I know that when the time comes you’ll seek me out. Like the great explorers, you’ll trace my every step. It won’t be easy, because I’ve been silent for years, and for years I’ve kept my story safe in the depths of the valley, in the quiet at the end of the cape. Perhaps you’ll never find me. Perhaps you’ll only catch a glimpse of where I’ve been.
THEY came in October 1965, a month we might have expected typhoid and dysentery, and knocked on every door in Alas. They captured at random those they thought had plotted to kill the generals during the Dance of the Fragrant Blooms at Lubang Buaya, the dumping ground of the tortured bodies. The covert militiamen descended like a plague. That night, in cold blood, they shot anyone who attempted to flee into the forest. Just as coldly, they thrust their bayonets into the bellies of anyone who gave evasive and long-winded answers to their soul-destroying questions.
If you don’t want to experience unparalleled cruelty, pray that you never meet them. Okay then, if you don’t believe me, let me tell you what happened to Magdalena Markini. Merely because she wouldn’t reveal my hiding spot, Magda, my big sister, was burnt alive in our front yard.
That’s right, I saw it with my own eyes from up in the rambutan tree. Before she was set alight, a soldier struck her on the head with the butt of his rifle. It didn’t stop there. When she hit the ground, another soldier crushed her face beneath his boots, disfiguring her nose and mouth.
“Where are you hiding Elisabet Rukmini, that dancer … that killer?”
Magda didn’t answer. She touched her forehead, chest and shoulders in the sign of the cross, her lips moving silently. “Pretending to pray won’t fool us!” a soldier rammed his boot into Magda’s chest. “Didn’t you lot kill God a long time ago? Why call on Him now?”
Magda still did not respond and her lips resumed their silent movement. Maybe she was hoping that, at this critical moment when nobody else dared stand up to the brutal soldiers, Jesus would come and save her. Whereas Jesus had in fact been killed – no way was he coming down to earth just for Magda.
And so there was no divine intervention when a soldier abruptly squatted down and jabbed his smouldering cigarette into Magda’s eye. She screamed, but not a single person heard her cries. Maybe they had all been burned. Maybe they had left before the soldiers came.
“I’ll ask you one more time … where are you hiding Elisabet Rukmini? Do you know what your sister did on the 30th September?”
Magda, tortured simply for being related to someone suspected of killing the generals, shook her head.
“Do you know what we do to people who harbour traitors?”
Magda kept shaking her head.
“Well … you’re about to find out what we have in store for you …”
Then a soldier doused her body with kerosene. They burnt my beautiful sister, she who lived each day in Christ but never received succour from that Son of Nazareth.
Truth be told, when I saw Magda running around in a frenzy, her body aflame, I wanted to scream. If nothing else, I wanted to distract the soldiers so they would stop torturing her. But I contained the urge. I had to stay alive. Someday I would have to tell the story of what these brutes did. I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything if they had killed me.
And so, I had no choice but to watch as my sister was slowly reduced to ash and dust. I could do nothing but wait until the soldiers left. I could have prayed to be saved, but I did not. Magda’s dissolving body, the scorched eye that could not cry for help, the lips that shut tight when the bayonet pierced her side – it was pretty clear to me which side Jesus was on.
AS I left the burning village, there was no moon to illuminate the forest. Once I had climbed down from the rambutan tree, I ran through a murky pathway in the opposite direction of the soldiers. I knew where I had to go, where to find safety, but it was not easy to find a place to hide in the darkness.
To get to the safest place I knew, a church at the other end of the village, I had to push my way through dozens of rose gardens full of thorns, I had to cross a river with strong currents, and I had to crawl past a cave full of bats.
My suffering seemed to surpass that of Christ himself. To reach the cross, God’s saving pillar for the Son most wonderful, he had to wear a crown of thorns. But I? My whole body would be pierced by thousands of thorns before I even reached the river.
For what seemed like an eternity I was trapped in the rose garden’s excruciating beauty. It truly was eternity; each time I emerged from one rose garden I found myself having to endure another.
My thoughts strayed to the church. In my mind, I met with Father Sindhu and told him all that had happened to Magda. I told the kindly priest of how Christ was helpless before those malicious soldiers.
But in truth, my body was still snagged in that rose garden full of thorns. Even if in the next few moments I could free myself from this tangle of pain and beauty I would still have to swim in the cold, raging river. Even if I could conquer the river, I did not know whether I would be able to make my way through the cave without a torch.
So it was simply impossible for me to tell others about the soldiers’ cruelty. Even if I could escape from the cave that was trapping me, covert militiamen from another unit were hardly going to allow me to rest my bones in Father Sindhu’s church.
But I was sure Father was waiting patiently for me. And he would listen patiently to a wounded woman as she told her tragic story of a village being burnt, of residents being beaten by soldiers in the dark.
I jumped into the river just as dozens of snakes slithered from their hiding holes, on the move to other holes. I didn’t pause to ask them why they had to move all the way down to the estuary. So, fearful of touching those disgusting creatures as they drifted on the surface of the river, I chose to dive and only occasionally stick my head up for air.
The snakes seemed not to be possessed by the devil or Lucifer, for they had no interest in tempting a descendant of Eve. And, preoccupied by other desires, they were disinclined to bite or crush an already wounded human body. So, enduring the pain, I floated on the water till I reached the river’s end, the mouth of the cave.
As you would expect, the water was more tranquil at the mouth of the cave, and the river rolling through it less treacherous. That helped me to get through the last trap more calmly. But I had to remain vigilant. The cave had a subterranean river and I had heard from explorers that there was a whirlpool that could pull a person down to 20 meters below. If luck was not with me, the vortex could suck and squeeze me into a tunnel.
But you know too that a cave will not harm anyone who ventures through its chambers as long as they obey all its rules, rules that you can almost see etched on its walls, as follows.
First, never shout careless words when you are in the zone of eternal darkness at the center of the cave. The repeated echo of your words will only disorient you and develop into a drone that will torment your ears. With agonizing pain in your ears, you will be thrown into confusion, and finally try to escape it all by slipping into the depths of the underground river. It is at that moment that the whirlpool will catch you unawares, suck you in and drown you.
Second, never kill any of the animals in the cave. They are highly perceptive and they know who does harm to them and their kin. If you harm a snake, it will store your face in its eyes. Its kin will be able to see it in the eyes of the slain snake and they will swiftly hunt you down. Even if you go to the end of the world, they will go after you.
Third, never take anything from or leave anything in the cave. Resist the urge to cut off the stalactites or stalagmites, because if you do, those pointy shards will develop an urge to pierce you in the side.
So, with respect for all living beings in the cave, I swam in the underground river. I knew the curves and the turns of the cave because as a child I had passed many times through this natural beauty, spanning about 350 meters, to reach Father Sindhu’s church.
At such times, we thought we would find heaven if we managed to cross the cave. And Father Sindhu would always tell us, “Yes, you have found heaven!” So on Sundays we would race each other to his church.
Would I reach the end of the cave? I did not know. I could just sense that Father Sindhu would be there to welcome me, his face radiating happiness.
WHEN I was twelve, after having resurfaced from the subterranean river, Father Sindhu asked me, “What did you see in the cave, Elisabet Rukmini?”
“I did not see anything, Father, except for bats and darkness.”
“You did not see a sculpture of the crucified body of Christ?”
“I did not see the body of Christ, Father.”
“You did not see the body of the grown-up Magda being burned by the soldiers?”
“I did not see Magda’s body, Father.”
“You did not see the grown-up you being pursued by the soldiers?”
“I did not see myself, Father.”
“You did not see the future etched onto the walls of the cave?”
“I did not see the future etched onto the walls of the cave, Father.”
Father Sindhu was not angry at my answers. He stroked my hair and said softly, “You will see the future, as etched onto the walls of the cave, when the time comes.”
SO, what did I actually see in that cave on that painful day in October 1965? Maybe I was hallucinating when I saw those violent soldiers crucify my body. Their bayonets thrust again and again into my side until my body slumped, powerless to do anything.
I ignored the strange carvings. All I wanted was to meet the ageless priest Father Sindhu. I just wanted to collapse in the yard of the church in the hope that Father Sindhu would come and carry me, just as the Virgin Mary had carried the helpless body of Christ.
But the truth was I still had to go through a whirlpool in that perpetual zone of darkness. There was no avoiding it and there was nothing in my life experience that would be of any use at that critical point in time. All I could do was put my faith in my mother’s words: ngelia ning aja keli, go with the flow, but don’t allow yourself to get washed away.
That’s why I didn’t struggle against the whirlpool. I let it suck my body down. I let it fling my body to the surface of the water. I let the calm current carry me to the end of the cave, the end that would bring me closer to the church of Father Sindhu.
I had to crawl my way to the door of the church. When I got there, I knocked as hard as I could so that Father Sindhu would come running and cradle my limp body. However, it was as if there was no life within. As if no one heard my knock on the dilapidated door.
“Father, open the door! Save me!”
Still no answer.
WHERE is the benevolent priest now? How could he forsake me when I need him most? Just as Jesus abandoned Magda, why is Father Sindhu abandoning me when I am desperate for his help?
The answer was really not what I expected. When I managed to open the door, which was actually unlocked, I saw Father Sindhu’s head, smashed and covered in blood. His eyes were staring at me as if in unrestrained agony.
And then I realized what must have happened: Father Sindhu had been brutally beaten. Blood was oozing from his side. Someone must have stabbed him with a bayonet or a spear or something else. His chest was crushed. Someone – or several people – must have stomped on his slender body with their boots. The shocking thing was that Father’s testicles had not been spared. It seemed like they had been shot at close range, splattered all over the place.
Seeing the flies swarming Father Sindhu’s corpse, I guessed it might have been a while since the horror had taken place. I would never see his smile again. His mouth was caved in, his teeth shattered.
Father Sindhu’s corpse had not yet decomposed, but anyone seeing it would be overcome by waves of nausea. It was revolting. I doubt that even Jesus would have been able to endure the agony of such a gruesome death. The killers had done away with Father Sindhu just like slaughtering a goat.
YOU might think that those bastards had planned to annihilate Father Sindhu even before they descended on the town. I don’t believe it was premeditated. Let me explain. You see, Father refused to rat out on those suspected of killing the generals, just as Magda refused to reveal where I hid. For keeping mum, they killed him. It’s as simple as that.
I could be wrong. Yet, considering that Father Sindhu’s bruises were identical to Magda’s, I believe that their respective murderers must have hailed from the same training camp. This means that if Magda’s murderers were soldiers, then those responsible for Father Sindhu’s death must surely also have been from the ranks of the military.
Of course it’s of no use to ask about the unit from which the soldiers came. Their presence, like a plague, would never have been registered in any official document. It was beyond the capability of the war crime judges to pass sentence on high ranking military officials, for there wasn’t a single document that could be used to accuse them of being the masterminds of the cruelest murders in this country’s history.
So, who killed Father Sindhu? No one was inclined to answer. Even if they knew who the killer was, they would never talk about the murders to anyone else. These facts would just circle inside them, buried forever like mummies.
SO what could I do then? Nothing. How could a powerless woman perform a miracle? Victory and invulnerability were in the hands of those who possessed rifles and boots, so how could I change the world, armed only with the desire to expose the brutality of the soldiers to people who could no longer hear.
For that reason, it was better for me to do nothing. I decided to play dead so that when the soldiers came, they would not have to put themselves out to kill me. Yes, yes, this was a wise option. Like a stupid tiger unable to sniff out a helpless victim, the soldiers would not touch me. I knew that they would become violent should they encounter an equally violent victim.
But, playing dead was no mean feat. I had to control my breathing so as not to make any sound. I had to control my heart so that no one could hear its wild beating.
Damn it, despite my best attempt at playing dead, I still failed to stop myself from breaking wind. Perhaps because they heard it or perhaps because they had all along been spying on my movements, the soldiers suddenly came out of their hiding place and lunged forward to circle me.
“You don’t need to hide anymore! You can’t run away anymore!”
RUN? Where would I run? My mind might be free to run, but my body couldn’t even muster the strength to crawl. So I didn’t move. I was convinced that if I kept perfectly still, the soldiers would go away. They would not pierce my side with their bayonets. They would not scorch my eye with their cigarettes. They would not crush my face with their boots, and my mouth would not cave in, my teeth would not be shattered.
“Are you Elisabet Rukmini?”
I did not respond.
“Are you Elisabet Rukmini? Don’t make us kill the wrong person!”
Still I did not respond.
“I repeat, are you Elisabet Rukmini? You don’t want us to kill you, do you? Answer me!”
There was no point answering the question. They probably hadn’t been ordered to kill me anyway, so I didn’t need to heed their empty threat. Ironically, it is at times like this that I find power. The power to quell my anger, the power to not fight back.
Is it wrong to not fight back?
I didn’t have to answer the question. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway – one of the soldiers struck me on the back of the neck with his rifle. Unconscious, I had no idea where they dragged me.
Violence had transformed into an invincible force; it would have been futile to attempt to undermine its supremacy. And so, when I came to I no longer cared about what might happen next. I no longer feared their rifles or their boots. I no longer feared being pierced by a bayonet. I no longer feared that in the next few minutes I may no longer be drawing breath, or dreaming of freedom.
Truly, at that moment I no longer feared the stomp of the boots or the cock of the rifles. I no longer feared fear itself …
Semarang, 20 May 2012
Translated by Aiko Sumichan, Athanasius Nugraha, Bronwyn Duke, Doni Jaya, Elisabet Murtisari, Femmy Syahrani, Indah Lestari, Linda Lingard, Maya Denisa Saputra, Nazry Bahrawi, Nurul Hanafi, Pamela Allen and Shaffiq Selamat, with the participation of the author, at the Literary Translation Workshops & Events 2013 organised by BCLT, Paper Republic and InterSastra in Jakarta, September 2013.