Short Story We Tear Down Our House

© canstockphoto5060479
© canstockphoto5060479

Of course, the house that we’re now tearing down wasn’t built all in one go by our grandparents. The first thing they did was to set up a frame of wood..

All afternoon, in the searing heat, we took down the roof tiles one by one, after first removing the windows, doors, trellises and wallboards of the house that Grandfather and Grandmother had built some 90 years ago. We had decided to tear down the house we had inherited and replace it with something new. We had in mind a house in the “Spanish” style that had recently spread like wildfire throughout our area. It would be a house with one large door in front, windows of darkened glass on the left-hand side of the door—no awnings, naturally.

On the right-hand side of the front door we would build a wall covered with shiny ceramic tiles, with darkened glass for the top section instead of the usual lattice-work opening for ventilation. On the verandah we would install two solid concrete columns with carved finials in the Jepara style, while the surface of the floor would of course be tiled with glistening ceramic. The house wouldn’t be large in front, but would rather extend to the rear, with a large family dining room in addition to the parlor for greeting guests, and two bedrooms adjoining a large den where the family could take its leisure.

We imagined installing a 21-inch TV, complete with everything needed for listening to music. Behind the house we would construct a kitchen in the latest style. Wooden cabinets would be fastened to the walls above a broad ceramic counter with drawers beneath the counter, which would be fashioned of sturdy plaster faced with tiles of white ceramic, each of them more than a hand span in width. On the right hand side of the kitchen, we would make a space for our garage, which would be separated from the cooking area with a wall. On the other side of the parking space we would build a modern bathroom illuminated by a 70-watt bulb, its floor covered with small blue tiles. All the cement walls of the house would be painted with factory-bought paint of the best quality, not with whitewash. The roof tiles would be ceramic, painted with waterproof red paint that would send off a brilliant light when struck by the rays of the bright tropical sun. Perhaps our house would take form as a new kind of being altogether; doubtless, whoever came to visit would be wide-eyed with astonishment. And when they went inside they might feel like they were in a space-station, especially when they saw the arms of our TV antenna jutting up as if reaching for the sky.

That the three of us had decided unanimously to replace the old house with a new one wasn’t so much because we wanted to keep up with the latest popular style in our area; it was more because we wanted to erase all traces of the home that had belonged to our grandfather and grandmother. This was already long after we’d hired a crew to bring their chainsaws and cut down the ten coconut palm trees that lined our property. Those trees must have been a good deal older than we were. With their crowning fronds some 75 meters high swaying majestically, whenever the wind blew they seemed to be calling out the stories we had heard so often from our parents, my mother’s relatives and our neighbors—stories that also came to mind when we looked at the family photo album from 1967.

We feel we’re not here in the year 2006 whenever we open our family photo album. The black shadows that leap from those pages make us want to burn down our house and everything else on our one-hectare property. Burn everything and replace it with a 70-storey skyscraper. But that’s impossible. All we can afford to do is to build a house in the Spanish style, cut down all the coconut palms in the yard and replace them with a garden and ten Casuarina pines. With the sharp, serrated shape of their elegant branches, the pines will remind us that we are living now in the year 2006, not in 1967.

Of course, the house that we’re now tearing down wasn’t built all in one go by our grandparents. The first thing they did was to set up a frame of wood that had been felled in some forest, who knows where. Then they added walls of plaited bamboo, a double-leaf door of teak, windows with lathe-turned wooden uprights instead of glass, and a roof of glazed earthenware tiles purchased from their neighbors in the village. Each of the uprights had been provided with a base of river stone from the Ewuh river that flows to the east of our house. The first stage of building must have been around 1930, before the Japanese had arrived with their rifles and bayonets to plunder the village rice fields, forcing people to eat cassava root with the chopped cores of banana tree trunks as a vegetable. We ourselves have never tasted that kind of food but, according to our father, it seemed really tasty back then.

The second stage of building the house began in 1957. Mother once told us that they had begun the renovations at the suggestion of our grandfather, just two years before he passed away. He died from shortness of breath, according to Mother. The middle portion of the house was opened up and the base strengthened with river stone and foundation walls made of a mixture of river sand, red sandstone and white quicklime. They then built walls of bricks, laid out in a longitudinal pattern instead of the transverse pattern that we see in masonry of more recent construction. The walls of our grandparents’ house were thick and very strong. The leaves of the doors and windows were made from strong teak that was nearly five centimeters thick. They left the front part of the house intact with its walls of plaited bamboo, but added boards of split teak to the front wall. Their house didn’t extend to the back like our new house will, but was rather shaped like the letter L, with the front part of the house forming the foot of the L.

Grandmother and granddad’s house was big. As we see can still see today, it was the largest house in the area. A house of solid walls, painted with whitewash every year just before the start of the Lebaran holiday. With each whitewash the house seemed to awaken from a long sleep, to put on new clothes and make ready to greet whatever guest might arrive at the door. It seemed as if it was only during the holidays that our house became happy and ready to face things with the annual cheerfulness. Sometimes we fastened young coconut palm fronds to the front of the house. Their dangling profile suggested hands that waved to everyone who passed by—as if to say, “Hey, come on in. I’m happy you’ve come by to visit. I have no cares in the world today.”

That was true of the inhabitants of the house too. During the Lebaran holiday we all seemed to be reborn. We looked at each other anew, as if we couldn’t remember at all what had happened yesterday, the day before or the day before that. We put on new shirts and blouses, though they weren’t the best that could be purchased in our area. New sandals and trousers too. Even the food was colorful and exciting. When it wasn’t the holidays we often awoke from our sleep wishing there would be something new and different on the breakfast table, and smiles all round, instead of seeing the depressing faces of these accursed people who seemed ready to gobble us up at any moment.

Yes, when we were around twelve years old our house was often visited by people who terrorized us, though they were relatives from our mother’s side of the family. They would drop by without any advance notice and ask for all kinds of things from Mother that she had to prepare for them that very day. If she didn’t manage to do what they wanted right away they would yell and scream at us, and if she failed to give them what they wanted they would slap her around, as if she wasn’t even a human being.
We had no idea what was wrong with those people, especially the man we called Pak Min, who was one of Grandmother’s sons. If we met him by accident in front of our house or in the street we would pay him our humble respects, so that people around us would notice that we still respected our mother’s siblings. Or was it actually because we were afraid he would slap us around too?

Before our grandmother died she had been the main target. I can’t count the times Pak Min yelled and screamed her. I don’t know whether it was because she was afraid of being hauled over the coals again or something else, but she got into the habit of pulling out her savings or jewelry and just handing them over to him. After that, without saying another word, he would practically leap up from his seat, head for the bike he’d parked in the front yard and pedal off somewhere, who knows where. Grandmother would just take a deep breath and force a smile, inviting us outside to clear the grass that sprouted up here and there through the clean-swept clay surface of our front yard. Grandmother wouldn’t say a word the whole time she was clearing the yard of grass, twisting out the crablike roots with deft movements of her powerful hands. Then she would pile up the grass on the west side of the house and burn it, along with the dried up leaves of her banana and rambutan fruit trees. To our eyes, whenever Grandmother was burning grass and leaves she always appeared solemn, as if she were burning up her anger at the behavior of her son.
In our hearts we didn’t call him Pak Min. We called him the Butcher. For since the storm that broke in 1965 he had become the chief executioner in our area. According to one of Mother’s other brothers, one night the Butcher had been visited by several men with heads clad in black hoods with slits cut into them for their eyes. They were covered from head to foot in black. Who knows what he was thinking, but the Butcher went along with them happily.

He had gone down the steps of the house and out into the darkness of the night, along the road that led to the north. Our mother and grandmother cried when the Butcher went with those men, even after they’d done their best to stop him. They cried to the point of rolling around on the floor while their four little daughters, who witnessed everything, shivered in the corners of the room. By then, our grandfather had died and our grandmother was regularly targeted by their sons, especially the Butcher.

That’s how it was in the second half of the 1960s, when men like the Butcher were on the rampage. Many people met their death at his hands. When Grandmother heard the news about what he was doing her only reaction was a stunned silence. It became very hard to get her to say anything at all. She was rarely at home, but liked to go out at night—who knows where. Sometimes it would be two days before she would return home with her blouse disheveled and her body giving off an unpleasant odor. Every time our mother or one of her sisters said that the kitchen supplies had run out, Grandmother would fall silent, or she would scream: “If you want to eat, go out and search for food yourselves. If not, maybe you should just drop dead!”

So our mother, who was still small at that time, would go in search of food along with her three sisters. They would go down to the edge of the Ewuh river to look for chili peppers and other vegetables that grew wild there after the rice fields and gardens had been left untended for so long. If Grandmother and the girls couldn’t get what they needed that way they would usually ask for help from the neighbors on either side. At the same time, Grandmother’s two sons came home less and less frequently, and if they did come home briefly it was to carry off things that they could pawn or sell. It was getting very hard to get Grandmother to talk calmly about anything without risking an explosion of anger. Our mother finally dropped out of middle school when someone made off with the bicycle she pedalled to school for two hours each day and never brought it back. All Mother could do about it was cry.

Yes, Mother could only cry. Cry like she did when she was beaten up by the Butcher. All we could do was to keep silent, and to keep on being silent. Even though we were still little, our hearts hardened towards the Butcher. Of course by that time he wasn’t slaughtering any more. But it seemed that he couldn’t stand it for very long if he didn’t hear the sound of slashing and slicing that he had had in his ears for weeks on end during the storm that followed the events of late 1965. The slashing sound of his machete had sunk profoundly into his inner self, taking deep root and finding a home there.

By the 1980s, whenever the sound of slashing machetes—the sound you could hear every night in the second half of the 1960s—flashed into his mind, the Butcher would become distraught. He would strike out at anything that got in his way, until the sound of slashing that blazed in his dark heart faded away. If mere brawling wasn’t enough to muffle the sound of slashing within him, he would turn to his wife and children or, if they weren’t at home, he would visit his relatives, his female relatives in particular. And he would find great pleasure in listening to the sounds of his own kith and kin moaning in pain.

At times like those it seemed like our hearts were going to split wide open. But Mother told us not to do anything to the Butcher, despite all that he’d done to her. Mother said we had to put an end to the chain of vengeance, to stop it once and for all, that we should be happy if we could just break the chain. We didn’t know what was really going on inside her when she said that to us, one night as she lay stretched out in the room at the center of the house, gazing up into space. The color of the evening sun had begun to tinge the horizon, and the birds had flown up into the sky. The fronds of the coconut palms were etched with gold at their tips. Mother took one last gasping breath. And then she was gone forever.

Mother had been the last of that generation of her family. She didn’t leave anything to us except the hope that we would live our lives in peace. Yes, in the end, we could forgive the family of the Butcher, who had made Mother’s life a torture for as long as she’d lived. But we couldn’t stand it when the memories that hovered in that house began to grow stronger and disturb our dreams. Until they crept into our every thought like tongues of flame in the dry season.

We weren’t afraid of the shadows of memory, but we feared that we wouldn’t be able to control ourselves at those moments when images of the Butcher rose up in our minds. Perhaps we would remain silent, or perhaps we would pick up some object and swing it at whoever happened to be nearby. We didn’t want those images to appear again, and so we voted unanimously to tear down that house that was nearly a hundred years old and replace it with a new one in the Spanish style. We didn’t know what would happen when the new house was finished. Perhaps we would lose all sight of the past, since not one of the furnishings in the new house had been handed down from our parents. We would buy everything new and arrange the house in a way completely unlike anything we had experienced before. We would be in a new space and would create a new past as well.
 

Imam Muhtarom was born in 1977 in Blitar; he graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Airlangga University, Surabaya in 2001. He writes fiction, book reviews, literary criticism, translations, as well as art and theatre reviews; he is also a fine art curator. He is one of the founders and curators of Borobudur Writers and Cultural Festival. His short stories have been published extensively in national journals and newspapers, including the 10 Best Short Stories Bali Post and 10 Best Short Stories Padang University and Deakin University, and in the anthologies Gonjong 1, Potret. He has published two books: Rumah yang tampak Biru oleh Cahaya Bulan (A House that looks Blue in the Moonlight, 2007) and Kulminasi; Teks, Konteks, dan Kota (Culmination: Text, Context and City, 2013).