‘The Retreat’ by J. Eijkelboom, Part II, continued from Part 1.
My transfer to Intelligence brought another sort of life with it. In the desa where I moved in with a detachment of ten indigenous soldiers, I could start living together with Soemiati for the first time. We occupied the house of the lurah, who had fled, a primitive and at the same time comfortable dwelling. In the almost empty rooms it was deliciously cool, doors and shutters were of unpainted jati wood and between the sculptured tie beams one looked straight at the underside of the tiled roof. In the bedroom I installed a large square bed with a white klambu that was as high as the bed was long and wide so that the whole of it had the form of a cube: a little room within a room. Where the klambu was split the two halves of it were kept apart by a few silver hooks in the form of birds of paradise. This sounds perhaps somewhat precious but in the old Indies houses one saw that kind of hooks as often as a pitcher with us.
Soemiati got the command (and enjoyed this visibly) of the servants consisting of a babu for the washing, a koki for preparing our food, a kebon for the garden and a jongos as a sort of barefoot butler. I could pay for all this thanks to uncheckable funds that served to pay spies (or “informants” as they were officially called). I had feared that being continuously together with Soemiati would in the long run pall on me, but in spite of the fact that in the beginning nothing much was going on, she fascinated me even more than before. I was amused by her shrewdness in making her purchases and in settling quarrels between the wives of soldiers. I looked on enthralled when she was taming a squirrel; I still see her brushing her face, eyes closed, along the bushy tail of the animal. And the pantuns that Soemiati wrote down for me were positively a discovery. I had never heard of these Malay quatrains before and so I asked Soemiati whether she had made these herself. She said yes, but not long after I got hold of a booklet with Indonesian popular poetry in which I found some of Soemiati’s pantuns again. When I showed her the book she didn’t betray the slightest confusion. She even became angry when I reproached her for adorning herself with borrowed plumes.
Those pantuns are in my head, I remember them and write them down. So didn’t I make them?
I was so surprised that I agreed with her.
Yet, all happiness has boredom in its wake. So I was glad when I started to become busy because of an armistice that was in the offing. I had by then seen enough papers to realise that this time around there would be a definite settlement of the conflict. Dutch soldiers would be sent home and so my stay in the desa would soon be at an end as well. The thought of this made me sometimes gloomy and uneasy but never for longer than a moment; for Soemiati was always merry and without worries, wasn’t she. Even thinking of the coming separation (we didn’t talk about it as a matter of course) must have been taboo for her. She had the capacity to completely ignore a thought that she found repugnant without this ever making a forced impression.
The Kommando Distrik Militer, the republican military authority in the district where I worked, turned out to consist of a group of young hotheads under a middle-aged captain. I soon befriended the young KDM-members; they appeared to be far less fanatical than they looked with their long hair and their pistol holsters of leopard skin. After the armistice had come about the local government had given me permission to distribute textile in my district. I wanted to involve the KDM in this but, though most people were still walking around in gunny sacks, the captain had at first all kinds of objections. I assured him that this distribution couldn’t be a political trick because the Dutch were soon going to withdraw from Indonesia anyway, but this did not lessen his resistance. Soemiati then advised me to give him a few lengths of textile “untuk person saja”, for himself alone. I followed her advice with the necessary wariness and, indeed, the captain became suddenly helpfulness in person. On the eve of the distribution a few pamphlets were found with the text:
Who wants to sell his liberty for three meters of cotton? It is just enough for a shroud.
The distributors of these were tracked down and imprisoned by the captain.
The soldiers of my detachment meanwhile became more uneasy by the day. At first they had still regarded the armistice as a sort of stratagem.
They all walk into the trap, these stupid pelopors!
a corporal had shouted when we were visited once again by a few soldiers of the tentara. I had carefully tried to explain to him that the struggle against the republic could well be over.
But they are our enemies, sersan, aren’t they?
he asked almost pleadingly. He looked as some one who has just seen his house collapse. The miserable position of these professional soldiers was worsened because most of their white superiors encouraged them to keep offering resistance against the republic. The officers with whom I had to do adopted a similar attitude. At a meeting of detachment commanders a major of divisional headquarters told us that we could best prepare for a third “police action”, that, according to him, could be expected any moment now, to sow as much discord as possible between the various units of the republican army. The gathering consisted for the larger part of noncom officers of the colonial army, thus people who thought the rancorous wishful thinking of the major to be absolutely splendid. So I was not planning to come up with a useless protest, but my irritation was obviously so conspicuous that the major asked me of his own accord whether it could be that I had any objections. I answered him that his stratagem was diametrically opposed to government policy (the Round Table Conference had just started then). I found it a ridiculous argument myself but, confronted with a superior, I wanted to keep the matter in the formal sphere; it could also be that I tried to find cover behind the highest authority that I could drag in. A half-hearted debate followed, in which I tried to express myself as cautiously as possible, because I didn’t feel in the least inclined to martyrdom. Yet I was, back at my post, already informed the day after that my replacement would arrive within a week.
Only at the very last moment did I dare to inform Soemiati of our departure for the city. Her reaction seemed pretty matter of fact. She cried a bit and then set everybody to work for our move. Her reaction proved to be more positive than I had anticipated compared to the experience I had with her during an evening walk a few days before. We had stopped then near a kali in the vicinity of our house. The moon was reflected brightly in the river. From all sides crickets, frogs and lizards made the muffled noise that, in the tropical night, stands for the idea of repose. But within this quietness I experienced all of a sudden a rare excitement, the feeling, that became increasingly stronger, that a superhuman happiness was in store for me. Each past defeat was erased and each future deficit absolved by it in advance. It had little or nothing to do with Soemiati; the warm pressure of her body was involved in it but not its cause. The humming around me became the long sustained pianissimo of a gigantic orchestra; the night quivered as the nostrils of a horse of which one knows that it is going to win the race. And that whole tremendous promise was a fulfillment in itself, did not need any sequel, looked as if it would last eternally.
There was a slight movement in the water that shattered the almost round reflection of the moon and made a shoal of shining fishes of it. The moment started to dissolve. If Soemiati got something of it, I quickly thought, it could perhaps be retained. “Listen” I said and pulled her more closely against me. Astonished she broke down in a story about a dress she was planning to make. “Those crickets” I tried to explain to her and with my free hand I made an incoherent gesture to the sky. “Yes, it is beautiful here” she confirmed and dreamily she added “perhaps I can buy a red sash with it.” I jerked her a half circle around and while I looked hard into her glistening eyes I said slowly and emphatically:
What shall we do if presently we are no longer together?
It was as if a cloud went across the moon, her face so completely changed expression. Her eyes became dull; the frivolity of her mouth dissolved into a gloomy spot.
I don’t know
she answered in a toneless voice. She shivered suddenly with cold, but instead of seeking warmth with me, she crossed her arms against her bosom. We returned home in silence, without looking at or touching each other. When we were lying on our bed tears came out of her staring eyes one by one. I tried to console her but she did not react to my whisperings and caresses, and finally I fell asleep beside her. When I woke up next morning she was lying in exactly the same position as the evening before; her pillow was still wet. I got up carefully. Generally she immediately noticed it when I left her, but she was so exhausted now that she kept sleeping quietly. A few hours later she woke up; during the morning she was a bit more quiet than usual but later in the day one could no longer see any trace of her sorrow.
In the city I was put up in a school building with a platoon infantry. I found a room for Soemiati in the house of a police officer whom I knew from the past. She was at any case safe there for the so called reprisal committees that went every night murdering and pillaging through the city targeting especially genuine and alleged collaborators; they would leave our police officer alone, he was known as a good shot. After one week however, he was transferred to a bigger city and I now decided to go directly with Soemiati to Surabaya where she claimed to still have some relatives. I got four days leave; two of those were necessary for going there and the return trip, so that I could stay with Soemiati in Surabaya for two days. There I tried to get as closely as possible to her idea of what a big city should be. In those shops with their blatant inventory I bought a gramophone, some bracelets and some other, mostly useless things, for her. The first day there we saw a dramatic movie that made her cry, and the second day a comedy that made her laugh her head off. In a bejak richly decorated with ribbons and paper flowers we let ourselves be taken to the kampong where she claimed to have a brother. The hostile faces that I had seen everywhere made me decide not to accompany her any further. I arranged with Soemiati that we would meet each other again in about two hours time at a square in that neighborhood. I saw her going into that kampong with a heavy heart, not because of any danger that might be threatening her there but because I wasn’t sure that that brother of hers was really her brother. Even before these two hours had gone by Soemiati returned with the information that she had found shelter with her family. In spite of my suspicion I felt relieved. For the rest, of all emotions that had to do with our parting nothing came through in our conversation. We talked about it as if it concerned a third person, somebody we both knew well but for whom we couldn’t generate much feeling. We agreed of course that we would write each other and that I would come to Surabaya as soon as possible. I kept quiet about the fact that it would take at least a month before I would get the opportunity to go to her, and that then it would likely be the last time before my departure for Holland. And indeed, what did it matter? The screaming of the locomotive, the nervous bustle of the late travelers and the darkness beneath the station roof must have inspired in her the conviction that we would never see each other again. Yet she looked at me calmly when I took leave of her. To fill the emptiness of that moment I shouted at her:
Perhaps I will be transferred to Surabaya!
See you again, sampai ketemu lagi
Soemiati shouted back. I saw her getting smaller on the deserted platform, a wisp of snow white smoke around her. I withdrew my head hastily when I got a bit of soot in my eye. The mirror in the toilet reflected a staring red haggard eye above a tear stained cheek; it was as if a higher power had wanted to make some correction to my impassiveness.
To be continued…