The House of Rain
At first they were surprised to learn that Narpati called it the House of Rain. Because they themselves had never seen the water dripping from its roof
Narpati went to the House of Rain for the first time when she was five years old. It had been the fifth day of the dry season. Her mother had woken her early, at the first crow of the cock. She hadn’t bathed because the dry air was still too chilled; her mother had just wiped her face with water from the half-empty tank. Her father must have forgotten to draw water from the well the previous evening. Narapati had left the house carried in her mother’s arms, her eyes still squeezed tightly shut, wearing a white blouse, her hair done up in two pigtails. For some reason her father didn’t go with them—who knows why.
Perhaps the House of Rain was three hours away from home, perhaps five. It was hard to tell, and Narpati couldn’t remember clearly. By the time she had opened her eyes they were already under the sloping roof of a pendopo.1) Perhaps her mother had carried her down from the pendopo, the outdoor pavilion, to the house. Only one thing stuck firmly in Narpati’s memory: the water that continually dripped down from the eaves of the roof. Narpati loved the rain, or anything else that had to do with water. Perhaps she chose water because she hated the dry season, the dust—her eyes too often smarting where specks of dust got stuck behind her eyelids, and her feeling of pity when she saw her father heading far into the mountains in search of water.
As soon as she had seen the dripping water she called that place the House of Rain. Because from the moment she arrived until the moment she left, it was as if the roof had been blanketed with a veil of water. It reminded her of the mosquito net that her father used to put up as she was about to go to sleep, its expanse a bit damaged here and there with holes.
Her mother told her this was the house of her older sister, and then introduced her to her Bude, her elder aunt. Her hair was white and her face resembled the face of Narpati’s mother. Narpati didn’t remember her name exactly, she only recalled that her mother had then hand-fed her red rice, pecel made with turi blossoms from the scarlet wisteria, steamed amaranth, green beans and crispy peanut crackers with tiny salted fish cooked into them. After she had eaten Narpati spent some time under the eaves of the roof, playing in the water and collecting kamboja flowers to take home to her father. After that, her mother had called her to go home. The last thing she did was to kiss her aunties’hand. She remembered that these wrinkled hands were fragrant with the scent of the cloves and leaves used in making betel quid.
It had been five months now since Narpati’s father left. Her mother said he’d gone to look for more wood to make the tables and chairs someone had ordered. Narpati felt lonely and abandoned. Her father always found so many games for their play. He would make toy cars from the peels of Bali grapefruit, or necklaces from the stems of cassava and he often played hide-and-seek with her. Narpati liked best to hide in the cleft of a randu tree that was big enough to hold her whole body. Once she had even fallen asleep while hiding in the deep belly of the tree. The air was fresh there, and she often heard whispering like she had heard at the House of Rain, a whispering that reminded her of the sound of the spike-fiddle that her father had played when the moon was full.
Now Narpati never heard her father playing the rebab anymore, and never found a friend who was as much fun to play with. Her mother didn’t like to play. She would spend her time reading from the bundles of lontar-palm texts that she kept in the back room. Narpati wished her father would come back soon. But when she asked her mother about him, she was silent, as if she hadn’t heard Narpati’s question.
That same night, drifting into sleep, Narpati thought she heard her father’s voice. She awoke strartled and saw her mother sitting on the edge of the bed gazing at her.
“We have to leave, Nar”.
“Where to, mother?”
“To your auntie’s house. She’s waiting for us.”
Narpati was happy that finally she was going back to the House of Rain. Since her first trip there two years ago she had often dreamed of the house. Strange. As if a long concealed memory had suddenly opened up again, as if she had once lived there for a long time.
But she had never even stayed there overnight, only visited—and only one time at that. Perhaps when she had been just a baby. But when asked, her mother said that she had never ever taken Narpati there before.
Outside the full moon was concealed by fog. The silence felt even more corrosive. All that could be heard was the clatter of hooves as the carriage driver urged his horse onwards. Her mother was silent, Narapati too. She wanted to keep track of the route to the House of Rain. The first time she’d travelled there she’d fallen asleep. Now with the eyes of an older child she wanted to memorize the way there, even though it was difficult with the full moon blanketed in fog.
As dawn began to break, Narpati spotted the House of Rain. She could see that it was set into a bend in the road that lay below them. The road turned downhill, so that the driver of the carriage had to pull on the lead reins to slow the horse’s pace. From the carriage Narpati could see the roof of the House of Rain still dripping water. She felt impatient to play in the water that trickled from the eaves of the roof.
When they arrived Narpati could see that her aunt was already waiting in the pendopo. Her white hair was spread loosely around her shoulders, like the beautiful fairy she had once seen among the clumps of bamboo at the back of the house. That fairy had smiled, with a smile just like her aunt’s. Warm and comforting. Narpati felt sleepy, sensing her small body being passed from her mother’s arms into someone else’s hands. They must have been the hands of her aunt. She felt herself being carried to a room that was fragrant with the scent of jasmine. Dimly, she heard her mother taking her leave.
“Sister, I have to go and find my husband. I am leaving Narpati with you. I know that it’s time for her to be with you now. Her mother’s voice sounded hoarse and pained. Narpati wanted desperately to open her eyes, to rush over to mother and embrace her, wrapping herself around her mother’s body, which had become so sickly since Narpati’s father had left. But the scent of jasmine continued to draw her deeper and deeper into sleep.
Narpati was now nine years old. It had been two years since there had been any news from her mother. But every time Narpati asked about her mother and father her aunt just said that they were fine. If they were fine, why didn’t they come for her? It wasn’t that she didn’t like her aunt. She was happy enough staying at the House of Rain. There were so many interesting things there, and she had begun to find some friends who lived not far from her aunt’s home.
There were five children who lived nearby, three of them nearly the same age as Narpati. They often came to the House of Rain. As soon as they finished eating they’d come over and invite Narpati to play. At first they hadn’t wanted to go to the House of Rain. They prefered to invite Narpati to play in the lake ten minute’s walk away. Once Narpati had asked Rusdi, one of her friends, why they didn’t like to play at the House of Rain. The yard there was large, with plenty of hiding trees for playing hide-and-seek. According to Rusdi, their parents had forbidden the children to play there. Rusdi didn’t know why. They had only found the courage to introduce themselves to Narpati after seeing her talking so often to the trees. They figured she must be lonely.
At first they were surprised to learn that Narpati called it the House of Rain. Because they themselves had never seen the water dripping from its roof. Finally her aunt had told Narpati to take hold of each of their heads, one by one. First she chose Rusdi, who said he thought he heard the sound of drops of water falling to the ground. Then, slowly, he began to see the water. After Rusdi, Narpati held each of their heads with her hands and they too began to be able to see the water. After that, they liked to play there. Her aunt also taught them how to pick asoka blossoms, pluck out the stamens and lick the nectar that gathered at their base.
They began to be able to hear as well the voices that often gathered round the breadfruit trees in the corner of the yard. Subtle voices, often no more than a whisper. Wulan, Rusdi’s younger sister once even fell asleep at the base of the breadfruit tree. She said the voices there made her sleepy. In her slumber Wulan dreamed of a colorful rainbow fog that descended from the hills and hovered above the House of Rain. As Wulan told that story Narpati’s Aunt Kanti said nothing. But not long afterwards she went into her kitchen, made red rice porridge, and ordered us all to eat.
After Wulan’s dream, Narpati was often woken in the middle of the night. She would go out and look for her aunt and find her sitting in the yard with her hair spread loosely around her shoulders. Narpati didn’t know what her aunt was saying. But she could see from her lips that she was speaking to someone or something. There were two orbs of light in front of her aunt. One was purple in color, the other blue. Narpati felt a strange urge, she sensed something familiar about the two lights, she longed to be with them. She didn’t know why, but she felt a powerful urge to embrace those two orbs of light.
After the appearance of the two lights, Narpati’s friends didn’t come to play anymore at the House of Rain. Once, Narpati found the courage to go to Rusdi’s house. Rusdi came out with Wulan to meet her at the fence out front. Neither of them invited Narpati to come in.
“Sister” said Wulan, “I can’t come to play at your house anymore, even though I really want to sleep under the breadfruit tree again. It’s so cool and soothing there.”
Wulan looked frightened as she spoke these words. She kept looking over her shoulder towards the house, as if there was someone there watching the three of them.
Rusdi explained that their parents wouldn’t let them play with Narpati any longer. They were forbidden to even visit the House of Rain. Rusdi also said that all of their other friends had been warned by their parents never to visit Narpati again.
When she got home Narpati asked Aunt Kanti what had happened to change things. But she hardly expected a response. She knew that her aunt was not the talkative type. Even when she asked of her parents’ whereabouts the only reply she’d get was a smile and a plea that she be patient.
“Your parents are always close by, Nar” said Aunt Kanti, while stroking Narpati’s head.
Of course, Narpati didn’t believe her. She often wished her parents would come back for her—she would run outside at the sound of every passing carriage, hoping against hope that she would see her mother and father. But to no avail. Eventually she filled her time with studying all the things that her aunt could teach her. She could make a leaf move on its own, or light the oil lamp in the yard by simply blowing air in the direction of its wick.
Now that her friends had stopped visiting, Narpati vowed that she would force her aunt to answer the questions she had never asked before. About the grown-ups who had forbidden her friends from visiting the House of Rain, about the nights of the full moon when she had seen her aunt flying among the trees in the yard, about why she could always guess without fail where her friends were hiding when they played hide-and-seek, or why thunder would begin to rumble every time her tears gushed forth.
But it wasn’t an answer that she got from her aunt. The very evening she had come home from visiting Rusdi’s house, her aunt had told her to pack her clothes for a trip. She had already set aside two sheets of jarik batik cloth and had told her to put her clothes into them to make a traveling bundle. Narpati couldn’t fit much into the bundle, but then she really didn’t have many clothes. Her aunt also packed her own clothing and a few other things. Narpati saw her put a gold jewelry case and ten pieces of paper money into her bundle. Then, after the sun had set, Narpati followed in her aunt’s footsteps as they left the House of Rain.
It was strange. The moment they left the pendopo, Narpati noticed that water was no longer dripping from the roof. She looked up towards her aunt. At that moment she noticed how tired and worn-out she appeared. Her thin body looked so frail where it was bound by her wrap of black striped lurik cloth. Carrying an oil lamp for light the two of them went on, following the path that led to the hills above. There were no stars out that night, perhaps because it was overcast. If that was so, maybe the first rains of the year were about to fall, the rains that the people of the village had so long prayed for.
When they had almost reached the peak of the hill Narpati turned back, trying to catch a final glimpse of the House of Rain. But what she saw there was the glare of many torches surrounding that house with its pyramid-shaped roof. From where she stood the torchlight looked like so many fireflies, just like the ones she had often caught on the shores of the lake. Suddenly one of the fireflies touched the house, and she could see the House of Rain turning yellow-red in the distance.
The night should have been cold. But from up on the hill Narpati could feel the parched wind of the dry season rushing hotly upwards from the House of Rain as it was slowly swallowed up by the fireflies in the distance. Narpati didn’t know when they could go back again to the House of Rain. She wanted to be able to wait there still, where her mother and father might come for her again. Where she had seen her mother for the last time. Where she had found new friends, friends who could see everything that she could see, who could feel everything that she felt.