This piece, excerpted from the novel Gentayangan: Pilih Sendiri Petualangan Sepatu Merahmu (The Wandering: Choose Your Own Red Shoes Adventure), was published in Asymptote, July 2017. Translated by Stephen Epstein.
This isn’t your usual ghost story, you know. It’s a completely ordinary tale, nothing special. My grandmother expired, as most grandmothers do, four days after I turned twenty-nine. I chose to skip the scene of her funeral—women in headscarves chanting prayers and men in peci heaping soil on her body, far away down yonder. I, beloved granddaughter that I was, hoped she’d forgive me for not shelling out fifteen hundred dollars to see her wrapped in a shroud. There’s no point in running after the dead.
I received the news of her passing in New York. I was hurrying toward West Fourth Street Station when I got a text from my dad. Clutching the phone, I stopped and turned to look at a small playground on my left. A bunch of guys were playing basketball, surrounded by spectators, and a couple of pedestrians looked on, puffing cigarettes. The game seemed to unfold in slow motion. A woman jostled my shoulder, giving a barely audible apology, and scurried down the subway stairs. It seemed for a split second like I’d fallen asleep. I felt I too should run—that way, in the direction the woman had gone, to catch my train. In my diary, I wrote a short note to my grandmother: I’m sorry, Grandma. I can’t see you off on your final train ride because I’m also on a train. My train keeps hurtling onward. It doesn’t stop. Not even for death.
I’ve always liked my grandmother’s name. Victoria. I don’t know how she wound up with it. Maybe her mother was inspired by an incident in 1895 when Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands visited Queen Victoria of Great Britain. My generation was surrounded by old women like my grandmother and great-grandmother who’d been Dutchified. Maybe they were just trying to be fashionable, and all of us are just natives, inlanders, who want to be European. But I liked to say her name over and over: Victoria, Victoria. It reminded me of Victor Frankenstein, scientist extraordinaire. My grandmother wasn’t a genius like Victor who could create human life itself, but having been a teacher, she knew a thing or two.
A year after Victoria’s death, I visited her home with my dad and an uncle. In we marched: Papa and Uncle and me, girl wanderer. Victoria’s children were impatient to sell the house because none of them cared to look after it. Who in the world would want to buy it, mused Papa. Like other deserted houses, my grandmother’s home seemed haunted. Someone who claimed to be able to see spirits reported that Victoria’s house was inhabited by a kuntilanak, a long-haired demon who lived near the well. A woman no longer here, in our world, but not “over there” either. Wherever “there” was. You could be sure she wasn’t resting in peace.
Is Grandma wandering too? I asked.
Hush! Don’t talk about your grandmother as if she were a demon.
My grandmother was devout. People say the devout rest at Allah’s side.
How does that song go again?
Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go . . . wandering.