The Vulture and the Bane of the Ninth Victim

Translated by: 
George Fowler

Until the day his wife Mina joyfully told him that their son Ubaid was going steady with and intended to marry Fahira, the daughter of Mail Basuri, fifty-seven-year-old Hisam Tasir was enjoying a pleasant life with his wife and their only son. Their three daughters had all married and gone off with their husbands. Hisam had been blessed with grandchildren from all three of them. Almost every Sunday, all the children, in-laws and grandchildren would gather at his home. On other days, Hisam spent his time taking care of the plants in the front yard, occasionally dunning payments from the six tenants of the terraced houses next to his own home, joining the congregation for the evening prayer at the Nurul Huda mosque together with several other residents of Kampong Kebon Nanas and, once a month, right after the Friday prayer, hosting four or five of his cronies in a boisterous midday meal. 


It was all thanks to Ubaid. With capital borrowed from an older brother-­in-law, ten years after finishing high school, Ubaid had opened a building-materials shop near Prumpung Market, and from this enterprise much good fortune flowed. Within six years, Ubaid was able to demolish his father’s old house and build a new, two-storey one with a flower garden in the front yard. This son, the pride of Hisam and Mina, also bought an old house from a next-door neighbour, and similarly demolished it and built on the lot a six-residence terrace of houses as a source of income for his parents. 


Now Ubaid wanted to marry. It occurred to Hisam that all this time he had never paid much attention to the boy. He never even knew that the lad had a steady girlfriend. Ubaid had never introduced the girl to him. And now, all of a sudden, Mina was announcing that Ubaid was going to get married. 


‘Aren’t you happy that Ubaid has found his life’s partner?’ 


Hisam was happy. It was just hard to come to terms with the fact that the girl was the child of Mail Basuri, the man who had made him swear an oath, as was the custom, under the Quran almost twenty years before. Hisam had sworn the oath with his head bowed, and confirmed that Mail’s father had indeed owed him a debt. 


This was an event that he could never forget. He had never anticipated that Mail would corner him into such a difficult situation and, more than that, Hisam was completely taken aback. He had run his scam eight times before he tried it on Mail and everything had gone smoothly. 


The first of his victims was Toha. At the time, Hisam Tasir had been a sort of jack-of-all-trades. He was a used-car broker, traded in agate at the Rawa Bunga Market, sold sarongs and dates on the eve of the Fasting Month on sidewalks around Meester Cornelis, and was a petty crook in thekampung where he lived. Petty? Hold on just one sec! It might have been small-time stuff in the sense of the money filched, but his ideas and the ways he executed them were something even devils couldn’t have come up with. 


At first, of course, there hadn’t been any plan to cheat anyone. That idea came spontaneously. That afternoon, Hisam, along with over a hundred others, had accompanied the remains of Salim Gurame, a villager who had died the previous night, to the Kober cemetery. Hisam had actually not been keen on going along to the cemetery. After paying his respects at the funeral home and saying a prayer over the body at the Nurul Huda Mosque, he had intended to go straight home. He wanted to shut himself away there for the whole day. He craved an extended period of time without human contact. It was only the uncomfortable thought of the neighbours’ comments that persuaded him to join in the funeral procession. 


When he arrived at Kober, Hisam hunkered down under a frangipani tree and followed events lethargically. He stared at the throng of people who were witnessing the burial, but he couldn’t say what he saw. His head felt like it was filled with dust. His thoughts were consumed by the problem of the arrears in Ubaid’s monthly tuition that had to be made good that very week, if he didn’t want his son to lose his place in fifth grade at primary school. 


After the customary talkinand other prayers had been read over the grave, one of the people close to the deceased gave a speech to conclude the burial rituals. The brief words were almost always the same: an expression of thanks, an invitation to gather for a tahlillaudation of God right after the night prayer which would go on for three days, a request for forgiveness if there were anyone among the mourners who had been hurt or offended by the deceased during his life, and also an appeal for anyone to whom the deceased had owed a debt to meet promptly with a representative of the family – always a son, a brother, or uncle of the deceased. 


And so Hisam wasn’t really paying much attention to the closing speech on that blazingly hot day. He just let the words flow by half-heard. However, when the speaker came to the part about the prompt settlement of any outstanding debts, it was as if a horse began to gallop, whinnying, through Hisam Tasir’s mind. His stomach immediately cramped up. He coughed lightly a couple of times. 


The next night, the thin, dark-skinned Hisam Tasir was the first person to arrive at the laudations gathering at the funeral home, just as the mats were being laid out. He greeted and embraced Toha, the brother of Salim Gurame. Hisam expressed his condolences for the second time to this representative of the family of the deceased. Then he took Toha by the arm and invited him to speak in private on the front porch. 


‘There’s something I need to say to you, ’Ha. I didn’t actually want to bring it up, knowing what a hard time you’re having right now. But I’ve got to thinking, it’d be better if I did bring it up now, so that the departed can rest in peace.’ He continued to hold on to Toha’s arm as he spoke.


Then he fell silent for rather a long while. His throat felt dry and he seemed to have trouble getting across what he wanted to say. He had in fact memorised the sentences he was going to say to Toha, and he had been able to get them across very smoothly in practising them. But doing a thing for the first time is always tough. Hisam was just about to change his mind when Toha said, ‘Go on, ’Sam.’ 


‘The deceased still owes me money. Last Fasting Month, he took sixty sarongs from me, I don’t know for whom. He only got to pay me back one half, and the other half he promised to clear up at the end of this month, but it looks like Allah decided otherwise,’ said Hisam, his head bowed. 


‘So, how much in all?’ 


Hisam swallowed and mentioned a certain amount. Toha nodded and went into the house. Hisam straightened the velvet songkokon his head and then lit a cigarette. He hadn’t reached his third puff when Toha reappeared bringing a white envelope. Two or three seconds later, it was in Hisam’s shirt pocket. That night, the laudation ceremony was the most devout that Hisam had ever been a part of in his whole life. Upon his arrival back home, he slept dreamlessly until morning. The first act had ended perfectly. 


From then on, it was fair to say that Hisam Tasir was never absent from the burial procession to the cemetery whenever a resident of Kebon Nanas kampung had died. And he always stood, with hands crossed on his stomach and his ears alert, closest to the grave niche facing Mekkah, where the body was laid. And he would immediately devise a plan of action the moment the name of the deceased’s representative was mentioned. 


Of course, not every plan could be successfully carried out. There were times when he failed to find the window of opportunity through which his trickery could be launched. These efforts, even though they might seem simple, still required preparation. Hisam had to be good at reading how things were in the home and skilled in assessing the mental state of his intended victim. He had also to be clever enough to make up stories that explained just how the departed one was indebted to him. A claim based on the purchase of sixty sarongs couldn’t work with everyone. 


Thus, for almost two years, Hisam Tasir became a champion storyteller. Among others, there was the story of the sale of precious stones and the story of the sale of second-hand cars. And he always finished his fictitious accounts by adding, head bowed, ‘and the other half he promised to pay back at the end of this month, but Allah decided otherwise.’ 


And Hisam learnt to choose the best time to tell these tales. He knew most people couldn’t think critically on the first day after the death of someone they loved. If someone came on that day and said that the deceased still owed money, they would tend to settle the matter without asking too many questions. At least, that was the way it was with Toha, his first victim, and with the seven victims after him. 


But it wasn’t like that with Mail Basuri. This time Hisam got it wrong. Mail, who was the same age as Hisam, had indeed lost his father the previous day, but he asked a whole lot of questions. Actually only a few, but it seemed a lot to Hisam. 


‘Really that much, ’Sam?’ 


‘Really, Mail. I’m not exaggerating nor am I understating it.’ 


‘It’s OK, ’Sam. The thing is, even if the debt’s just a little underpaid, that’d make the deceased’s grave niche tight, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?’ 


 ‘Yeah, that’s right, Mail.’ 


‘It’s odd that my father hadn’t remembered that he had some business with you,’ said Mail. ‘Last month, just when he started to get sickly, he told me to get in touch with his pals, one in Cilacap and the other in Bekasi, and asked me to clear up his debts with those people. It was like he had a premonition that his time was near.’ 


‘He was a good man, Mail.’ 


‘How much did you say just now, ’Sam?’ 


Hisam Tasir repeated the amount of the debt – this time it was quite a big sum. He began to sense that Mail Basuri didn’t believe his story. Why had Mail told him about that business of his father with the friends in Cilacap and Bekasi, if not to get in a dig at him? Mail was clearly implying that he was lying: Mail’s father had remembered that business about people in far-off places, so how could he forget something involving a neighbour in his own kampung? 


‘OK, Mail, why don’t we just forget about your father’s debt. I’m happy to do that,’ he said. ‘He was a good man.’ 


‘That’s no good,’ Sam. It’s got to be cleared up.’ 


With that, Mail hurried off to another room, emerging a few moments later with a white envelope and the Holy Quran. 


‘You don’t believe me, Mail? You want me to swear under the Quran?’ 


‘It’s just so that we can both feel good about this. To put our minds at rest. Anyway, what you said about what my father owed was of course true.’ 


He couldn’t see any way out of it, so Hisam swore the oath, his body trembling and his voice wavering. He really just wanted to admit to Mail that he had been lying, but that wouldn’t have been possible. Once he had confessed, Mail might immediately bombard him with questions about how many times he had lied like this, who else had fallen victim to him, and so on and so forth. Hisam’s oath went all over the place and wasn’t clear at all. Mail asked him to repeat it. ‘I couldn’t hear you, ’Sam,’ he said. 


Like an obedient primary school child, Hisam straightened up and repeated his oath in a voice at first clearer, then becoming slower, and finally rambling at the end. 


Hisam Tasir just wanted to flee Mail’s house. His host saw him to the front door. Hisam breathed rather more easily once he was outside, but suddenly terror hit him. In his mind, he saw Mail telling everyone about the depraved thing he had done. Everyone would curse him and the eight people before Mail would, one after the other, relate how they too had been his victims. 


‘You know what, ’Sam? In my eyes, you’re no better than a vulture, a bird that’s just crazy about eating corpses!’ 


Hisam seemed to hear that voice assailing his ears. Quite clearly. Followed by the sound of laughter. He wanted to look back to check that it was indeed Mail who was speaking and laughing at him, but he was too afraid. 


Before he fell asleep that night, he could hear the voice resounding in his ears. Hisam groaned. For the next several days, the next several months, Hisam could frequently be heard moaning before he fell asleep. If he sensed that Mina, lying beside him, had heard his moans and was becoming curious about them, Hisam would cut her off before she could ask anything by clearing his throat, as if he had all along been clearing an irritation. 


For years afterward, the voice continued to disturb the soul of the vulture Hisam. He tried to drive it away by every means he could think of. He prayed for forgiveness. He made donations when his finances improved. He also always tried to please his friends. But even though it did not return as often as before, the voice would from time to time bother Hisam, particularly when he was alone or when he happened to run into Mail Basuri. 


‘Ubaid wants us to go to Fahira’s home, Bang, to tell her parents about these exciting plans,’ his wife said. They were sitting on the front veranda. With a trembling hand, Hisam Tasir took a match from his shirt pocket and lit the cigarette between his lips – filter-end first. 

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