Short story by Hamzah Puadi Ilyas
Published in The Jakarta Post | Sun, 05/20/2007
Mother changed out of the blue. She was fond of combing her hair.
Almost every time -- morning, noon, night -- she sat by the window, combing her hair with an implement made of buffalo horn, her eyes staring at the sky. At night she observed the moon intently, whereas in daylight she eyed the sun.
She seldom talked to anyone, including me. She merely spoke as she needed. But when she talked, her words sounded very cool and tranquil.
There was a feeling gently caressing my heart, such that I was not capable of questioning her abrupt change of behavior.
To begin with, her change did not thoroughly tease my heart because I was still a small kid. I was busy as a bee, flying kites with friends after school, finding eels in the paddy fields that then we baked together, and sometimes chasing the white herons until reaching the neighboring village.
In that village, according to some, I had a new mother. They said my father had married a rich widow.
I heard through the grapevine that my father simply wanted to get rich by exploiting his handsome appearance. They also said that by tying the knot with her, my father did not need to work as an ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver anymore.
""Tunggal, my son, go to the guava tree beside our house. The tree has borne fruit."" Suddenly my mother told me upon my arrival at home after chasing kites. She was by the window, combing her long hair.
I headed directly toward the tree. Soon I climbed its sturdy trunk. My tiny body did not make it sway, the tree steadily standing erect.
In its boughs, I saw the fruit with light yellow skin. I imagined their pink edible flesh. Quickly, the fruit filled my hungry stomach.
From the tree I saw a woman walking hastily, looking morose. She seemed to burn with anger. I kept watching her, and it turned out that she headed toward my house.
In front of the door she called out to my mother with filthy words. Then she pounded on the door. It flew open and hit the wall. Again, the woman yelled and she looked as though she were possessed by an evil spirit.
I saw my mother, calmly combing her beautiful hair and staring at the afternoon sun through the open window. When finally the woman found her, my heart beat hard. What would she do to my mother?
Then I saw a black shadow pulling at mother's hair, accompanied by a howl, like a wolf.
I was so scared that I shut my eyes and ears. But my fingers managed to open the eyelashes that were trying to unite. I could see what was happening.
My mother's hair was being repeatedly dragged. But it seemed that she didn't feel anything. She played it cool. There was an urge to assist her, but it was as though a tree hugged me tightly.
Besides, the tree, suddenly flapping backwards and forwards in the wind, made me afraid.
A few moments later I heard my father's voice. His figure appeared in the mother's room. Father quickly hugged the woman, trying to separate her from mother.
With great difficulty, he finally succeeded. He drew her away from mother, also our house. The woman kept howling, but apparently he did not care. Gradually her long loud cry of anger was gone.
Immediately afterwards I climbed down the tree. Running fast and almost crying, I went to see my mother. Entering her room, I saw her sitting and combing her tousled hair in a composed manner. Her face did not express the sense of grief at the incident.
""Who's that woman, Mom?"" I cried, then put my head on her lap.
""Tunggal, my beloved son. That woman is your father's new wife. They have united to oppose me. Their life is imbued with wickedness. Don't be like them. In a very short time, they will reap what they have planted.""
Mother's eyes still stared at the sun, not blinking as always. Her hair was already tidy and she looked gorgeous.
I heard mother's voice, singing a song whose meaning I did not understand. Her voice was very gentle and heaved in a slow rhythm as though it followed a breath of wind moving around the leaves of a guava tree.
Suddenly there was a knock on the door, with men's voices calling my mother's name. Having just finished eating, I stepped to the living room. There had been three men standing there, worn-out and sweating.
""Where's your mother, Tunggal?"" Asked one of them politely. I could hear his breath, panting.
I pointed at my mother's room, the door standing ajar. I could see her, still combing her hair and reciting the song. Strangely, the three men became still, and they looked in awe of her. Their presence did not disturb her.
Then, one of them said softly, ""Madam Sirah. Tunggal's father and his new wife died. The motorcycle they were riding fell into a river when crossing a bridge in the neighboring village. Now, their bodies are in her house.""
Mother didn't say a word. She kept combing her hair, reciting the song that sounded softer. Her eyes gazed at the sun, whose light was becoming dimmer. Dusk was falling. Before long, her eyes would stare at the moon. Then, the moonlight would move to mother's beautiful eyes.
I grew up without the guidance of a father, but everything I needed was on hand all of a sudden. Gradually I felt my life was a bit dull. Only mother's chant did I hear.
She never changed, always combing her handsome hair. The change was just the color of her hair. Brownish.
Once I mustered up the courage to talk to her. ""Mom I've grown up already. I'd like to go to the big city."" I kneeled down on the ground in front of her, what I always did when talking to her.
""Tunggal, my son. You may go as you like. This world is vast. Wherever you go, you'll see the sun. That's the source of life given to us. Watch it as often as possible. Later on, its light won't blind your eyes. Spread kindness wherever you live, and don't take a false step.""
I put my face on her lap. I cried, her hands stroking my head. Up till now I'd never expressed gratitude for her sincere care of me.
""Tunggal, my son. Here are two strands of my hair. Keep them. Later, you'll know they will be beneficial for you. You may throw them away if they don't shine again.""
A week later I was in the big city, working in a factory. I saved up. Life here was very different. Everything could be seen easily, but it was hard to get.
It was completely different when I was still with my mother. Everything seemed easy.
When I longed for her or I had a problem, I would turn to look at the two strands of her hair. The picture of her combing her hair and reciting a song appeared. It made me calm. But strangely, when the picture was gone, the light of her hair gradually faded.
A year went by. I had thrown away mother's hair because it had no light at all. I decided to see her. I would give her all the money I had saved.
""Tunggal, my son. Keep the money; I don't need it."" She slowly combed her hair with her fingers, then pulled two strands out. ""Here are the new strands of my hair. Keep them. Later, you'll know they will be beneficial for you.""
Shakily I took her hair. It was brown, but beautiful and shiny.
I got back to the city, working as usual. I got along with many people from various walks of life, men and women. One of the women attracted me. Her name was Indah. It seemed that she also had a crush on me.
Day by day we got closer. Finally we pledged to sail together in the ocean of love, aiming to reach the promised land.
I had thrown away the hair since it did not shine anymore. I got married without telling my mother. But there was a strong feeling that she knew and blessed our marriage.
It seemed that she was always in my step. Sometimes I felt she wanted me to stop it, so I canceled something. Often, days later, I'd realize that my intended action would have turned out ugly.
Suddenly appeared the willingness to see mother, after my daughter named Wangi was born. Wangi had thick, black, beautiful hair. Like me, Indah was confused how Wangi could have such good hair even though neither of us had it.
I always told her that it might have been caused by her habit of eating mung bean porridge during her pregnancy.
I could not resist the feeling anymore. Together with Indah and Wangi, I went home. I wanted to show my mother that her granddaughter, Wangi, also had beautiful hair. Wangi was asleep on my back, her hair hanging loosely.
The feeling of excitement mingled with that of longing when I was at the front door. Indah was behind me. I called mother while walking toward the living room. From the half-opened door I saw mother sitting and combing her hair, a soft hum plus rhythmic movement.
""Mom, I'm home. Please forgive me. I haven't been here for ages."" I said. Wangi was still in a peaceful slumber. Mother said nothing. I felt sinful. Indah stood still next to the door. Mother's hair had turned white but it was still beautiful and shiny.
""Tunggal, my son."" Suddenly she muttered. ""You did not do any wrong. I restrained you from coming home until your daughter was born. Now, this is the time for me to go. Look at your daughter's hair. That is my soul. You'll find it there for good.""
Her words were very quiet. Gradually, her comb that loyally accompanied her slowed down, running through the strands of her hair. Every inch it passed, the color turned whiter. Finally it fell to the floor without a sound.
Mother stayed put, breathing her last. With a feeling tearing at my heart, I knelt down, weeping. Indah took Wangi from my back. Then I put my head on mother's lap.
I felt as if half of my body was gone. I would never let her go. I never made her happy. I was an insubordinate son.
All of a sudden, the sunlight entered the room through the open window, touching my mother's hair. Her wind-blown hair shone like a polished diamond, my eyes not blinking.
""Grandma,"" Wangi said in her sleep, her lips smiling and her hair sparkling.
Short story by Hamzah Puadi Ilyas