Beauty Is a Wound

By Eka Kurniawan

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One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years. A shepherd boy, awakened from his nap under a frangipani tree, peed in his shorts and screamed, and his four sheep ran off haphazardly in between stones and wooden grave markers as if a tiger had been thrown into their midst. It all started with a noise coming from an old gravesite with an unmarked tombstone covered in knee-high grass, but ev¬erybody knew it was Dewi Ayu’s grave. She had passed away at fifty-two, rose again after being dead for twenty-one years, and from that point forward nobody knew exactly how to calculate her age.
People from the surrounding neighborhood came to the grave when the shepherd boy told them what was happening. Rolling up the edges of their sarongs, carrying children, clutching broomsticks, or stained with mud from the fields, they gathered behind cherry shrubs and jatropha trees and in the nearby banana orchards. No one dared approach, they just listened to the uproar coming from that old grave as if they were gathered around the medicine ped¬dler who hawked his goods at the market every Monday morning. The crowd wholly enjoyed the unnerving spectacle, not caring that such a horror would have terrified them had they been all alone. They were even expecting some kind of miracle and not just a noisy old tomb, because the woman inside that plot of earth had been a prostitute for the Japanese during the war and the kyai always said that people tainted with sin were sure to be punished in the grave. The sound must have been coming from the whip of a tormenting angel, but they grew bored, hoping for some other small marvel.
When it came, it came in the most fantastical form. The grave shook and fractured, and the ground exploded as if blown up from underneath, triggering a small earthquake and a windstorm that sent grass and headstones flying, and behind the dirt raining down like a curtain the figure of an old woman stood looking annoyed and stiff, still wrapped in a shroud as if she’d only just been buried the night before. The people grew hysterical and ran away even more chaotically than the sheep, their synchronous screams echo¬ing against the walls of the faraway hills. A woman tossed her baby into the bushes and its father hushed a banana stalk. Two men plunged into a ditch, others fell unconscious at the side of the road, and still others took off running for fifteen kilometers straight without stopping.
Witnessing all this, Dewi Ayu only coughed a little and cleared her throat, fascinated to find herself in the middle of a graveyard. She had already untied the two highest knots on her burial shroud, and then set to loosening the two lowest ones to free her feet so she could walk. Her hair had grown magically so that when she shook it loose from the calico wrap it fluttered in the afternoon breeze, sweeping the ground, and shimmering like black lichen in a riverbed. Her skin was wrinkled, but her face was gleaming white, and her eyes came alive inside their sockets to stare at onlookers abandoning their hiding places behind the shrubs — half of them ran away and the other half fainted. She complained, to no one in particular, that people were evil to have buried her alive.
The first thing she thought of was her baby, who of course was no longer a baby. Twenty-one years ago, she had died twelve days after giving birth to a hideous baby girl, so hideous that the midwife as-sisting her couldn’t be sure whether it really was a baby and thought that maybe it was a pile of shit, since the holes where a baby comes out and where shit comes out are only two centimeters apart. But this baby squirmed, and smiled, and finally the midwife believed that it really was a human being and not shit, and said to the mother, who was lying weakly across her bed with no apparent desire to see her offspring, that the baby was born, was healthy, and seemed friendly.
“It’s a girl, right?” asked Dewi Ayu.
“Yes,” said the midwife, “just like the three babies before her.”
“Four daughters, all of them beautiful,” said Dewi Ayu in a tone of complete annoyance. “I should open my own whorehouse. Tell me, how pretty is this one?”
The baby wrapped up tight in a swaddling cloth began to squirm and cry in the midwife’s arms. A woman was coming in and out of the room, taking away the dirty cloths full of blood, getting rid of the placenta, and for a moment the midwife did not answer because there was no way she was going to say that a baby who looked like a pile of black shit was pretty. Trying to ignore the question she said, “You’re already an old woman, so I don’t think you’ll be able to nurse.”
“That’s true. I’ve been used up by the three previous kids.”
“And hundreds of men.”
“One hundred and seventy-two men. The oldest one was ninety years old, the youngest one was twelve, one week after his circumci¬sion. I remember them all well.”

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