Short Story

© canstockphoto5692902
© canstockphoto5692902

If Grandmother were a horse she might have nuzzled Marong’s nose. Whinnied a few times before she left.

They said it was grandmother’s body that had been put into the grave that day. But nobody knew who owned the chestnut horse that loyally stood guard. One of the pallbearers said that the horse had just turned up out of the blue when he and his friends left the cemetery after the midday prayers. Indeed it is not uncommon for a pet to guard the grave of their recently departed master or mistress, sometimes for several days. But to my knowledge Grandmother had never owned a pet horse. The only pet she’d ever had was a spotted cat.

Only once had grandmother ever made off with a horse, and that happened one night about ten years ago.

I must tell you this story even though you won’t be able to get the full truth from me. You’ll have to get someone else to fill in the missing pieces. It’s important that you hear all this before you seize the horse from the woman’s grave. Before you get branded as a bunch of gullible fools and become the laughing stock of the whole village. If your greed is such that you choose to ignore my warning, I at least ask that you wait until I’ve finished my story. After that, do as you please…

According to Grandmother, the horse she made off with was called Marong. It was actually Grandfather’s favorite horse. Nobody was allowed to ride Marong apart from his owner. But that evening, after quarrelling with Grandfather, Grandmother rode off on Marong without his owner’s knowledge. She set off at a gallop in the full moon, through clumps of bamboo, flashing through the night like a ghost. From that moment Grandmother was reported as missing.

Grandfather didn’t bother looking for Grandmother and Marong. His children—who were commonly referred to as the “Men of Five Fingers”—didn’t either. Regarding Marong, Grandfather assured everyone that he would come back eventually. As for Grandmother, he gave a longer explanation. Because he had never forced her to leave, or divorced her, there was no need for him to go looking for her and ask her to come back. If she wanted to come back, she knew the way home and the door would never be locked to her. But Grandmother didn’t come back before Grandfather’s death five years later.

In death, Grandfather’s face was not particularly contented. Seven days later a woman rode into the cemetery on a chestnut stallion. Was it Grandmother on Marong? Three of the four young kids playing cards in a corner of the cemetery were adamant that it was. Only one demurred. ‘Grandmother doesn’t have a broken front tooth and a scar on her cheek,’ he argued. All four of them agreed that the horse was Marong, though they all queried one thing: “How come he neighs in that raucous way? He sounds like a donkey.”

The four kids then began chanting the start of a rhyme: “The Java sparrow…is the damselfish…”
Looking straight at Grandfather’s grave, the woman then greeted him with the words: “It’s me, beautiful Grandma with the big breasts.”

“There’s no denying it now, that’s our Grandma,” shrieked the children joyfully. Then they swallowed down their saliva, which tasted of fresh cow’s milk, and returned, whistling happily, to their rowdy game of cards.
Then the woman who had claimed to be Grandmother squatted beside Grandfather’s tomb. Unlike most visitors, she neither uttered a prayer nor placed flowers at the grave. “Five years ago I almost died at your hands,” she said, “and five years later you died, but not by mine. But I haven’t come here as that sad, simple woman you tortured.”

Grandmother was silent for some time, then suddenly she felt the sensation of a caterpillar crawling all over her tongue. It made her tongue itchy, and she felt the urge to say something about Grandfather. Without relinquishing her sense of happiness, which tasted of young mangoes, Grandmother began cursing Grandfather, including in her abuse the names of several animals and a number of broken kitchen utensils. She was in fact only repeating the things that Grandfather had said when he was alive but, by changing a few words here and there, she made the insults sound like her own. After scratching her backside for a while, she stood up and went over to Marong, who was tethered to a frangipani tree. “Take good care of him,” said Grandmother.

If the horse were a human, he would have said, “Okay, big-bosomed Grandma. But why are you squeezing my neck so tight you’re choking me?” If Grandmother were a horse she might have nuzzled Marong’s nose. Whinnied a few times before she left.

Grandmother didn’t go straight from the grave back to the house she had once shared with Grandfather. First she approached the man who had had the task of bathing Grandfather’s body. A man whose face was half bright and half dark and who would grin from time to time, a bit like Marong. When he laid eyes on Grandmother he swallowed hard.

“What did the old git die of?” asked Grandmother.

“On the night of our Prophet’s birthday three dark-skinned men wearing white shoes forced their way into your husband’s room,” the Corpse Bather began. These white-shod fellows didn’t take a single item of your husband’s property; all they did was ask where you had taken Marong. The neighbors heard your husband shouting something and then the three men went berserk. They dragged your husband to the red stone altar behind the house and slaughtered him. They slit his throat.

“On the night of the anniversary of the death of our Prophet, I dreamt the old git was wearing a red robe and white shoes. He was dancing on a black stone altar in some place I didn’t recognize. I woke up around dawn because Marong kept whinnying and kicking up his legs. Maybe he saw the ghost of his master.”

“And now where have you hidden Marong?”

“I’ve returned him to his owner.”

“A dead man has no need of a horse. “

“Says who? In fact a dead man needs a horse more than those of us who are still alive. Especially for crossing the bridge that people say is like a hair split into seven. Or to run away from the guardian angels of the grave when they get cranky.”

“Don’t make fun of the dead. It’s a sin to ridicule an angel.”

“When he was alive that old bastard made fun of the dead and the living. He even tortured my cat until it died.”

“The two of you never got tired of behaving like kids. Put an end to your hostilities. Forgive him and pray that his soul finds peace in the afterlife.”

“I always tried to forgive him, but I never could. Since he struggled through his final battle, exhausted. But after fighting for a whole night he managed to wipe out his biggest enemy, my own father, and he abducted me. On the night of my nineteenth birthday he took my virginity.”


The Corpse Bather swallowed hard again. He wanted to remember the good times in his life. But Grandmother’s eyes, like the coals of burning tamarind wood, put paid to that idea. Instead, he talked about Grandfather’s children, who had fought bitterly over the inheritance. They were fighting even before Grandfather’s blood was cold. “Not like our Prophet,” he said, “they are obsessed with material and worldly things.”

“Just as I expected,” replied Grandmother. “They’re like a swarm of fire ants circling the carcass of a rooster.”

“You have to douse the ants with kerosene before they attack the carcass and run amok throughout the whole village.”

“Ants do cause problems for both the living and the dead, but I’m not going to annihilate them. There’ll be some other predator that will wipe them out. People call it a food chain, of sorts.”
“I can’t follow your train of thought at all.”

“I can follow your train of thought perfectly well,’ said Grandmother, after the man had swallowed hard for the third time. “At some point in time you will have to bathe the corpse of a woman.”
Before Grandmother took her leave, the Corpse Bather managed to tell her that the road to Grandfather’s house had changed. There were no longer five bends, two to the left and three to the right. It was now straight and covered with asphalt, and there were concrete electric light poles. There was a red guard box in front of the house. It was completed with a picture of a right handed fist hanging on the wall. “Your husband’s children have developed a fondness for singing battle songs,” added the man.

The men of five fingers had taken over grandfather’s house. When Grandmother arrived they were all lounging around the central room, their faces floating amid clouds of smoke. Grandmother said that nothing was more sickening than listening to them argue. They would pierce each other with their twisted tongues, as sharp as rusty nails. That was why they called this activity “martial arts of the tongue”. Their voices were louder than the howling of dogs, echoing as far as the rocky river bank at the edge of the village. A constant spray emanated from their mouths.

“When five fingers unite, a fist is born,” said Thumb, sounding like the leader of some political party.
But to Grandmother they were no different from a gang of thugs planning a robbery. In the adventure stories that her father had told her, Grandmother could recognize the conviction of each member of the gang. It was as if they were chosen people, born on a sacred day and given the task of building heaven on earth. Then they would do things that were risky, incomprehensible even, and would be forever remembered by their children and grandchildren with an overblown sense of pride.

“I know you’re bothered by my presence here. But allow me to say something to this gathering. Although I didn’t give birth to you, I was the wife of your dead father for 19 years. Although I have a right to his legacy, I’m not going to claim a single cent. You can just divide it up amongst yourselves. I only came here to say goodbye, and I’ll never come back again. Thank you for the years that made me resilient, and for a horse with a good heart. You’d better go quickly and fetch Marong from the grave if you don’t want to lose the most important legacy,’ said Grandmother.

“Oh, just as our father predicted, the legacy we’ve been looking for all this time has finally returned,” said Index Finger.

“We don’t need to push it any more…” added Pinkie.

“Yeah, we don’t need to get heavy with the villagers any more to try and find him,” interrupted Thumb.

“But there’s only one Marong and five of us,” said Ring Finger.

“As the oldest, I have the greatest right to Marong,” said Thumb.

“But didn’t you get the biggest share of the inheritance? Why do you get Marong as well?” snarled Middle Finger.

“I’m not only the oldest, I’m also your leader, a replacement for Father,” said Thumb. His booming voice rattled the plates and glasses on the table.

Suddenly the mouths of the four men clamped shut. Grandmother grinned, showing her broken front tooth. Thumb slurped the last of his coffee.

Saying she needed to go to the toilet, Grandmother quietly slipped out of the room. The truth was that she wanted to go to the red stone altar just a few steps away from the well. The splashes of blood at the altar, which they said was the place her husband was slaughtered, had been cleaned off and the colorful flowers on top had begun to develop chocolate-colored blooms. But Grandmother could still smell the aroma of a death surrounded by questions. How could it be that a champion fighter like Grandfather was powerless when confronted by three dark-skinned men wearing white shoes? In his final fight hadn’t he defeated dozens of opponents before finally kidnapping the young Grandmother and taking her off on Marong’s back? Could it be true that the night of the birth and death of the Prophet was unlucky for a champion like Grandfather? Since when had the footpaths underneath the shady bamboo clumps been full of horse manure? Grandmother let that question whirl around in her head like a tornado. Her steps began to falter. The points of the compass around her seemed to be changing places. The sun seemed to be about to set at the base of the jamun tree and it looked as if the little river that she was passing was about to empty into a drainage ditch, and a flock of sparrows flying low in the sky seemed to explode in the goat pen. Then fireworks exploded among the banana palms. Despite all this, she arrived at a coffee shop.
Meanwhile in the central room of Grandfather’s house the debate continued and the Men of Five Fingers hadn’t come to an agreement about who had the right to ride Marong. Eventually they set off for the cemetery. They were very keen to see the horse they’d been looking for these five years past, and which had been the cause of the bitter hostility between them. But when they got to the cemetery they discovered five chestnut stallions. They were identical. Their whinnies sounded virtually the same.
Could they all be Marong?

The four children in the corner of cemetery had lost interest. They were drunk from drinking a jerry can of alcohol. Still chanting “the Java sparrow is the damselfish…ooooohhhh…”

Why were there five identical horses at Grandfather’s grave?

This is a puzzle that, as I tell you this story, has yet to be solved. It was true that in the village there was a man who could reproduce jewelry and double your money; word of his prowess had spread far and wide. But there’d never been any evidence of him duplicating animals, or a pet horse like Marong. There were a few people who’d turned themselves into pigs so they could get rich. And some who became gutter rats so they could spy on a woman bathing. But there had never been anybody wanting to turn themselves into a horse just so they could be tussled over by five crazy men. Almost everyone in the village believed in a certain story in the holy book, which told how way back when there was a community whose members were turned into monkeys because they violated one of God’s prohibitions. But why would God curse someone to become a horse? Maybe you think it was Grandmother who duplicated Marong? You would be disappointed. Rather than answering that question, Grandmother posed a new puzzle.

“Things that are authentic will last forever. Things that are false will crumble like dust. There is a horse carrying a flag.” That was all she said to the people in the coffee shop before she left.
Right up to the day I left for the city and never saw her again, and up to the day of her own death, Grandmother never revealed why she had left those pieces of the jigsaw at Grandfather’s grave and at the coffee shop. What was certain was that her pronouncements excited the curiosity of the gamblers and they fell over themselves trying to come up with the right interpretation.

“This isn’t a gambler’s poem,” one of them said.

“It’s just the raving of a crazy woman,” said another. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Don’t be misled. People like that are very useful,” said a gambler who had been quiet up till then. “We mustn’t make fun of her.”

“I’ve tethered that horse time and again, but nothing has come up,” countered another.
“It just shows that we gamblers have to be patient. I’m convinced there’s something behind what she said, but I just haven’t been able to figure it out.”

Meanwhile back in the cemetery Grandfather’s children were also having a heated debate. The main topic of discussion was the origin of the five horses, which one was the real Marong and which ones were fake. They would have liked to ask Grandmother, but she’d disappeared somewhere.

“She’s screwed us around,” said Pinkie, spitting on the ground.

“I have my doubts about whether she really was our father’s wife. Maybe she’s some imposter sent by our enemies, disguised as Father’s wife,” added Middle Finger.

“Well if she was sent by our enemies, why didn’t she just kill us straight away?” snarled Ring Finger.

“Maybe she didn’t want to kill us, just shame us,” replied Middle Finger.

“We need to remain alert to all sorts of possibilities. Keep your spirits up…” said Thumb.

“We have to keep looking for the real Marong, because he is our father’s most important legacy,” said Pinkie.

“Well we’ve torn the whole village apart and we’ve put the wind up everyone who owns a horse, but it’s all come to naught,” said Ring Finger.

“We need to be very suspicious of all women approaching the age of 40. Especially if they have a broken front tooth and a scar on their cheek,” said Thumb.

“What we have to do is nab our father’s real wife and teach her a lesson for making fun of five true warriors,” added Index Finger.

“Yeah, this happened because we weren’t close enough to our father and his new wife,” said Ring Finger. ‘We never really got familiar with her appearance and her ways.”

“How could we get close to our father? As soon as he married that woman he left us and let mother to die a lonely death,” said Index Finger.

“Okay that’s enough,” said Thumb. “No need to re-hash those hard times again. For now the horses are enough. It’s still important that we find the real Marong. But what is far more important than that is our own struggle. Remember…”

“When five fingers unite a fist is born. Enough to crush a lighthouse wall,” replied Pinkie.

“Yeeeaaah!” chorused the others, punching their fists into the air.

Ever since then Grandfather’s five children would often ride the five chestnut stallions. They called all of them Marong. Towards each evening they would go around the village singing these lines: “When five fingers unite a fist is born. Enough to crush a lighthouse wall. Yeeeaaah…”

Thumb took the lead, holding a pole bearing a big flag. It was red with a picture of a golden fist thrusting upwards. The others thrust swords and machetes into the air. The little kids followed behind, singing and waving their bamboo swords.


Zen Hae was born in Jakarta in 1970. He is an award-winning author of poetry, short stories, and literary criticism. His poetry collection Paus Merah Jambu won the Best Literary Work 2007 award from Tempo magazine and was one of the top five works at the Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2007. He has also worked as a journalist, an infotainment scriptwriter, part-time lecturer, NGO worker, actor and Jakarta Arts Council committee member. Since 2012, Zen Hae has been the publishing manager at Komunitas Salihara.