Leaves of Peace
by James Penha
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Peace was not what the two-hour bus ride from Sibolga to Batang Toru brought Halim. The driver took every turn at top speed and ran over broken, rocky stretches of the road as if he were cruising a newly-paved toll road. Halim touched his arm where, beneath his shirt, he wore a patch of fentanyl. “One hundred times stronger than morphine,” Teguh had explained, “and designed to last twenty-four hours, although you may need a fresh patch more often.”
The three replacements the doctor had somehow managed to obtain were in a pocket in Halim’s backpack. Halim smiled to think how, at least, the fentanyl masked the bus-inflicted muscle aches as well as the pain of the cancer devouring those muscles. How was he even able to sit up straight? he wondered. Or walk? A zombie, he replied to himself; he was the walking dead.
When the bus leaped up the awkward incline to the bridge over the river, Halim recognized that he was home, for had spent almost every day of his youth swimming or fishing in that river or simply lying on its banks with Tomi. But where was Tomi now? Except for the river and its ancient bridge, the town was so different. Gold had been discovered some years earlier, and the mining companies that invaded the town wanted a city.
Using the crutches Doctor Teguh had loaned him, Halim disembarked at the terminal. Tomi had sold cigarettes at this place when it was little more than a bus stop, Halim recalled. They had both lived not far away; close enough for Halim to try to walk to Tomi’s old house on a path Halim had trod hundreds of times. How often had he hung over the window ledge of Tomi’s room to awaken him for school? How often had he crept over that same ledge surreptitiously to visit his friend at night?
Halim shook his head and all the memories within. But which was the house? The neighborhood was not exactly as he remembered it. But if that mango tree, infested now with its own malignant parasites, was the one he recalled from his youth, then this little house, its facade newly tiled in pink, must be Tomi’s.
Halim balanced himself before the front door, knocked, and called, “Salaam Alaikum.” A young boy of about fourteen, Halim guessed, opened the door.
“Alaikum Salaam,” the boy responded.
“Is your father home?”
The boy closed the door and reopened it moments later in the presence of a woman dressed in the uniform of a civil servant. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“My name is Halim. From Sibolga now, but I used to live in Batang Toru many more than twenty years ago.”
“In this house?” the woman asked.
“No, no. But not far away. This, I think — but it looks so different, I can’t even be sure — used to be my friend’s house. His name was Tomi. I am looking for him. I came to Batang Toru to find him.”
“And his family name?”
The woman scrunched her nose and mouth. “I don’t think I can help. Maybe this was the house. We bought it four years ago from a family named Siregar. I wouldn’t know about anyone before that.”
“Would you like a cup of tea, Bapak Halim?”
“No. No, thank you. I need to get along.”
“Where will you search now?”
“The place least likely to change, I think. Thank you for your kindness.”
The woman wrapped her right arm around her son, who hadn’t moved from the threshold, and closed the door with her left hand.
* * *
Halim headed back to the terminal. Pain, like broken shards of glass, cut into his abdomen. Soon, he knew, his whole body would become his greatest enemy. He needed a new patch. When he reached the main road, he hailed a pedicab and, shaking his crutches in explanation as he climbed into the back seat, begged the driver to get him to Masjid Al Ikhlas quickly but with as few bumps as possible.
Mosques even more than most buildings in a growing Indonesian city were subject to showy reconstructions, but Masjid Al Ikhlas had been built, more than two centuries earlier, of teak and ironwood without so much as a single nail. It was one of the wonders of the Islamic world. Unless an earthquake had devoured it, Al Ikhlas would await Halim as it had in his youth: cool and beautiful, dark and inviting. And, indeed, in minutes, the mosque’s great brown cupola — the magical mound of chocolate, Tomi called it — came into view.
Halim struggled to release himself from the pedicab, paid the driver, and hurried as best he could to one of the toilets at the back of the complex. From his backpack pocket, he extracted a sachet. Fentanyl, the label said. He took off his shirt and replaced the patch he had been wearing on his upper left arm. The traditional toilet had no commode, no place to sit, and so Halim leaned his forehead and hands against the wall until the shards of glass inside him turned into sand.
When he gathered the strength to walk, Halim left the toilet and entered the mosque’s office. It served as well as a souvenir shop selling shawls and beads with wooden tags into each of which was burned an etching of the famous mosque. Halim asked the white-robed haji at the counter if he might see the imam. “Imam Iskandar?” asked the haji. “He is resting in the residence.”
“Imam Iskandar? Then he is still imam here?”
“For almost fifty years now. You know him?”
“I grew up in Batang Toru. I spent so much of my childhood in the mosque.”
“Yes. And playing... like all boys.”
“They still do.” The haji laughed. “I think I recognize you. What is your name?”
“Halim. My father was Asrul Harahap. We moved to Sibolga more than twenty years ago.”
“Asrul’s son! Halim!” croaked an old man, as ruddy as his robes were white, ambling in to the office.
“Imam!” Halim cried and took the ancient one’s wrinkled right hand and kissed it. “Alahu Akbar. Salaam alaikum.”
“Alaikum salaam, Halim.” The haji got out of his chair to make way for the imam, but Iskandar patted Halim on the shoulder. “You sit, Halim. You look like you need a chair more than I do.” Halim demurred, but Iskandar insisted, “You look like death.”
“I... I have not been well.”
“No, no. I can see that. You are living where?”
“Sibolga. I took the bus—”
“To visit the mosque before you die?”
“Well, yes, I suppose... yes.” The imam nodded. “And to find my old friend Tomi. Tomi Nasution. You remember him?”
“I remember you both. Typical bad Muslim boys, I think.” The imam leaned into a corner of the office. “You used to sneak out of Friday prayers and hide in the rafters beneath the dome.”
“We did. Often.”
“Not only on Fridays?”
“It was our special place.”
“Yes.” The imam paused before addressing the haji. “Bapak Haji, can you leave us for a moment to reminisce. I think I can handle any rush of tourists here.” The imam smiled and said to Halim, “We are waiting for our first customer in three days.”
* * *
When they were alone, the imam said, “One of the reasons I remember you is that one evening, I climbed to the dome and found you, you and Tomi.”
“I did. There were no lights up there, but the moon was full, and so the two of you were quite visible.”
“And quite naked.”
“We were, yes, that is possible. Imam, I am here to admit to my sins.”
“You were having sex with your friend, although I could not discern who was doing what to whom.” He paused. “Not that it matters. The following day, I ordered a gate to be built and locked in front of the stairway to the dome.” He fiddled in his pocket and removed a key. “It’s still there.”
“Imam, can you forgive me? Can God forgive me for sinning in his house, for that blasphemy? How can I atone for this abomination?”
“Oh, please! You were young. And you were friends. Do you think you were the first teenagers in this town who ever had sex?”
“But in the mosque!”
“The complex has many private hideaways. You were not the first or the last couple to discover one. And I bet that time I saw you was not the first or last time you had sex with your friend.” He waited. “Was it?”
“No. We... we loved each other very much.”
“And so what happened that you need to find him now? You must have lost him.”
“I came to feel ashamed of what I felt, of loving a boy. Imam, you know, this is not acceptable in our religion, in my family, in our tradition.”
“That is so. You felt—”
“Sick. That is what homosexuals are called here. Sick.”
“And did Tomi feel the same way?”
No one spoke for a while.
“He loved me, he said. He wanted us to run away to Padang or Jakarta where there were plenty of people like us.” Tears poured from Halim’s eyes. He raised his head and shook it back and forth, back and forth. “One night we were lying in his bed in his room, where I had so often come to find him. We had had sex before sleeping. No, Imam, let me be honest, more honest than ever: we had made love. But I had already decided — had been trying to decide — to end this immoral behavior.
“In the middle of the night, I felt his mouth. I told him to stop. I told him he was sick. He was sick, I said, not me. I screamed that I hated people like him. Hated them! And to prove it, I beat him, Imam. Beat him with my fists and dragged him onto the floor to kick him where he fell. He didn’t try to defend himself. He just rolled into a ball. I climbed out his window and ran away.”
“You never saw him again?”
“I did. I saw what I had done to him. Batang Toru was a small town. But I avoided him.”
“Because you told yourself you hated him.”
“That is what I told myself.”
“But I loved him.” The imam held Halim’s head to his breast. “Can you forgive me, Imam?”
“It is not up to me, Halim, to forgive you. I am not offended.”
“Then God? Can God forgive me?”
“I don’t think He will.”
“Then I am doomed in ways I cannot even describe, Imam.”
“I don’t think God will forgive you until you atone.”
“How, Imam, how?”
“With Tomi. You must speak to Tomi.”
“I came to Batang Toru to do just that. But where is he?”
“He owns the old bread factory. It has a bakery and a café attached now. Tomi is our Starbucks. But he isn’t Tomi any more. He calls himself Marissa. Go to Marissa’s, Halim. Explain yourself to Marissa.”
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by James Penha