Leaves of Peace
by James Penha
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Halim, who had been lying unconscious in his bed for more than forty-eight hours, opened his eyes and screamed. His wife leaped from the corner chair and tried to hold her husband’s hands, but he was flailing them wildly. “Kill me! Kill me! I cannot stand the pain!” He struggled to turn onto his stomach to bury his face in the pillows. “Sit on my head! Smother me!” he screamed.
His wife heard only muffled sounds. She called for their daughter Yuli to watch over her father while she ran up the street to the local clinic. She was relieved to find Doctor Teguh on duty. He made the rounds among several small clinics and large hospitals in Sibolga, the port city of northern Sumatra. His presence meant she wouldn’t have to recount Halim’s medical history to still another practitioner.
“He’s awake. Screaming for me to kill him,” was all she needed to say.
The doctor swiveled his desk chair to face Ibu Andri. His raised eyes wrinkled his brow. “He awoke. It’s hard to believe. When we opened him up last time, the cancer had metastasized so wildly, like a parasite vine in a mango tree. There was little of his own body left. He should be dead. His will to live must—”
“He has no will to live,” Andri interrupted the doctor. “He wants to die. He cannot stand the pain. You must do something, Doctor. Please.”
The doctor prepared his satchel, told a colleague at the clinic that he needed to attend to a patient, and walked with Andri toward her home. Halfway there, the doctor and Andri and everyone else on the street could hear Halim’s agonized, incoherent roars. When they entered the bedroom, Andri told her daughter to leave them alone. The doctor prepared a syringe and injected its contents into Halim. Within a few minutes, Halim’s yells modulated into whimpers. “More,” Halim begged the doctor.
“I have given you as large a dose of morphine as I dare without killing you.”
“More,” the patient repeated, his tears pouring, “More.”
“Halim, I am leaving this vial of pills here.” The doctor set the plastic container on the bed-stand next to a lamp and a bottle of water. “They are painkillers, opiates. If the injection starts to wear off, you can take one of the pills. I am leaving the vial, Halim. You can medicate yourself. Do you understand?”
Halim grabbed the doctor’s hand and brought it to his lips. He nodded his head.
Doctor Teguh patted Halim’s cheek and stood away. “I must return to the clinic now, but I will check on you in—” the doctor looked at his wrist watch — “in two hours.” He turned to Andri. “Leave your husband alone for a while. He needs his rest.”
Andri leaned over her husband and kissed his forehead again and again before she accompanied the doctor out of the bedroom and saw him to the front door.
* * *
Andri waited nervously with her daughter in the kitchen. She could not stomach the tea Yuli had prepared. Yuli sipped from her cup, but she hadn’t been told for what exactly they were waiting. For one hour and fifty minutes Andri stared silently at the wall clock. She blinked with every leap of the minute hand until she jumped from her chair at the sound of the doctor’s salaam alaikum in the doorway to which she now ran. “Alaikum salaam, Doctor. Shall we check on him now?’
“Let me go in first, Ibu,” the doctor graciously suggested at the door to the bedroom, but Andri would not wait any longer and snuck in behind the doctor before he had a chance to enter the chamber. The vial was empty, she saw, and Halim looked peaceful. The doctor listened at Halim’s nose and chest. He held Halim’s right wrist and turned to face Andri. “He... is sleeping.”
“Sleeping? Only sleeping? So painlessly? So peacefully?”
“Ibu, he has taken enough of these pills to kill a water buffalo. They have made him sleep. Deeply. But he will awaken and will again be in agony.”
“What is to be done? What is to be done? Shall I smother him after all?” Andri grabbed the pillow from beneath Halim’s head and pressed it onto his face with all her weight.
The doctor waited a minute before he took Andri’s shoulders and moved her away from the bed. He again listened at Halim’s nose and chest. Halim still lived.
“Not long enough!” screamed Andri as she again forced the pillow on her husband’s face.
“Stop, Ibu, Stop!” Again he removed Andri from the bed. She was screaming hysterically, and he turned her toward him. “Ibu, you cannot kill him. But you can damage him further with even more pain with which he will have to live.”
“What are you saying?”
“Halim cannot die. Even if we were to cut his wrists and bleed him dry, I do not think he would die. He would live, suffering not only from the cancer but from the tortuous effects of the bloodletting.”
Andri collapsed to the floor. “But this makes no sense. This makes no sense!”
“No,” said the doctor, sitting down on the bed next to Halim, “this makes no sense.”
“What can we do?”
“When Halim wakes, feed him more of the morphine. I shall have additional vials sent here. There is no risk that the drugs will kill him, but we can pray they continue to relieve the pain. You will need to explain the situation to him. Tell him what happened here today. Tell him...”
“Tell him he requires medicine of a different kind.”
“Perhaps.” He paused. “I will send someone who deals in traditional medicines.”
“She is herself an angel of God, I think, willing to deal with lost causes. I sometimes ask her to ease the transition of a patient from life to death. In this case, we need to hope she knows how to effect the transition.”
“Halim does not believe in witchcraft.”
“If Halim comes to believe that he cannot die, he may also be willing to try the old ways. You will have to persuade him.”
* * *
When Halim finally opened his eyes more than a day later and realized that he had failed to kill himself, he did not need much persuasion from his wife to accept a visit from Mbak Tirta who turned out to be, for one in her business, surprisingly young, little older than Halim’s own daughter. He had expected a witch out of an old Disney cartoon, but felt, somehow, more comfortable greeting a woman more like Snow White than Queen Grimhilde.
“My knowledge is ancient,” she explained, “passed down from mother to daughter, mother to daughter, on this island for a thousand years.”
She sat next to Andri on Halim’s bed. She took a package wrapped in banana leaves from the colorful string bag she had arranged on her lap. “You want,” she said to Halim, “to die.”
“Because I have no body. I am a walking tumor. I should have died weeks ago.”
“But you cannot?”
“I cannot. You must kill me.”
Tirta laughed uproariously. “No, no, my dear sir. I do not kill.”
“Then why are you here?” screamed Halim. Andri moved closer to his face and wiped his brow with the damp cloth she clutched in her hand.
“I am here to let God move you.” She opened the banana leaves to reveal a collection of small sprigs of bright-green tear-shaped leaves. “Do you recognize this vegetable, Ibu?” she asked Andri who shook her head. “These are kelor leaves—”
“Oh,” said Andri, “What is that proverb? My mother repeated it whenever she faced something mysterious—”
“The world is not as wide as kelor leaves,” Halim intoned.
“Ah, you do remember the old saying,” chuckled Tirta. “Aside from the health benefits that even modern nutritionists understand, kelor leaves have supernatural qualities. Ibu, please soak these leaves for twenty minutes in boiling water, drain them, and bring them back to me in a pail.”
“Must you feed them to me?” Halim objected. “I can barely swallow. It hurts so much even to get the pills down. I do not eat or drink anything else.” He moaned, “And still I live.”
“No worries,” Tirta brightly responded. “I intend to swab you with the leaves. You must remove the bedclothes and your pajamas. I will need to reach every part of your body with the leaves.”
“Naked? I must be naked?”
“As the day you were born and as you will be on the day you die, Bapak Halim.” Tirta laughed. “Don’t be shy or embarrassed. Not in front of me who has seen it all already and am unmoved. Anyway, this is how it must be.”
When Andri returned with the pail of wilted leaves, she was shocked to see her husband stretched out naked on his bed. She hadn’t seen his undressed body for some months. The sallow tint that undulated amidst its protrusions and hollows moved her to tears. She had remembered him as a powerful, ruddy man.
“No time for tears,” said Tirta. “Except for these little green tears.” She grabbed handfuls of the kelor and, as promised, wiped every aspect of Halim until his body was green as grass, Andri helping to move her husband to make even his most private parts accessible.
“Now,” said Tirta, “we wait. If your skin begins to whiten, you will have your wish and can thank me after you kiss your dear wife goodbye. And your daughter of course, but we shall cover you when that time comes.”
But after a half-hour, Halim remained green, and his pain worsened enough that he had to submit himself to the agony of swallowing a painkiller.
“Nope,” Tirta said. “No beans. Too bad.”
“Shall we try again?” Andri asked.
“Oh, no. If it is meant to be, it works like a charm.” She giggled. “Well, of course, it is a charm!” She slapped her thighs and stood. “But don’t give up hope. It will work... once Bapak Halim has atoned for the great sin on his soul.”
“What great sin?” Halim asked.
“That’s for you to know, not for me to find out. The only reason the kelor leaves won’t work is that God needs you to atone. Once you have done so, you’ll see, we’ll do the leaves thing again, and, bam! you’ll be dead! But there is something dire holding things up. So serious, Bapak, I have to think you know what it is. Or can remember it. It’s too serious to be nothing. Nothing interferes with death in this way except something really, really serious.”
Halim was silent. And thoughtful.
“Hmm,” Tirta mused. “I am thinking you have an inkling. Hey, I made a poem there. Anyway, I hope I’m right. Don’t want my verse to be worse! Oh, my God, I am so silly today. But this is serious: Pak Halim, you must seek atonement or at least forgiveness for the sin, and then call me again. You have my cell phone number, right?”
* * *
After Tirta departed the house, Andri helped her husband to the stool set up for him in the wet bathroom. She drew water from the barrel sitting there and washed the kelor dye from her husband until he was again a sickly if fresher tawny. She dried him with a clean towel, wrapped him in a sarong, and led him back to his bed.
“No, let me sit in the chair there. I need to strengthen myself for my trip.”
“Trip?” The only trip Andri envisioned was the trip to the afterlife, but how was he planning for that now? Andri asked herself.
Ensconced in the well-upholstered corner chair, Halim explained, “I shall be going back home to Batang Toru.”
“Batang Toru? You want to be buried in Batang Toru when the time comes?”
“Perhaps, yes. I hadn’t been thinking of that. I will return to Batang Toru to find forgiveness.”
Andri sat at her husband’s feet. “Oh, my dear, do you believe this so-called witch? Her ‘inkling’? Ah, she is more like a clown than a shaman!”
“But she is right. I know she is right.”
“Who is left to forgive you in Batang Toru? Who there even knows you? You haven’t been in Batang Toru for... for—”
“Of course. As long as we have known each other.”
“We met on the Eid soon after my arrival here in Sibolga.”
“I have not forgotten. Anything.”
Halim changed the subject. “Andri, leave word at the clinic. I need Doctor Teguh to teach me to inject me with morphine, and to provide me with enough of the drug to get me through several days in Batang Toru.”
“And if you find forgiveness there?”
“I will atone. I will return. I will be bathed in the strange woman’s leaves. I will die. And... ”
“I will be at peace.”
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by James Penha