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.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
To The Sea We Surrender
Some ten minutes before he left the shelter for the Jantho tsunami victims in Aceh Besar, Sumatra, Ayah, father, said to me, “You’re not a crybaby, but we’ve been crying together for almost a month. It’s enough. We’ve tried to find your mother, your younger brother, and older sister. There’s no need to continue. Let God take care of them. Maybe they’re now in a happier place than we are. Perhaps they have been released from all burdens. Now, you and I are the only ones left. It’s up to us to decide to keep on living or slowly die.”
Ayah’s eyes were no longer sharp like an eagle’s. There was no anger in his words. He spoke without emotion, as if he was talking about normal activities.
Listening to him with a tightening chest, I felt his sincerity, even though he spoke in a monotone.
“I’m leaving this morning,” he said. “Before the road is too crowded, before the women line up in front of the public bathroom, before the smoke rises from the soup kitchen. I’m certain you can face your own future. I can see that you are strong, healthy, and, above all, determined. Remember! Never cry again.”
My lips quivered. Thousands of words crowded onto the tip of my tongue, wanting to escape, pushing against my teeth. But my jaws locked as if made of metal. No sound could escape my mouth.
“I wrote you a letter, because I thought you would not yet be up this early,” Ayah continued. “Read it when you can no longer see my shadow, when your voice can no longer reach me.” He patted my shoulder, as if I was the one mourning and he was the wise man comforting me. “Forgive me if I’ve never made you happy.”
Ayah didn’t embrace me. He stroked my cheek. His hand felt rough, and the callouses from his life of hard labor scraped against my face. I smelled a distinct scent that I would not forget for many years to come.
And then, Ayah walked away from the only home we’d known since the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami. His back turned toward me, he headed south ─ inland, away from the sea.
When I could just barely see Ayah’s bent back disappearing into a grove of leaning trees, I ran to our tent. If he did write me a letter, he must have left it near my sleeping mat. Indeed, I found a damp piece of paper tucked under the pile of sarongs on my mat.
My heart pounding, I unfolded the paper as if I were about to read a will. The note contained only a few sentences, which I easily memorized after reading them twice.
Mustafa, my son. This loss has made me so sad, I may soon go mad. I must leave. Hopefully, you are strong enough to stay. I am just a weakling. Goodbye.
I jumped up as though a scorpion had stung me. Unintentionally, I violated Ayah’s instructions, and I ran after him as fast as I could. Even after I ran out of breath, I could still not find his shadow. His footsteps were lost in the bend of the road or what must have been a bend in the road. And I had lost my sandals somewhere along the way.
I ignored the mud and painful pebbles that hurt the soles of my feet. The pain deep in my heart hurt much more.
Ayah had only just left, but loneliness had already struck me. It was as if I were the only person in this world. I had gone from losing a mother to losing both parents. I was left all by myself under the forever-cloudy sky. Though the sea was far away, I still kept hearing the roaring waves.
I limped back to the temporary shelter. The word “temporary” started to feel like “forever,” especially to me, who no longer had anyone. The only person I could rely on had just left me. He simply left ─ only leaving behind words that made me feel even more dejected.
Indeed, this was not the time to continue crying. Every day, I spent my time searching for news from the east, the west, the south, and the north — from all cardinal directions. “Did you find my sister, Meutia?” “Did you see my brother, Hasan?” “Have you come across my mother, Siti Salamah?”
“Tell me,” I would plead, “even if all you saw was their dead bodies, even if all you saw was what was left of their bodies, stuck in the ruins, after being dragged and tossed along with debris for several kilometers by brown waves, repeatedly flung away and sucked back in.”
Or, I begged, “Tell me if you found even a piece of clothing they were wearing before the tsunami hit. Perhaps I can still smell their scent between the stench of mud and debris. At least I could hold them one last time before releasing them for the mass-grave burial with all the other dead bodies.”
The mass grave would be unmarked, unless I marked it in my heart and made an effort to remember the location.
“Ayah,” I cried, “will we ever be able to visit their graves?”
But I was no longer with Ayah. He was gone now. He might have reached another location ─ unrecognizable because the tsunami had changed everything. For now, I would stay here at the shelter with other residents who were still trying to survive ─ along with a few soldiers who were weary and depressed.
When I was almost fifteen years old and had just graduated from middle school, Ayah gave me a rencong, a traditional dagger from Aceh.
My friends and I celebrated our graduation by burning our school uniforms in the middle of a rice field. A goat farmer’s son provided us with a goat for the celebration. Around dusk, I went home, feeling elated. After the long break, I would enter a new school environment. My future was a blank piece of paper that I could write all my hopes and dreams on. I walked home, whistling.
As I approached the gate of our yard, I saw Ayah. His eyes were as sharp as an eagle’s. I knew immediately that he had something very important to say and that he might deliver it harshly. The feeling was so strong, my heart started to race. Fear ran through me. All the excitement from the graduation celebration vanished.
“Yes, Ayah.” I quickened my steps. I was bare-chested; my shirt had turned into ash in the rice field two hours ago.
“I have something important to tell you. Sit down.”
My heart sank. It was quiet as we walked to the porch. The sky was now dark. Soon we would hear the call to prayer from the surau, mosque behind the house. I quickly took a seat on the wooden porch bench.
“Ayah, I graduated today,” I said, trying to ease the tension with my good news. But it didn’t change anything.
“I know!” Ayah said. “That’s why I called you. It is time for you to have this.” Ayah thrusted something wrapped in a white cloth toward me. “Open it!”
Shaking, I loosened the old cloth. Even though I could have guessed what it was from the shape, I was still surprised when I held a rencong in my hand. The blade was shiny, even though the wood of the hilt was aged.
My hand trembled. Why did my father give me such a dangerous weapon? Every time I looked at the sharp metal blade, especially its serrated edge, I felt that I was in deep trouble.
“Ayah, this is a rencong …”
“It is good that you know that,” Ayah said. “I can no longer delay this. It is time you understand the dangers of the world out there.”
I looked around. I thought that my father’s evaluation of the situation was mistaken. Despite the uprising and the growing tensions between rebels and authorities our village was in the safest area. Even the members of Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, the Free Aceh Movement, never passed through this area.
“You, along with me, are now responsible for protecting our family. You have to protect Meutia and Hasan, while I protect your mother, Salamah.”
Listening to my father scared me. It was as though soon, the war would explode. The evening breeze felt cooler than usual. The call for the maghrib, evening prayer, filled the air. I didn’t know who the muadzin, prayer caller, was, but his lilting voice pierced my ears like a sharp blade.
“Now, hurry ─ put it away,” Ayah warned. “It is yours now. Never leave it unsheathed, or the devil might possess it.”
When I returned from putting away my suddenly acquired weapon, Ayah rose and said, “Now let’s go to the surau.”
After the prayer, back in my room, I reflected on the day that had just passed. The day had been filled with many exciting events.
That morning, I had anxiously waited for the result of my final middle school exams. I was not stupid, but that didn’t mean I was guaranteed to pass. The wind had been blowing hard when we burned our uniform shirts that afternoon. The dry season had parched every patch of the field; piles of dry straw were everywhere. Of course, we had worried and gasped every time the flames veered toward the shanties in the field.
And then, this evening, I had inherited a rencong! It was all too sudden, as if enemies were already lurking behind the walls of the house. We were always alert and treated every rustle as the sound of approaching danger. Yes! I now had become a man!
I was in fourth grade when Ayah told me to get circumcised. Hasan had not yet been born. Mother’s bulging belly looked as if she hid a bucket in the folds of her sarong.
Meutia had started attending the madrasah, the Islamic elementary school nearby, three times a week.
“It is time to cut your foreskin,” my father said. “It is the source of disease. Will you go by yourself or should I accompany you?”
Why didn’t Ayah wait until I had mastered my Quran recitation with the correct rhythm and tone? Or until I had experienced my first wet dream?
“No!” he exclaimed, as though sensing my hesitation. “You get circumcised now or don’t ever set foot in this house again.”
“Mustafa, take the new sarong I placed on your bed,” my mother said gently.
I nodded. I never had the heart to refuse my mother’s requests — no matter how hard, no matter how frightful.
I had never had an exciting adventure, other than a swim race in the fast-flowing river. Having my foreskin removed would definitely prove I was a courageous boy. Don’t cry! Don’t you ever cry, Mustafa!
“I trust you not to be a crybaby, Mustafa,” Ayah said, handing me money as I left.
So, I went to the circumciser and presented him my shivering penis, to be anesthetized, cut, stitched, and bandaged. I cringed as the pain penetrated the anesthetic.
During the process, I kept my eyes open, with no tears welling at the corners. I had succeeded and was bursting with pride! I had proven I was courageous and not a crybaby.
I only felt shame in front of my mother, who was never afraid to give birth. The third baby would soon pass through her womb. It must hurt terribly, because a baby was much larger than the opening it had to pass through. At least, that was my reasoning as a fourth-grader.
“Here is my brave boy.” Ayah patted my shoulder, while I enjoyed the roasted chicken my mother had made especially for me. “I know you’re not a crybaby!”
But now, today, early in the morning at the temporary shelter, before dhuha prayer time, I did cry.
Even though I knew I was surrounded by people who were half-mad with suffering from their loss, my chest felt as if it might explode under the pressure of loneliness. I was surrounded by desperate mothers, by children playing without knowing where to turn for a hug when they were hungry, by soldiers who missed their family, and by volunteers who almost passed out, overwhelmed by the stench that had hung in the air for the whole week.
When Ayah left the shelter, which consisted of military tents and some wooden structures without a foundation, I only saw his bent back. I knew, his shabby, faded, and crumpled shirt came from a box thrown out of a roaring helicopter on a cloudy afternoon.
Ayah didn’t walk fast, but the distance between us increased steadily. I could feel the space separating us realizing in maybe one, two, or even hundreds of kilometers.
Do I still need to look for my sister Meutia? And Hasan, my brother? And my mother, who might all be buried God knows where? The mighty tsunami took them from me without giving me a chance to say goodbye. Please, forgive me.