by Michael Paul Hogan
His name was Abdullah and he was a slayer of snakes.
He lived on the edge of the jungle and beside a river, in a house he had built with his own hands. It was stilted about a foot above the ground and when, during the rains, the river overflowed its banks, the water lapped and rippled around the stilts. For cooking he made a brick oven beside the house, over which he hung a battered kettle, and for his other necessities he used either the river or else walked a few yards into the jungle, behind a screen of bamboo leaves. He lived alone and had always done so. In the evenings he sat on his small veranda, smoking unfiltered kretek cigarettes and listening to the sound of the water and the night frogs and the stars.
On the third day of the rains Abdullah saw a dead snake in the river and recognized it as the krait he had encountered while squatting behind a banana tree the previous day. Once he had seen a snake he could recognize it again as a man, meeting a former acquaintance after several years on a street in Jakarta, might recognize another man. He watched the dead krait illustrate the pace of the current and blew out a slender plume of kretek smoke.
As a young man Abdullah had gone from village to village in South Sumatra, offering his services as a slayer of snakes. Across his back was slung a beautifully oiled and razor-keen machete in a blue and red painted leather scabbard, the blade of which was etched with runes of his own devising. At some villages he was sent away with just a charitable bowl of rice, but in others he was set to work. By the time he was thirty his fame had spread many hundreds of miles. Now, nearing fifty, it was a point of dignity that potential clients came to him. On the seventh day of the rains he looked up from making coffee to see a man approaching from the other side of the river.
This man was riding a donkey. He wore a long white coat, slit behind to the small of his back, that hung down on both sides of him like a bedroom curtain. He wore also a wide-brimmed straw hat that shielded his eyes and from the brim of which dripped the rain. The drops of it clicked like dice on the sleeves of his coat. When he gained the bridge that spanned the river about forty yards above Abdullah’s house he dismounted and, leaving the donkey untethered, walked carefully across the slickened bamboo slats. The river now touched the underside of the bridge. Debris, including a broken umbrella, its spokes at strange angles, washed against the upstream side of the bridge. The hem of the man’s long white coat rasped against the wet bamboo. Abdullah could hear it from forty yards away where he was making coffee. He went on with its making and waited for the man.
The lid of the kettle lifted and rattled with the pressure of the steam. Using a fisherman’s gaff-hook Abdullah removed the kettle from the fire. He placed it on a ceramic tile supported by four bricks and straightened up to receive this man.
The man approached him, holding the hat, now, in a gesture of respect. When he spoke it was in the dialect of that part of the country where rubber plantations surround the village of Beli Tang. Abdullah had killed his first snake there when he was little more than a boy. The man, with self-conscious formality, said,
“Art thou he who is named as Abdullah, Slayer of Snakes?”
Abdullah nodded. He had lived alone too long to desire the necessity of words. With a gesture he led the man to his veranda and bade him sit down. The man seemed suddenly very old and very tired, although Abdullah guessed him to be at least ten years younger than himself. He, the man, removed one hand from his hat brim to brush a bead of rain off his nose. The hand trembled. Abdullah offered him coffee in a tin cup and squatted with his back against the wall. He lit a cigarette. Beads of rain still fell from the man’s hat brim. Abdullah heard them shatter when they hit the floor.
A bird screeched from behind the banana trees. The river rippled against the bridge. The man took a deep breath and, speaking, spoke:
“Seven days ago,” he said, “my daughter was bitten by a cobra. On the evening of that same day she died. First she became paralysed. Then she turned blind.”
He looked past Abdullah at the gray-green shapes of the coconut trees beyond.
“She was ten years old. My wife and I had waited seven patient years to be blessed with a child.”
Abdullah shifted his weight and exhaled a coil of kretek smoke. He studied the man as he would a python wrapped around a latrine.
“For three days I hunted through the fields. I took a machete and went every place we warn the children not to go. On the second day, God forgive me, I cursed Allah. On the third day, I cursed myself. I encountered kampung snakes and water snakes and banana snakes and I killed them all. But I never saw a cobra. And I never saw the cobra that ruined my beautiful girl.”
There were tears in his eyes and, embarrassed for him, Abdullah shifted his gaze towards the copper-colored stream. He remembered the krait he had seen in the water four days previously, and felt a sudden rush of pity for this man.
“Then,” the man continued, “then I remembered. I remembered a man they call Abdullah. Abdullah, the slayer of snakes. They say this man can even speak with snakes. That you can hear the rubber dripping from a rubber tree ten miles away. That you know every cobra in every village by name. And that they respect you. It is also said,” and he glanced at Abdullah shyly, as though afraid he might offend, “that on still nights you can even hear the stars.”
Abdullah examined the glowing end of his cigarette and nodded.
“They click,” he said, “like cicadas at harvest time. But,” and he allowed himself a slender smile, “I do not understand their language or what they say.”
A wad of still-glowing ash from the end of Abdullah’s unfiltered cigarette fell down and hissed on the ceramic floor. The man started. And in that one reaction betrayed the strain of seven sleepless nights and sleepless days. Abdullah felt another wave of pity for this man, as of a breeze that comes up suddenly and ripples the banana leaves. The man fumbled underneath his coat and took from the pocket of his shirt two very shiny orange and green banknotes and offered them to Abdullah. He said,
“This is two hundred-thousand rupiah. It is all the money we, my wife and I, our respective families, could raise. We weep for justice, but we are poor. Come back with me to my village, Oh Abdullah. Thou who art Abdullah Akbar, Slayer of Snakes. Kill the cobra that killed my daughter. Then it is done.”
How long did it take him to ride here, wondered Abdullah. On that broken-down animal, at least two days. Two days minimum, maybe three. He suddenly realized that the unfiltered cigarette was burning too close to his lips and flicked what was left of it into the mud-stained river. He looked directly at the man.
“You are too late,” he said. “The cobra that killed your daughter is already dead.”
The man’s face was a dirty white, like a much-handled disc of tailor’s chalk. He said,
“What are you saying to me?”
“Only this. I met the snake that killed your daughter four days ago. It had been attacked by an eagle. It confessed the murder of your daughter and then I chopped off its head. It was already half-dead when I killed him. Half the fee is sufficient. I return the rest. The story is done.”
And then, finally, at last, the man whose donkey still stood patiently on the far side of the river, the coat of whom made a wet semi-circle around him on the ceramic floor, allowed himself the expulsion of grief. He put his face in his hands and cried; cried louder even than the river that shattered its debris against the underside of the bridge. And Abdullah stood up and moved himself discreetly behind where he went to be private behind where the jungle started and allowed this man the privacy of his grief.
“Allah Akbar,” he said to himself, but nearly out loud, “Abdullah Akbar. Abdullah is only a man. A cobra is only a cobra. Allah is great.”
Thirty minutes later the man recrossed the bridge, remounted the donkey, and, with a tip of his hat, rode away towards where the sky was preparing an evening of raining rain. He was silhouetted for just a few minutes before he disappeared into the banana groves. Abdullah watched him away. Then he returned to his house, the house he had built with his own hands, and went into the room that was made for sleeping. On the wall, hung from a nail, there was a machete in a leather scabbard and, without touching the scabbard itself, he removed the machete, still well-oiled and smoothly capable, running out of its sheath as silently as perfectly as a man might remove himself from a woman with whom he has just finished the beginning of a child. Its blade was as sharp as the moon. Satisfied, he resheathed it and lay down on the banana box pallet that was his bed. Tomorrow, at dawn, he needed to take a bus to the village of Beli Tang, there a cobra to kill. But in the meantime he lay down and closed his eyes.
And listened to the stars.