Death and The Old Man

By Imam Muhtarom

He felt as if his body had shrunk to the size of a watermelon seed when a pile of blankets fell on his body one at a time. He found it hard to breathe. If his mind went blank for a few seconds or if he remembered himself as a young man of 30-years of age, he would curse the blankets as they seemed only to cut his life short.
Although a half-meter pile of blankets covered him, he did not get the warmth he badly needed. Instead, he was shivering more intensely with the cold and, of course, was far, far weaker than when he was in his 30s.
At 30, when he was in his prime, he could threaten people to give him money. He would do so many more times to line his pockets. Then he was ready for a meal, and afterwards, he would have all the pleasures that life could offer. He would walk to the left side of a small alley and turn right into a small house lit only with a five-watt bulb. This windowless house had one door, one-and-a-half meters wide.
Inside, he would join four other men and gamble, either to multiply his money or lose it all there. If he won, he would leave this place when the clock struck nine and walk, keeping to the side. Some 400-meters away there was a rather large cafe, where he could drink and womanize. If he lost, he would turn left towards the bus terminal and join his whining friends.
That was some three decades before, when he realized that all men would die. He did not know, though, that before he died he would have a stroke. He had expected himself to die in a dark alley while walking alone in a drizzle, his body covered by his thick jacket, in an abandoned town. At that time he was running away from his boarding house to his home in the village.
He could seize a gold necklace and a bag of bank notes. He was sure police were after him. He also knew if he could not escape this time, several hot bullets would drill several holes through his body. He knew he would not give up and would either escape or die.
He could escape.
He did not know why he could always escape after committing a crime. Many of his friends had been shot dead by police simply for committing a much smaller crime. It was through repeated strokes of luck that he could live in the underworld for 59 years.
It was very cold that morning. From the window of the old man's room, the leaves looked blurred in the white thick mist. God knows where his daughter had gone. He forced himself to forget the past and find in his dying hour just a morsel of happiness.
He forced his ears to listen to the chirping of the morning birds, flying freely from one branch to another. They would flap their wings as if greeting him with a good morning. He could be right, he mumbled to himself, and took both feet out of the pile of blankets. But, once again, he groaned with pain. He mentally cursed his own body, which he thought had better be turned into garbage along with withering leaves and used plastic.
'When will all this happen to me?' he wondered, again and again. With great difficulty, he forced himself to get up and walk to the window. With trembling lips he tried to whistle, as if greeting the morning birds, which, all of a sudden, upon seeing his figure in the window, flew away.
As sun rays penetrated the thick foliage of the trees in front of the house, the morning mist slowly evaporated. Disappointment overwhelmed him. Exposed to the sun, his dark face showed scars. His was really a strange face in this house. A face children would find spooky. It would turn their dreams of golden flowers to that of brownish flowers used by pigs.
The old man was slightly amused upon learning that some boys stealthily walked on tip-toe past his bamboo fence. He thought these boys were just like him when he was a child. He used to watch a crazy woman separated only a few yards away from his home. He was then a thin, sickly and cowardly boy. When courage was needed, he would stay behind, but he would stay in front when things were beneficial to him. As he had never showed his courage, his friends had set him aside.
Cowardly and isolated, as a small boy, so he remembered, he would enjoy watching twilight clouds hanging from the red and golden sky. He would especially like to watch the clouds above his house. He would tell his mom that the red golden rays were the stairs to heaven.
He told his mom, too, that he would like to climb the stairs to heaven. His widowed mother, already very old, was so surprised at this statement that she stopped eating and, unknowingly, threw away her plate.
He later realized his destiny was actually determined by the twilight with spurting red and golden rays. He still remembered this twilight and how he later ran away from school to join a market mafia and no longer felt cowardly any more. He became the ruler of the market area.
He regretted he had never realized that he would suffer greatly in his old age. He walked around the house, which looked like a hollow cave. Dark. The beams supporting the roof seemed to meet at one point. It was there that bees used to make their hives the size of an adult's forearm.
He remembered that the bee hives had many layers and that he enjoyed sucking the honey. He would steal some from his mom's bamboo cupboard although he knew that the honey had been sold to the traditional herbal medicine vendor. ""Can't your own child enjoy the honey and not just the residue?"" he had grumbled. Everything that happened dozens of years ago was still clear in his mind. As clear as the reality before him now: alone in a dark house and dying.
Yes, everything he is facing is a reality, he kept saying to himself, to ascertain that this reality was not just a dream.
With a trembling hand, he managed to drink some warm water. Two gulps went down his long throat.
This is not a dream, he convinced himself. His distorted face was sweating and in a tremor.
Suddenly the glass fell from his weak grasp. It broke on his left leg and the warm water wetted his right hand.
""Look at me. Look and don't hesitate nor fear that your condition is real. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Then the cold dark night will descend, making you shiver. Your blood vessels shrink and you have spasms on your bed. You feel like shouting but do not know what to shout. Your open eyes see nothing. You only know that the dark, cold nights continue to come and go. It refuses to stop. It walks on, leaving you groaning and writhing in pain like a poisoned dog. Remember the dog in S? You lost on the gambling table and out of your annoyance you poisoned it. You used to give the dog the meat from your dishes. You know that you could find peace in the eyes of the dog while in human eyes you find only suspicion, resentment and revenge. Remember?""
""No... no"" his mouth gave a twitch. His eyes were looking at the ceiling. The clear clouds lining towards the south-west, were gone, ""I don't know,"" he whispered. He walked to the yard. His right hand was strongly gripping his wooden walking stick. Unsupported, his body rolled on the misty grass. He huddled himself and his breathing was highly irregular. His body moved very, very slowly. He tried to get up but the morning dew froze his body. He sat limply under the sun that slowly moved up the yard.
The old body moved and slowly got up when the sun felt hot on the skin while the dew drops brought some warmth. He forced himself to walk, dragging his feet heavily while his two hands clutched strongly at his walking sheet. He thought himself like a monitor lizard. Then he would fall down in this dark house. He moved around looking for his favorite soft mattress, the one he longed to have very badly. He groped about the walls to convince him that his house was still in existence although it was now hollow and that his mattress was inside. He couldn't understand why it was difficult to reach the mattress. He did not even realize that his right foot was stepping on the slippery and moss-covered floor of the bathroom.
He was shaking up when his full weight went entirely to his right leg, which would later slide like cotton flying in the air. His head struck the wall of the bathroom. He did not know where exactly he was. He thought he was lost in the bushes that grew rapidly and swallowed him. But, he asked again his lonely heart, before everything went entirely dark, whether the rays at twilight were stairs to heaven. Perhaps, he was not far from these stairs.
Surabaya, August 2001
Translated by Lie Hua

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta  |  Sunday, 25 August 2002


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