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Deep Brown, Verging on Black

He turns around and stares straight at me.

 

We’re walking up the long road leading to his house.

 

If this were an afternoon, say, two or three years ago, my panicked expression would give me away, or I would duck behind the nearest tree, or take a sharp turn and leave him alone. But nowadays, I’m almost always able to rise above my fears – and, sometimes, even the nightmares – to the point where I can remain calm and keep walking without so much as breaking my stride to adjust my baseball cap. To all appearances, I’m utterly indifferent to him, and the fact that he’s looking at me. Disinterest is the best, the most perfect disguise. Think about it. Why does everyone listen to the Pope?

 

He resumes walking, and from his more relaxed pace, I deduce that he no longer suspects me of following him.

 

He’ll be alone in the house today. I mean, except for his housekeeper, of course – what’s her name, again? Wati? Tati? – Careless girl. Nearly always forgets to turn the tap off properly in the bathroom or lock the back door – which is how I was able to slip into the house in the first place. That’s why I don’t bother factoring her into my calculations.

 

His dad won’t be there. The man spends every Tuesday night in his office – so I’ve gathered from the text messages he sends his son – though I know that the father actually sleeps over at his secret girlfriend’s place – so I’ve learned from the emails and weepy poems on the father’s computer. The father’s not cheating. His wife died five years ago – I’ve read several entries from their son’s diary – and ever since, the father has been trying his best to keep the son’s world the way it used to be – though from what I read, his son knows. And the idea of having a new mother really does bother him.

 

I don’t think he remembers me – the first time we met again, he didn’t recognise me at all. But as for me: how often had I woken up in the dead of night, drenched in sweat,thanks to those bad dreams about the past, back when we would pretend to be sick in order to skip P.E. Often, he’d bring his favourite kind of chocolate and split the whole bar with me, whispering, ‘Don’t tell Ms. Nita, okay?’ – the secrecy, obviously, because we weren’t allowed to bring snacks or sweets to our Catholic school. And I would notice the pupils of his eyes were a deep brown, verging on black. Now, ten years later and he hasn’t changed at all – hasn’t even grown by a single centimetre – I know, how can that be? – though he doesn’t like chocolate anymore, or even potato chips – I’ve guessed as much from his fridge, which is stocked with heaps of vegetables, different kinds of fish, melons, honey, apples, papayas, and nothing else.

 

I bet he’s made a conscious decision to abstain from chocolate, and snacks in general. There’s a Dharmais Cancer Hospital calendar in his room – I bet his mom died of cancer and the doctor said her diet was to blame. His mother’s death changed him, I bet, and this change probably made him lose all recollection of me. She always seemed so happy and healthy, and to be frank, I’m shocked his mother died before mine. Mine’s still alive, though who knows where she is. I find myself longing even now to see his mother when she was young, way back when, before I knew them, on the day of her first wedding perhaps, or maybe when she took him to the zoo to watch the famous lions in their cages for the first time, or the second, or the third, or even when she was bald and pale and on her deathbed, but the cupboard in his father’s room is always locked, and I’m not brave enough to switch on the light in the guest room to hunt for the photo album in the glass-panelled cabinet there.

 

I work in the dark. Like mushrooms. I don’t need light to thrive.

 

His life now seems much happier than it used to be. He has a bigger house, and he even has a dad – perhaps his mom remarried after the incident, thinking that their family could use a father figure. And he’s even changed his name to Paul. Back then, his name was Peter.

 

I don’t know why he would change his name. What happened to us was horrific, obviously, but did he really need to take such a drastic step? I mean, he’s already moved, plus he disappeared for years without a trace – does he really need to go to such extremes to avoid adulthood? I’ve never been a Wendy, and since he’s no longer Peter, I’m pretty sure he’s given up the right to become Peter Pan. He should just grow up and forget all about Neverland.

 

And why Paul? Of all the names… if you ask me, this whole affair only confirms that you can never really bury your past, let alone revise it – his family is clearly the same as it was when he used to tell me countless stories about them – the kind of Batak family whose members only attend church on Christmas and Easter, who don’t know the names of all twelve disciples, who mutter internally in frustration, after flipping frantically through the Bible to find the right verse in time for the responsoria, ‘Is Ezekiel really in the Old Testament? I could have sworn it was in the New Testament. It sounds so New Testament.’ Case in point: his father didn’t understand that his son could only change his name to Paul if he’d been born a Saul. A Peter can’t change his name! He can only deny himself three times before the cock crows twice.

 

*

 

Tonight I enter through the back door using the spare key I liberated from a bunch of other keys, including the original version of this one. I set my white gunny sack next to the fridge. Inside are several loaves of bread, a water bottle, and my tools – pliers, screwdrivers.

 

It’s pitch black, and the rays shining from his father’s room are like a lighthouse. The car isn’t in the garage. My hand reaches for the door leading to his father’s room and, very slowly, I turn the knob. No one’s there. I look up at the second floor, which is completely devoid of light. I climb the stairs to his room, and there I see him, a motionless figure, lying in the dark.

 

Our reunion, which started all this, occurred on public transport. He was returning home from school. He was wearing his uniform, a white collared shirt with blue shorts. He boarded the angkot and sat across from me. Stunned, I stared at him in disbelief. He was busy talking with his friends. Our knees bumped gently against each other a few times. I managed to get ahold of myself and began to study him. He alighted alone, by the side of the road – I knew there was a church nearby, so I immediately began to worry. But he kept walking, past the church, and I felt a rush of relief. About twenty metres down the road, I asked the driver to stop. Then I got out and followed him.

 

Eventually, when I gained entry into his room, I learned his new name – written on the front page of one of his schoolbooks, of course – and searched for him on Facebook. He was now in Year 8 at a Catholic secondary school which, by coincidence, I’d already visited several times! (I’d never combed the place thoroughly because I assumed he would already be at university, or maybe that he’d even have a job by now.) His profile pic was of him in a place that looked like a library – he was smiling. The ‘likes’ list on his info page was filled with books – he never used to read! – Charles Dickens, J. M. Barrie – Hmm – Hans Christian Andersen, Mark Twain, J. K. Rowling, Harper Lee.

 

He once posted on Facebook: ‘The saddest thing in the world is knowing that you’re incapable of writing poetry.’

 

Really? If you ask me, isn’t it sadder to be able to write only bad poetry? I have some poetry-writing tips for his father – don’t be too obsessed with making things rhyme because then the lines won’t sound natural. Take a break from confessional poetry, and don’t you know, love doesn’t die, it WANES – I realise all too well, however, that I’m not here to fix his father’s literary life, which can’t be saved – which is currently hanging on for dear life to the roots of a shrub on the face of a cliff.

 

I’m here to make him remember me – at least, that was how it started. That’s why I once brought him a pancake, and why I waited until the sun was just about to rise. My reasoning: he used to like pancakes. I warmed it up, squirted it with the chocolate sauce I’d brought with me, and sprinkled it with chocolate chips. He was sure to remember me upon first bite. Everything would be how it was before. After all, memory, in essence, once you strip away the sentimentality, is nothing but a bunch of proteins. He would remember me at last – and Clara, and Bonita, and Samuel too. He’d recall the first time he asked if he could hold my hand and how I nodded and how, from that point on, whenever no one was looking, we would hold hands for seconds at a time. He’d even remember that annoying kid, Jonathan. And maybe even Father Antoni. Oh. Father Ant…

 

I gaze at the sleeping figure before me – at him – and whisper softly, Antoni

 

A warm substance gushes from my eyes and trickles down my cheeks.

 

Antoni…

 

I wipe my eyes and draw closer to him. What a magical name. If you stop at the first syllable, it’s an insect. If you utter the whole thing, you give him power – in the blink of an eye, he springs up, towering as a giant. I stroke his hair and repeat my promise. From now on, I will always watch over you. I kiss his brow and leave the room. Then I head downstairs.

 

You know, I’ve never found a single entry in his diary about that pancake. I bet Wati beat him to it and unabashedly gobbled it up. But that’s not important now. Not after that night last week, when two guys on a motorbike tried to mug him as he was coming back from his friend’s house. He stood there, stunned, like a tree about to fall. I understood what was happening right away and sprinted towards them. Run, I shrieked – and run he did. After that, everything went black. And by the time I’d regained consciousness and was back inside my head, I was in a room, lying on a sofa, surrounded by people. An old woman was sobbing uncontrollably – sure, her kids were a pair of no-good punks, she wailed, but no one deserved to be attacked like that.

 

Attacked like what?

 

The woman said one of them had a severely damaged eye.

 

They let me go in the end. The old woman didn’t say anything, didn’t threaten me either – a lot of people there were angry about the bad things her kids had done. The head of the neighbourhood, who’d been called in, gave me a lift to the house where I told him I lived. He said I should see a psychiatrist and get some meds. ‘You’re going to hurt a lot of people,’ he said before driving off on his motorbike, ‘including those you love.’

 

Hurt people? Who would I hurt? What do you know about hurt, or hurting?

 

From the kitchen window, I can see the empty street. Out there, through the garage, is the secret passage leading up into the attic space in the roof.

 

I know I’d never hurt him. I’m sure of it. I’ve never hurt anyone before. Not Beni or Norman, not Jimmy or Fikri or Hardiman – I never hurt them, and I stopped following them the second I realised they weren’t you. It’s not as if I’m Father Antoni, so friendly to all the kids at church, coming over to visit all the time because he claimed he was worried about us having to grow up without our dads, acting so holy in front of my mom and all our moms, but in the end, taking each of us into a dark room to be alone with him; I’m not Father Antoni – keep this in mind – even though my dad named me Judas. Not the one from Kereoth, though – I’m the one who wrote the book of Jude. The one who said, ‘build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.’ I’m the Judas who’ll defend him from the Judas Iscariots of this world. I’m the Judas with a sackful of food who climbs up into the roof of his house, in the dark, because I don’t need light to thrive, or to watch over him from above, like God. I don’t need light to be god-like, because I can see him through the peepholes, which I drill when the three of them go to visit his aunt in Klender. It no longer matters to me whether he’s aware of my presence, or if he remembers me. The thing I care about most is his safety.

 

The light turns on.

 

‘Who – Who – are you?’

 

I turn. Once again, he stands before me, stock-still, like a tree about to crash. He looks confused and terrified. He picks up a vase from the table and charges at me. I instinctively avoid the swing of his arm – flowers and water fly in an arc – and shove him aside. He hits the wall, and crumples to the ground. I wait. He doesn’t get up. He’s out cold.

 

I freeze, and a chill spreads across my lower back. I’ve hurt you.

 

But we’re so close to each other now. He lies like a sleeping princess, waiting for my kiss. If I press my lips against his, will he wake up, and like the frog prince, turn back into Petrus – Peter – his former self? Will he remember who I am? I kneel beside him. I stroke his face. With care, I trace the curve of his eyebrows. I kiss him gently.

 

I wait…

 

He doesn’t stir. I feel the hope draining out of me, and I brush his hair with my hopeless fingers. I hold his hand like I used to when we were little. Then, slowly, he opens his eyes. I can’t speak.

 

Now I see that the pupils of his eyes are a deep brown – verging on black, but not quite.

 

Then, in a flash, he turns into someone else.

 

‘Pau – Paul?’ a voice stammers.

 

I turn. Wati, or Tati, is standing in the far corner of the room. ‘Hel– Hel–’ she stutters, petrified, before concluding with a scream.

 

Panicked, I rise to my feet and run from the room, and of course, the house as well. I feel nothing. I really don’t. Not a trace of disappointment. He’s not him. Or to be more precise, he’s not you. In the meantime, I must search for you. You, whom I have to find. Wait for me.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

often writes poetry based on their dreams. Their first collection of poetry, Sergius Seeks Bacchus (trans. Tiffany Tsao), is available in the UK via Tilted Axis Press. They are writing a novel now.


Tiffany Tsao is a translator and writer. Her translations include Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Paper Boats by Dee Lestari. The UK edition of her novel, The Majesties, came out in August 2020 with Pushkin Press.

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