March 25, 2008

Seno Gumira Ajidarma

The Sound of Rain on Roof Tiles[1]

By Seno Gumira Ajidarma
Translated by Patricia B. Henry

“Tell me a story about fear,” said Alina to the storyteller. And thus the storyteller told the tale of Sawitri:

Every time the rain let up, a tattooed corpse would be found sprawled at the entrance of the lane. That was the reason Sawitri always felt a trembling in her heart every time she heard the sound of rain starting to tap on the roof tiles.

Her house, in fact, was situated on the corner, where the lane joined the main road. Sometimes at night, she could hear sounds like gunshots, and the sounds of car engines disappearing into the distance. But even on those frequent nights when she had heard nothing, whenever the rain let up tattooed corpses always appeared, sprawled at the entrance to the lane. Indeed, perhaps she hadn’t heard anything because of the sound of the rain coming down so hard. A heavy rain, you know, can often be very scary. Especially if your house isn’t a sturdy building, has a lot of leaks, can get flooded, and could be crushed if even a small tree fell on it.

Then too, Sawitri might not have heard anything because she’d been sleepy and might have nodded off. Perhaps the radio was turned on too loudly. She liked to listen to Indonesian pop songs while she sewed. Her eyes often stung from squinting at the eye of a needle in the light of a 15 watt bulb. When her eyes stung and watered she would shut them for a moment. Shutting her eyes for a moment like that, she would listen to a fragment of song from the radio. And while she listened, sometimes she nodded off. But without fail, every time the rain let up, a tattooed corpse would be sprawled at the entrance to the lane.

In order to see the tattooed corpse, Sawitri only needed to open the side window of her house and look to the right. She had to lean over if she wanted to see the corpse clearly; otherwise her gaze was obstructed by the shutter. She had to lean over until her stomach pressed against the window sill, and the spatters of the remains of the rain dripped onto her hair and also on part of her face.

Her chest was always tight and her heart pounded hard every time the rain ended and the sound of the last raindrops were like a song ending. But Sawitri still kept on opening the window and looking to the right while leaning over to see the corpse. Even if she had nodded off while the rain came down in the middle of the night with its gentle rhythm that invited people to forget about this impermanent world, Sawitri always woke up the moment the rain let up. She would immediately open the window, then look over to the right while leaning out.

She always felt fear, but she still always wanted to look closely at the faces of the tattooed corpses. If the corpse had already drawn a crowd of her neighbors, Sawitri too would take the opportunity to go out of the house and make her way through the crowd until she could see the corpse. She didn’t always succeed in seeing its face because sometimes it was too late and the corpse had already been covered with a cloth. But Sawitri was relieved if she’d been able to see any part of the corpse at all, be it the foot, the hand, or at the very least its tattoo.

Sawitri had on occasion lifted the cloth covering the corpse in order to see its face, but she didn’t want to do it again. A couple of times when she’d lifted the cloth, what she’d seen was a face twisted into a grimace, with staring eyes wide open and teeth showing in a grin, as if it were still alive. A face to make your hair stand on end.

However, as it turned out, Sawitri usually did not join in crowding around with her neighbors. She was almost always the first person who saw the tattooed corpses. When the rain hadn’t quite stopped, so that it hung like a glittering screen in the yellowish glow of the mercury street lights, the shape of the sprawled body really looked like an animal carcass. Sawitri would only look for a second, but it was enough for her to keep the mental picture of how the blood had spattered on the wet cement, and how the shape itself also quickly became wet, and how the person’s hair and whiskers and draw-string shorts were wet too.

Not all the faces of the tattooed corpses were horrible. Sometimes Sawitri had the impression that the tattooed corpse was like a person sleeping soundly, or a person smiling. The tattooed people slept soundly and smiled in the soothing embrace of the gentle rain which, in Sawitri’s eyes, sometimes looked like the curtain of a theatre stage. The pale, yellowish light of the mercury street lamps sometimes made the color of blood on the person’s chest and back look black instead of red. It was the blood which distinguished the tattooed corpses from sleeping people.

Sometimes the eyes of the tattooed corpse stared straight at Sawitri when she turned to the right after opening the window and leaning out after the rain had let up. And Sawitri often felt that she was observing them right at the moment their lives were ending. The eyes were still alive at the moment when they met hers. And Sawitri could feel how those eyes in their final gaze had so much to tell. So often had Sawitri locked eyes with those tattooed bodies, she felt she could tell with only a glance whether the person still lived or had already died. She could also sense immediately whether the soul of the person was still in his body, or had just left, or had long since flown, who knew whether to heaven or to hell.

Sawitri felt she had seen many stories in those eyes, but that the retelling of them would be extremely difficult. She sometimes felt that the person wanted to scream that he didn’t want to die, that he still wanted to live, that he had a wife and children. Sometimes also Sawitri saw eyes that were questioning. Eyes that demanded. Eyes that rejected their fate.

But the well-built tattooed bodies just remained wet, wet from blood and rain. Flashes of lightning made the blood and the wet body shine, and the blood and rainwater on the cement also shone. The heads drooped forward or back, as decreed by their individual fates. It might happen that the head faced downwards, kissing the earth, or it might gaze upwards at the sky, with eyes wide open and mouth gaping. And at those times when the rain hadn’t stopped completely, Sawitri saw how the gaping mouth filled up with rain water.

Sawitri felt that her neighbors had gotten used to the tattooed corpses. In fact she thought that the neighbors were delighted every time they saw a tattooed corpse sprawled at the entrance to the lane whenever the rain let up and the corpse lay bathed in the light from the yellowish mercury lamps. From inside her house which was situated at the corner of the lane, Sawitri heard everything they talked about. They screamed and yelled while crowding around the sprawling corpse, even though sometimes the rain hadn’t completely ended, and the children shouted gleefully.

“Look! Another one!”

“Dead as a doornail!”

“Smashed like a damn bug!”

“Now he knows what it feels like!”

“Right, now he knows what it feels like!”

“The filthy dog!”

“Right, the filthy dog!”

Sometimes they kicked the corpse around, too, and stomped on its face. Sometimes they just dragged the corpse the length of the road to the office of the subdistrict chief, so that the face of the tattooed person was smeared with mud because the neighborhood folks had dragged him by the legs. Sawitri never went along with the procession of cheering happy people. It was enough for her to open her window every time the rain let up, to look to the right while leaning over, and then to close it again after seeing a tattooed corpse.

Sawitri would take a deep breath once it was clear that the corpse wasn’t Pamuji. Didn’t Pamuji also have a tattoo like those corpses, and wasn’t it also true that some of the corpses that lay sprawled at the entrance to the lane every time the rain let up were friends of Pamuji? Once in a while Sawitri recognized those friends among tattooed corpses, like Kandang Jinongkeng[2], Pentung Pinanggul[3]....

The corpses were sprawled there, really like rat carcasses that had been tossed into the road. Sawitri felt their fate was worse than that of slaughtered animals. The corpses were sprawled there with their hands and feet tied together. Sometimes their hands were tied behind their backs with plastic string. Sometimes only their two thumbs were tied together with wire. Sometimes, in fact, their feet weren’t tied. Indeed there were some who weren’t tied up at all. However, those corpses who were not tied up usually had more bullet holes in them. The bullet holes formed a line on the back and chest, so that the beautiful tattooed drawings were ruined.

Sawitri sometimes thought that the shooters of the tattooed people had in fact purposely ruined the pictures. Actually, they shot them in all sorts of unnecessary places, although they could just shoot them in the fatal spots. Did they shoot at those non-fatal places only because they wanted to make the tattooed people feel pain? Sometimes a tattooed picture was destroyed because of bullet holes in those non-fatal places.

She always looked carefully at the tattoos of the people who were sprawled at the entrance to the lane every time the rain let up. That was the way Sawitri recognized Kandang Jinongkeng. He was face down, but the light of the mercury street lamp was strong enough for Sawitri to recognize the tattoo on his back which was now full of holes -- a piece of writing, MAMA DEAR, and a picture of a cross on his left arm. Sawitri could remember clearly the drawings on those corpses: anchors, hearts, roses, skulls, women’s names, various writings, all sorts of large letters....

Sawitri always looked carefully at the tattoos because Pamuji also had a tattoo. She had once tattooed her own name on Pamuji’s chest. She had written on the chest of that man: SAWITRI. Further, the writing was surrounded by a picture of a heart as a sign of love. Sawitri remembered she needed two days to perforate Pamuji’s skin with a needle.

But it wasn’t just Sawitri’s name which was tattooed on Pamuji’s chest. She always remembered that on his left arm there was a picture of a beautiful rose. Beneath the rose was the word Nungki. According to Pamuji, that was his first sweetheart. And then there was a drawing of a nude woman. On the chest of the naked woman there was the word Asih. According to Pamuji, again, he had once fallen in love with Asih, but it hadn’t come to anything. Sawitri knew Asih. In earlier times they had been prostitutes together in the Greater Mango district. It was because of Asih that Sawitri had gotten to know Pamuji in the first place. Ah, the dear old days gone by!

And so the rain kept coming down, as if in a bad dream. For the past few years, since the tattooed corpses had been showing up sprawled out on every corner, life itself had become like a bad dream for Sawitri. From that time on, Pamuji had vanished without a trace.

At first, the sprawled-out corpses turned up almost constantly. Morning, noon and night, there were corpses sprawled in the corners of the market, floating by in the river, lying sunk in the ditches or scattered along the toll roads. Every day the newspapers carried pictures of tattooed corpses with bullet wounds at the base of the skull, in the forehead, the heart, or between the eyes. Sometimes the tattooed corpses had even been tossed, in broad daylight, onto the main roads, from cars which swiftly disappeared. Those corpses which fell into the midst of a crowd of people caused quite a commotion. People crowded screaming around the corpse and created a traffic jam. Sawitri had seen this with her own eyes while out shopping one day. She saw the dust rise up in a cloud after the corpse had hit the ground. The billowing dust had made it difficult for her to breath. Pamuji, oh Pamuji, where could you be?

The pictures of the corpses eventually disappeared from the newspapers, but the tattooed corpses still turned up with the same characteristic signs. Their hands and feet were tied. They had fatal gunshot wounds, but there were still other bullet holes in places that would not cause death. If they had been shot in those non-fatal places first, surely the pain had been awful, Sawitri thought to herself. How much more so with hands and feet tied like that.

Had Pamuji already turned up sprawled out someplace, like the corpses at the entrance to the lane? Sawitri had received a letter from Pamuji with no return address, but only once. Sawitri in fact was certain that Pamuji wouldn’t be caught. Pamuji was very clever. And if the shooters gave Pamuji a chance to fight, it was by no means certain that he would lose. Sawitri knew, Pamuji was very good at fighting. But, if every time the rain stopped there was always a corpse sprawled at the end of the lane, who could guarantee that Pamuji wasn’t going to suffer the same fate?

This was the reason Sawitri always trembled every time the sound of the rain was heard tapping on the roof tiles. Every time the rain ended, at the entrance to the lane there it would be, a sprawled-out tattooed corpse. Their eyes always stared in Sawitri’s direction, as if they knew that Sawitri would open the window and then look to the right….

“At the end of the story will Sawitri meet again with Pamuji?” Alina asked the storyteller.

And thus the storyteller answered: “I cannot as yet answer you, Alina, the story still isn’t over.”

Jakarta, July 15, 1985

[1]“Bunyi Hujan di Atas Genting” from “Penembak Misterius: Trilogi” (The Mysterious Shooter: A Trilogy), in Penembak Misterius: Kumpulan Cerita Pendek (The Mysterious Shooter: A Collection of Short Stories) by Seno Gumira Ajidarma. Jakarta: Pustaka Utama Grafiti, 1993.
[2]Jail Dodger
[3]Club on the Shoulder