Short Fiction


By Dalih Sembiring

  It was freezing so we sat close and intimate. The eastern sky was still smeared with orange. Another calm morning in the countryside, but only until the 57-second calamity revealed its fury-we counted. The lanky trunks of the petai cina trees shivered from their roots to branches as they swayed violently, hurling our tiny bodies into the wind.

    We chirped terror, for the electricity lines wobbled in the air; roof tiles shed like old, red leaves. Walls cracked, buildings crumbled.

    Oh, how screams echoed from one village to another. People came out of their dwellings, unsure of the expression they should wear on their faces. A young woman shrieked. A pale baby boy in her trembling arms. 


    Riding on his motorcycle at a moderate speed down south, Aro noticed the hectic traffic. He quickly saw, with a pensive look, a pickup that carried five to six men, and the dead body of an old woman. He tried, unsuccessfully, to push aside the terrifying idea that these noisy flows of vehicles, which had turned on their headlights as a sign of haste and were going the opposite direction, were all carrying corpses, or at least people that were injured.

    He had not expected the situation to be this serious. He had not expected anything to have happened in Bantul at all. The earthquake must have been caused by Merapi, he had thought. But here along Bantul Street, the sidewalks were packed with men and women of all ages, standing or squatting by the ruins of their homes.

    Most of them were probably looking forward to waking from this nightmare. But the dusty wind that slithered on their skin was real. The intimidating ground under their feet felt cold and real. The pain and despair that grew bit by bit, too, was real.

    Triggered by the thought of his family, Aro cranked up the speed of his motorcycle.

    He had been away from home since yesterday morning, and last night he had been at a cheap motel room with a prostitute from Pasar Kembang. He was 25, slightly younger than the skinny woman whose last name he had never gotten. His wife, Narmi, was 23. She was sitting in the front yard with her mother in-law when Aro arrived. She ran to him and held him, tighter than she had ever done before.

    "God forbid, Mas, I thought something happened to you. Oh please don't leave me again, Mas. I wouldn't know what to do."

    "I'm okay, I'm okay. You're not hurt, are you?" he briefly examined his wife's face.

    "I bumped into the walls several times. It doesn't hurt so much now. But the house, Mas... It could come down anytime now. We can't live here anymore."

    "Is Panji all right?"

    "He's asleep."

    Having let go of Narmi's clutch, he walked toward his 17-month-old son. The boy, who had never looked so pale, was sleeping in his grandmother's arms.

    "He's had a fever since last night," Aro heard his mother say.

    He did not dare, however, to look into her ever-accusing eyes, for this was one of those moments, or rather the perfect moment, for those eyes to show the same disgust they had shown when she had caught him masturbating in his bed, back when he was only 15. A traditionally pious woman, she had told him then, "You can wash your hands later; you can rinse off any dirt on your skin with water; but every unclean soul must be cleansed in Hell."

    He had not taken a junub bath.*


    Winnowing, winnowing, winnowing rice...

    Whenever we see a woman come out of her house with a tray of rice in her hands, we would usually stay and watch her shake the tray back and forth, up and down. And once she leaves, we would peck at the grains spilled on the ground.

    This morning we heard an elderly woman say, she felt as though she was being winnowed during the earthquake. She had admitted that she was too old, and yet her life wasn't spilled. Her fancy yellow house, on the other hand, had collapsed from the middle to the rear. And she kept asking for Stefi, a white persian cat, her only companion, but no one knew where it was. No one could really, genuinely care.

    Two of our flock had flown across beds of green rice fields and perched upon the crescent moon on top of a musholla.** Ten bodies were assembled in front of the skewed building-all covered up with long batik sheets.

    Most of them are elderly, a woman whispered under her sobs. It's Saturday, said another woman, those who die on a Saturday usually bring their friends along with them.

    A man shouted. He had spotted another body underneath the rubble. 


    Aro stood up. He heard an overwhelming growl of motorcycles coming, passing through the narrow road in front of his house.

    Run, run, one of the riders yelled. Narmi got up, Panji clinging to her left breast.

    "Run, the water's coming!" some voice howled.

    "Mas Aro, a tsunami, Mas."

    "God have mercy on us. What are we going to do?" Aro's mother, who had so far been calm, began to get flustered. She kept looking over toward the direction of the sea. Narmi pulled repeatedly on her husband's hand.

    "Let's go, Mas. Let's go now."

    "You can go with Panji and Ma. I'll stay here," Aro said.

    "Are you out of your mind, Aro? All of us must go. You never know when the water's going to reach this place."

    "Mother, listen, there's only one motorbike. Narmi can ride it while you sit on the back. I'll manage to hitchhike later. The three of you go to Mono's house. You remember Mono, don't you, Narmi? The dark, muscular man who works with me at the factory. His house is in Turi. We went there on Idul Fitri last year. Remember? It's the only place I can think of right now. You'll be safe there. Go. Take care of Panji."

    The chain of speeding motorcycles kept on passing by, creating a swelling commotion filled with the rumbling and hooting of engines and horns. The words "run", "water", "tsunami" filled Aro's head, but his mother's words had preoccupied his half-numb mind: Every unclean soul must be cleansed in Hell.

    His heart ached from a rising sense of guilt and shame. That, and an inexplicable loneliness, led him into his tilted house.

    They had only lived here for two years. The little hut-as Aro had always called it-had been built on the money he had acquired from selling his late father's old house. The choice of location had been perfect. He found the communal lifestyle of the countryside to be a pain in the neck, so the house had been built far away from any villages.

    Aro checked out the interior of his hut. The entire walls had cracked severely. Staring into the main bedroom, it broke Aro's heart to see Panji's clothes scattered on the floor. He went on and made his way to the bathroom. His main intention for coming inside was to rinse the filth off his skin. Above all, he wished he would not have to go to Hell to cleanse his foul soul. Yet when he opened the bathroom door, he found that the vessel was empty-one of its corners had split.

    He chuckled, "I may be a sinner, but I don't want to be cleansed by the tsunami."

    As he tried to make his way out of the house, it gradually dawned on him that Sewon, the district in which he lived, was approximately 30 kilometers from the South Sea.

    Could the water possibly come up this far, he wondered. And it had been almost two hours after the earthquake. If a killer wave had indeed occurred, had it not been too late for them all to escape? Aro had reached the living room now. He had been so close to the door, but somehow returned to fetch one of Panji's clothes.

    He stepped into the bedroom. Always without a warning, the ground shook. It was only a two-second minor quake, but two seconds was all it took.


    We rested on the rooftop of a house that had just fallen down. We heard a man's voice, carried by the breeze that blew the billowing dust. Water, water, the man groaned. The sun had pierced the air so we covered the parts of the man's body exposed to the heat. Some of us flew away to call the others to come.

    More and more of us congregated, lending our tiny wings and bodies to go bail for the man's drained life, hour after hour. Early in the evening, one by one, each of us left the ruins as the rain began to pour down, rushing down from a vast carpet of thick, dark clouds that hovered high.

    It is freezing, so we sit close and intimate. We have returned to the old Banyan tree where hundreds of our kind rest during the hours of darkness. The ravens, which crowed eerily on the ridges last night, have fallen silent.

    It is now our turn to twitter the stories we have collected today. Stories of thousands of human beings who let go of their dreams, and stories of others waking into the same nightmare.

    A tale of 57 seconds. 

(final version, The Jakarta Post, 18 June 2006)

Junub bath (Islam): a bath taken after coitus, giving birth, menstruation, and ejaculation. Those in any of these states are considered to be profoundly impure prior to taking the bath, and are prohibited from observing religious duties.

Musholla: a small mosque.

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