All for a Son

Guntur Alam

Translated by Maya Denisa Saputra, edited by Marjie Suanda

 Pramoe Aga

Pramoe Aga

I’m going to tell you a story about Aunt Maryam, Uncle Isa’s wife. Although she was already in her forties, she still kept having babies. The people of Tanah Abang village in South Sumatra called her Bi (Aunt) Mar.

Let’s begin this story early one night, when there was no moon in the dark universe, and when the rustle of a breeze signaling rain had blown since dusk fell. The location, to be exact, is the stuffy room belonging to Bi Mar and Mang (Uncle) Isa in their limas, a South Sumatran traditional house, standing not far from the banks of Lematang River. This story opens with the words of Kajut Mis, a traditional midwife in my village of Tanah Abang.

“I can’t see it yet, Mar. Hang in there. Take another deep breath, and push hard.”

Bi Mar panted, both of her hands clutched tightly to a stalk of bamboo that hung right in front of her. The bamboo was strapped securely to a rope made from trap tree bark. Sweat flooded her temples, drenching her body and soaking the kapok mattress where her body lay. Pain surged through her body, creeping from her joints and spreading into all her pores. The pain emanated from one source: her crotch.

Standing beside her, Bi Mar’s mother-in-law, Mang Isa’s mother, looked anxious. Even though this was not the first time she had accompanied her daughter-in-law who put her life on the line when giving birth to her grandchildren. Almost once in every two years, Bi Mar repeated the nerve-wracking scene, which was too much for her mother-in-law, although she herself had gone through a similar experience many times. Bi Mar’s excruciating frown always made her mother-in-law’s chest shrivel.

“Come on, Mar, you don’t have to have any more children. Just go and visit the midwife at the clinic, ask her for contraception,” begged Bi Mar’s mother-in-law two years earlier, after she accompanied Bi Mar giving birth to Serina, her daughter who was now starting to run around. Bi Mar had heard those  words not just from her mother-in-law; her own mother and Kajut Mis, that aging traditional midwife, had said the same thing four years earlier. So had Bi Mar’s relatives – but not the people of Tanah Abang.

“Don’t you see it, Mar? Your kids are like termites. They barely have any space in your limas. What else are you worrying about? You have fourteen girls. Are you blind? Can’t you count?” asked Kajut Mis, who might have been fed up with helping Bi Mar give birth too often.

Bi Mar was not blind. Her beautiful round eyes were perfectly able to count the number of daughters she had. If she were to follow her heart, she too, would love to end it all. But it was her husband Mang Isa’s persuasion that she always gave into, and she ended up fighting for her life giving birth to their children.

“We must have a son, dear,” said Mang Isa to Bi Mar. “What would the people of Tanah Abang say if the jurai of our limas  couldn’t stand upright because we only have daughters? When the time comes, when both of us grow old and our daughters are taken away by their husbands to their own limas, it will be only the two of us here, with no one to take care of us. We will take turns to die in loneliness. If good luck will have it, we will die at the same time so neither of us gets left behind.”

Mang Isa’s words made Bi Mar wistful, imagining herself as an old woman, frail and wobbly by herself in the limas. Cooking rice, taking a bath in Lematang River, collecting firewood, pulling weeds around the limas, visiting her durian and langsat plantation, carving into the bark  of a balam tree on gloomy mornings. Bi Mar shuddered. How scary it was for her to imagine it.

“If we have a son, there’ll be someone who stays in the limas. He’ll bring his wife and children over to stay here with us. He’ll take care of the durian and langsat plantations, tapping balam in the early mornings. We don’t have to worry if someone gets sick from old age, or dies without anybody knowing. We’ll have our son, his wife and children with us,” added Mang Isa, making Bi Mar close her eyes tighter. How beautiful it would be.

Another scene flashed before Bi Mar’s closed eyes. A scene that made her courage shrinks. Bi Mar was reminded of the misfortune of Mak Salit. That old woman now lived alone in her grandiose limas after her husband died a few months ago. Her misfortune was not because she was barren and could not have children. She had many, there were ten of them, all daughters, and all of them were married to men from neighboring villages.

Actually, Mak Salit’s daughters also pitied their mother over her misfortune. They were afraid that the same fate would befall them for abandoning their own mother. But, what could they do as women, other than obey their husbands and the binding customs? No mother-in-law would allow her son to stay in his in-law’s limas, following his wife’s footsteps, setting a woman’s jurai, the family surname, upright while putting an end to his own.

That was why Bi Mar turned a deaf ear to the words of her mother, mother-in-law, Kajut Mis, and her relatives. She had to have a son, no matter what those people said. The people of Tanah Abang already understood what goal she and her husband had set.


“Maybe there's some condition missing, Mar, so you keep having daughters.” Bi Mar heard those words uttered by Kajut Muya, an old woman who did not have a single daughter. She came to visit Bi Mar’s limas a week after Bi Mar gave birth to her fourteenth daughter, Serina.

“What could be missing, Jut?” asked Bi Mar, a ray of hope coming into her eyes as she urged the old woman to continue. Eagerness rose up in her chest, and she forgot her exhausted body. The handsome faces of Kajut Muya’s sons flashed before Bi Mar’s eyes.

“You should steal the leech wood sereket belonging to your husband’s aunt or sister who already has a son. Afterwards, you should use it to cook your rice. Just once. Then, eat the rice that sticks onto the sereket and keep it under your kapok mattress. Insya Allah, you’ll get a son. I used to do that, too, Mar, from the early days of my marriage until the births of my sons.”

Bi Mar’s smile bloomed, like a flower in springtime. A fervent desire overcame her. If she did not remember that she was still lying weakly on her kapok mattress, she would have just left Kajut Muya alone with her newborn. Bi Mar’s eyes sparkled, she knew whose limas she was going to visit, whose leech wood sereket she was going to steal: Bi Jumar’s, her mother-in-law’s sister who had many sons. 

Forty days after she gave birth, Bi Mar started her plan. She pretended to visit Bi Jumar to show her newborn daughter. When Bi Jumar’s attention was distracted, Bi Mar took the leech wood sereket from the wall of the limas, next to the rattling clay pot. It was unclear whether or not Bi Jumar knew what Bi Mar had done. Bi Mar glided home with the sereket slipped under her besan, the cloth wrapped around her torso.

At home, Bi Mar put her newborn in her cradle and quickly cooked the rice. Then, she did what Kajut Muya advised using the leech wood sereket to stir the half-boiled rice until it was fully cooked and ate the grains that stuck on the sereket. Afterwards, Bi Mar slipped the sereket under the mattress where she and Mang Isa slept.


Bi Mar's desire to have a son intensified. A rumor spread among the women who frequented the batang, a place for bathing and washing clothes in Lematang River. The rumor was about Mang Marwan having two wives.

According to the hot gossip, Mang Marwan took another wife because he could not get a son from his first wife, Bi Murni. Bi Mar was reminded of Bi Murni’s five daughters. Each one of them was beautiful, with thin lips and sharp noses, fair-skinned and slightly slanted eyes. Just like Mang Marwan, who was indeed a handsome man.

Bi Mar felt her heart beating strangely. She felt that all the women who bathed and washed at the batang stole glances at her. As if they were predicting her fate would be as pitiful as that of Bi Murni, whom they were gossiping about. Her man would take another wife because she could not produce a baby boy. Because they could not circumcise a son and put their limas’ jurai upright.

Very quickly, Bi Mar scrubbed her clothes, rinsed them, and soaped her body. After rinsing herself in the flowing water of Lematang River, she hurried home. In her distraught heart, she believed that those women’s eyes were fixated on her until she disappeared from their sight.

Bi Mar started to anxiously observe Mang Isa’s behavior. If that man was still outside even though the night was getting late, she could feel the green-eyed jealousy in her heart. Mang Isa could have been with the widows from this or that village. Bi Mar already thought of a plan and the words she was going to utter, if one day she received the news of Mang Isa taking another wife.

Bi Mar became even more worried whenever she found herself still having her period. She was really hoping that something would grow in her womb, the fruit of her love with Mang Isa. Something that she hoped would appease her inner turmoil.

It seemed God finally listened to Bi Mar’s prayer, or it was a pure coincidence. Bi Mar was pregnant again. Her belly slowly grew bigger, month after month, as her fourteenth daughter took her first step. All the advice she had gotten from the elders, those who had lived long enough in this world, she had done them all. It was merely with one goal in mind: to have a son. To end the battle she even hesitated to begin.


The wind pounded against the sides of the limas even more fiercely, beating out the rhythm of Bi Mar’s battle inside the stuffy room. Once in a while, the drizzle of rain was heard falling on the roof. Kajut Mis still called out cues, encouraging Bi Mar who was already overwrought. That she was already in her forties and her baby seemed to be in a breech position, made her struggle even harder. Meanwhile, in the center of the limas, Mang Isa waited nervously, their daughters curled up in silence. His prayer consisted of only one thing: a son.


© Guntur Alam. Translation © Maya Denisa Saputra.


Guntur Alam


Ada sebuah hikayat yang hendak aku terakan, tentang Bi Maryam, istri Mang Isa. Perempuan yang telah melewati usia kepala empat tapi masih saja rajin beranak. Orang-orang di dusun Tanah Abang, Kabupaten Penukal Abab Lematang Ilir, memanggilnya Bi Mar.

Kita mulai cerita ini pada suatu malam ingusan, ketika bulan tengah mati di kelam raya dan kesiuran angin penanda hujan telah bertiup sejak langit mulai temaram, tepatnya di bilik pengap Bi Mar dan Mang Isa, pada sebuah limas yang terpancang tak jauh dari bibir Sungai Lematang. Dan kisah ini dibuka oleh ucapan Kajut Mis, dukun beranak di dusunku, Tanah Abang.

“Masih belum terlihat, Mar. Kau harus bertahan. Ambil napas lagi, lalu kau ejankan kuat-kuat.”

Bi Mar tersengal, kedua tangannya mencengkeram kuat seruas bambu yang tergantung tepat di atasnya. Seruas bambu yang diikat kuat tali trap—tali yang terbuat dari kulit kayu bernama trap. Keringat telah membanjir di pelipisnya, melucumkan seluruh tubuh dan merembes ke kasur kapuk yang menampung tubuh kepayahannya. Ada rasa sakit yang mengili-ngili tubuhnya, merayap dari sendi-sendi, lalu menjalar ke seluruh pori. Sakit yang bersumber dari satu titik: selangkangannya.

Mertua Bi Mar, emak Mang Isa terlihat cemas di sebelahnya. Padahal, ini bukan kali pertama ia mengawani menantunya ini bertaruh nyawa melahirkan cucu-cucunya. Hampir saban dua tahun sekali, Bi Mar mengulangi adegan yang selalu membuat jantung mertuanya berdebar lebih kencang ini. Meskipun sang mertua pun telah berkali-kali melahirkan, tetap saja, keryit muka penuh nyeri Bi Mar tak urung membuat dadanya mengempis.

“Sudahlah, Mar, tak usah beranak lagi. Kau datangi saja bidan di Puskes sana, minta KB,” itulah ucapan mertua Bi Mar dua tahun silam, ketika usai mengawaninya melahirkan Serina, anak gadisnya yang sekarang baru saja dapat berlari dengan sempurna. Kata-kata serupa terluncur tak dari mulut mertua Bi Mar saja. Emaknya dan Kajut Mis, dukun beranak yang kian uzur itu, pun telah mengucapkannya empat tahun lalu, pun karib-karib Bi Mar. Tapi tidak orang-orang lain di Tanah Abang.

“Tak kau tengok, Mar, anakmu sudah macam rayap? Menyempal-nyempal sampai limasmu sesak. Apa lagi yang nak kau ranakan? Gadis-gadismu sudah banyak. Empat belas orang. Apa kau buta hingga tak dapat menghitungnya?” ujar Kajut Mis–yang bisa jadi telah muak membantunya beranak.

Sejatinya, Bi Mar tak buta. Mata beloknya yang indah itu dapat dengan sempurna menghitung jumlah anak gadisnya. Pun jika hendak menuruti kemauan hatinya, ia sangat ingin untuk menyudahinya. Tetapi, bujukan lakinya, Mang Isa, selalu saja membuatnya tak berdaya, ujung-ujungnya kembali membuat Bi Mar bertaruh nyawa, melahirkan anak-anaknya.

“Kita harus dapat anak bujang, Dik,” itulah kata-kata Mang Isa pada Bi Mar, “Apa kata orang se-Tanah Abang bila jurai limas kita tak tertegak lantaran kita hanya melahirkan anak-anak gadis saja? Pada masanya, bila kita telah uzur dan anak-anak gadis kita telah diboyong laki mereka ke limas seorang-seorang, kita hanya tinggal berdua di limas ini, tak ada yang mengurusi. Lalu, kita akan mati bergilir dalam sepi. Nasib baik jika kita mati bersama, hingga tak ada yang mesti merasa sunyi.”

Ucapan Mang Isa membuat mata Bi Mar menerawang, membayangkan dirinya ringkih dan tertatih-tatih sendiri dalam limas. Menanak nasi, mandi ke Sungai Lematang, mengumpulkan kayu bakar, merumputi lapangan sekitar limas, menyambangi kebun duku-durian, menyayatkan pahat pada kulit balam di pagi kelam. Mendadak, tengkuk Bi Mar meriap. Alangkah menakutkan bayang itu di matanya.

“Kalau kita ada anak bujang, ada yang menunggu limas, memboyong istri dan anaknya ke sini, bersama kita. Mengurus kebun duku-durian, menyadap balam pagi-pagi kelam. Kita hanya tinggal di rumah saja, bermain dengan cucu-cucu yang banyak.Tak usah risau bila ada yang sakit karena tua, tak perlu cemas kalau-kalau kita mati tak ada yang tahu musababnya. Sebab ada yang bersama kita. Anak bujang dengan anak dan istrinya,” tambah Mang Isa membuat mata Bi Mar mengatup rapat. Alangkah indah.

Sekelebat pula sebuah bayangan mengantar-kantar mata Bi Mar yang terpejam. Sebuah bayangan yang mendadak menciutkan kembali nyalinya. Bi Mar teringat akan nasib buruk Mak Salit. Perempuan tua itu kini hidup sendiri di limasnya yang megah setelah lakinya meninggal beberapa purnama silam. Nasib malangnya bukan lantaran Mak Salit seorang perempuan mandul yang tak punya anak. Anaknya banyak, mencapai sepuluh orang. Sayangnya, semua perempuan dan telah mengikuti lakinya ke dusun-dusun tetangga.

Bukan tak ada anak-anak Mak Salit yang tak iba melihat nasib malang emak mereka. Sebenarnya mereka pun takut akan mendapatkan nasib serupa di masa tua lantaran telah menelantarkan emak mereka. Tetapi, apa yang dapat mereka perbuat sebagai perempuan, selain tunduk kepada suami dan adat yang mengingkat? Tak akan mertua mereka mengizinkan, bila anak bujangnya menunggui limas mertua, mengikuti istri melangkah, menegakkan jurai perempuan sembari membunuh jurai seorang lanang.

Itulah mengapa Bi Mar seolah-olah menulikan telinga terhadap ucapan emaknya, mertuanya, Kajut Mis, dan karib-karib sebayanya. Ia harus dapat anak bujang, tak peduli dengan ucapan segelintir orang. Orang-orang Tanah Abang pun paham apa yang hendak ia capai dengan lakinya.


“Mungkin kau kurang syarat, Mar, jadinya selalu meranakkan gadis.” Ucapan itu Bi Mar dapat dari Kajut Muya ketika perempuan tua yang tak seorang pun memiliki anak perempuan itu menyambangi limas Bi Mar, seminggu seusai Bi Mar melahirkan anaknya yang keempat belas, Serina.

“Syarat apa, Jut?” kejar Bi Mar dengan mata berbinar. Ada semangat yang meluap dari dadanya hingga Bi Mar seolah lupa dengan tubuhnya yang masih kepayahan. Di mata Bi Mar terlintas deret-deret bujang Kajut Muya yang elok-elok parasnya.

“Kau malinglah sereket dari kayu ribu-ribu milik bibi atau saudara perempuan lakimu yang telah beranak bujang. Usai itu, kau pakai sekali saja menanak nasi. Nah, nasi-nasi yang menempel di sereket itu kau makan, lalu kau simpan sereket-nya di bawah kasur kapuk kau dengan Isa. Insya Allah, kau akan dapat anak bujang. Aku pun dulu demikian, Mar. Awal-awal menikah hingga anakku bujang semua.”

Bibir Bi Mar mengembang, serupa kuntum bunga yang menemukan masanya mekar. Ada luap keinginan yang rasanya hendak lekas-lekas ia tunaikan. Bila tak sadar dirinya masih terkulai di atas lamat kapuknya, mungkin Bi Mar telah gegas meninggalkan Kajut Muya seorang saja bersama anak gadisnya yang masih merah. Mata Bi Mar berbinar, ia telah tahu limas siapa yang akan ia satroni, dari situ ia akan menggondol sereket kayu ribu-ribu penanak nasi: limas Bi Jumar, adik mertuanya yang memiliki banyak anak bujang.

Begitulah, empat puluh hari usai melahirkan, Bi Mar melancarkan aksinya. Ia berpura bertandang sembari memamerkan anak gadisnya yang merah. Ketika Bi Jumar lengah, Bi Mar mengambil sereket kayu ribu-ribu yang terselip di dinding limas samping periuk yang bergemerutup. Entah apa Bi Jumar sebenarnya paham apa yang dilakukan Bi Mar atau ia benar-benar tak mengetahuinya. Bi Mar melenggang pulang dengan sereket kayu ribu-ribu yang terselip di balik besan-nya.

Di rumah, Bi Mar gegas menanak nasi seperti biasa, meletakkan anak gadisnya yang masih merah dalam ayunan. Lalu, melakukan petuah Kajut Muya padanya. Menggunakan sereket kayu ribu-ribu milik Bi Jumar untuk mengaron nasinya hingga matang. Dan, memamah nasi yang tertinggal di sereket. Usai itu, Bi Mar menyelipkan sereket itu di bawah kasur, tempat ia dan Mang Isa tidur.


Keinginan Bi Mar memiliki anak bujang kian menjadi saja. Sebab, ada berita yang tengah hangat dibicarakan perempuan-perempuan di batang—tempat mencuci dan mandi di Sungai Lematang. Berita tentang Mang Marwan yang berbini dua.

Kata berita yang lagi hangat-hangatnya itu, Mang Marwan berbini dua lantaran tak kunjung mendapatkan anak bujang dari istrinya, Bi Murni. Bi Mar pun ingat, ada lima anak gadis Bi Murni itu. Semua berparas elok, berbibir tipis dengan hidung bangir, berkulit putih dan bermata sipit, mirip Mang Marwan yang memang rupawan.

Mendadak, degup jantung Bi Mar terasa tak normal. Ia merasa mata-mata perempuan yang mencuci dan mandi di batang mencuri-curi pandang ke arahnya. Seolah-olah perempuan-perempuan itu tengah meramalkan nasibnya pun akan seburuk Bi Murni yang tengah mereka kisahkan. Dimadu oleh lakinya lantaran tak kunjung mengoekkan anak bujang dari selangkangannya. Tak kunjung menegakkan jurai limas dengan menetak burung bujang ingusan.

Gegas sekali Bi Mar menyikat baju cuciannya dan membilasnya. Ia menyabuni tubuhnya, lalu membasuh diri dengan air Lematang. Setelah itu, ia terburu melangkah pulang. Dalam hatinya yang kusut-masai, ia percaya mata-mata perempuan di batang masih saja tertuju kepadanya hingga tubuhnya lenyap dari pandangan.

Bi Mar pun mulai was-was melihat tingkah polah Mang Isa. Bila lelaki itu tak kunjung pulang pada malam yang kian larut, hati Bi Mar dibalur cemburu. Jangan-jangan Mang Isa tengah memadu kasih dengan janda di dusun ini atau itu. Bi Mar mengurai rencana dan menyusun kata yang hendak ia ucapkan apabila kelak ia mendapati kabar Mang Isa telah berbini dua.

Bi Mar pun kian risau bila ia mendapati dirinya masih saja datang bulan. Padahal, ia sangat berharap ada sesuatu yang tumbuh di perutnya, buah dari cinta dengan Mang Isa. Sesuatu yang ia harapkan membayar tunai kegalauannya.

Rupa-rupanya, Tuhan mendengar doa Bi Mar, atau ini hanyalah kebetulan semata. Bi Mar kembali hamil muda. Lalu, pelan-pelan perutnya membengkak, bulan demi bulan, seiring anak gadis yang keempat belas belajar berjalan. Segala syarat yang ia dapatkan dari tetua, orang-orang yang telah kenyang asam garam dunia, ia lakonkan, tujuannya cuma satu saja: kali ini ia beranak seorang bujang. Menyudahi pertarungan yang sejatinya enggan ia ulang.


Angin kian mendedas di pelipir limas, meningkahi perjuangan Bi Mar dalam bilik pengap. Sesekali terdengar rintik mengimbau di atas genting. Kajut Mis masih terus memberi aba-aba, menyemangati Bi Mar yang kian kepayahan. Usia yang sudah lewat kepala empat, anak yang kata Kajut Mis sungsang, membuat perjuangan Bi Mar kian berat. Sementara itu, di tengah limas, Mang Isa menunggu dengan cemas, anak-anak gadisnya meringkuk dalam senyap. Doanya cuma sebatang kalimat: anak bujang.


© Guntur Alam.

GUNTUR ALAM was born in Tanah Abang, South Sumatra, 1986. He studied civil engineering at Universitas Islam '45 in Bekasi, West Java. His stories have been widely published in Indonesian media since 2010, and some were included in Kompas' Best Short Stories 2011-14. His latest short story collection is Black Magic Woman & Night of Fireflies (Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2015).

MAYA DENISA SAPUTRA is a finance manager with a passion for translation. She co-translated author Triyanto Triwikromo’s short story "Labirin Kekejaman" ("The Labyrinth of Violence") with the participants of InterSastra's literary translation workshop held in Jakarta, 2013. She also translated Bernard Batubara's short story "Hamidah Tak Boleh Keluar Rumah" ("Hamidah Cannot Go Outside"), which appears at Currently Maya is freelancing for various translation projects while residing in her hometown Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.