(Originally published in ChiZine #37, 2008)
At the beginning, at the very very beginning of time, the General ate a bullet. Those of us who weren’t sure about the dukun were worried, and we sat with our elbows on our knees and our chins on our fists around the table, under the single naked bulb with the dangling string. The dukun, who said his name was Kurang, had already washed the bullet in holy water that he said came from the very north-of-the-equator springs the Sultans of Sriwijaya bathed in. He said some incantations and then told the General to eat it.
“There. Eat. Eat it. It will make you know things about people, so you know where to aim when you shoot them.”
The General stared at the bullet until sweat dropped onto the plate.
Kurang bent over. “Mister General,” he said, “I promise, good things will happen. You’ll see like a garuda, Mister General.” He always mocked us. Kurang was one of those villagers who doesn’t really give a shit about national unity. They’re godless men and that’s another thing that bothered me, because the General was devout as all hell. “And then you lift your gun, or they lift their guns…” he looked at us, the uncomfortable posse. “And you know exactly where to aim. This bullet has the gift, Mister General. It will give you the gift too.”
We’d pulled it out of a dead man two days earlier. A clean heart wound that had punctured a major artery – he died immediately. It was perfect, we thought as we smoked our Marlboros and sat on our folding chairs, watching the corpse. Of course we bound him up first and put him against the chalk sketch lines on the basement wall so he wouldn’t squirm and so we knew where to nuzzle the barrel. What Kurang told us was this: the dead man has to be the right man, the bullet has to go through the heart, and the bullet has to kill right away.
He was someone who’d been in on our list for a while. A Communist, of course, a party pusher who carried around paperback Mao and mingled with pushcart-peddlers and pretended to be one of them. He was going to go eventually, so we figured, may as well be now.
“Eat it, Mister General. Don’t you want to be a great man?”
He took it like a pill. He started choking. We pushed our chairs back and got up and cursed at Kurang but Kurang was already right at the General’s side, helping him swallow the tea. “There, there,” said Kurang. “Hush hush, it’s okay, Mister General.”
We waited for something to change. Nothing did at first. The General made a joke, we laughed; he announced he was going to bed to sleep, and Kurang said that was a good idea. The General walked out of the room rubbing his ribcage, looking puzzled. We said to ourselves: okay, if he’s dead tomorrow morning, so is that dukun.
But he wasn’t dead. He was up bright and early and he wasn’t wearing his glasses when we had our morning meeting in his office. He doled us out assignments. They had schedules on them and everything. We asked him why he wasn’t wearing his glasses and he said, “Don’t need them. I feel so sharp today. It’s like looking through a submarine periscope, you know?” And he made this pantomime motion of a navy admiral looking through a periscope and adjusting the lens and then laughed. We all laughed. He laughed until he coughed out a tiny pellet of a bullet that burned one of his memos. We asked the dukun but he said that was a normal side effect.
So that was how it started. Nothing very strange. My daughter was drawing people’s faces back then, which was also not very strange, except she never filled them in. Whole families without faces.
A week later the General had indirectly sent ten of the most dangerous Communist strategists into the next world. I assume they went to hell, but I’ve never been to check. They were hidden ones with inconspicuous day jobs – moonlighters. One was a doctor, one taught mathematics. The Communists were squabbling now like hens without a rooster, and they went looking for new warmth. They went for navymen. I don’t know what’s wrong with the navy, if it’s from fighting pirates in the Sunda Strait or if it’s just being seaborne that fucks with your head, but they had too many dinners with Communists. I have always thought this. I was getting out of the lounge when I saw Kurang on the street corner in this horrible fake trenchcoat with buttons hanging like eyes out of sockets. He wasn’t even smoking, he was just there.
“What? Looking for a hooker?”
“You want to help Mister General, right, Lieutenant?”
I looked around for any President’s men. Just zombies and shapeshifters, hanging around in rags and eating noodles, probably infected with hookworm eggs. I looked at Kurang. “Are you following me?”
“You’re the best Lieutenant. Mister General needs to get those sea-men to see his way, see?”
There were all these prickly red, bulging spots on his face. Sometimes I thought they were moving, but then I’d think, no, trick of the light.
“There’s this knife, a kris. It’s on one of the outer islands. Right now a fisherman’s son has it. If the General eats it he will be able to draw people to him and command them, you know, make them see like he sees. You go get it and bring it here, we’ll dress it up nice.”
It was for the General, so, okay. I love this country, and Communism’s a Satan and the President’s its lackey. Leave it to them and we’ll all be starving and dying in shrapnel and colorful bombs. No, no. We need a man like the General, an honest man. He’s one of us.
Before I left I went home. My daughter had begun to draw deep-sea creatures by then. She gave them all to me, slips of paper that she folded into infinite squares and I put in my wallet. “To protect Daddy,” she said, and then went back in the house. I hated the pictures. Curling, coiling beasts. I didn’t want their protection, but I kept them anyway.
I stood on the sand, shifting. The waves there came from Australia. The dukun told me the name of the island and village and the man, and I asked the locals to fill in the rest. When they saw my credentials and I said that the General needed their help, they helped me. Sometimes I had to show them my gun.
I got to the beach by motorbike. That was our last frontier, those eastern islands. They were populated by people but I think those people were a different species. It was in their eyes. I could tell. Even the children had that look. They all had filariasis, and maybe that was why – microscopic worms sleeping in their veins. It’s a horrible disease. They’re the only people in this heat-soaked country who shiver in the sun.
At the beach there was no one. There was a limping half-wild dog, and there was a kite. I thought the men at the convenience store had lied to me, it wouldn’t be too surprising, but then I saw him – seventeen years old, curly black hair, standing by his father’s boat. He had the kris sticking out of his backpocket. He didn’t know what to do with either. I went toward him and stood on the shifting sand and called to him to give me the knife, I worked for the General and I needed it.
His lips moved and his head shook to say no, but I didn’t hear any words. All I heard was the sound of a low motor, not the Pacific, but a real low motor that opened up with a chainsaw sound into a voice – like jaws being torn open and held there. It was the knife. I saw its handle swivel in the backpocket of his trousers – it turned to look at me.
It said, “Eat me, Lieutenant.”
I didn’t dare look at it even though its booming voice pounded in my ears. I held out my hand to the fisherman’s son, and said something to him – I don’t remember what because I never heard it. All I heard was:
“Eat me and be great. I will live between your lungs and I will give your voice a resonance you have never known. Eat me, Lieutenant.”
The boy backed onto the damp, dark parts of the sand. The knife was thunderous and the waves were rocking. He shook his head no no no, and then he reached behind his back and grabbed the screaming knife and yelled.
When I shot him he was flying toward me with the kris quivering in the sun. I saw all the way into the back of his mouth. His body went sloshing to Australia on a bed of foam but the knife stayed, stuck in the sand. Hermit crabs came out of the spot in droves where it burrowed. All up and down the beach it called and called. And I was all alone to listen to the beached monster. I thought this was the end of the world. All I saw was ocean, the color of sky, and all I heard was the dark sound of power being born. I wrapped my hand in cloth and I pulled it out of the sand. There was my face in the blade. By then the knife was no longer articulate. It was just the sound of the great furnace, the great God, roaring in want. The kind of sound caves make when you are alone inside them. But I did not touch it, I kept my mouth shut, and I put it in a plastic bag.
Then a plane passed overhead. The wolf-dog came lolling over the dunes and I saw the fisherman’s son rising and falling. He was about the size of a shark fin by then. I climbed back to the palm trees, where the motorbike was.
Kurang broke the kris into manageable pieces. This surprised us, because he was a feeble man, all bones and no taller than a pony’s shoulder. But he split it with his bare hands and then, panting, told the General to eat.
What if the pieces caught in his throat?
“They want to be with you,” said Kurang. He leaned over into the light – turned out he had a lazy eye that I hadn’t seen before. “Mister General, the knife wants to help you.”
The General, who now accidentally spit tiny burning bullets at foot-soldiers when he yelled at them during drills and had already blinded one, agreed to partake of the knife with less coaxing than Kurang needed to get him to swallow the bullet. He had been paranoid, the past few days, that his chance to rescue the country was slipping by. He thought the President was in talks with Communists and that it would end for all of us. Our jobs, our lives, the bright new tomorrow.
According to the servants he had some coughing fits the night after he ate the knife. But the very next day he made a statement condemning Communists as heathens and urging people not to forget what made this baby country of ours so great: unity, justice, development, democracy, and deference to God. And the everymen said yes. That’s all I heard in the warung over sweet black coffee and kretek, wow, what a smart man he is. He’s got the right idea. I agree completely. The General also slashed the sheets getting out of bed as well as the morning paper, and there was some accident with the family cat – nothing fatal, just a peculiarity.
When I got out of the warung it was like I knew Kurang would be there, and he was, with a smile.
“What does he need now?”
“He needs protection from death. He needs to be able to survive his enemies’ bang-bangs.” He cocked his head. “He wants to be Forever President, Lieutenant. So he can fix everything.” Then Kurang winked. It was insulting and cheap and I tried to hit him, I don’t know why. He was a dukun, I should have known he wouldn’t let me. A blast wave blew up from behind his left ear and threw me back.
“But the General does want to fix everything,” I said after I got my breath back. “People are tired of being poor and they’re tired of seeing the President blow it on whores and private—”
“Oh yes, monies. They’ll come too. But first things first, Lieutenant, and first he needs longevity.” There were definitely things under his skin, no doubt now – long tape worms pressed up around his cheeks. Almost like burn-scars but these wobbled, and tonight his hair was churning too, filled with what looked like fingers. “There is a very old goat that lives in Jogja. Mister General will need its liver.”
Before I walked off I looked back at Kurang, still standing with his back to me, still wriggling with all the things inside him. “Maybe you should see a doctor about that,” I said.
He turned around but I can’t say what happened then because I just started to run. I remember for the next week I didn’t look in mirrors and I might as well have been shaving blind. My daughter saw all the cuts on my face and asked if I had been in a fight with witches. I thought about what to say and finally I said yes. I said yes, I had, I was fighting to protect her. Then I kissed her earlobe and her tiny golden earring, and she gave me another picture. I tried to be proud like when her brother brought home perfect math scores but it was just so horrible. I asked her what it was. “It’s to protect Daddy,” she said stubbornly. So I don’t know what it was. There were yellow eyes but there was also an uncooked darkness, and something like a mouth, if those were fangs. I wondered if I should have been grateful. At least she was drawing faces now.
I went by plane. It was not quite Jogja, but a subvillage. I put my hands in my pockets and said I was looking for a very old goat. They thought I wanted to buy it and so they all claimed to own it – or if not a goat, a cow with three horns or a chicken with no head. But then there were the school children. “Is there a very old goat in this village anywhere?” With big malnourished eyes they stared. I gave them money and where they pointed I went.
At a little house, under a spirit-willow, sat a man half-blind with age and chemicals, who sang to himself. He took me to the orange orchard to see the goat, and then stood there whistling by the roadside. The creature hobbled in the grass, gnawing on orange rinds. It was clearly weak but still it wore a loose rope that tied it to a tree.
“You can’t buy it, you know,” said the old man, swaying with his cane. “It’s one with me. It was born the same day I was and I can’t part with it.” It was true, they both had eyes the color of haze, and hair the color of smoked bone. The same awkward gait from back legs that were too long. Maybe they were congenital twins. I took out a cigarette.
“I don’t want to buy it. What do you think would happen if it died?”
“Oh, I don’t think it will. It’s one hundred and two.”
The goat lifted its head and after a search its cataract eyes fell upon me. It was older than my father. I couldn’t even imagine a world that old. That was far far before the beginning of time. It outlived the Dutch and the Japanese and the Dutch again. It probably never thought a native son would harm it. For a moment the cigarette just sat between my lips, dumb and silent. The goat bleated wretchedly. It started stumbling our way, on furbare legs and cracked hooves.
“Maybe it’s tired of life,” I suggested.
“Nonsense,” said the old man. “It will live forever.”
I thought about luring it to me with a salty hand and giving it a deceptive calming squeeze before gutting it, but in the end I just grabbed it by the neck, rough and unceremonious, and slit its jugular. Of course I watched sacrifices when I was a boy but this was profane. I wiped my hands on its fur – sick old blood, it’s the sickest thing – and looked back at the old blind man. I already knew he was going to die. When the last pumps of life gave from the goat and onto my shoes, the old blind man started to bleed. Just then. In the neck. The only body I could drag back was the goat’s and even though it was in a burlap sack the village knew and was silent. I never lit that fucking cigarette.
No persuasion was necessary to make the General eat the goat’s well-aged liver. He gobbled it down and, when the raw slab went slipping down his throat, looked up in eagerness. Kurang patted him on the head – no choking this time, it went down easy besides giving him a drugged look – and said, “You’re going to be President for a long time, Mister General. Maybe fifty years.”
“Fifty?” said the General, and snapped his fingerblades. A bullet coalesced on his tongue and Kurang had to duck to avoid it. “You said I would be President forever!”
“Well, no one can be President forever,” said his dukun, and gave him the glass of tea. “But I promise that you will live forever in their hearts and their history books. You will have the biggest chapter, Mister General. Your shadow will loom forever, on monuments, on boulevards. Like Mount Bromo, you will be like Mount Bromo, okay?”
The man himself had not grown but by dawn he’d become impermeable. He was a monolith, an impenetrable fortress that was sharp to the touch and spat bullets. He fired his bodyguards. And his hair turned gray overnight and he walked with a strange limp, so he put on his army cap and sat in leather chairs with golden curlicues for feet and looked majestic.
Kurang was waiting for me when I got home. He’d gotten through the peeling front gates somehow and was leaning against an outer wall of the house, just barely out of sight. I threw up my hands.
“There is nothing more he needs!”
“He wants to be loved.”
I blinked. The sun had turned our garden purple. Everywhere were rainbows. “He is loved,” I said. “We love the General. We’ll follow him anywhere, to the end of time if we have to.”
“He wants to be loved by the people. He wants them to look at his portrait after he is gone and think, oh, my father, my dead father, how your children miss you.” He rubbed his feet together. Something came slithering out from under his pant leg and it swam through the tiles of our veranda and then dove into a bed of bougainvillea. “Or something like that. He wants to have that statue in the center square, with little children on his arms, like parrots. He wants to be shown all smiles. You understand?”
“What is it then that he needs to be loved?”
“He needs your daughter’s heart.”
I walked for hours in the city after he told me that. Of course I said no. But Kurang said, if you don’t do it we’ll find someone else who will, and to have it to headquarters by the beginning of the coup. Three days, he’d said and lifted his fingers with a smile. I walked for hours, me and the legless beggars and the eyeless cats. They reached their limbs out to me and begged me to help them in a way only the General could. And now and then under street lamps, behind minivans, I would see Kurang with his fingers raised in a salute. At the end of the first day one of his fingers fell off, and then there were only two.
Please know this – I loved my daughter, love her still. Please never doubt this. But I did not know what else to do. Yes, I thought about hiding her away in the mountains, with her grandparents, in that village washed up against the Australian sea. But he would have found her. And when I pointed my gun at Kurang and said leave her alone or I will shoot, of course my gun jammed. And then I said take my heart instead, but Kurang said mine was a murderer’s. It wasn’t good enough.
“You can keep your son,” said Kurang, “and your wife. Aren’t you willing to sacrifice just this one thing of yours for the good of your people? Selfish selfish, Lieutenant. Men like you are the reason this country is going to shit.”
I was curled up on the sidewalk beating my head against the concrete and crying, “I can’t, dear God, I can’t.”
“Then just bring her to headquarters. Someone else will do it. You can hold her hand.”
When I came home at the end of the second day my daughter ran to me and wrapped her little arms around my legs. “Don’t you have a picture for me today?” I asked; she said, “I’ve hidden it, Daddy. You’ll find it later.”
I said we had to go to Daddy’s office and I held her very close, close enough to feel that precious heart of hers rejoicing while mine wept. She had a strong beat, my little girl. I knew that before she was born, when I listened to her drumming in her mother’s belly. Stronger than mine. And despite the monsters in her drawings she was all smiles, all the time – even that night, as her long lashes closed in contentment and she waited. Dear God, Dear God. Every day I ask her to forgive me, and every day I pray she doesn’t.
The General became our paterfamilias. He was painted on billboards with children on his lap, all of them pointing at some new horizon just over that swath of development projects. People do greet him with jubilation, they kiss the rings on his fingers and thank him for all the good he’s done. His birthday celebrations at the palace are something else, or so I’ve heard.
He sends me pictures in manila envelopes. I suspect Kurang would have advised him against it, but Kurang is dead now. His head fell off a couple years back, and it turned out there was nothing inside of him but snakes and grubs and centipedes. The General says he draws these things late at night and he doesn’t know why he feels that he should send them to me or why they come racing out of his fingers, but I do, and I tape the monsters up all over the house, over family portraits, over the clock, over the calendar.
And I wait for him to die. I know he’s a good man who’s done good things. God only knows he’s a better President than that Communist. I just think, maybe when he’s dead, he’ll give me back her heart.
© Nadia Bulkin, 2008