The Confessions of A

Ayu Utami

Illustration by Andrea Popyordanova

Original Sin

Every baby born is like a little angel. Innocent. But damn, it turns out we have original sin. At least I, and all the other children who benefit from the military regime, have original sin.

I was born during a rainy season. In a rainy town. Located at the foot of a mountain about eighty kilometres from the sea. The town is at a suitable distance for water vapour to precipitate. It is the home of dew and fog.

In this town there is a palace that reveals itself when the fog lifts. The sun’s rays spread upon it. This white castle is in the middle of a vast garden formed by an expanse of green grass, soft and fragrant, with rare trees of giant stature, rows of red-orange Cana lilies lining pathways, and herds of tame spotted deer standing in the sun or resting under the shade of mystical trees. There is a pool with a pair of European geese that can no longer fly, gifts from a kingdom at the end of the world. They are two lovers cursed to be fowl by a jealous witch. In rainy season the fresh fragrance of soil spreads from the palace complex. In dry season, it is the fragrance of leaves. A deep moat and tall metal fence surround the garden, allowing only a select few to step inside.

Sharing a boundary with the palace gardens is a friendly forest called the Great Gardens, built on a vision of the Garden of Eden. This is from where the mists that often drown the city come. There is a river, like the one mentioned in Genesis, although this one does not break off into four directions as Pison, Gihon, Euphrates and Tigris. The trees thrive, fruiting well among rattan and pandanus. But there you have it; we never knew which one was the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. We still don’t know.

Among the roots live wild rabbits and jungle fowl. Among the branches hang hundreds of giant bats. Birds trim the forest canopy. Once in a while you would see the progeny of the devil: snakes. Sometimes those poor snakes, for unknown reasons, leave the Garden and get crushed by the wheels of vehicles on the asphalt road. Their corpses reveal themselves as the dawn mist evaporates.

One dark night, a snake crossed the road away from the Garden.

On one such night, a baby was born in a maternity clinic not far from the garden, by the river. That baby was me.

The baby’s father was a young prosecutor, and her mother a schoolteacher. She was the couple’s fifth baby. The young prosecutor had a gun (part of the kit for his job), but his wife always gave birth alone because her husband—for whatever reason—always found an excuse to run away from the horror of birth. (The wife never talked about it.) They welcomed the arrival of their fifth baby into a small box-like house off a tiny alley, where peeping toms could look into the bathroom whenever they liked.

But the baby brought good luck. Or perhaps the baby didn’t want to live in a box house. As soon as she was born, her father got a stone house. Not a shabby house where half the walls were of woven bamboo and the floor is plain cement. Yes, a house with stone walls and tiled floors. It was only seven hundred meters from the edge of the great botanical garden, also not far from the river. In the new house, they no longer had to put all the children in the same room, like sardines in a tin. Thus the demanding baby brought the entire family good fortune. The parents now had three rooms to share with five small creatures.

But the house was also my original sin. The young prosecutor obtained it from a case, after it was confiscated when a Chinese businessman lost a civil suit. This was a normal practice during the military regime: confiscated items could end up in the ownership of the confiscator. (Just as Christ’s possessions—such as his shirt and perhaps his undergarments—could be raffled off by the Roman soldiers who crucified him.) I grew up under the protection of a military regime.

In fact, the military regime was born the same time as me.


Ah, I was once pure. When I was still in the clouds, before being tainted by original sin. Three years before my birth, there were riots in the country. It is said that the rivers flowed red with blood. Bodies floated on the surface or got stuck on boulders. Trucks brought hordes of men to the edge of the forest. Gunfire was heard slicing through the air, and knives butchered, unheard. Silence returned. Bodies were stacked and buried at the edge of the forest, hidden. The voices of babies yet to be born were silenced.

After three voiceless and bloody years, I was born and a new ruler sat upon the throne. The General. The previous ruler, the Engineer, was sent to some kind of house arrest. The communists who were his main enemy were eradicated like burning rats in a rice barn. The rats along with the rice barn. The General seemed to have no more enemies. But no . . .

That island is called The Land of Java. Which means: spirits still live on there. The unseen guardians of the island often reside in ancient weapons: jagged kris daggers, spears, and other tools of war, which are kept in secret places: old castles and sacred gardens. To rule, you must make a pact with them. To seal the deal, you need a blood sacrifice.

I received this story from none other than one of our faithful servants:

Our servant was an indigenous local of rain town, although there is nothing original in this world. From a young age she was used to passing by the white palace while walking down the road. If the Engineer was staying in the palace, people would gossip: which wife did he bring this time. The Engineer had many wives (this is why Mother had no sympathy for him). Many wives mean too much power. The Engineer did possess unlimited power at that time. He was called His Majesty the President for All Life.

Some of the accoutrements of his power was composed of—or so people believed—sacred objects in which unseen beings resided. Kris, spears, knives, swords, and all sorts of weapons. These sacred objects were buried somewhere between the white palace and the Great Gardens. Their spirits were faithful to the Engineer.

Now, the General overthrew the Engineer and took over his throne in the invisible realm. The military was at his full command. What about the forces of his unseen army?

Our faithful maid told us this story:

One day, not long after he came to power, as befitting a newly appointed ruler, the General threw a party for the people. You may imagine festive fireworks in the night sky behind the palace. During the day there was to be free food for the people in the Garden. Tables would be spread: red and white rice, all sorts of dishes and snacks, local favorites es chendol and es shanghai, bowls of sweet deserts and all sorts of yummy drinks with milk or coconut cream would be laid out. Anyone could help themselves. The poorest of the poor were invited. And of course it was the hungriest who would come. Those who weren’t so hungry would be a bit wary of fighting over food with the poor.

The poor came in hordes. Old and young. They came through the gateway opened gratis, no ticket necessary, and headed to the centre of the Botanical Gardens where the tables were spread. They started to eat all the food on offer, like wild animals.

Then, when a few of them began to feel full, while most were still fighting over food, something bizarre happened. The first sign was this: mist appeared in a few locations, as if the spirit world were seeping in. From the entry points, fingers of thin mist spread, webbed like frogs' feet, before thickening. The people were too engrossed by the food to realise the horror to follow.

The gates were clanged shut by an unknown wind. Those who were inside could not escape. Then a heavy rain fell from the sky. Yes, only from the sky above the garden. Outside all was calm and normal. But inside the Garden, a typhoon twisted around, as if it had broken out of the very ground, forcing its way to the dark sky. Some giant trees groaned, shivered, and then were pulled from the ground by a scary force. Their roots like surprised veins. The people screamed, but they were too full to run and their gluttony was too great to realise what was happening. The road was wrapped in mist. Trees fell upon tables and people. Some died instantly. Hands and feet stretched out from beneath the giant black branches.

Someone claimed they saw dozens of kris, spears and various weapons flying in the wind, appearing out of the ground and flying into the rumbling sky.

Outside the Garden, all was calm and normal. There was no rain. There was no noisy wind. The people walking in front of the palace looked on, entranced by the pretty eyes of the spotted deer.

That’s the story of how the General banished the spirits who supported the previous ruler. Every achievement demands a sacrifice. This happened at the time I was born.



The mist in the town is a living sign. Not a single parent ever tells their child about it, and not a single teacher includes it in their lessons either.

I never knew of any riots. I grew up in that home. The home that was my original sin. Its layout shaped my first map of the world. From it I learnt that this world has bright and dark places.

The house consisted of a main building and a pavilion. The main part was made of solid walls. Its doors and windows were tall, with double eaves and metal bars. It had high ceilings. The ventilation gaps were so high up they seemed like gateways for cicak lizards and little birds to slip in. The house faced east. Its front porch received the morning sun. Shrubs bearing purple and white flowers with sweet nectar were planted around it. I liked to suck the flowers’ nectar, ripened by the sun. I loved the light around ten o’clock in the morning. The cats and lizards liked to bask in its warmth. It was there, in that main building, where Mother, Father, my four siblings and I lived.

Meanwhile, the pavilion was in the northeast corner: damp and barely kissed by the sun. The pavilion used to be a garage, and had been renovated. The fence near the pavilion was covered in thick moss. Once I saw lots of worms crawling there. Yellowish and oozing mucous like devil’s blood. Even scarier: at the end of the same wall, there was a shrub covered with snails.

My two aunts lived in that pavilion. One was skinny, the other fat. They were my father’s sisters. The skinny one was his elder sister, the fat one his younger sister. Pay special attention, they are the most important characters in my life, apart from my mother of course.

Let me introduce you to my mother. She is beautiful and kind, her eyes are cool, and she is never under- or overweight. My mother is the source of my happiness. If she were out of my sight for more than five minutes, I would cry. If she went shopping without me, I would sit at the gate of the bridge by the forest awaiting her return. If she took too long, my tears would begin to flow, there, at the edge of the forest. In the forest grew buni trees—their fruit is a favourite among demons.

My mother taught me to pray. I prayed before going to sleep and upon rising. Like brushing my teeth. She put a cross and candles on a small table next to the bed. During May and October, every night she would invite her five children to recite the rosary together. We prayed in one of the bedrooms where Mother had placed the statue of Mother Mary. I admired Mary’s bare feet that stood on a snake without sandals. Her toes were so pretty. And the snake had a forked tongue. The snake was black.

Mother supplied us with books, although she didn’t read them. We read them ourselves. On the shelves there was the blue-covered Encyclopedia Americana and The New Book of Knowledge with its white-marble cover—two books that seemed to be owned by every member of the middle class at the time. We were left to open them ourselves, because Mother didn’t speak English. From them I learnt to memorise the names of dinosaurs and different kinds of dogs and cats. There were also books about biology with coloured illustrations, which made us look in wonder at the picture of a baby in the stomach. As we got bigger we started to choose what we read for ourselves. Every Sunday we bought Bible-story comic books at the church kiosk. My mother never told us about ghosts. She also never spoke of demons or hell. She only gave us good reading, healthy for our mind and spirituality. The books were stored in the shelves of the main house that remained bright at night. However . . .

However, next to the main house there was a damp and dark pavilion. There was nothing to read there, only a pair of aunts full of stories. Ghost stories. Their lips were never neutral, but either pursed in disgust or grimacing with action. Going there at night was always exciting. Their room was dim. Usually, the curtains were closed as soon as dusk arrived. From outside, their shadows formed shapes on the screen. Sometimes the skinny one looked bigger than the fat one. I would call and the door would open. A pair of aunts welcomed me in from the dark, with happy teeth and sparkling eyes.

The scrawny one is the elder of my aunties. The stocky one is young aunty. They kept ghosts. Their ghosts dwelled inside them; slipping out through their stories. Kolongwewe was an older woman who likes to kidnap children after dusk. A gendruwo had a large stature, with wide-staring eyes and a hairy body. The kuntilanak flew among the tips of trees while neighing with unstoppable laughter. Leyak have long tongues. Gundul pecingis take the form of heads, rolling down from the trees to the ground where they cry. Jelangkung and ninitowok are dolls to summon spirits. Dead people turn into skeletal jerangkong that walk in the dark. Among the ghosts that they told me about, I was most afraid of the jerangkong. Because it was the only one I had seen: the human skeleton hanging in the glass cabinet at a corner of our school.

Thus I began to understand my first map of the world, which described the bright area where God and knowledge resided, in the main house; and the dark area where demons and ghosts lurked, in the cold and damp pavilion.

Slowly I came to realise that many ghosts are female. And their ghostliness is related to their desire to have a child or a husband. This is the main difference between female and male ghosts.


One misty night, our dog was barking loudly by the pavilion. He barked and growled as if there was something in the ground, as opposed to his usual growls, which seemed to be directed at something at the height of a man. The entire house woke up. I heard someone yelling “snake.”A snake had come to our house. (The snake had lost its way and come into our home—according to Mother.) The male residents immediately chased after the snake, which wriggled towards the bushes. I didn’t know whether the snake was killed, or was tossed back towards the forest. In the forest there were springs. The springs bubbled up out of the ground close to the buni tree, the favourite fruit of demons.

At midnight, I heard a dog howling in the distance. From a high place. I woke up. Everyone was fast asleep. The lights had been switched off. I was so scared. I was sure that Dracula was on his way to our home. Dracula is a skeleton wearing a cape. He must suck blood so as to have flesh again. Animals, when aware of his presence, begin to howl. He approaches from a high place. His footsteps were the clatter of bones, stepping on the stone steps descending through the forest behind the housing estate. In that forest there were trees of jackfruit, breadfruit and a kind of mango. The steps ended at the bridge where I used to wait for Mother with tears flowing. The bridge faced two houses. One of them was mine. He would choose mine.

I sat up. I tried to wake my sister who slept in the same bed. She didn’t care. She didn’t want to wake up. In a while I would be dead, bitten by jerangkong. My sister didn’t want to help. With weak legs, I got down from my bed. I hated stepping on the cold floor at night. Who else can I ask for help besides my mother? Her room was next to mine. I tried to open the door. Locked! Why was it locked? I called out to Mother. But I didn’t hear anything from inside. Mother and Father must’ve been attacked by jerangkong! I was an orphan. Soon I would die. I started to cry. But the door refused to open.

In tears, I returned to my bed. I cried, crushed by fear, feeling abandoned. It was much later when I finally heard the click of the lock being unlatched. My mother came out to keep me company. I was relieved, but I was angry with her for locking the door. What is it that parents had done that would make them so cold-hearted that they would lock the door . . . 


Tukijo used to live in the large coffin. Actually I never knew who he was. He was a man. His hair was straight, parted at the side. He wasn’t family. He was also not a servant. In the daytime he was not at the house. At night he would occupy the room. It seems that he used to look after the shop opened by my uncle and aunt. Vaguely I recall that my uncle and aunt opened a watch shop at the new market Pasar Anyar. I think I was very little at the time.

At that time my uncle also lived with us. I called him Pakde, short for Bapak Gede, meaning Big Father, because he was my father’s older brother. But he wasn’t bigger than Father. He was slim. My father was a bit stocky. Although they say he was older, he looked younger and liked to play. He was good at drawing and having fun with children. I liked him. He was easy-going. My father was strict. My father was fierce and authoritative. Pakde’s watch shop wasn’t successful, apparently. When the watch shop closed, Pakde returned to Yogyakarta, where my parents came from. Back in his village, on nights when the moon was full, people still invited spirits to enter their ninitowok puppets. Often, the games would be over but the spirit refused to leave. The ninitowok puppets would roam around under the moon, seeking out the people who had summoned them.

But Tukijo still lived in our town. He slept in a large coffin next to the bathroom. One time Mother took me to the market to buy stationery. We went to the small shop that was looked after by Tukijo. I was surprised and happy to see him. He slipped in a pencil for me. I was afraid he was stealing from the shop-owner. But he said he wasn’t.

I could already bathe myself. But usually there was an adult present to towel me dry. If Mother was busy, Tukijo towelled me. I liked it when Tukijo dried me. It felt different being dried by a man. Usually, when Mother did it, she would wipe between my legs after drying my whole body. I liked it when Mother did it playfully. She would point at the folds between my legs while laughing, “Bring that gawuk here,” she would say, as if she were playing hide and seek. That’s how I found out, I pee with my gawuk. If I didn’t have one, I couldn’t pee. It was a bit ticklish.

I also would’ve liked it if Tukijo did that when he towelled me. But I forget whether he did it or not.


Later, Pakde lived in a village with ninitowok puppets. He loved writing letters. He wrote a few pages for Father and Mother, a few pages for my two aunts. All in Javanese. Then, a special letter for the children, especially the three little girls, including me, the smallest. He would write it in Indonesian. His letters for us always began like this:

To my three beloved gawuks . . .

Receiving a letter from Pakde always made my heart beat faster. One day we gathered while Fat Aunty read the letter. My heart beat faster in anticipation of hearing the part I knew. To my three beloved gawuks . . .

But that day I had grown a little older and protested. “Hey! You see! That again. He only loves the gawuk . . . !” Gawuk is that smiling thing with which I pee-pee. It is also an affectionate word with which people refer to little girls.

My aunties broke into peals of laughter. They found it very funny to hear my interpretation of the sentence. He loves only the gawuk, they repeated. I liked being able to be funny. Since then I remembered Pakde as the lover of the three gawuks.

Life continued. In those days there was no telephone. One day there was news from Yogyakarta, maybe a telegram. It caused a strange commotion in our house. Eventually, aunty told us, “Pakde has passed on.”

But I didn’t know what she meant. What did it mean that he had “passed on”?

“Pakde is no more.”

Bizarre. “How could he be no more?”

“Pakde is dead.”

I knew what dead meant. I once bought a rabbit at the market and it died the next day. The following week we bought a few, and all of them died in a few days. They liked carrots. Some of the rabbits were grey, some were white, and their pee was very rancid. They kept on dying. They stopped moving, couldn’t get up, couldn’t eat, couldn’t jump. They couldn’t do anything anymore. Then Mother would take the dead rabbit from its cage and bury it in the ground.

Now Pakde is dead. They say he suffered asthma. Asthma is like a breathing difficulty, which one of my sisters also suffered. When sleeping, her breath would make long squeaky noises. I didn’t feel good. First, Pakde is dead. That means he can’t move anymore, like my rabbits. He can’t do anything. He must be buried in the ground. Secondly, Pakde died because of asthma. I feared that my sister would die too. Every night I slept in the same bed with her. What if she stops moving and has to be buried in the ground?

The scarier thing is, I had a vague idea that after death people turn into jerangkong. Oh no, that’s what I feared the most. Though the bones of the skeleton are not connected, the jerangkong managed to go on living. Jerangkong are changed humans. A most disturbing change: that the people I knew would one day turn into skeletons.

I was still small. But I began to realise that after they die, my siblings would become skeletons. Some time later, the adults in the house were talking with serious faces. Finally Fat Aunty spilled the secret. She said: one of my other aunties, who didn’t live with us, Father’s oldest sister who we called BudeIbu Gede, or Big Mother—would come to visit. But her arrival wasn’t under any usual circumstances.

Fat Aunty brought her face closer and whispered, “Bude will be bringing a large chest. Containing her husband’s corpse.”

Such a scary sentence.

“Hush!” interjected Mother.

“It’s true!” Aunty did not relent. “Bude wants to move her husband’s grave to Yogyakarta. The train leaves tomorrow. Now Bude is bringing his skeleton in a suitcase to stay overnight.”

The conversation confused me. So, Bude’s husband was now a skeleton. That’s how I came to know that dead people turn into skeletons. That’s what also made me feel uneasy. And that night, the jerangkong would stay in our house. I was terrified. What if the jerangkong came out of the suitcase and knocked on my bedroom door, or peeped in the window?

“Aww come on . . . the body has turned to earth,” said Mother, a bit miffed that Aunty was scaring her kids. “It has no form anymore. It’s turned back into earth.”

The final sentence—turned back into earth—I could digest quite easily because I already knew the story of how man was created in the Bible. It is said that God created Adam from earth and then blew a soul into the figure he had created and made it a living human being. The story made it easier for me to accept that the dead would turn back into earth. Without that story it would surely have been difficult for my mother to explain what had happened.

But Aunty didn’t like leaving me at ease.

“Bodies turn back into earth after decades, even centuries. If it’s only a few years old it would still be a jerangkong.”

I felt uneasy. Tonight there would be a jerangkong in our house.

That night, it seemed that Mother told her children to go to their rooms and sleep earlier than usual. Especially me. I had no idea what time it was when, finally, I heard Bude arrive. The door opened, somebody welcomed her. But Mother forbade me to go out of the room to see the large chest; I don’t know why I imagined it would be blue. That night, Mother would surely sleep with one arm over me. That night there would surely be a piss-pot under my bed so I wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom if I needed to pee.

And now Pakde who was fun and clever at drawing has passed on too. He will become a jerangkong. Pakde the lover of three gawuks. Sorrow and fear created a sense of helplessness.

Tukijo also no longer existed, although he wasn’t dead. His bedroom was occupied by ghosts.

Old Virgins

But slowly, I came to realise something . . .

I actually lived with two ghosts. They occupied the pavilion, an area of darkness in our home. They were my own two aunts.

I couldn’t quite map out the time I realized this. One day I was playing with my sisters. Then, I don’t know why, we decided to find Mother. Maybe because we couldn’t see her. We found Mother in a quiet bedroom. Slanted light was streaming through the window, like the afternoon sun. Mother was holding a rosary. I saw her cry. I’d never seen Mother cry. But all children know the feeling and meaning of crying. So we became very sad and also afraid to witness it. The fear couldn’t be explained. We started sobbing too.

Mother stopped reciting her rosary prayers. She hugged us as we kept on sobbing. Mother didn’t cry loudly as she hugged us. She caressed us voicelessly. Mother seemed to want us to go, to leave her alone in the room. I was afraid of losing Mother if I left her. I was afraid we’d never be able to find her again. We didn’t want to go. I forget what happened. Perhaps Mother had to stop crying so we could stop being sad and afraid.

Eventually I came to realise that this event was related to another. My elder sister, who was nine years older than me, the one who cleaned my bum with her feet till I could feel her toenail on my asshole . . . she liked to spill the beans. She told this story:

“At one time, I’m not sure when, Father was rarely at home. He was stationed on another island. I wasn’t very close to Father. He was often away. And even when he was present, he was too strict so I was afraid of him.”

My eldest sister said she witnessed how our two aunts plotted to tell him that Mother had been close to a man while Father was gone. I imagined my sister playing in the dark pavilion and the two aunts letting her overhear a story about how her mother was playing around with another man. The lie in the story was revealed by the tongues of the two aunties, which suddenly appeared as forked. My sister was afraid, but she was also shocked.

Skinny Aunty and Fat Aunty told stories about Mother to our father. What they said exactly, we don’t know, but he was livid. This part my sister didn’t see herself, but later she heard that Father had wanted to divorce Mother. Mother insisted it wasn’t true and she would never leave her five children come what may. If Father kicked her out, she would take all of us with her.

Father of course trusted his own blood sisters. Two against one. Mother was out-voiced. Only my sister could see the forked tongues of the two aunties—growing longer and dancing, but sadly she couldn’t say it at that time, not even to me. At the crucial moment, Bude arrived. The Bude who would one day bring her husband’s corpse in a chest to stay overnight in our home. She was Father’s eldest sister. She was as hard-headed and strict as Dad. She was the one who testified that my mother was pure, she had never fooled around with another man, and that her two sisters were plotting to accuse Mother without any grounds. That’s what my sister told me. I was too little to know any of this; I just found my mother crying while reciting the rosary in her room.

Bude protected my mother from a lot of things. But slowly I began to realise something. The pair of aunts who made the evil plot against Mother were not married. Bude, who protected my mother, was married. Later on, with additional knowledge from my life experience, I would conclude that my aunts, living in the pavilion of our home, were angry and jealous of married women.


My school was located in front of the palace. Eagles liked to circle above it. The school was run by nuns who wore white or gray habits. We called them sisters. The nuns were not married. They lived together in the nunnery and did jobs like managing schools, orphanages, hospitals, and the like. They had vowed not to marry. My two aunts didn’t choose like that. So, I came to realise: some people decide not to marry; but others remain unmarried not by choice. It turned out to be an important lesson for my future.

I started to observe the sisters, teachers and gardeners. When the head sister emerged from the nunnery, walking towards the bell, I would be happy because soon the bell would ring for recess or as a sign it was time to go home. The nunnery was closed off to us. Its doors next to the chapel, full of dark tinted glass, were never opened, except when the sisters were passing through. I never even saw a teacher enter. There lived the sisters, in a space I imagined to be clean, orderly and mysterious.

I could tell which teacher was pretty or handsome, and which wasn’t. Among them were some who fell in love. Miss Y of the slim waist liked to wear tight skirts. Her face was full of pimples. Miss L was a beautiful Chinese lady. Her nose was elegant, her narrow eyes slanted upwards, her lips small but full. Miss C wasn’t pretty at all, a bit fat, and her skirt was so mini we once saw red underwear between her two large thighs. She rode a Vespa. There were only a few male teachers, because this school used to be girls only. Among the few male teachers, there were two who were relatively good looking. Mr D, who taught craft and local languages. He wasn’t too tall and his hair was straight. Mr A was tall and had a captivating smile. I knew Mr A liked Miss L. Every day, one of the students was supposed to bring flowers for the teacher’s desk in class. One day, Mr A asked me to deliver that day’s flowers to Miss L.

There was a mute gardener in our school. He could make noises, but it sounded like the gorillas in a Tarzan movie. One day I heard whispering among my friends that the gardener was being told off by the sisters. They threatened to fire him. What happened? He was caught in the act one night with a hooker in the yard, near the fence. Caught in what act with whom? What did it mean? What was a hooker? I didn’t understand, but vaguely I got the idea that the gardener was found with a woman. I didn’t know what a mute gardener would do with a woman. My imagination about the school at night always tended to give me visions of the skeleton coming down from his hanger in the glass cupboard beneath the stairs.

The kids also knew which teachers were nasty and which weren’t. I heard about Miss E who taught the fourth graders. She was the scariest among all the primary school teachers. Apparently she once dunked a student in a big cistern because the child didn’t appear to have taken a bath. My sister had a friend, a beautiful girl. She made a mistake, and Miss E scribbled on her face with chalk. It looked awful, my sister said.

My other sister, who was in junior high school, also told me about a nasty teacher named Miss S. She was stingy with marks for the pretty girls. She also seemed to enjoy hurting girls by mocking their deficiencies. For instance, she would describe the legs of a student as too large and straight like bamboo betung, the largest kind of bamboo we have.

One day I heard that all the nasty teachers were old virgins. I didn’t understand the words: old virgins. I had previously heard of the Virgin Saint Mary, and I accepted it as a title or name, without knowing the meaning. I was used to hearing words I didn’t understand in prayers and litanies, like: Holy Virgin of Virgins, Mother Undefiled, Mirror of Justice, Seat of Wisdom, Cause of Our Joy, Spiritual Vessel, Mystical Rose . . . all strange words about holy people seemed normal to me. But this time the bizarre word related to teachers in my daily life. So, what was an old virgin?

“Virgin means, well, still a virgin. Unmarried. An old virgin means they’re still unmarried and they are old.”

Oh. In that case, my two aunts were old virgins. But people never called the nuns old virgins.

Only the teachers or laywomen who were unmarried were called that. I also couldn’t yet ask what the connection was between being an old virgin and being cruel.

I once heard a story about one of the old virgins, the scariest teacher at the primary school. The administrative staff leaked the story. One day Miss E received a package. A small box containing something very special: an engagement ring. Shiny. Miss E showed it to her colleagues. She said proudly, she had a fiancé, and this was the ring he gave her. She would soon be married. But, the teachers and staff knew, she sent the ring to herself. They whispered behind her back. The ring was bought at a gold shop owned by a someone who was a church friend of the administrative staff. She sent it to herself, so the whole school would know she had a fiancé. The fiancé never showed up. And when Miss E left the school, she was not yet married.

Luckily, I was closer to being funny than pretty. And my grades were always good. So not a single teacher had any reason to be mad at me. But, also luckily, Miss E was never my form teacher. So I never got to see her cruelty first hand. (One day, after I went on to high school, I got to see an old virgin teacher berate one of my beautiful friends for a tiny mistake. I, the witness, felt hurt too.)

If there was one thing that scared me most at school, it was the skeleton in the glass cupboard in the dark corner near the stairs. But for some of the students, the old virgin teachers were ghosts far more frightening than any living skeleton.

translated from the Indonesian by Kadek Krishna Adidharma