March 2022 Feature Writer

Agatha Tiara Christa

Agatha Tiara Christa, also known as Rara, is an Indonesian animator pursuing a BFA in Animation and a minor in Storyboard at SCAD. She wants to share stories that represent the diverse cultures of the world. Visit www.rarafromindonesia.com to see more of her work.

Styrofoam

Gan had prepared the styrofoam boxes. He and his brother stood on the river’s edge with nothing else around: no bridge, no boat, nothing. There were just some dull styrofoam boxes hiding among the tall grass. 

It was a quiet morning. The murmur of the river echoed the waking chirps of hidden birds. A gentle wind blew, and the tall grass whispered to the air as its blades brushed against one another. Gan loved it. The sounds of nature took him away from his responsibilities. That is, until the peaceful morning was disturbed by the clacking keyboard noises from his brother’s Nokia. 

Diwa got the new phone three days earlier as a birthday gift from their father, a cassava farmer, who had just finished paying off the installment after four months. Though it was used, it was the only one he could afford. He bought it from their uncle, the owner of the only electronic store in the village. 

Nothing was special about the phone. It had been discontinued for ages. Unlike the smartphones used by their wealthier classmates, it wasn’t a touchscreen, let alone a phone with social media or access to the internet. It could make calls and send texts; it had a calculator and some default pixelated games. But to Diwa, the used Nokia phone was the best birthday gift he had ever received. In fact, it was the best gift he could ever get, for the two peasant boys would most likely never touch a smartphone in their life and would certainly never own one. 

Gan had told Diwa to leave the phone at home, but he insisted on bringing it with him to school. He never took his eyes off of it since they started walking to the river. The monochrome graphic screen, which illuminated Diwa’s face in the hazy morning, displayed the most addicting game on the phone, Snake II. 

“Diwa,” called Gan. Almost reaching his high score, Diwa did not respond. “Diwa!” 

“Huh?” The snake hits its tail before breaking a new record. 

“Your boat is ready,” said Gan. 

He was referring to the two styrofoam boxes he had prepared for the two of them. The boxes were meant to store fish, but the boys never used them for their original function. The lids, broken into two pieces, were placed inside the box to act as paddles. Gan readied everything by himself, making sure there were no holes inside the styrofoam where water might leak in. It was not because they could not swim, but because they did not have any spare uniforms if their clothes got wet. 

The boys were wearing their Monday school uniform: dark red shorts, white collared shirts, and red ties. On the upper left side of their worn-out shirts was a chest pocket with a brown logo embroidered on it. The logo had two small children, each holding a book with the bolded letters “SD” behind them, short for Sekolah Dasar, or elementary school. A wreath of paddy and cotton plant encircled the logo. 

Anyone who saw their shirts would know that the boys attended the 04 public elementary school, the smallest elementary school in the province. The school was small, dirty, and ugly. It flooded once a year during monsoon season. Aside from the horrible drainage system, the school did not have a proper roof. Some parts of the wooden ceiling in Gan and Diwa’s classroom had collapsed. The thin temporary walls and all the old wooden chairs and tables had high-water lines from the yearly flood. The school was not a proper place to study, yet it was the cheapest and most accessible school for Gan and Diwa. At least they could enjoy the huge windows that let the breeze into the classroom. 

The school did not have lockers for students to keep their things, so they had to carry all the books they needed for the day in their backpacks. It was not too heavy since they were not required to have any fancy textbook for their classes. They would only bring a pencil and some notebooks. Sometimes, Gan would bring some money to buy street food snacks after school on the way home. Though they didn’t carry much, they still needed two styrofoam boxes to cross the river because one box would not fit both of them with backpacks on their shoulders. 

It was their normal routine to walk to school and cross the river. They had lived far away from the nearest village since they were born. Their school, located in the village, was about three hours by foot from home. Although their house was far from everything else, the land around it was significantly cheaper for their father to plant the cassava field. So, the commute was worth it for them. 

“Diwa, put your phone away,” Gan told his brother before boarding their styrofoam boxes. 

Diwa sighed and rolled his eyes. Although most of the time he did not like it when his brother told him to do things, he always obeyed. He put the phone in his pocket and started rowing his boat. Gan led the way in front, while Diwa followed behind him. 

That morning, the river current was not too heavy, but the riverbed was not visible from the surface. Mud, soil, and trash mixed in the stream. Once in a while, the kids would find empty packs of instant noodles, cigarettes, and baby diapers floating with the current. There were no huge river stones, only some mangrove trees near the shoreline. 

When they were halfway across, Gan heard loud clicking sounds. He turned his head to find that the source of the noise was coming from Diwa’s phone. Diwa was playing the snake game on his phone again in the middle of the river. 

“Diwa! What are you doing?” Gan shouted. “Put the phone away and come here quickly. We’re gonna be late for school.” 

“I’m too tired of rowing. Let me rest for a moment.” Diwa continued playing with his phone without realizing that the river current was pulling his styrofoam box downstream. 

“Dear God.” Gan turned his styrofoam boat and rowed to Diwa. As soon as he was close enough, he tried to snatch the phone from his brother’s hand. Diwa ducked away, making his box rock from left to right. 

“Hey! What are you doing?” asked Diwa, annoyed. “You go ahead. I’ll follow you later.” 

“Give me the phone!” Gan ordered, but his brother ignored him and continued playing the game. 

Gan tried to snatch the phone again. This time, Diwa dodged and turned away from his brother. Both of their boxes tipped wildly and took on water. Gan made a frenzied grab to steady Diwa. His arm knocked his brother’s elbow, and the phone slipped from Diwa’s hand. Diwa reached to try and catch it. He tried to stand up on his small styrofoam box—he did not care about it being unbalanced. But Gan grabbed Diwa’s right arm and dragged him into a sitting position. Gan held his brother’s arm tight to make sure he would not do anything crazy. Diwa tried to resist, but it was too late. The phone hit the surface of the water and sank. 

Diwa turned to his brother and glared at him. Anger and confusion filled his face. “Why did you push me?” he shouted to his brother. 

“I told you to put your phone away, but you wouldn’t listen to me!” Gan said. “Now, go!” He pointed to the other edge of the river. 

The transparent full moon was still visible when the sun started to take over the dark sky. Sunrays touched the tip of mangrove trees creating a layer of warm yellow on the green leaves. The sunlight flickered on the water. The sky was filled with thin cirrus clouds and the wind was chilly, but not cold enough for them to wear layers. 

The two kids managed to anchor their boats to the other edge of the river. They took off their shoes, which were soaked from their battle on the river. While Gan drained the styrofoam boxes, Diwa walked up the bank, away from the river. He was barefoot. Dirty soil covered the soles of his feet. Both of them were safe, but Diwa still had his grudge about losing his special birthday gift. He knew it was not something that his father could afford to ever buy again. He would never see the phone again and certainly not the pixelated snake. His main source of happiness was gone and it was Gan’s fault. Diwa could not resist speaking up. He turned to his brother who was still by the river arranging one of the styrofoam boxes. 

“Why do you always have to take control of my life?” Diwa said. “I know what I’m doing, and you don’t have the right to order me arou-” 

Gan slammed the styrofoam box to the ground. He turned and stared at his brother. His eyes were vicious. His eyebrows and forehead were scrunched full of anger. He walked closer to his brother, stomping his bare feet on the ground while lifting up his hand to point at Diwa’s face. 

“I was the one who took care of you since you were born,” Gan said, filling every word with rage. “I cooked, I washed, I even cleaned your butt when you were still a helpless baby. You don’t know how it feels like to be the eldest son in the house.” 

“Well, you don’t know how it feels like to be me,” Diwa replied. “My whole life I’ve been controlled by the people around me.” 

“Oh yeah? Easy. You just get spoiled like a crybaby. You don’t need to wake up at four every morning to help dad in the field before going to school. You didn’t even need to prepare the boat. And you don’t have to take care of such a bratty child.” 

“At least you got a chance to see mom.” 

“And you were the one who took her from me. It was your fault that she died!” Gan’s scream echoed through the forest, cutting off the sounds of the morning around them. The silence was deafening. 

*

Gan knew how harsh his words were, but he stayed frozen as his brother stomped away from him. Diwa turned his face away to hide his tears. He tried to hold them back to prove that his brother was wrong, that he was not a crybaby, but Gan knew Diwa was in tears. 

Gan wanted to apologize, but it wouldn’t change what he had said. It could make himself feel better, but it would never undo Diwa’s tears. Even if it was Diwa’s fault that their mother died, nothing could bring their mother back. Gan wanted to teach his brother about accepting what had been done. Even though he was not doing it that well himself. 

Diwa paused at the crest of the river bank. He turned to face his brother again. He no longer tried to hide his tears. His face showed all his sorrow from losing the phone and the heartache from being the reason behind his mother’s death. 

“You don’t know how it feels to be called a cursed child by those rich kids just because I killed her the moment I was born,” Diwa said with a trembling voice. “You think people love me, but no one does.” He was right. They were two poor peasant kids who grew up in the middle of nowhere without a mother, after all. 

Before Gan could think of something to say, Diwa collapsed. The sound of his body hitting the ground surprised Gan. Gan ran to his brother and saw a small, gray water snake slithering away into the tall grass. He grabbed a stick and hit the ground repeatedly to scare the snake away. Then, he turned to see his brother’s body lying weak on the ground. 

There were blood marks on Diwa’s right ankle and two deep puncture wounds that were starting to swell. His breathing became heavier. He was in pain. 

Gan was not sure what to do. They had never had to face wild animals before. Gan put his mouth over the wound and tried to suck the venom out of his brother’s ankle. The taste of copper from the warm blood filled his mouth, along with chunks of cold, wet dirt. 

Diwa was screaming in pain. He clenched his hands over his chest. Gan could feel his body trembling and muscles twitching. They could not go back home. It was too far, and the styrofoam box was too small for him to paddle while also carrying his brother. The only option he had was to find someone in the village to help. 

Gan carried Diwa on his back and ran towards the nearest village. He had never realized how heavy his brother had become. The last time Gan had to carry his brother was when he was six and his brother was still a baby. He remembered Diwa was crying in his arms for milk when there was no breast to drink from. Diwa had been in pain since he was born. 

Gan was running through the tall wild grass. He could feel his brother’s heartbeat getting faster and faster. It was hard for Diwa to breathe, as if he was the one who was running. 

“Just hang on tight, Diwa. We’ll find someone soon,” said Gan, trying to cheer him up. 

Gan could feel the wet ground covered with morning dew. They had left their shoes and their backpacks behind. Their uniforms were messy and covered with dirt, but Gan did not care. He did not care about school or about the styrofoam boxes that might have been carried away by the stream. He did not care about the phone lying on the riverbed or the pixelated snake on its screen. He did not care about how poor they were that their father needed installments to buy a second-hand phone. He did not care about any of those things. He did not even care about not having a mother. All he cared about was keeping his little brother safe. 

They reached the first house of the village. It was a small wooden shack with wild grass growing around the edges. An old man was sitting outside enjoying his morning coffee. He saw Gan running toward him. 

“Help, please help! My brother was bitten by a snake!” Gan shouted from a distance. The man shot up, leaving his cup of coffee on the ground. He returned with a tall bottle with a yellow substance in it. As soon as the two boys arrived on his porch, the old man gestured to Gan to lay down Diwa on the wooden floor. 

“What did the snake look like?” 

“I can’t remember clearly. It was gray or striped,” Gan answered, unsure, while catching his breath. 

The old man poured the yellow liquid from the bottle onto the wound. Once again, Diwa screamed in pain while clenching his left hand. His right hand squeezed Gan’s very tight. 

“Did you do anything else to the wound?” the old man asked. 

“I tried sucking the venom ou-“ 

“Never do that.” The old man shook his head emphatically. 

He went back inside the house and brought out a pestle and mortar. In it, he crushed together garlic and pungent green leaves with a little water and poured the concoction onto a small plate. He let the boys drink from the plate by tilting their heads back and pouring it into their mouths. Both of them coughed and grimaced. 

“The medicine will leave a horrible taste in the mouth, but it’ll help neutralize the poison,” the old man explained. 

Diwa, who was still laying on the floor, held Gan’s right wrist firmly. He was scared of letting go. His whole body was still trembling, but he gathered all his remaining energy to speak. 

“I’m-, I’m sorry.” He coughed. “I’m sorry, Gan.” 

“No, no.” Gan shook his head. “No, it was my fault. I’m sorry.” 

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Diwa repeated like a prayer. 

It was the first time Diwa saw Gan cry. Gan had always been the strong older brother, but after that moment Diwa realized that his brother could be a crybaby, too.


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