From afar you can see the shadows of leaves shimmering in that bamboo grove; leaving a trail of rustles like delicate chimes blown by the wind.
During our first year, it brought this giddy feeling out of me. Mama shushed me, saying that it was —in fact— quite melodious, with the swishy stream playing in its backgrounds. Fact, she said. But I answered back, realizing a pair of fireflies floating at the same level, blinking like the eyes of an old owl. Were they real, Mama?
“So, are you already regretting for having come with me?” Mama asked. “Would you have preferred staying back with Nini?”
Of course not. I was in my fourth grade, and it appeared adventurous to go on a trip out of town. Just two she-warrior allies, spending the night in a cabin in the mountains. And on takbiran eve. Although I did not comprehend why she had to choose that particular timing.
Nini seemed to not understand either when she bellowed on Mama’s cellphone the next day. Where are you two? Why aren’t you here for Eid’s prayers? Do you need us to pick you up? What’s the address?
No-thanks was the answer that Nini had to receive. I ask for your forgiveness —it is the holy Eid anyway, Mama continued wearily. Let us come back in a couple of days and I will confess my sins to you. Just give us some room for the time being.
I watched Mama as she stuttered on her replies, her lips trembling uncontrollably. She had always been stubborn and was surely not willing to pull out this time. And Nini, persistent as she had always been, had to accept her daughter’s standings.
That was ten years ago. We’ve never celebrated the Eids ever since. Mama has always offered me to sleep over at Nini’s if I had wanted to spend the holidays as people commonly do.
Although Nini kept nagging us on respecting the holy rituals, whereas other relatives hissed and raised their eyebrows behind our backs, I never took Mama’s offer. Yes, because we were a she-warrior duo. No, it was actually because she seemed so lonesome...
It was the fourth year, and we stayed at home on Eid al-Fitr, silently watching our neighbors pass by our house, as they came back from the mosque in their fresh colorful outfits, faces all lit and cheerful. I was suddenly hit by some sort of longing.
“Ma, don’t you miss doing what people usually do on Eids?”
“You know... cooking curry and rice dumplings, buying orchids or tuberoses... chitchatting with cousins?”
“We’re visiting Nini later this afternoon. Is that what you mean, Ray? We’ve always done this, haven’t we?”
“Then, what about going out to the public square, Mama —praying with others?”
“If it suits you, then do. Have I ever had a problem with you regarding this matter?”
“Do you have a problem with it, Mama?” I mean, why couldn’t we be normal once in a while? What’s so difficult about mingling with the crowd, carrying along with what other people do? What could really hurt us from such sense of… togetherness?
“Well, I’ve still got more pressing issues to sort out, Ray, rather than going through much ado.”
“If you don’t give a care, Ma, then you might say that you don’t really see yourself as a Muslim, do you?”
Mama paused, giving me a long tired look.
“I’m sorry if that might disappoint you, Ray. It’s not like I’m against anybody’s belief —including yours.
“What belief do I hold? Difficult question, kid… Is there a god? Perhaps. Did this god send religion for everybody? Possibly. I might not ever be sure, but I guarantee that I won’t drag you into this personal battle. I’m sorry. Maybe one of these days you might understand...”
I tried to. It felt like a living a double-life. School made me take religion lessons; they were compulsory. At home, Mama never set the example in performing the rites. I had a hard time facing teachers and friends who cast interrogative looks on me.
Bapak —should I have him as a role model? Two weeks at his place, a month and a half at hers. How long have I been taking on this nomadic life? Since entering elementary school? Should I then have faith in a God who has assembled such a discordant trio?
And yet, Mama always say I must treat Bapak with love and respect, because he is a decent man with a kind heart. She says, it was a shame that they had to bump into each other and share the same living room for only a short lifetime because “we were just not meant for each other, Ray.”
I used to find that part of explanation perplexing, as both of them were never known to stand on the extremes of being totally rational or heartily religious. So why couldn’t they try to be compatible for a transient lifespan on Earth?
They had trust issues, I once overheard my aunts mutter to one another. Then perhaps it was exactly their separation that had led Mama to return to her raw skeptical basics. She couldn’t easily trust people —she never had.
Maybe I was only trying my best to understand Mama. Every now and then I do tend to try too hard to accept my parents as they are; much harder than the other way around. I wonder if they’ve ever realized that, but I doubt that any parent might realize this at all.
They first met as two green journalists tracking down the same source of news, so they tell me. When our brittle family broke up, it took two years for Bapak to settle down with a soft-spoken, simple lady who helped him find peace in tending trees and nurturing a nursery. Another two years and, voila, from among his orchard my baby stepbrother stepped out. That was year three of the absence of Eids in our lives.
Mama, on the other hand, continued her work as a freelancer. Unlike Bapak, she never seemed to try to find a substitute for him. At times I found her solitude disturbing. It’s not like she’s pathetically unattractive and dull. She could be funny, to be honest —if only she would.
Then again, I assumed we were sufficient for each other and I guess she didn’t really care. So, most of the times it was relieving. We’ve managed to stay course day by day so far. And they say what doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger, don’t they?
Certainly there had to be tragicomedies during my junior high when she had to show up at school and face the consequences of the troubles I had spurred. Caught smoking cigarettes near the canteen; jumping over the fence to skip school; yelling at the casual bullies in class —a handful of classmates or, in between, some stuck-up teachers.
We’d typically head home in solemnity. Mama, with her injured self-pride, would grow grimmer and grimmer as we get out of the car and approach the gate. At reaching my bedroom door, she’d start hollering. “You’re just so grounded, Ray,” she’d say. “I just have no time for your nonsense, just no energy for buying your excuses.”
Mama, neither do I. I don’t have time for ‘our’ nonsense, no more energy for buying ‘your’ excuses. But, of course, I only bent my head so low that it was impossible for her to hear those words swirling out of my head.
Then came year six, and its successive alternating years, when we decided to go back to the mountains for our Eid retreats; trips that we had creatively turned into our own runaway rituals.
If you had joined us and tried to set your view on the grove that surrounded the cabin, you’d also have been able to see the shadows of bamboo leaves shimmer. In your ears, they’d have left this trail of rustles like delicate chimes blown by the wind, with a swishy stream playing in the backgrounds.
During year six I came to notice that the pair of flickering fireflies —floating at the same level, like eyes of an old owl — was there to stay hovering. That thought struck my mind and nestled comfortably in one of its corners.
Then year seven came along as a memorable one: my first time of falling in love. Puppy love, some might say. It didn’t seem to be a mere crush for me, but call me naïve. We had met at a music festival and sang along with the lyrics of a string of songs. His were my favorite ones from favorite bands by coincidence. I took this as a sound sign of us vibrating on the same frequency.
“You’ll get hurt,” Mama told me one day, after he took me home from the movies and bid us an evening’s goodbye. “Everyone does, Ray. Everyone learns it that way.”
I caught a dim gleam in Mama’s eyes as she carried on quietly, “Anyhow, never think about hurting one’s feelings on purpose.”
Year eight: he left me for sure for someone else. Perhaps, there was no such thing as soulmates after all, but at least I did not try to hurt anyone’s feelings on purpose. The day before this year’s Eid al-Fitr, Mama left home for the cabin in the middle of the bamboo grove. I accompanied her to the mountains with a sinking heart.
When we arrived, the air was so cool it froze up the moonless skies. Shooting stars coldly unraveled across the trembling constellations. And from a distance, I could hear rhythmic drumbeats coming from the village mosques. From within the grove, I held sight of the flashing twin fireflies.
It was a silent invitation on a serene night, so I followed the footpath into the woods. The beaten path brought me to a bamboo hut. As I came nearer and nearer, I noticed that the fireflies turned out to be a pair of lamps on a wooden porch. All of these years and I had been hallucinating they were immobile winged insects blinking. I chuckled.
Suddenly there was this screech that made me stiffen. I was ready to turn around and run away when I caught a weak greeting from the shadowy porch. “Don’t go,” said the voice. “Come closer. Please. I won’t do you any harm.”
I wavered for a moment but eventually decided to trust this voice, this person. “Hullo,” said a slender man sitting on a stainless steel stool. He stood up abruptly, sending out a longer screech. He swept the leather cover of the stool then patted it lightly. So, I came across to sit on it while he moved over into an armchair.
We studied each other. I saw a man of Chinese descent in his mid-30s: straight thick hair in a bun, small bright eyes under thick eyebrows, high cheekbones, and a wide smile. Smart looking —in his washout black jeans and navy blue tartan flannel shirt.
Maybe he spotted the nervousness of a meek teenage girl with extremely short wavy hair and thick glasses. “Welcome to my home,” he said wholeheartedly, breaking the ice, with arms wide open.
“Nice place you have here, Pak,” I responded, inspecting the place quietly. “Are you living here alone?”
He nodded earnestly, looking around as well. Have always been.
“I… I’ve never realized there was a bamboo hut. I mean, here, in the grove,” I said, smiling back as politely as one new guest should. “Mama and I usually follow this path up to the hot springs…”
“But I’ve always seen both of you. Every year around Eids, right? No, every two years lately? I’ve watched you grown up… Your name’s Ray? Your mother’s Sativa?”
“Oh, do you happen to know her? How come Mama never told me about you, Pak?”
“Vitto is the name, without Pak. Just call me Vitto…”
He then pointed his finger to a canvas in front of me. There were tubes of squirted oil paint, scattered all over the floor. A palette rested clumsily under a jam bottle filled with cloudy liquid and paintbrushes of different size numbers. “What do you think about my painting?”
I tilted my head, squinting on the picture under the dim lights cast by the porch lamps.
It was a gigantic boat brushed passionately in thick layers of vivid colors. The boat was sailing in a moonlit sky, with heads of various faunae lurking out from its passenger windows. “Interesting,” I replied thoughtfully. “Noah’s ark? But a flying one, indeed?”
“Oh, an ark… An ark?!” he uttered disappointedly. “I thought people would see that it’s Darwin’s night train of thoughts… Don’t you notice the solid railway?”
I suppressed my smile. I suppressed this eerie feeling crawling inside me of being entrapped in one of the pages of Alice in Wonderland. Was it a tea party with a fellow riddler?
I shifted my gaze to the porch lamps and couldn’t help but then burst out, “I always thought those were a pair of fireflies.”
He followed my eyes with his and commented in a matter-of-fact manner, “Have you ever heard stories about fireflies that are fingernails of the dead?
“You see, they point directions for grieving beloved ones, provide the brokenhearted with some sort of healing.”
Now it felt like a scene from The Chronicles of Narnia: I could’ve been Lucy, Pak Vitto should’ve been Mr. Tumnus. But, this Pak Vitto was certainly human, not any mythical beast. And he constantly reminded me of someone that I just couldn’t figure out at the time…
“Do you believe in ghosts, Pak?” I asked in wonder. “Do you believe in spirits, in demons and angels? Do you believe in any kind of god?”
Pak Vitto didn’t seem to heed me. He looked beyond the darkness, seemingly distracted. “Your mother is looking for you,” he said in a low note. “I’d say you should head back to the cabin.”
It was a subtle command, so I bowed and thanked for his hospitality.
“Find me here, next time,” was his last words. “And mention my name to your mother. I hope she still remembers me…”
Mama was there, in front of the cabin, standing uneasily. Where have you been? It’s already late past midnight.
“There’s a bamboo hut in the grove, Mama. The owner is Pak Vitto, a long-haired painter... He said hi and said you might remember him if I mentioned his name to you. Well, do you, Mama? You see, he’s a very nice man —maybe ten or so years younger than you?”
Mama didn’t look well. You know very well there’s no hut in the bamboo groove, Ray. What’s got into you? Her face grew as white as a plain cotton bedsheet. Go get back to bed. Now.
I was puzzled and tried to turn back and explain to her the eccentricity of Pak Vitto —his hut, his painting, his lamps on the patio… She just ushered me back to my bedroom, just as baffled as I was.
At dawn the following morning I tried to go back into the grove by myself; just to prove that I wasn’t making up stories in front of my mother.
The hut wasn’t there.
I looked around wildly; I might have got mixed up with my way. But the hut seemed to have vanished or never existed. Neither were the lamps, the painting, nor Pak Vitto. The swooshing sound of the bamboo leaves was the only element left from our brief encounter… I silently felt saddened, more than confused or intimidated as one should have. I didn’t want to admit that I might have only been sleepwalking the other night.
Year nine arrived. Mama and I were both drowning in our own worldly business. It was the senior year of my secondary school and Mama kept reminding me to concentrate on the final exams. The story I had dreamed of was never again brought up between us. It was treated as another tragicomedy of the many ones I had; waiting to die out.
Here and now is year ten. I entered college and moved nearer to campus, staying home on weekends only. I told Mama this made me feel more like an adult. Mama told me laughingly that this made her feel ageing much faster.
It was the week of Eid al adha that weekend. This year will be our last Eid retreat to the bamboo grove. Mama was helping me pack up our stuff for the trip. I straightened up my back and gave Mama a painful look, a silent ‘why’. She said nothing, played aloof, and carried on the work.
We took a quiet car ride to the mountains the next morning, with me behind the wheels and Mama occasionally offering mineral water and snacks, changing song selections, and making requests for quick breaks. It was almost dusk when we finally reached the cabin.
Night soon fell and we set a light dinner of grilled fish and steamed rice on the veranda. I looked out beyond the bamboo grove. Shadows of leaves shimmering in the bamboo grove left a trail of rustles like delicate chimes blown by the wind. The swishy stream played in the backgrounds.
There was no sign of the firefly-like lamps.
Then all so suddenly Mama pushed some photographs across the coffee table towards me. They must be keepsakes from a lifetime ahead of mine. At first, I didn’t know what I was supposed to find. Then at reaching out for them, the pictures quickly provoked my mind.
There was a younger version of Mama and a young man sitting under the shade of bamboo trees. In another snapshot, they were both among a group of friends in a coffee shop setting. I spotted Bapak in the same picture, handsome as ever. The last one was a close-up of the young man: insanely happy, brightening the photo up to its sepia corners. He seemed familiar…
I looked up to Mama. She had a dim gleam in her eyes and a story to unfurl:
His name was Vitto. He was a close friend of mine, a close friend of your father. But, Ray, Vitto was your real father. Don’t you see the resemblance you both bear? You share the same eyes and high brows. The same way in making wrinkles between the eyebrows when you’re overthinking.”
After years of friendship, Vitto and I one day realized that we had fallen in love with each other. Deeply in love, Ray, so you would never hurt one’s feelings on purpose.
A different day came by, and we discovered that I was pregnant with you. We were not a married couple then, but that didn’t make us less happy, although it was a difficult moment for both of us. To be honest, it was a hard time for most of the common people; in making both ends meet on daily basis.
Vitto was bound to ask for my hand from your grandparents. They, on the other hand, were determined to turn him down. He was a loyal churchgoer, a Chinese, a street artist —apparently not the ideal son-in-law to behold. But, when we broke the news of expecting your arrival in five months, your grandparents couldn’t take it well either. Your grandfather was ruthless in hounding Vitto to take the responsibility: to convert and marry me according to the family’s religious formalities.
He was brutally beaten up inside, I knew, but yielded anyway. The last thing I wanted was him feeling forced to change into the person he wasn’t —only to stay next to me. But, Vitto? He just gave me a reassuring smile that evening to calm me down.
It was a night in May 1998, and we had heard whispers and rumors, and news later broadcasted via the TV and radio stations. There were sporadic movements in the capital. Men ran amok, they said. People were turning loose in the streets: looting possessions, burning down buildings.
I tried to hold Vitto back from going home, I implored, but Vitto said he had to make sure his parents and sisters were safe and secure. So he said goodbye.
There was no haven in the city that night: beasts were set free from under some human skins. These angry mobs were preying on people like Vitto, people who were different merely in terms of belief, color of skin, and way of life. People who were to take blame for every failure of our society. Every single time in our nation’s history.
We never heard any news again from Vitto that night, or the day after, or the day after that. Then a journalist friend called early one morning from a hospital up in the northern tip of the city. He was gone. Vitto was no longer alive. They didn’t even let him have a dignified death.
Any faith left inside me seemed to have died on the day I witness the damage they had inflicted on him…
Your father —the one you’ve known all these years— was the one who took me to the morgue at that hospital. A few days passed when he came forward, asking if he could offer some help by taking my hand. For my sake, for yours, for Vitto’s. He took so much pity on us, but marriage was no longer a priority for me —nothing was. Yet my parents disagreed. A month afterwards we got married quietly.
He has been a decent man with a kind heart, Ray —this father you’ve known. Bear in mind that he will always be one good person and father for you. But, to tell you the truth, my mind has always been with Vitto. I can never turn away. And I hope that from this day on, you, too, will never forget him.
Listening to her reveal our family’s dark secrets in such a distant tone made me almost furious at first. Her countenance, though, showed that she had had enough misery. It made me hold back. Maybe I would’ve become as numbed as well, if I had been in her shoes.
So instead I turned my head towards the bamboo grove, anticipating a pair of lamps to flicker from afar. There they were: hovering like for always, never ever failing so as I’d come to understand.
I slowly stood up, gently taking Mama’s frail hand and led her into the grove, taking the beaten footpath. Maybe we could use a different story for the rest of the night: of fireflies that provide the brokenhearted with some healing, giving directions to a couple of lost souls.