By: Aba Mardjani
Masdudin felt annoyed watching his wife laugh until her body shook like a bemo waiting for passengers. ‘What’s so funny Asyura?’
The question did not necessarily make Asyura stop giggling. Worried he would get more annoyed and worsen the asthma that made her breathing relapse into gasps Masdudin stepped out leaving his wife, and allowed the greying woman to swallow her laughter and coughing alone. He heard his wife yell just when his short black body had nearly disappeared behind the next door neighbour’s house.
Although still harboring a feeling of annoyance, Masdudin stopped.
A light drizzle still fell from the sky. Masdudin turned and followed his wife to the living room.
‘Why do you suddenly want to eat Mak Saniah’s gemblong cakes?’ Asyura asked when Masdudin was in the middle of catching his breath.
Masdudin thought awhile in order to find an appropriate answer. He himself did not know why that morning, when the drizzle fell from the sky, he suddenly remembered that Mrs Saniah usually peddled gemblong cakes at his house. Not every day. Mrs Saniah only came to his house two or three times a week.
‘Yoohooo…yoohoo….. gemblong!’ Mrs Saniah usually called to his wife. Then, after putting down her big pot filled with gemblong or unti cakes, she sat her worn out old body on the terrace.
Asyura did not ever let Mrs Saniah go home empty handed. As soon as she heard the sound of Mrs Saniah’s voice, she quickly took a plate and met Mrs Saniah outside. Asyura usually gave Mrs Saniah a 5,000 Rp note and took four or five gemblong cakes and two or three unti. Mrs Saniah never sold her cakes for more than 500 Rp each. With the 5,000 Rp Asyura should be able to get 10 cakes. But, Asyura never did that. She always took as many cakes as she needed and let Mrs Saniah keep the change. Occasionally Asyura also gave Mrs Saniah a ten thousand note but took the same number of cakes and didn’t take her change.
‘Thanks a lot, young lady. I wish you good luck, blessings and children that are healthy, loved by all, and loyal,’ Mrs Saniah always said while slipping the money into the folds of her clothes (When she first started Mrs Saniah used to put the money behind the old newspapers at the base of the pot. But now she didn’t because she once lost the money that she had collected little by little from her buyers.
‘It’s funny, when there’s no wind and no rain you don’t care, but now suddenly you want Mrs Saniah’s gemblong cakes,’ said his wife. Masdudin glanced to the front of the house, at the splash of drizzle that wet the tiles of the neighbour’s house. ‘Do you have cravings? The cravings of your second wife?’
Masdudin turned from his wife’s eyes. Not because he had anything to hide, but just to calm himself like he always did when she got sulky. She often made accusations like that lately. Probably because she was getting older and her wrinkles were getting more numerous. As Asyura knew, Masdudin couldn’t possibly have more than one wife. He didn’t have enough capital. Average looks. Average pockets. Average courage.
But, the question brought up by Asyura was a fair one. From the time Mrs Saniah first peddled gemblong cakes at his house, her cakes had always been just so-so. Shaped flat the same as other gemblong cakes, slightly bigger and more mushy. Mak Saniah’s cakes were also not as dry, as crunchy, or as tasty as those that were once bought by Masdudin when he and his family went on a trip to Taman Bung in the Puncak area last year. So, it was kind of odd that now he missed Mrs Saniah’s gemblong cakes.
‘Masdud,’ Asyura surprised her husband.’What’s up?’
Masdudin became a little confused.
‘I only…’ Masdudin answered while trying to find a suitable answer. ‘I only feel it’s odd. Mrs Saniah hasn’t come lately. She’s already very old. I’m afraid…..’
‘You mean she’s died?’
Masdudin grabbed the candy on the table. His child’s leftover snacks. There was a small sense of relief in his chest that felt so sweet and warm spreading in his mouth.
Mrs Saniah was already very old even when she first started visiting Masdudin’s house several years ago. The tall white woman’s entire body was already filled with wrinkles. Her steps tottering. Even more so with the weight of the nearly 50 cm diameter pot filled with gemblong and unti cakes that she pedaled. Her steps increasingly unsteady. That was what made Masdudin and his wife never let her leave their house without selling five or six cakes. In fact, only two or three of the cakes were eaten. The children preferred to eat other snacks. They only bought Mrs Saniah’s gemblong cakes to make her happy.
‘Recently Mrs Saniah has been coming less and less. I hear she’s sick,’ said Asyura.
‘But it’s a pity that someone as old as her still has to sell,’ Masdidin answered.
Asyura then told him more about Mrs Saniah. A story that he had never heard before. That Mrs Saniah had seven children. That her children had already ‘become someone’. That Mrs Saniah chose to keep living in a simple house in the neighbouring village to where Masdudin and his family lived. That Mrs Saniah, after her husband died a dozen years ago, chose to support herself by selling homemade gemblong cakes. In this way she survived without having to bother her children or grandchildren.
‘So, Mrs Saniah’s children actually forbade her to sell. But Mrs Saniah was stubborn,’ said Ashura finishing the rambling story.
Masdudin never asked his wife to find out how Mrs Saniah was after that, but the next Sunday they were both in front of Mrs Saniah’s house which they had managed to find by asking around. From the neighbours they knew that Mrs Saniah could now no longer force herself to sell. Various diseases fused together in her worn-out body. Starting from senility, rheumatism, arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, and eyes that could no longer see clearly. Only Mrs Saniah’s ears still functioned reasonably well.
From her bed Mrs Saniah welcomed Masdudin and Asyura after her grandchild, a girl in her 20’s, showed them into her room.
Once in the room Masdudin and Asyura smelled a fragrance, strange but fresh. That room, even though it couldn’t be called nice, appeared very well taken care of. Just a few things spread around. The place where she was lying was very clean.
‘What kind of dream am I having? How did you know where my house was?’ welcomed Mrs Saniah. Masdudin saw a puddle of water in the corners of her eyes.
‘We’re your neighbours, Mrs Saniah. Village neighbors. It’s not far. Just a trip on public transport.’
She smiled thinly. ‘Yeah, it isn’t far. Close enough that I can sell at your house….’
Without being asked, the girl that had shown them in returned with two glasses of hot tea and a tin of biscuits.
‘Come, have a drink. Eat some biscuits. That’s all we have. I’m not able to make gemblong cakes anymore,’ said Mrs Saniah as the tray was put on the table.
Masdudin and his wife exchanged glances and shared a smile.
‘I actually still want to sell.’ She continued speaking while holding Asyura’s hand who was sitting beside her on the bed.
‘But it’s OK. I still remember the people who like buying my gemblong, especially Mrs Asura and her man who never turn away my gemblong. When people suit each other it’s difficult, isn’t it? Although there’s lots of other food you keep looking for Mrs Niah’s gemblong, don’t you.
Masdudin smiled while glancing at his wife.
‘Right, Mrs Saniah. Mrs Niah’s gemblong is different from the others,’ Asyura retorted, suppressing a smile. ‘Sweet enough, soft enough, big enough, and not expensive.’
Her face appeared content. Shining. ‘Yeah, when I sell I don’t get a lot of money. What’s important is getting just a little bit. Enough to eat. What do I need a lot of wealth for? It’s good deeds that should be in abundance. Wealth can’t be taken with you when you die.’
Two weeks later, on a sunny Sunday, Masdudin heard a voice outside.
‘I’m Cindy, Mr.’ said the girl standing in front of Masdudin when he opened the door. ‘I’m Mrs Saniah’s grandchild who showed you and your wife in the other day.’
‘Oh, yeah, yeah… I remember. Just the other day,’ said Masdudin inviting her into the living room. Asyura emerged from the back room and was visibly surprised.
‘What’s happening?’ Asyura asked straight away. ‘Is there bad news about Mrs Saniah?’ Asyura continued. This time, the question was kept in her heart. But there was a pounding in her chest.
Cindy took out a white envelope and handed it to Asyura. ‘This is from my grandma. She asked that it be conveyed to Mrs Asyura. Because this was a last request, I hurried to give it to you.’
‘What is this letter?’ Asyura asked.
‘I don’t know, Mrs. I didn’t ask my Dad. He just told me to bring it here at grandma’s request.’
Asyura weighed up the envelope. Was Mrs Saniah returning the money she received because she thought she owed them? It seemed impossible.
‘How is Mrs Saniah?’ Masuddin could no longer endure his impatience to hear how she was after a moment of quiet.
‘Grandma passed away,’ answered Cindy quickly. She looked at the faces of Masdudin and Asyura in turn.
‘Innalillahi (verily we belong to God and to God we will return),’ Masdudin and Asyura said almost in unison.
‘She died last Friday,’ continued Cindy.
Masdudin and Asyura exchanged glances. ‘Why weren’t we told?’ Masdudin was the first to speak.
Cindy pursed her lips in a smile. ‘Sorry…. sorry…. we thought about telling you. But we didn’t know where to come. I just tried to find your house today to fulfill Grandma’s wishes. Because we had this letter we had to give you. We couldn’t possibly keep it, especially because now she has passed away. Thank God we found you.’
Sighing while at the same time regretting she was not able to attend the funeral, Asyura then recalled Rosa, her youngest daughter’s, story. Last Friday, Rosa said the other day, she saw Mrs Saniah sitting on the terrace of their house with a pot of gemblong cakes beside her.
‘She didn’t say anything, mum. Just silent as a statue. I went to the kitchen to get a plate because Dad wasn’t there and you were in the bathroom. I didn’t have two thousand Rp to buy the gemblong cakes. But, when I got out the front again, Mak Sanih was already gone. I looked for her but couldn’t find her, even though she walks slowly. So I ran out the front but I still couldn’t find her. So then, fine, whatever, I went back to watching TV,’ said the five year old girl.
Asyura was hoping to tell this story to Cindy, but she changed her mind because Cindy was already in a hurry to excuse herself. Asyura and Masdudin sent her on her way with repeated expressions of thanks.
‘What’s in it?’ Masdudin took the envelope that was still on the table.
‘I’m also curious. Quick, open it,’ answered Asyura.
Quickly Masdudin opened the envelope and took out the contents. Both of them read the writing at the top of Mrs Saniah’s letter: “How to make Mrs Saniah’s gemblong cakes.”
Translated by: Bronwyn Duke, writer in Tokyo, Japan. http://www.bronwynduke.com/Bronny_Duck/Publications.html
Republished by: Aba Mardjani (firstname.lastname@example.org)