“My Heirloom You’ll Be” by Dimas Rio

"My Heirloom You'll Be" by Dimas Rio

The mother’s eyes widened when she saw her son fornicating with a dishonourable woman. Fajar’s chest, covered in sweat, moved in unison with the swing of his pelvis. His lust was boiling, triggered by the sighs of Ambar’s breath. The woman, lying on her back on the passenger seat, stretched her neck, whispering Fajar’s name every now and then as if every jolt of the man’s body brought her infinite pleasure. Ambar really understood how to intoxicate her lover. It didn’t matter if Ambar didn’t actually feel the same joy. Fajar wasn’t adept at making love, but Ambar thought he had the right to taste what it felt like to be a stud. After all, Fajar had been good to her.

“This belongs to my mother,” Fajar said as he wrapped a gold chain necklace around Ambar’s neck just before they shuffled into the passenger seat. Having never had luxurious jewellery before, Ambar’s eyes were stunned by the gleam emanating from every tiny link that formed the piece. However, what caught her attention was the bulging eye – or at least that was her first impression – which was hanging from the end of the necklace chain. White diamond shards clustered around the emerald piece, holding it hostage in the middle, forcing the eye to see it all.

“Are you sure your mother would want you to give this to me?”

 “Of course,” Fajar assured her. There was no doubt on his face, “in fact, she specifically asked me to give it to you.”

Ambar raised her eyebrow in disbelief. Considering their relationship wasn’t exactly the type that a Javanese traditionalist mother would approve of, this unexpected gift came as a pleasant surprise to Ambar.

I guess I am welcome to the family after all,Ambar thought. But then again, she supposed Fajar’s mother just had no choice in the matter.

Ambar’s attention shifted back to the present, where Fajar, now moving faster above her, grunted in pleasure as he climaxed. Out of breath, Fajar collapsed on Ambar’s shoulder, feeling worthy of an embrace even after only satisfying himself.

Ambar stroked Fajar’s hair as if she was lulling a child to sleep, while her mind wandered, contemplating everything that had brought her here.

“Ambar, are there no single men in your office?” Ambar remembered her mother had asked a few weeks ago during dinner.

Careful not to rise to her mother’s taunt, Ambar chose to take a piece of tofu that was laid out on the table. But as expected, her mother never waited for an answer.

“Not one man has approached you at work? Or maybe you scare them away?”

Ambar didn’t have enough patience that day. “Mom, would they hire me as their secretary if they thought I would scare people away? And my priority there is not to find a husband.”

“Just remember, you’ll only get older,” the mother replied, always scapegoating time as the enemy, “you’ll be in your thirties this year. If you don’t start looking for a husband now, when will you get one?”

“I just got a job, Mom,” Ambar stressed every word as if talking to a child, “can I focus on that first?”

But her mother didn’t relent, “I’m not telling you to quit your job. I’m just saying that, while working, you can also search for a husband. Your fortune will only grow after you get married. Didn’t you read the hadith[1] book I gave you?”

 Ambar’s face heated up. If getting married can make you rich, why were we always poor when Dad was still alive? Ambar was about to respond but chose to clear the plates from the table and withdraw from the battlefield. In her mind, she wished to get enough money fast to afford her own place, so she would no longer be trapped with her mother, although this thought made her feel like an ungrateful daughter. It wouldn’t matter anyway. Ambar knew that her salary as a secretary in a small law firm wouldn’t be able to buy the freedom that she longed for.

However, that night, as she lay on her bed, considering her options, Ambar thought that maybe it could be helpful for her to have a boyfriend. She wouldn’t give a rat’s ass if she fancied the guy. At least his presence could, for a time, stop her mother’s nagging comments every night.

Hence, in her first few weeks at work, Ambar began to look for a potential mate. It was clear to her that Fajar stood out from the rest, and it wasn’t because of his position. Well, not entirely anyway. Because even though Fajar was the owner and partner of the law office she worked in, he was different from most other young entrepreneurs in similar positions, in that he wasn’t an entitled jerk. If anything, Ambar saw that Fajar was too naive to use his power. He could only make decisions after getting validation from others, including his subordinates. Ambar could often hear Fajar’s questions to the associate lawyers in his office: Could you check the law, have we quoted them right? What is the name of the law again? So we’ve quoted the correct one, right? Does this report look good enough to you?

It was clear to Ambar that Fajar was her “in”. While physically, Fajar was definitely not her type, Ambar found his habit of always asking for others’ opinions refreshing. Ambar imagined it must be nice to be with someone who cared about what she had to say. She wanted to know more about him, but in the two weeks she had been working there, Ambar had only been trusted with filing and scanning documents. The rest, the man did himself. Accustomed to fighting to get what she wanted, Ambar knew that she had to be proactive.

One afternoon at work, when all the other secretaries had gone home, Ambar knocked on Fajar’s office and stepped inside. From behind the pile of documents on the desk, he looked up.

“Excuse me, Mas[2]  Fajar. Is there anything I can help you with?” Ambar’s voice sounded sweet, surprising even herself, “is it okay if I call you ‘Mas’? You’re still quite young, so I thought…”

Fajar didn’t answer right away; he just stared at her. Ambar panicked. Was I too forward? Perhaps he would like me more if I just acted pretty and cute like all the other secretaries here?

For a moment, Ambar suspected that maybe there was something wrong with the way she dressed. But that day, she was wearing a blazer, white shirt, and black pleated skirt. An ensemble that was very common in a workplace, if not boring.

Ambar was about to apologize and shuffle out of the room before Fajar asked, “It’s already late; you don’t want to go home instead?”

“I don’t have anything to do at home anyways,” Ambar said.

Fajar smiled awkwardly. His previous secretary had never been this straightforward. He motioned for Ambar to sit down, with Fajar’s desk stretched between them like a barricade. He handed a document to Ambar and commented that the format therein wasn’t up to the firm’s standard. Fajar had asked a junior lawyer to fix it, but the young man had to go home early due to a family emergency.

“I have to send this out to our client tonight,” Fajar tried to sound calm, though Ambar could see the nervous twitch on his face. Fajar asked Ambar to tidy up the formatting on the executive summary while Fajar would check on the regulatory references.

“If I may, can I just bring my laptop here?” Ambar asked, which prompted a doubtful look from her superior. Ambar quickly gave her justification, “So that if I have any questions, I can just discuss them with you here instead of having to go back and forth into the room.”

Fajar thought her reasoning was quite sensible. In the hours that followed, Ambar worked across the table from Fajar in his office, typing away on the laptop in front of her. Every now and then, Ambar would read a series of paragraphs from the file to him, making sure her revisions were in accordance with his wishes. From the spelling of terminologies that were foreign to her (juncto, lex specialis, and pacta sunt servanda, to name a few), cross-references to things that piqued her curiosity (“Why is the law changed so many times? How can they expect us to keep up?” “Why can’t the regulations use a simpler language?” “So lawyers are basically just copying off of the law with a little bit of paraphrasing?”). At first, Fajar just answered dismissively, as if he thought that Ambar would eventually lose interest. However, as the secretary’s questions became more and more probing, Fajar’s answers became more detailed. There was no longer any hesitation in his voice. Ambar saw, to her delight, that Fajar had started to enjoy conversing with her. She suspected that his confidence emerged after he was sure that Ambar wouldn’t doubt his words. She began to think that, like herself, perhaps Fajar just wanted somebody to act as a sounding board.

Ambar found other similarities with Fajar when they had dinner together at a cafe after working until late at night for the umpteenth time.

“Even after I opened my own law office, my mother still complained, ‘Why don’t you try working for a bona fide company first to build your resume?’, ‘My friends’ kids work in oil and gas companies offshore, and they got good benefits and everything,’” Fajar tried to sound humorous. Still, Ambar knew, even in the dim light of the cafe, that these comments had been bothering him for a long time.

“My mother is the same way, Mas,” Ambar said, “I thought she would be happy when she found out I got a job. But her complaints just shift to ‘When are you getting married?’ and so on.”

Both of them laughed, relieved to know that they belonged to the same clan: grown humans who only functioned as extensions of their parents.

Fajar said that his mother also often tried to set him up with her friends’ daughters. “She asked me to have dinner with her friend’s daughter tomorrow. Her father is a director of a state-owned company,” Fajar said.

Not knowing what to say, Ambar just nodded at first. However, when she caught the tired look on Fajar’s face, Ambar asked, “If you don’t feel like it, why don’t you just refuse to go?”

Fajar stared at Ambar as if she had just said something ridiculous. A defeated smile spread across his face, “Even if we refuse, do you think our mothers would stay silent?”

Ambar recalled her mother’s complaints whenever they argued about her future: “I know this is none of my business. But is it wrong for a mother to want the best for her daughter?” “Have I ever asked anything from you? Why can’t you just listen to what I say for once?”, “Remember the hadith, Ambar. Children must make their parents happy.”

Ambar returned Fajar’s smile, raised her glass, and toasted, “May your matchmaking dinner go splendidly tomorrow.”

Ambar thought her humour was too grim for most people, but Fajar laughed out loud at her direct remarks. She realized that she liked seeing him laugh.

But it wouldn’t change a thing anyway since Ambar realized that her chances of winning her lottery were slim. She knew that there was no way a devout prince could defy the mandate of his queen mother.

Which was why Ambar was surprised when she saw Fajar the next day, still in his office at 8 p.m. From her cubicle, Ambar could see him in his room, which was entirely framed by glass partitions. He was sitting in the chair; his eyes were glued to the monitor. But Ambar knew the man wasn’t paying attention to anything. His mind was lost in the ether, which Ambar had often caught him doing whenever he thought nobody was watching. Triggered by curiosity, Ambar stepped into Fajar’s office, but not before taking a document from her desk to make her visit look more official.

Fajar’s gaze shifted to Ambar as she entered. Ambar could see his face beamed at the sight of her – which she thought was cute.

“Don’t you have a dinner date tonight?” Ambar immediately retorted.

Hearing Ambar’s question, Fajar’s brow furrowed, “I have an online meeting tonight with a Panamanian company.”

For a moment, a sense of panic hit Ambar. How could I forget that he has a work meeting tonight? Ambar had always prided herself on being good at keeping track of things. This carelessness made Ambar curse at herself in her head, in a voice identical to her mother’s. But then she remembered something.

“I don’t recall us having a client from Panama, Mas.”

Fajar’s smile slowly grew, “If you ask my mother and my date now, they think we have.”

Ambar couldn’t hold back her laughter. It was endearing to her to see the changes in Fajar’s demeanour over the last few weeks. Like herself, the man was twisting and turning, trying to free himself from his shackles. However, Ambar knew that any struggle was futile. They were lifetime debtors to their mothers, and pursuing desires other than their matriarch’s wishes would constitute a default.

Ambar and Fajar had dinner together again that night and the night after that. And the night after that. Their conversations always lasted until the café was closed, and Fajar always drove her home afterward. She knew that they had become the subject of gossip throughout the office, from secretaries to employees to the partners’ level. Everybody must have noticed that Ambar was the only secretary who was still in her cubicle after five o’clock in the afternoon and that she would only leave the office when Fajar finished working.

“Maybe I should just wait for you on the ground floor,” Ambar suggested one afternoon.

Fajar refused and asked her not to care about what other people said. “I have learned not to bother anymore, Ambar. And you should too. It’s liberating.”

Ambar reminded him that as the owner and the management in the office, he might remain safe from any consequences, at least for now, but not for a secretary who only had been working there for a month. And she was not planning to lose her job.

“I’m the founding partner in this office, Ambar. If anyone has to worry about their position in this office, it’s them.”

Ambar raised her eyebrows, surprised. If someone had said to her that the timid man she knew a month ago was the same person as the man who now sat in Fajar’s office, Ambar would never have believed them. However, she felt a sense of pride, like a mother’s, seeing the burgeoning man she had created.

Fajar drove Ambar home again that night, stopping just outside the alley where her house was. She didn’t want her mother to know that her boss drove her home every night. Ambar knew that even though her mother always wanted her to find a mate, making sure her only daughter avoided adultery and especially being the subject of nasty gossiping by the neighbours was paramount. Regarding why she often came home late, Ambar always reasoned to her mother that working overtime was something common in a law office, even for the secretaries. Her mother never once questioned Ambar’s excuses, at least for now.

“I told my mother about us,” Fajar said. His gaze fell on their intertwined hands, “I hope that’s okay.”

Ambar was disappointed that Fajar did this without asking her first. The old Fajar, Ambar was sure, would have asked for her opinion first before telling anyone else about their relationship. 

Now that the queen mother had been made aware that her young prince had secretly been getting intimate with a peasant woman, Ambar could only guess which one of them would be called a whore. Bitterness permeated her mind, so thick that she could taste it on her tongue.

“What did you say to her?” Ambar asked, preparing for the worst.

“I showed her your picture. She said that you’re beautiful and wanted to meet you,” Fajar said.

Bullshit.

“What else did you not tell me?”

Fajar seemed stunned by Ambar’s reaction, “What do you mean?”

At that moment, Ambar found his naïveté exasperating. “Even if your mother wants to see me, it’s definitely not because she likes me. She probably wants to prove how unworthy I am.”

Despite her protest, Ambar knew that meeting the queen mother was something she couldn’t avoid, especially if she wanted their relationship to attain legitimacy. As of now, she knew that she was already floating on her space shuttle, halfway to escaping her prison. She just hoped that she would not be denied permission to land.

Fajar whispered, as if able to read her mind, “Ambar, you don’t have to worry. Even if my mother doesn’t like you, she won’t be able to do much.”

Ambar looked at Fajar, waiting for him to make his point.

“My mother is very sick.”

Fajar’s voice broke as if shards of glass were puncturing his throat. He told Ambar that his mother had stage four colon cancer. Her condition had deteriorated rapidly since she was first diagnosed with the disease two months ago. Even though she had undergone resection surgery, doctors still found cancer cells left in her body, so she had to continue with a series of chemotherapy.

Fajar said that his mother didn’t respond well to the drugs. On the doctor’s advice, Fajar decided that his mother be treated palliatively at home with the help of a nurse. Ambar knew exactly what this meant: Only divine intervention could save the queen from death. Unfortunately, Ambar knew from her own experience with her late father, that the man in the heavens could be pretty unforgiving.

“But my mother is a fighter,” Fajar continued, “the doctor said that she only had weeks to live, but it’s been two months now, and she’s still hanging on.” Fajar’s gaze was lost in the past. He then closed his eyes and took a breath as if trying to keep his soul from escaping. When he opened his eyes again, Ambar could see tears welling up inside.

“At this point, I know she must be exhausted, Ambar. I just want her to know that I will be okay… because now I have you by my side.”

Ambar suddenly felt as if her stomach was filled with rocks.

He thinks that by parading me in front of his dying mother, she can die more peacefully, and he can feel less like a failure to her. Ambar thought. She was unsure if she was interested in being made a Messiah for Fajar and his mother. She realized that she enjoyed spending time with this man simply because he gave her an excuse to avoid being at home with her own queen lioness. On the other hand, she relished the possibility of being the last woman that the queen saw before she passed. After all, she had to pay respect to the previous ruler before she could ascend the throne herself.

It was then that Fajar produced a small bronze box from inside his suit that he hung behind the driver’s seat. The sight of the antique-looking item immediately grabbed Ambar’s attention. Even under the pale moonlight that shone through the windshield, she could see the intricate snake-like carvings slither through the box’s surface. Traditional Javanese scripts, Ambar realized. The hanacaraka. She remembered her mother had tried to teach her to write and read the letters when she was in elementary school, but she would always find a way to avoid the lessons (“Why should I learn all of this stuff? Even my teacher at school doesn’t know how to read this,” little Ambar would argue). But if her mother kept pressing, Ambar would make a fuss and cry. She discovered early on that if she cried long enough, her father would eventually swoop in and save her – like the valiant prince that he was – believing that her mother was being too hard on her. Ambar realized that she had always wanted to escape her mother’s unwavering and critical gaze for as long as she could remember.

However, Ambar was surprised to find that she could understand the meaning of the ancient texts engraved on the top of the bronze box. It looked and sounded mystical; Ambar swore that it could have been a mantra.

꧋ꦔ꧀ꦭꦁꦏꦸꦔꦶꦫꦎꦱ꧀ꦒꦼꦫꦃꦭꦤ꧀ꦏꦼꦱꦼꦁꦱꦫꦄꦤ꧀ꦏꦸꦭ꧈

꧋ꦩꦼꦏꦠꦺꦤ꧀ꦭꦃꦕꦫꦥꦚ꧀ꦗꦺꦤꦺꦔꦤ꧀ꦠꦼꦂꦭꦲꦶꦂ꧉

꧋ꦣꦼꦩꦶꦱꦱꦶꦭꦤ꧀ꦱꦸꦂꦪ꧈ꦏꦸꦭꦧꦼꦂꦱꦸꦩ꧀ꦥꦃꦣꦠꦺꦁꦥꦚ꧀ꦗꦺꦤꦺꦔꦤ꧀꧈

꧋ꦮꦶꦮꦶꦠ꧀ꦱꦩꦺꦤꦶꦏꦔꦤ꧀ꦠꦺꦴꦱ꧀ꦱꦣꦔꦸꦤꦶꦥꦸꦤ꧀‌

꧋ꦥꦚ꧀ꦗꦺꦤꦺꦔꦤ꧀ꦧꦣꦺꦣꦣꦺꦴꦱ꧀ꦥꦸꦱꦏꦏꦸꦭ꧉

Through my pain and misery,

that was how you came to be.

By the moon and the sun, I swore to thee.

From now to eternity, my heirloom, you’ll be.

Ambar saw Fajar open the box’s lid and lifted a golden chain necklace with a large green emerald glistening at its end, swarmed by hundreds of white diamonds, making it look like a staring, unblinking eye.

“This belongs to my mother,” he said as he laid it on her palm, “and I want you to have it.”

Ambar couldn’t take her eyes off the gemstone. So arresting yet intimidating its power was that she felt like challenging it.

“Are you sure your mother would want you to give this to me?” Ambar asked, even though she couldn’t have cared less.

“Of course,” Fajar assured her, “In fact, she specifically asked me to give it to you.”

Ambar smiled. She suddenly remembered her father, who had always spoiled her with gifts, from dolls, toys, to a minibike. It didn’t matter to her that he had bought those items from a secondhand market by the roadside – every time her father brought something home for her, Ambar felt like a royal daughter.

Fajar wrapped the necklace around Ambar’s neck and kissed her forehead. “You look beautiful,” he whispered. It was as if Ambar’s father had come back to life, making sure that his daughter was treated like the empress that she was.

“Please come to my house with me tomorrow; it would mean so much to me,” Fajar said. The way he looked reminded Ambar of a stray kitten begging for scraps, and Ambar could not help but give in.

“Of course I will,” Ambar squeezed his hand gently. She could see that her response gave him relief. Locking his gaze with hers, Fajar shifted closer and planted his lips on Ambar’s. His hands cupped her face as if he was gulping from it. Ambar pulled her knees onto the seat and rested them on the cushion, driving herself closer, letting him savour the nectar of her lips. He earned every lipstick-tinged drop. After all, he had just invited Ambar to her very own royal coronation – neither wicked stepmother nor fairy godmother necessary. This was better than any fairy tale Ambar could ever dream of.

Scrambling to the back seat, Ambar and Fajar mauled each other as if they lusted for blood. Squirming and writhing like snakes in a cave, they felt freer than ever. Not one drop of light shone on them, and they preferred it that way. Under the shadows, they could be feral animals, not anybody’s pets.

Because the light held you captive while the darkness set you free.

What they didn’t realize was that a mother’s gaze could penetrate through even the darkest of nights. After all, she had seen a glimpse of hell and lived to tell the tale.

So relentlessly unwavering and unflinching were her eyes that shadows folded onto themselves in fear, allowing her a better sight of the abominable act that was splayed on the passenger seat just beyond the rear window.

Her eyes reddened and trembled as she saw her son fornicating with a dishonourable woman.

§

Ambar planted a parting kiss on Fajar’s lips before she stepped out of the car several minutes later. Upon alighting on the gravel, she self-consciously pulled at her blouse and skirt, as if afraid that people would know what she had done just by looking at the creases.

Ambar glanced sideways and saw Fajar’s car starting up. The beam from the headlight and the rumbling sound from the engine disrupted the quiet night as if alerting every house in the neighborhood that Ambar, the daughter of a pious and God-fearing single mother, was once again being dropped off late at night by a man, like a dirty secret.

As Fajar drove away, Ambar raised her hands to wave at him, hoping to get a wave back or a smile. However, Ambar could see from the window that Fajar’s attention was fixed on the road; his face was devoid of any of the joy that had earlier oozed from his every pore.

He’s probably tired. It’s after midnight, and we have a big day tomorrow, Ambar reasoned to herself.

But in a split second that followed, Ambar realized that she had seen that look before. It was the look that Fajar had whenever he was alone and thought that nobody was watching.

It was as if his soul was only loaned to him, and someone – or something else – had decided to take it back.

§

“It looks good on you,” Fajar complimented Ambar when he saw his mother’s necklace encircling her neck.

It was the day after, and Ambar was back in Fajar’s car, which looked and smelled the same as it had the night before. However, unlike the gloomy man that Ambar had seen through the window last night, today, Fajar looked as chipper as ever. He kept saying how stunning Ambar was in her long-sleeved white dress and blood-red shoes. Ambar quite liked the look herself as she based it on her favorite fairy tale, Swan Lake, where the prince professed his love and released the princess from her curse, making her a true royal in the end. Her whole ensemble was her way of manifesting her destiny.

However, her mood just couldn’t align with her sunny get-up this evening, all thanks to snippy comments made by her mother just before she was about to head out.

“They must pay you a lot of money, don’t they?”

Ambar, who was just putting on her crimson shoes, stopped in her tracks and stared at her mother. Her insinuating tone was palpable; she might as well cut Ambar’s jugular with a knife.

“Do you know what people in our neighborhood have been talking about?” her mother stood in the living room, a good four feet from where Ambar sat. Wrapped in her oversized black dress, she leaned her shoulder against the wall, her arms folded across her chest as if assessing a shameful object from afar.

Ambar didn’t have time for this. She rose from her chair and headed for the front door.

“They said, ‘Look at Mrs. Endang’s daughter; she’s always being taken home late by someone. I wonder what she does for a living’,” her mother continued. Rage shook her voice.

As if rotten eggs had just been thrown at her back, Ambar turned to face her aggressor. Her eyes were burning coals.

“I don’t give a fuck what they think.”

The mother hen winced as if Ambar just spat acid on her, “Have you no shame?”

The more her mother threw heinous accusations at her, the more she wanted to mess with her mother’s head. After all, she had decided that her daughter was a whore. Why bother correcting her now?

“I thought this is what you want, Mother? Me finding a husband? I’m just doing what you told me to.”

“Not by disgracing our family in front of everybody!” her mother barked.

“You want to talk about family, Mother? Am I not your family?”

Both women breathed heavily; each was a distorted reflection of the other – arch Nemeses bound by blood. 

“You are my daughter,” her mother reminded Ambar’s position in this household, “and as your mother, it’s my duty to guide you through life so you don’t do things that you’ll regret.”

“No, you want me under your thumb,” Ambar retorted, “and you think your duty is to point out the things that I lack.” Ambar could feel her pent-up anger rolling like a storm.

“When I had to refuse the job offer in Malaysia a couple of years ago because you didn’t want to be alone, you belittled me every day for not having a job. When I finally got this job, you asked me when will I have a boyfriend,” Ambar’s voice cracked,and now that I have done exactly as you asked, you called me a whore.

Her mother just stared at her, dumbfounded, unable to refute Ambar’s tirade. Ambar believed there was nothing her mother could do other than admit defeat. But she forgot the fundamental law in this household: Ambar was the daughter, and she was the mother. And her mother would rather chew on shards of glass than apologize.

“Don’t twist my words, Ambar. I have never said such a thing. I’m just telling you what other people have said,” her mother’s voice trembled, “remember the Quran and the hadith, Ambar. Respect and honour your parents. Especially your – .”

“You can cite the Quran and the hadith all you want, Mother,” Ambar snapped, “I’m done feeling guilty for you.”

Ambar turned her back on her grief-stricken mother and walked out. In between the sound of her pounding heart, she vowed to move out of her mother’s house tonight – never to return.

§

Ambar let her fingers play with the golden necklace on her neck. The gleam of the gemstone at its center shone as brightly as ever, casting specks of light throughout the sprawling living room where she sat.

Ambar marveled at the lavish items and adornments that lay before her eyes. There was a large painting on the wall across from her, stretched from one corner to the next, depicting a traditional shadow puppet show watched by a smattering of locals. Ambar felt as if she was part of them.

As she observed the painting from where she sat, Ambar could see the hand of the puppeteer protruding from behind the white cloth, unnoticed by the rest of the audience. The yellowish glow from the chandelier in the living room made the puppeteer’s hands seem to move ever so slightly.

Annoyed by what her mind had conjured up, Ambar shifted her sight to the closed door across the living room, beyond the reach of the chandelier’s light. That was where Fajar had disappeared to moments ago. He told Ambar that he wanted to check with the live-in nurse whether his mother was in a good enough condition for a visit. “She seemed well enough this morning. But I better check since her condition fluctuates by the hour.”

Ambar glanced at the watch on her wrist – 8 p.m. It had been ten minutes since Fajar had left her in the living room, but it felt like hours. She was getting anxious, and knowing that she was sitting there alone, surrounded by antiques and relics with no one else in sight, made her uncomfortable. Determined to shake off her jitters, Ambar rose from the chair and decided to look around.

As she walked across the hall from the living room, her eyes were drawn to her right, where a massive stone carving stretched along the walls. There was a sculpture of a woman wearing a traditional robe, standing in the middle of a forest. She was extending her arms to a sickly-looking old man, offering him a bowl of water. While the woman’s eyes brimmed with care and generosity, the old man’s visage looked cunning and malicious. It didn’t take long for Ambar to realize that she recognized the scene: it was from the Javanese version of the Ramayana, the story that her father used to read to her every night.

The woman depicted on the wall was Sita, who, at that particular part of the tale, was tricked by the calculating Rahwana – who disguised himself as an old man – into giving him water. As Sita’s arms extended beyond the protective circle made by her prince, the ferocious Rahwana snatched her away and held her hostage in his castle.

The devious glint in Rahwana’s eyes sent a shiver down Ambar’s spine, yet at the same time, she couldn’t look away. The frail man on the wall, with his apparent harmlessness, drew her in, just like he did poor Sita.

Ambar thought that it was understandable why Sita didn’t suspect the man’s true intention. Carved in broad, expressive strokes, the old man seemed to have the most friendly laugh. She couldn’t only identify with Sita, but also feared for her. Ambar realized that she had also been drawn by that very laugh many weeks ago when she thought that her humour was too grim for most people.

Yes, Mother…

A voice as thin as air jolted Ambar out of her thoughts. Her gaze immediately swerved to where she believed the voice was coming from.

The closed black door.

Thinking that Fajar would emerge from behind the door and invite her in at any moment, Ambar made a last-minute attempt to smooth out her hair and dress. After all, she only had one chance to impress the dying queen.

However, after minutes passed without any sign of the black door opening, Ambar began to feel annoyed. 

How hard is it for him to ask whether his mother is in good enough condition for a visit? Ambar thought impatiently. Surely the nurse can give him a quick answer? 

Ambar’s questions floated aimlessly in the air without any answers to keep them earthbound. She turned her head to the living room, contemplating whether to just return there and wait like an uncomplaining little girl, when she, once again, saw a glimpse of the Ramayana carvings across the wall. The scheming Rahwana now seemed to be laughing at her.

Ambar quickly turned her sight back to the coal-black door. There was no way that she would spend another minute waiting there under the encroaching gaze of those relics.

Ambar drew a deep breath. She knew that she just had to walk through the door and ask nicely whether there was something she could do to help. After all, she was Fajar’s secretary. 

As she clasped her hand on the door handle, she could see a faint red gleam cast onto the door’s surface. She noticed that it came from the gemstone in her necklace. Has it always been red? Ambar didn’t care enough to remember, as her focus was to make sure she made an impressive entrance.

The door was heavier than she had anticipated when Ambar pushed it open. A long creaking sound filled the air as the door swung inwards, revealing – to Ambar’s surprise – not a well-lit bedroom fit for a queen but a dark cavern.

Ambar stood, statue-like, in the doorway, trying to adjust her eyes to the gaping darkness in front of her. There were cobbled stairs ahead, leading down to an even darker abyss. She was about to call out Fajar’s name, but something in her head told her not to. She knew something was wrong, but she didn’t want to turn back before getting some answers. She needed to find Fajar and asked him what the hell was going on. And if she had to walk down that flight of stairs to get her answers, so be it.

Ambar took out her cellphone from her handbag and turned on the flashlight app. The white beam emanating from the device gave her enough sense of what lay ahead. Unfortunately, the light was still too weak to reveal what was in store for her at the end of the pit.

Ambar inhaled deeply before started descending the cobblestone stairs. She could feel the door behind her being swung shut by the wind, engulfing her in suffocating darkness.

As she treaded deeper into the womb of the cavern, Ambar was greeted by a chilling breeze – and with it, a distant but unmistakable voice.

“I’ll fetch her, Mother.”

It was Fajar’s voice, which sounded both adoring and fearful. Every word he said bounced off the stone wall into Ambar’s ears, creating an overlapping squawk that looped endlessly.

“I’ll I’ll fetch fetch her her, Mother Mother.

I’ll I’ll fetch fetch her her, Mother Mother.

I’ll I’ll fetch fetch her her, Mother Mother.”

Ambar stopped in her tracks, realizing that she was almost at the foot of the stairs. In front of her was a landing that led to a low archway on the right, where Fajar’s voice resounded.

The hair on Ambar’s neck stood up when she heard the sound of the walls breathing, resulting in a cacophony of whispery chants from hell. Only moments later did she realize that the panting sound was coming from her own mouth.

“You wait here, Mother. I’ll be right back,” Fajar’s voice continued to undulate in the darkness, but now it sounded closer than before.

Ambar’s heart sank when she saw a man’s shadow appear on the cobbled floor, approaching the mouth of the archway. Fajar was coming for her.

Ambar turned back to the stairs and started climbing to the black door. At this moment, she wanted nothing more than to make her legs move faster, but the blinding darkness and her godforsaken stiletto heels made her attempt at running more like a light jog than a dash.

Ambar screamed in frustration as she hobbled her way towards the upper landing, where the black door was. Her escape was now in sight. A few more steps and she would be able to ditch her shoes and sprint as fast as she could – or fight. 

“Ambaaaaar!” Fajar’s bestial roar followed her from several steps below. The thumping of his feet sounded more and more frantic as he got closer.

Skipping over the last two steps, Ambar reached the upper landing and swung open the obsidian door. Without even blinking to adjust her eyes to the piercing light, she kicked off her crimson shoes and ran for her life.

As she ran past the living room where Rahwana’s smile taunted her from the wall, Ambar felt a tightening grip around her neck. Thinking that she must be hyperventilating, she desperately pleaded for her lungs to hold on just a little longer. The main front door was right there in front of her, ready to grant her an escape. All she had to do was pay no mind to her heaving lungs and aching body and keep pushing. She was sure that she would be out in the front yard in no time, free to scream and yell to anyone who would listen. 

But the tightness around her neck intensified the closer she got to the front door. Now, barely an iota of air could enter her lungs. Ambar’s run regressed into a blundering shamble. Her mouth agape, she gasped for air. As her fingers clawed violently at her neck, she felt chain loops coil tightly around her throat. She wasn’t hyperventilating; she was being strangled by her own necklace.

Ambar’s body slumped to the floor. Devoid of oxygen, her head felt like it would topple to the ground. The front door, which before had looked ridiculously near, now seemed miles away.

From behind, she could hear Fajar’s footsteps approaching, steady and triumphant, eager to claim his prey.

“It will choke you to death if you keep running away,” Fajar spoke calmly as if he was explaining the laws of physics. Ambar could feel Fajar’s hand resting on her shoulders. He then pulled her backward, letting her rest in his arms as he knelt.

“I need your body to be well, Ambar. It’s the only way I can have my mom back,” Fajar said; his tone was as loving as ever, “but you don’t need to be scared. Everything’s going to be all right. I promise you. You won’t feel a thing.”

That was the last thing Ambar heard before her whole world turned black.

§

At least Fajar kept part of his promise. Minutes later, when Ambar regained consciousness, she didn’t feel any pain. She found herself sitting on a chair in a dingy chamber. The only light source in the room was a chain bulb that hung from the ceiling. Ambar could taste the pungent smell of rats’ droppings that permeated the air, making her gag. Tears, snot, and spit dripped down her face like melting wax, wreaking havoc with her make-up.

As she examined her own situation, Ambar could see that her hands were lying idly on her thigh, and her bare feet were resting on the cold stone floor. There was no rope tying her to the chair. Nothing that could keep her from fighting back and making a run for it. However, when she tried to lift her hands, it was as if there were iron cuffs that held them in place. Her feet, too, felt like they were weighed down by a heavy-duty ball and chain.

As her eyes darted in panic, trying to make sense of what was happening, she caught the sight of the necklace with a dangling emerald eye on its end, still coiling around her neck like a greedy snake. The previously green gemstone that formed its pupil now took on a reddish hue, making it look like a gaping, throbbing wound. Recalling what had occurred minutes ago when she tried to escape, Ambar suspected that, as unbelievable as it might sound, this life-like necklace was somehow responsible for her currently paralyzed state.

“Hi,” seemingly out of nowhere, Fajar’s face filled her whole view. Ambar opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. She was as silent and defenseless as a carcass.

Fajar kept staring at her for a moment. So close was his face to hers that Ambar could see every bead of sweat leaking from the pores of his skin.

“You’re fine. You’re not hurt,” Fajar cupped Ambar’s tear-stained face and moved it around in his hands as if checking for a defect. There was a worried glint in his eyes; Ambar was unsure whether his remark was supposed to soothe her or himself.

“I love you, Ambar,” Fajar whispered as he caressed Ambar’s trembling face, “and I love my mother. I need to have you both.”

Ambar stared at Fajar in confusion. But as he moved away from her sight, Ambar was able to look ahead and got her answer. What she saw in front of her made her eyes bulge in fear.

Sitting right across from her were skeletal remains of a human, covered in filth and dirt. Its big hollow eyes were emotionless and bare, while its lipless mouth was forever grinning. Ambar couldn’t comprehend how something devoid of a soul could look so cunning.

“That horrible disease took her months ago,” Fajar lamented as he rested his hands on the bony shoulder of what once was his mother’s, “before she died, she promised that she would always be with me… that she would always watch over me.”

Fajar’s voice cracked as emotions overtook him, “But I don’t want just her presence or her memory. I want her here. I want her alive, healthy, and well.”

“And then I met you,” the man smiled that deceptively warm smile, “you’re fierce, funny, and intelligent, just like she was. Right then, I knew….”

Fajar’s voice petered out as if losing its transmitter. Ambar could see his hands move to his mother’s collarbone, where a familiar object lay bare and loose: the emerald necklace, identical to the one twisting around her own neck.

“I knew that you two would get along. Two of my favorite women, in the same body.”

Ambar managed to let out a muffled scream. Her whole body jerked and trembled, trying to free herself from the spell that rendered her immobile. But those invisible chains just would not give.

Fajar turned his attention to the dark corner of the room and said giddily, “Isn’t she perfect, Mother?”

With growing horror, Ambar’s eyes followed his gaze to the shadowy wall. There was only a deep blackness there. But Fajar kept going.

“Did I do right by you, Mother?” Fajar, ever the approval-seeking man-boy, clung to the dead woman who was pulling his strings.

Trying to make sense of it all, Ambar stared deep into the dark corner of the wall, searching for something that wasn’t there. The more she frowned, the more she felt like darkness was closing in on her, forcing her to look deeper.

And then she saw her, hiding behind the ink-black shadows. The queen of the house. Her face was as pale as the moonlight. Her body looked frail and spindly, as if the disease was still eating her away, even after she died. But there was something burning in her eyes. An untamed desire to protect what was hers. Ambar knew those eyes well. She had tried to escape those eyes all her life. They were the eyes of a mother.

Ambar could only scream and wail in silence. In the moments before darkness engulfed her, Ambar prayed that her mother could think of her, forgive her, and eventually look for her.

It was then that Fajar began to recite a passage that sounded familiar to Ambar. Every word seemed to multiply and gnaw over one another like rats, burrowing a chamber into her mind. So ethereal and mystical were those verses; she could swear they could have been a mantra.

“Through my pain and misery,

that was how you came to be.

By the moon and the sun, I swore to thee.From now to eternity, my heirloom, you’ll be.”


[1] A record of the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s words, actions, and approval.

[2] A Javanese prefix used to address older brothers or other men of unknown age to show respect; it is also commonly used to convey a youthful impression of adult men.


Dimas Rio is an Indonesian-born dark fiction writer. He published his first novel, “Dinner with Saucer,” in 2007, which was shortlisted for Indonesia’s Khatulistiwa Literary Award.

In 2022, his self-published short story collection “Who’s There? A Collection of Stories” was re-published by a US-based publisher, Velox Books. Kirkus Reviews calls the book “Entrancing and unnerving” and included it as one of the notable indie books by international authors in 2022

 Dimas can be contacted on his Instagram account @dimas_riyo 


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