Two old acquaintances walk by an artificial river, reminiscing about a long-lost mutual friend. Years ago, local police took that friend, Wajo, into custody for protesting the construction of a reservoir over his farm land; he was never released. Originally written in Indonesian by Tjak S. Parlan and published in InterSastra, this short story uses vanishing as a metaphor to reveal the myriad ways that forced development damages both natural environments and the people who live off them.
Steeped in the language of beauty and loss, “Wajo” has a transportive quality that takes its reader to the same habitat whose loss the story laments. It demands to be read as a photograph that points to the absence preserved within its frame.
– Raaza Jamshed for Guernica Global Spotlights
We walk along the reservoir, talking about an old friend.
Every now and then, we pause for a moment and look at the expanse of the water where, in some parts, water hyacinths cover the surface. The weed scatters quietly in the peak of the dry season. The late afternoon wind blows stronger, cold and dry. At times, your pace quickens, so I can gaze at your back which — who knows since when — gives the impression that you’ve been patiently waiting. But what keeps you waiting?
“I often find myself thinking he’ll appear at this reservoir, carrying a rod,” you say with a smile.
I remember something about our friend that would amuse me; how he insisted that in every puddle — basically any crevice filled with water — fish were always hiding. Therefore, he felt the need to prove it the only way he knew how: by catching them.
“Wajo is a true farmer — he loves to fish,” you say. “I really miss him.”
Of course, I long for him too. I miss the three of us: me, you, and Wajo. You think of him as your own brother. After your parents passed away, he was the one who taught you things. You learned how to live as a tenant farmer. You realized why the people in our village must defend every inch of our cultivated land.
“Come look,” you say, as soon as we step onto the higher part of the embankment. “I think this was where I used to clear the paths, or plow before the planting season.”
We sit on this higher ground. I listen to everything you say. Sometimes you stretch your arms wide, or point into the distance, as if you’re measuring or marking something that still lies before us. And I can almost smell your muddy sweat from that afternoon, seven years ago.
The soil had just been plowed. The rice fields had just been watered. Rice seedlings were being prepared for the planting season. And you looked so happy.
But, on another afternoon, you seemed to be worried about something.
“Wajo said the messenger came again,” you told me.
What kind of messenger? What are you talking about? Deep inside, I wondered to myself. And now, even as I sit here with you, I still wonder. How could the land, tilled for decades with the sweat of our village’s people, be replaced with a reservoir? What’s more, according to my father, the great-grandfathers of our village were the first ones to take care of this former onderneming land.
This afternoon, I recall how Wajo started to disappear frequently, always returning with his new friends. He often invited the people in our village to gather to discuss the fate of the land we farmed. It was during the period when our village had lost almost all hope, but Wajo never failed to revive their fighting spirit.
One night he declared, “We must defend this land!”
The next morning the villagers moved north and formed a human barrier across the road at the border of our farmland. I was among them. You and Wajo and a dozen other friends were in the front row.
Heavy machinery was already lined up, waiting to pass. I even saw a digger, its engine already turned on. The sight of them made Wajo furious. He pushed his way forward and picked up the loudspeaker. His voice blaring and fiery, he asked that all the engines be turned off. But from another direction, a group of people we didn’t recognize began to shout.
“A reservoir for the people! A reservoir for all!”
The people from our village started to get incensed and surged into that group. A brigade of police officers blocked us. Pushing and shoving was inevitable. Being small, I ended up squeezed between two increasingly unruly crowds. Wajo, who had spotted me, grabbed my arm and told me to go wait at a distance with the other village women.
To tell the truth, I was terrified. Not wanting to stay there any longer, I ran away. I didn’t know what happened next exactly, but I heard gunshots in the distance. From what you told me later on, I could only imagine the chaos that day.
The next day, you told me, “Then we saw the pile of straw, the remains of the failed harvest. I don’t know who started the fire. An excavator was burning.”
The authorities moved fast. The same day you recounted your story, you and five other people were taken to the police station for questioning. You didn’t return for two years. Meanwhile, the others — two of Wajo’s friends and three villagers — were released from prison after several months. From them, I learned that Wajo was the main target. Since then, not one of us has ever caught a glimpse of him. It’s as if Wajo was swallowed up by the earth. A drunken, young man once joked that Wajo had been used as a sacrificial offering for the reservoir’s construction. We tried not to believe it.
Today, you seem to be filled with regret.
“Every time I come here,” you say, “I like to remember Wajo as a simple farmer. If that were the case, he might still be around, even though there’s nothing left anymore.”
I look at our surroundings. A sliver of the past appears, revealing a scrawny Wajo waving at me, and I scurry to meet him. I can already guess what he’s about to give me.
He hands me a huge bunch of genjer, young and green, while whispering, “Here, pass them to Kak Yun. Don’t forget, okay?”
It’s one of those days leading up to the harvest season. After clearing the weeds that have grown between the main crops, Wajo sets aside genjer leaves for my family. He admits he doesn’t usually like genjer, but he loves them if they’re cooked by my sister. From this, I know that Wajo had strong feelings for Kak Yun.
After Wajo went missing, Kak Yun wasn’t the same person anymore. I often found her daydreaming, her expression looking more somber than before. Sadly, my older sister, who was born mute, couldn’t talk about her feelings. But I could sense what she felt. If Kak Yun were still with us, she would probably sit on the edge of this reservoir a lot, staring at the surroundings and imagining Wajo in the distance, beckoning to her.
You tell me about your new patch of land, located a distance from the village. You can’t grow rice. The land isn’t good enough, but you can still grow peanuts and corn.
“Come over,” you say. “Take a moment to look around.”
I promise to stop by your field, though moments later, I regret saying so. But I’m relieved to know that you can still farm. One of the reasons I come here is to see you. I’ve heard from the neighbors that you’re often seen walking along this reservoir.
“I thought you would still be here when I returned,” you say. “No one told me anything.”
You stare at the wide body of water, snaking into the distance. The reservoir embankment stretches from north to south as far as the eye can see. The giant artificial river is receding now, the water murky. In the distance, our village grows dim under the darkening sky. A man walks along the reservoir with a long bamboo rod slung over his shoulder, as if trying to reach the past he has left behind.
I tell you about my departure. At that time, we had no choice. After the construction of the reservoir, our lives became difficult. We didn’t have jobs. My father was forced to go around looking for work in neighboring villages, laboring as a hired hand in the fields before the harvest season. Kak Yun and I sometimes tagged along. Several rice-field owners let us pick genjer. When we got home, we tied the genjer leaves in small bundles and sold them in the nearby village. What other option did we have? We had no idea when we would get the promised replacement land. We couldn’t do anything. I had no friends to talk to. You were in jail, and Wajo was somewhere.
That was what made us decide to leave the island. We built a new life on land belonging to an old friend of my father’s. They were a transmigrant family who had emigrated decades ago and were quite successful. They needed someone hardworking who could be trusted to tend their neglected watermelon fields. They found a good match in my father. We worked hard to maintain their trust.
“Thank God you found a home there,” you say with a laugh. “Luckily, you’re not married. Otherwise, we definitely wouldn’t be able to see each other again.”
When I try to ask about your marriage, you laugh again. Rather than answering, you tell me about your relationship with Wajo’s old friends. After you were released, you reconnected with them. You all, and a number of the remaining villagers, are planning to hold an event soon to remember Wajo. You invite me, hoping I can take part.
“Stay a few more days. You should come.”
I wish I could accept your invitation, especially since it’s for Wajo. But I can’t, and I won’t tell you why.
You see, at our new place, Kak Yun met her soulmate. He’s a good man and a dedicated farmer, and I was glad to see her happy. But almost a year has passed since Kak Yun left us. She had an asthma attack and died in a community health clinic. She left behind a pair of twins who still need to be hugged at bedtime. They hadn’t even been weaned from their mother’s breast. They’re very close to me now. I’ve become a mother to them. Meanwhile, my father is getting on in years. He hopes to see me settling down soon.
“I used to think that Wajo liked you, and it turned out that he liked Kak Yun. But did you like Wajo?”
This time, I can’t answer. Instead, I observe that the sun has set. We must hurry back to the village. You seem reluctant, but you still stand and offer me your hand. I reach for your strong, sturdy arm. Walking along the reservoir, you apologize for asking. I keep silent, enduring the cold, dry wind.
You don’t need to apologize. Perhaps I’m the one who should do so. I can’t stay here for long. Tomorrow I’m going to visit my mother’s grave to pray. At her headstone, I’m going to tell her that I’m ready to be someone’s wife, as well as the mother of his children. That someone is my brother-in-law. Maybe you don’t believe me, but in many ways, my husband-to-be is very much like Wajo.
“Wajo,” by Tjak S. Parlan and translated by Clarissa Goenwan, originally published by InterSastra, which describes itself as “an independent initiative that opens platforms for literary and artistic exploration, to achieve a more creative and inclusive society.”