By Dyah Kuncorowati
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The day grew darker and the wind blew more intense. The sound of the waves was clearer as the beach was deserted. There was and old bamboo bench under a palm tree on the shore. And almost every evening – people said – that old man with torn fabric, sat on that bench. He stared at the blank, dark sea and didn’t move, for hours. Before he left to find a place to sleep, whether near the only restaurant on this beach or somewhere in the fish market.
He only shared his bamboo bench with a skinny, old, male cat. Looking at them was like looking at two ancient creatures contemplated their long, weary life.
On the holiday, I liked to offer myself to buy the fish for our food stall. It was better I thought than doing nothing. That was how I “acquainted” with that old man. Sometimes I heard him “deliver” his speech among the crowd in the fish market. No one seemed to pay attention but me.
“Traitor !”, a middle-aged man shouted at him.
He shouted at that man too, and as always, there was a quarrel. But it never took a long time since the security took them out of the market. Strange, I thought, no one seemed to notice that.
“Look, Miss, just ignore them, they’re both mad !” said a seller whose squids always cost too high.
But, I couldn’t just ignore him, I mean, what he said. He said that the old army people with those shining plates on their chest should be the ones who went into the battle, to fight the rebellions and not the young soldiers who just finished their short training.
“But, look what happens!” he said, “those old generals only know how to give orders but, never know how to do that! Those young souls deserve better than just those stink uniforms and orders and then die in the battlefield. If the duty succeeded, nobody admired them, instead those coward leaders got another shining plate for something they didn’t do. If it failed, all investigations would be led to those soldiers. Come on people think! Those children still need to grow, enjoy life, get married, give their parents grandchildren and … a shining plate for their own…!”
He said those with a fist. Those were too intelligent for a mad man. But, this mad man must’ve well educated … once. Actually there were rumors about that old man. But, according to many fishermen, they weren’t just rumors, they were facts! He didn’t have a house to stay or a family to take care of him.
“Once, “ said a fisherman with a black hat, “he had everything, a lovely wife, two wonderful sons, a good house and a piece of land. But, one day he had to sell his land to pay some amount of money so that his oldest son could join the army. It wasn’t enough, it made him owe some money. His son was then sent to Aceh. It was said the there were rebellions to fight …”
He took a deep breath and continued, “ he dreamed about his first son, went home and brought a medal of honor. He was so proud at that time so he forgot that fact was cruel sometimes. Instead a medal of honor, he got a news that his son was included in the black list of most wanted criminal. He was shocked. What has he done, his son? Stealing from the civilians, raping few girls or what? “Well, it is a battle, those small crimes can be excused, it is an emergency!” He shouted to the man in the green uniform who brought him the news.”
“He must be terribly shocked.” I said, he just nodded.
“But it wasn’t a small crime, you know, because it was indeed a major one. He stole some weapons and ammunition and fled. The next day, a friend from his group noticed him among the rebellions, fought against his own friends. Hearing that, he grew pale and speechless. He didn’t even realize when his guess left his house. A traitor! His son was a traitor! After all this time, his piece of land, his huge-as-a-mountain-hope on him were nothing! Empty. Gone.”
”Well, there was one thing that still left, his debt which awaited to be paid, right?” He just smiled. “At least, he has something to believe and a strong will to keep it, not like you!” said his easy going wife. It was a week before she realized that they couldn’t have anything for paying the debt but selling the house. And it meant that they wouldn’t have any other place to stay. Then she decided to leave before it all happened, left that poor guy with his own pain and grieve and their youngest son.”
“And you know the other man who always opposes him?” he continued, “he lost his son in Aceh too. Went away from home in a good shape and returned as a dead man whose body was so hard to identify. Nobody would know it was him. Thanks to his ID card which was kept in his pocket. That’s why that man always calls the old one as traitor. They’re both mad, you know!”
What a strange story. They were very contrast, those two men. One was a father of a hero, the other was a father of a traitor. But, now what? What did they get? Nothing. Eventually, pain was the only best friend remained.
I felt pity about him actually. But, what could I do? I was nobody and I had nothing. I sometimes wondered how he could sleep in that fish market whose smell was rotten when the day grew older. The unsold, bad fish or any sea creature was thrown away in one corner of the market. It wouldn’t be cleaned until the morning came, when the garbage was taken away. The worst thing was that when the one who took care of that job was late or didn’t show up at all. It was rotten all over the market for the whole days, sometimes for days. Those fishermen already got used to it but, what about me? So far, I was the only one who complained about that smell.
One day, that old man with torn fabric “delivered his speech” again among the crowd. But, now, he wasn’t in the market. He was among the fishermen’s small boats which were abandoned after they were used the whole night before. The security prevented him from entering the market that day. But, everybody could see him. He shouted words I couldn’t get, he was quite far and it was crowded. Then, his enemy came out of nowhere shouted at him and then again a quarrel, but today there was no security at all.
Everyone let them fight one another. They already ceased fighting when I finished my shopping. Both went to different ways, walked slowly and slowly with nothing in their heart but pain.
“So, where’s his youngest son?” I asked a lady who loved to shout when she offered her fish. Everyone there must’ve known his story since everyone loved to talk about others. Perhaps, they also talked about me when I wasn’t around.
“What a poor guy, he is! When he lost his traitor son, he put his entire hope to the youngest son. He worked so hard to pay his school fee after his mother left him. What kind of mother she is who abandons her own family? Anyway, he loved to amuse himself by saying,. “ at least, I don’t need to earn extra money for her. It’s only my son now.”
“He liked to ask his son this and that. Going home on time, studying from seven to nine, etc. he sometimes grounded him when he came home late. “What will you become if you keep hanging around with those useless kids?” You think a young man can stand that? Of course not! From day to day, his son rarely went home on time, even he didn’t show up for days. He returned when he needed money. Most of the time, his white-grey uniform was dirty with unexplainable stain. People mostly thought it was blood. He must have had a fight. His face showed that clearly.”
“When he came home late, his father already waited for him with a stick. Even before he reached he door, his father already reached him first and beat him again and again …”
“No one stopped that?” I asked.
“Look, this one will be good for your food stall. Of course not! It wasn’t our business and besides, that little demon needed a lesson, a hard one. Then, his son complained to him about everything, about his complicated position as the youngest child, the money, everything. His father only said, “Who says it’s easy to be the youngest child? You must be better than your older brother, you must make your parents proud ..” You must this, you must that. But, that’s true, don’t you think?”
”What? Being the youngest also means being the best, and that he has to be a kind of savior for his drowning family?”
“Exactly! Then again he disappeared for days and weeks. His father tried to search everywhere but noting. He couldn’t find him. Until one day, down town, that old man was about to go home from his work, under the heating sun. There was a little chaos. He heard the sound of gun shots, then he wanted to know what happened, he drew nearer, carefully. He asked the man who was there and was told that there was a couple of robbers tried to escape. One did escape, but the other was shot by the police. Then, like the others, he came closer to the spot. He saw blood here and there. The smell was rotten and it was mixed the sweat’s smell of the people around that place. “
“He then came closer. He saw the faded jeans and blood-stained shirt. Then, he saw his face – the robber’s. his eyes were closed but he still breathed. He recognized that young man as the one he liked to play kite with when he was so small, he used to take him to this town on holiday and lately, he liked to beat and blame him for the mistakes which could be his also. Yes, it was his youngest son, his supposed-to-be family savior. The ambulance took him away and somebody pulled him from the crowd but he didn’t realize it. It was the teacher next door who pulled him.”
“People say, his son is still alive now but nobody knows for sure where he is. Poor guy, he has two living sons, a traitor and a robber. My husband said that it would be better to have a dead son but a hero than to have two living sons but both were villains”
“But, …both are painful right?”
“Of course, that’s why no one wants to choose between those two, Dear.”
That day I had to return the basket of a fish seller. I forgot to bring my own, so she lent me hers but she wanted me to return it before the next day. So I did. I had to search her house and when I found it, she talked here and there like a fountain which continued to flow water.
When I returned, I passed the old bamboo bench on the shore. It was almost dusk, people were still passing by around that place. I saw him, the old man with two villain sons, sat on the bench. He wasn’t alone, he was with an old male cat as people usually said. They shared the bench. Perhaps, in silence they also shared their pain.