Short Story
The Boat Thief

© canstockphoto5060472
© canstockphoto5060472

“They bring bad luck to fishermen, right? They must be chased away if they approach the boats.

“Ama, am I really the daughter of a fish?”

“Who called you that, Ripah?!” Ama Bandi was furious, hearing his 15-year-old daughter’s question. His knuckles stiffened, ready to punch someone at any moment.

“The people in the market let their children make fun of me,” Ripah explained. Her face paled when her father—Ama as she called him—filled with rage. Bandi jumped up from his chair, quickly opened the sheath of his knife and took down the machete blade from where it hung.

“Don’t let them concern you. It doesn’t matter to me,” said Ripah, in response to her father’s tantrum.

Ripah’s flat tone made Bandi stop in his tracks, his face surprised, his rage suddenly subdued.

“Why, Ripah?”

Bandi squatted, placing the machete on the floor, then gazed at his daughter: “I’ll defend you if someone mocks you like that.”

“There’s no need. That will only encourage them. It’ll make me even more embarrassed,” said Ripah, wiping her tears.

Bandi’s face was bowed. He drew a deep breath.

“Ripah… there’s no need for you to listen to people’s nonsense. There’s no such thing as the child of a fish. Humans give birth to humans, of course.”

Ama Bandi tried to be kind and invited his daughter to talk.

Ripah immediately stood up, glared at her father, then walked into the kitchen. Bandi got up from his haunches, hung the machete back on its hook and walked to the window. His eyes swept along the edge of the Talaga Besar beach, where the west wind blew fiercely.

It had already been a week since he had last gone to sea—just like most of the other fishermen. Many dared not go down to the sea during the season of the west wind. Yet occasionally, if there was a special reason, some would risk their lives at sea. But Bandi did not want to take such a risk. Ripah was his only child and she wasn’t yet married. His wife had passed away a long time ago, giving birth to Ripah.

When Ripah was still a small baby, Bandi had almost lost his faith on hearing all the gossip people tattled about his wife. Who knows what sort of demon had entered the heart and mind of his wife Salamah, that she would do such a reckless thing.

After giving birth, even before the baby’s placenta had emerged, Salamah had suddenly got up from her bed and jumped out of the house, running for the beach. Bandi had no idea how fast she could move. He did not catch up with his wife; it was too late for him to stop her from plunging into the sea. Her body immediately vanished, swallowed by the huge waves. This also happened right at the height of the west wind.

Bandi suspected his wife had gone crazy thinking about their family’s finances. The long west wind season had made both husband and wife restless. Bandi needed money to pay for Ripah’s birth, but his wife had stopped him from going to sea.

Going forward was impossible, and unfeasible. They were both truly between a rock and a hard place. That is probably why Salamah did not think it through, but instead killed herself in such a deranged manner.

For one full night all the men in the village, including Bandi, went searching for Salamah’s body. The baby was left with the village midwife, who had helped Salamah give birth. By early morning they still hadn’t found Salamah’s body. It was not her body they found near the beach, but a fish: an ikan duyung, behaving strangely.

It was swimming back and forth near the beach. Occasionally it would push half its body to the surface of the water and then make a sound. The people who were looking for Salamah’s body tried to drive it away, but it wouldn’t go. Who knows where the fish had come from.

Bandi had no problem with the fish being there. What concerned him was not the presence of the fish, but the gossip that emerged three days later. None of the male villagers had stopped searching for a week, but neither had the mouths of the village women stopped gossiping.

They had begun to consider the ikan duyung as Salamah’s reincarnation. As time passed the gossip grew wilder and Bandi’s name was also drawn into it. “You can see why their life was difficult. Seems like he married an ikan duyung,” said one woman.

“They bring bad luck to fishermen, right? They must be chased away if they approach the boats. What do you know—Bandi married one instead,” snapped another woman.

Then, they occupied themselves, busily gossiping about it.

Then they began to talk about Salamah’s baby, who had not even been given a name yet. They began to forbid anyone going to see the baby. Don’t want to attract bad luck, they said. If they met Bandi nursing his baby in front of the house, they would pass by hurriedly without saying hello. In fact they didn’t even turn their heads.

It was this that had always worried Bandi. From the beginning, he had always suspected this time would come. Ripah would finally have to face the situation and the old-fashioned attitude of the people around them. Bandi had also tended to believe in this sort of superstition, but since he had learned to read via the Packet-B program, he had slowly discarded many of those superstitions that just did not make sense.

But Ripah. What hope did a girl of her age have, facing the ridicule and gossip of the villagers? What had just happened in the market increased Bandi’s concern.

“Ripah!” Bandi called from the living room.

There was no reply from his daughter’s room. The time for dusk prayers had just passed. Bandi headed for the kitchen. His stomach needed filling. The fragrant smell of vegetables cooked in coconut milk wafting from the kitchen stirred his tastebuds strongly. But Ripah was not in the kitchen. Ah, perhaps the child was fetching water, filling the tub at the back of the house. Bandi decided to eat first. If it got cold, the vegetables would no longer taste good.

He had just devoured half a plate, when something startled him. His blood ran fast. He jumped from his chair, abandoning his food just like that. Without even touching the steps, Bandi jumped down and shouted to his younger brother who, as it happened, lived right next door.

“Bakri…come out! Come out Bakri…!”

Bakri appeared, sticking his head out of the window. “What’s up? Why are you shouting like this so late?”

“Come down! Help me find your niece. Find Ripah! My oars are missing. My boat’s been stolen!” shouted Bandi.

Bakri’s face grew pale. Paying no attention to his wife’s protestations, he too jumped down from his house and ran after Bandi, who was already running towards the beach. Who knew what difficulties his niece was now facing.

Villagers who had also heard Bandi’s shouts came out of their houses. They stopped Bakri, asking him what was going on.

“Bandi’s oars are missing!” Bakri shouted abruptly, running after his older brother.

The village men also grew pale. They did not waste time; they ran after Bakri and Bandi. It was only the village’s menfolk who sympathized with Bandi’s family. They ignored their wives’ requests not to socialize with Bandi.

Arriving at the beach, Bandi immediately went to where the boats were moored. Bakri and two other men gathered dried coconut fronds, weaving them tightly together, folding the ends into two. They made torches, divided them among all the men who came to help. After lighting the torches, they began to comb the beach calling out Ripah’s name repeatedly. Their voices vied with the volume of the breaking waves.

Bandi found Bakri. “My boat’s not at its moorings,” he said anxiously. His face was wet with sweat and his eyes were wild.

“What’s happening?” he asked in a panic.

“Untie some boats and prepare the petromak lanterns. We have to find Ripah this very night!” Bakri ordered. Bandi hurriedly followed his younger brother’s command. He found it difficult to think at this moment. Fortunately his brother was calmer.

As he had sat eating earlier, Bandi’s heart had almost stopped when he saw that his oars were no longer hanging from their hooks. When a fisherman does not go to sea, the oars are hung up in their proper place. Especially now, in the season of the west wind. At this time of year, the boats are moored far back from the tide line. If the water rises, sometimes boats that are not tethered at their moorings will be swept off to sea. Even when moored, if the water reaches them, the waves can still smash one boat against the other.

When Bandi realized his oars were no longer in their place, there was no doubt it was Ripah who had taken them. Oars must be one with their boat. If the oars are missing from their hooks, that is a sign that the boat is missing stolen.

Ripah had pushed the boat to the sea when the waves were at their highest. The teenager did not know what dangers awaited her.

The villagers had already gathered at the beach. They had each brought a lamp so the beach was now bright from their lights. Most of the women’s faces were anxious, seeing their husbands and adult sons side by side, helping Bandi and Bakri follow Ripah out to sea.

Waves occasionally beat hard at the beach, almost overcoming their attempts to launch the boats. Desperately, they held onto the boats, trying to keep them afloat and stop them filling with the seawater that slammed into them repeatedly.

They departed in small groups, three boats at a time. Each boat contained two people. Bandi had already preceded them and was by now far out to sea. Then another group was launched. Bakri was in the third group. The fourth and fifth groups followed. One boat from the fourth group was almost unable to go out after being overturned and struck side-on by a wave.

Fifteen lamps now flickered at sea. The sounds of their calls competed to overcome the fierce roar of the waves. When they arrived at the meeting point, each boat spread out around a radius that slowly grew wider and wider. Now their lamps were like fireflies spreading over the water’s surface.

Bakri had said that if they found Ripah’s boat they should quickly signal with their lamp to the others. It was not just the size of the waves that concerned them but the dozens of reefs to the north of the island and, of course, Ripah’s total lack of experience.

For almost two hours all the boats were spread out, and then a signal was seen in the distance. It seemed one boat had found something. They hoped it was not Ripah’s body or the broken remains of the boat.

On seeing the signal, all the boats slowly approached. Bandi, who was closest to the position of the signaling boat, was the first to draw closer. The man almost broke down in tears on seeing his daughter safe. Ripah’s boat had almost filled with water and her oars were gone. The first fishermen to find Ripah had tied the girl’s boat to theirs and were scooping out the water.

“Ripah…! What’s the matter with you, child? Why did you do this?!” shouted Bandi, trying to question his daughter over the roar of the waves. Ripah just glanced at her father before her eyes went back to combing the surface of the water.As if she was no longer aware of her surroundings.

“That big fish took Ama’s oars,” said Ripah briefly.

“What fish?! Why are you doing this?” asked Bandi again.

“I want to find Ina. My Mother appeared here, near the boat, then she grabbed Ama’s oars and took them away.”

“What are you talking about now?”

Bandi began to lose patience. He shook Ripah’s body to wake her from her reverie.
But Ripah was silent again. Her eyes continued to scan sharply around, trying to penetrate the dark night sea. Now each of the boats had drawn close. Bakri jumped to the boat where Bandi and Ripah were. His hands clutched his niece.

“Ripah, what are you doing?” he asked, his face soft.

Ripah looked at her uncle. Tears suddenly started to fall. Weeping, Ripah struggled to keep looking out to the sea. “I want to look for Ina. Because the people in the market said, my Ina is an ikan duyung and I am her daughter, bringer of bad luck.”

Bakri crumpled. And Bandi fell to his seat, holding his head. Bandi cried for the first time. He had never cried even when his wife went missing 15 years earlier.

“Why do you listen to what those people say? I’ve told you countless times, just listen to your Ama. Your Ama knows more about all this than those people do,” said Bakri, coaxingly.

Ripah shook her head firmly. “No. The people are right. Ina came to me earlier, swimming beside my boat. She pushed the boat to this place, but she grabbed the oars and took them away.”

“No, Ripah. Your Ina is not a fish. No fish can give birth to a human.”

Ripah suddenly turned away from her uncle. Her face showed she was unhappy with what her uncle had just said. Ripah moved to the boat’s edge. As she held it, her eyes kept watch more wildly over the water’s surface.

Bakri drew a heavy breath. He got up and twisted his hand in the air. That was a signal for all the fishermen to return to the beach. This night had already been hard enough for them. They could settle Ripah’s problems on land.

The group of boats slowly broke up and one by one they headed for the beach, Ripah now together with her father in his boat. Her father had borrowed some oars and his boat was tied to the back of Bakri’s.
About 200 meters from the beach, from who knows where it came, an ikan duyung suddenly emerged, swimming to the right of Bandi’s boat. Occasionally it would dive and reappear on the other side. Ripah, who had noticed it first, threw herself into the ocean with abandon. As if she wanted to follow the ikan duyung.

Bandi, who had been caught off-guard, also jumped into the water. But a wave from behind the boat crashed into his body, rolling him, so that he was forced to grab the boat’s outrigger to stay afloat. But Ripah’s body could not be seen. Bandi shouted to Bakri, “Ripah’s jumped into the sea!”

Bandi dived again. Bakri followed, also jumping from the boat. The two of them, older and younger brother, dived over and over again looking for Ripah’s body. The two other fishermen in Bakri’s boat also jumped in to try and help. For several minutes they searched for Ripah, trying to resist the pounding waves. Until finally Bakri gave up.

Bakri pulled at Bandi’s body, trying to float on the waves that pushed the brothers and the two others back towards the beach. Bandi submitted. He let Bakri drag his body towards land. On the sand, he wept.

For the next four days, the people were still searching for Ripah. But just like her mother before, Ripah was never seen again.

Since that day, Bandi often spent his afternoons at the water’s edge, sitting on his moored prow. His eyes continuously sweep the water’s surface, as if trying to find the tracks of his two sweethearts. When his younger brother, or other people, ask him to come home, Bandi’s face is expressionless.

He says “I’m guarding my boat so the fish don’t steal it.”

ama = Father, in the language of the Moronene people.
ikan duyung = A type of dolphin, sometimes believed to be a mermaid.
ina = Mother, in the language of the Moronene people.


Ilham Q. Moehiddin was born on the island of Kabaena, near Sulawesi, in 1977. He is a prolific writer of short stories, novels, essays and travelogues. Starting his career as a journalist, he also founded KendariTV, the first local TV station in Sulawesi, as well as The Indonesian Freedom Writers group (also editing IFW Writer’s Digest e-Magz) and the Komunitas Settung writers’ group (in 2010). His novel Garis Merah di Rijswijk (Red Line in Rijswijk) was selected as the best novel at the Sayembara Novel Republika 2012.