People speak of her only in whispers

Excerpt from Apple & Knife by Intan Paramadith

Photo by Trang Nguyen on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Apple & Knife by Intan Paramaditha, translated by Stephen J. Epstein.

‘What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?’

Gita sees the woman for the first time. Her face is hard, cheekbones high, jaw sharp. Her sallow, mottled skin does little more than mask her wispy frame. Cheap batik is draped haphazardly around her waist, and a black kebaya and black headscarf render her even more sombre. As soon as she draws near, Gita catches an odd, pungent odour. It’s not human sweat but fragrant cloves from a distant realm, incense for departed souls, stiff bodies bathed in flowers before being placed into the grave.

No scent of life wafts from the abode. Its distance from the city and its seclusion should have freshened the house but the owner cares little for vegetation. Brown curtains dangle in the windows. Branches of frangipani shade the yard, making the sun reluctant to greet the weeds spreading on the ground. A dark fence, peeling and rusty, serves as a barrier between the house and the outside world.

Like a snail in a shell, shunning interaction.

And rightly so. The woman now in front of Gita is notorious in her hometown, which is nestled up against the cliffs of Cadas Pangeran. People speak of her only in whispers. Sumarni. A witch. A sorceress allied with the devil. A second Mak Lampir, the evil conjurer. Yes, Lord, may she not find forgiveness.

Gita realises that the woman is waiting for her to answer.

‘I’m doing research,’ says Gita, trying to conceal her nervous ness, and to convey and attitude of respect. ‘Of course, your name and place of residence will be disguised.’

The wrinkled woman squints and regards her coldly. ‘That is necessary.’

Her eyes probe, trying to confirm that Gita hasn’t smuggled in a camera or some other recording device. Maybe the women has lost a substantial sum buying off the police. Or maybe she is irritated because most visitors take advantage of her. Recently, a TV crew came from Jakarta to interview her as a source for a crime drama. They broadcast her later in blurred black and white, masking her eyes with a thick strip. The episode’s title? ‘The Dark Side of Women.’

Gita enquires delicately about the woman’s profession. What it is that she does. How long she has been… practising it.

Embarrassed, Gita does not utter the phrase that dances in her thoughts: disposing of life. It sounds like a mantra of the damned.

The old woman’s lips are clamped shut, even though she has already worked out the situation. She knows what people expect of her. The mark is on her forehead, a bright red stamp that will never disappear.

‘I’ve been doing this for a long time,’ she says, slowly and heavily. ‘Maybe thirty years. Maybe more.’

It’s as if time is gnawed away by termites here. The hours melt into the night, and the tick of the clock no longer matters.

‘Why do they do it?’

‘They don’t want to, child, but nature punishes those who give in to lust. They can’t control themselves: their eyes, their fingers, their breath, their womb. They are like leaves that yellow, dry up, and fall to the ground.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Ah, no one tries to understand.’

‘Why do you do it?’

Sumarni’s lips turn up slightly at the corners. She seems almost to smile, but no smile is reflected in her grey eyes. Gita watches as those eyes become the sky. Clouds gather within, they let loose rain, but no thunder.

‘Child, for the sake of one life, sometimes you have to extinguish another. Some birds must destroy themselves in flame to give birth to a new generation. We consider it natural, even noble, to be born to sacrifice. Like Sinta in the Ramayana. And therein lies your value. You never knew, child, that dead birds surround you, breathing the same air as you. They look alive, but maggots, invisible to the eye, gnaw their rotting flesh. They are only present as givers of life; like water, sometimes polluted, which gushes forth continuously formless. Water can only mould itself to the vessel.

‘And I, child, I have indeed been an ally of the devil. Because I know that some birds don’t want to destroy themselves in flames. I know that there are waters that simply want to freeze rather than become wellsprings for the sake of a stillness that they have never known.’

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Apple & Knife – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

Inspired by horror fiction, myths and fairy tales, Apple and Knife is an unsettling ride that swerves into the supernatural to explore the dangers and power of occupying a female body in today’s world.

These stories set in the Indonesian everyday – in corporate boardrooms, in shanty towns, on dangdut stages – reveal a soupy otherworld stewing just beneath the surface. This is subversive feminist horror at its best, where men and women alike are arbiters of fear, and where revenge is sometimes sweetest when delivered from the grave.

Dark, humorous, and vividly realised, Apple and Knife brings together taboos, inversions, sex and death in a heady, intoxicating mix.

Note: It’s important to understand that some stories require a trigger warning.

Copyright © 2018 by Intan Paramaditha.

Translated by: Stephen J. Epstein

More details can be found here on Goodreads and on Storygraph.

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