Sea Child – a story for redlightweb.co.za Anti-Human Trafficking Initiative

Marshanda* fingers the pitiful collection of coins in the waistband of her ragged skirt. Not enough. Not nearly enough. Enough for a little rice, a little roti, maybe – not enough to avoid a beating from Amengku. He will be angry tonight. He’s always angry. If he’ s drunk as well he’ll lash out with whatever comes to hand, a bamboo stick, clay-pot, bottle – even worse, a broken bottle. Drunk isn’t worst of all though – drunk is off-balance – drunk is a chance to run, to hide – don’t let him get you in the corner, take it there, on the back, better than the face – if he misses completely he’ll get furious, he won’t give up, yes, a few blows on the arms, on the legs – now run!!!

Marshanda dreams of running and not stopping but where could she run that would be far enough?Worst of all is when he isn’t drunk – cold, staring, pushing the little pile of rupiah with his stained fingernails, turning them over then spitting, sneering – Marshanda doesn’t dare to run when Amengku is sober. He’s been thinking – the coins are getting fewer these days – Marshanda’s still small for her age, she passes for less than her thirteen years but her face has grown sharp, her eyes look dull, not so…… appealing on the bustling street corners and  in the crowded tea rooms. The last time he was sober, Amengku eyed her up and down, calculating better returns from “his little gift from the sea” as he calls her.

Marshanda shivers even though it’s hot. She is so paralyzed thinking of that sober, calculating look that she almost misses her best provider of the day. Budiwati the bakso seller has always had a soft spot for Marshanda, especially when he learned how Amengku plucked her from the debris of the great flood like a half-drowned monkey. She was cute as a baby monkey in those days and sometimes Budiwati wishes that he had noticed her sooner, if his eyes had not been misted over in the endless salty days when he searched and searched and could not find his own Malati. They were about the same age. Not that it would have done any good – Amengku is a man to be feared. Budiwati knows that the child does not belong, but what can he do? He has other mouths to feed and he cannot afford to make an enemy of the man who has half the town in his pocket. But he pities the child and keeps a meat-ball or two for her, maybe even a few rupiah to lighten the beatings.

“Selamat siang, Anak” the older man speaks first.

“Selamat siang, Pak. Apa kabar?” Marshanda springs brightly out of her sinister day dream.

“Baik, anda?”

“Baik, baik- juga”

She takes the bakso gratefully – meat is a privilege. She devours it in a couple of seconds, like the scavenger that she is.  Then she remembers her manners, remembers dimly how this kind man brings back the face of someone she once knew.

“Terima kasih, Pak”

She smiles as he tosses her a couple of coins. The day is looking brighter, there’s chance that Amengku may not be so angry after all.

As the bakso seller trundles off along the crowded street, Marshanda turns over the coins in her grimy fingers. Then she looks down, puzzled. Something is wrong. The coins feel heavier than they should. She had expected fifty or a hundred rupiah, two hundred at most. She stares without recognition at the dull, unfamiliar metal. Two thousand rupiah. It must be a mistake. She wants to call out, to run after the bakso seller but something heavier tugs at her chest. “Where do you come from, child?”  She can’t answer. It’s not a real place. It’s a name in her head. She doesn’t know what it means, where to find it?

The station is busy with mid-afternoon shoppers pushing to get their parcels onto the country buses. Marshanda wants to ask but she’s afraid. “Ujong! Ujong!” The call of the driver stirs a distant memory. She shrinks back against the market wall as a sea of people surges forwards.  “Tergesa-gesa – hurry, hurry!”  She is mesmerized for a moment but only a moment. Suddenly she dives in and abandons herself to the flood. The wave carries her, like the first wave carried her. There’s no going back.

*Marshanda is an Indonesian name meaning “brave girl.” Her story was inspired by the recent news event: http://www.news24.com/World/News/Girl-back-with-family-after-2004-tsunami-20111223

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