His gaze is fixated on an indeterminate spot behind me, his arms hang loosely by his sides. Wearing nothing but a pair of faded black shorts, his ribs and collar bones rise above his cavernous stomach. His bulging eyes stand out. A ray of afternoon sun penetrates through a few holes on the attap roof above us, shining on some part of his left arm and shoulder. Sitting on the ground of this six-by-eight-metre hut with his back leaning against the wall, his dark brown skin blends in with the soil underneath us and the bamboo wall surrounding us.
A bright red poster of some political party from last year’s gubernatorial election hangs on one side of the wall. Not exactly for a decorative purpose. The woven sheets of the bamboo wall are so battered that there are more holes than wall. The poster is there to cover the biggest hole, while other smaller ones are left gaping, making them entrance and exit points for all kinds of flying or creeping animals one could find in the tropics. A distinct, pungent smell lingers in the air and it is no surprise. This hut used to be a chicken coop. Tens of chickens were hatched, bred, and slaughtered in this very hut. Ankle-high lalang grows wildly in several places. The only sign of life from what is otherwise a desolate place.
Lying between me and him is what is perhaps the most imposing feature of this hut: old wooden stocks which look heavier than our bodies combined. Strapped to them are his ankles. The palpable resignation on his face tells me he has made peace with these colossal pieces of wood. But for how long? I notice that, in here, time stops ticking.
I call his name. But he still does not budge. His eyes are still transfixed on the same imaginary point. I am transparent to him.
I call again. This time half-shouting. He now turns his gaze at me. Is that a subtle smile I am seeing on his face?
When we were kids, Arman and I were inseparable. Not only did we go to the same school, but we were also neighbours in our kampung, which is just on the outskirts of Banyuwangi. We played anything and everything. From kites to marbles, from hide-and-seek to a war game. Oh, we stole little things, too, alright, especially when we were bored. But we did it with pride, even when we got caught red-handed. Our target varied depending on the season. It could be ripe rambutan on someone’s orchard, sugarcane on someone’s plantation, or little carp from someone’s pond. The world still felt magical back on those days.
In school, he was always top of the class, whereas I happily trailed far behind albeit in the second place. There was never a single intention, though, to surpass him. We all agreed that Arman was beyond smart. He was almost what one would call genius. I was sure I could not have surpassed him, even if I wanted to. He was my nemesis in school and I was his sidekick outside school. The bond which united us was thicker than that of birth brothers. He was I and I was him.
One afternoon when we were playing along the rail track, Arman's foot became stuck between wooden slats. At that time, we could not have been older than seven years old. I panicked and quickly ran to the nearest house to look for some help. A farmer, who was at the time working in his rice field, heard my frantic call for help and rushed with me to reach Arman. All the way back to where Arman was stuck, I cried, imagining that we would find his foot had been crushed by a train or worse, his body flattened by a train. But when the farmer and I arrived at the scene, Arman had apparently managed to free himself. Blood dripped from his big toe, but he looked otherwise alright. Upon seeing me in tears like that, he burst out laughing.
Aren't I the one who’s wounded, he said, why are you the one who’s crying like a baby?
The sound of his laughter annoyed me so much that I left him right then and there. For ten days after the incident, I did not visit his house. At school when my glance happened to meet his, I immediately looked away. During class breaks, we did not greet each other. He seemed to be mad at me, too, for whatever reason. At the end of that month, after being tired of avoiding each other and out of boredom of having to play alone, we made up. But I would never forget the incident. That was the longest ten days in my childhood years.
The crowing noise of chickens outside the hut brings me back. Arman still does not talk. His head is tilted back and his eyes are now on the attap roof above us. A few flies buzz above his head and alight on his chest, but he does not chase them away.
Does he perhaps not recognise me, I think to myself. Or do I say it as well? Without any feedback, it feels no longer real what is said aloud or what is just thought in one’s mind.
I squat in front of Arman and examine his face. With long, dishevelled hair and unkempt moustache and beard, he looks much older than his actual age. A few deep, horizontal lines are starting to be etched on his forehead, reminding me of the ditches we used to walk in when we were playing a war game. Putting my hand on his right shoulder, I realise how much frailer he is than I initially thought. Could it be that these skin and bones are what is keeping him from crossing that delicate border between life and death?
When I informed Pak RT, the area warden, that I would like to visit Arman in this hut, he told me that Arman has been refusing to eat. It would be great if I could persuade him to eat again, he added.
I look at the food next to Arman. A fistful of yellowing white rice. It stinks and looks already spoiled. On top of it a tiny piece of what looks like fried tofu or tempe.
Soon enough some mice will help themselves to it anyway, said the woman who brought it in five minutes ago.
I start to feel uneasy. How could I persuade anyone to eat that?
Man, I gently ask him, don’t you want to eat?
When I hear my own question, I can’t help feeling ashamed. Did I not think it myself just a few seconds ago that I could never persuade anyone to eat that?
Perhaps seeing me battling with my own thought, Arman chuckles. But what starts as a chuckle soon turns to a laughter.
I look on as he laughs his head off. He laughs and laughs without a care in the world. Seeing Arman laughing like that, I study the man with more curiosity. Never before have I heard a laugh so carefree yet devoid of emotion like this one. It echoes inside this hut before rippling away beyond the confinement of the bamboo wall. It somehow irks me.
Besides, what could he be laughing at? Me? Himself? Or these stocks, which to me now start to feel both ironic and comical?
Upon a closer look, I then notice that not only Arman’s leg muscles have atrophied, but his feet have also already deformed so much that the holes on the stocks look too big for their purpose. If Arman had wanted to, he could have actually slipped out of them!
I gasp and Arman seems to also notice what I have just found out. His laugh gradually ebbs away. He and I now look into each other’s eyes.
Those eyes! They never lose their lustre. Our teacher once said of them: bright eyes, bright mind. Could this once-bright student have something up his sleeve?
I hear mice on the rafter above us squeaking noisily. Perhaps they are busy mating before ransacking Arman’s food later.
Suddenly I feel a surge of anger rising within me. Something about the mice-mating scene and this young, weak man before me makes me feel indignant.
Don’t you, too, want to have fun again, like those mice above us, Man?!
My shout chases away the flies on his chest. But Arman remains as mute as a brick. The only man who responds to me is the one on the political poster on the wall. He smiles while showing his thumbs up. ‘Ora Korupsi, Ora Ngapusi’ ((We are) not corrupt, (we do) not lie) written next to him).
As I inspect the stocks again, I begin to notice the scar on the big toe of Arman’s right foot. That is the scar from when his foot became stuck in the rail tracks many years ago.
How could he manage to escape, back then when he was only a young boy, but now somehow, he isn’t able to slip out of these beasts when it is clear that he could have if he really wanted to?
I look to Arman and peer into his eyes, but he looks away.
Arman was born into this world without ever knowing his parents. Orphaned as he was, he loved life more than anyone I know. It was as if Arman was birthed as a deliberate and necessary part of a bigger plan, rather than by sheer happenstance.
Unlike me, since an early age he knew exactly what he wanted to be. While other students thought of typical dream professions, like a doctor or an engineer, Arman wanted to be a seafarer who, in his own words, will conquer the oceans and sail to all four corners of the world. I have never known any other child in this sleepy coastal village who grew up wanting to be that. In our children eyes, a sailor is more like a fisherman than an explorer. And to dream of being a fisherman is to dream of being thrown back into the loop of structural poverty, of which our kampung has no shortage. But Arman was nothing if not free-spirited. That is probably why we were all drawn to him. Live boldly, he once said to me, it’s never a mistake. Life is never a mistake.
When he was only five years old, he was adopted by Mbah Fatma, a small, frail woman who was never married. Upon encountering him in a local Muslim orphanage, she was so taken with his charm and wit at such a young age that she decided to take him out of that orphanage and raised him as her own grandson, despite her knowing that she would not be able to provide much. The poor woman, who spent most of her life at our traditional market selling beansprouts for a living, died of old age last year. I heard that until the end of her life, she never knew that Arman is locked away in this hut. The neighbours must have told her something else to account for Arman’s missing.
Pak RT told me that Arman went berserk when the neighbours tried to tie him with some ropes. That was a few years before Mbah Fatma’s passing. Arman shouted maniacally for hours on end during that first night. The following morning, they found out that he had bitten through half of the rope. If they had come down to check on him a few hours later, perhaps they would have only found an empty hut. The neighbours then changed the ropes to chains and, lately, to these stocks.
Arman’s eyes are half-closed. Is he dozing off?
A few flies, perhaps the same ones as earlier, land again on him. This time on his arms. Arman, however, remains still. I wonder if he can feel anything, emotion or otherwise. Could this be the reason why he does not know my name or, at least, recognise me? Does he even care for his own name?
Something seems to have been entirely sucked out of him, leaving behind a carcass stripped of any capacity to will. And without a capacity to will, without a desire to lead a dignified life, is his life hereafter still worth living at all? What is life’s worth, after all, if the owner is no longer conscious of its value?
A thought comes to my mind. I search the hut for something small to poke him with and find a twig tossed on the ground in the other corner of the hut. With the twig, I poke Arman's stomach.
He opens his eyes and looks at the twig in my hand.
C'mon, Man! I say to him. I just poked you. What’ll you do about it, huh?
He squints his eyes. Is that again a subtle smile I am seeing on his face?
Hey, look here! I say again while still poking his stomach with the twig.
But Arman still keeps his mouth shut.
He, instead, ducks down and, with his thin arms, tries to cover his head.
Seeing that head throws me back to the time when we both were in third grade. Arman and I were punished for puncturing the tire of our headmaster’s bicycle. We never liked him. Perhaps in an effort to show the headmaster that a lesson has been taught our teacher shaved our heads in the school courtyard in front of all students as punishment.
That puncture can be fixed within a few minutes, protested Arman to our teacher, the sweat beads on his clean-shaven head glistening under the sun, but it’ll take us months to grow back our hair.
That was my first taste of the world of punishment. Could punishment be all about bending someone into conforming to society? Is what’s happening to Arman now, the imprisonment of his body, also just another form of punishment for having a different mind? But how could Arman possibly be otherwise? He’s destined to be different than the rest of us!
Goddammit, Man! C’mon! Get angry!
Seeing Arman ducking down like that despite my repeated pokes, I can’t contain my frustration. The political man on the poster seems to notice it as his smile turns into a mocking grin.
Don’t you see it’s unfair, Man? You said it yourself it’s never a mistake, didn’t you?!
My heart struggles to accept it all. Why, in the unfurling of time, were we washed ashore on two different places? He was the brilliant one with the big dream of sailing to all four corners of the world.
But fate apparently has something else in store for him. Now he is stranded, forgotten in this corner of this hut.
A penetrating sunray moved an inch above us and illuminates Arman’s head. A halo forms above that head. The same head which was once cleanly shaven as a punishment and is now perhaps ridden with scabies. Oh, how much I love that head!
I can’t resist the urge to wrap my arms around it.
Why can’t you get angry, Man? Why don’t you slip out of these goddamn things yet?
I clutch his head as he surrenders in my embrace.
Holding him in my arms like this reminds me of our farewell embrace. At that time, my parents had just decided to sell their most prized possession, our ox, to finance me to enter a college in Surabaya. On the last day before I was due to leave, we went to the nearby beach and spent the whole afternoon there. Both Arman and I somehow knew that he would never be able to afford a trip to visit me in Surabaya, much less to enter a college. With nothing much to talk about, we were mostly silent while feeling wave upon wave of melancholy lapping ashore. I still remember how the gentle sea breeze felt harsh on my skin.
Write me letters. That was the only thing he said when we parted. And he gave me that warm embrace of his.
Ten years separated that farewell embrace to this reunion one. Ten years full of whys which can never be answered by anyone.
Oh, isn’t life the most absurd thing, Man?
My tears keep pouring down and wet Arman’s head, but he does not seem to care or notice.
Aren’t I the one who’s wounded? Why are you the one who’s crying like a baby?
According to Human Rights Watch, as of July 2018, nearly thirteen thousand people in Indonesia who were diagnosed with mental disabilities live chained or shackled or strapped to stocks called ‘Pasung’. Living with Pasung forces them to sleep, eat, urinate, and defecate in the same spot, which only worsens their mental condition. In 2011 Indonesia ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which guarantees equal rights for all persons with disabilities, including the right to freedom and security, as well as being free from torture and ill-treatment. However, lack of funds, socialisation and serious, concerted effort from the government means these inhumane practices continue until now.
Mayestica de Jong (email@example.com) is a writer based in the UAE. An engineer by training but a storyteller by calling, she believes in the power of storytelling as means to give voice to the marginalised ones amongst us.
Inside Indonesia 138: Oct-Dec 2019