Flying Mouths | Indonesian Short Stories | Kliping Sastra Nusantara

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Flying Mouths

In Babad Kasunyatan, Empu Saprakawi wrote a song about flying mouths. Anatomically speaking, these mouths are no different than a human mouth — except these flying mouths tend to hover or swarm over a pile of dirt or excrement.

The curious thing was these mouths had been invisible to most people. All you could hear was the noise they made, or at least the echo of such noise, which at times sounded quite pleasant and at other times sounded rather infuriating. All the same, these mouths terrified the local community.

Empu Saprakawi called these mouths the invisible humming ghosts.

And he described their place as Neverwhere.

In Neverwhere, these mouths were first spotted by the locals after a long horseback ride from Kota Praja. Upon reading these accounts, Professor Hendrik Adsen turned away from the text and watched the yard outside from behind the window frame.

In Babad Kasunyatan, Empu Saprakawi wrote a song about flying mouths. (JP/Budhi Button)

A pair of doves were trailing after each other, making a pass over the red bougainvillea. God was sending down His army of drizzle and drenching the barbed wire, said the professor moments later.

I smiled, fixed my glasses and replied with a question: Should I interpret that, Professor?

He burst into the sort of laughter that sent his back shaking a little — the back that graciously stood against civilization and lent its strength to support the fragile bricks and mortars of the past.

He leaned back against the chair. Better to brew some coffee, he said. We were staying in a rather special room, thanks to the major funding he bequeathed to the library whose sole purpose of existence is to store ancient texts.

Only madmen and those without actual jobs would take on this sort of work, said the professor as we climbed aboard a pedicab.

A world that pretends to be wise needs someone like that, Professor, I said.

He shook his head. No, no, he said, not a world that pretends to be wise, but a world that snowballs into the future. They need someone who knows how to retrace their steps and see what they left behind.

The pedicab shook from laughter as it sped across a sharp turn among rows of banyan trees. These trees had witnessed the rise and fall of Javanese kings and the kingdoms they reigned over — each as fragile as the falling leaves and branches.

I brewed the professor’s favorite coffee, served black. He had contacted me after a colleague of his recommended my work. My article, apparently, which sought to interpret the political ramification of Baru Klinting in Babad Tulungagung, was quite helpful for him in his effort to interpret Babad Kasunyatan.

Ever since I was in college, I was already interested in the science of philology, as well as Javanese and Arabic writings. I also love puzzles, I said to the professor, and I like to walk inside unpredictable mazes, thinking about who created them and why.

The professor spoke in complex sentences: If you like it, one day you’ll create one and you’ll open it for the public so that when you reenter the maze you’ll realize it looks nothing like the one you initially created.

Then I realized the professor had a maze-like sense of humor.

I said, perhaps, that’s true, but I am not a female spy from Keraton Mangkunegaran, nor am I the original writer of Babad Jaka

Tingkir, whose loneliness was so acute it could only be matched by Narcissus. I’m not a member of an intelligence agency, either, Professor. When we got off the pedicab, we walked into a food stall in front of Kasunanan Square before heading toward another location.

Here’s the sort of friendship often shared by two very good chess players, I thought: We were both looking at the same board and weighing each other’s knowledge, measuring each other’s abilities and discovering each other’s secrets.

After taking a sip of the coffee, the professor said, which do you think is more important in our field of interpretation: accuracy or courage?

The rain hadn’t let up. It slowed down the day, but it did nothing to turn back time.

The professor was placing his pawn between my knight and queen. I reached for a cracker from inside a tin can — coconut flavor, my favorite.

In theory, there’s no such thing as accuracy in the work of an interpreter. Even rarer is the idea of courage. To be courageous without the protection of knowledge or fact is akin to sporadically moving one’s King across enemy territory. And to bear certainty upon one’s interpretation is akin to looking at the painting of a tiger and believing it is indeed a real tiger in the painting. Once the mind believes this, it will then refuse to accept that the tigers living out in the jungle are real.

Now replace the word tiger with God — imagine the sort of interpretation it produces. The believers will claim they have discovered and are fighting for God’s truth, when in reality they are simply reaffirming their own interpretation of God.

The work of an interpreter is no different than a game, I said, even though it has very specific rules.

The professor, castling his king and rook, said one is not allowed to gamble while inside a house of worship.

I told him I had heard someone say that a prayer is no different than a gambling act for the faithful. Once the words leave one’s mouth, all that’s left is one’s conviction and acceptance.

The professor reminded me that we were talking about profane matters, Empu Saprakawi’s Babad Kasunyatan. Should his work be considered a piece of resistance against religious scholars or statesmen? This context, I said, isn’t clear because in the lines that said “flying mouths/ created echoes/and sent the mind awashed” there were quite a few aspects we had not examined properly.

The professor laughed and said he understood all of it right from the beginning. He was troubled, however, by the redefining of these flying mouths in four separate texts published in four different periods and under four different kings.

To discover the essence, or spirit, of the blade of a kris, the metal had to be forged thousands of times, turned this way and that over scorching heat, cooled down, then sharpened by the blacksmiths.

Empu Saprakawi did the same thing with words, layering the spirit of his work with various literary techniques, said the professor.

What if these layers had nothing to do with the language or the meaning of the words, but rather the reader’s own perception of the text? I asked.

Do you mean to say that if I were born a Javanese, I would have an easier time understanding the text? asked the professor.

Or perhaps the opposite works best, I said, because an ant living in a circle wouldn’t see the full picture of what it means to be inside the circle. Then I said that since he was an outsider, he could probably see things most Javanese missed. It was also likely that he had read and evaluated Babad Kasunyatan in a more objective way than most Javanese, including when he read about the flying mouths.

Flying mouths, created echoes, sent the mind awashed.

It existed in Neverwhere. You can see it now: We’re going back into the past and imagine another person called Empu Saprakawi.

In Neverwhere, after a long horseback ride from Kota Praja, these mouths were said to have appeared in the form of a whispering wind. The wind brought news to the local community regarding the king’s murderous deed against the tigers simply to fetch skins as a gift for his fifth wife, a princess from a small kingdom. These mouths sent the news to everyone in Neverwhere. They took a sharp turn to the left, wrote Empu Saprakawi.

Then another school of flying mouths appeared and they took a sharp turn to the right. They had come from the opposite direction. These mouths spread the news about how it was considered natural for a king to murder another king: the king of man against the king of the jungle.

Later, I would interpret to the professor that to recover from this tragedy, an annual performance was held after the planting season, when buffalos were no longer used to plow the field but rather killed for consumption and when the game maesa-sima was held: a fight to the death between a buffalo and a tiger. The event would usually take place in Neverwhere’s main field, or in the square of Kota Praja. Wait, before we go there, the professor stopped me. First, he went on, let’s make sure what it was that Empu was trying to hide.

In Neverwhere rumors spread from the flying mouths, also known as yappy apparitions.

These mouths, which took a sharp turn to the right, had convinced the people that the king was in the right when he killed the tigers in the jungle simply to fetch their skins and fangs. While the mouths that took a sharp turn to the left had accused the king of forgetting all about the kingdom’s sacred revelations: a greedy king, a king who followed nothing but his own desire. In this moment, other mouths began to appear — crawling mouths — wrote Empu Saprakawi in Babad Kasunyatan. These mouths could turn left or right, depending on which side they would like to take.

They whispered into the wind and informed the right that the seed of revolution, backed by the enemy, was growing steadily in Neverwhere and that they must be disbanded soon, especially considering how the king had the full support of religious scholars.

Then to the left, the wind said how the king had lost his mind, because tigers, as the highestranking creatures of the jungle, were being slaughtered. Nature was losing the fight and because of this I thought, for certain, those scholars must have been bought. It also entered the local history books in Neverwhere as the bloodiest war they had ever seen. Those who survived the war were sent deep into the jungle and Neverwhere was burned to the ground. At this moment, Empu continued in his writing, a shepherd sat on the edge of a rice field. He called back the mouths and they went straight into his pocket: the ones that broke left, the ones that broke right and the crawling ones. He was the shepherd of all these mouths and he had been working quietly to dismantle and destroy Neverwhere. He had been sent there by somebody else.

What we need to know, said the professor, frowning, is who in the world is behind these notes about the Javanese kingdoms’ history and what sort of rumors did the mouths carry into Neverwhere to inflict suspicion among the local community and instigate destruction. How would this pattern repeat itself?

Now it was my turn to look across the yard and at the rain. There was the unmistakable quiet and loneliness that came from the beating of our own hearts – members of the civilization.

Another question: Since Empu Saprakawi was a pen name, who did write Babad Kasunyatan?

[1] Story was written by Eko Triono
[2] Has been published in the "Jakarta Post" 30 Januari 2017

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