The Small Busy Stall.
It was a smoldering humid day in the midst of drought season. A foolish habit started to spread as everyone casted their eyes at the bright empty sky every now
I rushed in to find the safety of my father’s sarung. His habit was to swat my hand away as he busy with the customer’s request but that day he held both of my hand while standing in front of me even when he barely covered me anymore. I saw the sprinkle of dust floating by and it reflected the sun’s glare. Soon a brown cloud filled the air when the colonial police started their sudden march. Disgruntled comments quickly spread around and the customers buried the stall until the air became stale and hot. The voices died down as fast as it began but the heightened distaste lingered.
Then I saw her. She came in right after everyone dispersed, always at the slow time.
Father didn’t even look up to see. “Oh hi Little cub, just finishing up training as usual?”
“You know it Uncle.”
“Maybe a Little bit more for today.” She snickered.
I peeked behind the divider just to see her. I never missed sneaking out to watch her trained with her father.
“Hi, Little cucumber.” That was her nickname for me.
I smiled and went back behind the divider.
“Still shy? Even after all this time?”
My father shook his head. “At least she didn’t make a ruckus like with others.”
“She’s just excited, that’s all. Aren’t you, Little cucumber?”
I peeked, smiled, and sat back under the shadow. Then I heard she sighed.
“More suitors, Little cub?” Father chuckled. He took too much pleasure in teasing her over her frustration.
“Oh Uncle, it’s not that. I actually enjoy defeating all these half baked so called fighters. It’s a good dose of reality for them and a great training for me. You wouldn’t believe how they looked. Most of them have this…this flabbergasted expression. Like how dare I triumph so easily over them. Men.”
“I’m a man too you know.” It was a familiar click of Father’s tongue.
“That’s why I’m coming here to ask. Any suggestion to find a better challenge?”
“You are actually looking for a potential partner? I would think…”
She choked over rice and a coughing fit soon followed. I scurried to give her some tea before disappeared again. “Thank you. Oh Uncle, stop making fun of me. I am not in need of such thing. Father on the other hand.” She shook her head. “Like he’s the one that getting married.”
She almost choked for the second time.”What?”
“In a way. Look at it this way, your suitor will be marrying the whole village. Including me.” I stared at Father’s back in horror while she laughed so hard, rice almost shooting out of her nose.
“Uncle! You just made my day. Thank you. Here’s for the meal and the jokes. You always know what to say.” She laughed and waved at me. “Bye, Little cucumber. See you next time.”
I let her see only my arm when I waved back. A flash of memory flooded my vision. The dark mosaic sky was full of broken pieces from what used to be a full moon. The glittery dust made little faint trails in effort to become one with the moon again. A familiar sturdy silhouette came in to visit us. It was Uncle, Big Sis’ father with his warm smile. His broad shoulder sparked fear in me sometimes but I would close my eyes to listen to his kind voice and everything seemed brighter.
“My friend! What good drink you have today?”
Father raised a clay jug with a wink. “So far this is my best effort.”
They shared the liquid inside and poured it into their mouth. I saw Father’s eyes grew wider and his voice raised higher. I listened to them while my eyes still on the clay jug. Father made a mistake of leaving half of the jug on the table. I dipped my finger in without any sound and enjoyed the nectar within.
“I cannot believe how easy it was to convince her into the marriage.”
“Bodong. That is not a marriage, it is a contest with her as a trophy. Do you think it is fair for her?”
Uncle Bodong looked down at his massive glass and gulped half of it. “I don’t have any other choice. She won’t give me other choice.”
“Smart girl.” Father chuckled.
“You think she baited me?”
“Have you forgotten the one you called intoxicating love of your life?”
“She does have her mother’s good gene.”
Confusion filled my mind and I was sure the whole world was agreeing with me. The glittery dust by the sky began their own celebration as they twirled around the half moon and moved closer together. A silent rhythm entered my ears and I moved along as the curtain of darkness lulled me to sleep.
Then I blinked as I came back to the present and saw Big Sis’ figure shrinking away. I whispered a wish to see her again soon.
It was getting dark but the chill never came. Father and I decided to open the extension porch for customer who stayed in for midnight snack. With the heat, nobody would be able to sleep soundly. Soon not just locale but visitors also crowded in. I knew with a sense of guilt Father secretly appreciated the contest. That night though wasn’t one of those night.
It started just like any other busy evening. A couple of rowdy patrons, some of them younger than others. A group of what looked like young fighter conversed with the villagers.
“Yeah, we have to stand our ground against these oppression. Send them a message to not to mess with us.”
“Agree. It is our land. They suppose to have respect, help us against those bandits. But they just sit around waiting for us to fend ourselves.”
“That’s why we rob them.” All of a sudden, the faces that I always knew was no longer smiling.
“What make you any different from the pirates?”
“We rob those who oppress us. We just talked about sending a clear message.”
“So we rob those who rob us. It’s a little bit redundant don’t you think?”
“No, especially once we get the legendary Lioness to stand with us.”
“She wouldn’t agree to that.” The other villagers chimed in and nodded their head.
“That’s what they all said.” The group laughed at the comment.
“No, she won’t. She dedicated her life to fight those likened you.”
I felt the rising commotion. My legs carried me backward into the safety of our main porch. My ears were ringing as loud as their argument. The air was heating up and I tried to catch my breath. My fingers flailed while my head tried to shake the echo in my head. I could barely discern the words, but I was able to hear some.
“Don’t worry old man. Next time you see me, the lovely unbeatable warrior will be holding on to me.” A tall young man announced his intention for the whole stall especially Father to hear.
“Oh I’m not worry, but we’ll see who’s holding on to whom. Now sit down, young man.” I heard one of the older villager spoke.
“Young man? You all know who he is. The famous legendary warrior from Karawang. ” One of his mate stood up next to him and continued, “she will kneel before him.”
I felt my head was heating up. There was so much words ready to explode but my tongue was numb. Suddenly I heard a voice that somewhat familiar but sounded to foreign to me. “I am asking you to leave.”
I saw Father’s mouth moved while my mind was trying to comprehend.
“Leave. Don’t worry to pay for anything. Just leave before this get out of hand. You objective is tomorrow. I suggest you focus on that.”
Several of the young man’s mate was ready to sprung but with a simple gesture of his hand, they all left. Father stood up to clean the table while the other villagers gave a warm proud pat on his shoulder. A warm feeling grew inside me that clear my mind as I followed Father. He grew tall and enormous right in front of me.I piled every dish according to shape and folded the used banana leaves into a basket. My feet led me to the back door and that was when I found a bundle of money inside one of the basket.
Respect. Perhaps the outspoken young man did have manner.I wiped it as clean as I could before I brought it to Father’s attention.
“Hmm. Put it under the rock.”
The rock was my idea. One morning I brought a big flat pebble and put it by our outdoor kitchen. Father was bothered by it. “Useless,” was his exact word but we put it for good use eventually. Anytime Father didn’t appreciate a customer’s payment we put it there instead of burning it the way he used to do. A decision finally was made to use that money to help anyone in need. Maybe this time we would use it to celebrate another one of Big Sis’ triumph.
I was correct, but the we all knew she would win. What we didn’t know was what made her kind enough to drag the young man into our stall.
“Uncle. I think he need the strongest wine you have. Might help him forget the humiliation.” She snickered.
“And who will pay for him?”
“Here.” She tossed his pouch. “Make sure you get some for your effort to cure him too, Uncle. In meanwhile, Little cucumber?”
I froze in spot not knowing what to do next.
“I’m hungry. Uncle said you made the meanest chili sauce. Can I have some?”
I nodded without looking at her and hurried back behind the divider.
“Make sure you get her double the portion. This called for a celebration…from his pouch.” I laughed along with Father inside my heart.
It was suppose to be a feast for several people. I even get the smoked sugary beef from the best maker in the village. Not to mention a grilled young goat drenched with freshly made coconut milk. Then an aged sugar cane wine to complete it all. Yet Big Sis finished most of it. She wasn’t willing to leave the defeated young man behind but Father ushered her away.
“It’s enough that you brought him here yourself. Get some good rest. That is not an offer, young lady.”
I could feel her rolling her eyes as I did too.
“Fine, thank you Little cucumber. That was the best chili sauce I’ve tasted. See you soon.”
I showed my smile and hid, but not before catching a glimpse of her growing eyes. “Ah! She smile!”
“Yes, yes. My daughter has the ability to smile. How shocking. Go.” Father wouldn’t let her lingered with her excuses so once again I peeked through the divider to see her shrinking shadow.
As for the young man.
“I…couldn’t believe how….she’s pretty. Amazing pretty in fight.” He slurred as he chugged more wine. Father carried him to the side by the porch extension.
“Pretty eh?” Father shoved warm tea into his throat.
Glup… “Pretty, like you mother.”
“Boy, you’re a mess.” Father kicked a bucket next to him.
“No, mother. My room is not a mess anymore. I clean it.” Father exchanged look with me before bursting into a laugh.
“Boy, I’m not your mother.”
“Don’t say that, mother. Don’t leave again. Don’t let…hiccup…grandpa take you away.”
This time Father turned his head to me with a pained eyes. “Boy…Young man…”
“No! I’m not a boy, but…you can’t expect…me to decide. Why did Father pass? I’m my own man. Don’t tell…me what to do. I can’t. I have to…home…Kemaryorn. Home. I want to home…Come with me…mother, please.”
“Young man. You’re fine. Here drink more water so you won’t feel the pain when you wake up.”
“Mother, please. Brother need me…I promised him. Mother…mother…brother…”
Father rested his hand on my shoulder and asked, “Do you want to watch him?”
I looked up to Father and nodded.
“Just kick the bucket closer if he retching, promised? Do not touch him. We don’t know what he could do even when he’s sleeping.”
I nodded and casted my eyes on the man. Even in his sleep he looked troubled. He mumbled without stopping, calling on to his family. It was as if I was listening to Father telling me stories when I was still cradled in his arms. Some of the man’s words were incoherent but I began to understand his anguish. He opened a window to a world that was completely different from mine.
He was a man with words who couldn’t understand the small things that unraveled in his life. How his parent eloped while his grandfather accused his father of kidnapping. How his life was like a daily tide. When the waves was low, he felt the warm embrace of his family. It was perfect, just the three of them. Alas, the waves increased and it came with a crashing blow. Her mother was dragged away in a tug of war that spanned years. How the events of remarriage on both sides torn him apart. How he couldn’t even nurture his loathe to new mother. The guilt grew inside of him as he felt the happiness without his birth mother continued to eat him inside.
Then it was the newborn. The baby brother who always looked up to him with admiration anchored him even further, but the shame of abandoning his mother was flourishing like a wild weed, wreaking havoc on his emotion.
His imperfect happiness lasted about as long as it take for the rice to cook. Life had another plan for him the moment his father bid goodbye to this world. His new life was to be with his mother away from the one person that made him felt his life was matter, away from the pair of eyes that always looked up to him. Yet perhaps, at last, he could atone for his guilt. He had his hopes high, it was too painful to bear when it shattered. He and his mother tried to mend their bond but were too much of a strangers to each other, he felt the pressure to break free, to come back and find that pair of eyes that he hoped still looked up to him.
Father was right. He was a mess. A fascinating, beautiful mess who decided to ran away to carve his own way in this world. In a way, I was completely and utterly jealous of his bravery. I wished to have the strength to break out of this place, I wished to be able to say my greeting to the person I always wanted to talk to, I wished…
“Little cucumber. Where’s Uncle?” I took a sharp breath and it choked me. It was embarrassing as Big Sis helped me came out of it. The water that was for the man ended up disappearing to soothe my throat. She looked at me with worry, “Are you fine?”
I didn’t know what came over me but my voice came out by it self. I stuttered, but I spoke,”th..thank…you…”
Big Sis stepped back and gasped. I could see that she’s struggling to keep her composure. She didn’t want to ruin the moment, maybe, or she just didn’t want to invite fear that would send me back behind the divider. She stuttered, “y…your…welc…ome.”
I had to laugh. I just had to. And I thought my laugh was infectious because she began to laugh to. Soon the man stirred and blinked. Big Sis’ eyes widened. Without any words, she dragged me away. “Phew, that was close. But, you talked to me.” Her voice raised an octave higher, my ears started to ring and not realizing what I did, my hand moved up to cover one of my ear. She took a step back and breathed. “Sorry. I am happy that you talk to me.” Her voice was low and slower and it helped. She peeked around the wall and said, “I guess I have to disappear. He’s waking up. Let’s get Uncle. I don’t want him to be alone with you.” I smiled and followed her movement.
I started to talk a word or two a day. Father started to smile even more and Big Sis started to visit daily. I couldn’t describe it but it was comforting to see the villagers no longer looked at Father with pity. And the man that fascinated me was long forgotten. She had once again become the person of interest. I couldn’t help but wonder what did she think, what changed between before I spoke and after. The relationship I had with her was not like Father but in the same time it had the same weight and it helped calm my mind from wandering around. I was no longer exhausted when I aided Father in the stall. Hiding had became a habit more than necessity. And the divider was just a comforting place to sit next to.
Then he came back. The beautiful mess, or who I thought was. He looked different but yet there’s something floating around him that I recognized the moment I saw him. He wasn’t him or was he. Who was he then?
“Good morning, Uncle. Can I have a cup of coffee and a plate of fried rice with fried egg.” His voice was even deeper.
“Sure, young man. You want the egg runny?” Even Father didn’t recognize him anymore.
“Yes, Uncle. Thank you, and two tablespoon of chili paste please.”
“Coming right up.” Father turned to me and tilted his head. I stared at Father for a moment, wondering whether he was just getting a Little more forgetful. I read his lips and the words came after. “Chili paste? Hello?”
I gave my head a slight shake and nodded. My eyes peered through the window to follow that person as I pulled out the oldest batch of the paste. I blinked not just once, but several times. It was different. That person was different. His interaction with everyone else was different. So then the question popped in my mind. Why would I recognize him as…him not who this person was standing outside.
After a couple days I recognized his pattern. His choices were the morning and late at evening and preferred to be absent from the crowd but welcomed the exchange of kind words with Father. However, one little detail that I found comforting yet odd, he never stared at me, he never made me uncomfortable. It was such a different behavior compared to what he used to do. Before then, he was always choose to interact with me especially when I was desperately trying to hide. He would do it despite having Father standing close by, but not this person. I began to understand, I began to notice, I began to decide that he wasn’t the same person after all.
He came in one evening and I found myself unable to resist my curiosity. I positioned myself by the window after my ears followed Father’s footsteps.
“You seemed to know your way around here more than I would expected for a visitor.”
He looked at Father without saying a word then he smiled. “You caught me, Uncle.”
“What do you really want to know, young man? I heard whispers about a new kid in the underground by Guntur’s gambling place. It wouldn’t be you would it?”
Again, he only smiled.
“Be careful, young man. You and your…intention might not be accepted nicely.” Father gave him a small glass of sugar cane wine.
“This is delicious, Uncle.”
“Thank you.” They both sat without any words for a moment.
“What a man have to do to get his good name back, Uncle?” He decided to asked Father, finally.
“Is the person who smeared your friend’s name come from here?” Father continued to look at the night sky.
“Rumor has it.”
“Does rumor stated that the person had a hideout by this village?”
“The rumor didn’t say so, but the rumor never gave the full information. Only clues.” He sipped Father’s wine and seemed to be enjoying it a bit more.
“Does your friend want to believe that it is true?”
“While he understand that the person’s friend might be very reluctant to give information, he just need his good name back.”
“Tell your friend, people from Marunda does not harbor criminals, bandits, pirates, or robbers.”
Father laughed and tapped the young man’s shoulder. “Some temptation is too great. Some already neck deep in it. Some are too old to change.”
“Can your friend recognize this person he seek?”
“Yes.” The young man answered without a drop of hesitation.
“Does you friend know this person he seek?”
I found it fascinating how Father decided to thread on a dangerous question. I found it even more intriguing that these two men still talked about this person and that person as if they were narrating a simple bedtime story.
The young man paused and turned to Father, “He worries that he does. He worries that it is the person he always seek. He worries that he finally have to confront his fear and his past.”
“If your friend want to move forward he has to face it.”
“Meanwhile, I have been watching to find out. Perhaps one of this days I could spot him among The Lioness’ suitor.”
“What a good friend you are. Have you also been watching our lovely warrior just for the sake of watching her?”
He faced the night sky again and took an audible breath. “Merely to find the person I am looking for.”
“Sure, I believe that would be the sole purpose.” Father clicked his tongue and stood up. He turned around to clean the table, but before he left the young man alone, he added,”be careful not to put yourself in the list of suitor.”
The young man chuckled and shook his head in amusement. “Thank you for the advice, Uncle.”
“Don’t thank me yet.” Father’s warm laughter echoed through the night.
“Little cucumber, I’m famished.”
I nodded and disappeared into the kitchen. Not long after I recognized Father’s movement. “How’s your…pride, Little Cub?”
“Stop talking about it. It is embarrassing.” I could picture Big Sis’ disgruntled face.
“Losing is not always embarrassing. It could be a beginning of another lesson in life. Like how to take a bath fully clothed.”
“Uncle! He purposely stand there and dodged me so I ended up hitting the barrel and get drenched.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Ah Uncle! Stop talking about him. Everyone is talking about him. All I heard is his name. Even in the communal bath, all the girls talked is about him.”
“Uncle! Not funny anymore. Where is Little Cucumber, I already smell the food. So hungry.”
I came out and put a big tray in front of her while trying to suppress my laughter.
“Yaay, thank you. You are the best.” Her smile was so sweet, everything I saw started to glimmer under the bright sun. I decided to sit down to savor the moment.
“He should see you eat, maybe you could encourage him to abandon the engagement.”
“He should encourage Father. That’s the only way to abandon the engagement. I can’t understand him. How would someone entered this village be so clueless about the news. Everyone here knows about it.” Big Sis continued to smile at me as she enjoyed her dish. “This chili paste is getting even better and better.”
“The young man knows. I am willing to bet he knows. He just had something else that occupied his mind.” Father sat next to me and sipped some sweet tea.
“Well, I would to if I were him. Who would do such a thing to a good person like him?”
“A good person, huh?”
“Yes. I mean I think. You know. But I still don’t like him.”
“Be a good loser, Little cub.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She waved her hand in dismissal.
“It is not wrong to learn and adapt your style.”
“It’s true. It’s been a while since I got a good sparring partner.”
“Look at bright side.” It took me a while to form a reasonable sentence to say, between my admiration to her and the sparkling dust that danced around us, I had to pool all my effort.
“Listen to my daughter, Little Cub. She might be younger but hear how wise she is.” Father hugged me and smiled proudly.
“She is. So what do you think about him Little Cucumber?”
I covered my mouth and smiled then I turned to Father. He responded, “I know. She is,” Father whispered, “infatuated.”
“What?! Don’t whisper secrets around me,” Big Sis hissed.
“You heard it, Little Cub. After the fight, all you complained about is him. He’s that, he’s this. They said something about him, they commented on him.”
Big Sis swallowed a big chunk of chili paste before her face turned red. I rushed in to get the milk and came out to see Father offered her a big glass of wine. “Father!”
“Try, might help.”
Sometimes I wonder whether Father was a palace jester or just a circus prankster in his past.
The young man, or then Big Sis’ betrothed, came in often to have a midnight chat with Father. I wasn’t sure how should I feel about everything that unraveling. I knew he was a good man, but I also knew he was a polar opposite of Big Sis. Nobody else seemed to see that other than me. Why, I didn’t understand and I was utterly bothered by it. Yet, he often put me at ease that I couldn’t help but to step back and watched. I enjoyed watching them whenever they’re together or whenever they’re apart. A string began to materialized between them, a faint silky string that was weaved thicker by day.
“Hi, Little Cucumber. Uncle’s here?” He came in again that night.
I walked him into the back porch and sat next to Father. He pulled a chair and accepted our new concoction, aged sugar cane with a dash of fresh chili.
“Oof, that is strong…and delicious.”
“Yep, my daughter’s brilliant idea.” I shrugged my shoulder and they both laugh. Father continued, “How is it?”
“Delicious, like I said,” he answered.
I shook my head and Father added,”see even my daughter understand. Come on don’t be shy.”
He took a big gulp and said,”she is strong willed.”
“Tell me something new,” Father commented.
“I like her.”
“I really beginning to think that you are a bit deaf. Tell me something new.”
“Really? That’s not new?”
Father and I stared at him.
“Fine. I don’t know.” We sat in silence for a moment, then he added,”she seemed to have a good life on her own. I don’t want to change that.”
“She is fine, but she is alone. Her father won’t be there forever.” I nodded along with Father.
“How about you, Little Cucumber? How’s the lesson going?”
Father turned to me. I shrugged and nodded. Father answered, ”she’s great. I watched her practicing after you and Little Cub taught her some moves. Now back to the topic.”
He sighed and shook his head.”Nothing gets by you isn’t it, Uncle?”
“What are you afraid of?”
I smiled and shook my head again. Father, never cease to amaze me how he could be so straightforward.
“She seemed to be fine on her own,” he repeated his answer but then continued,”I…am trying to find someone. We are beneficial to each other. What happen when we take care of that?”
“You get to know each other. More. That’s how great relationship was built.”
Father's advice were rarely a miss, I was proud to be his daughter.
“What if she realize that I’m using her. Even to clear out my name?” He took another gulp and raised his glass for more.
Father filled it up to the brim. “Oh, boy. You need to get to know her more. I mean it. If you worried about that.”
“Exactly, it need time. Time that soon will not be needed anymore.”
“What do you mean?” Father asked.
“By now, her father or her even would’ve tell you about the celebration. Why the celebration.”
“Of course, nothing in this village would pass by me. But she suggested it, right?”
“She told you that?” he stared at Father with something else in his eyes. Admiration.
“Not straight forwardly of course. It’s her we are talking about.”
I shook my head, again. Father, sometimes I wonder whether shame ever live in his vein.
“Yes. It is…her.”
“She won’t leave.” I finally let out my frustration and spelled it out for him.
He stared at me for longer than usual. It was very peculiar of me, but I maintained my eye contact with him until he hung his head and breathed, “you think so?”
“Boy, I never see someone so conflicted with himself. Listen to my daughter, she speak the truth. I heard how Little Cub talked about you. Actually complained but you know, read between the thin lines.”
We all smiled.
“I really like her.” He admitted it, then he said further, “I am……falling for her.”
“It is her we are talking about,” Father said.
“It is,” he agreed.
“Thread carefully though. She still sharpen her claws everyday.”
“Ha, wouldn’t I know about it.” He turned to me and said, “thank you, Little Cucumber.”
“Take care of each other,” I said it with a hint of threat.
He leaned back and looked at me, “I promised.”
I took a deep breath and said my last words for the night, “I'll tell her too.”
His smile slowly spread and he raised his glass to me.
Long after our conversation, I took a stroll around the garden. I pulled out the hair dresser she once gave me. She painted the motif of batik herself and I had been keeping it with me everyday. That night I tied it on a branch of an old tree, tall and overlooking the garden. I love to climb to the top so I could see Big Sis’ when she was training and waved to her. I kissed the hair dresser and walked away with a smile and head held high.
And that is the end of the story for our heroine. For her own journey to find her voice, in a literal sense. Let me know how do you think about the characters. Anyone that you like in particular?