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Everything Ashen

Mahfud Ikhwan

Translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker

In earlier times, when the western sky purpled and day turned to dusk, the trees all around the cow shed at the edge of the forest clamored with the calls of finches flying home to their nests. The whistling breeze occasionally gusted into a brisker wind, transforming the forest into an ocean of rustling leaves, an orchestra punctuated only by the staccato of a twig cracking or branch creaking in the distance. The cry of a mother ape calling her children to climb into their nest in some far corner of the jungle, or the steps of a pair of deer delicately making their way towards their resting place in a cluster of bushes, was accompanied by the rattle of night insects greeting darkness and its blessings. All this signaled a perfect time for the people who were returning home from the forest to rest for a moment before washing off the day’s dirt. The softly lilting prayers and poetry descending from the mosque rooftops in the middle of the village served as confirmation that God was still steadfast in his dominion, changing night for day before bringing back the morning, just as was said of Him many times in the Holy Book. Humans had no choice but to mull over how small and insignificant they were, powerless creatures made for no other reason than to worship Him.

But not that afternoon.

That afternoon was different. There were no chirping finches. The wind choked: no rustling leaves, cracking branches, or swaying boughs. It was as if the monkeys were trapped in their hideouts, the deer hobbled, and the night insects gone mute. The sky was silent.

The only sound to be heard was a long, deafening whine: “Nginginginginging!”

Nothing but nging! But could that be called a sound? And could hearing a sound like that even be called hearing?

And then, if so, what about eyes that saw only the color of ash? A gray grayer than the meaning of the word gray itself.

Gray, gray as ashes.

There was no color besides that. Not the thick blackish red seeping from the gaping wound in Inayatun’s stomach as she lay in his arms. Not the thick blackish red that coated most of his own face and drenched his tattered clothes. Not the thick blackish red spreading everywhere.

Everything was ashen.

And could his hands and feet still be said to feel, if all they could feel was the limp body of his wife cradled in his embrace? A part of him knew that his wife’s body was growing heavier with each passing second. And yet, he felt weightless. Perhaps it was because he had run so fast that he had practically flew, or actually flew, his body covered in his wife’s blood as he carried her in his arms from the cow shed at the edge of the Cottonwood Grove to the community health center in Galeng Gede, which was at least fifteen minutes away on an RX Special motorbike speeding over forty kilometers an hour. He thought his body must no longer be made of flesh and blood—his muscles and bones must have dissolved, leaving nothing but a gaping cavity encased by skin. There was nothing.

Empty. Void.


Ridden with holes.

As light as straw. Dry straw. An insubstantial wisp that flies and floats wher- ever the wind carries it. Weightless. Whisked away.

And nging . . .

His body was empty, his head was empty. He certainly didn’t realize, as he raced along the Cottonwood Grove village road, that women and children were screaming, running, scattering in terror. The sight must have been worse than anything they had ever seen before, worse than even the most horrifying scenes in Battle with the Red Devil, which they had watched on the eve of Independence Day at the outdoor screening held on the village administration office’s front lawn. He was aware of nothing except his wife’s condition when he banged on the door of the community health center’s emergency room, howling down the corridor for the doctor.

“Help my wife! Help! Help my child! Help! Help!”

The words didn’t come out like a bark or bellow, but a plea for mercy, the words of a man who no longer knew what to say.

Even so, they were more than enough to startle the doctor and nurses on call in the small, sub-district community health center. They had cared for patients as badly off, but this was different. They didn’t need some tale-telling troublemaker to persuade them that standing before them was a murderer carrying his own victim—to deceive the authorities, maybe, or because he was criminally insane. They didn’t need to hear the whole story about Mat Dawuk—and the dozens of people whose souls he had supposedly obliterated—to feel aghast and afraid. His hideous face, smeared with blood, was enough to convince them he would soon slaughter everyone in the place.

And how pale was the doctor’s face as, with all the trembling courage he could muster, he said that neither the victim, nor the baby in her belly, could be saved.

“Your . . . your wife . . . is . . . gone,” the doctor stammered out. “And… and so is the baby.”

The doctor steeled himself, certain that any moment those bloodstained hands would grab for the collar of his white coat, or close around his neck, or crush his skull. So he was surprised when the maniac only shook his head in confusion, eyes hollow, and asked, in an almost inaudible voice: “Gone?”

“Yes. Your wife and child . . . are gone.” This time the doctor spoke more fluidly, even though he was still shaking.

Mat Dawuk remained dumbfounded. People who had heard of his ferocity and cold heart, even if they themselves had witnessed him in that state, wouldn’t have believed it. This clearly wasn’t Mat Dawuk—or at least, it wasn’t the Mat Dawuk they had understood him to be.

“Gone.” He repeated the word as if it were completely foreign, difficult to pronounce. He had never received an education, had never cracked open even a primary school workbook, and couldn’t read any of the Wiro Sableng series that he had collected, but surely it was impossible that he had never heard the word “gone.”

He was well-acquainted with death. His mother had died giving birth to him. His grandfather, the person who loved him most in the world, had left him, vanished and assumed dead when he was only five years old. He had witnessed the death of his depraved father, who hated him, after his body had been flattened by an Indonesia bus on the Semarang-Surabaya route just as he stepped out of his favorite palm wine stall. There were also the people Mat Dawuk had killed. And there was his own soul—Mat Dawuk himself had survived numerous brushes with death. But all of those had just been called “dying.” Maybe that’s why he hadn’t often heard the word “gone” and needed some time to process it.

“Gone,” he murmured once more, like an elementary school student trying to sound out a difficult word.

“Will you take your wife home?” the doctor asked. “Or should we prepare the body here?”

As if he hadn’t heard, and without displaying any of the appropriate reactions of a husband who had just lost his wife—like a grimace of shock or a wail of lament—he only gaped then looked away, up at the open sky, as if seeking an answer there. He looked at the black clouds gathering, and that blackness was the first color he was able to see that afternoon since everything had gone gray. He watched the rolling coils of clouds growing thicker and wider, ushering in a rising wind—the first breath of air he felt. There were a few isolated rumbles of thunder. The first was small, followed by a flash of lightning, then louder booms rang out, and finally, the loudest. Those were the first sounds he was able to hear besides “nging”—and that confounding word, “gone.” But he still couldn’t resolve his incomprehension, still couldn’t explain his sense of emptiness as the word hung in the air.

Another clap of thunder. He raised his blood-streaked face. The strong wind had brought the rain along with it, and thick drops were already pounding the health center’s asbestos roof. But Mat Dawuk walked out onto the yard, now looking straight up at the sky. Maybe he was hoping the rain would finally help him understand.

Then came a loud rumble from another direction. He turned his gaze from the sky to the gate of the health center behind him. Through the smears of blood on his face and rain-soaked hair, he saw a group of five or six people jumping down off their motorbikes. They were followed by more motorbikes, more people. Then a pickup arrived and even more people leapt down.

“That’s Mat Dawuk!” someone shouted. “He’s the one who killed Inayatun and Foreman Har!” someone else called out, louder than the rain, which was now roaring.

But he didn’t really seem to register this. The expression on his face hadn’t changed since the doctor had first told him that his wife and child were “gone.” Still dumbfounded. Empty. Still seeking an explanation for his inexplicable feelings.

Then the slurs and insults came, hurled down upon him like the rain.

Followed by: “Kill Mat Dawuk!”

Then: “Yeah, kill him!”

And then: “Crush him!”

And, “Burn him!”

“Murder him!”

“Murder him!”

“Murder him!”

“Slaughter him!”

“Slit his throat!”

And Mat Dawuk was still standing there, bewildered, when a bamboo pole as thick as his thigh struck the nape of his neck on the right. His head bounced to the side, but his two legs were strong and sturdy, so he didn’t lose his balance. He shook for a moment. His knees buckled, and he staggered, but didn’t fall. His head turned unhurriedly towards the blow, like someone looking to check whether a leaf had just fallen onto his shoulder, then looked up again. The afternoon sky was blackening. The rain kept roaring. The whole world had gone ashen. Even so, as the crowd behind him pressed closer, thundering their insults and threats, holding their weapons at the ready, Mat Dawuk caught a glimpse of Woodsman Hasan in the crowd. He squinted, as if trying to reassure himself that the man who was now yelling the loudest, hurling the most vicious insults, was the same man who had earlier lunged at him but missed, instead splitting open the chest of his friend, Foreman Har, with his very own hatchet, and then scrambled away. Mat Dawuk turned his eyes to Woodsman Hasan with a piercing look that said: “We have unfinished business!”

Another blow, and another, this time with a plank of wood as big as a horse carriage axle, slammed into the nape of his neck. The force of the impact split the wood in two. Mat Dawuk’s head shook, and rain mixed with blood splattered from his long, curly hair. Still, his gaze didn’t falter. Mat Dawuk’s eyes continued to glare at Woodsman Hasan, warning: “You won’t be able to escape me!”

Then a metal pipe slammed straight down onto his skull. The crowbar buckled, as rain again splattered from Mat Dawuk’s hair, this time mixed with fresh blood from his split scalp. His eyelids shrunk back in surprise. His two shoulders slumped, his body went limp, and then he fell headlong. 

“Finish him!”

“Finish him!”

“Finish him!”

“Slaughter him!”

“Slit his throat!”

Then rods of bamboo, then wooden planks, then stones and kicks and punches, and all kinds of weapons, blunt and sharp, now taking turns, now all at once, descended upon him.

The rain kept falling and falling, like water that an angry father pours over a son who hasn’t woken up for pre-dawn prayers. Magrib fell with a dusk far darker than usual. The muezzin’s trembling voice broke into a hoarse and reluctant cough. The people, of whom there were dozens, surged over Mat Dawuk’s limp body, like a flood that gushes out of a clogged ditch: thick and black, full of garbage, full of rage.

Hmmm . . . that’s enough.

Or at least, that’s enough for now. Time for intermission, as the Bollywood films say. My coffee is finished. And you’ve smoked all your cigarettes, haven’t you? I want to go home. I’m sleepy. I didn’t sleep at all last night. I’m hungry too. I’ll continue tomorrow—if I’m still alive. 

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