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Hot Desk Extract: A Thousand Red Threads

Read Wednesday, 23 Feb 2022

As part of the Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Natasha Hertanto worked on a young adult historical novel. A Thousand Red Threads is set in Jogjakarta, Indonesia in the 1970s. At the time, the country was governed by a military-dictator, but the city was under effective control of two (fictional) rival gangs. Winda (she/her) is the main character and she’s the daughter of one of the gang lords. Oumar (he/him), who’s in this scene with her, escaped from Pindad, which is the national military’s weapon and ammunition factory, at nine years old, and is indebted to Winda’s father. 

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A Thousand Red Threads (Extract)

Image credit ‘Prairie Chicken’ by Chuck Starr, Flickr

Winda and Oumar are on night rotation duty when they pass a huddle of men, shouting. Flip-flops slap against the ground. Crumpled money, purple and brown, sway like flags. Always gentle, Oumar tugs the edge of Winda’s long-sleeve and tips his head in their direction. She can tell from the sounds what it is, so she shakes her head.

Oumar’s hard of hearing and mute from the day he showed up at their gang’s residence. He impressed Winda’s father by being able to gauge any pistol’s range, weight, speed, accuracy from a few hours of play, and command them accordingly. The two kids were drawn to trouble then each other, often claiming blame to cop the brunt of slipper beatings from Mbok. The old housekeeper with a bowed back and two missing front teeth would slide them a bowl of geplak after dinner, feeling guilty. Oumar would always ravish the bite-sized pink, green, yellow balls bursting with fragrant coconut flesh and sugar. Winda snapped one time:

            ‘How could you forgive her so easily?’

            ‘Food is food,’ he signed. He paused mid-chew, eyes innocent. ‘You’ve never starved.’

Though it wasn’t an accusation, Winda’s little rebellion felt shameful all the same.

Who knew it was possible to be dragged softly?

Now, Oumar furrows his thick brows and walks on, fingers still tangled in her sleeves.

Who knew it was possible to be dragged softly?

In the centre of a human ring are two gamecocks as big as roosters. Their wings and chest are carved by slashes, the sand where they battle, dotted with blood. Natural spurs on their legs have been shaved off and are now encased in leather bracelets holding curved, sharp knives. One of the gamecock staggers, unable to fly with its injured wing, let alone attack. It retreats but the owner kicks it to meet death. People jeer, cheer.

Oumar’s curiosity transmutes to vibrating anger.

            ‘Let’s go,’ Winda signs when she catches his eyes watering.

            ‘Let’s go,’ Oumar signs hours later when the full moon dangles in the sky.

The once rowdy area is empty, aside from footstep traces on dirt. Cigarette butts. Glass bottles once filled to the brim with beer bintang or teh manis.

Winda revs the motorbike, and it lurches forward. Oumar’s warm back rests against hers as he hugs the precarious stack of bamboo cages, each holding a frazzled gamecock. Frayed blue rope dive in and out of the cage’s criss-cross holes, tying them together, then around the bike seat.

Winda glances at the mirror. Oumar’s eyes are closed, chin tilted to the sky, lips curved in a peaceful smile.

This is hands down, the stupidest trouble he’s gotten her into. 

In less than twenty minutes, green street signages and lanterns, white colonial-style buildings left by Dutch occupation, gives way to trees and grovel. The motorbike trembles and sputters to a stop by a large clearing with patches of wheat as tall as Winda’s waist, rows of unclaimed rice, banana trees with leaves torn by sun and rain.

They get to work untying, unloading cages, opening doors, and cutting knife straps free. Aside from a cacophony of crickets and their laboured breaths, it’s quiet as the eight gamecocks assess their foreign surroundings.

One bird, slender, with dirty white feathers starts to wander. As soon as freedom dawns on him, he sprints, never turning back. Oumar’s looks at Winda, mouth open from joy, his split lip from yesterday’s fight in The Pit looking grotesque in the moonlight. But she’s not afraid. He’s all muscle, no power, all love, open and full. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him the furthest that bird would go is probably onto someone’s dinner plate.

Before Winda can muster a smile back, however, wing beats begin. Th-th-thump. Th-th-thump. Drums against wind. The remaining gamecocks lower their heads poised for attack.

Oumar presses his middle and pointer finger to his thumb: no, but Winda can only watch as he lunges into the fray. Beaks bury into necks, bodies drag across dewy grass, talons lock mid-fight then submerge into flesh, coaxing blood. Feathers, black, white, and brown flurry around Oumar as he tries to pry them off one another.

One gamecock slumps on its side against Winda’s feet, eyes hollow. It spasms twice then turns immobile.

The absence of weapons makes no difference to those who have been bred for violence.

It was Tante Marie, Winda’s aunt, who planted this seed of truth in Winda’s core. She roughly grabbed Winda’s wrist when she caught Winda trimming her nails. Instead, she pushed their tips into garlic, carving pungent half-moon marks, to make them unbreakable.

            ‘Mind: sharp. Teeth: sharp. Nails: sharp. Your elbows need to be strong enough to break bones,’ Tante Marie said patting Winda’s elbows so harshly, she squirmed. ‘Your knees, the bottom of your palm—jaw breaker.’ She wrenched Winda’s upturned palm to the juncture of her neck and chin. Winda couldn’t look away from her burning eyes with thick black liners. It was rare to see Tante Marie like this, she was the paragon of grace. At breakfast, she sat quietly across Winda’s father, sipping herbal tea as she read the newspaper. ‘From bedrooms to meeting rooms to dining rooms, from Keraton Sultan to Istana Merdeka, bad men rule our world. Some monsters will only reveal themselves when you carry no weapons, and your body will be all you have. Do you understand?’

Winda was twelve, then, but she nodded to feign maturity.

She understood eventually.

Time passes through them like a lost spirit.

Time passes through them like a lost spirit. Oumar stays crouched on the ground, palms pressed against his eyes as the last gamecock emerge victorious. He looks up at Winda, bloodshot. His lips quiver.

            ‘We have to be… more than this,’ he signs with urgency.

Winda knows the second he repays his life debt to her father, Oumar would run to the nearest dock, steal himself a boat and brave the open sea.

Under her father’s sole rule to join the gang, ‘a life for a home,’ one can only leave once they’ve had the privilege of saving his life. In every battle, Winda watched as people fought to take bullets, knives, and poison for him, an equal gamble between death and freedom.

If one day, Oumar stretches his hand on a rocking boat, the sun framing his silhouette, would Winda jump in? Or only pretend to consider the offer to soften the blow?

This city is her Atlas, after all. No world exists beyond her family and their enemies.

Winda bends down, failing to conjure comforting words that Oumar deserves.

            ‘We’re not chickens,’ she signs at last. Her thumb swipes blood from the scar on his cheek.

Oumar lets out a scoff, a weary smile, but he leans into her open hand.

            ‘Aren’t we?’

The last gamecock, with gold feathers around its neck, surveys the carcasses before limping back into its cage, waiting for the next fight.

Applications are now open for 2022 Hot Desk Fellowships. Click here to find out more. 

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