‘Returning the Bird’ by Kerri Harris

Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

I creep out of the quiet darkness of our house, where the smell of last night’s lamb chops lingers to a pre-dawn feeding and drinking frenzy that I have come to know as Ramadan. I adjust my eyes for a moment to the blazing light. My staff have already been awake for an hour and are busy making a meal ofstrong Javanese coffee, rice, dried fish and vegetables, which I have never learnt to name.

Pagi, Tuslam,” I say to our driver who sits among packing boxes, some of which are stacked four storeys high, ready for our departure.

Pagi, Ibu,” comes the cheerful chorus from my helpers, Ratmi and Sumini, sisters who have swept, washed, cooked and cleaned for my family for the past six years. The girls are still in their pyjamas. I don’t often see them so unprepared for the day, so vulnerable. It makes me wonder how well I really know them, and slightly guilty. I rarely get to see inside their world.

Tuslam is dressed in his black safari suit and he’s ready for our big day ahead. He drinks down a cup of water and wipes his mouth with a handkerchief, taking care with the long fingernail on his little finger. The nail signifies his work status as a driver; it shows the world he’s a cut above a house boy or a gardener.

“Is the bird in the back, Tuslam?” I ask.

“Already, Bu,” my driver answers with a nod and a smile. I notice he throws a pair of battered, leather gardening gloves into the back of the car.

“Have you had enough to eat, Tuslam?” I ask. It will be a long time until sunset, when he will be free once again to drink, eat and smoke—not that he does smoke which is very unusual in this country.

“Mmmm,” I close my eyes. “That coffee smells good.” In one swift action, Ratmi grabs a mug, wipes it on a tea-towel and fills it with coffee and a dash of condensed milk. The coffee tastes good; even though I’m sure it’s a fraction of the price I pay for mine on the other side of the door. I am amazed at how my helpers manage to stretch their monthly food allowance to cover the basic necessities when I spend the equivalent amount three times over in just a week. Even so, some of my expatriate friends scold me for paying them too much. “You’ll spoil them,” they say. “You’ll spoil it for them and everyone else.” But how can you ever spoil someone who lives off one hundred dollars a month, and who barely gets to see their own children because they spend their week looking after mine while I do token charity work?

I take my usual seat—diagonally behind Tuslam. It provides a better view and avoids that awkward feeling when our eyes collide in the rear-vision mirror.

“A long way today, Ibu,” he says tilting his head in my direction, but never looking me directly in the eye.

At the security gates, Tuslam flicks the headlights and waits. Eventually, the guard appears, pulling on a crisp, white shirt over his singlet. He throws back the bolt of the gate with a loud crack. Tuslam leans out and together they speak in a dialect I’venever heard before. They laugh and I hope they’re not laughing at me while I look out the window at a tailless ginger cat rummaging through a rubbish bin. The cat’s belly is swollen with kittens.

“Oh, Jakarta Post!” I say as we drive off. Tuslam slams on the breaks, which almost makes me topple off my seat. I’m in the habit of not wearing a seatbelt. It’s not the law, you see, not like at home.

He laughs: “Ma-af, Bu.

The guard comes rushing back out with the newspaper which prompts another conversation and more laughter. I wonder what could be so funny.

I keep the paper with me to read later. I enjoy watching Jakarta wake although, with Ramadan, the city is already up and moving well before sunrise. Our car zigzags through the pot-holed South Jakarta streets. Men in sarongs, with small rolled-up carpets over their shoulders, saunter towards their closest mosque. The call to prayer seems more urgent today than usual. Perhaps it’s because we are halfway through Ramadan. Jakartans have grown thinner and more tired over the past two weeks because of fasting. It takes it out of you, being so resolute. They need encouragement to keep it up for another two weeks, to be strong. Don’t we all?

Bent Jamu ladies balance baskets full of turbid potions on their backs and street vendors wheel wobbly trolleys out of dark narrow side streets, going plonk-plonk and ting-ting with chopsticks in a bowl, urging late-starters to hurry up and breakfast before sunrise.

The car stops at a traffic light on JalanSudirman near a statue, which locals affectionately call “the flaming pizza man”. Two child beggars approach from the shadows and strain to look through the dark, tinted windows of our car. They hold out their hands in hope, and try to look as pitiful as possible. I’m sure they can’t see inside, but can they? They must be able to see their reflection and I wonder what they think as they see themselves.

“Not today, Tuslam,” I say.

“Is okay, Ibu. Many beggars come for Ramadan.”

“Why is that?”

“Beggar boss go to kampong for IdulFitriIbu.” He hesitates for a moment, as if weighing up a thought. “Bus and train very expensive. New clothes for family. Banyak gifts.”

“Will you go to your family this year, Tuslam?”

“My village very long way, Ibu.” He laughs. “Maybe one week to drive.”

So that’s it, I think. He probably wants the car for a week but that won’t be my concern. We will have paid the staff their employment bonuses, as well as extra cash for the end of Ramadan, and be back home and hopefully sitting on a white sandy beach by then. A beach mercifully free of aqua bottles and single rubber thongs. When all that squabbling over household items not earmarked for the packers will, thankfully, be a distant memory. I wonder at how important it must be to Tuslam to turn up in the boss’s shiny black car with his family during IdulFitri. It’s such a small thing, but it obviously matters a lot to him. Then I think of the phrase they offer one another as they do the rounds of elderly grandparents, neighbours, friends and anyone they wish to show respect to. Mohonma’af, lahirbatin. That’s it. Forgive me inside and out. Forgive me inside and out so that I can start the New Year off with a clean slate.

“Tuslam, I will ask Bapak’s boss if you can have the car this year.”

“Oh,” he says. “Is okay, Ibu. I already ask and I think is okay, Ibu.”

“Oh, all organised then,” I say, trying not to sound too cynical. Life has a way of ticking on here and who am I to question it?

I stick in my iPod earphonesto silence the voices in my head. I should have saved more money; I should have learnt better Bahasa; I should have been a better person. I set the menu to shuffle.

We overtake clapped-out orange commuter buses that spew blue smoke, which will add to the haze already amassing above the city. KWONTAS is stamped in unevenblack stencil on the side of the buses which look like they have been bent in half by a giant toddler. Ticket collectors hang out side doors, and spit wide arcs of phlegm as the early morning air whips their hair and their faces.

We pass the hotel where we watched last year’s AFL grand final on a big screen, had way too much to drink, and stayed out until three in the morning. We pass my favourite antique shops where the shopkeepers know me by name, mega malls side by side where you can buy just about anything, and a billboard advertising a safari park where our children played with orang-utans when we first arrived from Australia all those years ago.

Ibu…” Tuslam interrupts my thoughts. I take out one ear and hear “Dancing Queen” ringing in my handbag.

“Well, good morning!” I say into the phone. “Does your wife know where you were last night?”

Tuslam jerks his head sideways. It makes a cracking sound. Then he does the same to the other side. Crack.

“I’m taking a drive,” I say.

“Yes, the bird.”

“Don’t laugh. I just want to make one thing right before I—before we go.”

I listen to my lover tell me he was in the dog house for not coming home at a decent hour last night and I laugh. My own husband stopped caring what time I got home years ago. I wonder if he will care more when we get home. When we return to the “real world” I suppose I will have more responsibilities. I will have to go back to work, for a start, clean my own house, drive the kids to their assortment of after-school activities.

My mind drifts, until I realise I’m not even listening. My expat girlfriends told me it would be like this—up and down until you’re finally out of the place. But I had never thought I would feel … what? I finally recognise it as sorrow,an emptiness I didn’t think this place would ever carve out in me. I have tried to bury such feelings in a frenzy of last-minute furniture purchases for our shipping container. I have made some mistakes. Big ones.But I also want to do one last good thing. I want to get this bird back to where it belongs. Do my small bit to stop the trade in exotic birds and animals.

“I’ll call you tonight, if I can,” I say and snap my pink hand phone shut.

I unwrap the newspaper and the headline asks: “Who Killed Munir?” Who did kill him, I wonder, the human rights campaigner who was my age when he died on a Garuda flight to Amsterdam? The Dutch authorities have finally released the toxicology reports. Arsenic poisoning. What a terrible way to die. I picture a man getting up to use the small aircraft lavatory more and more frequently, until he starts foaming at the mouth, writhing in agony in front of other passengers, but he’s dead by the time the flight reaches Schiphol.

“When you go, Ibu?” Tuslam asks me.

“Two weeks, Tuslam. Duaminggu.” I say. “Very busy until then.”

The road opens up as we leave the already heavy traffic of Jakarta behind. Elaborate stone-carved toll gates and massive billboards featuring happy, Eurasian children drinking milk and watching big, plasma TVs bid us and other travellers farewell as we drive on past the airport.

***

After a couple of hours’ driving, I ask Tuslam to stop at a roadside warung. A group of about six or seven men are sitting around on plastic stools, talking. One man has his leg up, resting his chin on his knee. He has a bruise on his forehead, the result of fervent prayers perhaps, and a cigarette tucked behind his ear for later use. Tuslam greets him while I head inside to use the bathroom.

The cubicle smells foul but, after six years, I have almost mastered the art of squat toilets. I rummage around in my handbag until I find a small bottle of hand sanitiser and rub a small dollop of the clear gel onto my palms. I don’t want to eat in front of my driver or the men outside, because of Ramadan. So, in the cubicle, I eat a banana, toss the skin down the hole and gobble down a couple of crackers followed by a big chug of water. I grab a mandi bucket full of stagnant water and wash the skin down the hole. Once I’m satisfied I’ve got rid of the evidence, I use the hand sanitiser again and head out only to be confronted by a female toilet attendant. Who can blame her for not smiling? What a job. I hand her a thousand rupiah note which she takes, but looks at it with a frown. I brushpast her with a smile and say: “Kasih, Bu,” over my shoulder before she gets the chance to ask for more.

Outside, a small girl wearing pretty gold earrings squats barefoot in the dirt.

“Hello, Missus,” she sings. She’s so small and vulnerable; her face is soft velvet brown. I go back inside the stinky bathroom and give the attendant an extra thousand.

Terimakasih, Ibu,” the woman says with a toothless smile and clutches the money to her breast.

As I walk to the car, I see the men are crowding around the back tailgate. Their voices are raised excitedly over the bird’s loud and excited screeches. I catch the word burung-burung. I had always thought the word for bird sounded like a phone call. And they say cantik for beautiful, and of course uang—money.

I try to keep a stony face as my heart thumps and I get back into the car. The men laugh and one of them points at me with his thumb.

Ibu,” says Tuslam. He strokes his thick moustache.

I realise I have a crumb at the side of my mouth and I quickly brush it away.

Kasih, Tuslam,” I say.

As we pull out onto the road, Tuslam discreetly hands a man who wears thongs and a black security uniform a folded up note. My driver winds up his window and locks our doors with the flick of a button on the dashboard. I envy Tuslam for knowing how things work. But I’m also grateful. We’ve been on some adventures, the two of us, over the past six years.

“They say why we go to Ujungkulon, Ibu?”

“The National Park is where the bird comes from, Tuslam, before we got it from the markets onJalan Barito. Don’t you remember?”

“Men say how much, Ibu?”

I laugh. “Not for sale, Tuslam. I think the bird needs to go home.”

“Go home,” he says, laughing.

I twist around in my seat and check the bird in the back of the car. Its wings are stretched as far as the cage will allow but it’s quiet and wobbles on its perch, like a drunken sailor.

We continue the drive west, past kilometres upon kilometres of palm oil plantations, when the bird suddenly shrieks from the back.

“It’s alright,” I tell the bird, andI look out the window. “We’re nearly there.”

***

By midday, we reach a small cemetery beside a dense green wall of rainforest. In the far corner of the cemetery, about 200 metres away, there is a small group of mourners, including two small children holding a young woman’s hand. She has a white shawl over her head. There are thin elderly men wearing plain white shirts, long trousers, and black velvet caps on their heads. They walk unsteadily, shoulders stooped and heads bowed, through the rows of small granite gravestones.

“This will do, Tuslam,” I say, using my thumb to point towards the rainforest. “Look! Banyak trees!”

The mourners suddenly stop, tense and alert. They almost look ready for flight themselves.

Tuslam walks around the back and gently liftsthe cage out of the car and places it on the ground. He looks around the cemetery and darts back into the car and pulls out the gloves, slapping them together, as if clapping.

Our bird screeches, and suddenly the rainforest answers with noisy bird life. We both smile at the green, but neither of us can see anything. Tuslam opens the cage.

“I’ll do this bit,” I say, taking the gloves and slipping them on. I reach into the cage and grab the bird firmly, pinning its wings to its body. In surprise, the bird pecks at the leather gloves—unaware that freedom is just moments away.

SelamatJalan, Coo-coo,” I whisper over its protests. I feel embarrassed, like I’ve been caught saying my prayers out loud, but I feel as if I should say something.

“Goodbye sweet thing and good luck.”

I lift the bird high, give one last toss, and let it go. The creature spread sits perfect crimson wings and flies shrieking toward the dark, green unknown and doesn’t look back.

Tuslam stands by my side. After all the inappropriate pop music I have played in the car, all the nights he has driven my husband and me home from parties in the wee hours of the morning, all my frenzied and downright plunderous antique shopping, and all my not-so-secret meetings with my lover that he must have known about—for drivers know everything—redemption comes at last.

Tuslam watches the bird fly off until it disappears into the trees. Then he turns and looks at me for the first time in six years.

“I think this is good,” he says.

***

Glossary:

Bahasa—Bahasa Indonesia is the language spoken throughout Indonesia, although many people still speak Javanese or other dialects

banyak—many

Bapak—Mr or man

Bu—also Ibu—Mrs or woman

IdulFitri—a time to celebrate after the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan, during which time devout Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex during daylight hours.

Jalan—street

jamu—herbal potions and remedies

kampung—village

kasih—also terimakasih—thank you

ma’af—sorry

mandi—mandi is the word for bathing place or to have a bath. A mandi bucket is a small bucket with a long handle used to wash yourself or to scoop water into a toilet

pagi—good morning

sarong—ankle-length pieces of fabric, usually batik, tied around the waist

selamatjalan—goodbye

warung—a stall or a small shop by the roadside.

Kerri Harris

Author’s Bio: Kerri Harris is an Australian journalist, writer and editor who lived in Jakarta for four years. Her poetry and short stories include social commentary and observations both real and imagined about ex-pat life—having lived through terrorist bombings, earthquakes, floods, Garuda plane crashes, the December 2004 tsunami, and plenty of good stuff too.

Harris won the Grenfell Henry Lawson Short Story Competition 2012 with her short story ‘Why Don’t Elephants Smoke?’, which was also included in Australian Award Winning Writing 2012 published by Melbourne Books. She is currently working on an historical fiction novel, her stories have been short-listed many times, and she is a regular book reviewer for Good Reading magazine, a Sydney-based publication for book lovers.

In between all that, Harris is working on a Masters degree in writing, editing and publishing at the University of Queensland in Brisbane where she now lives with her husband and three teenage children.

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