Brown Waters 13

I’m Eben.

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?


Brown Waters 11

And he walks.

The bridge shines under the warmth of the afternoon sunlight. The drops of water, the after taste of the rain that stopped a while ago, have turned into a display of diamonds and crystal gems, glisten on the surface of its silvery skin.

New paint job, old dirt. There’s no part set aside for the walkway, just a road, about two meters wide, filled with gravels and residues of broken asphalt. Occasionally some scooters would pass, utterly convinced of its worthiness. Cars that come from the direction of the marketplace would take the slight left turn, yonder through the bigger bridge, as do the majority of the motorbikes. The metal bones, plates, and cables look sturdy. The river with its brown water is 100 meters below. It’s where Kapuas embraces Landak.

There’s a sweet scent in the air, he can only guess its source. Perhaps it’s the leafs on the trees, can be seen in abundance around the bridge, sheltering the banks of the river. Perhaps it’s the logs of woods on the barge being pulled by a bandung, perhaps it’s the wet dirt by the side of road, perhaps there’s a young woman somewhere behind the window of the houses on the lush part of land at the other end of the bridge, prepping herself for an intimate evening ride with a lively man from the office. Perhaps all of those scents intertwined together carried by the wind, swirling around and engulfs him, to remind him of unfulfilled promises and of melancholy.

It’s the scent of a girl from a distant past, straight black reddish hair to her shoulder, fair yet burned by the young sun, the bandana on her hair with the color of the rainbow, and floral dress that swept through the tall grasses, as she walked before him towards the river. Her hand beckoned him as she pressed through. The excitement, the energy, the heat of the afternoon sun, the scent of her body filled his senses. But the awkward jeans, the old slippers, and the mushy peat soil conspired to betray him.

He fell.

And she disappeared behind the thick vegetation, never to be seen again. Her scent however, forever lingers, vanished from his memory, only to suddenly come again to seize his mind at curious times, and haunt him with unreasonable, almost painful longing. Almost an explanation to his constant and restless search. With the scent as the only clue that will bring him back to her, back to that path when he followed her.

It’s the scent of the river, the scent of unfulfilled promises and lost dreams

He remembers this area. This is the old road. Up and further through this road there will be an elevation and an even smaller road that they took when they went to the attorney’s house. Just before the elevation, there’s an intersection, with the tennis and volley ball fields pitting the road. The fields where everyone who is anyone plays with their group, consists of police officers, judges, and functionaries of government offices.

He wants to see that intersection again, the road that he went through when he wanted to play with his friends. Walking wasn’t a big deal back then, the gang would scourge the area kilometers after kilometers, just stopping to scare any random man or woman who worked at the plantation by placing a rubber snake in the middle of the road. They had some good laughs; some people didn’t seem to have the basic ability to differentiate real snakes from fake ones.

At the end of the climbing road, there was a big tree with its branches reaching wide providing blissful shelter for them while they were busy with their ice tea and sarsaparillas. They would sit on the spot overlooking the new establishment below, while sharing stories of ghosts, of a madman that went around town with a sickle (or a machete, versions varied) and a goni sack, hunting kids who walk alone to cut their heads off, and of Flash Gordon.

He wants to see that road.

The phone in his pocket rings. He picks it up and listens. He puts it back.

He accelerates. At the end of the bridge he turns left. Gets himself into one of the alleys, through the shadows among the houses, quiet houses. If not for occasional sounds of TVs, he would have thought that the houses are empty. Concrete and soil cover the floor of the alley, the sun is blocked, the air cools down. Fungus covers some parts of the walls along the way. Unreasonable fear creeps through his spine and on his skin. Down and down he goes, surely and convincingly towards the river bank. There, the ray of the sun slaps the left side of his face, like an old friend clenching his throat digging for any trace of his sanity. He tightens the straps of his bag as he bolts towards Landak Bridge.


Brown Waters 10

She walks across the room, with determined steps. Nine or ten years old perhaps, with the thermos hanging on her left hand and a stack of rantang on her right. She walks alone. Where are her parents?

Perhaps she is here to visit one of them. Hopefully one of them. I just can’t bear to think of the possibility that she is here for both of her parents.

People are everywhere, filling seats along the walls of this great hall. Busy talking to each other, busy minding their own business. Busy with emptiness.

And she strides as if she were the only animated life in this cold building. I can’t really assess her emotion, she shows none of it. Chillingly it crept into my consciousness.

Has she been groomed by pain?

She passes in front of me, alone, purposeful, and then disappears behind the alley.

For some children, the hospital is a school. It’s a crash course where you learn how to react and adapt towards the development before you. It doesn’t really matter whether you understand the lesson or not. What matters is how you can function within certain particular circumstances, the promises behind hopelessness, and the death of loved ones. On certain days, you’ll also learn about recuperation, endurance, and the hardiness of souls.

The children become sages. Sometimes, the adults around them rely on them for comfort, for assurance, for a tiny hope for tomorrow.

My wife is still talking with those people, our distant relatives. We have said our parting words ten minutes ago, but being an emotional person herself, I’m afraid she will tell them that she will stay here, accompanying and consoling them. I need her today, the only day where I can have respite after spending the entire weekdays swallowing other people’s nonsense.

The mother of the family is in one the room. I saw her hooked up to the machine that seems to force her to breathe, sustaining her life. We can see it in everyone’s eyes, she doesn’t have a lot of life left in her.

Her husband is sitting against the wall of the room where his wife is being kept, patiently accepting guests and words of encouragement, some of which were dryly expressed without the effort of concealing the obvious. He is old, and weary. I’ve never met him before, but exhaustion is clearly visible.

Their son is in the family room, opening a package of Padang rice, ready to eat. A young man in his twenties, I heard that he is still struggling with jobs. My wife said that they had another child, a daughter who married a man of low status in some random places far from this city. I heard that the marriage was against their will, and the the daughter fell sick and died soon after. I heard that the grandson is kept away from her family, and that the husband is about to marry another woman.

I can feel their pain, but I need my wife now.

brown waters 9

For each hectare of forest, it’ll take Rp 4.000.000,- to use heavy machinery to clear it from trees and other annoying pests. Tell people to burn it, and pay only Rp. 800.000,-. Simple economy, easy to understand, and real.

And each company has thousands of hectares of concessions.

The live map given by Firewatch, a multi-million dollar non profit organization, shows that the hot spots within the concession area are scarce. The nation’s leader of tree cutters association said that he was refraining himself from pointing fingers, that it is no time to seek out who’s wrong and who’s right, that it is clear from the hot spot map, that it is the farmers around the concession area who burned the vegetation for their cycles of crops. That once again, it is no time to point who’s right and who’s wrong, that it is the time for the government to focus on managing the fire.

The young man from from the prominent tree huggers organization, referred to the government’s map, passionately conveying the possibility of collusion between the palm plantation companies and local government in taking advantage of the loopholes within the regulation. Creating dead land that will eventually should be given to the companies to be put to good use. He came without anything to show, and was shaking like a foal.

The young, beautiful, and apparently ambitious TV anchor, jabbing her questions towards both of her guests. Her shots missed the marks too often. Far away in Jakarta, she has enough pollutant to fill her own head.

The TV is on, the debate has become a tad too funny, but nobody is watching. Maldwyn is turning the pages of his notes, weighing their options and questions. Ever the researcher, he doesn’t even have to pretend about the nature of their quest. Agam is grinning, unconsciously showing his distaste, while trying to be agreeable.

The plump old man in front of him is giving him a lecture about coming of age, of how to become a man, the difficult decisions, and of how to sweep the bitches off their feet… literally.

This bataknese man came visiting this island more than 30 years ago, and like many of his fellow bataknese, they came empty but boastful. He had done everything; sand digger, truck driver, rubber slab reseller, truck owner, palm plantation owner, gas station owner, and many things in between. But the one thing that Agam remembers is the story of how this mother fucker stole his father’s land.

brown waters 8

He stares at nothing, disarrayed hair and lines on every inches of his skin, brown eyes, deprived of any interest in life.

It came to him.

At every milestone of his life with all of its insignificance, there are byproducts, and it’s called pain. With every decaying cell comes the number of corruptions that he inflicted upon himself and every single person who has had anything to do with him.

He is old.

He is not sure whether he has been living the life that he wanted to have, or if he has been living at all. The number of people who are hurt by his every word and action, the number of friends and loved ones who have become bitter enemies, none of it matter anymore. He has come to term with forgetfulness, the self preservation mechanism that has been keeping his entire world and his existence from caving in.

There’s no excitement anymore, he can’t even remember any music to hum along anymore. All he can do is to wait for any kind of stimulant to give him a tiny amount of spark inside, to get by a day or two, where the days will otherwise go by silently, quietly.

The problem is, those sparks would come with hints of painful memories.
The older he gets, the more he has to digest… until he chokes.
Suicide has never been an option, somehow it takes more effort than needs be. Even smoking has become too painful sometimes.
So he floats, alive while dying inside.

Today one of his loved ones are getting married. There are celebrations to mark the beginning of a new life. He was invited. But he will have none of it.
He can mention a lot of reasons, he’s not the kind of someone who might say something that is over the top, so those reasons might be believable.

Text messages after text messages that the young couple had sent to him became trashed data in his cellphone. Phone calls went unanswered.
He doesn’t know what to say, he wonders whether they will understand his reason. The matter of the fact is that he is weary. Weary of everything.

Does he love these people? Certainly. But he wonders whether his presence will rekindle old pain. His absence on the other hand will certainly bring new pain.

Through the windows, he can see a part of Sanggau that stretches to the river yonder. This morning, when the sun is carving shadows among every building and tree, the fog overlays the scene.

He takes his phone and begins to think of something.

“Be blessed my daughter. You’re not mine, true. You were born of people’s circumstances. Two people’s circumstances, and I dare say, ignorance. Your father was a conceited idiot, right to the moment of his death. Your mother was a fool. To say that I hate your father, is an understatement, to say that I hate your mother, is a lie.

“Now, you’ve met a good man, or a man nevertheless, and this is the day of your marriage. I’m happy for you, and sad of myself. Of all the pain and struggles that you’ve been through, I’m sad to say that there are more to come.

With all of this, I’ve often wondered, how many times had you asked “why?” I couldn’t bare the thought of it, so I distanced myself from you.

“They say that happiness is a choice. I’ve never had that choice, sometimes it’s because I consciously avoided them. Lets just say that I’ve been wired wrongly. As the one who came to this world before you, I realize that my words won’t mean much to you now. Life will tell you how it was, how it is, and how it will be. You may learn a lot, or you may learn nothing.

“I know, because I’ve learned nothing, or rather, I’ve been taught a lot, but have learned nothing. Nevertheless, I want to tell you that you can be happy, or at least, I think you deserve it. Now, I know my thought may weight next to nothing to many people, but with whatever I’ve got in this heap of failure which is me, I pray for every single joy of your life. May you find meaning behind them, because without it, there’s just no sense of living.


He put down his cellphone, the text field is empty. Perhaps he’ll try again tomorrow, or the day after.