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Ubud – A Story

  • August 12, 2004

By Goenawan Mohamad

“Upon the earth, beneath the sky, among mortals, before the divinities…”

She tells herself she is in Ubud, crossing the Campuhan River, “my feet trying to clutch the dark pebbles under the endless flow of stream.” From a lonely spot on the rice fields, stretching over the fern-swamped banks of the river, she hears someone creating noises to drive out the birds, sees children chasing each other on the outer yard of a temple.

Should there be an elegy for things immediately perceptible and simultaneously a secret? Last year an old man in the Batuan village hall told her a story of a hunchback who lived in a cave at the end of this river. She looks around, hoping to find a crack around the bend, not far from the brook. But she sees only boulders strewn around the place, lumps of land covered with joy weeds and unruly undergrowth of soga trees. She wonders how the hunchback would do in his invisible dwelling on a morning like this. She remembers the way the old man depicted him: “He was a sad creature with crooked, half-obscured horns. But people believed he was an ancient prince cursed by the gods.”

She reaches the other side of the river, starts the steep ascent towards the ilalang-infested hills and thinks of the hunchback: a strange creature taken to following the same route almost every morning to the market place, selling the eagle-shaped kites he made for children. And only for children. As the old man of Batuan described it, people in the market place would whisper to each other about the hunchback’s crooked horns, sneering at the strange odor emanating from his body. But he would always just smile. Politely. Maybe a little sadly.

“They did not know about his nights,” the old man said. “They thought a hunchback was a creature deprived of time and there was nothing special taking place in the darkness of his cave.”

But they were all mistaken, said the old man. For “… now and then, especially when the moon was half full, the hunchback would walk inconspicuously along the river, a long, long way towards the beach. He had a sampan hidden in the thick of the mangrove bushes. He would push it into the sea and row it towards the small islands five miles to the west; he would collect white stones that shone in the dark.”

“After midnight, he would hurt the stones to send signals to a princess who lived in a water castle out in the ocean, calling her name, expressing his desire for her, even if he knew the castle was sinking slowly to the ground.”

She was, naturally, enthralled by the story. But after ten minutes the old man ceased talking; the story hung in mid-air, suspended, unfinished. She longed to ask why, but something restrained her from uttering a word. Gradually she began to understand that among mortals, before the divinities, each part of a story is both its beginning and end.

Yet one is always tempted to discern the complete line, in the same way that a structure is a seduction. Now she sees the children on the temple yard form a circle under a tengguli tree; they start to sing. She even expects it, when words on the screen of her cell-phone appear in a long line, as if transcribing a different voice from the other side of the temple:

Finally, the hunchback threw away all his incandescent stones and rowed his boat towards the island where the princess lived. He stood in front of the water castle and said, “My desire is a pain, your desire is a dream.”

The princess was, of course, innocent; she did not will her own dreams. The hunchback began to tremble. Something suddenly happened. The water castle disappeared. In its place was a whirlpool of the darkest green, prompting the hunchback to whisper, “I wanted to rescue you, but I am but a prisoner, and I will always go back to the cave. I wanted you to free me first.”

The princess walked out from the whirlpool, and heard the hymn of the waves. Somehow the name of the sea eluded her. She looked back at the site where the water castle was, and saw the hunchback, still there, waiting, remaining, but shrinking. A prince? Or a frog?

The words disappear, the children disperse, and the temple is deserted. She walks further up, to the farthest slope of the hills. From the top she can see white herons perching on the green like a cluster of white dots in the distance. She thinks of the hunchback and the princess and the frog – magical things named by fairy tales all over the world. “These things whose life/is a constant leaving,” Rilke writes, “they know when you praise them.” “Transient, they trust us… ”

Her cell-phone rings. A black-winged shrike flees from her quiet shadow on the grass.


Goenawan Mohamad is one of Indonesia’s foremost poets, writers and journalists. A principal figure in the shaping of modern and contemporary Indonesian literature, he was among the original founders of Tempo – Indonesia’s leading news and comment weekly.

First Published: 12.08.2004 on Kakiseni