Published:  12:04 AM, 26 March 2020

Love as sweet as poison

Love as sweet as poison

Anton Kurnia

Have you heard about leaves of laughter and forgetting? Let me tell you a sweet little secret: If you burn that leaf and inhale the vapor, you will instantly forget all your painful experiences and be thwarted into a chortling laugh.

They say some people carry those leaves across the sea from the far west. These palm-like leaves are cultivated across the highlands, among tea crops and are often camouflaged by thick vegetation deep in the jungle. Then they are dried and neatly wrapped to be taken away to some faraway places. Across islands, seas, and cities, until a sheet arrives in our village. The long journey of this miraculous leaf seems to have taken forever.

Some say the leaf is deadly dangerous. A poisonous property. It drives people mad and there are rumors it can kill. Physicians say the vapor can instantly damage lung and dull the brain. The religious scholar condemn its vapor as a deadly sin due to its effects of intoxication.

They say it is the reason the authorities would punish anyone in possession of or caught inhaling its vapor. And those who are discovered to have plant, sell and distribute the leaves, especially in a neighboring country, will be sentenced to death by hanging. My encounter with the leaf happened a long time ago, when I was very young. Like any adolescent, I was fond of trying new things. I didn't like the taste of tobacco, and found the vapor to be less than pleasant. But the vapor of this magical leaf felt different. It stimulated me. I inhaled the vapor for the first time in a friend's attic.

I had thought he was burning rolls of tobacco, or minced cloves, but the smell was different. It had a distinctive scent, which I was strangely drawn to. When I inhaled the vapor, it didn't make me feel queasy or propel me to cough as tobacco does. The next thing I knew, my friend was burning the leaf of laughter and forgetting - the magical leaf which annihilates pain. But it wasn't until several weeks later that I eventually succumbed to its magical lure.

You see, I fell for a girl. Not any ordinary girl. Her name is Seruni. She is a dancer, like her mother and her grandmother. I was fascinated by her performance some time ago in the village square. She emerged from a chicken coop made out of bamboo sticks in a colorful costume that sparkled under the light. Her eyes were closed; and her moves seemed uncoordinated at first, before they turned a corner and became very fluid - this was when the spectators began to throw coins at her as a token of appreciation.

Then she tumbled and fell to the ground, at which point an old shaman reached out to her, recited some spells and touched the crown of her head. Within seconds, she rose back to her feet and resumed the performance with her eyes closed. I was transfixed.

There was magic in her beauty - her eyes, red lips, firm breasts, wide hips. Still, she was not perfect. A black pockmark tainted her skin. I had seen it with my own eyes while spying on her during her bathing time. I hid myself behind the thick bush and stroke myself into delirium as she lowered herself into the river. Every now and then she emerged out of the water with her clothing stuck to her body like a second skin. Trembling, I swallowed my own spittle.

Unfortunately, we weren't meant to be. She was engaged to another man from a neighboring village. Her father had given her away to another man. My friends told me I was better-looking than the man she was engaged to; but what does matter how you look when you haven't got a penny attached to your name?

On the eve of their wedding ceremony, I inhaled the vapor of the magical leaf in my friend's attic. It killed the pain I thought would suffocate me; but as the effects of the vapor took hold of me, the pain immediately subsided and I proceeded to forget it altogether. All that was left was laughter and joy. By the next day, I had forgotten my lack of love in love and all the heartaches that came with it. Life was sweeter somehow, and light. Weightless.

For the next nine years, I lived in the sort of bliss produced by the knowledge that I was neither aware, nor in need, of Seruni's presence. It was as if she had never existed. The leaf worked its magic and I was … happy. At least, until the magic leaf brought her back into my life.

One day, in the midst of the monsoon season, Seruni came to me in batik soga. She wore a layer of thin pink kebaya on top of it. At first, it was hard for me to recognize her. She was still as beautiful as when we first met, but her body had shruk somehow. She was pale and overly skinny. I hadn't seen her in nine years and in some ways I never thought was possible I seemed to also have forgotten her.

"It's me," announced Seruni in a whisper. She looked deep into my eyes before lowering her head and sobbing uncontrollably. Then she told me her story.

It was a song I had heard of once before: of a marriage slowly sinking into the abyss - of endless fights and blame and eternal grief. She could not conceive a child, Seruni admitted. And her husband refused to accept this fact. In his own way, he rejected her.

He treated her as if she had not shared his bed, his life, his heart - as if she was a stray dog he'd picked up on the street. And lately he had stopped coming home, at all. She was afraid of what people might think were she to ask for a divorce: it was simply unheard of in our village. A woman is supposed to know her place.

And there are things she isn't supposed to do. Leaving their husband is one of them.

As I listened to the story, I grew empathetic toward Seruni. Sure, she had hurt me; but my love for her had always been pure - and it was this love that called upon me to grieve with her and embrace her sorrows. She needs that magical leaf, I thought. It would bring her joy as it had brought me joy these past nine years.

"You are the only one who can help me. Please, help me," she said.

The sky turned dark. In the distance, the crow belted out a menacing croak. I listened to Seruni's breathing for a moment; then I reached out to touch her. Her hair smelled nice. Before long, my lips were moving toward hers, searching for that old flame we used to share. She was quivering.

We lay next to each other and let the smoke from the burning magical leaf fill the room. Seruni coughed once or twice, and we laughed about that. She had forgotten her sorrows, and and I was free of loneliness. She shared more stories with me and I listened intently.

Then I told her of the leaf's journey from faraway coasts, how it had travelled across oceans for decades, before arriving in our village. We laughed and laughed. Then we made love until the sun came up. The next day, I woke up with a pounding in my head and a pang in my stomach. Seruni lay naked next to me. She was smiling. Her body remained unmoved. It took me a while to realize she was not moving for a reason: she was dead.

Outside, the village turned into a battlefield of opinions and emotional rage. I was accused of raping and killing another man's wife. I was charged with treason and murder. It didn't take long for the village henchmen to arrest me. No explanations needed, they said. Then they proceeded to torture me, and threw me inside a small holding cell.

Years had gone by and my chances of leaving this prison were growing smaller by the day. All I could do now is tell my story, hoping you would listen. Would anyone listen to this story? The law is the law. I was found guilty of murder. But you know how ridiculous that sounds, right? Me, killing someone I love? Ridiculous. Laugh-out-loud insane.

Anton Kurnia us an Indonesian writer

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