a cup of coffee with milk, a self help book, a music to move, a runny nose, and lots of tissues.
Under the vast blue sky, and a grand herd of clouds that moved gracefully towards the ranks of hills that stood in the distance, surrounding the plateau, forever waiting, the wise hermits unaware of the corruption upon their flesh. The gloom of impending demise was hanging, suspended in the air between the sublime beings.
To the north, there was a barren landscape, layered with white sands, sparsely covered by reeds. Trees are visible nigh to the region where the feet of the hills were situated.
To the east, closer to him, were huge mountains of polymer wastes. Colourful, yet inspire nothing but contempt. The scent of decay was oozing out from whatever substances clinging to every nook and cranny of the aliens, whose birth took place when human sucked dry the very blood of their mother. Liquid poisons were slipping into the white sand.
To the south west, there was a pond; engulfed by the plain of salt, almost completely devoid of vegetation save for the grasses by the side of it. The pond was of the shade of deep turquoise, and children were diving below the surface, inside the water.
Like a pack of dolphins, they glided. Their long black hair flowed according to their movement. They were laughing. Those grinning decayed teeth inside those mouths. But there was no sound save for the sound of the wind above the field.
The children were diving towards the farther side, sometimes they dived deeper, sometimes closer to the surface. Sometimes they dived along the edges of the pond, sometimes they dived in straight lines. But they never broke the surface.
Attracted by their carelessness, he inched closer. Alas, the side of the pond where he stood crumbled. He managed to jump back, but the circumstance gave his presence away. That was when the children became aware of him.
Then the most curious thing happened. The children swam in circles. Slowly and gradually, their epidermis peeled off, disclosing the dermis below it. The process continued, and the dermis also came off disclosing the hypodermis underneath.
Blood started oozing from their body.
Their hairs were detached, strand by strand.
Those that were once whole, became filaments that gradually merged with the molecules of the water.
Everything that was red became black.
Float and flowing in circle.
A mass of chaos.
The sudden presence of death.
The sublime beings disappeared, leaving human without any answer to their questions.
Nipi picked up his phone, it was a message from Tubing.
“Pak Suli’s condition suddenly deteriorated. He fell and it took a lot of effort for him to breathe. He became unconscious and blue. We took him to the clinic, they helped him with his breathing. We have to rent an oxygen tank. They said we must take him to Pontianak. We’re on our way now. Please, can you help us?”
He placed the phone into his left hand, and with his right hand grabbed the cigarette pack, opened it, shook it a bit, and fished out one cigarette with his index and middle finger. He put the pack back down on the seat, grabbed the match, leaned his body towards the front seat, and pressed the roller which came into contact with the charcoal. It happened simultaneously with the pressure of the gas when the lid was depressed.
It gave birth to fire.
He sucked the fire through the cigarette, activating the entire arsenal of poisonous substance. He inhaled deep. Held his breath for five seconds, leaned his body back on to the chair, and exhaled.
Pak Suli was a 54 year old man. He sat close to Nipi on the boat that they took when they visited the mines upstream. His eyes were cloudy, when the ray of the sun fell on to them, they shone like fish scales. The left eyes didn’t seem to be willing to cooperate with the right one. When he gazed, the movement of the left eye was limited. There was a kind of deformation somewhere behind his right ear down to his neck. Occasionally his hands shook, sometimes rather violently. Nipi caught something peculiar about how he responded to conversations. Sometimes Pak Suli listened to the conversation and made confirmations using short affirmations. Sometimes, he would suddenly detract, with his gaze wandering around. When he started explaining about something he would stop without ever finishing his sentences. Then he seemed to be struggling with his mind, finding something to say.
“Mercury” Mathew said while shaking his head when they talked about it later that day.
Nipi smiled “His nervous system is fucked up, but you can never say that mercury has any contribution in it. It is not politically correct, everybody here will take it as an assertion, it’s not popular, it’s against what this people believe in…”
“Or made to believe in, we have scientific evidence, research was done. It’s illogical to deny it.”
“Fuck logic, how long have you been here?”
“Besides, he sent his daughter to study at a certain university, I forgot the name of that bloody institution, in Germany no less!
“Perhaps this is the kind of generational sacrifice that they should make.” Nipi’s gaze wandered through the motel’s window.
Then he looked forward. The front side of the car looked like a stage of a theater, with every curve of the road revealing new vistas, sometimes of merriments, sometimes of loneliness, sometimes of terror. The road was layered by new and old asphalt. Its size was such that drivers coming from opposite directions must take extra care. A little bit to the center, and they might lose their rear mirrors, or worse. A little bit to the outer side of the road, the car might flip over. The surface of the asphalt was around five to ten centimeters from the dirt by the side of it. It looked more like a precipice rather than a gradual slope, with the occasional dents. If a driver should fall in to one, it might be a bit tricky to get back on to the asphalt when you got small tires. Nipi shuddered thinking about the effort of balancing the car when a truck with full load should come from the opposite direction.
Bataknese songs were filling the cabin endlessly. Sometimes it was one of those traditional types, sometimes it sounded like a song that drunkards would dance to. Nipi looked at the thumb drive that was plugged into the audio player in despair. The air conditioner was on full force. The back of the cabin acted as a wind trap with all of the windows open. The smoke from their cigarettes whirled around. It was romantic.
A series of wooden houses lined up beside the road. They looked empty save for a man in worn out clothing, sitting at the terrace of one of the houses, staring towards the road with his empty gaze. Up the hill, there was a wooden church with dusty doors, and further down the road there was a small mosque with an aluminum dome. The places where people tried to find meanings and justifications for their existence.
Nipi sucked his cigarette. Those were the places where people tried to find solace from the pain inflicted by lies. He smiled at the paradox within his mind.
Suddenly Eben turned his body and looked at Nipi “Anyway, have you remembered me yet?
“My brother married your cousin, that’s why we can call each other lae.
“What do you do by the way?
“What are you going to do in Mandor?
“Shall we stop by for a cup of coffee?”
Nipi had lost track of their one way conversation. Eben had been blabbering about his bullshits since they left the gate of the school.
“Ok” Nipi replied.
The man who drove the car, the one whose name Nipi had forgotten, was silent.
I first came here in 1989. You were, what, eight? Nine? I don’t know, elementary school student? Nah, maybe kindergarten. I did some jobs, here and there, when I first came here. But only for a year. I applied for a job at PLN. A brother, a Sinaga told me about some openings in the company. So I applied. And I was accepted.
I was sent deeper into the region, but it was alright. It wasn’t much that time you know. We got just around 200.000 to 300.000 rupiah a month. But then, blessings came from various sources. You know, God is good. I usually got more money from going to people’s houses, fixing their installation problems. Sometimes I got more than what I got from PLN.
People liked me, you know. When they came to the office they came looking for me. I was in Sekadau at that time. Anyway, they were always looking for me, because I always knew what their problems were. Actually electrical installations are simple. Tricky, but simple. They don’t change much.
People also chose to call me because I’m an honest man. I won’t say that something costs more than it is, just to trick them to give me more money. I always informed them about the condition of their installation, the possible risks that might happen if we do one thing or the other. I always rejected the money they offered.
The coolest moments were when I came to the Chinese shops. Like one time, there’s this shop where we had a short circuit problem. The “maknya” was frantic, forcing me to check the entire installation, and replace anything that needed replacement. I thought that was crazy, so I checked it a bit and was done in short amount of time. I just used their spare cables to bypass the old and worn out cables that they had near the circuit.
And you know what? The “tauke” offered me 200.000 rupiah! He just folded the money and shoved them into my hands. Of course I said no. I told him “Why should you do that? This is my job.” But he said “It’s ok, it’s your blessing for today, it’s bad luck if you reject it.” So I took the money.
In those days I could wear Levis and banded clothings, they were expensive, but like they say, good quality comes with price. I climbed a folded stair once to fix an installation, when the stair fell I was dangling down with only the pants holding me up. It wasn’t even ripped, and I still wore it ever since.
But being single, I threw away my money just like that. Sometimes we had parties with my coworkers. I usually became the head of the gang you know. My friends were passive, so I asked my boss to leave us some money, you know, to buy some fish, may be chicken with beers and liquors. Usually when the boss went away to the capital or Jakarta, I took the initiatives to take the money with some friends and did some grilling.
There weren’t a lot of amusement back then you know. So rather than being stressed out, we took matters into our hands and had some fun. It’s a lot better than being admitted to the hospital because of strange illnesses don’t you think? I think it all depends on our state of mind. When we are happy, we won’t get sick easily. Heck, we might even feel great. Smoking and drinking don’t do anything to you; it’s your mind that will take you to the hospital.
I was very naughty when I was young. I admit that. We usually gambled with some friends. We usually came to the fair or coffee shops and setup a game there. We had done everything; dice, cups, cards, you name it. We usually came home with a lot of money in our pocket. “But how?” you might ask. Well, we plotted the game. So we distributed the money among us so that each of us can act as a player. We assigned one of us as the house, usually me. So we would come separately but almost always near the same time. I opened the game, and the rest of the guys would influence the other players. Sometimes they win yes, but we always came home having more money than we had before. Sometimes a lot more.
We lived together in a house owned by my boss at that time. He knew of our ways. One day he set up bank accounts for us, and it became an obligation for us to save our money. It’s actually a good thing, you know, now that I think of it. But we didn’t see it then. Sometimes we couldn’t set our plans in motion, because some of our money was in the savings. You might think it’s funny, but the wife of the boss held our books. She always scorned us of our habits. But at that time we thought, those were our money; she didn’t have any right to keep them. Once we just sat in front of her house, grumbling, and she came out angry, and threw away our saving books, saying “it’s up to you what you want to do with it, it’s up to you what you want to do with your life, I don’t care anymore, you lots are loathsome!”
She was mad, we were happy. We spent the money just like that.
Remember I told you that I lived only two months in Serimbu? It was because of gambling. I was caught in Sekadau, so they sent me to Serimbu. When I was in Serimbu, I set up games with my friends, and here’s the funny part, the head of the district saw me at the gambling place and said “I know you, you were the one who gambled with my men in the middle of the independence day ceremony, such a disgrace!” So, I suppose he contacted my boss and I was transferred again to Tayan and then to Bengkayang. Those were interesting days.
By the way, are you married? Why haven’t you? What seems to be the problem? It’s not about the complexities lae, it’s about the determination!
I met my wife in Sekadau. We’ve had quite a lot of Bataknese in this region at that time. Not long after I met her, I decided to ask her to go with me to Sumatra. It came just like that. So I brought her home to Sumatra to meet her parents, and plans were set in motion. I was afraid, I didn’t have the money, I was still thinking about our tickets then. Yes I brought money, but I was afraid that it won’t cover our tickets to go back to Kalimantan. You know how it is with these kinds of events. With all the ceremonies and the families and guests to feed, not to mention the sinamot.
But I didn’t care; I thought the show must go on. So there it was, with my siblings’ and parents’ contribution, we held the ceremony. I stayed in Sumatra just a bit over a month at that time. You see, the plan was just for a trip to visit my parents. Hence the permission I got from the office was just for a short leave. My boss was angry, but I contacted him telling him about the situation. He even issued a warning. But all went well. I got home with my wife, back to Sekadau.
I had to change the situation though. I had been living as a bachelor up to the moment. The place I lived in was empty, save for dirty clothes. I didn’t have a lot of money left, and my wife warned me to leave my old ways behind. Yes, you can smile lae, but really, you have to follow what they say. This woman, what she has been saying has brought nothing but goodness into my life.
Anyway, I went to the market. News spread quickly in such a place. There were these electronic shops owners who told me to take the refrigerator and the rice cooker. I told them that I didn’t have the money. They just told me to bring them home and pay them later. They said those were wedding gifts for my wife, not for me. When my wife went to the market, the greengrocers gave her free vegetables. The Bataknese people who lived there gave us various plates, bowls, spoons and forks. Imagine that! I didn’t even think of having such things back then.
Life was good, people were good. If you are good to people, people will be good to you, I believe that. I even befriended the thugs, you know, those people who hang out at the terminal near the market. Every time I passed in front of the market, they always called my name. Usually I stopped by and drank with them.
Once I took my wife to the market on our motorbike. I didn’t realize at that time that my wife fell off the bike. Funny right? The motorbike didn’t even feel different. Only when the thugs shouted that I knew what had happened. I looked back and saw my wife limping to the side of the road. It was so funny. They helped my wife to sit down, and then we took her to the clinic. Luckily she was okay, she is a tough woman.
There was a reverent that came to the area. He asked me “why do the thugs treat you so good?” I told him “Father, we have to be good to everyone, regardless of their background, right? The Lord Jesus has told us to do so, those tugs are actually good at heart, and they can help us in times when we need them.” The reverent agreed with me, he said “You are right.” He befriended them ever since.
Just like us, we should help each other, no?
Anyway, have you remembered me yet? My brother married your cousin, that’s why we can call each other lae. What do you do by the way? What are you going to do in Mandor? Shall we stop by for a cup of coffee?
Full and content, he looked around, and felt out of place. He pulled a pack of Gudang Garam from the pocket of his pants.
The young man beside him smiled “you can’t smoke here you know”.
He looked back at the young man, somehow felt a little bit provoked “ah, really?”
“No, nowhere within the school complex, and certainly not here at the hall.”
Nipi put the pack on the table, pulled his right hand from his pocket, leaving the lighter inside. He could almost see the liquid gas inside its yellow plastic case, and the scent of the gas burning. He thought that the situation was scandalous. How could someone not smoking after such hefty meal? The table was full with the remnants of their business. Saksang, pig soup, the entirety of a roasted chicken, bawal fish with tomato sauce, fried floured shrimps, chicken satay, beef satay, pork satay, and various kinds of vegetables that he didn’t bother to recall but were tasty nevertheless.
Sweet, sour, and hot. The combination left a familiar sensation inside his mouth, down somewhat halfway through his throat, longing for all the goodness of tobacco.
The young man beside him smiled. What was his name again? He couldn’t recall. But it didn’t matter. That stupid young face didn’t deserve a name. No name should be reserved for a young airhead who thought that he had the credibility talking about a rule forbidding people to smoke. A name should only be reserved for a character.
The young man still smiled. He seemed to enjoy his victory, his projected power over the fate and enjoyment of others, when Nipi pulled his hand from the pack. He pulled off a projection. One day the prick would become a local official, which was rather a certainty considering that he was a Dayaknese. Then he would satisfy his unquenchable thirst for power.
Nipi looked at the man to his right, still busy eating. The man clearly displayed his distaste towards Nipi, after he abruptly took the seat from the man’s five year old daughter, who was then standing beside his father waiting scoops from her father’s hand. The woman in front of him was busy with her phone; she was living the moment, somewhere else. Nipi sat there because he had nowhere else to sit. He didn’t know any of those people, and at that moment, he didn’t care anymore. He got what he came for. Two men agreed to take him to Mandor. One of them claimed that he knew Nipi. He said that his brother married Nipi’s cousin, which should make them quite close. This made them brothers, or lae to be precise. That’s why he agreed to take him. Eben was his name. The other one, he entirely forgot.
They planned to leave as soon as the wedding procession was over. Or to be more accurate, after the feast began, so they could leave with full stomach. The thought of leaving the place bothered him a bit. That place was a huge complex of school rooms, boarding houses, along with a church and a hall. Islands of green grasses with healthy trees separated by small dirt roads. It’s so peaceful there.
He shed his eyes around the hall, where the bride was busy with some of the guests taking selfies, and the groom was conversing with some acquaintances. Most other guests were busy with their plates, enjoying the richness of the festive mood shared by the two families. The parents of the bride looked solemn. The bride’s father was a tall man, rather skinny, but on his old face, a pair of dark eyes projecting who he had been, a man you don’t want to trifle with. Nipi wondered how the groom overcame such barrier. His wife, the tiny skinny woman, was your ordinary mother and wife, a woman who stood beside her husband, come what may. Those protruding bones under her skin might be the result of years of self containment.
The father of the groom was a completely unassuming man. Skinny, short, with youthful skin. Somewhat typical of a Dayaknese. Like his counterpart, he didn’t talk much. His wife however, was a lively woman. With her short yet voluptuous body, she moved around ordering the people, meeting guests, arranging the procession, minding the food, and giving instructions to the bride and groom. With her red lips and red kebaya, she was enticing. She wasn’t noisy; her voice was rather soft and agreeable. Nipi couldn’t take his eyes off her. Perhaps that’s why she looked at him disagreeably when their eyes locked.
Nipi was not a guest at the wedding. Mathew, however, knew the reverent. So to cut cost, they decided to stay there. Which local reverent won’t take a “bule” in? They would take him as a fellow Christian coming from the land where Christianity in this area originated. But Mathew was not a Christian, and the reverent was not a local. They knew each other back in Jakarta. The reverent belonged to a wealthy Christian foundation, with their own agenda, to be carried out in the region. Hence, the huge missionary like complex. One of the primary concerns of the foundation, according to the reverent, was the well-being of the Dayaknese people there, and as it turned out, was in line with what Mathew was fighting for.
Nipi didn’t care. He knew what Mathew was fighting for. And the well-being of others had ceased to be his objective. As for the foundation? They were just another corporation with a specific target market, venturing new terrain, creating market. The business of saving souls. Nipi was busy looking at the high school girls passing by and thinking of fucking them while the people in the room were delicately lying to each other.
They arrived there on Friday afternoon. The reverent tried to convince them to stay until Monday. The decorations were the reason. The reverent told them that there would be a wedding between a Dayaknese man and a Bataknese woman. And since he had asked of Nipi’s ethnicity, he assumed that Nipi would know the people who would come to the procession. He assumed too much.
Mathew left that morning back to Sintang. Nipi was planned to leave toward Mandor that morning. But they thought, since some of the families were locals, Nipi might stay and got some stories that might help with their trip. They both were rather desperate. But of course, in such occasion, nobody would share any ill thought. They won’t talk about the dead, about gaharu, diamonds and gold. They would rather wear gold and basked themselves upon the gaze of others, exchanging jealousy.
And so there he was. Sitting among the seemingly happy people. Among the shades of the trees, the colourful balloons that marked the steps that the couple had taken when they entered the premises, among the laughter, mediocre singers, sounds of the birds, hectic tables, the sound of the man to his right sucking pig bones, and the peaceful property. He didn’t want to leave. The sight before him that seemed so normal yet so foreign, was so inviting. He was thinking about talking to the bride, she might have sisters or friends that she could introduce to him. He also came to the conclusion that some of the women at the hall were rather tempting. Normal life might not be so bad.
“Hey, lae, we’re leaving.”
Nipi turned his head, a black large hand upon his shoulder. “Ok.”
Eben didn’t wait for him. He sped up towards the basket ball field which had turned into a temporary parking lot. Nipi snatched his cigarettes, grabbed his bag, and left without even nodding to his fellow diners.
He ran towards the basketball field and saw both men at the front seats of a Datsun, engine ready. Nipi jumped in to the second row. They retreated from the field, turned the vehicle around, and rolling slowly onto the dirt road.
The man who drove, the one whose name Nipi had forgotten, looked at him “are you in a hurry?”
“That’s more like it.” The driver smiled.
“Do you smoke lae?” Eben offered him his cigarettes, a pack of white Marlboros.
“Yes, and thank you, I have mine.”
“Shall we?” Eben asked the man who drove.
“Ya, sure, I’ve been holding myself since a couple of hours ago.”
Then all the windows of the car were opened wide, and soon they were busy lighting up. Exhales of satisfaction preceded the smoke that flowed around the interior of the car and out through the windows.