A Northern Land (by Linda Christanty)

Posted in Fiction by Linda Christanty on 07/16/2009

THE night her father surrendered to Izrail*), she made love to a dark northern land. Unlike the silence of death’s watch before finally arriving, she felt her world fill with the beating of eagle’s wings and a ceaseless rain of burning arrows.

THE night her father surrendered to Izrail*), she made love to a dark northern land. Unlike the silence of death’s watch before finally arriving, she felt her world fill with the beating of eagle’s wings and a ceaseless rain of burning arrows.

Before the pain peaked down there, her eyes opened once again, to look at the man’s face: so soft, so pale. Suddenly she wanted to give herself entirely, to become the blood and air of the man’s body, protecting him from death.

When her fingers touched the man’s shoulder, she no longer felt fear. With him, she could traverse the unimaginable. Now all things difficult are like knots unravelled, and she will always think like this.

Her father is a remaining shard of memory of a country she never knew, other than by name and a border outlined on the world atlas, up north. That word “north” aligned her to this man, someone who was, like her father, washed up on these shores that probably never really wanted them. She will never be able to forget the two; her father’s love for her and her love for this man. Eternal, irreplaceable, like all things deemed “first time”.

On the bedroom floor, she notices the man’s golden necklace strewn about like a dead snake. Its chain links are rectangular, with cross pendant.  But then she leaves the object in its place, not having any desire to pick it up to put it on the table.  All of a sudden she feels sad, for she has found something that has no link whatsoever to her. Like the propeller of an aeroplane on a snowy mountain: together not a likely composition, but disaster had introduced the object and place as something normal. Presently she feels more like the snowy mountain: something passive and wounded.

The city lights outside are only visible as a thin vertical shiny line, splitting the window’s curtains right in the middle. She slowly reaches for her white full body gown, adorned with a motif of small black flowers, made of cotton, light and cool. She puts the gown on in a rush, then remembers that tonight everyone is waiting at the hospital. A nervous feeling begins to rise.

From the tousled bed akin to a sunken ship with layers of wet sail cloth, the man stretches to rise while speaking in the French language she does not understand, maybe he’s talking to himself, maybe it is directed to her. Aware of the long silence that ocurred, the man smiles and switches to English in a voice that has immediately become a whisper.

“We can order dinner now? In fact I like to eat. My doctor says I have cholesterol problems, but he is just saying something.” The man then winks at her (the pair of dark brown eyes are clear as marble, with black curved lashes around it, just like father’s eyes but with a happy glint to them that is also mischevious).

She answers, “off course,” then reaches for the menu on the table. She had yet to put on her underwear.

From below the pile of the man’s pantalon and shirt by the bed, black lace peeks out as if representing her and a score of other women in the eastern hemisphere and this country who are entrapped by patriarchy – an awkward word not poetic enough for verse.

She immediately becomes sensitive to symbols, as she had become when she studied film and semiotics at her first week of university almost twenty years ago. Back then trains, towers, cigars, beaches, campfires, crows, and colours were symbols that kept talking to her. The modern world calls the reading of symbols a science, while the old world calls it magic; illuminating what is hidden from things actually present in front of you.

And she loves symbols. Like a game. Like puzzles.

One week ago, she visited her father in the hospital. Her father’s blanket was askew. A pale scrawny leg, a pair of feet seemingly shrinking like drying bits of wood, black woolen socks. With a slow voice her father complains about Al Fatihah he no longer remembers completely, so mother guides father to recite the verse over and over, sounding like a sad song from two tired people. She is nailed to the spot by the drip stand, once in a while looking at the falling drops of glucose.

She will not end with that man like her father and mother.

She has traced a land of words to describe this complicated rapid liaison and what comes as most possible is merely the adding of reasons, as if to make the illusory become valuable: clusterbombs, land mines, chemical weapons, grenades, bullets, rockets, car accidents, political assasinations, or radioactive poisons or arsenic. Her encounter and parting with the man are merely for a higher purpose, so she humors herself.

That man has sworn to travel, initially to forget the word “north” that has followed him like a malevolent ghost haunting factories on the fringes of Paris, a word that shadowed the first men of his father’s line who had set foot there.

In his mind the man believes that new places will set him free from the word “north”, places where freedom isn’t even present or has just begun, proving that the word has multiplied everywhere like the cancer cells eating father up from inside. Now the man dreams to help people like himself.

She is startled seeing shadows reflected by the wall’s mirror: her holding the menu, and behind her someone she has only known for two days is picking the strewn objects from the floor.

“After this I will write for a short time. Do you mind?” asks the man, moving closer then kissing her lips lightly.

She nods. Truly having no objections. They increasingly have similarities, she thinks. Both like to daydream, ponder, write and fight the impossible.

“You look very pale.” The man takes the menu from her hand, then mumbles the names of dishes, opening pages. Pointing at this and that.

She feels a little feverish.

Her father wanted her to marry someone from noble lineage, someone who she would obey. That person’s words would become her curse and blessing for her entire life.

In her heart she became upset and protested: why must she bow down to someone who will never be as worthy as the mother who gave birth to her, someone who does not feel pain when she falls ill, from whose body she will never suckle and be nourished. And to such a person she had to give her body for the first time.

But, father said, such a man would travel with her to the place where the brimstone-carrying birds once defeated an army of elephants, where Abraham showed his divine faith by sacrificing his son whom Allah swapped with a lamb, where after 700 years apart a pair of lovers would meet again: the place where war and love are remembered ceaselessly.

That was father’s testament.

Because she must protect her ancestral bloodline from pollution and mockery by humans and djinns and devils in disguise.

She has been swathed in thousand-years old prayers, which envelop and protect her like an eternal mist. Not a single person can touch her. To be esteemed or deemed ignoble in fact equally bring grief, she thinks.

But, her father has forgotten that inside his daughter flows the blood of Arcadians, their ancestors who roamed dry steppes and knew not of resting in one place.

For her, that man is a vast land. She will let him be as such, because something so vast is always a source of surprises.

But her cellphone vibrates. Once. A short message from her younger sister. Late, due to a network disturbance or heavy traffic, or other reasons she did not understand: Father has passed away. He left very peacefully. His joints glowed. Every being that lives will experience death.

She becomes silent. Her world becomes flat. The man becomes skinnier than he should be. The table, chairs, bed, cupboard, so thin. When the man is softly wiping her brow, she smells a fresh alien aroma. Sadness and gladness intermingled. When normal sight returns to her, she sees a pair of confused brown eyes.

She reaches for her shroud on the floor. She isn’t going anywhere. Only wants to be alone awhile.

Banda Aceh, February 2008

*) Izrail is the angel of death in Islamic teachings.

Translated from the Indonesian by Kadek Krishna Adidharma

Linda Christanty is an author and journalist. Her writing has been recognized by various awards including the national literary award in Indonesia (Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2004 and 2010), award from the Language Center of the Ministry of National Education (2010 and 2013), and The Best Short Stories version by Kompas daily (1989). Her essay "Militarism and Violence in East Timor" won a Human Rights Award for Best Essay in 1998. She has also written script for plays on conflict, disaster and peace transformation in Aceh. It was performed in the World P.E.N Forum (P.E.N Japan and P.E.N International Forum) in Tokyo, Japan (2008). She received the Southeast Asian writers award, S.E.A Write Award, in 2013.

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