Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Girl in Train Station

Wikan had arrived quite early at the station, despite his train to Bandung not departing until seven thirty. It was the holiday season, and most people travelling to and from Yogyakarta had booked their ticket at least six or seven days in advance. Not having planned his trip, (it was a last minute decision the boss employed to show his power) Wikan had therefore been left with the unenviable task of managing his ticket purchase from one of the many scalpers, who plied the main hall of Tugu station.

After the feverish bartering for tickets, Wikan successfully defeated his ticket rivals and entered the platform at 6.10am, holding his “double priced” ticket with a woman’s name on it. He grabbed a local newspaper, looked for a chair in the waiting lounge, but then, unexpectedly, his attention was instantly captured by the girl, whom he recognised immediately. Her complexion, dark and divinely beautiful, distinguished her as a single, luminous black pearl amongst the bustling crowd of the pale morning light. She had tied her curly hair with an ochre band, but much of it had escaped and now impulsively framed her face.

She sat silently, as if cast in her olive green dress, seriously observing her fingers on her lap. Her silence perfected, it created an invisible shell around her, solid and untouchable, and for a brief moment Wikan imagined her as an earthen sculpture made by an expert potter, and put on the bench chair in this place with a huge cautionary note, “Fragile; do not touch!” carefully written in thick red letters, so that anyone could read it from afar. Then the expert left her there in her stillness. Alone. Forgotten.

Moved by his imagination of the sculpture, Wikan sat beside her, dropping his recently purchased newspaper on the next seat.

“Have you found what you’ve been looking for?” he asked gently, his voice wavering slightly, as if not wanting to create any strain that might shatter the beautiful sculpture he had imagined moments before.

Her hand waved.

“Are you still looking for him?” he asked again, more carefully, imagining the first fine cracks starting to appear in his sculptural masterpiece

Fifteen seconds, thirty, fifty-four, one minute, two, four, six minutes, still no reaction. Then, just when Wikan felt his ego unable to bear the lack of response from his dark silken sculpture, on the seventh minute, she suddenly drew her chin up and stared at Wikan, her dark eyes flashing beneath beautifully curved eyelashes.

“Why? Have you seen him?”.

“Do you remember me?” Wikan asked, ignoring her question.

'No”, she said politely. Then she continued busy with her fingers, “I have met with so many people since I came here, so please forgive me for having such a short memory.”

Wikan nodded, his ego slightly deflated. The first time they met was on Malioboro road. “Have you ever seen this man?” she asked, blocking his direction on the footpath, and presenting him with an old postcard size photograph of a young man wearing outdated apparel. Wikan glanced briefly at the photograph, and replied with an impatient “no never”.

“Remember his face. If one day you meet him, please tell him that I am looking for him.”

After ensuring that Wikan had indeed inspected the photograph correctly, she thanked him and at once blocked another person hurrying along the footpath.

Five days later, he met her again, asking the same question about the photograph to theof waitresses, security guards, and cleaning service employees, in all the restaurants along Mataram road.

Wikan was paying his bill at Flower Bistro when she again presented her photograph.

“Hey! It’s enough you chat with the boys here. Don't disturb our guess!” The restaurant manager said in a low voice, his eyes watching like a venomous reptile from the desk beside the cashier box.

She moved one-step backward; “I’m sorry Sir,” she apologised to Wikan, “I mistook you for a waiter.”

By now realizing his shirt was almost the same colour with the waitresses, Wikan waved an OK sign to the manager who was still looking at her with hatred, then took her hand and quickly forced her out onto the street. There, he heard her sigh like laughing. “Don't keep your laugh inside Miss, it may give you a stomach ache later.” She said nothing over his joke, but he immediately noticed her raised eyebrows and pained expression

“What is it now?” he asked

“It’s my hand. You're hurting me.” Her voice was almost disappearing below the traffic noise.

Hurriedly Wikan let her hand go, mumbling an apology, “Sorry Miss, I was just trying to avoid the manager in that restaurant.”

He imagined his apology as flabby as rotten papaya, but she smiled, and Wikan immediately noticed the air flowing through the back of his throat, his nose bigger with proud. Unfortunately, there was no further conversation because she found the next restaurant to enter. Wikan briefly felt an urge to follow her, ask who the man was, and why she persisted in trying to find him, but he remembered his appointment with his boss and quickly turned his thoughts back to more pressing matters.

A week after that, Wikan met her yet again. She was standing before the city hall gate, giving away copies of the same photograph to anybody who passed.

“Excuse me; have you ever seen this man?” She asked, presenting him again with the same photograph. There was no sign she remembered the event few days earlier.

Wikan accepted the photograph again out of courtesy.

At that stage, she was not yet a pottery sculpture. She smiled when she said, “Keep it, if one day you meet him, please tell him that I am looking and waiting for him.”

Wikan, bemused and slightly irritated at her persistence, began advising her to contact the police and maybe publish missing person ads on the newspaper as well. “After all”, he explained, “Either of those methods will be much more effective and simple than what you are doing now.”

She explained quickly, and with a hint of agitation, that firstly, she tried his methods earlier in vain, secondly, that she had since learned to never look for a man eaten by a tiger by entering the lion cave, and thirdly, she intended to perform her “happening art” to agitate people’s mind.

Wikan, by now dazzled and confused, particularly by the last two explanations, muttered an apology and walked away, completely forgetting that a few days earlier he had hoped to see her to ask her name.

Now, twenty-two days after their first encounter on Malioboro road, it seemed to Wikan that she had given up. No photograph or crinkled copy in her hands, she was as still as dark water in forest pools, the invisible shell around her isolating her from the bustling life of Tugu station. She showed little enthusiasm when Wikan recognized her, as if he was only the paperboy offering her belated news from leftover newspapers.

Perhaps the emotional exertion of her search had exhausted her; perhaps she was resentful in her failure. Whatever her state of mind, when Wikan questioned her on the success of her search, she replied quietly without shifting her eyes from her fingers, “I know it’s similar to looking for a pin in the yard.”

“You mean you know you won’t find him?”

“I will regret it if I don’t try.”

“You have tried it.”

She sighed.

“Will you go home now? To…?”

“Surabaya first. My train will arrive at nine.”

She varied the movement of her fingers, while Wikan, attempting wisdom, began to advise her about the psychological dangers of being desperate.

“Desperation”, she looked away into the crowd bustling past beyond the waiting room, “What do you know of desperation?” She was almost whispering when answered her own question, “No! I don't think you have any idea about desperation, if you knew of this, you would speak otherwise.”

She moved her hands now, straightening her back to sit upright, observing the scenes in front of her. Wikan watched as his sculpture changed into a fairy. Or a ghost? Or what?

She went on, “Desperation has been a routine since I don't know when. It has become proof that we are also human. If only you saw what we have been through …”

Wikan was quiet for some while, trying to guess, and finally asked, “Where do you come from?”

Eventually she turned to look at him, her lips shaping a strange smile. “I come from a paradise land, the last piece of heaven on earth.”

“Are you a poet?” he asked, instantly recognising his response as ridiculous. She ignored him, but the smile had vanished from her lips as she continued.

“We both live in one country, but not with the same history. You here have glorious tales of becoming this nation, we were simply thrown into it. Our own stories were left behind, scattered into darkness.”

Wikan felt that she mocked him up, but could not help being interested in what she had said.

“Do you come from the east?”

“The easternmost,” she replied.

“Of course, you are Papuan! I should have known. You are OPM, aren’t you, a separatist.”

“I am not,” she hissed.

Wikan dropped his newspaper in surprise at her reaction, and then quickly retrieved it, while trying to think of an intelligent reply.

“It is common gossip,” she read his face, “to say that all of us are OPM, but if I am, do you think I am so foolish as to declare myself in public here in this central island? If I am, are my comrades complete fools letting me offer my neck here?”

She did not wait for his response, as three laughing children distracted her attention. One of them was playing with a bright yellow bright balloon.

“Those children will most likely grow up to become as you are now.” She sensed Wikan observing the children as well. They ran around amongst the hurrying crowds, playing and laughing, unaware of the “serious business” of catching trains on time. The food- sellers were irritations that commuters tried best to avoid, but the balloon wielding child didn’t have such adult worries. She provoked the other two children and they chased each other, laughing and giggling, oblivious to their surroundings. Three colourful creatures in a stampede of grey stripped lurik sellers. After some while, a man called to them and soon the three children followed him into one of the caf├ęs.

“They will learn to read and recite your history, and your national achievements. They will study how to achieve a future for them, to look toward the future without bending the path to the left or the right. They will practice well how to limit their heart and mind.”

Suddenly, she stared at Wikan, her soot eyes hypnotizing him. “Have you ever starved for weeks? I know comparable things happened here, I have seen those people living under the bridges and beside the river...,” she took a deep breath, “but have you actually experienced this?”

Wikan made a weak sigh.

“Have you ever perspired, farming someone’s land to only receive a wage of half-full lunch every day? Or, did you lose your house on a morning, dragged out into the street by the police, in the name of greater common purpose of city development?”

Wikan guessed that she may be an aid worker. Concerned about the homeless, the landless, the jobless, the lifeless.

“There are rivers that children drink from. The water smells of excrement, the surface shines with a film of poisonous mining waste.”

Or maybe, Wikan considered, she was an environmentalist. He remembered something he had heard from someone about Papua, but he still couldn’t formulate a proper response to her words.

“Have you ever been forced to defend yourself in a trial, accused of dancing your own dance? Do you have any kin who were shot for singing their ancestors’ jovial song?

His mouth opened, but only in silence.

“Women, young girls, sisters, aunts, mothers, raped by the same men who then impaled them with iron fence palings? Have you seen such things? Have you?”

Wikan shook his head slowly. Left-right. Left-right, left-right, left-right, His head felt like a dakocan doll or wooden puppet with broken spring.

“ If you have seen or experienced these things, then maybe you could try to imagine this ‘desperation’ of which you speak. Can you?”

Wikan felt numb, and unable to shift his gaze from her.

“No need to feel guilty,” she suddenly softened her tone. “You live here. Your society, your education, your media, your life- style, all of them surround you with a permanent design to exclude other stories. They buried our stories. If some cries emerged, they just became unintelligible noises of little consequence. Muffled and diminished, with no power to disturb your breakfast time, or your warm tea in the sunny afternoon. No more than a quick selling formula to sell newspapers to you.”

Wikan said nothing.

“Anyway, you here have scraps too. Shameless representatives, earthquakes, ship wrecks, political carnage, typhoon, terrorist bombs, floods, airplane crash, landslide… you cannot hear what happened on our land in this mess. For you, it’s as far as Rwanda from Java.”

They both were quiet after that. For some time. Eventually Wikan spoke again, if only to break the unbearable train of thought gnawing at his mind in the silence, “Who is the man you have been searching for?”

Slowly she came back from being a sculpture again, movement appearing in the fingers fixed in her lap.

“You don't need to answer if you don't want to,” he offered, 'trying to be as amiable as possible. '

“I don’t know him exactly.”

“You are putting so much effort into looking for someone you don't know? Is that true?”

“I 'm not sure. Possibly he is my father.”

“Oh”, Wikan whispered, now quite confused. “But from the picture he is not Papuan”

She murmured, “I wish I could have only Papuan blood in my veins…”

“I... Ummm...”

“No need to be sorry. Maybe he is my father, but maybe he is not.”

“I don’t mean to pry, but how?”

She began to play with her fingers with more purpose

“Some three decades ago, troops were sent to safeguard the region. He was one of eleven privates who gave my mother bath soap.”

Wikan did not dare to let her know that her explanation perplexed him

“She was beautiful.They took her from my grandfather's land, but couldn’t stand her odour.” She swallowed then continued, “They compelled her to take a bath twice a day. Eight days later, she was found by some locals in the forest, several kilometres from the village. She was covered in blood, her arms and legs were broken. The healers helped her to recover physically, but were helpless to recuperate her sanity. She was only fifteen when she died delivering me into this world.”

“I am really s ….....” Wikan felt a sense of trepidation.

“I tried to look for information in any possible way. No one could tell me anything about those soldiers. The photograph is the only thing I have. My grandpa said in one of her very few days without insanity my mother gave it to him, told him that the other soldiers beat the private. He too defiled Mama, under rifles threats.”

Wikan felt his stomach tightening, and the breath in his throat constricting. Her words disturbed the early morning routine, and Wikan began to hear the people moving through the station with heavy, banging steps,the busy station soon becoming a distant, buzzing sound in his head. His vision blurred, and he felt an urge to break away from the implications and uncomfortable images her words evoked. He had to escape somewhere.....anywhere. He mumbled something about toilet and then quickly stood and walked away, without waiting for her reply.

He reached the sanctuary of the station toilet, and washed his face at the basin, the clear water refreshing, and helping him to regain his composure somewhat. In the mirror, he found his well-cared face was actually quite wrinkled, the skin appearing strained, like dried lemon peel. He ventured out, and returned to the waiting room chair six minutes later.

She was not there. He asked everybody around, but the best answer he got was that she left as if in a rush. He waited for her until the train to Bandung arrived, but there was no sign of her. He boarded the train, looked for his seat, and then almost wistfully felt the train begin to move. His eyes caught the empty bench chair they had sat on before. Her pastel dress was still waving in the after-image of his memory. For the first time in the last twelve years, Wikan sincerely prayed, asking that while he was in the washroom she had left because she found him boring. Or walked to the public telephone at the end of passenger walk, to make a call. Or went to ladies toilet. Or just left to make him restless because it was her intention to stir up people’s mind. What was that she said … Happening art? Maybe she went to buy canned juice. Oh God, six minutes was far too short a time for a more complex scenario!

They buried our stories. If some cries emerged, they just became unintelligable sounds of little consequence …Her voice kept ringing in his ears. Wikan realised that he had not learned her name.

Yogyakarta, 26 March 2005
© Era Fiyantiningrum

Thanks to Jademoon who helped me retouched this story in November-December 2009, I hope we will have another project soon