Beauty is a Wound
Annie Tucker is the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for her translation of Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is A Wound. Read her introduction to translating Kurniawan here.
They were brought to a big house that had once been the vacation home of a Dutch family from Batavia, with a sweeping yard overgrown with trees, a banyan right in the center of the lawn, and palms alternating with Chinese coconut trees lined up along the fence. When the truck entered the grounds, Dewi Ayu guessed that there were more than twenty rooms in the two-story house. The girls got down from the truck and were astounded by this unfathomable change: they had come from a vile and gloomy prison camp and all of a sudden they were in a huge, comfortable, and luxurious home. Something strange must be going on, as if orders had gotten mixed up or something like that.
In addition to the two soldiers leading them, there were more soldiers guarding the house. Some of them were patrolling the expansive grounds and a number of others were sitting playing cards. A middle-aged native woman appeared from inside the house, wearing her hair in a bun and a loose-fitting gown with the belt left untied at her waist. She smiled at the women, who were still standing in the yard looking like village people too nervous to step their feet onto the grounds of the king’s palace.
“What kind of house is this, Miss?” asked Dewi Ayu politely.
“Call me Mama Kalong,” she said. “Because like a kalong, a fruit bat, I’m much more often out and about at night than during the day.” She came down off the veranda and approached the women, trying to enliven the bleak expressions on their faces with a smile and a joke. “This is a vacation house owned by a lemonade factory owner from Batavia. I forget his name, but it doesn’t really matter, because this house belongs to you all now.”
“What for?” asked Dewi Ayu.
“I think you know what for. You are here to volunteer for soldiers who are sick.”
“Like Red Cross volunteers?”
“You’re smart, kid. What’s your name?”
“Alright, Ola, invite your friends inside.”
The inside of the house was even more amazing. There were lots of paintings hanging on the walls, mainly in the mooie indie style. The whole property was still intact, made from intricately carved wood. Dewi Ayu saw a family portrait still hanging on the wall, a group of people squeezed together on a sofa, a portrait of what looked like more than three generations gathered together. Maybe they had successfully escaped, or maybe some of them were living in Bloedenkamp, or maybe they were all already dead. A large portrait of Queen Wilhelmina was leaning over in one corner, maybe taken down by the Japanese. This all made Dewi Ayu realize that she herself no longer had a home: the Japanese had probably already made use of it, or maybe it had been blown to smithereens by an off-target shell. Every little thing here seemed to be cared for diligently, maybe by Mama Kalong, so that when she went into one of the rooms, she felt like she was entering a bridal chamber. There was a big bed with a mattress that was quite soft and thick, a mosquito net the color of a red apple, and the air was fragrant with roses. The armoires were still filled with clothes, some for young ladies, and Mama Kalong said that they could wear these clothes. Ola remarked that after two years in the prison camp, it all seemed like a dream.
“What did I tell you, we are on an excursion,” said Dewi Ayu.
They each got their own room, and the luxury didn’t end there. With the help of a servant, Mama Kalong entertained them for dinner with a complete risttafel, which was the best thing they had ever eaten after starving for months on end. The only thing that made it impossible for most of the girls to enjoy these over-indulgent luxuries was the memory of those they had left behind in the camp.
“Gerda should have joined us,” said Ola.
Dewi Ayu tried to comfort Ola, “If we don’t end up getting sent to do forced labor in a weapons factory, then we can go get her.”
“The woman said we were going to be Red Cross volunteers.”
“What’s the difference, you yourself don’t even know how to dress wounds, so what would Gerda do?”
That was true. But they had already been enchanted by the idea of becoming Red Cross volunteers, even if they would be working for the enemy. At the very least, it was better than being stuck in the prison camp and dying there of starvation. They became all abuzz discussing matters of first aid. One young girl said that she was a member of the girl scouts, and knew how to dress a wound, and not only that, she even knew how to treat minor illnesses like diarrhea, fever, and food poisoning, using wild plants.
“The problem is, the Japanese soldiers don’t need diarrhea medicine,” said Dewi Ayu. “They need someone who knows how to amputate them at the neck.”
Dewi Ayu left the rest of the group, and went into her room. Because she was the calmest among them, even though she wasn’t the oldest, they had come to consider her their leader. So upon her departure, the nineteen other girls followed her into her room, gathered on top of her bed, and resumed their conversation about how to amputate a Japanese soldier’s neck, just in case their heads were wounded and no longer useful to them. Dewi Ayu paid no attention to their frivolous chatter, and instead chose to enjoy her new bed, like a little child who has a new toy. She massaged the mattress, stroked the blanket, rolled back and forth, and even jumped up and down, making the mattress vibrate and her friends bounce.
“What are you doing?” one of them asked.
“I just want to see whether this bed will fall apart or not if it is given some hearty shakes,” she replied while jumping.
“There’s no chance of an earthquake,” said another.
“Who knows,” she replied. “If I am going to end up falling onto the floor while I’m sleeping, I‘d rather just lie down on the floor to begin with.”
“Strange girl,” they said, and one by one they left to go to their own bedrooms.
After they had all left, Dewi Ayu walked to the window and opened it. There was a strong iron trellis and she said to herself, “There is no way to escape.” She closed the window, climbed into her bed, and pulled up the covers without changing her clothes. Before closing her eyes she prayed, “Well hell, you know that this is what wartime is like.”
When morning arrived, Mama Kalong had already prepared breakfast: fried rice with eggs sunny side up. All the girls had already bathed, but they were still all wearing their old clothes, which had started to resemble foul dishrags that had been worn and washed and set out to dry one too many times. Their eyes displayed eyeballs that had not slept well, and a number of them even showed the traces of tears cried all night long. Only Dewi Ayu had brashly taken the clothes from her room’s armoire and was wearing a cream-colored dress with white polka dots and short sleeves, tied at the waist with a round buckle. She had also made up her face with powder, applied thick lipstick to her lips, and the faint scent of lavender perfume wafted off her body, all of which she had found in the drawers of the vanity table. She looked elegant and cheerful, as if it was her birthday, seeming quite out of place compared to the gloomy girls all around her. They looked at her with accusatory gazes, like they had caught a traitor, but after eating breakfast they ran to their rooms and quickly changed their clothes, throwing their old clothes into the laundry basket and then admiring one another.
It was near midday when the Japanese arrived, the sound of their boots filling the house. The girls immediately remembered that despite it all they were still prisoners, and it felt strange that they had been so happy there for a moment. The girls retreated until their backs were pressed against the wall, and once again became overcome with melancholy. Except Dewi Ayu, who quickly greeted one of the guests.
“How are you?”
He just looked at her for a moment, not bothering to speak, and then went to find Mama Kalong. They spoke for a moment, then he returned and counted the girls before going back to the others. The house grew quiet, with only the girls and Mama Kalong and a couple of soldiers who continued to patrol outside the house.
“He was counting us as if we were a group of soldiers,” one of them complained.
“Well that’s the job of a Commandant,” said Mama Kalong.
That whole day they didn’t do anything except hang around in the parlor or in one of their rooms, and boredom overcame them. After getting nostalgic about their happy childhoods long before the war, they ran out of things to talk about. They didn’t say anything else about the Red Cross, because there was no indication that they were really going to become volunteers. The Japanese hadn’t said one thing about any of that, or about anything at all. They thought there really should be some kind of training if they were going to be volunteers, but it looked like they were just going to rot away inside the house, amongst all that nonsensical luxury. What’s more, if you think about it, said one of them, the front is far away from here, who knows where, maybe in the Pacific Ocean, maybe in India, but definitely not in Halimunda. There were no wounded soldiers in this city, and nobody needed the Red Cross.
“They still need neck amputators, though,” said Dewi Ayu.
That joke no longer seemed funny, especially since the person telling it looked like she didn’t have a care in the world. She was enjoying everything, eating the apples that had been set out, and then eating the bananas and papayas just as voraciously.
“Are you starving, or just being greedy?” asked Ola.
Until the next day, nothing happened to them, and they grew more and more confused. Ola tried to comfort herself, thinking that maybe they were going to be exchanged with other prisoners of war, and that’s why they were being given good food, clothing, and shelter, so that they wouldn’t appear to be suffering. Not even one of the girls believed that. The opportunity to ask questions came when a number of Japanese men appeared at the house, along with a photographer. But none of them could speak English, Dutch, or Malaysian. They just gave the indication to look stylish, because the girls were going to be photographed. Reluctantly they lined up in front of the camera with forced smiles, hoping Ola was right that their portrait would be made into a campaign about the condition of the prisoners, and after that there would be an exchange of prisoners of war.
“Why don’t you ask Mama Kalong?” asked Dewi Ayu.
So they found that woman, and accosted her.
“You said we were going to be Red Cross volunteers!”
“Volunteers, yes,” said Mama Kalong, “But maybe not Red Cross.”
She looked at all the girls, who looked back at her full of hope. They waited, their innocent faces almost completely without sin, until Mama Kalong just shook her head weakly. She left them and they quickly followed her, demanding, “Say something!”
“All I know is that you are prisoners of war.”
“Why are we being given all this food?”
“So that you don’t die.” Then she disappeared into the back yard, going who knows where. The girls could not pursue her because the Japanese soldiers intercepted them and let the woman go.
Their annoyance only grew when they returned to the house and found their friend Dewi Ayu sitting in a rocking chair humming softly, still eating her apples. She looked in their direction, and smiled to see their faces holding back rage. “You look funny,” she said, “like rag dolls.” They stood surrounding her, but Dewi Ayu stayed silent, until one of them finally said:
“Don’t you feel like something strange is going on?” she asked. “Aren’t you worried about anything?”
“Worry comes from ignorance,” said Dewi Ayu.
“You think you know what is going to happen to us?” asked Ola.
“Yes,” she said, “We are going to become prostitutes.”
They all knew it, but only Dewi Ayu was brave enough to say it.