The fishpond businessman of course owned his own fishpond, a place he often went to be alone. Whatever his reasons for going there, the pond – with its small bungalows and the gardens all around – struck Ajo Kawir as the perfect spot for an ambush.

So he went there, but what he didn’t know was that the man had a bodyguard – a young woman, who intercepted him on the footpath. And this was how he met Iteung.

__

“I know you’ve been eyeing that old fart, I’ve been watching you,” the girl said. “But you’ll have to kill me before you can lay a hand on him.”

Ajo Kawir almost laughed at her choice of words, copied verbatim from the martial arts comics that he’d read when he was little, borrowed from the librarian who went around on his bicycle. He had never hit a woman, so he just shoved Iteung aside. Unexpectedly, the girl grabbed his arm and pinned it behind his back, and with just a little push threw him to the ground, pummeling his shoulders.

Shocked, Ajo Kawir jumped up, although he staggered a bit. Iteung put up her fists. Ajo Kawir didn’t know what the girl had studied – maybe karate, silat, kempo, or kung fu – but he didn’t know any of that stuff anyway. He just knew to punch and kick when he had the opportunity, dodge whenever possible. If he couldn’t dodge, then he would take the hit and look for a way to retaliate.

“Fine,” said Ajo Kawir. “I guess every once in a while you have to fight a woman.”

And that afternoon, they fought. Iteung had clearly mastered the martial arts. Despite her delicate looks, she was very strong and had good stamina. Ajo Kawir took hit after solid hit, and he had to admit to himself that her powerful blows hurt more than the punches most men threw.

Finally exhausted, Ajo Kawir could do nothing but throw weak punches at the girl’s face, which Iteung easily blocked with equally weak fists, until they both collapsed in the grass, gasping for breath.”

Even though he’d never studied any kind of martial arts, Ajo Kawir was no easy conquest. He was strong and, above all, reckless. Even when cornered, he was the kind of fighter who’d let his opponent break his arm if it gave him the opportunity to break the other guy’s leg. That killer instinct made it hard for the girl to take him down, even though she struck him again and again, suffering punches and kicks in return.

More than an hour passed as they knocked each other around, landing blows. Ajo Kawir’s cheek was split open, the girl’s nose was dripping blood, and their bruises – don’t even ask. Finally exhausted, Ajo Kawir could do nothing but throw weak punches at the girl’s face, which Iteung easily blocked with equally weak fists, until they both collapsed in the grass, gasping for breath.

“Not bad,” Iteung murmured faintly a few moments later, barely audible in the rushing wind.

“Damn,” said Ajo Kawir. “I can still take you.”

“Forget it. You should just go home. Who sent you here? You don’t need to get mixed up with people like this.”

“Nobody sent me. I came on my own.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“You don’t have to. I came because I heard about what he did to that woman.”

“Which one? The Young Widow?”

“Yeah.”

Iteung gave a small nod. Collapsed there in the grass, beside the garden footpath, they were lying on their backs looking up at the sky. They were silent for a moment, perhaps both thinking about the Young Widow. Finally the girl rolled over onto her side, and looked at Ajo Kawir.

“Do you want to know the real story?”

“What is it?”

__

One night, Mister Lebe came to see the Young Widow, although at that time she wasn’t yet a widow. It was almost eleven o’clock. He said that he was just stopping by to check in on the house. The Young Widow couldn’t refuse to let him in, because even though they’d paid their rent, it was his house.

“Where’s your husband?” asked Mister Lebe.

“He’s practicing angklung, getting ready for a show.”

Mister Lebe actually knew that without having to ask, since her husband often returned from his rehearsals late at night when he was preparing for a performance. He smiled and looked at the woman before him.

“You’re not lonely?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your husband always comes home so late,” Mister Lebe said. He smiled again and the Young Widow thought that underneath his thin mustache, it was the most disgusting smile she’d ever seen.

“You must be lonely. I can keep you company if you want.”

“I’m not lonely.”

“But I’m lonely,” said Mister Lebe. “And sometimes I imagine that you want to keep me company.”

“I’m not lonely. If you are feeling lonely, then you should hurry home to spend some time with your wife.” She wanted to spit in his face, but she controlled herself.

__

“That woman had no reason to betray her husband, because she loved him. But then that old carcass murdered the musician,” Iteung said.

“Murdered?”

“Lots of people thought he died of cholera, because he was vomiting and had diarrhea one night at a party after a performance. But in fact, it was poison. The woman doesn’t even know that her husband was murdered. After that, well, you know the rest.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I know who killed him. Someone from the Empty Hand – Mister Lebe paid him to do it.”

“The bastard!”

__

They were still lying in the grass. Ajo Kawir’s body felt completely broken. He looked up at the sky, and saw a hawk soaring slowing in the distance. He tried to raise his arm, but he had no energy left. He looked to the side and the girl was looking back. For a moment, their eyes locked. Feeling a bit shy, Ajo Kawir looked back up at the sky.

He looked back at the girl and only then did he realize how pretty she was, especially when she smiled. That smile momentarily quieted his anger.”

“If you can still stand, go see that old carcass. I have some Chinese medicine in my bag. My teacher at the academy gave it to me. You’ll recover in fifteen minutes, but then in six hours you’ll collapse again and you won’t be able to get up for three days. So do whatever you came here to do, quickly.” Ajo Kawir looked back at the girl. “But don’t kill him, that would make things difficult,” said Iteung, “for the woman.”

Ajo Kawir didn’t move or say anything. But he ground his teeth together, and his fists clenched.

“Oh, and cover your face, you idiot.” The girl smiled in his direction.

Ajo Kawir saw her bag in a corner of the garden. He looked back at the girl and only then did he realize how pretty she was, especially when she smiled. That smile momentarily quieted his anger. After she nodded, Ajo Kawir crawled with great difficulty toward the bag. He found a face mask inside, some black cloth, and the medicine – Ajo Kawir offered some to Iteung, but she shook her head.

“You know I don’t need it.”

__

He found Mister Lebe feeding his fish in the pond.

“Good afternoon, Sir, there’s something I need to discuss with you.”

He wasn’t wearing the mask, because he didn’t think it was necessary. Mister Lebe didn’t know him, but he escorted him into his small bungalow. “What brings you here?” Mister Lebe asked while offering Ajo Kawir a seat.

But the kid felt no need to sit down first – in fact, he felt their small talk had already gone on for too long. “This is what brings me here!” he cried as he threw a punch at Mister Lebe’s face.

“Hey, who are you?”

“I’m a demon from hell,” Ajo Kawir said, kicking the old guy in the crotch. Mister Lebe stumbled, but before he fell to the floor, Ajo Kawir had already hit him again. One, two, three, solid punches. Mister Lebe couldn’t do anything except holler.

“Iteung! Iteung!”

“There’s no point in calling for her. She’s out there dying in your garden.”

He threw one more punch and Mister Lebe slammed back against the wall, collapsing, his cheek split open. He was starting to wheeze. Blood was streaming out from his nose. Ajo Kawir stretched out his fingers and then squatted down next to Mister Lebe.

“Don’t you dare bother the Young Widow ever again, because if you do, I’ll be back, and next time, I’ll kill you. I’m not playing around. Remember my face, if you think you can mess with me.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay. No, no, I won’t mess with you.”

“And as a sign of our agreement, I’d like something from you.”

Ajo Kawir took out a pocketknife, grabbed Mister Lebe’s left ear and sliced it off, and the man’s howls rang out over the farthest reaches of his fishpond.

__

Ajo Kawir stood at the edge of the pond. Mister Lebe’s howls could no longer be heard, because he had fainted. Ajo Kawir threw the man’s ear into the pond. A fish jumped up and caught it. Maybe it was a goldfish, or a carp, or a catfish. They’re really all the same.

__

Just as the girl had said, he woke up three days later. He’d gone to sleep at Gecko’s house, because he knew only Gecko would stay by his side for three days and three nights. That day the house telephone – or, more accurately, Wa Sami’s store telephone – rang, and someone asked for Ajo Kawir. Wa Sami handed the telephone to him, and bemused, he took it.

“So, how’d you sleep? I hope you’re doing all right.”

It was a girl’s voice. He didn’t immediately recognize the caller, and he had no idea how anyone knew that he was at Gecko’s house. But then he realized – it was the girl who had dueled with him. Iteung. He smiled. He hadn’t grinned so widely in years.

__

 To make sure they were all right, they examined each other’s scars, and then they both laughed. The girl wasn’t just pretty, thought Ajo Kawir, she was also a lot of fun”

After that, they sent each other short messages through the radio. Morning, noon, and night. Gecko witnessed an incredible change in Ajo Kawir. He’d sit for hours by the radio, listening and dedicating songs to a girl, with a little smile playing across his shining face. Gecko didn’t have to ask, he immediately knew which girl Ajo Kawir liked. It was enough to make him feel overjoyed too.

After dozens, or maybe even more than a hundred songs dedicated to each other on the radio, they met at a restaurant and then went to the City Festival, which was held every August. To make sure they were all right, they examined each other’s scars, and then they both laughed. The girl wasn’t just pretty, thought Ajo Kawir, she was also a lot of fun. From her Ajo Kawir learned that the rotten old fishpond guy had entrusted his business to a family member and had vanished; or, more accurately, his wife had kicked him out.

__

Not long after that, Ajo Kawir also learned that Iteung often worked for the Empty Hand. She wasn’t a member of the group – the Empty Hand only accepted men – but she knew one gang member, who’d been in her class at the martial arts academy. Sometimes, if the group had work guarding someone and their members were already busy, they’d offer Iteung the job.

“You’re an incredible fighter,” said Ajo Kawir.

“Of course. And you’re an amazing sand bag,” Iteung said, chuckling.

They walked through the festival, buying balloons and sweets, laughing. Then, while they were walking, Iteung took Ajo Kawir’s hand, as if asking to continue along as a couple. Warmth spread throughout his chest.

Ajo Kawir looked over at the girl. She looked over at him. They smiled, and they giggled. A tinge of red flushed the girl’s cheeks. Iteung bowed her head.

Ajo Kawir felt happy. So very happy. And he also felt afraid…

From Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, translated by Annie Tucker

 

Eka_Kurniawan_290Eka Kurniawan was born in Tasikmalaya, Indonesia in 1975. He studied philosophy at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta and since 2000 has published several short story collections and novels, translated into 27 languages, of which the novel Man Tiger was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is out now from Pushkin Press, along with his epic work of magical realism Beauty is a Wound.
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ekakurniawan.com
@EkaKurniawanOfficial

Author portrait © Nina Subin

Annie Tucker is a writer and translator based in Los Angeles. She has a PhD from UCLA and is the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund award for her translation of Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound.
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