short story by Caroline Wong | translation by Dalih Sembiring | original Indonesian “Upik Labu” was published in Jawa Pos
I HATED that woman, who always wore that pumpkin-yellow dress with garish red-rose print. That hair that was always cut short. That face with almost no stimulating feature. Those stubby nose and chin.
She would wake up at dawn, and immediately washed her face over a small bowl by the well. In that same corner were bucket after bucket of her husband’s and toddler kids’ dirty laundry. Clothes reeking of piss and lactic vomit and faint fecal foulness. She must swiftly wash and hang those clothes to dry before the sun rose.
Afterward her husband’s mother and younger sisters would wake up one after the other. Scrambling toward the toothpaste to brush their teeth while smiling sheepishly in front of the mirror, they all thought they were as beautiful as Jaka Tarub’s beloved — the angel who lost her heavenly scarf.
Soon on the dining table they would find a pot of hot porridge and some split salted-eggs. Pumpkinella, as I would later refer to her, would nimbly sway and turn from the well to the kitchen and to her old sewing machine. There was still some time left to continue working on the dress ordered by Madame Teacher Yemima. But when her mother-in-law called, she would take one foot off of the sewing machine’s dynamo and sprint toward The Old Lady.
“Mayang… Mayang… Mayang!” The Old Lady wouldn’t stop calling the name until Pumpkinella showed up before her. But The Old Lady didn’t really look that old, for she was still healthy and alert, with shoulder-length curly hair, and dressed in gowns all sewn by the daughter-in-law, adorned on the edges with lace.
Apparently Pumpkinella had forgotten to brew jasmine tea in the usual dented can cups for all of the house’s occupants. Without wasting a word or two in response, Pumpkinella soared back to the kitchen, and like a truly fantastic female magician, all were instantly presented on the table. She then returned to linger on those stitches faithfully. The creaking sounds of the dynamo resumed, all the while waiting for The Old Lady’s mouth to reopen.
The seams on the dress’ edges needed nothing more than a final trimming. But her husband and children would be up shortly and they would make clamors out of hunger. She dashed to the backyard and caught two large carps from a small moss-covered pond under a tree. One would be fried and the other would be wrapped with a banana leaf to be grilled.
Once the two fish fulfilled their fate, she would return to the sewing machine. Alas, once everyone was either satiated or stuffed, The Old Lady would be too lazy to move and her screeching voice would continuously broadcast orders through the air. The dying whirs of the sewing machine’s dynamo were muffled. And that meant the payment for the dress would be delayed yet again — an enormous sum, that of a big can of powdered milk.
No less riotous were her sisters-in-law. Getting ready for school, all would jostle for the comb, the talcum powder, and the school uniforms that were never smooth enough. Pray that they wouldn’t start barking about not being able to find their shabby socks.
Those three were rather beautiful, indeed. Each with their own share of extraordinary laziness. Their eyes could beam out a cruel glare like sunlight reflected over shards of glass. And those lips that were so fussy in blabbers and words of spite could even spit out stinging rays of radiation.
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Oldest of the three was Inggrid, an explorer of neighboring quarters, moving from the embrace of one chap on the hill to another by the river. Since she did not spend that much time at home, one could say she was the kindest in treatment toward Pumpkinella. But every once in a while she would show where her loyalty lay, for instance by laughing along when Pumpkinella was squatting down scrubbing the floor. With demeaning smiles they would whisper to each other, “Look at her — surely a pumpkin is much easier on the eyes.”
Next was Linda, who claimed to be the most beautiful and powerful. She had her way with words. While dancing to grating rhythms on the radio running on dying batteries, Linda would loudly sing, “I may be ugly but I’ve got somebody…”
Lanny the youngest was another story. She hated everything. Be it the sunshine or the moonlight, tiny pebbles on the street, crooked cheap tablespoons, the meatless scrawny legs of boiled crabs, the horns of durians, the tattered threads of her hairband, one particularly stingy fruit vendor, and, especially, the happiness of Pumpkinella. So Lanny would join in on a duet with Linda, “I may be ugly but I’ve got somebody…”
Pumpkinella realized that the fine lyric was meant for her. But she couldn’t care less, because money was more important. The rolls of cloths in front of her had forever seized her thoughts. Fabrics that had to be patterned out and cut, to then be sewn with caution and care, for the sake of her customers’ satisfaction.
ALL THE WOMEN in this house, except for Pumpkinella, believed that heaven could be found on the mattresses. When they were neither eating nor at school, chances were they were busy rolling around in beds. Never mind Pumpkinella who must be more than happy to haunt the house. Their bliss would be complete with the sound of rain. Inside their blankets they would dream of meeting the sons of millionaires, falling in love, getting proposed. And that was when they would sleep soundly with their faces beaming up.
But of course, those who actually came were never sons of millionaires. They were love crusaders bearing catshit-flavored chocolate candies.
The house itself was, to Pumpkinella, an emergency unit whose doors and windows and even latrines had come to resemble a woman’s lips. Her own husband’s lips had long turned into a witchy pair. All too eager to issue exalted decrees and utterances, keen on breaking her spirit and pride. However, Pumpkinella was an invincible defender. She kept working in silence, with fingers repeatedly pricked by straight pins, her spine aching, her breaths short from fatigue, headaches that came and went casually; and yet she never showed signs of suffering. For the sake of the children she loved — this clichéd sentence would be the excuse.
On the day the sky was pouring rain to cool the earth, luck finally stopped beating for her. Miraculously, all those twisted lips suddenly burst and scattered in the air. Coated in blood and pus, the shards lunged and sliced deeply into her eyeballs. Pumpkinella collapsed from her wooden work chair that was padded with a thin kapok-filled cushion so that she might sit comfortably for tens of hours. But her body finally lurched powerlessly. Her spirit was indestructible, but her body had failed it.
Pumpkinella had never surrendered, and yet she had never fought back. And for that I really hated her. To me that was not strength. If only she had some mercy on her own heart and paid attention to her biological clock, then I — her daughter — might just still be with her and her simple loving warmth.