Visiting a Haunted House

Intan Paramaditha

Illustration by Emma Roulette

This isn’t your usual ghost story, you know. It’s a completely ordinary tale, nothing special. My grandmother expired, as most grandmothers do, four days after I turned twenty-nine. I chose to skip the scene of her funeral—women in headscarves chanting prayers and men in peci heaping soil on her body, far away down yonder. I, beloved granddaughter that I was, hoped she’d forgive me for not shelling out fifteen hundred dollars to see her wrapped in a shroud. There’s no point in running after the dead.

I received the news of her passing in New York. I was hurrying toward West Fourth Street Station when I got a text from my dad. Clutching the phone, I stopped and turned to look at a small playground on my left. A bunch of guys were playing basketball, surrounded by spectators, and a couple of pedestrians looked on, puffing cigarettes. The game seemed to unfold in slow motion. A woman jostled my shoulder, giving a barely audible apology, and scurried down the subway stairs. It seemed for a split second like I’d fallen asleep. I felt I too should run—that way, in the direction the woman had gone, to catch my train. In my diary, I wrote a short note to my grandmother: I’m sorry, Grandma. I can’t see you off on your final train ride because I’m also on a train. My train keeps hurtling onward. It doesn’t stop. Not even for death.


I’ve always liked my grandmother’s name. Victoria. I don’t know how she wound up with it. Maybe her mother was inspired by an incident in 1895 when Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands visited Queen Victoria of Great Britain. My generation was surrounded by old women like my grandmother and great-grandmother who’d been Dutchified. Maybe they were just trying to be fashionable, and all of us are just natives, inlanders, who want to be European. But I liked to say her name over and over: Victoria, Victoria. It reminded me of Victor Frankenstein, scientist extraordinaire. My grandmother wasn’t a genius like Victor who could create human life itself, but having been a teacher, she knew a thing or two.

A year after Victoria’s death, I visited her home with my dad and an uncle. In we marched: Papa and Uncle and me, girl wanderer. Victoria’s children were impatient to sell the house because none of them cared to look after it. Who in the world would want to buy it, mused Papa. Like other deserted houses, my grandmother’s home seemed haunted. Someone who claimed to be able to see spirits reported that Victoria’s house was inhabited by a kuntilanak, a long-haired demon who lived near the well. A woman no longer here, in our world, but not “over there” either. Wherever “there” was. You could be sure she wasn’t resting in peace.

Is Grandma wandering too? I asked.

Hush! Don’t talk about your grandmother as if she were a demon.

My grandmother was devout. People say the devout rest at Allah’s side.

How does that song go again?

Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go . . . wandering.

Papa and Uncle did not want to imagine Victoria as a spirit even though her name fit all too well with ghost stories. But I felt her gliding through these rooms, watching my every step. The kuntilanak had set up house by the well, but my grandmother was never the domestic type. She might have found heaven dull with its repetitive pleasures: limpid streams, a surfeit of honey, olives ripe for picking (Victoria was never a fan of olives). When she was young, nothing was more thrilling for her than riding a minibus to market in a floral-print cotton dress, toting a plaited purse, and wearing dark sunglasses. It made perfect sense that in death she’d prefer a wandering state.


A dozen years ago, before Grandma fell ill, this house pulsed with life. I remembered where she slept. This was her bedroom; right beside it was Uncle’s room, plastered with posters of Duran Duran and Phoebe Cates. (Whatever happened to Phoebe Cates, anyway?) Another uncle went to college in a different city, so he had no room of his own. Every Lebaran, Victoria made kaastengels and layer cakes of all sorts, sinfully rich goodies laden with butter, milk, and sugar. Nobody in my family baked like that anymore. Who has eight hours to spend on a cake?

My father had gotten the idea of renting out Grandma’s house, but it still hadn’t attracted any interest. It was too big and creepy. And now it had fallen into disrepair. I interrogated my father: Uncle really doesn’t have the time to do some weeding and clear away cobwebs? Why would he want to do that, Papa replied. In a tone of envy he added, your uncle inherited a clove plantation from Grandma. Wow, a plantation. Good for him. I often fancy that God alone has a garden, especially when I’m dashing around in bus terminals and airports with a backpack. God’s garden is eternal; all that is transient winds up in the clutches of corporations or the state.

Victoria’s house was slowly being emptied out. Only in the last few months did her children realize that every object had been pilfered by amateur thieves. The house was begging for its funeral; even the clock on the wall had died. Aunt Leila and Cousin Rika have been here, said Papa. They’ve already taken everything valuable. Antique lamps. Flower vases. The men in my family got there late. It had always been like that, really, but I’d forgotten. As the years come and go, you get fuzzy about people’s habits.

Now take what you want, said Uncle.

I don’t want anything.

If you don’t, somebody else will.

Fine. At least I understood two things. First, there’s no point in storing the property of the dead in their home. Second, there’s a good chance all their stuff will be stolen, and definitely not by a kuntilanak.

I opened my grandmother’s wardrobe. As a child, I lived for two years in this house. I’d go into her closet and inhale the scent of her clothes. They smelled of laundry powder. I liked them better than the clothes that clung to Victoria’s body. My grandmother’s own scent, with its mingling of onion, oven-melted butter, and smoke from clove cigarettes, left me slightly woozy. Gudang Garam was her brand of choice. Still stored in her closet were a few clothes hung and folded, a prayer rug with the Ka’bah embroidered on it, and a toy piano. The piano was mine. I remembered it, a light blue one, a plaything of mine when I lived there. Papa and Uncle were still chatting. I grabbed a tissue from my purse to wipe my eyes. Damn nostalgia.

The clothes hanging here weren’t of the best quality, except for a gray suit that belonged to my grandfather. Only one, because the others had already been spirited away. Victoria had always wanted her husband to remain a dandy, ever elegant, like when they first met and danced and danced. Sometimes I wonder if they didn’t feel guilty living it up back in those colonial times, but back then few other ambitions were available. Natives knew no dreams beyond boarding ships, going to parties, or traveling to far-off lands. My grandmother had always wanted to go abroad, but she had to make do with riding a minibus to the market in her beautiful dresses. As for my grandfather, he died in the mid-1980s, and I have few memories of him. All I remember is that he’d ferry me around town on a Vespa, light blue like my toy piano, and that he’d give me Sugus candies, those strawberry, orange, and grape-flavoured squares. (Do kids still chew Sugus candy these days?)

Everyone wanted to get away but couldn’t, so they planted their feet at home, in the soil, in the garden.

You have to keep what’s left.

I wasn’t sure who was making a fuss this time, Papa or Uncle. I paid no attention.

I was more attracted to the cloudy mirror and dusty dressing table in my grandmother’s room. On the table lay a small book of Islamic scripture, empty perfume bottles, and broken sticks of red lipstick. Red, like the mouth of a baby-devouring kuntilanak. Who was making herself up in front of the mirror now?

Papa and Uncle’s voices rose ever higher, like touts at a bus terminal, more and more desperate to get their hooks in where they could.

This one. Take this jar. This cup. This painting.

What about the wardrobe, asked Papa.

Or this. An antique chest from Bali. It used to be your great-grandmother’s.

The wooden chest was like something that belonged to a sorceress. Dark and beautiful. I considered whether to take it. Then I’d finally have something solid, heavy, venerable—something befitting a Sumatran matriarch like my grandmother, or my great-grandmother, or Aunt Leila.

But where would I keep it? I don’t even have a house.

Bring it to New York, said Papa.

That’d be so expensive! And who knows where I’ll move afterward. Sydney, probably.

I can hold on to it until you come back home.

Back home? Home where? When?

Something loomed in the cloudy mirror. I turned away. The question returned, but now it disturbed me: who is making herself up there now?

A kuntilanak.

I didn’t want to find a kuntilanak in the mirror. I wanted to see Grandma’s spirit. Victoria. I wanted Victoria, whose body I had not seen as it was being covered by earth. I’d smash a mirror to hold her in my arms. I stepped closer in order to get a good look at the woman’s face. My knees trembled a bit. At that moment I realized that my grandmother was no wandering spirit, at least not in this house. The wandering spirit was me.

My feet do not tread the ground anywhere. I have no home, I know no love of any soil. But what is a house? The house had long since rotted away, long before the kuntilanak arrived; it was disintegrating along with Victoria’s maggot-infested corpse. Taking what was left behind would rescue nothing. Papa and Uncle didn’t know that. But I knew. For my feet do not tread the ground.


I decided to take a memento from Victoria’s house. The toy piano, which at least was actually mine. A souvenir from childhood turned airport stowaway because there was no grave in which to bury it. Together we, toy piano and I, would transit through Hong Kong.

My plane left three days later. Maybe I’ll go back in a few years and find the house razed to the ground. But Victoria won’t care because she’ll be in New York, Tokyo, or Paris with her flowery cotton dress and sunglasses. (Did I mention that she wasn’t an olive fan?) Maybe it’s Amsterdam that she haunts, since she was fond of speaking Dutch. Then we will meet, in another dimension if not in this material, visible world.

Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go wandering. See, Victoria? I really am your beloved grandchild.

translated from the Indonesian by Stephen Epstein

Excerpted from Gentayangan: Pilih Sendiri Petualangan Sepatu Merahmu (The Wandering: Choose Your Own Red Shoes Adventure), forthcoming from Gramedia Pustaka Utama in October 2017.