Man Tiger

By Eka Kurniawan

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On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond. A scent of brine wafted through the coconut palms, the sea moaned at a high pitch, and a gentle wind ruffled the algae, coral trees and lantanas. The pond lay in the middle of a cacao plantation, the trees barren from lack of care, their fruit shriveled and thin, like bird’s eye chilis. The leaves were of use only to the tempeh factories, which collected them every night. Through this plantation ran a creek full of snakeheads and eels, its overflow swelling the swamp around it. Not long after the plantation was declared bankrupt, people had arrived to put up boundary stakes, clear away the water hyacinths and vast tangles of kangkong, and plant the marsh with rice. Kyai Jahro had come with them, but had grown rice for only one season. Rice required too much attention and time. Jahro, who had never heard of Orion—the short-season cultivar—replaced his rice with peanuts, which were more resilient and less trouble. At harvest time his fields yielded two sacks of pods that made him wonder how he would ever eat them all. So he turned his parcel of marsh into a pond and threw in some mujair and nila fry, and it became his favorite pastime to feed his fish before sundown, to watch them mouthing at the brimming water’s surface.

He was spreading bran from the rice mill, as well as cassava and papaya leaves, on the water where his fish bobbed animatedly, when a motorcycle roared in the distance. He knew the sound so well he didn’t bother to turn his head. It was even more familiar than the sound of the surau’s drum that beat five times a day. It was Major Sadrah’s shiny, bright-red Honda 70, which carried its owner to the surau, or brought his wife to the market, and at other times simply glided through the neighborhood in late afternoons, spinning around quiet corners when Sadrah had nothing else to do.

He was past eighty, Major Sadrah, but still in good shape. He had retired from the military many years ago, but every Independence Day stood among his fellow veterans. The city government was said to have given him a plot of land in the heroes’ cemetery as a reward for his service, something he described as an invitation to die quickly. He swerved on his motorcycle and halted by the dike. After killing the engine, he wiped his mouth, above which lowered a dark mustache, for without this gesture he would not feel like himself. Jahro did not look up until Major Sadrah stood by his side. They talked about the previous night’s rainstorm, which fortunately hadn’t come during the herbal tonic company’s film screening at the soccer field, although it must have nearly broken the hearts of every pond owner.

A similar rainstorm had come months ago, lasting one whole week. The creek, normally more mud than water, rose six feet, sweeping hosts of geese downstream, until the ponds around it disappeared. The fish, which would have filled the bellies of the villagers and their children, disappeared almost entirely. When the water subsided, all that was left were snails and the stems of banana plants. Jahro looked at Major Sadrah and said he had prepared some nets to cover his ponds and protect the fish in future.
At that moment, an old man on a bicycle, stooping to avoid the cacao branches above, called out to Jahro. Ma Soma, who taught children how to read the Koran at the surau, jumped off just in time to stop the bike hitting the dike. With both fists still firm on the handlebars, the bicycle reared up, like a horse yanked by its reins. Panting, he told them that Margio had killed Anwar Sadat. He said it in a manner suggesting that Jahro should hasten to lead the funeral prayers, for this had been one of his duties these past years.
“By God,” said Major Sadrah. For a moment they exchanged baffled glances, as if it were a joke they couldn’t understand. “This afternoon I saw him carrying that war relic of an old, rusty samurai sword. Darned kid, I hope he didn’t get it back after I’d confiscated the damn thing.”

“He didn’t,” said Ma Soma. “The kid bit through his jugular.”

No one had ever heard of such a thing. There had been twelve murders over the past ten years in the city, and all involved machetes or swords. The cause of death was never a gun or kris dagger, and certainly not biting. People attacked with their teeth, particularly when women fought each other, but they didn’t die that way. The identity of the killer and his victim made the news all the more shocking. They knew Margio the teenager and old Anwar Sadat all too well. It would never have occurred to anyone that these two figures would feature in such a tragic drama, no matter how eager Margio was to kill someone, or how detestable the man named Anwar Sadat.

A few moments slipped by as they pondered, as if lost in thoughts of rancid blood burbling from a punctured neck and a teenage boy staggering in panic, stupefied by his own recklessness, his mouth and teeth red, like the snout of an ajak dog after its morning kill. These imaginary scenes were too astonishing to believe. Even the pious Kyai Jahro neglected to whisper innalillahi, while Sadrah mouthed indistinct words and forgot to wipe his gaping mouth. Ma Soma was getting tired of standing there, and turned his bicycle around, giving them a sign to hurry, and so they set off, becoming all the more panic-stricken, as if the murder had not yet taken place and they were going to thwart it.
It was true that while Sadrah was on his way home from prayers at the surau that afternoon, still wearing a sarong, he had noticed the boy carrying the samurai sword from the hut where the nightwatch stood vigil. Everyone now was talking about that sword as proof that he had long harbored an intention to kill. The nightwatch hut stood in the middle of the village, opposite a defunct and overgrown brick factory. The samurai sword hung from the boy’s hand as he plodded about, scarring the ground with its tip. At another moment he sat on a bench, swinging the sword, hitting the slit wooden drum used to sound the alarm. Several people saw this, but paid no heed. The sword was so worn out and rusty, it couldn’t decapitate the scrawniest chicken.
Decades after the end of the war, the many samurai swords left behind by the Japanese had become decorations or talismans. Most of them were neglected and eaten away by the salty air, as Sadrah recalled. Perhaps Margio had found his sword at the dump or tucked away inside the brick factory. Sadrah noticed it and didn’t overlook the fact that, no matter how damaged, it was still a sword, although he didn’t seriously suspect that the boy intended to put an end to Anwar Sadat’s life. There were no signs that they were at odds, as far as their neighbors knew.
He asked for the samurai sword mainly because he was worried that Margio was drunk on white sticky-rice arak and spoiling for a fight. These kids liked to get drunk, and that was the source of countless petty problems. He couldn’t kill anyone with that worn-out sword, but drunkenness might push him to beat a neighbor’s dog, then the neighbor might throw a rock at him in return, and things would get out of hand. Moreover, at last night’s herbal tonic company’s film screening at the soccer field, a crowd had gathered, an event which always threatened to unleash the fighting demon that lurked among the boys. The violence could drag on into the next day and often for days afterward. Whatever the case, Sadrah had good reason to worry about an unsheathed samurai sword being carried around at a roadside, no matter how harmless the object might seem.

“Why?” Margio asked, unwilling to hand over his toy.

“Look, it’s just a useless old piece of iron.”

“But you could kill someone with it if you wanted,” Sadrah said.

“That’s my plan.”

Even though the boy had clearly said he meant to commit murder, Sadrah paid no heed. He coaxed the kid, and after threatening to take him to the military headquarters, he managed to get the sword, took it home, and tossed it on top of the dog cage behind the house. He soon forgot about the rusty sword, and saw no hint of the disaster to come. Perhaps age had made him complacent. Now he felt slightly sorry for having confiscated the useless sword. Had the shabby weapon remained with Margio, Anwar Sadat might still be alive. No matter how many times it struck him, he would have suffered no worse than bruises and broken bones. Now the Major shivered, imagining how the boy embraced Anwar Sadat as his jaws bit down on his neck.
That afternoon he had told the boys to take a break and chase women, if they had to, and make sure they had someone to have fun with that weekend. The next day he would take them boar hunting as usual. During the hunting season, they were good enough to stay sober on Saturday nights, otherwise they wouldn’t be invited or even worse they’d end up impaled on a boar’s tusks. They would go to the shore in troops, dragging wild women along, or greeting respectable ladies with bags of oranges and shy smiles. They would go home before ten o’clock, all sweet and obedient in the name of boars, and stay fast sleep until the call to prayer woke them at dawn. Darned kid, Major Sadrah cursed as he thought of Margio, for instead of resting and preparing himself for the coming boar hunt, he had gone to the house of the bristly, porcine Anwar Sadat and killed him.

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