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Perempuan Naga

Falantino Eryk Latupapua has published several articles in scientific journals and books. His poems have been published on social media and in the anthologies Pemberontakan dari Timur (CV. Maleo, 2014) and Biarkan Katong Bakalai (Kantor Bahasa Maluku, 2013). Perempuan Naga is his first short story.
In 2004, Latupapua earned a bachelor’s degree in Indonesian language education at the Pattimura University and has served his alma mater as a lecturer since 2005. In 2011, he obtained his master’s degree in Indonesian literature at the Faculty of Cultural Studies, Gadjah Mada University. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in Indonesian literature at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Indonesia.

Falantino Eryk Latupapua: falantinoeryk@gmail.com

 

 

Perempuan Naga

 

Ikan kuah kuning itu sudah mendidih. Asap putih tipis mengepulkan wangi daun kemangi bersamaan dengan semburat bau halia, serai, dan kunyit yang sudah dia tambahkan tadi. Tangan kanan Eba memeras sebutir jeruk nipis ke dalam mangkok berwarna kecokelatan yang beberapa bagiannya sudah sumbing karena terbentur.

Sudah siang. Sebentar lagi Joro pulang, batin perempuan itu sambil menyeka keringat yang turun pelan-pelan di pelipisnya dengan sepotong kain cita berwarna jingga pucat yang dihamparkannya di bahu kiri. Rambutnya yang keriting disanggul sekenanya. Beberapa helai anak rambut yang mulai beruban menjuntai melewati kerah kebaya merahnya yang sudah lusuh.

Dalam satu gerakan yang cekatan, Eba menyisihkan biji-biji jeruk nipis itu dengan jemarinya yang legam. Dia lalu membuangnya ke dalam garuru, tempat sampah yang dibuat dari ujung pelepah pohon sagu, yang terletak di kaki tungku. Sambil menuangkan perasan jeruk hingga melebur ke dalam kuah yang tengah menggelegak, Eba mengaduknya pelan-pelan. Beberapa saat kemudian, dia menyendok kuah dan potongan tebal daging ikan cakalang ke dalam mangkuk. Dia membungkukkan kepala, lalu menutup matanya selama beberapa detik sambil menghela napas panjang seakan menghayati kenikmatan masakannya sendiri.

Dengan sepotong kayu, Eba mengacak sisa-sisa api di bawah besi tungku agar benar-benar padam. “Joro akan makan dengan lahap,” bisiknya. Ada senyum tipis tersungging di bibirnya yang tebal. Eba berjalan ke meja makan dan meletakkan mangkuk itu. Di sana sudah ada sepiring kecil irisan jantung pisang yang ditumisnya dengan sepetak bawang dan sejumput garam.

Hati Eba serasa mekar. Dia sudah mengenali perasaan ini dengan baik selama dua puluh tahun pernikahan mereka. Dia sangat suka memasak. Ini yang membuatnya berbeda dari banyak perempuan di Kampung Sameth, Pulau Haruku, tempat mereka tinggal. Perempuan-perempuan itu gemar sekali duduk bergunjing ketimbang berjibaku di dapur. Dibandingkan mereka, dirinya tentu jauh lebih baik dalam menjalani hidup yang paling pantas bagi seorang ibu rumah tangga, yakni melayani suami dan anak-anak.

Tiba-tiba, Eba terpaku di pinggir meja. Tubuhnya menegang. Matanya berair. Dia tahu bahwa perasaan sedih ini akan selalu muncul ketika menyadari bahwa masakan yang disiapkannya akhir-akhir ini semakin sedikit takarannya. Bayangan anak-anaknya saling berebutan menyendok makanan ke piring memeras hatinya. Anak-anaknya sudah mati.

Sambil menggeleng pelan, Eba menghapus air matanya. Sudahlah. Jangan menangis lagi. Nanti tulang-tulang mereka bergerak dalam kubur, tidak tenanglah mereka di sana, di dalam hati dia menasihati dirinya. Ada senyum pahit terbit di bibirnya. Eba meraih tudung saji yang tergantung di dinding lalu dihamparkannya di meja. “Cuma papeda yang belum masak. Akan baik bila aku mengaso sebentar. Air akan kujerang nanti. Papeda akan kusiapkan begitu dia tiba. Joro akan merajuk jika papeda-nya sudah agak dingin.” Eba berbicara pelan. Sambil menghela napas berat, dia membalikkan badannya lalu melangkah pelan ke arah belakang.

***

Eba berjalan melewati dapur yang masih dipenuhi asap dari tungku yang tadi digunakan untuk memasak. Dia terbatuk-batuk sejenak sambil melangkah melewati pintu, yang seperti dinding-dinding rumah mereka itu, dibuat dari gaba-gaba, pelepah dahan pohon sagu yang berukuran besar. Atap rumah terbuat dari helai-helai daun sagu yang diikat lalu ditopang oleh kerangka yang terbuat dari bilah-bilah bambu. Rumah itu terletak di atas tebing karang, terasing di bagian selatan kampung. Tebing karang hitam yang mencuat menjadi benteng pengadang deburan ombak dahsyat pada saat musim timur. Di belakang rumah yang menghadap laut, Eba dan Joro biasanya duduk sambil memandang Pulau Ambon di kejauhan sana. Jika hari sedang cerah, puncak Gunung Salahutu terlihat amat mengagumkan disiram cahaya matahari. Hari ini gunung itu terlihat agak menakutkan dibalut awan kelabu.

Joro memahat ceruk kecil di sela-sela dinding karang yang terjal. Lewat ceruk itulah mereka bisa berjalan menuruni tebing menuju bibir pantai di bawah sana untuk sekadar berak, mencari kerang, atau memancing ikan.

Eba menghempaskan pantatnya ke atas balai-balai yang terbuat dari gaba-gaba di bawah jejeran pohon ketapang. Pohon ketapang yang paling tinggi ditanam oleh Joro dua hari sesudah anak lelaki bungsu mereka mati, dua tahun lalu. Anak itu jatuh lalu terseret ombak saat mengambil kerang laut yang menempel di tebing karang. “Diambil setan laut,” demikian kata para tetua kampung. Mayatnya ditemukan mengapung di lautan oleh nelayan dari desa tetangga, sehari kemudian. Tubuh itu sudah membengkak. Mulutnya menganga. Setelah dua hari menangisi anak itu, Eba dan Joro memutuskan untuk menanam sepohon ketapang untuk mengingat hari penuh kesedihan itu.

Sekarang, Eba memejamkan matanya. Dia merasa kesedihan itu mulai kembali datang dan mencoba menepiskannya dengan menghirup bau laut dalam-dalam. Bau garam yang bercampur dengan semburat bau ikan cakalang setengah kering menguar dari atas jemuran bambu yang membujur di samping rumah. Jemuran bambu itu didirikan oleh anak tertuanya sebelum mati sebulan lalu. Tiada sakit yang anak itu derita. Pada subuh di hari Minggu, dia ditemukan sudah tidak bernyawa oleh Joro yang bersiap pergi memancing ikan. Mata anak itu masih terbuka, tubuhnya menegang dengan bekas cekikan di lehernya. Tangis Eba pecah.

“Dicekik setan,” demikian gumaman tertahan dari beberapa orang kampung sambil menatap Eba dengan pandangan yang sulit dia pahami.

Seminggu sesudah masa berkabung lewat, Joro menanam anakan pohon ketapang yang ketiga persis di sebelah kanan pohon ketapang kedua yang mulai tumbuh besar. Pohon ketapang yang kedua itu ditanam oleh Joro saat anak perempuan mereka mati, setahun lalu. Anak perempuan satu-satunya itu disengat kelabang yang sepertinya jatuh dari atap rumah ke atas tempat tidurnya. Tidak lama kemudian, tubuh anak itu kejang sambil menjerit kesakitan dengan mata membelalak, lalu mati. Kelabang itu menghilang entah ke mana.

Dahan ketapang kering melayang dan jatuh di pangkuan Eba. Menurut Joro, pohon ketapang yang ditanamnya adalah lambang pengharapan akan kehidupan, agar tidak ada lagi kematian. Akan tetapi, setelah kehilangan yang bertubi-tubi itu, Eba merasa suaminya itu hanya mengada-ada. Anak-anaknya mati satu demi satu, berguguran bagaikan daun-daun ketapang itu.

Eba ingat kepada anak perempuannya yang cantik dan rajin, anak lelaki bungsunya yang nakal tetapi menggemaskan, dan anak sulungnya yang penurut dan tampan, sama seperti bapaknya. Eba kembali dihumbalang oleh perasaan benci yang sama dahsyatnya dengan kebencian yang serta-merta menjalari dirinya tatkala mendengar bisik-bisik perempuan kampung yang menyebut-nyebut sesuatu seperti “digigit setan” saat melayat jenazah anak itu.

Eba tidak punya kekuatan untuk melawan perlakuan penduduk kampung terhadap dirinya. Semua penduduk kampung ini adalah kerabat suaminya. Eba merasa akan melukai perasaan Joro apabila dia bertengkar melawan perlakuan mereka yang semena-mena itu. Akhirnya, dia selalu diam dan menelan rasa benci itu untuk dirinya sendiri.

***

Eba seorang yatim piatu. Dia lahir dan tumbuh di Kampung Kairatu, di Pulau Seram. Bapaknya mati empat bulan sebelum dia lahir. Eba lalu dibesarkan oleh Nenek, dukun kampung yang membantu persalinan ibunya. Ibunya meninggal empat hari sesudah melahirkannya. “Dimakan naga,” demikian jawaban beberapa perempuan di Kampung Kairatu yang ditanyai tentang asal-muasal kematian ibunya. Sang Nenek, seperti biasanya, selalu bungkam ketika ditanya.

Nenek membesarkannya dengan penuh sayang. Perempuan tua itu amat suka menari. Nenek biasanya menari di dalam kamarnya yang temaram. Dia menggumamkan semacam nyanyian tanpa kata untuk mengiringi gerakannya.

Beberapa kali Eba melihatnya menari di halaman belakang gubuk mereka pada malam hari, terutama saat bulan sedang penuh. Sesekali, Nenek akan memanggil Eba, lalu memintanya mengikuti gerakan tarian itu.

Eba tidak kunjung memahami maksud Nenek menyuruhnya ikut menari. Akan tetapi, lama-kelamaan dia semakin suka menari. Eba bisa menirukan tarian Nenek dengan sempurna sambil menutup mata. Meskipun begitu, dia tetap tidak bisa menggumamkan nyanyian Nenek yang sering dia dengar.

Joro dan Eba berjumpa pada pesta katreji, tarian khas Maluku yang dipengaruhi budaya Portugis, di Kampung Kairatu. Pertemuan itu terjadi setahun sesudah Eba kehilangan Ica, suami pertamanya.

Ica mati diserang seekor celeng ketika berburu di hutan.

Joro datang ke pesta dansa itu bersama-sama dengan pemuda-pemudi lain atas undangan penyelenggara pesta. Mereka segera saling jatuh cinta pada pandangan pertama. Joro ingin segera menikahi Eba. Akan tetapi, niat Joro itu ditentang keras oleh kerabat mereka, termasuk para tetua Kampung Sameth. Selain Eba adalah seorang janda, pertentangan itu juga disebabkan kedua kampung memiliki hubungan pela gandong, hubungan persaudaraan antarkampung secara adat. Seorang laki-laki dari Kampung Sameth tidak boleh menikahi perempuan dari Kampung Kairatu. “Pamali. Leluhur akan marah. Kita semua akan kena musibah,” kata mereka. Di samping itu, desas-desus bahwa Eba adalah perempuan suanggi, pengamal ilmu hitam, telah santer terdengar di Kampung Sameth.

Seperti biasa, Joro diam saja. Dia adalah laki-laki yang rajin dan sederhana, tidak pernah banyak bicara. Joro lalu mengajak Eba kawin lari ke rumah sahabatnya di Kampung Tala, di sebelah barat Pulau Seram. Sesudah melangsungkan pernikahan, mereka bertekad untuk menetap dan membangun hidup baru di Kampung Tala.

Empat bulan kemudian, datanglah berita dari Kampung Sameth. Ibu Joro hampir mati karena sakit. “Dia dirasuki suanggi,” demikian tukas beberapa kerabat sambil menatap Eba dengan tajam dan penuh kecurigaan saat mereka berdua tiba di sana.

Eba bisa merasakan bahwa mereka mencurigai dirinya telah mengirim guna-guna hingga ibu mertuanya jatuh sakit.

Joro adalah anak tunggal dari salah satu tetua Kampung Sameth. Bapaknya terbunuh saat kerusuhan berdarah antara orang-orang Islam dan Kristen di pulau itu pada 1999, dua puluh tahun lalu. Oleh karenanya, para tetua kampung meminta agar dia tetap tinggal di rumah pusaka untuk menjaga warisan keluarga mereka.

Joro tahu bahwa perempuan yang menjadi istrinya tidak diinginkan oleh keluarga besarnya. Dia tetap bergeming. Laki-laki itu tetap melaut dan pergi ke hutan. Permintaan para tetua agar membuang perempuan itu dan mencari istri yang sepadan tidak dia dengarkan. Joro tidak pernah menyatakan perasaan cintanya dengan cara memeluk Eba atau sekadar mengusap kepala anak-anaknya. Akan tetapi, dia tidak pernah ringan tangan atau tidak setia. Di mata Eba, dia laki-laki sempurna. Dia tidak banyak berubah sejak saat pertama Eba menangkap kilatan penuh sayang di matanya.

Saat anak bungsu mereka mati, desas-desus yang berkembang di kampung mengenai Eba sebagai pembawa petaka bagi keluarga besar mereka makin santer. Hal itu sampai ke telinga Eba, juga ke telinga Joro dan kedua anak mereka yang tersisa. Eba masih belum lupa perlakuan perempuan-perempuan kampung yang memunggunginya saat tiba di sungai untuk membasuh perabotan dapur atau mencuci pakaian. Berbulan-bulan mereka semua menolak berbicara dengannya.

Eba tidak tahan lagi.

Joro pun demikian. Dia segera membawa Eba dan kedua anak mereka menjauh ke pinggiran kampung dan mendirikan rumah sederhana untuk mereka tinggali. Joro tidak lagi sering bertemu dengan orang-orang kampung. Dia selalu pergi ke hutan dan memancing seorang diri. Kebunnya pun dikerjakan seorang diri.

Saat kematian ketiga menghampiri keluarga mereka, orang-orang kampung itu makin berani. Mereka meneriaki Eba dengan sengit, menyebut-nyebutnya sebagai perempuan naga dan suanggi.

Menurut Joro, orang-orang kampung percaya bahwa dalam tubuh Eba bersemayam seekor naga yang akan membunuh anggota keluarganya pelan-pelan dengan berbagai cara. Naga itu berdiam di dalam jiwa perempuan keturunan suanggi.

Beberapa orang lain bersikeras bahwa itu adalah akibat yang harus ditanggung oleh Eba dan Joro karena berani melangsungkan pernikahan meskipun punya hubungan pela gandong. Mereka tidak segan mengusir dan meludahi Eba saat berpapasan.

Eba lebih sering mengurung diri di rumah. Dia tidak pernah muncul di kebaktian gereja, bahkan tidak pernah lagi pergi ke sungai untuk mencuci baju dan perabotannya. Dia merasa marah atas segala tuduhan yang dilontarkan padanya oleh warga kampung. Dia sendiri tidak mengerti mengapa hidupnya dikelilingi kematian. Dia juga tidak memahami pikiran mereka yang menganggap dirinya sebagai pembawa kematian. Dia bukan suanggi. Dia pun tidak percaya pada takhayul tentang naga dan hubungan pela gandong yang bisa membunuh anak-anaknya. Sejak kecil, Nenek selalu membawanya ke gereja dan mengajarinya berdoa. Di setiap ruangan di gubuk Nenek ada gambar Tuhan, kecuali di kamar temaram tempat Nenek menari.

Eba percaya pada Tuhan. Saat kecil, dia kadang-kadang menangis sambil menatap gambar di dinding gubuk, meminta orangtuanya hidup lagi, atau meminta supaya Nenek jangan mati karena dia tidak sanggup membayangkan akan menjalani hidup seorang diri. Meskipun orang tuanya tidak pernah hidup lagi dan Nenek akhirnya mati, Eba tetap suka pada Tuhan yang selalu disebutnya dalam doa.

***

“Mama Eba! Mama Eba! Buka pintu! Buka!” suara ketukan keras di pintu depan yang diringi teriakan seseorang membuat Eba terperangah. Dia tersadar dari lamunannya. Eba segera berdiri dari balai-balai, lalu mengayunkan langkah setengah berlari melewati dapur menuju ruang depan.

“Mama Eba! Buka pintu! Cepat!” suara itu semakin keras. Eba meraih gerendel pintunya, lalu menggeserkan pengaitnya ke arah kiri.

Seraut wajah kecokelatan yang kurus dan penuh keringat menatapnya dengan mata merah membelalak seakan terkejut bercampur takut. Eba mengenali anak gadis itu. Namanya Pite, anak dari adik sepupu suaminya. Sebelum Eba membuka mulutnya untuk berbicara, Pite kembali berteriak dengan kencang. Tubuhnya bergetar makin hebat. “Mama Eba! Mama Eba! Bapa Joro jatuh dari pohon cengkeh. Bapa Joro sudah mati! Bapa Joro sudah mati!” anak itu berbicara dengan tersengal-sengal sambil menahan tangis.

Dunia di hadapan Eba tiba-tiba gulita. Bibirnya tidak sanggup bicara. Dia mundur selangkah sambil berpegangan pada daun pintu. Tangan dan kakinya gemetar. Air matanya menggenang, tetapi tenggorokannya seperti tercekat, tidak mampu mengeluarkan suara.

“Mama Eba … Mama Eba …!” teriak Pite sambil menunjuk ke arah kejauhan di lembah.

Orang-orang tampak menyemut di sana. Sebagian dari mereka mengenakan pakaian berwarna hitam yang biasanya dikenakan oleh para tetua kampung. Mereka menyusuri jalan menanjak yang mengarah rumah Eba. Diiringi tabuhan tifa bertalu-talu yang menyiarkan kematian ke penjuru kampung, mereka mengusung sesosok tubuh dengan langkah yang terburu-buru.

“Joro …!” raungan Eba tenggelam dalam keriuhan warga kampung yang mendekati rumah Eba.

Terdengar ratap para perempuan menyebut-nyebut nama Joro bersahut-sahutan dengan gemuruh suara para lelaki meneriakkan serentetan kalimat yang bernada marah. “Perempuan suanggi! Pembunuh Joro! Perempuan naga! Usir dia! Eba! Keluar kamu!”

Eba dibekap kebekuan. Kakinya yang baru mulai berlari untuk menemui tubuh yang ditandu itu seakan terpaku. “Joroo!” Teriakan yang terasa memarut tenggorokkannya tidak juga melewati bibirnya yang kering, bergetar.

Tiba-tiba Eba terlempar ke masa tiga puluh tahun lalu, saat pertama kali dia menyadari bahwa orang-orang yang dikuasai amarah sanggup berbuat apa saja. Peristiwa serupa telah menimpa Nenek ketika ratusan warga Kampung Kairatu tiba-tiba mendatangi rumahnya sambil meneriakinya dengan sebutan suanggi lalu menghancurkan rumah dan segala isinya.

Eba didera kerinduan yang tak terperikan pada Nenek. Dia berlari meninggalkan Pite, menuju ke kamar tidurnya. Dia membuka lemari kayu tua dan mengeluarkan kotak kayu yang terletak di salah satu sudutnya. Air matanya berguguran membasahi kotak itu. Dia membukanya dengan tergesa-gesa lalu meletakkannya di atas meja. Pada bagian dalamnya terukir gambar kepala naga. Eba melepaskan tusuk kondenya hingga rambutnya tergerai lepas. Dia memejamkan matanya. Tubuhnya mulai bergoyang pelan. Dorongan yang gaib mengantar Eba ke dalam tarian yang dulu membuat orang-orang Kampung Kairatu menuduh Nenek sebagai suanggi.

Bunyi riuh teriakan manusia diselingi ratap tangis itu makin dekat. Eba mempercepat gerakan tariannya. Bayangan Nenek muncul di hadapannya berujar lirih, “Ingatlah, setiap perempuan adalah naga yang mampu menghanguskan seisi dunia dengan dengan api. Bahkan jika harus menangis pun, api itu tidak akan bisa dipadamkan oleh air mata. Jangan biarkan kekuatan dalam dirimu kalah dengan kepahitan!”

Gerakan tarian Eba semakin liar. Kepalanya mendongak ke atas. Satu demi satu gambaran muncul di dalam ingatannya. Anaknya yang mati satu demi satu; tarian yang dilakukannya diam-diam di hadapan kotak kayu Nenek yang terbuka; Joro yang selalu tersenyum di hadapan sepiring ikan kuah kuning; perempuan-perempuan kampung yang menggunjingkan kotak kayu bergambar naga miliknya; serta para tetua kampung yang selalu menatapnya dengan pandangan penuh kebencian.

Dengan lengan kirinya, Eba meraih kotak berisi ukiran naga itu. Dia memeluk kotak pemberian Nenek itu erat-erat. Satu-satunya peninggalan Nenek yang mampu dia selamatkan dari amuk orang-orang Kampung Kairatu yang menuduh perempuan tua itu suanggi. Nenek yang sangat dia sayangi, yang mengajarinya menari, berdoa, dan memasak papeda dan ikan kuah kuning paling enak di dunia.

Suara riuh orang-orang dan gegap tabuhan tifa makin dekat dan begitu mengancam. Beberapa saat kemudian, telinganya menangkap suara batu yang berjatuhan melubangi atap rumah yang terbuat dari daun sagu. Suara puluhan laki-laki dan perempuan bersahutan, “Keluar kamu, Eba! Perempuan suanggi! Joro mati! Enyahlah kamu!”

Eba membuka mata saat merasakan hawa panas di sekelilingnya. Api telah menjalari dinding rumah itu dengan amat cepat. Matanya perih dan nafasnya mulai sesak karena dikepung asap tebal. Di tengah kobaran api sekeliling lemari kayu, Nenek tersenyum penuh sayang sambil membuka kedua lengannya. Eba menari sambil bergerak maju lalu melebur dalam pelukan Nenek. Kotak kayu jatuh ke lantai saat Eba menyandarkan kepalanya di dada Nenek. Panas membara di sekeliling berganti menjadi kehangatan yang melenakan Eba. Dia kembali menutup mata. Senyum yang manis tersungging di bibirnya. Bersamaan dengan itu, suara gemeretak yang keras disusul gemuruh bangunan roboh membubungkan asap hitam pekat dan pijaran bunga-bunga api ke langit yang mulai memerah.

***

Tabuhan tifa berhenti. Keriuhan orang-orang yang berkumpul di sekeliling rumah itu berangsur hening. Hanya terdengar suara ombak menghantam tebing karang. Pada sela-sela gumpalan asap tebal yang masih mengepul dari reruntuhan rumah, terlihat barisan para tetua kampung yang berpakaian hitam. Mereka menatap kobaran api pada reruntuhan rumah dengan pandangan penuh kemarahan.

Di tengah barisan para tetua, berdiri seorang laki-laki bertubuh subur. Dia berpakaian hitam panjang. Kulitnya bersih, wajahnya bulat, dengan rambut yang berminyak. Laki-laki itu berdiri sambil menatap lurus ke depan. Dia menengadahkan telapak tangan kanan ke arah reruntuhan rumah. Tangan kirinya memegang buku tebal berwarna hitam yang sedang terbuka. Dengan suara berat dan lantang, laki-laki itu berkata, “Saudara-Saudaraku dalam iman! Ini adalah suatu peringatan tentang hukuman Tuhan bagi siapa saja yang menyembah berhala. Ingatlah, Tuhan kita adalah Tuhan yang pencemburu. Tuhan akan menghukum manusia yang menduakan-Nya. Seperti ada tertulis di dalam firman ….” Laki-laki itu diam sejenak, lalu menunduk. Dia menatap buku tebal yang ada di tangan kirinya. Dia menghela napas dalam-dalam, lalu mengucapkan dengan lantang kata-kata yang dibacanya dari buku itu, “Enyahlah dari hadapan-Ku, hai kamu orang-orang terkutuk, enyahlah ke dalam api yang kekal yang telah sedia untuk iblis dan malaikat-malaikatnya. Amin!”

Lautan manusia menggumamkan, “Amin.” Gerimis perlahan turun dari langit yang mulai gelap. Satu per satu orang-orang itu berjalan menjauh dari reruntuhan rumah yang hampir habis dilalap api. Beberapa laki-laki kembali menggotong mayat Joro yang terbaring di atas tandu dan ditutup sehelai kain hitam. Mereka semua berjalan dengan langkah pelan dan dalam diam menuruni lembah menuju ke arah kampung.

 

*****

Dragon Woman

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.

He can be reached at: umar2x.umar@gmail.com

 

Dragon Woman

 

Eba squeezed lime juice into a small brown bowl with a chipped rim. Her curly graying hair was put up in a bun. Damp ringlets fell over the collar of her shabby red kebaya. With a corner of the pale orange shawl draped around her shoulders, Eba dabbed at the beaded sweat on her temples and thought, It is already afternoon. Joro will be home soon.

The skipjack tuna soup was simmering. Thin spirals of steam rose with the scent of basil, ginger, lemongrass, and turmeric from the golden broth. Using her fingers, Eba deftly removed the lime seeds from the bowl, tossed them into the garuru, a basket made from woven sago palm fronds, and poured the juice into the bubbling broth. After a few stirs, she spooned the broth and thick chunks of skipjack tuna into a serving bowl. She brought her face closer to the steaming bowl and closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. She enjoyed her cooking.

Eba scattered the remaining embers of the earthen stove until the flames were completely extinguished. “Joro will enjoy it,” she whispered. A thin smile curled Eba’s thick lips as she placed the bowl on the table, next to a small plate of ​​banana blossom slices she had fried with a handful of onions and a pinch of salt.

Eba bloomed with joy. During her twenty years of marriage, she had learned to recognize this feeling of satisfaction after she prepared a meal. She really liked to cook. This was what made her different from many of the other women in Sameth, a village on Indonesia’s Haruku Island, where she and Joro lived. Most women on the island preferred to sit and gossip instead of spend time in the kitchen. Compared to them, Eba was certainly a much better housewife. She lived to serve her husband and children.

Eba froze at the edge of the table. Her eyes grew misty and a familiar sadness washed over her, as she looked at the table. Once, the portions she cooked had been much larger. Children had stood around the table vying to fill their plates. But her children had all died. Now, thinking of them, Eba’s heart felt like a pincushion with numerous pins stuck into it.

Eba shook her head slowly, and wiped her eyes. That’s enough. Don’t cry anymore. Crying will only make their bones tremble in their graves; they will not be able to rest peacefully. A bittersweet smile replaced her tears.

Eba reached for a food cover hanging on the wall and placed it over the dishes on the table. “All that’s left to prepare is the papeda,” she said quietly, referring to the traditional Moluccan sago congee dish. “I’ll take a short break and boil the water later. Then I can prepare the sago congee as soon as Joro arrives. He will sulk if I serve him cold papeda.” She took a deep breath and turned away from the table.

***

Eba walked through the kitchen, where the cooking fire was still smoldering, and stepped outside through a door made of gaba-gaba. Like the rest of the house, the door was made from slats cut out of sago palm midribs while the thatched roof was held up by bamboo beams. Their house stood secluded on a cliff, in the southern part of Sameth, with its main door facing the sea. The black coral cliffs extended into the water, serving as a bulkhead that protected them from the mighty waves during the east monsoon.

Behind the house, where Eba now stood, she and Joro used to sit and look at Ambon Island in the distance. On a clear day, they could see the peak of Mount Salahutu, bathed proudly in the sunlight. Today, the mountain, wrapped in dark clouds, looked a little ominous.

Joro had chiseled out a narrow path between the steep rocky slopes so they could walk from their house down to the beach, where they fished, dug for clams, and responded to the call of nature.

Eba slumped onto a bench built with gaba-gaba. The bench was shaded by three ketapang trees. Joro had planted the tallest of these sea almond trees the day after they buried their youngest son two years ago. The boy had been harvesting barnacles off the cliff when he fell and was swept away by the sea.

“He was taken by the sea devil,” said the village elder when, the next day, fishermen from a neighboring village found the boy’s open-mouthed, bloated body floating in the ocean. After two days of mourning, Eba and Joro decided to plant a ketapang tree in remembrance of their son and that sorrowful day.

Eba closed her eyes. Inhaling the scents of the sea, she tried to dismiss the melancholy, lingering in her mind. She caught a whiff of the skipjack tuna drying on the bamboo racks lined up along the side of the house. Her eldest son had built the racks before he died on a Sunday, just a month ago. Joro had been getting ready to go fishing at dawn when he found his son’s dead body. The boy’s eyes were open, and bruises circled his neck. The boy had never been sick. Eba began to cry, remembering how the villagers had given her strange looks while muttering, “Strangled by the devil.”

After the customary week of mourning, Joro planted the third ketapang sapling, just to the right of the second which he had planted a year ago when their only daughter died. The girl had been stung by a centipede that had fallen from the ceiling onto her bed. The child jolted upright and, wide-eyed, screamed in pain. She died while the centipede disappeared.

A dry ketapang twig dropped onto Eba’s lap. Each time Joro had planted a ketapang tree, he told her it was a symbol of hope for life and a prevention of more death. But after her continual losses, Eba came to believe that her husband was just making up stories to soothe her. Her children had fallen one by one, like the dried ketapang leaves.

Eba remembered her beautiful and diligent daughter; her youngest son, who was naughty but adorable; and her obedient, eldest son who was handsome, just like his father. A hatred flared in her heart — a hatred as terrible as what she had felt during the wake for her daughter, when she overheard the village women whisper, “Bitten by a demon.”

Eba had not wanted to confront the villagers who treated her badly. Everyone in this village was related to her husband, and Eba didn’t want to hurt Joro’s feelings. She therefore kept silent and dealt with the hatred she felt, alone.

***

Eba was an orphan. She was born and raised in Kairatu, a village on Seram Island. Her father had died four months before she was born, and her mother died four days after giving birth to her. Eba’s grandmother, the village midwife who had helped Eba’s mother give birth to her, raised Eba. “Eaten by a dragon,” was the reason several village women attached to her mother’s death. Eba’s grandmother, as usual, kept silent.

Eba’s grandmother raised her with great affection. The old woman loved to dance. She usually danced in her dimly lit room while humming a mantra but several times, Eba saw her dancing at night in their hut’s backyard during the full moon. Occasionally, her grandmother called to Eba to dance with her.

Although Eba did not understand why her grandmother asked her to join in the dance, she gradually began to like dancing. Soon, Eba could imitate her grandmother’s moves with her eyes closed. But she still could not hum her grandmother’s strange song.

Eba’s first husband, Ica, had been killed by a boar while he was hunting in the forest. A year after Eba lost Ica, she met Joro in Kairatu at a katreji, a traditional Moluccan dance influenced by Portuguese culture. Joro had been invited to the dance party along with other young people.

It was love at first sight. Joro wanted to marry Eba immediately, but Joro’s relatives, and the village elders of Sameth, were opposed. Besides the fact that Eba was a widow, Kairatu and Sameth had a pela relationship, a traditional alliance between villages that did not allow a man from Sameth to marry a woman from Kairatu. “Taboo,” the villagers said. “The ancestors will be angry. Bad luck will befall all of us.” Moreover, the widely-spread rumor in Sameth was that Eba was a suanggi, a witch who practiced black magic.

As usual, Joro was silent. He was a diligent, simple, reserved man. He asked Eba to elope with him to his best friend’s house in Tala, a village on the west side of Seram Island. After their marriage, they settled down and built a new life in Tala.

However, four months later, they received news from Sameth. Joro’s mother was dying. When they arrived, several relatives eyed Eba suspiciously. “She’s possessed by a suanggi,” they said, as if Eba had cast a spell to make her mother-in-law ill.

Joro had been the only child of a Sameth elder who was killed during the bloody riot between Muslims and Christians on the island in 1999, twenty years ago. The village elders now wanted Joro to move back to his ancestral house in Sameth, to protect their family’s heritage.

Joro was well aware of his extended family’s rejection of his wife, but he ignored it. He and Eba moved to Sameth. Turning a deaf ear to the elders’ requests to rid himself of Eba and find a suitable wife, Joro simply continued his routine of fishing and working the land. He never expressed his love by hugging Eba or stroking their children’s heads, but he was never abusive or unfaithful. And to Eba, he was the perfect man. He had not changed much from the time Eba had first caught an affectionate glint in his eyes.

When their youngest child died, the rumor spread that Eba was the bearer of bad luck. The rumor reached the ears of Eba and Joro, as well as their two remaining children. Eba would never forget how the village women turned their backs on her when she came to the river to wash clothes and kitchenware. For months, they all refused to speak to her. Finally, Eba could not take it anymore.

Joro felt the same. He took Eba and their two children to the outskirts of the village and built a hut for them to live in. Joro no longer mingled with the Sameth villagers. He went alone to hunt in the forest and fish in the sea. He worked his garden by himself.

When the third death struck Joro’s family, the village people grew contentious. Screaming fiercely at Eba, they called her a dragon woman and a suanggi. The villagers blamed Eba and Joro for breaking the pela relationship. They shooed and spit on Eba whenever they passed her.

Joro explained to Eba that the villagers believed that a dragon lived in her body and that the beast would slowly kill off her family in various ways. The dragon was passed down through generations of women.

Eba secluded herself at home. She no longer attended church and never went to the river to wash her clothes and kitchenware. She raged at all the villagers’ accusations against her. She didn’t understand why her life was surrounded by death. Nor did she understand why everyone thought of her as a jinx. She was not a suanggi. She did not believe the superstitions about dragons and the violations of pela relationships that could kill her children. If only they knew that during her childhood, her grandmother used to take her to church and taught her to pray. A picture of God hung in every room in her grandmother’s hut — except in the dim room where she danced.

Eba believed in God. When she was a child, she would sometimes sit and cry while staring at one of the pictures of God, hanging in her grandmother’s hut, begging God to let her parents live again or begging God not to let her grandmother die because she could not even bear to imagine living her life alone. And even though her parents never lived again and her grandmother eventually died, Eba still loved God, and always called on Him in her prayers.

***

“Mama Eba! Mama Eba! Open the door! Open the door!” The screaming and rattling of the front door jolted Eba out of her daydream. She jumped up from the bench and ran to the front door.

“Mama Eba! Open the door! Hurry up!” the voice screamed louder. Eba flung the slide bolt to the left.

A sweaty brown face stared up at her, with wide, bloodshot eyes filled with shock and fear. Eba recognized the skinny girl. Pite was the daughter of one of her husband’s cousins. Before Eba could utter a single word, Pite started to scream again. Shaking violently, she cried, “Mama Eba! Mama Eba! Uncle Joro fell out of a clove tree. Uncle Joro’s dead! Uncle Joro’s dead!”

The world around Eba turned black. Trembling, she took a step back, still holding onto the door. Her eyes filled, and her throat tightened. She couldn’t make a sound.

“Mama Eba! Mama Eba! Look!” Pite pointed at the throngs of people gathering below them at the base of the cliff. Some wore the black clothes typically worn by village elders. The crowd rushed up the path that led to Eba’s hut, accompanied by the drumming of tifas. The single-headed goblet drums broadcasted Joro’s death throughout the village.

“Joro!” Eba’s howl was drowned out by the clamor of the villagers approaching Eba’s house, carrying Joro’s body.

The women wailed, calling Joro’s name, while the men shouted a series of angry accusations. “Suanggi bitch! Joro’s killer! Dragon bitch! Banish her! Eba! Get out!”

Eba stood paralyzed, stunned with fear. “Jorooo!” The scream caught in her throat before it could pass her dry, trembling lips.

Without warning, Eba was thrown back thirty years in time, when she first realized that people driven by hate were capable of doing anything. She had been with her grandmother when a similar incident had happened. Hundreds of people from Kairatu had swarmed her grandmother’s house, called her a suanggi, and then destroyed the house and everything in it.

Overcome by an unspeakable longing for her grandmother, Eba spun away from Pite and ran to her bedroom. She opened the cupboard and took out a wooden box tucked back in a corner of a shelf. Tears fell on the box as she hurriedly opened it and placed it on the table. A dragon’s head was carved in the bottom of the box.

Eba snatched out the hairpin holding her bun, and her hair fell loose. She closed her eyes, and her body began to slowly sway. A supernatural urge led Eba to perform the dance that had caused the people of Kairatu to accuse her grandmother of being a suanggi.

Outside, screams interspersed with wailing grew louder. Eba’s movements grew faster. Her grandmother’s image appeared to her and whispered, “Remember, every woman is a dragon capable of scorching the whole world with her fire. But even if she is compelled to cry, her tears will not extinguish that fire. Do not allow hardship to weaken you!”

Eba’s dance became wilder. She looked up. One image after another appeared in her mind. Her children who died, one by one; Joro, who always smiled in front of a plate of papeda and yellow fish soup; the dance she performed surreptitiously in front of her grandmother’s open dragon box; the village women who gossiped about the box; the village elders who always stared at her with a hateful gaze.

Eba grabbed her grandmother’s dragon box and hugged it tightly to her chest. The dragon box was the only thing she had saved from the fury of the Kairatu people who accused the old woman of being a suanggi — the grandmother she loved so much, who had taught her to dance, pray, and cook the world’s most delicious papeda and yellow fish soup.

The wailing, along with the threatening clamor of boisterous screams and the drumming of tifas, were so close. Rocks pelted the roof of sago palm leaves, as the voices of dozens of men and women shouted, “Get out, Eba! Suanggi bitch! Joro is dead! Kill her!”

Eba opened her eyes when she felt the heat surround her. The fire had spread through the hut very quickly. Her eyes stung and she choked on the thick smoke. Amid the flames flaring from the wood cupboard, her grandmother emerged and smiled lovingly as she opened her arms.

Eba danced into her grandmother’s arms. The dragon box fell to the floor as Eba rested her head on her grandmother’s chest. The scorching heat turned into a comforting warmth and lulled her. Eba closed her eyes again. A sweet smile tugged at her lips.

A loud crackling sound was followed by the rumbling of the hut’s collapsing frame. Thick black smoke billowed. Sparks of fire merged with the crimson sky.

***

The drumming of the tifas stopped. The crowd surrounding the house gradually quieted. Now, only the waves crashing against the cliffs was heard. Cloaked by the thick plumes of smoke rising from the ruins of Eba and Joro’s hut stood a row of village elders dressed in black. With eyes ablaze with anger, they stared at the lingering flames licking at the charred ruins.

In the middle of the line of elders stood a man dressed in a long black cassock. He was fair-skinned and well-groomed. Looking straight ahead, he turned his right palm towards the burned hut. His left hand held an open, thick, black book. With a deep, loud voice, the man intoned, “My brothers and sisters in the faith! This is a warning! God will punish anyone who worships idols. Remember, our God is a jealous God. God will punish people who doubt Him. As it is written in this book …” The man paused, then lowered his head. He stared at the book in his left hand. He took a deep breath, then read aloud from the book, “Get away from me! God has cursed you! Go into the everlasting fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels! Amen!”

The ​​crowd murmured, “Amen.”

A light rain drizzled from the dark sky. The crowd turned away from the ruins of a hut almost completely devoured by fire. Several men carried the stretcher with Joro’s body, covered with a black sheet. They all walked slowly and silently down the cliff towards the village.

 

*****

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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