The Kersen Tree (by Linda Christanty)

Posted in Fiction by Linda Christanty on 05/27/2009

OUR house faced the beach. Yet the beach wasn’t visible through the open windows. It wasn’t even visible when I stood in the sandy yard and it was as if the soles of my bare feet were being attacked by fine-hot needles in the intense heat of the day. The beach was just the roar of the sea and the whistling of ships, even when I perched on the highest branch of the kersen tree that towered conceitedly in the corner of the yard.

OUR house faced the beach. Yet the beach wasn’t visible through the open windows. It wasn’t even visible when I stood in the sandy yard and it was as if the soles of my bare feet were being attacked by fine-hot needles in the intense heat of the day. The beach was just the roar of the sea and the whistling of ships, even when I perched on the highest branch of the kersen tree that towered conceitedly in the corner of the yard.

A cliff spread with creeping thorn plants hid the beach down below. And the trunk of a fruitless jackfruit tree at the edge of the cliff, with old withered twigs,  looked like a strange creature standing melancholy watch over it.  

Toward nightfall, when only the twilight rays of the set sun were left, casting all things of the universe into silhouette, that jackfruit tree really did resemble a lone, alien creature pondering on the brink. Black. Mute. All alone in the world.   

My confused gaze ran smack into the line where the sky and cliff met.  Not a straight line, like one made with a ruler and pencil on drawing paper, but a rather wavy line with peaks and valleys of various heights and depths. Bushes, trees, wood stumps, outcroppings of land … sullied the view. Even the sky I saw was always changing colors. Blue, gray, black or blinding white.  Like colors tinging my brain.  The wild spiraling shoots that crept over and covered the slope always looked bright green in the rainy season, but crisp brown in the dry season. More like a net of rusty wires than plants once alive, once fresh.     

Sometimes Grandfather invited me to go to the beach. We were forced to take a winding path. The incline of the slope was almost 90 degrees. Impossible to descend. As soon as my feet touched sand, I immediately turned back around to face the cliff. Really high. The jackfruit tree looked blurred.

WHEN I was still in elementary school, I spent some of my time up in the kersen tree. Not just to imagine the hidden beach, but for other purposes.  

After coming home from school and having lunch, I climbed up with a cloth bag of story books strapped over my shoulder, then sat on a sturdy branch to read and pore over the tall tales of the storytellers and be swayed by their words. Tin Tin comics, Nancy Drew detective serials, Tales of Five Continents…

A breeze blew and refreshed my skin, then began stroking my eyelids. Eventually the letters crowded into each other or multiplied themselves.  

I started feeling sleepy, but didn’t dare fall asleep. Not because of the fat green caterpillars that suddenly crawled up, inching over my body now and then, spreading an itchy feeling into my pores, but more out of a fear of falling. Although the strong winds more often came only in certain months, certain seasons, that fear of being blown away and dashed down by the wind made me go down right away when drowsiness began to take over.  

The strong wind was really amazing. Grains of sand got lifted up, took flight and gilded the air. The terrace floor got sandy. The glass of the windows got dusty. The walls of our house got increasingly dull. Mak Sol, a niece of my grandfather who lived with us, would be busy sweeping the terrace and wiping the glass in the doors and windows for weeks, more often than on normal days. Yu Ani – who’d been helping with the cooking and clothes washing at our house for close to a year – would hurry about carrying a pail and mopping the floor.

Once in a while I gazed at the strong wind from the window of the pavilion, the place where Grandfather lived. The pavilion had large windows. Their white-painted frames were made of meranti timber. The wide pane of glass in Grandfather’s room offered me an unimpeded view of the wind as it violently attacked and bent the kersen branches and twigs. Leaves fell. Caterpillars were flung off and scattered in the sand like hit and run victims. Strange thing was, caterpillar season always happened at the same time as the coming of the strong winds. “The West Wind’s arrived,” said Grandfather, as he put the petty cash book away in his desk drawer, which could hold all of the receipts of bought goods, television and radio subscription bills, important papers and old cough medicine bottles filled with all sorts of roots (and one special bottle stored a collection of grandfather’s fallen teeth!). Grandfather then deftly sorted the banknotes from the coins or the reverse. The banknotes were placed inside a brown envelope labelled MONTHLY EXPENSES, while the coins were fed into the mouth of a glazed porcelain elephant that was rearing upward, its two front legs lifting high – a piggy bank that was a gift from a nephew of grandfather’s who worked for a shipping company. After that, the envelope of money was stored in a safe. The elephant bank was shifted back to the corner of the desk. Secretly I’d poke and pry at the elephant bank and try to get some of the coins inside to fall out. It rarely worked. But once there were enough of them to buy five packets of ham lam, a candy made from a sort of fruit whose seeds are shaped like almonds and twice an almond’s size. The sequence of kanji characters stamped on the wrapping paper I couldn’t decipher at all. The ‘ham lam’ written in Roman letters beneath the string of kanji characters I took to be the name of the fruit candy.

I suppose Grandfather knew about my deeds, the stealing of the coins. One day he bought me a clay chicken bank and said, “Save up your coins here. Later you can break it when it’s full.” I suddenly felt sad and ashamed. I shifted my gaze from the window pane to look at my grandfather, sitting with his back turned to me.

Actually, it was Grandfather who was the head of our family, not Father. Each day he inspected the trivia of household necessities, from matters of kitchen salt to visits to our neighbor who’d stolen water from the water pipe behind the house. It was Grandfather too who went to the police station to release our driver who had been accused of running into someone. Father wanted to give a bribe to the police instead, so the matter could be settled quickly. “Don’t! If we’re right, we have to stick up for it, even if we have to die for it,” he said,  scolding his weak-hearted son-in-law.

Grandfather slowly raised his coffee cup, then gulped down its contents. Robusta coffee, thick. I’d once tasted grandfather’s coffee, as much as one can swallow at  a gulp. Bitter. I vomited it into the sink. Strong black. A color that’s scary, but always there. I saw Grandfather’s fingers were shaking.  

“This strong wind brings illness. If you just play inside the house, it’ll be safer,” he said, as he placed the cup on a saucer. A moment later he rose from the chair, placed his reading glasses on the buffet, and walked through the door frame.  

AS MY GAZE returned to collide with the pane of glass, I saw a clump of black cloud moving in slow procession across the sky. The wind was still surging mad. Bits of soil were raised into the air, then scattered back to earth. The sea below the cliff was stirring. My schoolmate, Kang Haw, had been lost in that sea because of helping to push a fishing boat into the open sea. His corpse floated up after two weeks. Swollen. Blue. Full of holes from bites. I saw people carrying his body in the litter after lifting it out of the sea, even though Grandfather had forbidden me. Just as the mourning party came around the street corner, I hurried up the kersen tree and steadily watched them carrying Kang Haw. The blowing of the wind suddenly gathered force. My pores rose up in goose bumps.   

At night, when I woke up to go to the bathroom, the roar of the wind sounded louder, like the reverberating growl of a giant. I ran down the long narrow corridor that connected the bathroom in the house out back with my room, which was located in the main house. My room was closer to the bathroom at the end of the corridor than to the family bathroom in the main house.  

The cement floor was as cold as ice. I often forgot to put on my flanel slippers. The soles of my feet felt as if they were frozen. Bang Husni, Grandfather’s adopted grandson, was already standing up straight, in front of his room, which was next to the bathroom. The soft tapping of feet and rhythm of light steps had pulled him out  of deep sleep. The stillness of the house made sounds more sharply audible.

“Like the ring of an alarm clock,” he said, with a grin. He drew near. His fingers gripped my arm,

“Don’t run too fast, you’ll fall.”  Bang Husni often lent me comic books. He rented the books from a book kiosk in the market. “You’re allowed to read these books on one condition,” he said one day. His eyes weirdly brightened.

The wind kept on blowing through the holes in the window screen along the length of the corridor. The night deepened. The wind hissed, cold, sharp. My body shivered. The kersen leaves rustled. He shut the corridor light.

GRANDFATHER once wanted to chop down the kersen tree. When it’s caterpillar season it makes people disgusted. “Look at that… caterpillars everywhere,” he grumbled, pointing his index finger at the window.  

I disagreed. I wanted to build a cute house at the top of the tree. I wished to have my own house. The caterpillars weren’t so plentiful all the time, were they? Couldn’t the tree be sprayed with caterpillar poison? “Would be better if we planted a rambutan or a rose apple tree – more useful,” Grandfather cajoled, evading a quarrel.  

Father and Mother were all for grandfather’s plan, but good fortune still took the part of the tree. Gradually everyone forgot the original plan. Only when the strong winds came and made the caterpillars fall off did conversation about felling the tree reappear. The execution of the plan was cancelled time and time again, vanishing in the midst of  a tumult of more important day to day matters. I, of course, was grateful.

I began browsing the leftover boards behind the house. I  watched closely how grandfather sawed, planed and nailed. The wooden treehouse would call for thoughtful preparation. It would even have to withstand whirlwind attacks. I would build it myself. I told none about it. I began flipping through Grandfather’s books on carpentry skills. Every time I looked at the tree, my desire to live in it became stronger and more deep rooted. I envisioned spending the night there. From its sweet little window, I’d watch the stars glitter. Oh yeah, I’d have the binoculars Father had given me. Bathroom? I could do it inside an old paint can. Done.  

Occasionally I gave up hope. Was I capable of building a house? My thoughts suddenly became scrambled. My head ached. But, as long as the dream house wasn’t built yet, I could still take shelter in the kersen tree, have a moment of fun, and keep looking for ways to realize it later on. I could also lie in wait, spying, and find out about the many events taking place in our house from behind the dense green kersen leaves.

ON SUNDAYS, an old man always stopped by our house, carrying ocean fish in two rattan baskets flanking either side of his bicycle. I closed my story books and deliberately monitored his movements from the treetop. He peered at Grandfather’s pavilion. He didn’t see me. His thin calves propped up the bike and the load it bore.

Grandfather didn’t go to the market on Sundays, but waited for the vegetable cart or the fish bicycle to pass by the front of the house.  

The fish vendor rang the bell of his bicycle twice, then paused, and then pressed on the bell twice again, as grandfather had still not yet appeared. Before long grandfather opened the door of the pavillion, stepped into the yard smiling, and shouted to the man, “What news, Suk? Are there good fish? Any shrimp? Shellfish? Rayfish? Mullet? Selar?”

The Chinaman, who had burnt brown skin and creases in his face like scrapes of a knife in tree bark, greeted grandfather with a wide smile. “There are, Sir. All of it has just come in. These here kembung fish are still fresh. There’s a little rayfish left,” he’d say, with a cheerful note.  

Grandfather picked through the fish in the baskets. The fish vendor pulled out a portable scale. Grandfather placed the fish in the weighing bowls. The fish vendor started to move the weights, watching the weight marks on the arm of the scale. After that grandfather pulled some banknotes out of his thick cotton pants. The fish vendor nodded, displayed a toothless smile, then peddled his bicycle away from our house. Ring-ring… he sounded the bell twice as a parting salute.  

Grandfather walked, carrying the plastic bag of fish toward the pavillion, then momentarily looked up into the kersen tree. “Take care not to fall!” he shouted at me. I answered by waving my hand and sticking out my tongue. Grandfather laughed.  

However, Grandfather didn’t always buy fish on Sundays. The fish vendor didn’t always let Grandfather buy his fish, even though he still stopped by our house as usual, sounded the bicycle bell, and waited for Grandfather. When Grandfather appeared, the vendor called out, “There aren’t any good fish today Sir. The fishermen haven’t come home from sea yet.” Grandfather responded to his shout, “Yes, yes … wait a moment!” I knew what Grandfather was going to do. He asked Yu Ani to measure out two liters of our rice  and pour it into a plastic bag to give to the fish vendor. Always, on the days when there were no fresh fish, Grandfather brought the man a parcel. For many years I witnessed Sunday mornings like that.  

One Sunday the fish vendor didn’t show up. Neither was his bicycle bell to be heard the following Sunday. Sundays passed without fish. For many months Grandfather replaced the fish menu with beef or chicken. Conversations about the vanished fish vendor came up from time to time, at the dining table or in the kitchen. “Is the man sick?” muttered Grandfather. Yu Ani, on the contrary, suspected that the fish vendor had met with a more severe calamity. “Maybe he’s died. He was so old, Sir. Where were his children, Sir? Leaving such an old man to work,” she said, worried. But slowly the event was forgotten as other events arrived.  

IN THE MIDDLE of the night and always in the middle of the night, I woke up again and ran to the bathroom. Bang Husni was already waiting in front of the door to his room. “There’s a new comic, little sister,” he said, half whispering. Actually I was reluctant to look at those comics. I was rushing to push the handle of the bathroom door.  

He caught up with me and pulled on my hand, “Mahabharata and Superman.”   I tugged away from his grasp.  

“I’m not keen to read comics,” I answered, peeved.  

“C’mon,” he coaxed. I was reluctant to comply with the rules.  

“Only for a moment, after that you can read all the comics.” His voice sounded sweet.  

He guided me into his room, placed my body on the mattress like a doll. His hands muzzled my mouth.  

Next day it was hard to pee. I didn’t feel like leaving for school. Grandfather offered to take me there. Father and Mother had already left for work. My two younger siblings had gone by pickup car.

My body was hot, feverish. “Don’t cut down the kersen tree,” I pleaded with Grandfather. Grandfather felt my forehead. “We’ll see,” he answered, patting my shoulder. I cried.

Did Grandfather know?  

“Put this potty in your room, so there’s no need to put off urinating, and then get a urinary infection,” he said, when he came home from the market. Grandfather put the chamber pot under the bed.  
Suddenly Bang Husni left our house, unnoticed.  

“Unable to repay kindness. Sent to school, fed and bought clothing … instead, he runs away,” Mak Sol grumbled at length.  

Bang Husni was soon to take final exams for senior high school and Grandfather wanted him to graduate. His departure put Grandfather into a depressed mood for several days. Where was he now? How was he?  

MY WOODEN HOUSE never did get to perch in the kersen tree, but I kept on spending some of my time sitting and reading books on one one of its branches.  Now and then I looked out toward the coast. Only the roar of the sea and the whistling of ships marked its existence. About 500 meters away, a cliff spread with creeping thorn plants hid the beach down below, and the trunk of a a fruitless jackfruit tree at the edge of the cliff, with withered twigs,  looked like a strange creature standing melancholy watch over the sea from afar. The sea was capable of swallowing anything at all.  

I once saw someone standing at the edge of the cliff. Day coming into night. Just after the call to sunset prayer. I was about to shut the blind of the pavilion window. Grandfather was out of town, visiting a sick relative of ours. Mak Sol had gone with him. Who was that person stock-still on the cliff? And what for?  

The answer I got from my mother. “Yu Ani,” Mother whispered, clipped.

Mother seemed unwilling to discuss it any further. I was anxious to find out more. Was Yu Ani planning to jump off the cliff?  

“Yu Ani is brokenhearted. Ah, you’re sure not to understand, are you? That Yu Ani is in love with a sailor. See, she’s been going out with him for a month. Hah, it turns out the guy is already married. A lot of young girls come to the ship, then picnic on the beach there … Sure, Yu Ani can’t get him out of her mind,” Mak Sol told me, concerned.  

Then Grandfather cheered her up by playing at fortune-telling. “You will find your mate before long,” said Grandfather.  

Yu Ani was embarrassed. Her cheeks flushed pink.  

“What about me, Uncle?” asked Mak Sol, enthusiastic.  

Grandfather examined the lines in her hand, frowning, “Ee… it’s rather difficult, but there’s sure to be a mate for you. Someone far away … maybe from another island.”   

The three of them chuckled. Ha-ha-ha-ha … I joined the laughter.

“Hey, little one, don’t you eavesdrop, eh … Shoo! Go to your tree.” Mak Sol chased me away.

I ran to avoid being pinched.

“Kersen tree ghost!”

“Kitchen ghost!”

Ha-ha-ha-ha …

The memories always return.

* The Asia Literary Journal, Hongkong, 2006. The Kersen Tree is the English translation of Pohon Kersen (Koran Tempo, 2005). Translated from the Indonesian by Sherry Kasman Entus.

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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