Moments ago, the woman with the lovely dimples had been shivering, utterly ravaged by the evening, but now her face was plastered with a smile, her dimples deepening as she gathered up her clothes. A moment ago she had been a newlywed, teeth chattering, pale and in agony. Now she was a happy young divorcee.
The man had already dissolved their union. He had emphatically recited his three talaq: I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you. Their first night together was also their last. Sitting on the bed’s golden sheets with the scent of jasmine floating in the air, Dimples had taken stock of the situation. Sweat still clung to her skin and her long hair fell across her back onto the pillow. She was still half-naked but she had to leave immediately, because she was no longer the mistress of the house.
There was the sound of the man’s impatient steps behind the door, keplak-keplak. She recalled him stripping her naked and then undressing himself, just a short while ago. Dimples had frozen like ice while that man was on fire, leaping upon her and thrusting ferociously. Then he stopped for a moment, his forehead wrinkled. Not for very long, but long enough for Dimples to ask silently, What’s wrong? Am I too young for you, Master? The man’s reply was to make the bed rattle like a palm tree branch being thrashed by a hurricane as he hurriedly finished his lovemaking. Then they both lay back for a moment, flooded with sweat and gasping for breath.
But the man was still on fire – not with desire, but with rage. He threw a blanket over Dimples, jumped up from the bed and pulled on his shorts. Without even looking in her direction, he cursed her before severing the ties between them, slamming the door of their wedding chamber with a final shout: ‘You whore!’
The woman with the two snot-nosed kids had watched stonily as the headman had bound Dimples and her destiny to that man. Dimples didn’t have the strength to return her malicious stare – drowning in her bustling wedding celebration, she felt like she was dying, over and over again.
She almost fainted as the guests lined up. They inserted white envelopes with red and blue stripes lining the edges into a waiting box before coming to greet the couple. The touch of each man’s palm pressed to hers brought on a chill, and every woman’s kiss upon her cheek tossed her into a flushed turmoil. She grew even more flustered when the woman with the two snot-nosed kids approached, greeted her, kissed her cheek, and embraced her. Dimples was amazed how none of those three were crying, since her own eyes were abysmally flooded. The woman used her very own scarf to gently wipe away the two small rivers that were running down Dimples’ cheeks and ruining her makeup. That made Dimples cry even harder. Her nose started to run and she tried to clean her face with the cuff of her blouse.
The photographer approached, aiming his camera. They all stood in a row. When that man held her hand in his, Dimples thought she would pee herself. When the photographer gave his command, one-two-three, the woman smiled and so did her two kids. Bam! Now that smile was going to last forever, but Dimples knew it was a lie, as fake as the friendly look that had just passed between them, barely masking the violence underneath.
As the man led her to the wedding chamber she could still see those three stares, illuminated by an unbearable flame of emotion. Even though she turned away, their heat still burned in her chest, so before being swallowed behind the door, she vowed to the woman and those two kids, ‘I will return him to you immediately,’ although she could only say it silently.
One accursed night, just before dawn, her father had gone to the spring that rippled at the foot of the mountain, surrounded by a thicket and covered by luscious mist. It flowed into a small irrigation canal that encircled the village, here and there branching off, cutting through the fields to bring the rice paddies their source of life. The water was lively with little fish, eels, and tadpoles, all moving along in a swift rhythm, making the green algae sway and the colourful stones scrape cheerfully along the bottom. The married men of the village took turns checking in on the spring just before dawn, to make sure the mud wasn’t clogging it, so that the rice would grow at the right pace. But that particular night was cursed, because a goddam snake bit his big toe.
The man hadn’t yet arrived at the spring and there he was, left twitching on the footpath, his lower leg hot and stinging. His big toe looked red and raw in the moonlight as he gazed at it in the glow from his torch that had fallen into the grass. That heat was slowly spreading and he could feel it cutting off the circulation in his leg, inch by inch. He knew that soon he would lose the life in his toe and all that would be left would be a putrid blue lump. Then his whole leg would die, and then his body would follow, and then his soul.
He thought of his wife, he remembered his one and only daughter. He didn’t want to die. He grabbed the torch and burned that toe of his with its flame and then he ripped a sleeve off his shirt and used it to make a tourniquet around his calf. The excruciating heat in his leg did not abate, even though it was holding steady for the moment. He was fighting with death. He stood clenching his torch, wobbling and shaking. His body was drenched with sweat. He thought he was going to die right then and there, standing up, just like that.
Crying out from the pain, the man staggered off across the fields and headed for the witch doctor’s house. It seemed as though the torch at the man’s gate was as far away as the end of the world, and its flame flickered mockingly in the distance. Only this witch doctor had the anti-venom stone, and only this witch doctor could drive death out from his toe – even though he was a truly nauseating person, with his bad breath and his wild eyes.
When the man arrived at the front terrace of the witch doctor’s house, he was practically dying. He collapsed on the steps, howling and banging on the door. His pounds were weakening and his arms were growing limp when the witch doctor finally opened the door, standing there shaking off the fog of sleep. Then the woman came to stand behind the witchdoctor. Her two sons had also awoken, and they stood nearby.
‘Snake venom is killing me,’ the dying man said, brandishing his foot.
‘Apparently so,’ replied the witch doctor. The woman and her two children disappeared inside the house while the witch doctor took his torch to examine the man’s big toe. It was lacerated and blue. The woman reappeared with a small bundle of cotton cloth before being swallowed again by the darkness behind the witch doctor, who took out the magic stone that could counteract the snake venom. The dying man waited anxiously for the witch doctor to pull the death from his big toe, but instead the man asked, ‘How are you planning to pay?’
Sniffling, the dying man replied, ‘You can have my pregnant goat.’
The witch doctor shook his head. ‘I’d rather get your daughter Dimples pregnant.’
Dimples was 14 years old, and painfully attractive. The witch doctor had wanted her for a long time, whether or not he already had wives in all eight directions of the wind. Her father was powerless – everyone knew that the man’s will could not be refused, because he was invincible to weapons and full of deception, trickery and witchcraft. All he could do was stall for time, by fending him off, saying, ‘She’s just an innocent child.’
But now he would have to surrender her, his child, with those fetching dimples in her plump cheeks, to this witch doctor. If he didn’t, that hellish venom would surely wrench his soul from his body, which would then collapse like a dropped sarong. The man wept, from the agony of dying and the anguish of sealing his daughter’s fate.
‘Take the girl,’ he said in surrender.
The witch doctor smiled, his parting lips releasing a rotten stench. But he still didn’t cure the dying man; instead he stood up, turned, and went back into the house. The man let out strangled wails, alternately calling for the witch doctor and begging for God’s mercy. Soon, the witch doctor reappeared carrying something.
‘Repeat yourself in front of this,’ he said, holding out the holy book.
The dying man knew this witch doctor had never read the holy book, and probably had barely ever even touched it. But he himself respected it, never carried it carelessly, made sure to always place it above his head, kissed its cover, opened its pages gently, and read it with only with a clean body and a pure heart. He looked at this witch doctor, gasping for breath.
‘On this Holy Book,’ he rasped, ‘I give you my daughter Dimples to be your wife.’
That rotten stench came again. The witch doctor lifted up the lower half of that bruised leg, and its owner wailed louder. He untied the rag tourniquet, leaving the trace of chalky almost-dead flesh, and re-tied it higher up the leg. He rubbed the anti-venom stone on the bite wound as the dying man howled, answered by the dogs at the far end of village. He rubbed the stone again, reciting mantras and spells. The dying man could hardly bear it, squealing out into the soupy dawn, until his voice was gone, swallowed by unconsciousness.
When he came to, the man found himself in his own bedroom. Feeling wretched and full of sin he called Dimples and told her, ‘Child, you are to be married to that rotten stinking witch doctor.’
She still remembered when that man brought her to his house, introduced her to the woman and those two snot-nosed kids. She resisted at first, but he dragged her along the village road, one surreal afternoon, as the shepherd boys and the men plowing the rice fields gaped after them. She had never been to that house before, but ever since the day that man had appeared and tried to grope and grab her after she had taken her bath at the spring, Dimples knew her life would end in that den of witchcraft.
In fact, she felt sure that the whole tragedy of the poisonous snake was nothing more than that man’s trickery. It was probably a demon snake that made a pact with him to conquer the spring’s caretaker, and all that anti-venom rock business was nothing but a black magic ruse. But, just like her father, she respected all vows taken on the holy book, and so she finally let her young body be led away to look at her future home.
The woman and the two snot-nosed kids were waiting for them on the veranda, standing as straight and stiff as spikes driven into the ground. She felt uncomfortable, looking at their accusatory eyes. Despite their harsh and cold demeanor, Dimples offered her sweet smile. A reddish colour rose on her face, and the twin valleys in her cheeks curved tensely. They know this smile is fake, she thought.
The man said her name, a introducing her briefly and making his small talk loud so that everyone in the house and surrounding neighbourhood would get to know her. But she wasn’t sure that woman and her two kids wanted to even hear her name uttered, let alone commit it to memory.
She knelt before the woman, took her hand and sniffed deeply, pressing it to her lips. That hand was as cold as death. She approached the oldest child, ruffled his hair and kissed both his cheeks. The boy was silent and didn’t budge. The little one even tried to shrug her off when she touched him, embraced him, and gently forced him to kiss both her cheeks. It all felt like a cheap charade. Her fear turned into a creeping sadness. She couldn’t look at those accusatory faces any more.
Once she had returned home, their faces haunted her and filled her with panic. She spent nights of insomnia sitting at the window, wishing she could steal owl’s wings and fly away to the moon.
Her father now forbade Dimples to leave the house after dark, because she would soon be a bride. But one night, from her spot at the window, she caught sight of four youths at the security post down at the end of the street. They were sitting in a circle in their open-air hut, playing cards and dominos under the light of a small lantern. The fumes of white arak wine floated over their heads, carried up to Dimples by the night breeze. An idea came into her mind. Now she knew how to free herself from that stinky old man full of spells.
Dimples snuck out of the house and came to stand next to the security post hut. The four youths stopped throwing down their cards and drinking wine, looking at the girl with questioning gazes. It was a chilly early morning, and everyone in the village was burrowed under their blankets except for them.
‘Follow me,’ said Dimples, as she walked behind the hut.
The four youths looked at each other, just mumbling that it couldn’t be, until one of them left his spot in the hut and skulked away after the girl, followed by his three friends. There they saw her, already naked, illuminated by the lantern’s beam.
‘This is for you,’ she said awkwardly. ‘Let’s make love.’
At first, that invitation sounded like nothing but incomprehensible magic words. The boys still just stood there, huddled close to one another, shivering. It was the youth with the most initiative shall we say who was the first to realise his body was heating up. His hands stretched out toward the girl’s body, fondling her breasts, then began taking off his own clothes. With the same calm, he led her behind the pandan bushes, lay her down there, and tore her. Not long after that, the other three took their turn, and then Dimples waddled home with her legs wide apart.
‘Better I’m a whore,’ she said to herself two nights later, not long after that man proclaimed his three talaq, one after another. She left the room carrying a bundle of clothes, not saying goodbye to the man who was pacing back and forth, infuriated, nor to the woman and her two snot-nosed kids, who were gloating in victory. She stumbled through the town, with a pain in between her thighs. There was nowhere to go home to, because none of the doors of the village would open to receive her ever again – not even those at her father’s house.
So she went elsewhere. She knew that this fate was nothing compared to having to steal that foul-smelling man from anyone, but she still could not stop the sadness from cascading over her. And if one night you see a black shadow dancing on the mountaintop, that is Dimples, because one evening soon after that, she ran off and married a sliver of the moon.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2016 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Eka Kurniawanwas born in Tasikmalaya, West Java, in 1975. Beauty Is a Wound (New Directions) and Man Tiger (Verso) were published to acclaim last year.
Annie Tucker lives in Los Angeles. She has a Ph.D from UCLA and is the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund award for her version of Beauty Is a Wound.