Loving Flower

Translated by: 
Pamela Allen

It was a Sunday, towards sunset, when the pretty woman came up to me. The sky was turning red; the sparrows flocked to the banana plants that extended the length of the village. I stopped suddenly in front of the house. I was waiting, as usual, for Mother to come home from the rice fields. 


The pretty woman smiled briefly as she said, ‘What’s your name, pretty girl?’ 


I felt embarrassed. Never in my whole life had anyone asked me my name. People just called me Lus’ Sister. And I would understand that it was me they were referring to, even though I had my own name, which seemed foreign to me because nobody ever called me by it. And so, when the pretty woman asked me my name, well, to be honest, I was a bit shy about telling her. 


‘I have another name, but I’m usually called Lus’ Sister,’ I said, bowing my head. My face felt flushed. 


The woman smiled. ‘Is Lus your brother?’ 


I nodded. Just about every girl in the village was called ‘Sister of . . .’ followed by the name of her older brother. It was as if I’d never had a name of my own. 


‘I’ll bet you have a beautiful name.’ The pretty woman suddenly challenged me with a sharp look. It made me a bit scared, a bit nervous, because I had never told anyone my name. Even my mother didn’t like to call me by my real name. So how could I say it to a woman I’d barely met? All I knew was that this pretty woman was a new teacher in my school. She had come a long way, from the city. My friends had told me about her arrival the previous evening after our bath in the river. Her name was ‘Ibu Putri’. But until then I hadn’t met her. I was shy. Anyway, the pretty woman taught grade five and I was in grade six. 


I didn’t know if she was still looking at me. My heart was beating faster than normal. After all, meeting this unknown woman was a new experience for me. We didn’t get many city visitors to our village, probably because it was so far inland. 


‘Don’t be so shy,’ she said. ‘Say whatever you want to say. I’ll always be ready to listen to you, any time. But now, it’s getting late, and I must be going home.’ She turned away. 


‘Ma’am, my name is Flower,’ I blurted out. The pretty woman turned back around. And I fled, towards home. She called out my name – just once. And it was as if I’d discovered something new because of it. I was alone, and yet I was embarrassed to be called by a name that sounded strange to my ears. If my mother had known that I wanted to be called something other than Lus’ Sister, no doubt she would have said, ‘Village girls like us should just use our village names. You’re a funny one.’ 


After our first meeting, Ibu Putri often came to the house. She said it made her happy to find a girl like me, bold enough to tell someone else her name. Flower, she said, was a very beautiful name – very memorable. 


I, of course, still felt embarrassed. Especially when I thought about her saying such things as: ‘You look even prettier today, Flower,’ or, ‘Flower, you must learn to love what is inside you.’ It sounded odd. The fact was, I was more comfortable being called Lus’ Sister – though deep inside I got a thrill from hearing my name: Flower. As if I’d become a different girl. And I encountered a different world too – one that was my very own. One that belonged to me, a girl! In that world I could see that I really was a beautiful flower, one like Ibu Putri. Not like my mother, with her hair that smelled vaguely of overripe fruit. But, in that world, I also encountered millions of eyes that were waiting to swallow me up. 


As a woman do you also want to become a flower that the butterflies adore? 


Once, I saw in my mother’s eyes, with their fading glow, a kind message whispered softly to me. I could tell from those eyes that what she really wanted was to persuade me to return to the world she had created for the little girl born of her womb. 


‘Are you unhappy today?’ 


 ‘I don’t know, Ibu Putri,’ I said. She laughed. These last few days she had seemed even more beautiful to my eyes – especially when she put a rose behind her ear. 


‘What is it that you don’t understand?’ 


‘Mother doesn’t like me dreaming of flowers.’ 


‘Does that mean that you would prefer to be called Lus’ Sister?’ 


‘You know what my heart says.’ 


Ibu Putri laughed. ‘In that case, Flower, you must learn to love yourself.’ 


I loved my own name. Any woman would prefer to use a name that she liked. But I kept thinking of mother’s eyes, cold and hard. It made me feel as if I’d betrayed her. Ever since I was little, I’d always been called ‘young girl’ –  just like all the other young girls in my village. And then, as was custom, handed down from generation to generation, I had started to be called by the name of my brother: Lus’ Sister. Very rarely was a girl in my village allowed to use her own name – until Ibu Putri came to see me. 


‘You still don’t believe in yourself?’ 


‘I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right for me to be given a choice.’ 


‘If you so choose, you can see the beauty of your name in the flowers that bloom and grow.’ 


‘You make too much of a fuss over me.’ 


‘Maybe it’s because I’m different from your mother.’ 


My mother was a village girl who had once been called Jun’s Sister. But nobody had called her that for years. I didn’t know what people called her now. She very rarely mixed with others. Like every other married woman in the village, she spent most of her days in the rice fields. 


Mother used to be a pretty woman. When she was fifteen, a boy from the neighbouring village proposed to her, with a bride price of two million rupiah, a large sum compared to the five hundred thousand usually paid. Because the man she was to marry came from a wealthy family, Mother thought her fate would be different from that of other girls. 


The wedding was a joyful affair. Wedding celebrations are a big thing in my village. The whole village pays its respects to the bridal couple and their guests. 


But always, in the end, the girls who had been seen as princesses when they got married were destined to endure a life that would trap them in a long and frightening tunnel. 


I knew by heart the fruit-like scent of my mother’s hair. In her eyes I could see something that I knew was exhaustion after a full day in the rice field. Towards nightfall those eyes would often be dull, and father nowhere to be seen. 


Did mother ever question the life she was leading? If I thought of her as an unfortunate woman, how did she see herself? Had she ever felt that way? 


I felt a sense of shame towards my mother, a shame that would not permit me to run away from a longstanding situation. 


Similarly, I felt ashamed when I was being asked to choose: Lus’ Sister or Flower. 


Lus’ Sister would no doubt turn out to be like our mother – a woman with hair that smelled of overripe fruit and eyes that had lost their shine. Flower would take me to a world where I could hope for other things. Would it be possible for Mother to understand? 


Ibu Putri told me that many of the villagers had been to see her. They were angry because since she came to our village more and more girls were refusing to be called Little Sister and choosing to use their own names. 


I was a bit taken aback. 


‘It’s a good thing, Flower. If it’s making people angry, then that’s a good sign. I know it’s not an easy thing for the women here. But we can’t just give in. We have to prevail until women are free to make their own choices about their lives. In the meantime, they haven’t even got the wherewithal to fight for their own name. You, for example: are you really prepared to be called Flower and to cast off the name Lus’ Sister that everyone knows?’ She was persistent. ‘You say nothing. Is that what generation after generation has been taught, to say nothing?’ 


‘I just feel ashamed, Ibu Putri, ashamed for my mother.’ 


‘How long will that last?’ 


‘I don’t know.’ 


A year later Ibu Putri left without saying goodbye. I was left with memories. As if she were there, I talked about my love to the roses that were starting to bloom alongside the well. They were beautiful. (Previously I hadn’t known what roses looked like.) The black butterflies too – male, perhaps – had begun to keep watch over the flowers. I noted that mother was right: the flowers were constantly surrounded by butterflies – with or without any expectation or hope on the flowers’ part! Regardless, the flowers had no choice. Did I still want to be a flower? 


I often passed the government-owned house where Ibu Putri used to live. There I would look at her rose bed surrounded by bamboo pickets. A small smile would form on my lips. I remembered weeding that little garden with Ibu Putri. 


I stood by the flowers thinking about beautiful Ibu Putri. Suddenly, a butterfly flew past. I was startled. There seemed to be butterflies everywhere, alighting on the sepals of the red roses. Whenever a new rose bloomed it reminded me of Ibu Putri’s face, and my face, too. But then, Mother’s face would suddenly appear. The aroma of her hair would send me hurrying home because I had to wait for her in front of the house. 


(I held firm to the conviction that I would meet Ibu Putri again, sometime, somewhere. When we met, I would take her to the well-tended flower garden beside her house.) 


Dusk fell. 


I was twenty years old. 


After Ibu Putri left I spent my spare time in the flower garden beside her house. It was much leafier now. I would water the flowers in the evenings. More and more butterflies were fluttering around the flowers, again remind­ing me of the way beautiful Ibu Putri would put a rose behind her ear. 


The flowers were the only thing that could make me feel close to her. And to her name for me. 


On one occasion, I was taken by surprise by the children who greeted me. 


‘Good morning, Teacher Flower!’ 


‘Good morning children.’ 


The children looked sweet in their red and white uniforms, lined up along the road. No doubt they had their own names, but all I knew was that A was Kosma’s Sister or B was Rudik’s Sister. But I was sure that one day they would want something different. 

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