Part II “Mud”


Part II “Mud”

Part two of a six-part science fiction series by Khairani Barokka

by Athina Ibrahim


I am four years old, the stick of red lollipop to lolling tongue still bright and thick as I smack my mouth. We are underwater. My grandmother and I.

I am holding her vein-mottled hand in a yellow sundress, patterned with wide-eyed monkeys. We are breathing air so crisp it feels like a ray of light up my tiny nostrils. It feels like a ray of sun would, have felt before we had to wear clothes with special things in the seams and cut, to keep the skin-edge of arms from burning.

In this time, Nenek and I are not wearing any of our clothing like this from the city. I feel gusts of air like rivers, and I see clouds. And above the low clouds there is water and the speckle of infinite mobs of fish. (When I am fourteen, I learn the word “mob” and think back to this image, and that is what it is. I might tell you someday soon how I learn the word “mob”, the same day I learn the sound of a rifle cock.) This is a circle with a very big hole in it, I think, as wind blows past my little child legs, in a bubble as big as what they say about heaven. We see silky fern kelp towers, beyond the spherical walls, reflecting blue like pulsating glass. Grandmother spots a whale in the skyward distance with eyes like my grandfather.

Up go our faces tilted to the liquid white circle of the sun from undersea, and when they look down again, I see where we are. Ini namanya sawah. This is a paddy field.

Our feet are in mud laced with green rice paddies. My toes squelch, and something that feels like a worm slides past my big toe on my right, and it tickles. I scream with laughter and squeeze my grandmother’s hand, but she is not looking at my face at all.

Grandmother is looking around her with a closemouthed smile at the houses crowding horizon, made of rattan and wood, built delicate; insect exoskeletons of homes. There are people around us, conical hats on them, men and women wrapped in quick speech or pulling paddy from the ground, sighing, shouting at children who are laughing, bareheaded. One very small boy is trying to bite another’s shoulders, and the parents are complacent. Another is miraculously sitting down in calm, and his older sister cannot stop speaking to him as though he’s spilt milk, curving her wagging finger in the air. Somewhere the voice of a school choir singing a lullaby about a tortoise. She doesn’t look at me at all, my grandmother is smiling and smiling and smiling, until I pinch her palm with my other hand, and she laughs like a twenty-five-year old.

This unfamiliar loudness bends the necks of the sea village crowds to look at us, almost at once, and I begin to panic. “We aren’t at home. Mau pulang, Nek, pulang!”

My grandmother kneels down very quickly, suddenly in possession of the joints of a very young girl–persis seperti gadis. She looks me in the eyes and grins wide, teeth no longer blackened nor coarse. Nenek sings with the voice of my mother coming out of her, calling me Jude for reasons unknown to my tiny, disoriented frame, telling me not to make it bad. “Take a sad sooong, and make it bette-e-er!”

She sings, and picks me up in the swathe of this hazy aquarium, and swings me, just as the whale with grandfather’s eyes makes a comeback appearance in the ocean-sky, wading its bulk into the corner of my eye: “Nahhhh, nah, nah, nah nah nah nahhhhh! Nah nah nah nah nahhhhhhh, hey Jude!”

“Nahhhhhhhh! Udah bangun ya?”

Nenek croaks and claps as I gasp awake with the lollipop red in my mouth, and says, “It’s morning. You fell asleep in my fat old arms as I told you about the fields undersea.”

Our clothes are the special kind again. Our house is in the melting city. Our grime is everyone else’s. My stomach, echoing the surprise of consciousness, growls as though carving a question mark into familiar places, like the mattress I lie on, the sweatgrooves of my palms that have only been alive the same four years.

She turns around and walks in steady shuffles to the kitchen, where the water is boiling on the kettle. Without turning, my grandmother smacks her lips and adjusts her sarong as she goes, saying barely loud enough, “Nak, I can tell you how to get there…”

Read the rest of the series here:
Part I
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VIwhiteboardjournal, logo