Through the Forest

My mother held my hand as we shuffled through the crowd.

“Be careful,” she said, noting the murky puddles of cooking oil and cabbage shreds on the ground.

The square was busy that morning, bustling with peddlers hawking their wares on the street, wagon conductors touting cheaper fares and bigger trunks. The sun was hardly bright enough to mark the day’s start, but people from around the town had already gathered here to conduct their various affairs. There was the rice cake uncle busy serving someone in the corner, the butcher aunty chopping chicken feet and throwing them in a bag, and me, trailing behind my mother as she cleared the way to the bus station, declining the many offers being pressed upon her.

It was July 2006, and I was on my way to visit my grandmother in Pasuruan, a five-hour bus ride from my tiny hometown Caruban. Every school break, my mother and I spent a few days in the countryside. My father took us to the square, dropped us off at the gate, and reminded me, while my mother was busy buying snacks and water for the ride, to protect her and myself on the bus.

“You’re a big boy now,” he said, fastening the straps of my yellow Pooh overall, “you need to beware of strangers, you understand?”

Before we made the journey, my mother always made sure that I brought a gift for my grandmother. It didn’t have to be anything big or expensive; a handwritten card or a drawing from my art class would serve the purpose.

“Old people love to be remembered,” she’d say, while also packing a few things: boxes of ginger tea and shredded meat, curry paste and tomato powder, and bags of red rice that she claimed would be good for my grandmother’s health.

I always looked forward to these visits and wondered what my grandmother would do if I was not there, helping her feed her ducks, walking along the riverside before dusk. My grandmother lived by herself on the outskirts of Pasuruan, where geraniums grow in the colder season. My grandfather, once a revered general in the army, had passed away in a war long before I was born. The idea of a time when my grandfather was still alive, a time before I knew what time even was, before my grandmother acquired gray hair and cloudy vision, always made me feel uneasy. I couldn’t imagine my grandmother being anything other than old. I wondered if she’d come to this world with wrinkles already, and sunspots across her face. The fact that she had once been a pretty lady, that she’d had plum cheeks and full teeth and fallen in love with a soldier younger than herself, I couldn’t begin to imagine.

At the station gate, my mother and I looked around to spot the green bus that would take us to Pasuruan, the one that had the word “Suryapati” printed all over it. One would imagine, since it was a fairly long ride, that Suryapati buses would be big and comfortable. But instead, these buses were often tattered and small to fit the narrow winding road uphill. The seats were grubby and had deflated foam. The windows were always foggy because the air conditioner was too cold. There was no toilet inside, so every now and then the driver had to stop at the petrol station or mosque or the side of the road to let passengers out.

Still I loved these long bus rides, loved watching the driver hoisting my mother’s packages onto the roof, strapping them safely under the tarpaulin. I loved the chatter between bored strangers, how I could sit back and see an endless expanse of paddy fields with cows chewing lazily on their cuds, crows brawling for fruit peels thrown by lunching farmers. I loved the fresh air and the anticipation that the journey brought for my grandmother’s sweets—sesame balls and coconut pudding and star-shaped cookies.

“Front seats, please,” my mother told the driver once we found the green bus.

“Ah, yes, Ma’am,” he said, his eyes flickering up and down her frame. “Two, but separate rows. Okay?”

My mother peeked through the doorway at the two empty seats, one on the left row, next to hands of bananas that couldn’t fit on the roof, and the other on the right, a single seat next to a window. She looked at me, debated for a while, and eventually said: “This time, Dayin will have to sit on his own,” referring to me in third-person to signal her trust, to accord me the respect of a grown-up and make me feel capable of being on my own.

She mounted me on the single seat next to the window, fastening me with a scarf around my waist. I looked at my mother as she settled herself in her seat, clutching her black handbag where she’d stored my gift for grandmother, this time a snippet of a poem that I’d written for my Bahasa class. There were many passengers behind us, and the one sitting behind my mother was a man, perhaps as old as my father, with a mop of curly hair and a dragon tattoo on his neck. He wore a pair of jeans and a sleeveless shirt, the kind that my father would wear while doing dirty work, either fixing his motorcycle or pruning the garden. The man looked at my mother, then at me, with his big, cunning eyes, and in an instant threw his gaze out the window, as if startled by my staring.

“Clear the way!” the driver shouted at passersby, cueing the bus’ departure.

The machine began to gurgle, and everyone recited a prayer under their breath. I watched my mother solemnly close her eyes and raised my own hands to pray.

“Ya Allah, I hope I don’t get too hungry or get kidnapped. I hope Uti is baking cookies right now.”

At that point, being a nine-year-old, I had heard enough stories about child kidnapping and been trained by my parents to avoid risky situations with strangers.

“Don’t take any drinks from them,” my mother would say.

“If somebody approaches you after school and offers to drive you home, ask them what Baba’s last name is,” my father would chime in.

“But Baba doesn’t have a last name,” I’d protest.

“Exactly my point,” the quick reply.

In Caruban, children went missing for days, only to return at the end with a scar across their stomachs, one kidney gone and sold by the kidnapper. Some came back only years after they had been forced to beg on the streets, their bodies skinny as straws, legs amputated to prevent them from running.

My parents never held back on telling me the gory details of these stories. They brought me  news cutouts and turned up the television so I could see the danger threatening nine-year-olds like me across the country. Although they were persistent in convincing me that people were not always good-natured, they never told me that crime could afflict adults too. I was small and still oblivious to what people thought of women in our society: how they saw them as easy prey.

In the beginning, everything went normally. The bus pressed onto the uphill route, and my mother took out the sweet corn that she’d purchased from the square. Usually, we talked a lot on the bus: about my father and his work, about my birth and what I had been like as a baby. We discussed trees and bees that helped pollinate flowers, interesting lessons and teachers at school. This time, because we were sitting in separate rows, we had to make do with smiling across the aisle. She resigned to look at whatever she could with the bananas blocking her window, and I enjoyed my lovely views of the forest.

After my mother had fallen asleep in her seat, I began to notice something very strange about the man behind her. From time to time, he’d look over my mother’s shoulder, as if trying to peek at something that he couldn’t quite see. As in the case with my mother, who was sitting by the exit door, the window seat next to the man was also loaded with bananas, blocking his view of the forest. Whenever he looked over my mother’s shoulder, I tried to pinpoint what exactly he was doing, sticking his head out like that. Did he feel uncomfortable in his seat? Was he trying to keep an eye on the road? But why would he want to do that?

As we went deeper into the forest, we passed by the usual petrol station. By then, the bus had grown much quieter; most of the other passengers had fallen asleep. I steadied myself, still fastened to my seat by the scarf, and suddenly noticed the driver from the rear-view mirror blinking at me, then doing an elaborate gesture with his hand. I turned around and was rather surprised to see that the man behind my mother was also doing an elaborate hand gesture, his eyes flickering to my side.

In movies, a surreptitious sidelong glance like that was never a good omen. There was something going on. The man and the driver were onto something; otherwise, why wouldn’t the bus stop at the petrol station?

I shifted my body to the side so I could scope out what was happening. Still, as though he did not see me as a threat, the man behind my mother looked over her shoulder. What do you want to see, strange man? I asked myself. Then, as I recalled how kidnappers in movies often ask for ransom from parents in exchange for their child, my eyes landed on what I believed was the cause of the man’s curious behavior: my mother’s handbag.

Containing money and my gift for my grandmother, the handbag was not securely placed under my mother’s care. I looked outside and saw the trees running past me, as if the world was going backward. How would he do it? I asked myself. If the bus was moving this fast, and we were in the middle of the forest, how would he plan to escape after he’d stolen the bag? I glanced at him again; he was still trying to avoid eye contact with me. Maybe the driver will stop, I thought. Maybe he will run downhill to his hideaway place. But where would such a place exist? In the middle of the forest? Why?

I tried to recall all the things that my father had told me about forests.

“You see, if you turn your back on a lion, the lion will come and eat you,” his voice suddenly echoed in my head. “You need to keep facing the lion. Look him in the eye,” the voice said.

I couldn’t recall the occasion that had warranted such advice from him in the first place, but I turned my head anyway, aiming a steady, penetrating glare at the man. I felt the strong urge to wake my mother up but thought of how tired she must have been after staying up the night before to make tomato paste for my grandmother. I thought hard, while still keeping an eye on the man with the cunning gaze, about what I could do to prevent the crime. After ruminating for a while, I went with what I thought was the best action: rest my legs on my mother’s seat and use them to trip the man.

The bus suddenly took a right turn, and I saw vague impressions of buildings in the distance. The driver, snapping his finger, again used the rear-view mirror to communicate with the man in their secret code. I thought to myself: this is the time, this is where his hideaway place is. The driver had given him a clue that a village was near, that he could simply take my mother’s handbag and run away. I prepared myself as the bus decelerated, the man again looking at the exit door. Houses and lampposts were flashing past me, and my legs, resting on my mother’s seat, were as stiff as wood. As the bus eased to a slow halt, the man, putting his cap on and fixing his hair, rose from his seat and drew his backpack from the overhead compartment. He turned his body and saw my legs blocking the aisle. He crouched, put on a smile, and stroked my shins, looking at me straight in the eye. I glared at him like I was trying to threaten another kid in the playground.

“Hey, child,” the driver called.

But I didn’t flinch. I didn’t want to take my eyes off the man and give him a chance to slip by me.

“Oy!” The driver called out again.

The man, looking up at the driver, did another one of his elaborate hand gestures.

“Oy, boy!” The driver shouted even louder, startling my mother, waking her up from her sleep.

“Let the man out!” the driver called.

My eyes were still on the man, who then laughed, a rather gentle, innocent laugh.

“Ma’am!” The driver called my mother, who was fully awake now, rousing in her seat. “Your child is blocking the aisle.”

“Dayin, your feet,” she whispered, tightening her grip on her handbag. “Get off the seat.”

The man smiled at her.

“Sorry,” my mother said, apologizing to the man, who only nodded and produced a sound that I couldn’t quite comprehend, turning his one hand into a fist and sticking out his middle and index fingers, like a peace sign.

Seeing that I was still not willing to stand down, my mother pushed my feet off her seat and let the man out, the driver shaking his head and laughing behind the steering wheel. I watched him get off the bus and walk into a house with a huge mango tree on its patio.

“What was that?” My mother asked. “It’s not nice, what you just did.”

“He was trying to mug you! I saw him looking at your bag!” I replied.

My mother hushed me, showing a stern, reprimanding look.

“You’re being silly. The man was just trying to get out.”

The driver, who couldn’t stop laughing at our conversation, said, “My boy, my boy,” as if I was his own son. “Your son is funny, eh, Ma’am?”

My mother nodded her head and smiled.

“Sorry. He’s just a little tired.”

“No, I’m not!” I protested. “He was trying to mug you! The driver was in on it! They did the thing… the thing with their hands. He kept looking over your shoulders.”

The driver kept laughing, and my mother, too, somehow joined him.

“He was deaf, Dayin, he can’t hear,” my mother said. “You heard how he just spoke? That’s how deaf people speak.”

“He was not checking your mother, son,” the driver chimed in, “he was looking at the road to see if he’d arrived.”

Seeing I was not convinced, he added: “He was sitting next to the bananas, you see? He couldn’t look through the window. I just happened to have a deaf sister, so I know how to speak sign language.”

Instead of relief, anger boiled inside me. I felt betrayed; I felt like everyone was trying to make a mockery out of me, robbing me of my heroic moment.

“No, he’s lying, Ma. He was trying to mug you, I swear!”

“Hush,” my mother said. “What did I tell you about swearing?”

For the remainder of the ride, my mother and I stayed awake, me looking out the window and reflecting on the crime that had only occurred in my head. The driver glanced at me every now and then and chuckled, perhaps, at my misplaced suspicion. I wondered if he thought I was just overreacting. I wondered if he knew where I’d gotten all of my suspicion from.

Artwork by Thomke Meyer