Ubud Writers and Readers Festival may have concluded last month, but our series, A World with A Thousand Doors hasn’t! In our penultimate installment of the series, we are proud to present a short story by Dewi Kharisma Michellia.
“Dad, have you found the keys?”
I often hear grateful people say that each day in life has its own blessing.
“Son, put in the luggage in the trunk. Why do I have to tell you this? Where is your brother?”
If those people really admire the mystery of time, then it’s only fair if they extend the same admiration to space.
“If we leave now, will we still be able to see the sunrise, Dad?”
Each place has its own value, which can only be felt by those attached to that place.
“Ugh, do we really need to celebrate it on the sea again, Dad?”
I myself have always been attached to the day and place I was born. I’ve always been attached to the sea. I was born on a ship. On this day exactly, forty-eight years ago.
“It’s because Dad loves to fish, Brother!”
I once read that the reason why we love life is not that we are used to living, but because we are used to loving. I am thankful to have been given the right space and time, which made me actually like loving life.
“Hmph. You snotty little brat. What do you know, you were just born yesterday. Dad was born on a ship, you know! It must be because of that. Right, Dad? Ah, but if we’re celebrating Dad’s birthday on a ship again, we’ll get bored of it!”
Like most people my age, I am now at the peak of my career.
“You two! Do you even hear what your mother’s been saying? Put your bags in the car! You’ve already wasted a lot of time without all this fighting! Now get going!”
I don’t know what my peak looks like. But I realize wholeheartedly how generous God has been to me: I was given the gift of meeting a wife who loves me, and we have been gifted children whom I believe can be far better than the person I am.
“So? Have you found the keys, dear?”
I’ve had such a good life. The way my wife looks at me is the most precious treasure. How can I turn away from all these pleasures?
“Yes, Hon. Let’s go. All’s set.”
Perhaps the only other thing I find fulfilling these days is the one adventurous hobby I still have. Fishing. Disappearing in the solitude.
And the sea is that solitude.
THE BEACH and the rising sun are on the horizon. Our luggage is still in the car. We’ve brought so many things from Jakarta. During the last few days, we’ve stayed over at a number of inns. We left our things in the car because, after sailing, I will continue our journey to our relative’s house.
We have finally arrived at Pantai Cermin, the mirror beach, just an hour’s drive east from Medan.
Come to think of it, the sea always looks like this. Just like the ever-present celestial bodies up there. Like the planets that orbit around the sun. The only change that occurs is the position they assume.
I always liken everything that happens on Earth to the sea. In actuality, all His creations are estranged in His sea. Everyone is drowned in the sea of the universe. Jostling about, fighting the waves. We cry when we’re happy and laugh when we’re sad. Until finally the ones we love leave us. Until we leave ourselves.
“Ah, how lucky we are to catch the sunrise!”
My uncle said that my umbilical cord was thrown into the sea. My dad had swiftly cleaned it with coconut water, carefully placed it in a small container, and thrown it into the waters.
“This time I know I can catch more fish than you, Brother!”
The horizon spreads before us, the salty whiff of the beach familiar.
“Ah, that’s nonsense. No way that would happen. You would need to get a blessing from Dad’s umbilical cord! Like me!”
My eldest son runs toward the waves.
“Why don’t you just ask for Dad’s blessings directly? You’re cheating! No headstarts!”
His younger brother runs after him. As fast as his brother.
“That’s your own fault. You run so slowly!” My older son boomed.
Some meters away, some people I know wave at me. They who always smile not because they’re happy, but because they’re used to it all. Fisherfolks are remarkably strong. I should be too.
The small boat behind them is the one we used to sail last year. We use it only to fish. My children aren’t so great at fishing. But I believe, as men, they need to fish.
My wife always waits for me on the beach and talks to the fishermen’s wives. She loves children and is used to be the center of attention among the local kids. This year I bet she’s prepared a special something for them
“Here! Where is the bait? Such a baby, always so slow!”
“Why don’t you just wait? Give in to the younger one!”
“Give in? Everyone’s the same in love and war, young or old!”
Both of my sons are clowns who enjoy music. A lot of the music they play when they get together sounds funny to my ears. I think their music must increase their sense of humor. Their quibbles and debates are always so heated but I feel they’re also always kidding around.
My wife is still talking to the fishermen’s wives. I can sense something is different.
The two small children we saw last year are nowhere to be seen, but my wife must have brought something for them.
“Our daughter died a few months after your last visit here,” said the fisherman.
I tried to catch a glimpse of his sad face under the wide, conical hat.
How tragic. The little girl, Pala, was such a lively girl. She was the one who helped her parents prepare a place for me to stay last year. Our children loved to tease her, but the smile never left her face.
“Died? What happened?”
My boys, who one second ago were rowdy, suddenly go quiet and prick up their ears. I feel time stay still as they wait for an explanation, wide-eyed.
“Lost in the sea. She said she saw something, someone drowning. She jumped from the boat to help that person. We didn’t see anything at the time. Yet she just kept on swimming, until she disappeared from my view.”
I could have guessed that that was the way Pala returned to her true home. I’ve always thought that good people die in the place they love the most.
Myself, I might die in this sea too one day.
“Until today her body hasn’t been found.”
And the conversation stops there.
Pala’s father then takes off to sail on his own. My two sons and I, along with another fisherman, go further into the sea to fish, farther away from him.
According to the fisherman who accompanies us, Pala’s father tends to keep to himself. Looking at the sea and lost in his own thoughts. If I didn’t know about the grief he’s facing, I certainly wouldn’t guess that he’s staring at his own reflection. Looking at himself in the water, as if he is ready to drown.
Pala’s father beats us to the beach. Our boat follows him from behind. His strong legs have made footprints in the sand. His wife embraces him. A small child, maybe their youngest, is with her.
My wife touches the child’s shoulder.
A few moments before I reach the beach, the fisherman’s family leaves.
“I told you I’d won, Mom! No one can beat their older brother!” my eldest son showed his catch to his mother.
“You got more fish, but mine are much bigger, Mom! Look at them!” the younger one pipes up indignantly.
Their mother only smiles. The melancholic face of hers seems to have brightened in the last few hours. The same look I saw on the fisherman’s face.
“NO WONDER it’s called Mirror Beach,” my wife says in the car. “People can always come to this beach to reflect. Just from the fishes our children caught, we can see how ambitious our oldest son is. Interested in everything, but lacking attention to detail. Our youngest imitates his brother, but always wants to achieve more than him.”
I pondered on her words for a while. Did I also, without realizing it, fall into my own reflections on the sea?
“Every day, that fisherman looks into his own reflection in the water. His wife said that he’s looking for his missing daughter. He stands there reflecting every single day.”
My two sons had fallen asleep on the backseat a while ago.
“You also go to that beach to reflect, don’t you?”
I hadn’t expected my wife to keep talking.
It seems that sometimes I get too lost in my reflection. I don’t even realize it.
“Each year you go there to reflect. Maybe it’s because you were born there.”
Dewi Kharisma Michellia’s first novel Surat Panjang tentang Jarak Kita yang Jutaan Tahun Cahaya [A Long Letter About the Million Light-Years Distance Between Us] won a prize from Jakarta Arts Council in 2012. This story comes from her first collection, Elegi [Elegy].
Shaffira Gayatri completed her postgraduate degree in World Literature at the University of Warwick, UK. Her English translation of Indonesian literary work has appeared on Kill Your Darlings and the Asymptote Blog. She is a part-time translator and teacher, and enjoys traveling, reading, and hiking in her free time.
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