"Someday, if you see your dad walking out at night, don't ever follow him and never ask him anything. Just act like you don't see anything," Grandma said to me, years ago.
That's how I have been living my life all this time: pretending to be silent and acting as if I'm not curious. It's been five years since I discovered Dad's strange habit. Every twentieth night of the month, Dad will come out quietly carrying plates of a boiled chicken, fruits and other food. Then, he will return at 2:30 a.m.
I'm Alan, by the way. Alan Mandigula. I'm 11 years old. I live with my dad. My mom died when I was little. Our family owns a citrus plantation, which is also our source of livelihood. I always play there with my friend. But my dad always forbids me from playing in the southern part of the plantation. He said the place is dangerous.
I often hear the villagers chattering about the queen in our village. Her name is Layang Sulih. She likes to capture beautiful women whom she would then turn into her slaves and no one would ever hear from them again. That's why many parents in this village will send their daughters to the city, before Layang Sulih takes them. But of course, it's just a myth.
I walk through this vast citrus plantation, hiding behind the tree when a worker passes by. Today is Friday. The workers are away to attend Friday prayers. And this is the right time to find out what my father has been hiding in the southern part of the plantation.
"It's amazing," I whisper unconsciously. Somehow, I've been standing in the southern part of the plantation. The citrus trees that grow in these parts are very thick. The citrus fruits are large and thick. I pick one, then peel it off. It tastes very sweet. Different from other citrus fruits.
I become more curious and am surprised when I see a citrus tree standing right in front of me. This tree is different from the others. The stem is bigger, taller. The fruits also grow at the bottom of the trunk, whereas I've never seen citrus fruits grow in the lowest part of the tree.
Not only that, I also see a large stone shaped like a table under the tree.
"What are you doing here?!!" a familiar voice scolds me.
"Dad," I am shocked, nervous mixed with fear. "I'm sorry."
He doesn't reply. And, instead, he pulls my hand and leads me away from there.
"What are you doing there? Didn't I tell you not to go there? What if she sees you? Oh God, Alan." Dad snaps at me as soon as we arrive at home.
"I'm sorry Dad. I promise I will never do it again. I'm just curious, why you wouldn't let me go there."
"Your curiosity is dangerous. Do not ever do that again. I hope this is the last time. You disappoint me, Son," his voice trembles. I feel his voice choking with tears. Then he leaves me.
This is the first time my father has ever scolded me, as if I had committed a major sin. I hadn't intended to disappoint him. I didn't know my visiting that part of the plantation would be such a big deal.
Tonight, my father doesn't say a word to me. Maybe he is still angry. He simply checks on me from the doorway of my bedroom just to see whether I am asleep. Then he leaves the house, carrying the usual plates.
Curious, I follow my father and go about the same route I did earlier in the day. Before I know it, I have arrived in the southern part of the plantation. I step aside to avoid being seen and hide behind one of the trees. I catch my father place the plate of food on the boulder. Then he prostrates himself before the big tree and says,
"Please, return her to me. I can't live without her. Please [...]" My daddy shouts at the tree.
"I always bring you your favorite food. Why won't you keep your promise? I need her. Please return her to us. Find someone else, please find someone else," he pleads, now hugging the big tree.
I wonder whether I am seeing what I'm seeing. Is my father losing his mind? Then I hear a voice coming from the tree, "I can't, Andi. It's been a long time since I wanted to let her go, but I can't. I haven't found a replacement. I'm sorry for not being able to fulfill my promise. Instead, enjoy the fertility of my citrus fruits."
"I don't need citrus fruits. I just want her back," my father is sobbing now. I am seeing a different side of my father. He is not the strong man I know. He is fragile and in pain.
"You must be Alan, right?" the voice approaches me. When I turn around, I find a woman standing behind me. I feel blood is draining away from my face. I nod my head slowly.
The woman is tall, her long hair is tied up like a horse's tail, and she is wearing a knee-length blue blouse. She looks beautiful.
"What are you doing here at midnight? Didn't your father forbid you to come to this place?" she asks.
"Please don't tell my Dad."
"You are very similar to your father. Then, go home [...] before your father sees you," says the woman again, rubbing my head.
"You won't say anything to him right?" I ask. The woman just smiles and shakes her head. I run as fast as my legs allow me to. On my way back to the house, I realize I have seen that woman before. In a photo my father had taken long ago. The woman sat next to him with a huge smile on her face. She was pregnant. My heart is beating fast, steps away from the house now. I know who she is.
My legs are numb. I turn to look at the now dark plantation where the mystery of my mother's disappearance will stay unresolved and unfathomable.
The writer is a university student
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