The following is a story from Eka Kurniawan's short story collection Kitchen Curse, translated from the Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao, Annie Tucker and others. Eka Kurniawan is the author of Beauty Is a Wound, Man Tiger, Vengeance Is Mine, and others. He is a recipient of the Prince Claus Award and has been named a Foreign Policy Global Thinker. This excerpt was originally published in Literary Hub.
We brought one home to keep as a pet. Baby, our four-year-old, loved it. How could he not? It was like a living doll. And gentler than any breed of dog. The only thing that had us worried was that it was obviously no ordinary mutt. Where it came from it was called a caronang—and its most distinctive feature was that it walked on two legs.
At first, I thought it might be a species of bear, one that raised itself up on its hind legs to attack. But it wasn’t. And it was small—about the size of a miniature poodle. It had given up walking on all fours almost completely. In fact, its anatomy had developed to make walking on two legs easier. You see, its thighs had grown longer, as had its calves, and its heels now rested on the ground (those heels that we always mistake for dogs’ knees, even though knees jut forward and heels jut backward). The soles of its feet had shortened and lay flat on the earth. Its digits looked a lot like those of a bear or a cat, but according to the book I read, The Flora and Fauna of Java Past, it belonged to the same family as the dog. Its Latin name was Lupus erectus. There was no name for it in Indonesian, or in English. The book said the caronang had gone extinct long before the Javan tiger. What the authors of the book didn’t know was that I had one living in my house.
However it came to be, it had retained its ancestral form, its head identical in appearance to the head of a dog (even though certain features reminded me more of a bat), oval and slender like a Russian wolfhound, with thick white fur spotted with black. It even barked, and at night, sometimes, it howled. We never let it go outside, and we hid it whenever we had guests. The only person who knew we had a pet caronang was an old friend of mine, who’d introduced me to the animal in the first place, in its natural habitat. And it quickly learned that this discretion was all for its own good and that if anyone else knew of its existence, its peaceful life would soon come to an end.
What we didn’t know at the time was that our own peaceful life was about to be cut short. We knew one of the most enjoyable aspects of having a dog was teaching it tricks, getting it to do things of no natural use to it. My wife trained the caronang to fetch the newspaper and to bring me my shoes every morning. But that was before we became aware it was capable of learning far more than a regular dog ever could. Before long, we were watching spellbound as it sat with Baby and busied itself with a coloring book. At the end of each day it would bathe itself, shampooing its whole body, though with a clumsiness that tickled us. If it had been no more than a clever poodle, not a caronang, we would have gotten rich exhibiting it at the circus.
Everything was going well until one horrifying morning when it got out the hunting rifle, loaded it, and pulled the trigger. When it had learned how to use the gun, we hadn’t a clue. But not only did it know how to use a gun, it knew what a gun was for.
It all began with Don Jarot, an old friend of mine. At the age of 18, he came to Yogyakarta to become an artist but ended up doing a college degree in philosophy instead. He lasted only three years before they kicked him out for killing a man in a fight over a girl. Then it was three years in Wirogunan Prison for him, where he killed some other thug in a brawl and was immediately transferred to Nusa Kambangan.
Like all the other prisoners on that island, he wasn’t particularly happy about being there. He plotted his escape. It wasn’t prison walls or guards he’d have to deal with, but a wild strait as wide as a small ocean and teeming with crocodiles. The locals called that particular body of water Sagara Anakan—“The Sea Has Had a Child”—and he’d have to cross it, hiding in one bay after another, each overrun with man-eating animals. But that’s what he did. He swam half the night, almost died when he got hit by an oil tanker approaching land, was submerged and carried along by the current before he could regain his strength, and finally washed up on a small delta, surrounded by swamp, tall grass everywhere he looked.
“My first meal? The leeches sticking to my body,” he told me.
He hid in the swamp for weeks, swimming across bays, soaking in the dirty water—all while the military searched for him. Eventually, he got clear of the swamp and headed upriver, disappearing into the local villages, then moving on to the towns. The only stupid thing he did was to miss his girlfriend too much. One day he went to visit her, and that’s when they caught him. He spent the remainder of his jail sentence feeling worthless and depressed.
Not long after his release, his crazy experience was made into a movie, with Don Jarot playing himself. Although the movie was successful, he never starred in anything else ever again, preferring instead to marry his girlfriend and sell stones that supposedly possessed mystical properties of some sort. The movie was true to life, but left out one part, which he recounted only to me.
One day, probably succumbing to a malarial fever, he’d collapsed while hiding out in the swamps of Sagara Anakan. He felt like he was about to die and blacked out completely. When he came to, he found himself in something like a pigsty, with clumps of shrubbery fashioned into a kind of nest. He was surrounded by small dogs. At first, he thought he had found himself among angels, although he had never imagined angels looking like this. But as they nudged a few small fish towards him, expecting him to eat them raw, he realized they were that other mythical creature he and I had once read about—the caronang. Long before he’d gone to prison, we had discussed the matter of extinct animals. We had gathered together encyclopedias, travelogues, and folktales, and together we had come to the conclusion that perhaps such creatures weren’t really extinct at all. We hatched a wild plan to go on an expedition in search of the Javan tiger and, of course, the caronang, too—that is, before Don Jarot had to go to prison and the years passed us by.
Not long after the premiere of his film, Don Jarot came to me and told me about his discovery of the caronang. I was thrilled when I heard about his plan to find them again. So off we went.
The caronang could only be found in a handful of locations around Sagara Anakan. All of Java’s jungles had probably been swarming with them once, but they’d ended up clustered in that region alone.
We left at seven in the morning from Cilacap Harbor, moving against the currents of the Citanduy River on a ferryboat full of farmers, traders, and teachers stationed in the interior. The panoramas were impressive: emerging from the throng of oil tankers and cargo ships, our pace slow, we drifted along a magnificent expanse. Ibises flew overhead, and monkeys dangled from the branches of the mangrove trees. Fishing boats moved lazily along.
I had brought camping gear and hunting equipment in a large expedition pack, though I had no intention of doing any hunting and had brought the weapons only for self-defense—in case we encountered any dangerous animals. Don Jarot was busy with his Handycam and notebook, and since we’d left the harbor, he’d been recording anything and everything. We had decided to document our trip from the moment of our departure: maybe we could put together some good footage for the Discovery Channel or National Geographic. I had thought about hiring a guide, but Don Jarot assured me he knew this area like the back of his hand. Besides, he didn’t want others to know there were still real caronang in the area; not even the locals had seen them, and thought they were only a legend.
We came to a stop in a strange place: at the border between the sea and the strait. Don Jarot pointed out the dividing line stretching before us, unwavering and brown. I thought someone had laid a ribbon down on the riverbed, but Don Jarot confirmed that the line was really and truly a work of nature, the universe’s own creation. There were no docks where we could moor, so we got a ride on a dubious-looking wooden boat with no motor and were dropped off at the nearest island, inhabited by only three fishermen and their families.
We rented the same boat to head into the interior. I protested a little at this and asked if it wouldn’t be better to rent a motorboat. Don Jarot just laughed, explaining that a motorboat would only be necessary on rough water. “There aren’t any waves in the river,” he said. Anyway, we were going into narrow streams where the surface of the water would be carpeted with algae and other plants. For the entirety of our journey, while he rowed, I was seized with a great panic. Though the boat certainly seemed stable, I was none too happy at the thought of the crocodiles and lizards lurking beneath.
“Just a little while longer. There are miracles ahead,” said Don Jarot.
It was true. Wondrous things were waiting for us once we penetrated the swampy interior. I saw a fish the size of a man’s palm walking in the mud on foot-like fins. In one cove, I found a small shark—extremely small, the size of someone’s ankle or wrist, living in fresh water. Joyfully, Don Jarot recorded everything, all the while shrieking, “Eureka, it’s the miracle of evolution, by Darwin Almighty!” There were other amazing things too that made me forget about the crocodiles. And then we came face to face with that true miracle: the caronang.
On the days I didn’t have any work, I would laze about in the backyard, oiling a rifle—one I hadn’t tried hunting with yet. Sometimes I would shoot bullets into the sky, thinking they might make the clouds melt and pour rain into the hot air. It was most likely during one of those moments that our caronang had peered out the window without me knowing and seen me using the rifle. One night shortly before the incident, it had also seen me shoot a big rat that had made several annoying raids on the kitchen.
That same night, the caronang had had a spectacular fight with Baby over something silly.
“They’re fighting over the blanket,” my wife said.
It was true. Both of them had been sleeping in one bed since we had brought the animal into the house. That fight, in which Baby cried and the caronang barked, ended with Baby kicking the caronang out of the bed. The caronang ran to my wife’s room and buried itself in her armpit. It was weeping. It wasn’t that surprising. We’d had a pet monkey once who behaved in a similar way: fussy and crybabyish. The caronang was probably acting like this because it was still so young.
I’d succeeded in capturing it only after Don Jarot had drugged its pack; if he hadn’t, they’d certainly never have let us take a member of the family. And so that was how the darkest day in our lives came to pass. Very early in the morning, the animal got down from my wife’s bed, took the rifle and bullets from the storage room, then knocked on Baby’s door. Baby hadn’t even freed himself entirely from slumber yet—he was sitting there, dazed, when the rifle went off and ended his life. He was due to start kindergarten the month after next, and with two shots he was dead, dispatched by a caronang.
Though devastated, I knew it didn’t make sense for me to tell anyone what had really happened. My wife felt the same way. And, so, right after the funeral, which Don Jarot also attended (he tried to cheer me up, but it was no use), the police arrested me. I offered no defense and confirmed all the charges against me. With the help of the police, we all came up with the following story:
In the dead of night, I heard suspicious sounds and immediately thought it was a thief. I got out my hunting rifle and figured out that the noises were coming from Baby’s room. I called his name, but Baby didn’t answer. I broke down the door and saw a figure looming before me. It was actually Baby standing on top of his bed, but in my haste and surprise, I shot him. The trial proceeded without any complications. My wife testified that the story was indeed true. They sentenced me to three years in the light of my youth, remorse, and lack of a criminal record. The whole time, all I wanted to do was go home and kill that caronang with my own two hands.
“You don’t need to,” my wife told me. “Don Jarot’s killed them all. Slaughtered them and sold them to a dog-kebab restaurant.”
It was better that way. In any case, it was very dangerous to let them go on living—they might have grown even smarter.