As usual, when Lebaran came round, I became very busy.
There were dozens of things to do every day — those domestic jobs that all this time were handled by Iyah and Sri.
Now they were taking their annual leave — mudik. They had returned to their native village in Central Java to celebrate Lebaran with their family there.
Thus, for the next 10 days it was my 66-year-old mother and I who would take over those jobs: cooking, brushing and mopping the floor, ironing the clothes (I thanked God for the machine that did a perfect wash for us), dusting dozens of items in my mother’s china collection, taking care of the plants in the garden and feeding the cats.
Also, I had to wake up very early in the morning to turn off all exterior lamps and then prepare tea for my parents. So, I thought frequently that this house, where we had lived for more than 20 years, was now too big for the three of us.
I was now the only child still living with my parents, as my sister and brother got married years ago and moved away.
That morning, my mother asked me to go to the traditional market about 800 meters from the house.
Thinking of the market, a slight feeling of disgust rose in my heart. Oh, what a filthy place! Quickly I recalled its muddy floor and the terrible smell that hung in the air inside the market.
“Why do I have to go there, Mom? I prefer the supermarket,” I said.
“You have to go there to buy ikan pindang for the cats. We just ran out of it. You can’t find that in a supermarket,” said my mother. Sweat poured off her forehead as she finished sweeping the kitchen floor.
Hearing the words ikan pindang, Lulu, our oldest female cat, stared at me with her big, greenish-yellow eyes as if as she could understand the conversation between me and my mother.
Lulu was the cleverest of our five cats. They were all local and we didn’t feed them with special cat food, which was quite expensive. Usually, the ikan pindang was supplied by the vegetable peddler. But now it was Lebaran and all the peddlers had gone to their hometowns.
“Can’t we feed them sardines?”
I thought canned fish was more practical. It didn’t need to be fried. Just open the can, mixed the fish with cooked rice then give it to the cats — easy.
I didn’t even need to worry about the fish bones. If feeding the cats with ikan pindang I had to remove the bones first.
“Lulu doesn’t like sardines, didn’t you know that?” replied my mother.
“If she doesn’t want to eat she’ll get hungry. How long can she stay hungry anyway? She’ll eat the sardines eventually,” I argued.
“Come on, you can’t do that to her. She’s only a cat. A sweet cat, aren’t you, Lulu honey?” said my mother endearingly to the feline. Acknowledging my mother’s affection, Lulu rubbed her head on my mother’s leg and purred.
I looked silently at the spoiled cat. Lulu looked back at me with her big, greenish-yellow eyes, then a weird expression appeared on her face. The cat actually smirked at me!
Finally, I went to the market. It occupied an old murky building. When I’d just arrived, my gaze fell onto piles of large bamboo baskets full of garbage and flies.
They must have been left there, next to the market entrance, days ago. The nasty smell of rotten garbage filled my nostrils.
As I approached, the terrible smell grew stronger; it would surely have made me throw up if I stayed.
I had to hold my breath for a moment as I passed the gate, and also had to pretend not to see hundreds of flies buzzing all around the rotten garbage.
Hurriedly I walked in. The air inside was terribly musty. I kept walking toward the fish stall. My toes felt itchy as I walked on the muddy, dirty floor.
I should have worn shoes rather than sandals, I thought. The putrid smell reminded me that I had already reached the stall. There were only a few fish sellers and buyers that day.
“Sorry, we sell only fresh fish here,” said one of the vendors when I asked about ikan pindang. The answer suddenly knocked me back.
Of course, how stupid I am! I thought. I forgot what my mother told me; salted-fish sellers did not work at the same place as vendors of fresh fish. They usually occupied a different stall.
But I kept walking. Near the end of the stall, I stopped before the last fish seller. My God, I could hardly believe my own eyes! It wasn’t the fish he sold that surprised me so much.
He was not selling something odd or unusual like dolphin, hammerhead shark or killer whale. It was he, the seller that surprised me.
How could it be that in such a filthy place as this there was a really good-looking man like him? He was too beautiful to be just a fish seller, and too perfect to be in a place like this.
Was he really just a fish vendor? Maybe he was an someone acting as a fish seller and this was a scene from a reality TV show, I thought.
So I looked around for a camera, spotlight or cameraman, but found none.
He smiled as I approached. “Yes? What kind of fish would you like?” he asked.
His friendly eyes fixed on me. My heart beat fast and knees trembled. My mouth went dry.
“Milkfish?” he asked again. “Here’s a good one,” he added, pointing to a large milkfish that weighed about two kilos. Without thinking twice I nodded that I’d take it.
“It’s Rp 50,000,” he said. Silently, I paid a sum that almost emptied my wallet.
“Do you want me to clean it?” he offered. Again I nodded. Then he started to remove the fish scales with a sharp knife.
Furtively, I studied his figure. His fingers were long, with clean nails. His skin was fair. He had a perfectly curved nose that matched perfectly his handsome face.
Now he started to gut the fish. He worked so deftly. He was indeed a fish seller — handsome “Mr. Fish”. With a face like that he ought to be in a far better place, I thought.
“What? Rp50,000? That’s far too expensive; you should have bargained it down to at least Rp 42,000. Besides, why did you buy this expensive fish just for the cats?” my mother protested.
“Well, the fish is for us. Feed the cats with canned fish,” she added. Of course I didn’t tell her about Mr. Fish’s charisma that had made me so weak-kneed I forgot to bargain with him over the price.
So I fed the cats canned fish. “Come on, Lulu, you have to eat this, or you’ll be hungry all day,” I said as the cat sniffed at its meal. Lulu viewed the meal with disdain.
“Come on, Lulu. Eat it. Tomorrow I’ll look for ikan pindang for you. I’ll also see Mr. Fish again,” I said when I saw the cat had still not touched its meal.
“Mom, Lulu doesn’t want to eat the canned fish. Tomorrow I’ll go again to the market to look for ikan pindang,” I said to my mother who was now busily frying the milkfish in the kitchen.
“Okay. By the way, who’s Mr. Fish?”
(Ikan pindang: steamed and salted (undried) fish Lebaran: day of celebration at the end of fasting month)
Penulis : Octaviana Dina
Dimuat dalam The Jakarta Post Sunday edition, 4 Maret 2007