Oleh Benny Arnas
It was constantly on Anas’ mind how stupid the local people were. Building drains with clay bricks. Worse still, some of them even used besser blocks.
Great! How brainless could they be. Anas could plainly see what was happening before his very eyes. What do you suppose makes them think they don’t need to consider the money compared to stone? Don’t they realise that bricks will gradually be eroded by water over time, even though people persist in doing it for all sorts of seemingly fabricated reasons: that the bricks would be lined with cement, for example? Surely river stones are better than bricks. Suppressing his anger, Anas seethed inwardly.
If collecting and selling stones wasn’t the only job to keep food on the table for the two of them in the hut on the slopes of Sulap Hill, Anas wouldn’t be this upset and seething with anger like this.
Another thing that was always on his mind was how the local people preferred to do what the town officials told them to. Those men in their beige uniforms were always going on about the issue of using bricks to build drains and to make the little paths- they called them “footpaths” – along the edge of the main road which had just started being built a few weeks earlier. Why did the local villagers obey the NGOs who claim they care about the environment but don’t give a damn about the lives of other people? These “nature lovers” were always carrying on about getting the village people not to use stones when they were building drains or reinforcing the concrete walls of their old houses or for other jobs where stones might have been chosen as the basic building material.
Oh no, it wasn’t like this at all! To be more precise, they were doing it to cause Pak Mur and Anas to die a slow death. Unable to scream because they were out of breath, didn’t even have half a breath left, no longer even able to let anyone know the state their bodies were in because they had no energy to make a fuss. No longer able to use the stones that were in their small yard. Eventually Anas and Pak Mur would quietly die. And be quietly buried in the Lubuk Senalang public cemetery.
In fact it wasn’t all that important that the town and village folk hoped Anas would die-they already had some influence over him. It was actually Pak Mur whose life they were hoping to put an end to. As soon as possible. It was as if he was keeping them from becoming townspeople: people who looked well-off and respectable.
A blender is seen as better than a grinding stone for crushing chillis, and a mortar is better if it’s made out of wood. That’s what Anas had noted after several visits to the warungs owned by Mang Sarin, Nek Ijah and Wak Komar. It was lucky they didn’t suggest replacing stones with bricks, coral or even cement for the foundations of their houses, thought Anas.
But the latest thing was that the people of Ulaksurung and Lorongkandis had started to call Pak Mur a stone himself. It cut right into Anas’s very heart when he heard this bad-mouthing by the people in the shops, the women who flocked to the vegetable carts or the trouble makers at the posko – which were supposed to be places where well-spoken young men gather to ponder on useful topics. They had clearly not outlived their usefulness.
“What’s going on with Anas, Jali?”
“Has the Old Stone got any children, Mir?”
“Ehem,” Mang Jali gave a little cough to indicate that Anas had just come into the warung to exchange a few 1000 rupiah notes for some of Nek Ijah, the owner’s, local coffee. “One thing for sure the old man up there on the hillside is just like the stones there- he’ll never change. Unfortunately he’ll remain a bachelor. No one would want to marry him.” Mang Jali raised his voice deliberately.
Anas glanced at him sharply.
“Hey, Jali, the Stone’s kid doesn’t look too happy!” Mang Amir lifted his foot onto a bamboo seat.
“Hey, Anas. You’re not too happy, eh?” Mang Jali seemed to be challenging him.
Clearly Mang Amir had succeeded in stirring him.
“Are you sure you’re Mur’s kid?” Mang Jali snickered. Mang Amir joined in as they sipped from their glasses of coffee. “You tell that Old Stone, your father, that we don’t want a landslide here in Ulaksurung like the one on Botak Hill.”
Anas grabbed his change from the wrinkled hand of Nek Ijah’s, who was suppressing a grin.
“Hey!” Mang Jali shouted, “That father of yours is a stone!” And laughter burst out throughout the shop.
Anas was unmoved. Barefoot he went down the village lane and through the gateway. Stirring up the dusty gravel. The thunder of laughter and scorn from Nek Ijah’s warung grew fainter as Anas strode on, over the silent ground. It was hot, hot, hot.
Behind the reasons for the fear of landslides, floods and other natural diasters, Anas and Pak Mur were thoroughly miserable. Fading away like butterflies living in a garden where all the flowers remained forever in bud. Never blooming. Stones were piled up at the front and at the back of the house, keeping their silence, like Pak Mur who each morning and evening would stare at them for ages. There was almost nothing left that they could rely on to keep them alive.
Anas couldn’t even do much more than reassure his father that they had sufficient savings and rice to keep the hunger pangs at bay for a few more days. For some time now Pak Mur’s mental and physical state had been of growing concern. The evenings would find him talking to himself in front of the stones piled up in the corners of his yard. Sometimes he’d crouch down before one of the heaps and stroke the silent stones. Sometimes he’d even kiss them. And he’d often cast stones from one pile to another. When night began to fall his body would often shiver with the cold. Usually Anas would take out all the blankets and sarongs from the cupboard to warm up the frail, old man. Only when the pitch darkness made his old eyes droop for a moment, and the call to prayer pealed throughout Ulaksurung would Pak Mur stop shivering.
“Dad, is it true what Mang Jali’s been saying?”
“Who was he gossiping with?”
“Mang Amir, Bi Nur, Wak Soleh, Cik Rika….”
“So what other warungs have you been at?” Pak Mur’s face was turning red with anger.
“Oh, I dunno, it’s just that I heard people bad-mouthing us.” Anas bit his lip to keep his mouth straight. “Mmm…” Anas thought about how he should put it. “Have we harmed them in some way that we don’t know about?”
Pak Murk kicked his wooden chair so hard it shot over towards Anas who automatically ducked, and shielded his face with both hands. The chair almost hit him.
“So you’re defending them, huh? You’re defending those town and NGO folk and that crazy Jali and that witch, Ijah?”
Anas didn’t reply. He hurried out the back to boil some hot water.
In a while it would be pitch dark. As usual it was as if coffee was Pak Mur’s only loyal friend, since no one was even making an offer, let alone buying the stones in his yard. And his bachelor son, Anas always faithfully made him black coffee before keeping him company while he ranted at the dark sky in the biting night wind among the piles of stones which were waiting for Pak Mur to smash them against each other. Then Anas would relinquish his task of keeping his father company. Yes, who wants to die, crushed by stones, even if it’s your own father who’s doing it?
As usual when it got late his father would come back into his stuffy room, shivering with the cold. Anas would again go to him to warm him up with more sarongs from their old teak cupboard. And so it went on over those last few nights. Over and over. On and on. It seemed like nothing would change until someone wanted to build a house and buy some of the stones.
“Did you also hear Jali cursing and bad-mouthing me in Nek Ijah’s warung at the crossroads in Linggau?”
“ It’s on Bangka Road, Dad.” Anas went back out to the kitchen. As he stirred the coffee he fixed his attention on the aluminum kettle perched between two blackened stones in the fireplace that was full of soot and dust.
“It doesn’t matter where it is, dammit!”
Anas sighed, and stopped stirring.
“Those NGO people, they do what they like. They think they’re so pure. They think they know best what’s good for people. Sulap Hill won’t be eroded by rain water and there won’t be a landslide that causes a flood for the villagers here, just because we take out a few stones.” Pak Mur was shouting as if to make sure Anas was listening to it all from the kitchen.
“Maybe they’re afraid the same thing will happen like on Botak Hill, Dad.” Anas went on with his stirring. He wasn’t game enough to go back into the middle room yet. Pak Mur was still ranting. Pretty soon the stones around the house would become the target of his rants.
“That’s a lie!” Don’t you side with the devil too, Nas.” Anas blew at the fire. He needed to boil some more water, ready for Pak Mur’s usual demand for more coffee.
A light rain pattered on the tin roof. Anas had joined Pak Mur and was serving the coffee. The drumming of the rain grew louder.
“Not going out, Dad?” Anas sat down right in front of Pak Mur, across from him at the battered wooden table. Usually when the night was still young like this Pak Mur would take the opportunity to relax among his stones as he sipped his 4 or 5 glasses of coffee.
“Don’t be stupid, it’s raining!”
The wind howled. The skies opened. In no time rain was piercing the earth.
“Dad, this afternoon I was at Nek Ijah’s warung”
Pak Mur looked at him, with a cynical expression.
The rain grew heavier.
“What are they saying?”
“We have to move away from here straight away. They’re saying the city folk are going to be building some sort of villa. I don’t even know what a villa is – something like a guesthouse, I think.
“Those town people are full of hot air”
“I think Mang Jali’s the worst of them, Dad.”
Pak Mur looked up, his brow clenched.
“Mang Jali has signed a power of attorney over this land.”
“To hell with you, Jali!” Pak Mur’s chest was heaving. “He wants to pick a fight with us!” He got up and went out into the muddy yard.
There was a thunderous sound outside.
“What’s that noise, Dad?”
“You just watch out, Jali!” Pak Mur paid no heed to Anas’s words. He began to pick up several middle-sized stones and put them into an old sack. “I’m going to crush that Jali’s head in!”
Suddenly Pak Mur screamed. Followed by Anas.
“Damn you, Mur!” Jali growled. His shoulders were heaving in an effort to prevent his anger from erupting. His eyes were wide open, gazing at the pile of bricks behind the old curtain. Bi Nun offered her husband a glass of water in an attempt to calm him down.
Jali was really mad now. The water splashed all over the dark floor, now scattered with shards of glass.
“If he hadn’t been so hell bent on staying there. And hadn’t gouged out stones every day, then this wouldn’t have happened. You stone! Old Bachelor! Old Geezer! Now you’re a Dead Old Man too!”
Bi Nun, sitting on the edge of the divan, held her tongue.
“We’re never going to be rich! Those city folk won’t be building their villas up there now.”
“Poor Anas!” Bi Nun’s eyes were troubled as she looked up at Sulap Hill framed by the window. Once green it was now an earthy brown.
“Why do you feel sorry for that fatherless kid?” Mang Jali turned his head, his hands on his hips.
“That’s enough! It isn’t as if you won’t be doing well out of him. Your bricks will be even more sought after now. I just feel sorry for that innocent boy.” Bi Nun’s voice was husky, her eyes welling with tears.
“It was lucky he was a good kid! It’s a good thing he died along with that crazy old man, so he never knew he was adopted. No one ever wanted to marry Pak Mur. Even when he was older he never married or had children, or even socialised with anyone, never had any life at all but those stones. Naturally he’d die, struck by stones. He was really just a stone himself. A stone killed by stones.”
Bi Nun paid no further attention to what her husband was saying. She took a black scarf from the top of the old wardrobe and wiped her reddening eyes before covering her untidy bun with it.
“Where are you going? Didn’t you hear me speaking to you?”
“In Wak Komar’s warung just now I heard that the bodies of Mur and Anas have just been brought down from the landslide. They’ll probably be buried this afternoon. No matter how much you hated them, do the decent thing like a man.”
Mang Jali went over and got out his black peci and followed his wife to Lubuk Senalang.