Short Story
Selling the Anteater

© canstockphoto5688116
© canstockphoto5688116

Running out of patience, I grabbed the sack from his hands. He just stared at me with a beseeching look.

We finally found the anteater there, rolled into a ball under the 16 inch pipe, next to a small drain where the water had pooled, blackened by oil pollution. The creature had nowhere else to go. For a radius of several hundred meters around it there was nothing but wasteland, all that remained after the burning of the jungle still billowing with smoke.

“Bring me the sack, Jang,” I called to Ujang, my five year old brother.

Ujang remained silent. He stood about two meters behind me with trembling hands still holding the sack. He was almost in tears. I knew he was hungry because since our father had gone we hadn’t eaten a thing. But it wasn’t just hunger that was making him cry.

“Get a move on, Jang!”

Running out of patience, I grabbed the sack from his hands. He just stared at me with a beseeching look.
“That’s Little Ball,” he whimpered, and burst into tears.

I approached the anteater and pushed it into the sack with the aid of a stick. Then I tied up the sack with a vine and slung it over my shoulder. The anteater didn’t even try to bite me or escape.

“Come on, let’s go.”

Ujang didn’t move. Now he was sitting on the pipe wiping his tears with a corner of his shirt. The pipe, an oil pipe, was starting to heat up as midday approached.

“Daddy…” he sobbed.

“Daddy’ll be home soon,” I said

“I want something to eat! I’m hungry…” Ujang’s voice trailed off.

“Okay, we just have to sell the anteater and then we’ll buy some rice.”

For no good reason that I could see, Ujang burst into tears again.

“I don’t want to sell him! I don’t want to! That’s Little Ball…”

“Get down and stop crying or I’ll give you a slap!”

I was getting angry. Partly due to hunger and partly due to irritation because I couldn’t explain to Ujang what was really going on.

Finally he got down. He scooped up a handful of black sikaduduk berries and, putting them in his mouth, walked off ahead of me still crying. I did the same, taking a handful myself and eating them to ease the hunger pangs. They tasted bitter, as bitter as we felt.

Then we headed together towards the main road to sell the anteater, which was beginning to wriggle around in the sack on my back.

The night before, our father had been arrested by the police because he had stolen some oil palm fruit. He had been forced to steal because we had nothing to eat. Our mother had died three years previously when she was run over by a truck from the oil drilling company on her way home from the fields. We received a small compensation payment, but to cover her hospital and other costs, Dad was forced to sell our garden land to the plantation company at a very low price. I was five years old at this time, when poverty struck like the devil. The circumstances of our mother’s accident were never investigated or brought before the courts. The oil continued to flow and the oil palms continued to bear fruit, while we slowly starved to death because we had nothing left.

We emerged from the plantation track and onto the main road. It was a dirt road, hemmed in by the oil palm plantation on the left and the oil pipe on the right. A small stream flowed along one side, its water poisoned black. This was the road the drilling company trucks and the contractors’ vehicles used. It was also the official road of the oil palm plantation company because their trees were planted on the oil fields owned by the drilling company. I had no idea which company had the most authority over this road. What I did know was that beneath the earth where I stood was enough crude oil to fill millions of barrels, while on top of it were tons of very valuable palm oil. I also knew that we didn’t feel the benefits of any part of either the oil from below the ground or the oil from above the ground. We were mere onlookers, watching as people endlessly reaped the bounty of our land.

One day I’d seen a truck driver get out and bargain for ananteater. The price reached Rp 100,000. They say that anteater oil can be used as a powerful medicine.

We stopped in a fairly open spot with clear visibility. I told Ujang to sit on a log and guard the anteater while I took my shirt off and waved it at vehicles as they flashed by, calling out “Anteater! Anteater!”
I couldn’t tie the anteater and hold it up so it could be seen because Ujang was sure to start crying again. To him it was Little Ball, the anteater that played with us every morning. I wasn’t sure if it really was Little Ball or not, because anteaters always look the same everywhere. But Ujang could tell the difference at a glance.

“Tie the sack up, Jang, or you’ll get bitten,” I shouted, when he opened the sack for a peek inside.
“It’s Little Ball!” His voice was hoarse from crying.

“Shut up!” I shouted, as a truck flashed past.

“Anteater! Anteater!” There was no response, only the dust thrown up by its wheels, obscuring our vision.
I didn’t care whether it was Little Ball or not. We were hungry and what we needed was rice, even if it meant selling our little friend. But to Ujang, Little Ball was the anteater that came to play with him every morning. Maybe the anteater ended up lost in our yard because its home had been destroyed by the burning of the forest for clearing new plantations. Ujang had found it by accident and was amazed when he saw how the creature could roll itself up like a ball. Then a friendship grew. For Ujang, the anteater was his only playmate while our father and I were in the forest searching for scarce honey.

Yet, since our father’s arrest yesterday and knowing for certain he wouldn’t be coming home, the anteater was the only way we could survive for a few days. Because for sure no one was going to employ me, a child of eight. Not the oil company and not the plantation company either.

It hadn’t always been like this for us. According to my grandfather’s stories, he used to be well off. He was a friend of nature and lived from its bounty. We could catch fish in any river, even in the swamp. There was no one claiming that this land was theirs or that that land was theirs. We lived from the fruits of nature. Then the oil wells were sunk here and collection points set up and the pipes began to flow with lucrative oil. The rivers became polluted, the fish died, the prawns died; everything in the rivers perished. We were forced to farm in the swamp, at least when it wasn’t dried out. Then came those clever people who declared: “this land is more suited to oil palms” and so the planting began. Our forests were burnt down to clear new land. Our land was declared the property of the state. We ignorant folk were tricked and swindled. Our land was stolen from us and over time we became visitors in our own home. We could do nothing but watch as the oil and plantation companies reaped the bounty of our land and divided up the proceeds between themselves, under our very noses, while we starved, went naked, and almost died.
The sun rose higher in the sky. Now you couldn’t touch the oil pipes for the heat. The oil flowing inside them gushed along to the rhythm of the rustling of oil palm fronds in the wind.

Ujang was nodding off, still clutching the sack. His eyes were still streaming with tears. Perhaps because of hunger or perhaps because Little Ball was about to be sold.

Soon I saw a flash in the distance, with dust churned up beyond it. Soon it became clear that it was a big truck. I stood in the middle of the road waving my shirt, hoping the driver wasn’t blinded by the light, and wouldn’t plough into me just as had happened to our mother.

The truck stopped, dust billowing everywhere and filling my mouth. It tasted bitter, as bitter as the grim expression on the driver’s face as he stared at me.

“I’m selling an anteater”

He stared at me for some time and spat on to the ground, his spittle pooling like an oasis in the desert. The truck’s engine was still rumbling.

“Tell me, what use is an anteater?” he asked, not really interested.

“For medicine. A powerful medicine, sir,” I said, as I’d heard the man who’d sold one before say.
He laughed and spat again, shifting the truck in gear to get going again.

“Wait! Wait, sir!” I climbed up to the side window and pleaded with him. I was almost weeping with despair. I’d been knocked back a dozen times and this truck was my last hope.

“I’m not lying,” I pleaded. “You can have the anteater for just Rp 100,000. If you sell it in town you’re sure to get more for it. My little brother and I haven’t eaten since yesterday. Give us something so we can buy some food and you can have the anteater.”

He hesitated. Talk of easy money made him pause to think. You could hear his foot depress the clutch as he turned to me saying: “Let me see this creature.”

I was overjoyed, already thinking of the half kilo of rice for making a meal.

“Jang, bring over the sack. Hurry up!”

Ujang sprang awake. He ran towards me with the sack over his shoulder. I grabbed it from him impatiently, but it felt too light. It was empty! I went pale, incapable of uttering a word.

“Where’s the anteater?” the driver demanded, with a steely gaze.

“It was here just now…” I stammered.

He spat again. “Just as I thought! You’re just begging and telling lies,” he said and quickly released the clutch pedal. The six-cylinder engine roared into life and the truck took off.

I was left standing motionless in a cloud of dust next to Ujang, whose head was bowed by a combination of guilt and fear. “I let him go!” he mumbled. “He was Little Ball…”

Tears overwhelmed me. When I looked over to where Ujang had just been sitting I saw the anteater. It jumped up, turned around for a moment, then disappeared behind some bushes under an oil palm.

“I’m hungry!” Ujang said again.

I didn’t reply. All I could think of was when we’d be eating again, and the sight of the truck disappearing down the road.

Olyrinson was born in Payakumbuh, West Sumatra in 1970. He is a teacher and private sector employee, as well as a prolific and award-winning author of short stories, novels, and screenplays. His short story anthology Sebutir Peluru Dalam Buku (A Bullet in a Book, 2011) narrates the struggle of a poor community against the major corporations that exploit their land.