Last rites


Jakarta at this hour. A sultry giant who breathes clouds of kerosene and burning coconut husk.

The wooden tok-tok-tok of the food peddlers, pushing ungainly carts around the hospital parking lot. That's all normal. But this isn't, by any stretch. Standing here wavering over her sister's body in this bathroom-like building, with only low partitions shielding the dead from prying eyes. The hospital employee clearing her throat.

"Mrs. Dita, I'm sorry but you'll have to wash the body yourself. We need the space for another family."

No. Not that. It can't be expected of her.

"I don't know how to… I can't do it alone." Bile shooting up at the back of her throat. The woman rolling her eyes at her, openly. She probably sees her fair share of whiny, useless upper-class women.

"Just wash her! How hard could it be Ma'am? Take a bucket of water and do it."

Aishya's elongated shape under the cheap batik fabric the hospital has provided, her slim feet poking out at the end. Dita used to paint her toenails when she was little. The prude Aishya on the cracked floor, a drain not far from her head. She would have hated this, her naked body, defenceless under a thin cloth. She would have hated Dita here, seeing her like this. Aishya would have thrown one of her legendary fits. She would have ordered her to leave.

Dita hasn't seen Aishya since she announced her pregnancy seven months ago. Too hard, too painful. Her envy, vulgar and primitive. What Dita covets the most is the innocence of believing that things can turn out alright. It was never fair to Aishya but Dita had continued to avoid her sister even after her own positive pregnancy test. She hadn't told a soul, apart from her husband of course.

Her fifth.

Five brief sojourns in her uterus. Dita, like a cheap guest-house with revolving doors. The guests come and go as they please. Trouble-makers, messing up, leaving trash behind, breaking things, tearing her up. A couple even had to be forcefully evicted after they had floated around for days, maybe weeks unwilling to check out the normal way.

Five. And she ought to stop, admit defeat. Quit. The word tastes like a shard of glass. She moves it around, letting it grate her gums, bite into her tongue, savoring it, trying it out. Testing how deep it would cut.

Quit. Give up. She could. Just. Give. Up.

Because with every pregnancy, God ups the stakes, takes away a tube here, scarring her there. 'Let's see how far you're willing to go. Lets see how badly you want it,' he says and throws her another curveball.

And her mother. That's a whole other chapter. Another battlefield.

"You are selfish and childish. Why can't you ever be happy for your sister?" And she knows her mother is right. She has lost her humanity, can no longer see further than her failures. Married for eons and nothing to show for it except an endless row of 'little accidents'. That's what her mother likes to call them. 'Accidents'. Little mishaps that the great Almighty does away with. Nothing to whine about. That disappointed furrow between her mother's eyes. God's will, she says but what she really means is that Dita is not worthy.

"You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself."

Dita needs to relax and pray harder. She needs to be stronger, better, smarter. Surely she stresses her babies out with all her worrying. No wonder no one wants to stick around. God's will. Dita is not ready to receive his gift. And if Aishya got knocked up a few weeks into her honeymoon, surely that was God's will too. The mean old bastard.


The day she calls her at the office, Dita is forced to interrupt a meeting with a new client because Aishya won't leave the poor receptionist alone. A matter of life and death, she claims. Dita takes the phone, throat dry and hands shaking - fearing the worst.

"Guess what! - I'm pregnant."

Both of them pregnant for a few weeks. Worlds apart, Aishya expectant and gleeful in her shimmering castle in the air, Dita hiding out, crouching in the shadows, too scared to breathe. Silent while Aishya celebrates in the limelight.

What happens next is inevitable. Life will take the unkindest route. Always.

"I'm sorry Mrs. Dita... but I can't find a heartbeat." Again. He could have said again, but he didn't. She must be his best patient. Or worst, depending on how you see it. Dita struggles off the examination bed, wiping her belly off with a paper towel while the doctor replaces the ultrasound probe.

She ought to be used to this, God playing rough. Still, the doctor's placating hand on her arm giving her a little squeeze, the implied 'poor you' has her itching to punch his lights out. Her body's betrayal, a caliber of treason that can't be healed by booze or hundreds of hours on a therapist's couch. She knows because she's tried.

She gets up in a huff, knocking over some metal thing. Storms out as if it's the doctor's fault her uterus is a trip-wired minefield. She even slams his door shut behind her, startling the hordes of normal, belly-rubbing women in the waiting room. She has failed at many things, but most of all at this. The minimum requirement for a good Javanese woman.

But this, the walk of shame through the waiting room, stomping through pretending not to see the maternal frocks or the smug, naïve smiles - this Dita has got down to a pat. Like wading through water, trudging, sounds muffled and distant. Trying to keep it together for a few more minutes. Make it outside the door in one piece. Can already imagine her mother's wry mouth, the disappointment hidden behind a flimsy gauze of religious drivel. God's will. It's for the best. Not worthy.

"Cash or credit card Ma'am?"

She charges five hundred thousand Rupiahs to her card, a steep price to be told she's not a desirable host. But she doesn't cry. She doesn't.


Her husband doesn't cry either when she tells him. He loosens his tie with two fingers and sighs. That heavy, deflating sigh she's grown to hate. They watch TV as if there is nothing to it. They've been through this so many times. Loss isn't all that special anymore.

"You want to order in?"

Go to hell, she thinks, but she nods. It isn't his fault. Not anyone's fault. She's left to rinse the grime off those dishes, watching specks of chili sauce dissolving under the stream of them up to dry. The first one is an accident, slips through her fingers. But the satisfaction when it shatters against the tiles makes her drop another one, unfurling her fingers and letting it fall. Hurls the third one against the wall. Smashes two more against the floor, stamping on the shards until the china pulverizes under her heels. There are not nearly enough plates in their sterile designer kitchen.

Footsteps closing in on her. And he's there, insistent arms constraining her, his chest against her back, the scent of chili and clove cigarettes. Probably doesn't want to loose the entire set of their wedding china. Twelve pieces – enough for a large family. It was a gift from her mother.

"I can't do this again. Ever. Again."

He tries to twist her around. Tries to embrace her properly. But she's a pro at this too, the dodging and avoiding. Wedges her elbows between them, creating enough space between her belly and his.

"Dita... It'll be alright, we'll get through this too."

No they won't. She's alone, he's ditched her a long time ago. Or maybe she pushed him off the boat. She's so tired of this, trying to navigate murky water with nothing but her mother's voice like a bullhorn in the fog. You must. You have to. Making her row frantically in different directions, never reaching the shore. His desperate hold on her, she liberates herself from his arms. Giving up means relinquishing him too. Still. Quit. It's a beautiful word. Defeat can be peace, can mean being able to breathe again.


Aishya. The golden child. There isn't a thing in her entire life that hasn't gone exactly according to plan. But this, lying naked on the tiled floor, no one had planned on this.

"Will they be here soon, your family?" The hospital employee, perfectly nice, but clearly in a hurry.

"I'm sorry... I don't know if anyone else is coming." The smell of clove cigarettes and moist soil, the humid Jakarta air, like breathing in water. She knows she's acting like a child, digging her heels in, trying to stall the inevitable. And if there were anyone else, she'd be off like a shot. But the deadline is crawling closer. And good Muslim or not, there is no one else. Has to have her cleansed and shrouded within the next few hours. Futile to wait for their mother. Knowing damn well she could never do this, wash the remains of her favourite daughter.

Neither can he, Aishya's husband. This is a woman's task. So he paces outside, smoking, wearing the ground down, the perfect parody of an expectant father. Only, his baby is already in an incubator in the hospital's neo natal unit and his wife is laid out on a cheap ceramic floor.

"Alright, I will send some of the cleaners down, they might help you for a little extra money."

Her sister. The indignity of strangers touching her. She can't allow it. Kneels down, her skirt riding up but it doesn't matter. No one will come here, nobody. Her husband must have read her note by now. Leaving. Can't do this again. She's on her own.

"Please, can you help me arrange with the flower water and the shroud?"

The woman's mouth tightening around her teeth as Dita sticks a few bills in her hand. Dita waits until she has left, and there is only the two of them. One alive who could never give life and the other dead while her son lies purple but alive, struggling to breathe on the second floor of the building behind them.

She folds the cloth away, hoping it's some sort of prank. That she'll find another person underneath it.

"Hey little sister, sorry it took me so long.'

Aishya, coquette and fussy, her hair matted and unwashed now. Her eyes are half open, one more than the other. They ought to have been closed, pressed shut before they had a chance to set like this. If only she'd gotten here earlier. The evening air is tepid and pleasant but Dita sweats when her fingertips draws at the eyelids. No use, they remain as they are, making her look drunk and asymmetrical. Tugs the rest of the fabric away, wiping the perspiration off her upper lip with the back of a hand. No bodily fluids may stain the dead.

Should have listened to her, should have picked up the phone.

"I don't feel right. It's hard to breathe." Had thought to herself, 'Oh, toughen up!' Irritated and annoyed, the numerous missed calls on her cell phone throughout the day, every day. Why won't you come and see me? What's wrong? Her own loss leaving her too raw, too skinned to answer.

The woman comes back with a little plastic bucket, a few token petals floating in it. And it's cold, too cold for her little sister.

"I'm sorry. I have to do it..." Scoop the water along her entire torso, watching how it runs in miniature rivers between her small swollen breasts, down her sides. The legs, long and bony like a half grown calf. How she could run as a little girl, when their mother wasn't looking. Like a demon on fire.

The sheer amount of skin, an odd colour, like sour old milk. It's too much – too intimate. Her body a map over her last hours. The horizontal gash right above her pubic bone, pointing at the exact moment she became a mother. The distended belly, jellylike where her son has grown. The burns on her chest, an attempt to revive her. A petal sticks to her belly button and Dita can't bring herself to pick it up. Pours a scoop of water on it instead, making it float away, drift towards the slurping drain. The call for evening prayer vibrates between the tiled walls. But she won't cry. She won't sully the dead. She'd have to do it all over.

The hospital woman standing behind her, a disapproving smirk. Wants to scream at her, I've never done this before. Never buried a sister. She takes the white cotton shroud from the woman's hands and attempts to wrap Aishya in it.

"That's not how you do it."

The woman's patience finally exhausted. She pushes Dita aside and with sharp, jerky movements she takes a strip of fabric and ties Aishya's chin up.

"Otherwise she'll stiffen like that and she'll look awful."

She does already. She looks dead. The woman stuffs cotton into her ears and her nose and Dita wants to weep. Her beautiful little sister, like Frankenstein's monster.

"It will leak out otherwise."

She knows that. But this is Aishya. Spoiled and vain and impossible not to love.


Mother, she came. How she stands there, frail in the stark neon light, wisps of her grey hair snaking out of her headscarf.

"She's ready, Mother."

Mother, she wants to say, this is how it feels to lose a child. And Dita could stay, could try a little harder, a little longer. But she won't. It's time to lay down arms, to surrender. A burden lifted off her shoulders as the decision takes shape.

She resigns to it. She quits. The hazy Jakarta evening air tastes like metal between her teeth. Rises to take her mother's hand.

It's time. This is the last daughterly duty she will fulfil – the last.