Beware the gifts you accept, or so said your elders. But it’s too late. You ask for the package: a present that comes with a curse. Demon Lover has granted you a pair of red shoes.
Demon Lover arrives as you’re desperately contemplating flight. It’s a night just like all those nights before, when you felt as if your limbs were lashed to the bed. Those nights when your mouth was sealed tight, though it was your ears that you wished were plugged. But, alas!, far from fighting the racket, they funnelled it into your eardrums, cramming, jamming noise into networks of blood vessels that slowly hardened to the onslaught: the buzz of televisions, the cries of street vendors, roaring motorbikes, blaring car horns, the clack-clack-clack of trains. Distorted by mosque loudspeakers, raucous calls to prayer marked the passage of time. Occasionally, you’d get a bonus – Islamic singing from frenzied matrons or a sultry dangdut performance on Independence Day. The scorching weather had grown claws and was raking them across a blackboard.
All this chaos mocks those who place hope in a dynamic rhythm. Some cities move faster than others, forever reminding you to board quickly as they won’t stop for long: a train, a train, you’re looking for a train. But here, you know, you’re going nowhere.
You’ve grown roots, you’re gathering moss.
You believe that certain settings can lure people into suicide. Reading teaches you that such places tend to be beautiful and bewitching: the River Seine, the Golden Gate Bridge. Jakarta, though, is so hot, so dull, so ugly, its face too foul to provoke action. But Jakarta is where you live, in this city full of thwarted suicidal urges.
You can’t move. Perhaps this is what it means to be possessed by the devil. On those earlier nights, you’d close your eyes and pray to anyone who would listen. You’d count, hoping your life would change when you uttered three. But nothing changed. Bursting with rage, you’d rail at the universe. If a demon wanted to devour you, so be it, you thought – at least you wouldn’t be so bored.
Maybe demons need an explicit invitation. And so, tonight you go to bed naked, and start to count. Before you reach three, the light in your room flickers and goes out. The window opens.
And there he stands, at the foot of your bed.
Gaunt, stooped and aged, his body abounds in scars so fresh that he reminds you of a child covered in itchy scabs, the result of falling again and again from his bike. Haphazard tufts of feathers adorn the creature – they sprout from his chest, his cheeks, his ears. His eyes glow crimson, radiating hunger. You hold your breath. Feeling a chill, you pull the covers up to your neck.
Are you going to rape me?
He grins, displaying rows of browning teeth, some sharp, others rotting. His slobber wets your big toe.
Or maybe you want to eat me?
He doesn’t move. His crimson eyes merely fix themselves on your body in a passionless stare. He is neither a rapist nor a devourer of flesh.
You are in command, so he obeys, and lies down beside you. You don’t know why you’re doing this. Perhaps you’re possessed; perhaps you simply don’t want to stay here, to live this life. You caress his long fingers, drawing them to your neck. His lips are cold, rough. As your tongue hooks his, his scrawny frame writhes in a state between pain and arousal, startling you.
Once you have coupled, you know that he worships you. You look at him in amazement as you wipe the sweat from your brow. The night is stiflingly hot. He lavishes kisses upon your feet, then draws near to your face again, to your ear, whispering in a foreign tongue. Yet you understand his words.
Make me your slave.
It’s too cramped in here, you say. I don’t have space for a demon.
Then I’ll visit every night, he promises. I’ll give you anything you ask for.
Every night from then on, you hope and pray for this devilto slip into your rented room, eager to know the magic of his charms. His adulation makes him a formidable lover. You’re famished, and nibble at him like a rat gnaws on bread.
You’re not sure if he is some random shaitan or the Great Iblis himself, but you have a demon to call your own. What pet name shall you bestow upon him? Devil Dearest? Beelzebaby? You settle on Demon Lover.
He courts you like a suitor from days gone by, regaling you with roses and chocolates. Not the most useful gifts, you think, but sweet, because you’re addicted to the lovemaking. Being as ancient as he is, he has many tales to tell. You’ve heard most of his stories but still he beats his chest proudly when you ask about everything from the slaying of Abel to his involvement in the First and Second World Wars. When it comes to the temptation of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife, however, he denies involvement.
‘Sorry,’ he objects, ‘but women have been demons since the dawn of time.’
You fuck him like crazy but soon tire of his presents. Before a month passes, you discard the drawerful of dried roses and complain that his chocolates are making you fat. Demon Lover prefers a curvy, voluptuous body, but you don’t care. You want a more substantial display of his devotion.
‘Are you really going to grant whatever I desire?’
Demon Lover nods, then returns to lavishing kisses upon your feet.
‘OK,’ you decide. ‘My sole wish is to get the hell away from here. I want adventure. Give me money, visas and a one-way ticket. I don’t want to come back.’
With a vaguely condescending smirk, he shakes his head.
‘What’s the problem?’ you ask.
‘Your wish is too specific. Ask for something more abstract, like success, or happiness.’
‘Sorry, I can’t. You and I might interpret them differently.’
You pull your feet away. Reclining on the bed, you take a slender volume from the bedside table and use it to fan your face. Screwing in the tropics requires negotiation with heat and humidity.
You grumble to him: ‘I’m bored.’
Demon Lover flashes a knowing smile.
‘I’ve realised that from the start. That’s how women are. From Madame Bovary to Palupi.’
‘Yes – a remarkable character from a famous film. An Indonesian classic from the sixties.’
‘Why was she bored?’
‘She married a poor author with integrity.’
‘Ah. That would have bored her senseless all right.’
You study your neatly trimmed toenails. You’ve already done everything there is to do. Cut your nails, have sex, fan yourself.
‘You’re a little different. Palupi didn’t have her very own devil.’
‘But I’m still bored.’
‘You’ve never been overseas?’
Of course, the new low-cost airlines mean that anyone can go to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, even Manila, after saving up a little. But those cities are too close. It wouldn’t be all that different from visiting Jogja.
‘I want to go further, to stay away longer. I don’t want to be just a tourist. I want to live in Paris. Or New York. I’m almost twenty-eight and I’ve never been to New York. It’s a tragedy.’
Demon Lover squints and then snaps at you. His voice is slow and raspy.
‘What a sad, spoiled brat!’ He pauses, as if his words have led him to an epiphany. ‘I’m sorry, but you’re pathetic. Twenty-seven is a sacred age.’
‘Oh, please. Stop. Don’t tell me you’re going to start blathering about Jim Morrison and the Twenty-Seven Club. How clichéd can you get.’
He looks at you with pity in his eyes.
‘If you haven’t accomplished anything by the age of twenty-seven, give up. Accept your fate.’
You glare, and order him out. Demon Lover doesn’t want to quarrel. He refuses to go but makes another offer: ‘How about a round-trip ticket?’
‘I already told you – I don’t want to come back.’
‘That complicates matters.’
‘How? Why? You’re a prince of darkness, aren’t you?’
‘We’ll need a contract.’
Demon Lover snorts, annoyed, then lectures you. Don’t you realise you’re bargaining with a devil? Didn’t you learn anything from the story of Faust and Mephistopheles?
The jagged contours of his face become even sharper. You understand now that he has been reluctant to grant your wish because he doesn’t want you to leave. There’s no place like home for nailing someone down.
‘Don’t get all moralistic on me. Just grant my wish.’
His face changes, saddens. Demon Lover grows pensive.
‘Don’t I satisfy you?’
‘Baby, when it comes to sex, I’d give you a nine out of ten.’
As you say this, you feel surprised that a devil can be so lacking in self-esteem. But hasn’t this always been true, since the beginning of time? Arrogance has served to disguise low self-esteem – the catalyst for envy, the root of evil.
‘How will I be able to reach you while you’re travelling?’ asks Demon Lover. He looks despondent.
You stare at him, stupefied.
‘For God’s sake! Stop snivelling. Since when does a devil need a visa?!’
You wake the next morning at 10.30 to recorded Quranic recitation blaring from mosque loudspeakers. It’s Friday, so you can be sure that the chanting will carry on until the afternoon prayers, and that there’s no telling where the verses will begin or end. The rumble of passing motorcycles continues its assault on your ears. You massage your forehead. Your skin feels oily. At that moment you make a discovery: a pair of glittering red shoes beside your bed.
It’s absurd to come upon such elegance in the harsh glare of day, amid the surrounding din. You get up from the bed, and kneel beside it to study the shoes closely. There you find a letter:
As you wished, I’m giving you a pair of magical shoes that will take you on an adventure.
Their owner was a witch, but she is long dead.
‘Second-hand shoes?’ you grumble. But no matter. It seems this witch had a pretty badass sense of style, and after all, lots of adventure stories start off with an heirloom from someone who’s passed on.
The letter continues:
I warn you, these shoes are cursed.
Adventure, or more precisely, wandering, will be your eternal lot. You will find shelter, but never home. Where you come from, wandering spirits can only rest peacefully after a dukun chants mantras or a kiai pronounces the Sūrat al-Fātihah. But let me emphasise that no dukun or kiai can help you – I’m running this show, and I’m cursed too.
Perhaps all this is what you’re after. You’ve got your one-way ticket.
You’ll hear many stories, and you’ll collect gifts. One gift per story, more or less. You can choose your gifts and your storyline as you see fit.
Sometimes you may ask yourself how you got to a particular destination. Maybe it will be the result of magic, but during a long journey, one often asks such questions.
I’ve enclosed our contract. I recommend that you read it.
You put the letter down to look at a sheet of paper dense with rows and rows of print so fine it’s barely legible. Of course, you don’t read through it, no more than anyone reads the terms and conditions of a website. You can’t even decipher what language the contract is in – Indonesian? Arabic? Hebrew?
I hope you’re happy with your choice. If you want to go home you’ll lose everything. Your home will not be what it was. There will no longer be a place for you here. Regrettably, there will be no place for you there either. If you return home, our contract will be null and void, and, in accordance with my own destiny, I’ll wander hell until I find a new heir for the red shoes.
If you accept this contract, put the shoes on, which will indicate that you’ve signed on the dotted line.
Truly, I adore you. But I am Iblis – Devil – so any gifts I give are cursed. I cannot love you any other way.
Will you put them on?
Unfortunately, you’ve already made your choice – you’d decided even before the contract was drawn up.
You slide your feet into the shoes. First the left, then the right. They’re a bit tight. But you see your reflection in the mirror and admire how the shoes flatter your legs. Suddenly you feel a terrible pain in your head. Your body shakes, your chest pounds. You feel faint. Everything goes black.
The Wandering: A Red Shoes Adventure
You find yourself in a taxi. You’re no longer wearing a nightgown but a leather jacket, and a scarf wreathes your neck. Enthusiastic drumming from the car stereo assails you, making sleep impossible. The music – not dangdut but a Hindi song – urges you to sway along in time. The cab is stuffy, pungent with the aroma of cooked onions, making you sniffle. You lower the window for air and peer out at the avenues and concrete overpasses whizzing by. Occasional rows of red- or brown-brick buildings catch your attention. You have a feeling you’re not in Jakarta any more.
Actually, you’re en route to John F. Kennedy Airport, ready to leave New York.
Where have you been until now? Why are you in this taxi? What are you leaving behind? And where are you going? You don’t remember arriving in New York. Damned Devil. He didn’t even give you a chance to enjoy the city.
You rummage in your bag to look for a passport. You find a little green booklet stamped Indonesia. Shit. Couldn’t he at least have given you a new nationality?
A Schengen visa, issued by the German consulate in New York, is affixed to one page. The previous page holds a visa for the United States, category J1: ‘exchange visitor’, valid until November 2008, exactly one year from when you put on the shoes. And then after that?
You note the name of your visa’s sponsor. Mirrodoor Cultural Council. Mirrodoor? Sounds more like a Tolkien character than a legitimate organisation.
‘Heading overseas?’ the driver asks in a thick Indian accent.
‘Berlin,’ you say, surprising yourself with your answer.
‘What time’s your flight?’
‘Nine o’clock,’ you respond automatically.
‘It’s already seven. You’ll be late.’
The driver steps on the gas, the rapid acceleration making you feel carsick. If he keeps going at this speed, you’ll land in hell for sure. He moves to pass a 1970s Jaguar with faded green paint and rust holes filled with putty. A sticker in the rear window reads Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere. As you hurtle past, the cabbie glances at its driver, an elderly woman whose curls are flying about in the wind.
‘Ha, Granny …’ His long sigh expresses a mixture of annoyance and empathy. ‘I hope she makes it to heaven.’
Good girls go to heaven.
Good girls go to heaven, bad girls –
A haunted spirit roams from place to place, accepted neither in heaven nor on earth, neither here nor there. Where is your home now? Maybe, like a ghost, you can only find shelter.
You strain to recall what you have been doing in New York, but can’t come up with a single clue. No images are present in your head. No voices. Your memories falter after your discovery of the glittering red shoes and the letter from Demon Lover. Everything beyond that is dark. Is this what they call amnesia? You can trace events up to that particular morning. You remember how you came to know Demon Lover and much that occurred beforehand.
You can recall your childhood.
Everything is happening too fast. You need time to stop, to breathe and put your story in order.
Intan Paramaditha, The Wandering (Penguin Random House)
Translated from the Indonesian language by Stephen J. Epstein