t fade when washed. I will purchase more, so I can make more money.”
Within several months, the old man had become infatuated with ikat, especially after a rich Chinese lady from Jakarta purchased all of his supply. Hermanus and the lady established a business relationship, and Hermanus took her to weavers all over Kupang, Oesao, Kefa, Soe, South Central Timor, and even to Belu, located near the border of Timor Leste. Every time he sold out of ikats, Hermanus showed the money to his nephew, with sparkling eyes.
Hermanus expressed his intention to buy even more ikats from South Central Timor, as well as Belu village.
He was so immersed in the ikat business,that he no longer had time to make lontar wine and tend to his chickens and pigs.
Hermanus handed over his old business to his nephew, with an agreement to share the profits in parts of sixty percent for Eben and forty for him.
“I’m fair, aren’t I? You get the bigger share,” Hermanus said, chewing a wad of betel leaves. He liked chewing betel leaves so much that his lips and teeth were stained orange. Hermanus claimed that chewing betel leaves eliminated the necessity to brush his teeth with toothpaste. “I’m not only saving money,” he stated happily, “but chewing betel leaves is healthy, whereas brushing your teeth with toothpaste will cause your teeth to rot.”
Eben Messakh simply nodded. He had been drinking sofi since he was a teenager, and the alcohol had corroded his brain. He could not make it through the day without drinking. Unemployed at thirty and with two children to care for, Eben had to let his wife work as a migrant worker in Malaysia.
In the beginning, Hermanus would reprimand his nephew. “Hey, wipe that stupid look off your face. Go to the Koenino market. Be a parking attendant there and earn some money. Drinking sofi all the time will only dull your brain. How are you going to feed your children? Make sure you read the paper every day. Make sure there’s no announcement about your wife being brought home already dead. The life of a migrant worker is hard. You should be ashamed for taking it easy and only caring about keeping your glass filled with sofi and Mr. Happy’s well-being.”
Eben Messakh grumbled. His left earring glowed in the moonlight; tattoos of a mighty eagle and a fearsome dragon covered his forearms. Whenever he walked down the street wearing a baseball cap with the word “Freedom” embroidered on it, Eben felt like he was the most fashionable person in the city, just like Bruno Mars, who he watched singing on TV.
Eben’s attitude often disgruntled his uncle. “Do you really think you’re a singer?” the old man grumbled. “You think that drinking sofi every day will turn you into the most dashing man in all of Kupang? Go on! Sell these eggs in the market!”
But soon, the story of the ikat took a tragic turn. When Hermanus Messakh visited the weavers, he was surprised to learn that all the ikat was gone.
The Chinese woman from Jakarta had bought them all.
Hermanus gawked in disbelief.
The best ikat, made out of natural ingredients, were all taken to Jakarta, where they would be turned into haute couture dresses by top fashion designers. They then would continue their journey to Paris, Milan, New York, and Hong Kong to be displayed at exclusive fashion exhibitions. If Hermanus could see the price tags on those dresses, he would have fainted right there.
Walking home later, he muttered, “Had I known that this would happen, I would not have taken that lady to those weavers. I really regret that.”
After that, Hermanus no longer wanted to be reminded of his association with the ikat.
When he saw his uncle looking so sad, Eben Messakh, who happened to be sober, said, “Bapa, I’ve told you not to trust those people from Jakarta. They only want to deceive us. Let’s just make sofi. We can sell the liquor to the cafes and coffee shops at Tode Kisar Beach. We’ll be able to make a bigger profit there. Ignore the people when they get drunk like they usually do.”
Hermanus remained quiet.
The next day, Oesao village was in an uproar. Hermanus and his nephew were staggering naked through the village while guzzling a bottle of sofi. They were heavily intoxicated after drinking all day. Staggering, the old man slurred, “That Aci from Jakarta has taken away my fortune. That sister took it all away…”