The black boy squealed with joy, arms sprawled out in triumph, as the battered, aged ball bounced past the inconspicuous line, signaled by two rocks on the barren field. Fellow companions, all village boys, run up to him, singing their excited praises and shared pats on their backs. The others kids groaned reproachfully, shaking their heads. Today was a great day for that boy.
´Not the least, ´ he thought, as he skidded back, match now over, to Nugaru with his friends for work on the rice farms, ` being that his older brother, Saaki, was coming home from war on the frontier with East Timor.
That war had been cause of much suffering, the youngster reflected darkly while watching with squinting eyes the yellow orb, slowly obscured by the approaching clouds of Monsoon rain. He had never known his father, which remained a forlorn enigma in his young mind; there were no pictures of him in the house. His father had been randomly selected for the first regime, gone to fight against the Fretilin in 1994, when the conflict had deepened. Now, years past, he had never returned. With the absence of her firstborn and husband, Talawi’s mother was hard-pushed to provide enough for her family and required constant help. Nevertheless they did not endure this crisis alone; the lack of men had taken its toll on the whole village. The forthcoming hunger that had threatened to ravish Nugaru at the start was now an everyday fact, a daily enemy that bore no mercy. It had never disappeared, not even after more than 30 years.
He waved goodbye to his chattering friends at the crossroad that directed the dust laden path to his home. It was a small wooden dwelling rising in the distance, surrounded by rich green grass fields. As he stalked down the narrow road, he brooded glumly on the terrible effect war had had on his mum. His heart ached with sadness, a dull, heavy weight in his empty stomach, whenever he thought of her. She was a fine woman, his mother. Her smooth, beautiful dark skin that usually smelt like moist, earthy soil and palawija crops now stretched like thin paper on her high cheekbones. Her chocolate eyes that had once shone with happiness found their glimmer lost, wearing down to an open void of raw fear and grief. She attempted to hide this from her children by camouflaging her pain, to protect them and their childhood innocence. But her impromptu masks were wasted efforts; Talawi’s childhood was long marred by war. He had never experienced the happiness of a time without it, only a degree of lesser sorrow and responsibility when his father had been home. Never would he feel so elated, so gleefully happy, as he knew a child should. Because he saw, and he hurt inwardly too, so she would not feel so lonely.
Lunch was an interesting affair. The tension hung tangibly in the air, which seemed to have mysteriously frozen solid. The anxious waiting for the return of their beloved made eating a strangely difficult task. Nevertheless, they sat, crouched low over the small wooden table, munching in silence the Bumbur Atayam. Talawi took small bites of his spiced chicken, trying to savor every mouthful, and wondered what Saki could be eating now, if he was at all. The Atayam had always been his personal favorite and usually he stole some of Talawi’s helping with mischievous delight.
The older woman kept looking at the door, a searching gaze in her stare, as if hoping to see him stoically walking through the threshold, clamoring welcome with his deep voice and then settling on his usual seat, nearest to the window… or perhaps dreading the absence of his grand, comical entrance. For there was a chance, unspoken but echoed in the numbing silence, an outcome already repeated in their tragic family history, one they were unable to face yet again. That sad twist of fate reappeared hauntingly in Talawi’s nightmares, a cruelty spun unconsciously by his own imagination. It taunted him now more than ever. However, this option, though fiercely not uttered, the one implied in every corner of the sad household, was definitely a possibility. Saaki may not come back at all, like his Father.
Talawi suddenly found he was unable to remain for a minute longer trapped between those decaying walls that reeked of death, underneath the falling straw-lined roof that suggested mourning. They were painful reminders of the shadows of past joy that had been obscured by sorrow. He could not stay, not even to comfort his mother. Though barely nine years old, he was the man in the house, the eldest present child; it was his duty to remain strong, to shed no emotion that may impart any weakness. He could not be the crack in the stone, even when all that remained were mere pebbles and some dust.
His mother’s broken eyes found his, and she whispered the one word that could release him, so softly he barely heard it: “Go”. Talawi ran away from the decaying house, treading on the numerous puddles of water that had formed in the ground. They splashed against his bare legs, but he no longer cared, for he was already rather wet. The first of the Monsoon rains had finally arrived, and it clung to his small frame. They mixed with the tears that silently fell down his face, slowly washing away his pain. He ran past the hen house and chicken coop, past the vegetable patch and endless fields covered by green sprouts. When he finally reached his destination he was out of breath, but it felt good to use energy, to feel the power running through his muscles, to actually do something. His favorite tree stood in the distance, towering above the impossibly green shoots. It was old, weathered and most importantly had survived many storms, remarkably persevering over nature and time itself. He hid near the roots of the tree, curled into a petite ball, sheltered away from the rain and the outside world. He then closed his eyes, feeling safety from the brush of the curvy, rough bark behind him against his skin. The dry soil contorted into smooth dust beneath the power of his small, crushing hands. All he could hear was the pounding afternoon rain, each single raindrop inexorably falling towards the hard ground. The smell of humidity reached his nostrils, clean, moist and absolutely unique. Talawi loved the rain and its steady beat, each drop fulfilling its destiny, forming a nostalgic melody. He felt alone in front of a vast blue ocean, filling his soul with a deep, much needed calm.
For hours on end, unmoving beside his tree, he heard the rain, the strongest of the forces that nature so beautifully arrayed, so predictable, and so overwhelming. Sometime later a mysterious new sound, a chirpy, steady one, added itself to the loud tempest’s repertoire. They were crickets. Determinately they raised their voices, screeching a song so breathtaking, so simple and utterly lonely. They carried on for a while, demanding the world to listen to their ode, to hear their say. It seemed they were singing with their hearts, though under apparently unbearable conditions, yet their tune carried nonetheless. The rain ploughed on restlessly and the crickets endured, proudly chirping their song, of such beauty as was never heard.
Suddenly, everything came clear to him. A new hope sprouted somewhere deep within him, lighting up a fire that coursed through his veins. With a newly found, wonderful rush of adrenalin he stood up and, with squared shoulders and firm jaw, he ran back home. He finally understood, as he watched the blurring sprouts rushing past, that he belonged back home, however shattered and pain-filled. A shimmering trickle of light seemed to guide him to the wooden dwelling, where he was sure something was awaiting. He couldn’t explain it, but just as the rain, he guessed it was something out of mankind’s reach or control.
He slowed down, feeling the mud slide between his toes, and opened the battered door. As he crossed the threshold, the last rays of sunlight outlined the silhouette of a truly familiar figure. Saki had returned. The child uttered a cry of pure joy and leaped into the welcoming arms. Hugging the man’s well-built frame, he let the tears fall unashamedly and stared into his brother’s eyes, feeling nothing but bliss. They finally settled down by the small table and Talawi looked properly at his brother for the first time since his arrival. He was so grown-up; the stubby hairs growing from his chin were longer than ever, he was leaner also, thinner, and his eyes… they were different. They had lost their quivering glimmer in those black depths. Talawi frowned, he had changed. Nevertheless, Saki leaned over and ruffled the boy’s brown locks.
“I’m so glad I returned,” he whispered, gazing at the broken household in wonder.
“I always knew you would” Talawi confidently piped back, absurdly content.
“You don’t know, there was absolutely nothing I could take for granted,” he answered, shaking his head in sadness, “Where is mother?”
“She went to find water in the village” he answered, with evident happiness.
Saki rose gently, taking care not to bump the table.
“Let’s go find her, then” he stated with a smile.
Talawi jumped to his feet loudly, skipped outside and grabbed his brother’s hand. They treaded their way through the muddy road to Nugaru silently, both enjoying the moment. The sounds of the jungle dominated the scene, animals and otherwise unknown screeched their intense tunes, announcing the approaching twilight. Among their mist, Talawi heard his crickets.
“How was war?” Talawi said, unable to contain his curiosity. He swung their hands like a disjointed pendulum, feeling inexplicably light, bubbly.
He suddenly stopped and pondered the question, peering into the dying rays of sunlight. “Let’s not talk about that” he said somberly, with a heavier tone of voice. “I didn’t get along well with my troop companions. They were from Kupang,” he pointed out, explaining, “didn’t treat me right”
“They were bad people?” Talawi asked, eyes widening in surprise, wondering why on earth his brother would be mistreated.
“Yeah,” his brother sighed, answering after gazing at the intense jungle, “They weren’t happy when those foreigners ordered us away, even though we would be heading home”
They were quite near the village now and the sun had finally set, rendering the sky a vibrant red.
“Let’s hurry now,” he said in a worried tone. When his smaller brother scrunched up his small eyebrow in confusion, he added tersely, “They don’t like Nugaru very much”
Saki stood down and caught his younger sibling, carrying him slightly haphazardly. He quickened his pace, taking faster strides. The last turn around the hill lay ahead, just a few meters away. From there they would be just in sight of Nugaru.
A horrible vision met them. The whole village was ablaze, the wooden houses burning uselessly. Billowing black smoke emerged, forming a growing tumultuous cloud, staining the sunset. Desperate cries of anguish filled the air, each more terror-filled than the last, echoing in the darkening skies. Amongst the mayhem, loud, banging noises erupted, generating a fresh chorus of frantic screams. They were solely interrupted by the racket of whizzing bullets, destroying everything in their path.
The catastrophic image was too much for Talawi. He staggered back a few paces and closed his eyes, unable to comprehend how his whole world was torn up in flames, decimated. Saki kneeled ahead, powerless to remain standing, finally broken. Fresh, angry tears sprouted from the boy’s unbelieving eyes, observing the image of utter devastation, as reality dawned upon them both. Mother was surely dead, yet the inertia to do something about it was devastating, far too painful to bear. They remained there, knowing they could not go, and the screams rang still, whilst the fire raged on. All the while, the animalistic cries coming from the jungle, though forgotten, had continued…and yet something was missing. The crickets sang no more.