April 13, 2008

Ahmad Tohari

Karyamin's Smile
by Ahmad Tohari

Karyamin measured careful, deliberate steps. The weight bearing down across his shoulders was a long, supple, bamboo pole with woven rattan baskets full of rocks swinging pendulum-like from each end. The steep dirt track leading up the river bank was wet from the sweat which had dripped from Karyamin and his co-workers as they had trudged up and down the bank hauling rocks from the river to the storage bay at the top.

Long experience had taught Karyamin that he could make the climb to the top all right if he kept the centre of gravity of his body and his load either on his right or left foot, and if he was very careful shifting it from one foot to the other. He had also learned that to maintain his balance he had to concentrate on every breath and every swing of his arms.

Even so Karyamin had slipped over twice that morning; he had collapsed in a heap tumbling back down the trail followed by the rocks disgorging from his overturned baskets. Each time Karyamin's fellow rock collectors had doubled up in fits of laughter, pleased for the amusement they could extract from laughing at each other. This time Karyamin crept up the bank more cautiously. Despite his trembling knees he gripped the earth with his toes as he went, every ounce of attention focused on maintaining his balance. Tension was visible on his face and sweat covered his body and poured through his shorts. Ridged veins protruded through his neck under the strain of the heavy weight bearing down on his back and shoulders.

And maybe Karyamin would have made it to the top if it hadn't been for that blasted bird! A kingfisher dived from a branch dangling above the river, splashed into the water and emerged with a small fish in its beak. The bird then darted whisker-close in front of Karyamin's face.

"Damn!" cried Karyamin, feeling his balance begin to slip. He tottered momentarily, and then collapsed onto the ground accompanied by the clatter of his two basketfuls of disgorging rocks. Beginning to slide backwards down the slope, Karyamin pulled himself to a halt by grabbing handfuls of grass. Four or five of Karyamin's friends laughed together; the rock gatherers were happy that they could find some happiness from laughing at themselves.

"Haven't you had enough, Min. Go home," urged Sarji, quietly jealous of Karyamin's large-bodied young wife. "Your heart isn't in it; you've been daydreaming all morning.

"And it's dangerous leaving your wife by herself at home, Min. Remember those young bank workers who call into the village every day? They're not just after loan repayments from your wife! Don't trust those loan sharks. Go on home. They're probably trying to crack onto her right now.

"And it's not just those young bank workers who have their eye on your wife! Don't forget the door-to-door lottery ticket sellers. I hear he's always hanging around your place when you're away. He isn't just selling lottery tickets either; he's got to be pushing some other kind of business too!!"

The sound of laughter mixed with the clatter of rocks landing on the edge of the river and the splash of water as the rock collectors moved about through the river. A teak leaf jumped from a branch and sailed down to land on the surface of the river and impelled by the breeze began to move upstream opposing the current. Further up the river, three women were preparing to cross the river on their way home again from market. The rock collectors fell silent, entertained by the sight of the women gathering up their sarongs.

Karyamin sat on the ground stunned, staring at his empty dishevelled baskets, the gently-blowing breeze bringing goose bumps to his arms even though the sun was already starting to become hot. Then the same kingfisher again flew past just overhead. Karyamin was about to curse it when suddenly stars began to fill his eyes and a roar like the roar of swarming bees filled his eyes, and he could hear his empty stomach rumbling full of nothing but wind. Everything in front of Karyamin turned yellow, bathed in bright sparkling light.

Karyamin's friends, meanwhile, had begun guffawing about the women crossing the river. They had seen something wonderful or something which could make them forget, even if just for a moment, the pain of their fingers made sore by scratching over the rocky riverbed, forget the rock trader who had not been seen for a fortnight Ð since disappearing with a truckload of their rocks unpaid-for -, forget the woman who sold packets of peanut-flavoured pecel salad and boiled rice wrapped in banana leaves who would turn up in the afternoon asking to be paid, forget the lottery tickets which, not for want of trying, they never won.

"Min!" Sarji called out, "where's your tongue? Take a look at those big white fish. They're as big as thighs!"

They all laughed again. The rock collectors really did find some happiness in laughing at each other. But this time Karyamin didn't join in the laughter; he settled on a smile. They could all laugh and smile together. That, all accepted, was their ultimate defence, a symbol of their victory over the traders, over the low price of rocks, over the slipperiness of the steep climb up the river bank. That morning too Karyamin's smile was a sign of his victory - over his biting stomach and his blinding star-filled eyes.

Karyamin had succeeded in creating an illusory paradise of victory by laughing and smiling in the face of his fate. The strange thing this was that he felt so annoyed by the kingfisher which was flying back and forwards overhead. For a moment he wanted to grab his bamboo pole and hit the bird but suddenly he changed his mind. He realized that he would never be able to do it with all these stars swirling in front of his face.

So Karyamin just smiled and stood up, even though his head was still pounding and the sky still seemed to be spinning. He picked up his baskets and his pole and began to climb the bank again, smiling wryly as he noticed that he was stepping though the depression he had made in the earth where he had fallen over a few moments ago. At the top of the bank he stood for a moment, startled by the sight of the pile of rocks which didn't yet amount to even one quarter of a cubic meter. Even so he had to head home. Under a waru tree Saidah had laid out her food for sale, rice and pecel salad. Karyamin swallowed and felt a knot form in his stomach.

"Going home so early, Min?" asked Saidah. "Not feeling well?"

Karyamin shook his head and smiled. Saidah noticed that his lips were quite blue, that the palms of his hands were pale, and, when he got a little closer, that his stomach seemed to be making a noise.

"Have something to eat, Min."

"No. Something to drink will be fine. Just take a look at how little you have to sell, and anyway... I already owe you enough as it is."

"Yes, yes, Min. But you're hungry, aren't you?" asked Saidah.

Karyamin just smiled, and took the class of boiled water that Saidah held out. A warm comforting feeling swept over his throat and down through his stomach.

"Won't you have something to eat, Min? I can't stand to see someone hungry. I don't mind waiting for the money. I can wait till the rock trader turns up. He hasn't paid for your rocks yet, has he?"

The kingfisher once again flashed past singing. Realizing that it was probably only searching for food for its babies, tucked away in a nest somewhere, Karyamin no longer felt hatred towards the bird. He pictured the bird's chicks, huddled weakly in a nest which the bird had built in some sheltered ledge in the side of a cliff. The breeze began to blow again and teak leaves began to swirl through the air, several gliding down to land on the surface of the water. Compelled by the wind, the leaves always struggled upstream against the current.

"So you really won't have anything to eat, Min?" asked Saidah, as Karyamin stood up.

"No. If you can't stand to see me hungry, well I can't stand to watch all your stock disappear with me and the others not being able to pay," replied Karyamin.

"Yes, yes, Min. But... "

Saidah didn't go on because Karyamin was already walking away. But she did catch sight of him turn and look back at her; she noticed him smile. Saidah smiled back, and swallowed worriedly. Something had stuck in her throat and she couldn't make it go down. She watched Karyamin as he made his way along the narrow paths which wound through the shrubbery along the river basin. Karyamin's friends called out to him jovial obscenities but Karyamin only stopped the one time, turning and beaming back towards them a large smile.

Before heading up out of the river basin, Karyamin caught sight of something moving on a small branch overhanging the water. Oh, the kingfisher again, shiny blue back, clean white chest, and sago-red beak. Suddenly the bird dived down plunging into the water. Then with its victim in its beak it darted past the rock collectors, rose to avoid a clump of tall reeds and vanished behind a cluster of pandanus grass. Karyamin felt a sense of jealousy towards the bird. But as he looked at his two empty baskets he could only smile.

Karyamin did not have the first idea why he was going home; there wasn't anything there that was going to stop the gurgling noise in his stomach. There was also no point his wife worrying. Oh yes, Karyamin remembered, his wife was a good reason to go home. Last night his wife had not been able to sleep because of a boil right on the top of her backside. "So what's wrong if I go home to look after my sick wife," he thought.

Karyamin tried to walk a little faster even though sometimes he suddenly felt dizziness and a sea of stars would swim in front of his eyes. As soon as he got to the other side of the bamboo bridge, Karyamin noticed a ripe water apple. He wanted to pick it off the tree but then changed his mind when he noticed bat bite marks. He also saw salak fruit scattered on the ground under a salak tree. He picked one from the tree, took a bite, then hurled it away as far as he could; the dry-bitter sourness of an unripe salak fruit tasted like poison on his tongue. Karyamin continued. His ears rang as he went up a small slope but he didn't worry about it; this was the hill leading up to his house.

Before he reached the top of the slope he stopped suddenly. Two bicycles were parked at the front of his house. The ringing in his ears seemed to be getting louder; he seemed to be feeling dizzier. So he stopped completely still, and stared. He thought of his sick wife having to deal with the two debt collectors from the bank. Karyamin knew that she didn't have the money to make today's payments, or tomorrow's, or the next days, or whenever's - just as he had no idea when the rock trader who a month ago had taken their rocks was going to show up.

Stars still swimming before his face, Karyamin began to wonder whether coming home was a good idea. He knew that there was nothing he would be able to do, nothing he could do to help his wife handle the two debt collectors. Karyamin slowly turned around, ready to head back down the hill, but coming up behind him Karyamin saw a man wearing a long-sleeved batik-patterned shirt. The worn out reddish fez atop the man's head convinced Karyamin that the man was the village secretary.

"Now I've finally caught you, Min. I've been calling in all morning looking for you but you've been out. Then I looked at the river, but you weren't there. You're not trying to avoid me now, are you?"

"Avoid you?" replied Karyamin.

"Yes, you are being very difficult, Min. In this area you're the only one who hasn't contributed. You are the only one who hasn't put anything into the Africa Relief Fund, to help starving people in Africa. Now today is the last day. I won't put up with any more silly business."

Karyamin could hear the sound of his own breathing, quietly, and also the rhythmic throb of his own heart beat, but he couldn't see the smile that began to creep across his lips. He smiled widely, deeply aware of his own condition, and the situation which was now staring him in the face. Sadly, however, the village secretary took Karyamin's smile the wrong way and began to become angry.

"Are you laughing at me, Min?"

"No, sir, sure I'm not," answered Karyamin.

"Then what's that smirk all about? Come on, hurry up and hand over your contribution to the fund."

But this time Karyamin did not just smile - he began to laugh out loud. He laughed so hard in fact that it re-ignited the roaring bee-hive-hum in his ears and the world in front of him melted into a sea of swirling stars. His stomach began to heave, throwing him off balance. Seeing Karyamin stumble and begin to fall down the embankment back towards the valley, the village secretary tried to catch Karyamin. Unfortunately he failed.