Translated by: 
Kadek Krishna Adidharma

Let’s go out to sea, my child. It is time. I sense them coming closer. I can hear faint echoes of voices drifting in the dawn wind. Listen: this early morn, the wind comes not softly in rustles, but hissing and slashing along the road. It is screeching through the aching joints of the windowpane, whistling through the cracks of the squeaking door, rushing chill, enclosing the house in cold. The candle stirs as if scratched: blazing awhile, blinking awhile. Harsh dark is forcing its way in through every hole. 


I’ve been sitting here all night, warming myself by the flame of this candle in the kitchen. The edges of the flame have been dancing yellow, blue, throwing my shadow against the wooden walls – my shadow a swaying phantom, dancing while I sit still. For hours, I’ve been gazing at the wooden slats, my eyes tracing their surface, cracking rivulets of pale veins. But I haven’t spoken to them. I haven’t spoken to you. I haven’t spoken to anyone. I’ve just been sitting here in the corner, waiting. 


Let’s step outside now, very slowly. There is no need to rush. I want the soles of my feet to embrace fully what they touch, feeling the wooden floor, the moist soil, wet grass, fallen jambu blossoms. The thin threads of jambu blossoms feel like silk to my feet; many of them have also been caught along the bamboo fence. I will pin a blossom to my hair. Your father planted this jambu tree. Now it’s blooming for the first time – how sweet and fresh the fruits will taste when they ripen. Look at the tree, its surface almost entirely covered by blazing pink, almost electric. When night falls, people can see it from the edge of the village. 


Our village: houses and shacks lining up in death rows; shivering walls of concrete. Dark. In the houses, the faint glimmer of kerosene lamps illuminates the dreams of restless souls, no longer able to sleep tight. I’m sure you are also not sleeping. How quiet it is. Only the sound of the sighing wind, one or two insects, and breaking waves. In silent times like this, I had hoped to be able to capture the sound of your heartbeat or snoring. There are also voices – the men on night-watch chatting in low tones. We don’t need to go past them. We will pass along the side to the back of the house. I am not in the mood for being questioned. 


At the back of the house there is a ketapang tree. Below it, there is an overturned boat – your father’s boat. My back aches; lately, I tire easily. Let’s sit here on this boat, waiting for sunrise, morning, and other things to come. 


From here, we can see our home, village, peninsula, beach, and the sky all at once. Look at our home – a wooden house upon a platform on stilts, a sprig of jambu tree peeking pink beyond its roof. It’s going to be a while before its gifts ripen; how I long to taste just one fruit. Our house – it’s been more than three years that I’ve lived in it. The villagers helped your father build it back then without pay – except for two or three professional builders. It was enough to pass around a couple of pots of coffee and some kretek cigarettes in cups in the afternoon, with the occasional treat of steamed cassava or fried banana. Many things have been built working together in this village: schools, homes, the church, the mosque, the meeting hall, and boats. I remember steaming yellow rice for giving thanks when the house was done. Later that night, a new kerosene lamp was glowing in the newly built house. Your father and I were so enthralled watching our shadows swaying and jerking along the wooden walls. We weren’t the only ones dancing. The table, chairs and cupboard joined us too. 


This boat feels damp. So does the tree trunk I’m leaning on. Are you leaning comfortably on the wall of my womb? My child, my hope. How the situation has changed my hopes to anxieties. What is leaping in your mind right now? Is it like mine? Or do you pass through all of this without memory, burden, hope, hindrance? I can no longer look at the ground beneath my feet, obstructed by you. But I don’t mind taking you everywhere I go, even though you fill up my body – I am swollen like a cow. 


I remember a cow on the deck of a motorboat, a long time ago. She lay there with bound hooves, eyes wide open towards the sky, thrashing. The boat felt like it would overturn, shuddering wildly with the struggling of the poor cow, not the waves. I held your father’s arm tight; he smiled to calm me. 


 ‘Look,’ he said, fingers pointing to the side of the boat. I saw two dolphins, their grey bodies swimming, guiding the boat. 


The kids in the boat shrieked with delight, pointing, ‘Oi, laluba, laluba!’ The hunched backs of the dolphins were sinking and surfacing, faces smiling like your father’s. 


Your father: teacher, earth-guardian, husband, male, human. And female, too. Yes, at times he could mother you more than I. If my belly was sore, he would sit by my side and calm you by whispering sweet things, singing, or telling you stories. At times he would be silent, caressing the outline of your form on the skin of my belly with profound awe. We could feel your tiny hand on the surface of my skin, your fingers clenching, your foot kicking (maybe you are a boy, or a girl?). He would be silent during those moments, looking at you and me in turn with his full, dark eyes. I suppose that waves of thoughts and feelings were crashing within him, and words couldn’t do them justice. I remember those eyes of his filled with darkness when he left one night. He didn’t say much. No promises. No sentimental goodbyes like in those war movies. I only remember seeing his wet feet disappear into a motorboat that was bobbing up and down among waves crashing on the beach. Then the motor roaring. Your father stood erect, looking straight towards the west, in the direction of the peninsula across the water where the sun disappears. Not once did he turn his face until the rumbling of the boat softened and could only be heard faintly as the boat rounded the peninsula. 


Your father, taken by death in a battle he did not wish. 


Look at the sea. Over there where the rows of mangroves and rocks go out, that is the peninsula – our place of celebration. Your father and I went there one morning after finding out you had become a foetus in my womb. At that time, the sky was clear after dawn rain; there was a rainbow arching low in the southwest. In front of me, your father paddled the boat slowly. Between us there was a thermos filled with coffee, some walnut bread, pound sago, two mugs, and a straw mat. Above us, little birds flew past, chirping. Below, colourful coral could be seen under a veil of clear, blue-green water. And fish – brightly coloured little fish swimming amongst the coral. On the beach, we ate and talked and ate and talked until your father fell asleep by a mangrove bush. I lay looking at the sky, feeling myself and everything under the sky so very sweet. I took that joy home, when the sun had moved right above our heads. We were gliding in the boat, heading for home, the water splashing from the oars as I told your father that I had found a name for you. 




‘If it’s a boy?’ asked your father. 


‘Laluba,’ I answered. 


‘If it’s a girl?’ 


Laluba. You will glide through the water, swimming like a dolphin, like the fishermen’s children here, their bodies breathing the fragrance of salty sea; burnt, reddish hair with blond streaks, and bronzed, dark skin like their fathers who work bare-chested under the sun. In the morning, they would run out and spread along the shore squealing excitedly, welcoming their fathers’ boats that had come home from sea. . . . The fathers who later left them. Few returned. 


They had run short of men to defend the district. How bizarre, I thought at the time – not enough men in a world that had too many, a world where everything was done their way. 


The night of departure for the new recruits – it was late, but our village did not sleep. People were packing. Mothers were standing with worried faces. Children were running here and there. At the beach, supplies were stacked in little mounds like a harvest of cloves and copra. I stood by the beach, observing it all. Not far from me, a group of men were speaking of dismembered bodies, about bodies thrown out to sea, about little children being taken away.... Your father drew me aside by the hand, its hairs standing on end, as he took me away from the crowd. We sat on a fallen coconut tree, gazing at the star-studded sky. Your father spoke: ‘Many are injured. . . .’ 


Injured, wounded, dying. All of us here are dying, my child.


Ah, forgive these recollections, my baby. Memories come flashing through me, and I want to sink them all to the deepest ocean floor, until there is nothing left to swim up to the surface. 


What time is it? Look at the sea. Its surface has turned silver grey; only two or three stars lingering, a tinge of amber light promising the sun on the horizon. I always love the morning and afternoon sky – the sun, rising or setting, the sky looking the same, tinted with soft hues. Orange. Russet. Pink. Blue. Purple. Grey. We never know the beginning or the end of something. Time left unresolved. . . . You will learn how enchanting mornings can be, my child. 


I dreamt of you a few nights ago – you, a drowning baby fish, not swimming to the surface. You were blazing white while the sea slowly changed from blue to red to green, showing you crystal clear in its depth. Above you, there was a big fish eating a fish that was eating a small fish. The jaws of the fish opened wide with sharp teeth. I remember telling your father of my dream in the morning. Your father guessed that perhaps because we had stayed too long at the market the previous afternoon, a million forms and colours of fish must have filled my mind and were brought into my sleep. Sitting on the verandah while drinking coffee, your father spoke about how in the beginning, all life on earth was in the ocean, about animals having denizens of the sea as their ancestors, about fish breastfeeding their young, blind fish, phantoms of the sea in the shape of octopuses with giant eyes, sea cliffs, ocean chasms – the abyss . . . that’s what your father called it; he learnt it in a book. I imagined the abyss keeping for eternity the dreams of prehistoric fish that desired to crawl upon the land. Do you dream, too? Do you dream about reefs and cliffs, about your mother, about human beings? Maybe your dreams are without images, like the dreams of blind fish in still caves, in the deep abyss, or – 


. . . they have come. 


. . . when the light of day has come – light enough to come attacking. 


Ah, you keep kicking in there. As if striking, I can feel your clenched little fists on the wall of my belly. What are you anxious about? Sssshh, sssshhh . . . don’t worry. It’s only the sound of a bomb. Or a grenade, maybe. Did you know, they can put together a soundless bomb with coconuts – without an ear-piercing explosion, just a small thump in the coconut shell? Then, the only sounds heard are the screams or the groaning of exploded skulls. . . . Let’s get up. The mob, those men, have reached the edge of the village. Their shouting is loud and coarse. Don’t you listen to it; don’t take it to heart. They’ve made a habit of shouting at each other in the deep jungle or amidst the roaring sea. Can you hear voices. . . ? Such uproar, many voices, striking my eardrums, yet I can still hear the sound of waves in the ocean. There is also the cry of a bird; I’m not sure from which tree. Or maybe that was the cry of a human being; I’m no longer sure. There is a strange smell suspended in the air – not the fragrance of salty sea or grass, but like the stench of the district’s slaughterhouse. 


Which way are you facing? Your vision is clear, transcending my skin. In front of you, the sand and the sea are glimmering as if scattered by a thousand diamonds. Dewdrops dangle at the tips of blades of grass, refracting light. The sun has turned into a large crimson ball, silent, far from all this noise. 


How life holds you tightly in its gentle embrace when death looms so close by. I imagine you looking at the world for the first time in that way. Would you be relieved leaving the darkness towards the colours of the world? Or would you be like me right now, seeing colours at their sharpest and finest distinction, seized suddenly by the enchanting beauty. Everything radiates with life. Observe it all with lucid eyes. Be enchanted, be delighted. My baby, are you happy being able to see all this? 


Or are you looking behind through my back, to the lumbering crowd over there? They are running, scattering, bumping into each other like crabs in a wooden crate dumped in the market, like fish struggling to flee from the trap of the fisherman’s net, their eyes open wide, bloodshot red like those of fish left unsold for days. Black smoke is billowing into the air (I hear they never spare anything or anyone). Orange flames appear, more arrogant than the sun .. . vengeance more arrogant than the heart.... 


Neither the good nor the bad, but those pitted against one another. 


Forgive them, my child. Those men have simply never felt what it’s like to bear life in their bodies like a woman with child. They bear death in their arms and fingers. Artefacts of murder clink and clash thunderously, while they are the people being pitted and clashed against one another. Maybe they know or only half-know or don’t know or don’t want to know.


But you ought to know, my child. Because simply believing is never enough. You could possibly be deluded and end up being helpless. You, I, they, Galela, Halmahera – we are all helpless. 


In the sand by my feet there is an empty shell, as small as my thumb. I will pick it up and play with it in front of my belly so you can see it closer. This once housed a hermit crab – such a beautiful home with delicate whorls spiralling to its pointed apex. Its soft orange colour has faded in the wash of waves, bleached by the salty water to pale white, now opaque. The inhabitant must have deserted it a long time ago. Why did she leave? Maybe the house had become too stifling, no longer comfortable for her body, no longer safe as shelter, no longer meaningful to inhabit. Why stay? She decided to go, maybe returning to the sea, crawling along the sand, looking for a different home in the depths. Yes, why stay, my child? They do not allow us to grow here at this beautiful shore. This village, like any other place, was never built to last forever. Let us go. 


To the sea. Only the sea will liberate. All branches of rivers, all their wanderings and meanderings end here, no longer having origins or history, neither trace nor colour. All the same. Blue sea. Immense. Flat. Calm. Here, droplets of water mingle, float, break into waves and rise, rushing to the sky. Blue sky. 


. . . What was that? Something just whistled past, entering the water, not far from my arm. One moment, let me look for it. . . . 


Ah, an arrow. It missed its target. Maybe it’s this kind of thing that has just pierced my shoulder. It doesn’t feel that painful, like the peck of a cockatoo. I’ll pull it out. . . . There’s blood on the arrowhead. Sharp red. Mine. Luckily it didn’t hit my waist; you could have been hurt in there. 


Child, turn around and take a good look at him. The archer. He stands tall between blades of grass. He can’t bring himself to lift his bow to aim once again. That thing just lies limp in his fingers. Perhaps because I turned to meet his eye, smiling into his face. He looks tired and handsome, in the tartan shirt that most teenagers wear these days. His years of youth are enough to make him feel it’s his right and duty to finish us – that young angel, Izrail. 


I’ll just throw this arrow away. Don’t cry, sweet child. You’re already big, almost eight months; you have to be brave. Let’s continue this journey. The ocean’s arms have spread kindly, welcoming us, embracing up to my knees. I promise this won’t hurt at all. You, I, the young archer, all of them, will die anyway. It’s only a matter of how. One never knows how death will appear. I simply do not want their ghoulish hands to rip my stomach and tear you away from me – you, my beloved sanctity, a purity that must never be blemished. You must not die that way, too painful for you. I will save you. 


Beloved, pretty baby fish in the ocean of my womb, Laluba. With you, I am complete. I am everything that I have ever wanted to be: child, pupil, worker, wife, mother, woman, witness, winner. Early doom, baby; is your mind teeming with questions? Why are your breasts drenched, Mother, why is the jambu blossom in your hair being swept away by a wave, why are you letting go of the seashell, why are you destroying me? 


Would you believe my answer, the reason of all reasons on the face of the Earth. Would you have faith in me? 


Because I love you. Aeons my soul has lived; never have I wanted to kill this body, end this one chance at life. Allow me to save you, even though I must die for it. 


Is that enough, my child? Will that do? Because I truly love you, more than life itself. 


. . . I have borne witness along the road; I bear witness now in the depths. 


To You, to Whom all prayers and questions are addressed from wretched souls on cruel nights, thousands of broken murmurs whispered to the air rise towards the sky. Would one more prayer mean anything? I’m tired of praying; those prayers were never even for me, but for all wretched ones. I prayed also for the hearts of those who love You, but could not love one another with that same heart. And this time, God, I pray for the children who were never born. 


So soundless. Warm. Sunshine enters these depths, illuminating the water a clear blue. A shadowed blue, greying. Changing greenish grey. Greening further. Little fish come swirling, surrounding, unsurprised. Behind them float shadows, gliding. Men. Pale white, blue, purple. They look at us unblinking, unspeaking; only their hair, fingers and clothes waving. Poor coral reefs.... Ah, I can see your father, my child. He is coming towards us, gliding between the men. Look at his hair, swaying like a horse’s mane, his tattered clothes swaying like anemones. He is looking at you with a luminous face and a smile as wide as clouds – at you, still curled up, so timidly. Take his hand, child, his soft white palm holding a pink jambufruit for us – a ripe one, juicy with the salt water. Suck it deeply; it tastes so sweet and fresh. . . . Swallow, swallow it deeper, deeper. . . . 

English translation first published in TERRA, an anthology from Wordstorm, the NT Writers’ Festival. 


NOTES: Laluba means dolphin in the local language of Galela, on the shores of Halmahera, one of the islands in the Northern Moluccas, where this story is set. During 1999–2000, irrational violence in Ambon rapidly escalated into an ethnic/religious conflict all over the Moluccan archipelago. Many inhabitants were massacred by their own kin and their once-peaceful neighbours. 


Jambu (Eugenia aquea) or ‘rose-apple’ is a juicy fruit that grows in tropical climates. Depending on the variety, the fruit when ripe can be pink, green or blood-red. The taste is tangy to sweet, mostly watery-sweet when fully ripe, like a cross between a tangy apple and a sweet, juicy pear. 


Ketapang (Terminalia catappa) is a kind of almond tree, also known as ‘beach-almond’, whose bark is used for tanning leather and whose kernel produces oil. Izrailis the angel of death who reclaims departed souls in Islamic teachings. 

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