Dewi Anggraeni was born in Jakarta, Indonesia and now lives in Melbourne, Australia where she is an Adjunct Research Associate at the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Faculty of Arts, at the Monash University in Melbourne.
Apart from being the Australian representative of Tempo News Magazine, she is a regular contributor to The Jakarta Post, Pesona, Femina, and a number of other publications.
A prolific bilingual fiction and non-fiction writer, as well as a recognized social researcher, Anggraeni has been published in Indonesian and English. She has a presence in Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, South Korea, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and United States.
Anggraeni’s latest non-fiction bilingual work appeared under the following titles, Mereka Bilang Aku China; jalan mendaki menjadi bagian bangsa. – Bentang Pustaka, Indonesia – October 2010 ISBN 978-602-8811-13-2 and Breaking The Stereotype; Chinese Indonesian women tell their stories. – Indra Publishing – Australia – November 2010 – ISBN 9781920787196.
Zakaria lies in his room, deep in thought. His room is not just his room. It is a storage area for miscellaneous pieces of furniture and bric-a-brac, where his sister keeps kitchen utensils and eating implements taken out only for ceremonial and religious gatherings, or when hosting family guests from out of town.
The cobwebs with trapped bugs that drape the piles are testimony to the fact the room has long slipped from the attention of the house’s permanent residents. In the middle of rice pans, platters, saucepans, plates, bowls, and drinking glasses, a crumpled, old, thin mattress was placed to accommodate Zakaria. The skinny man with waist-long, thick, black, greasy, musty smelling hair lay quietly, staring into the space. His face occasionally creases into a smile. In his mind’s eye he sees the people he has selected to take part in the operation planned for later in the afternoon. First and foremost there is Geuchik Syawal who possesses magical powers. He can disappear at will, not only from sight, but also from touch and smell. This is a very useful gift. He carries an amulet made of a cat’s bone. Thanks to this amulet Geuchik Syawal eluded everyone’s attention after drinking too much Stephenson, the only affordable spirits for locals like him.
His own wife, as she went backward and forward hanging her laundry in the yard, didn’t see him slouched against the base of a coconut tree beside the chicken coop.
Zakaria heard the story from friends who in turn learned of Geuchik Syawal’s incredible powers from gossip in the village. Curiously, Zakaria is reluctant to ask Geuchik Syawal to confirm the story. He worries that the truth will only disappoint him, and worse still, undermine the mental strength he needs to confront difficult situations. The story about Geuchik Syawal’s cat’s bone amulet has become a true story, the source of inspiration for so many people, especially the powerless and oppressed, to regain their will to live by resorting to seeking help from inanimate objects.
However, not all types of cat’s bone are suitable for amulets. The bone must come from a black-furred, red-eyed cat. To obtain the bone of such a cat for this purpose is not easy, either.
The amulet hunter must chase and catch a black cat, and then examine each eye carefully the way a doctor examines a patient. Black-furred, red-eyed cats have become rare thanks to the number of cat’s bone amulet hunters hunting them to near-extinction. If you are lucky enough to find one, don’t jump up and down with glee yet. You still have a long way to go.
You must follow the steps of the prophet Abraham when he sacrificed his son Ishmael to God. First, treat the cat as if it were your beloved pet. Become so attached to it that you forget the cat has no use in your life. At the peak of this attachment, slaughter the animal. Harden yourself and shut out the memory of the cat snuggling up to you on the couch and in all trustfulness, fall asleep in your lap.
At this stage, your experience will differ from Abraham. As written in the holy book, God saved Abraham from extreme tragedy by trading his son with a lamb. However the cat you slaughter will really die. It won’t get up and walk away after you kill it. Next, bury it at the meeting point of two roads without anyone seeing or knowing what you do. When you know the flesh of the cat has decomposed and integrated with the earth, dig up the grave accompanied by a most trusted friend. Ask your friend to watch as you touch each and every bone of the dead cat. Not every bone contains magic. Only the bone that makes you disappear when touching it can be used as an amulet.
Zakaria obtained this secret recipe to make cat’s bone amulets from an old healer, who was his sister’s neighbor. He learned it by heart.
Before he met Geuchik Syawal face to face, Zakaria had tried to round up his friends to look for a black-furred, red-eyed cat. However, none of them managed to catch a cat despite spending two weeks wandering around fish markets and staking out rubbish bins. But Zakaria didn’t give up easily. He set out a cat trap in the side yard of his sister’s house. Two days later he found his sister’s hen pacing nervously inside the trap.
If you stand close enough, being in the presence of the owner of a cat’s bone amulet can make you also disappear. Zakaria is aware of this. Inviting Geuchik Syawal to be part of his operation isn’t without a hidden motive. Apart from Geuchik Syawal, he’s also asked Taufik, his childhood buddy, to join them. Taufik has no amulet. However he is always happy to involve himself in anything related to amulets. He once helped Zakaria chase a black cat. When other friends had given up and began to avoid fish markets and rubbish bins, Taufik persevered. His steadfastness was not lost on Zakaria, who repaid him with this special invitation.
In the afternoon, a truck carrying three cheery men drives along the road. Geuchik Syawal is behind the steering wheel, Zakaria in the passenger seat, and Taufik between them. Geuchik Syawal has been smoking since they started their journey.
Under a tarp in the truck bed is a secret cargo bound for Java. There are guards everywhere. They have to be careful, but knowing Geuchik Syawal’s magical powers reassures Zakaria.
The truck drives for hours through the night. The roads are deserted. “If you can manage it, make this vehicle invisible too, Chik Wal,” Zakaria says suddenly.
“Why, of course,” Geuchik Syawal laughs.
People still address him as geuchik, though at his own request he has long retired as the village head. He prefers operating his own business to fielding grievances from the villagers, which gave him a constant headache and high blood pressure.
A cat crosses the road in front of them, a white cat with dark stripes. The headlights on the vehicle don’t cause it to hurry. Geuchik Syawal quickly avoids the animal. Aside from being endowed with magical powers, he’s also a skillful and reliable driver.
“What kind of warning was that?” Taufik asks.
“Nothing short of an omen,” Zakaria jokes.
Geuchik Syawal doesn’t say a word.
After the incident with the cat, car headlights appear in the distance. Zakaria’s heart misses a beat. They are heading for a serious problem.
“We’re going to be caught, we’re going to be caught,” Geuchik Syawal mumbles, and pulls over.
Zakaria watches the man open the door of the truck and rush toward the woods. At first he thinks Geuchik Syawal is calling on his amulet to prepare for their disappearance together. Taufik jumps out of the truck, hot on the man’s heels, and they both disappear altogether in the dark. Zakaria is stunned. He quickly catches on that things are not going as planned.
He moves fast, opening the door and getting out. However he doesn’t run after his friends into the dark, but drops on all fours and crawls under the truck to hide behind a back wheel.
Soon after that, several cars approach and stop near the truck. Uniformed men speak in loud voices. They rush up and surround the truck, opening and slamming doors. Someone is grunting and mumbling angrily that he can’t find the ignition key. Someone else asks a colleague to stab his bayonet into the tarp on the truck bed, to make the people possibly hiding inside scream, and they can catch them red-handed.
Zakaria feels blood drain from his whole body. He shakes like a leaf. “Stab it, stab it!” someone yells with an out-of-town accent.
He watches the booted feet pace. Sometimes they stop with only the wheel between them. Zakaria has trouble breathing. His throat seizes up.
One of the uniformed men orders everyone to move on and continue their journey. He is probably the commander of the company and beginning to worry that the truck is only a decoy set up by enemies to attack them.
They don’t stay long enough to pull the tarp aside to discover the secret cargo. Heavy steps finally move away. Car engines rev up.
Zakaria waits for half an hour before making a move. He calms himself until his heartbeat is almost normal. After making sure it is safe, he crawls out from under the truck and steps into the woods. He trips several times over bumps on the ground before he sees a light in the distance.
He is overcome with relief, thinking the light comes from a gardener’s hut. Nonetheless, he doesn’t want to startle anyone. He only wants to sleep nearby, grateful he has been saved from danger. A few meters from the hut, Zakaria stops in his tracks. A dog barks loudly.
Zakaria realizes that the hut is not inhabited by humans, but by several heads of cattle. The strong odor of animal dung reaches his nose. The dog is obviously tasked to look after the cattle.
He decides to retrace his steps away from the hut. The dog doesn’t stop barking. He trips and falls, on a pile of cow dung. Zakaria doesn’t take time to curse. He has to hurry if he doesn’t want to be mauled by the dog.
He keeps walking among the trees, exhausted and disoriented. He comes across a road, but is still wary. What if he is too close to the truck? Geuchik Syawal and Taufik have actually disappeared. Did they manage to reach a village? Are they hiding in someone’s yard? Did the amulet or simply darkness protect his two disloyal friends?
Zakaria stands on the roadside, flagging down passing vehicles. Headlights shine on him but not one vehicle stops to give him a lift. In fact, they speed up as soon as their headlights catch his shape, the force of the moving vehicles send Zakaria staggering backward.
Five vehicles pass displaying the same behavior. The road becomes quiet again and Zakaria despairs. His body smells of cow dung. He is exhausted. His belly growls from hunger. He is cold to the bone.
Eventually it dawns on him the drivers must have thought him a ghost with his long, unruly, waist-length hair blowing in the wind. From a distance, he probably looks like a creature from another world.
Stories about the ghost of a woman with long hair in Padang Tiji later spread from village to village, and finally reached Zakaria. He has to listen to his friends’ gossip about the ghost day and night. No doubt someone who died unnaturally. Before being killed, she was locked up in that big house and raped. She wasn’t a Padang Tiji local. She was from another village. Zakaria wants to tell his friends the true story, but decides against it. Let them be entertained by their superstition in these hard times.
Zakaria braids his hair and the sixth vehicle stops in front of him. The two men in the truck don’t mind giving him a lift, and invite him to sit in the front seat.
He sits close to the door after the passenger shifts to the middle. The truck driver and the passenger think he’s come down from the hills. They are transporting avocados, cabbages, and potatoes from Takengon, a mountain region far away.
On arriving in town, they drop him outside the market. Zakaria walks from there to his sister’s house. He has had an exhausting day.
He is grateful to be home in one piece. Zakaria goes to lie on his mattress in the middle of furniture and kitchen implements. He’s had a shower and washed his hair.
He is so sleepy and tired the thin crumpled mattress feels soft. Just before his eyes close and he enters the world of dreams, he hears his door open.
A woman with a scarf over her hair approaches the spot where he is lying.
“You’re home sooner than I expected, little brother. Did you take care of our goods?” she whispers.
Zakaria promptly sits up. His head hurts on one side. “No, Sis. They didn’t get to the planned destination. Long story,” he answers feebly.
His sister’s face darkens. “Two hundred kilograms of hashish down the drain and you didn’t bring home one cent? What will I say to the commandant? How are they going to buy arms?” his sister hisses angrily.
“It didn’t go down the drain, Sis. We had to leave it behind, truck and all. Geuchik Syawal turned out to be a fake. He has no magical powers. He’s a liar.”
“If he had magical powers he’d be rich. He wouldn’t have to eke out a living. How could you trust people like that?” his sister hisses again.
Zakaria doesn’t answer.
His sister rushes to the door. “Remember, don’t let your brother-in-law know about our secrets,” she warns him.
Zakaria muses: a husband and wife may sleep in the same bed every night, but what each keeps inside their heads is another story.
His brother-in-law is the head of the local police. Every evening, when they have dinner together, he curses the people with the courage to fight for independence. His sister always keeps quiet, and busies herself with eating or rotating side dishes among them.
The next day his sister doesn’t speak to him.