This story briefly alludes to child death.
October 1965 - Semarang, Indonesia
The blazing sun beamed down on me through the palm trees. My legs pumped madly as I ran through the tall grass, looking for a place to hide. A grin spread across my face as I spotted the perfect hiding place—under our neighbour’s porch three doors down. I wiggled under the loose board, brushing spiders and insects from my arms. Light footsteps walked through the grass, passing me. I was about to leap out of my hiding spot when I heard heavier footsteps walking up the stairs.
The knocks came rapidfire. The door opened and I heard a gasp.
“Who did it happen to this time?” My ears perked when I heard Aunty Lina’s shaky voice. She was my favourite aunty in the neighbourhood because she made the best nasi goreng. “Who?” The strain in her voice made my shoulders hunch forward.
A choked sob sounded before the person sucked in a hiccupping breath. “The Chans. They came for them at night… and they…” the voice broke down. I froze. The Chans? I knew a Lily Chan from class; I wondered if they were talking about the same family. I heard Aunty Lina murmuring something before the door closed. The tiniest pit unfolded in my stomach.
I crawled from my hiding place to see my little brother charging between the houses. “Found you!” he called.
Waving my hand to quiet him, I tiptoed over, crouching underneath the open window. I could hear snippets of their conversation floating down. My little brother’s eyes were curious as he positioned himself next to me.
“Lan! Diam! What are you doing there?” We both jumped to our feet. Our nanny, Nurul, strode towards us. “I’ve been calling you for the past ten minutes. What are you doing under Aunty Lina’s window? Are you snooping?”
A flush broke out over my cheeks as my brother shook his head. I stared at the grass, feeling the blades tickling my calves. “Lan? Did something happen?”
My hands scrunched into fists. “I think so.”
Nurul lifted my chin with her finger. “Tell me,” she said. I knew I could trust Nurul; she never treated me like I was twelve.
I took a deep breath. “I… think something happened to the Chans.”
Diam tugged on my hand. “Lan, what happened to the Chans?” I shook my head, pulling my hand away and hugging it to my side.
Our nanny swallowed hard then stood. “Let’s go home. I’m sure your mom will want to speak with Aunty Lina.” She took both our hands, distracting Diam with a story about a monkey who had magical powers. Their happy chatter floated around me, disappearing into the background as I looked back at Aunty Lina’s house.
Mom was making dinner when we got home. She threw me a look and I dropped Nurul’s hand to help her. Diam and Nurul sat at the dinner table, chatting and doing homework. My other little brother, Aldi, tugged on my shirt. Looking over my shoulder at Mom, I put the knife down and picked Aldi up, hugging him hard. “I have to finish making dinner, okay?” I put him down and he crawled behind Diam, accidentally kicking him.
Their bickering voices overlapped. I started cutting the chicken into little pieces for my little sister, Nisa. As I worked through the meat, my mind went over the conversation I overheard at Aunty Lina’s. A sharp pain shot through my finger and I yelped. A drop of blood fell onto the chicken’s pink flesh.
Dad cuffed the back of my head. “What a mess!”
Nurul hurried to my side, guiding me to the sink. She held my finger under cold water and ordered Diam and Aldi to stay away from the cutting board.
When dinner was prepared, we all sat down at the table. I made a hole in my rice, spooning curry onto it, watching it spill over the sides like a volcano. Aldi grinned and followed. The clinking of cutlery against our ceramic plates filled the room. I moved my food around, watching it get soggy.
“What’s the matter with you? Why aren’t you eating?” Mom demanded.
I quickly forced a mouthful down. Nurul glanced at me before leaning over and whispering to Mom. Her back stiffened and she glanced at Dad, whose attention remained on his plate.
“I want to go find Lily,” I announced.
Nurul and Mom exchanged looks. “No, it’s too late and you still have homework to do,” Mom said.
I shook my head. “But I already finished before I went to play earlier.”
Mom slammed her fork down so hard that my brothers and sister jumped. “Why are you being so obstinate? You can see Lily tomorrow at school. End of story. Now help me with the dishes.”
Sticking my lower lip out, I filled the basin with water and poured dish detergent in. Bubbles foamed up and I dipped the dishes in. Aldi tugged on my shirt when he brought his plate over.
“Can we play now, Lan?” he asked, his eyes shining with hope.
I shook my head. “Maybe later. You still need to do your Chinese homework, remember?”
His mouth scrunched to one side. “I know, but I don’t wanna.”
I gave our parents a sideways glance and crouched eye-level with him. “Mom isn’t happy right now so just listen to her, okay? Don’t make any trouble.”
He followed my gaze. “She’s never happy,” he said.
I straightened and went back to the dishes. “I know.”
The next morning, I woke up early and tried not to wake Nisa as I slipped out of bed. Tiptoeing past my parents’ room, I stopped at the sound of their tense voices and pressed an ear to their door.
“…the Chans,” Mom said. “It’s starting Hai, this is what they warned us about.” Prickles of fear crawled up my shoulders and neck.
Dad sighed. The bed squeaked, stealing his low response.
“I don’t care!” Mom’s voice rose for a second before dropping low. “The Chans weren’t far from here,” she hissed. “If we’re discovered…” her voice trailed off. I pressed my ear harder against their door.
“Lan? What’s going on?” a sleepy voice asked from behind. I jumped out of my skin. Spinning around, I saw Aldi in his pyjamas, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
I grabbed his hand and lead him to the bathroom. “Nothing. Let’s get ready for school, okay?”
He yawned. “Were you listening to Mom and Dad?” He caught my eye in the mirror. My eyes darted away.
I shook my head. “It’s nothing, okay?” I pasted a bright smile on my face. “Hurry so we can play a little before we head to school.”
Aldi and Diam skipped ahead of me, their book bags banging against their bony legs. When I reached my classroom, the pit in my stomach grew as Lily’s seat remained empty. My classmates’ excited voices overlapped one another, Mandarin and Indonesian mixing. The cacophony reached its peak as my favourite teacher, Mrs. Cho, walked in. Clapping her hands, she walked over to the chalkboard and started the day’s lesson. My eyes kept straying to the door, urging Lily to walk through, apologizing for oversleeping.
She never did.
“Lan? Are you paying attention?”
All eyes turned towards me. A flush rose from the bottom of my neck. The teacher sighed and made a notation in her book. A few of my classmates sniggered. I stared down at my notebook, my cheeks hot. I lifted my head and asked, “Where’s Lily?”
All heads swivelled to the front. Mrs. Cho froze. “Unfortunately, Lily won’t be in class anymore.”
“Why?” the question escaped my mouth before I could stop it.
Her eyes held mine. “See me after school, Lan.” She returned to the math lesson.
During break, I sat on a bench underneath a large tree making little dirt mounds with my toe. A shadow fell over me and I glanced up to see Aldi, his brow furrowed.
“Is it true, Lan?”
“Is what true?”
He sat down next to me, picking at a loose thread in his pants. “I overheard some teachers say Indonesians were coming to kill us Chinese.” Glancing up at me, his voice quivered, “What did we do, Lan?”
“I don’t know, Aldi.” I hugged his tiny body to mine. “I have no idea.”
I knocked on the door to my classroom. “Mrs. Cho?”
“Come in, Lan.” I stood in the doorway, clutching my books to my chest. She gestured to a seat next to her desk. I walked over on legs made of stilts. She folded her hands in front of her, a sad smile on her face. “Do you know why I asked you to stay behind today?”
I looked down at the tops of my books. “Because I asked about Lily,” I said.
Mrs. Cho sighed. “It’s difficult for us right now, Lan.” A line appeared between her eyebrows. “I didn’t want to worry everyone—”
“They’re killing Chinese people, aren’t they?” I blurted out. “That’s what happened to L-Lily?” I saw the answer in Mrs. Cho’s face. The pit in my stomach opened, geysering up my throat. I turned my head in time, missing most of my clothes. Mrs. Cho ran to my side, patting my back as I threw up what little lunch I had. Tears streamed down my cheeks.
We sat in silence before Mrs. Cho grabbed some towels from her desk and cleaned up my mess. “Lan, I need your mom to sign this, okay?” She scribbled something down, folded the paper and slid it towards me.
My throat still burned but I swallowed and stuffed the paper into my pocket. My legs shook as I walked towards the door. I looked at Mrs. Cho. “Why—?”
“You’re a good student, Lan. Make sure your mom sees that.”
Head down, I hurried to the post where I normally met Diam and Aldi to walk home. When I got there, the street was empty. Panic settled in my churning stomach. If Mom ever found out I left them alone, she would skin me alive. Cursing myself, I scurried home, praying I would get there before my parents did.
My thoughts swirled around what the paper might say; I didn’t dare look at it. Pressing my hand against my pocket to make sure it was safe, I picked up the pace and ran home.
As I passed Aunty Lina’s house, I heard voices rising in anger. Skidding to a stop, I stood transfixed.
“…you know I’m not Chinese, Suharto.” A gasp sounded accompanied by the sound of a dish breaking.
“You’re hiding something, Lina,” a deep voice said. “If I find out you’re hiding those filthy orang Cina, or helping them, you’ll pay.” A yelp sounded. The front door slammed. A young man in military fatigues walked onto Aunty Lina’s porch, glaring at me. “What are you looking at?”
High-pitched voices came from the side and I saw Diam and Aldi running towards me. I shook my head and raced to meet my brothers, spinning them around before they could see the soldier standing on Aunty Lina’s porch. Looking over my shoulder, I saw him straighten his uniform, his eyes following us. “Let’s go,” I said, pushing my brothers ahead of me.
Once home, my brothers sat down to do homework while I stood at the sink washing vegetables. The cold water ran over my hands as I passed the greens beneath it. Most of our neighbours were Indonesian but I had never thought of them as different before; we all wanted to create a happy life for ourselves.
“Lan! Aren’t you done yet? We need to get dinner ready.” Mom’s voice cut through the noise in my head and I hurried to finish up.
At dinner, Mrs. Cho’s note burned a hole in my pocket. I reluctantly spooned pieces of food into my mouth. Everything tasted of ash. When everyone else was in the living room, I approached Mom. Her torso pressed against the sink as she washed the dishes, her forearms covered with soap. Spotting me, she gestured to a drying cloth with her chin and I grabbed it, working on the wet dishes.
“What is it?”
“Mrs. Cho asked me to give you something—”
She turned to me, a worried look on her face. A dollop of soap dripped from her arm onto the floor. “Give it to me.” I handed it over without another word. Her eyes darted side to side as she read it. She dropped the paper into the water. “You never gave me anything, do you understand me?”
I swallowed hard. “Wh-what’s going to happen to us?” The dishes clanked against one another in the soapy basin. Handing a rinsed dish to me, she continued washing. I dried it and placed it on the counter. “Mom?”
I could see her eyes glistening. Brushing her hair back with her forearm, she handed me another dish. “Here. Lan,” she started but stopped. “It’s nothing. You’re a good girl.” I kept drying, confusion swirling around me.
When we’d finished, she dried her hands and went into the living room, asking Nurul to get everyone ready for bed. Dad didn’t raise his eyes from the newspaper. I peered from behind the kitchen doorway, curious.
“Hai,” Mom said. Dad grunted before turning the page. “Hai, it’s time.”
The newspaper remained in place but I could see the edges trembling. “When?”
“Tomorrow night.” Mom hugged her middle. “Hai, the kids…”
Dad put the newspaper down and rose, putting his hands on her shoulders and pressing a kiss to her forehead. “The kids will be fine.” Lifting his head, he spotted me spying and I gasped, shrinking behind the frame even more.
“Lan, come here.”
My stomach galloped as I rounded the doorway to stand a few feet from them. I kept my gaze trained on a chipped whorl in our wooden floor. “Lan, I need you to do something for us.”
I lifted my head. My parents’ somber expression met my inquisitive one. “What is it?”
Dad released his hold on Mom and crouched in front of me. “I need you to be brave, can you do that for me?” I bobbed my head. A smidgen of relief filled Dad’s face. “I need you to take Aldi—” Mom interjected but he held up his hand. “You’ll meet with Aunty Lina at the docks tomorrow night, when it’s darkest. You’re going to go with Aunty Lina and Uncle Teoh on their boat to Surabaya. Do you remember how to drive the motor boat?”
“Hai, she’s only twelve. She doesn’t know—” Mom covered her mouth, her eyes shiny.
“Then she will know,” Dad’s voice sliced through the air, cutting off every protest. Turning back to me, he continued, “Lan, there are people after us and they won’t hesitate to kill. I’m entrusting Aldi to you. If anything happens to Aunty Lina or Uncle Teoh, you take the boat and you go. And always keep the land to your right. That will take you to Surabaya. Aunty Siew is expecting you there.”
“What about Diam and Nisa? Why aren’t we all going together?” I asked.
He paused. “We can’t. There’d be too many people; someone might discover us.” Like how they discovered Lily. My organs started jittering, my entire body trembling. Dad saw this and pushed me towards my bedroom. “Go to bed.”
I nodded, running to my room as fast as I could. In the bathroom, I could hear Nisa splashing around in the tub laughing. Passing my brothers’ room, Diam was playing Ne Zha, the trouble-loving deity, while Aldi was pretending to be Ao-Kuang, Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. I hurried past to my room. Flinging myself onto the bed, I buried my face in the pillow—I wanted to shut out the childhood sounds of our former lives.
The next day passed in a blur. I couldn’t focus at school, and I couldn’t look at Mrs. Cho. She continued on as if everything was normal. My ears felt stuffed with cotton, the only sound I heard was my heart beating. It drummed erratically, reaching a peak by the end of the day. On the walk home, Diam and Aldi kept running off while I called after them, frantic that the soldier might still be around.
At home, my hands wouldn’t stop shaking. I couldn’t peel potatoes or cut meat. Mom gave me vegetables to wash, pressing them in my hand and giving me a hard look. I closed my eyes to find the strength to continue.
Soon, it was time for everyone to go to bed. Nisa snuggled in beside me, her soft snuffles ruffling my hair. I stared at the ceiling, wondering when Dad would come wake me. Hours passed. I heard rustling outside our window and my entire body froze. Careful not to wake Nisa, I tiptoed to the tiny window and peered out. Nothing there. The moon hid behind clouds, creating shadows for our escape. In the distance, I could see an orange and red light flickering. I squinted. When I realized what it was, Mom was standing in the doorway. She told me to get dressed and carried Nisa out. I followed, a tiny bag of clothes in my hand.
We moved in perfect unison as if we had practiced for months. Dad helped me into the back of his friend’s truck, handing a sleepy Aldi over before throwing me a blanket. The clouds moved and the moon shone down on us, highlighting Dad’s stark expression. He stood, holding the blanket over us, unable to move. His friend placed a hand on his shoulder and he blinked, waking from his trance. With one last glance, Dad dropped the edge, encasing us in darkness. The motor started and we were off.
“Shh,” I said, holding Aldi close. Dad’s friend drove down several streets, taking a longer route than normal to get to the docks.
The motor stopped and I waited until Dad’s friend lifted the blanket. We scurried past empty boats down the long pier. I pulled Aldi alongside me, urging his shorter legs to move faster. Aunty Lina and Uncle Teoh stood at the end, waiting for us. She opened a large wooden crate, urging us to get in and lie down. Aldi climbed in first then I followed. She threw a dark-coloured sarong over us then placed another piece of wood on top, fitted to look like the bottom of the crate. Placing other objects on top, I heard her close the crate just as a voice shouted at them.
I heard Uncle Teoh’s voice answer. Heavy footsteps approached and my hand sought Aldi’s. We gripped each other tight but I couldn’t tell who was trembling more, him or me. I held my breath. Someone was arguing with Uncle Teoh. I could hear Uncle Teoh’s soothing voice trying to calm the situation. Something heavy thudded on the pier and I heard Aunty Lina yelp. My grip tightened.
“What do you have in these boxes?” the deep voice demanded. It sounded familiar.
“Just some extra blankets, lights, with snacks like keropok. We get so hungry when we’re out at sea, you know? We’re going on a little trip up the coast. It’s been so long for us to go away, my husband, he’s so busy at work and I keep telling him he needs a vacation but he won’t listen, you know? You must work hard, yes? You’re so busy now with—”
“Shut up, woman!” It was the soldier from Aunty Lina’s home. Fear tugged at my bladder but I told myself not to think about it. He kicked our crate. “Open them.”
Aunty Lina hesitated for a second before lifting the lids. The latches squeaked with each movement. Her footsteps stumbled back. Light cut through the false bottom and Aldi’s hand stilled. For a moment, I thought he had fainted. I prayed he wouldn’t make a sound. My heart thudded madly in my ears as the soldier moved items mere inches from our faces.
Every second dragged out in front of us. Aunty Lina and Uncle Teoh’s voices faded into the background, distorted by my heartbeat. The lids slammed down, jolting me. The heavy footsteps receded into the distance. The boat started moving. When we were far enough away from land, Aunty Lina opened the crate and removed the false bottom. Aldi scuttled out quickly while I sat up, unable to believe what happened. Climbing out of the crate, I stepped onto the boat with legs of jelly. Aunty Lina handed me a blanket and helped me over to the side of the boat. All my nervous energy surged up my throat and I vomited into the water. I watched tiny fish swim up to nibble at the free smorgasbord. For some reason, that made me laugh.
For several days we drove up the coast, Aldi and I making sure to stay out of sight whenever another boat passed. When I was topside, I stared at the white foam from our wake blending in with the sea. I didn’t know if we’d ever see our parents, Diam, or Nisa again. If Aldi asked me about them, I would just shake my head and look away. Whenever Uncle Teoh or Aunty Lina were too tired to steer, I took over while they rested.
One sunny day, Aldi’s cry jolted me awake while I stood at the steering wheel. I saw him waving frantically at someone. “It’s Aunty Siew, Lan. Aunty Siew!” He ran to the bow, leaning against the railing and waving with both arms.
I slowed the boat until it bobbed towards the pier where Aunty Siew stood, her hands clasped at her heart. Aldi threw her the rope and she tied it around the pillar. Reaching down, she levered Aldi onto the pier. I watched her greet my little brother, bestowing kisses and hugging him to her chest. Aunty Lina and Uncle Teoh climbed out next. Turning to me, she gestured for me to join them. I remained frozen at the wheel, my mind in disbelief. Something was bound to go wrong. The soldier would find us again. Climbing into the boat, she walked over to me, her eyes straying to my hands.
“You can let go now, Lan,” she said, her voice soft.
My hands clenched harder, my limbs trembling. “I c-c-can’t,” I said, my teeth chattering.
Laying both of her hands over mine, her warmth seeped into my frozen limbs. Tears streamed down my numb cheeks. Taking great care, she helped unhook my hands from the steering wheel. They curled in on themselves as if afraid of reaching for anything beyond. I clutched them to my chest and wept. Aunty Siew encircled me in her arms and squeezed tight.
“It’s okay now, Lan. You made it. You’re safe.”