The Charmed Stall (Short Story)

By Ahmad Tohari

The dry, sharp sound came each time the tip of the Kartawi’s hoe cut into the parched rice field. Each time dust rose from the limestone earth. Each time Kartawi felt a powerful jerk in the muscles in his hands and back. Still the young farmer continued to swing his hoe. The dry, sharp sound, the spattering of dust and the jerking on the muscles continued in succession under the scorching sun of the dry season. Sweat had soaked Kartawi’s singlet. Both his legs were covered with dust up to the knees. And under the shadow of his bamboo caping, Kartawi’s face looked old and weary.

When he arrived at the end of his land, Kartawi stopped swinging the hoe. The farmer stood straight and silent. He wanted to recover his power by pumping air from his lungs into his tired muscles. A gentle breeze might help cool his hot body, but Kartawi’s hope died with the dead wind and blistering air.

Kartawi was rooted to this spot, straight as a pole. His eyes narrowed and stared far ahead of him. Before him, as far as the eye could see, was the face of drought spreading on the limestone plain. The clumps of grass had lost their greenness. The trees were bare and hundreds of hectares of rice fields were parched. Far in the north, the slope of the limestone hill was a gray- colored wall with white blotches; silent and barren. The air above the land surface seemed to shimmer at a distance. Birds flew silently in the cloudless sky.

Kartawi continued to stare. Suddenly, Kartawi saw the image of Jum, his wife, emerging from the shimmering earth. Kartawi felt a pang sear his chest and a wad of coconut fiber choke his throat. He felt as if all his energy was being drained from his muscles. His fingers relaxed on the handle of his hoe. His head bowed. Kartawi heaved a sigh, then, numbed, left his tilled land to shelter under the johar tree. All of a sudden the young farmer had lost his heart for work, all because Jum had entered his mind.

Kartawi stood in the shade of the johar tree, which was struggling to defend what remained of its leaves. Jum’s image was still clearly visible in his head. His memories brought him back to the time Jum was in her stall, serving neighbors who wanted to buy chilies, spice or salted fish. Or the various kinds of kitchen goods the neighbors needed. Jum always looked fresh and hard-working in her stall. Jum with her big dream of having a stone house, a television set and a Honda bebek motorcycle. Jum felt there was no other way than to work hard. She was prepared to do anything to make her warung a success.


Kartawi knew everything about Jum since she was still a toddler. When Jum was a child, there was nothing she liked to play more than warung-warungan. Jum always acted as the warung’s owner and she asked all her friends to be customers. Jum could stand all day long for the game played under the jackfruit tree behind her house.

After Jum married Kartawi, she asked only that he build her a real warung. Kartawi loved Jum dearly so he sold two goats and felled several trees to build her the stall. One of the trees was a bacang tree. The bacang tree was Jum’s idea. Jum said there must be a fruit tree in the structure of a warung.

“Kang, the old people said the wood from the fruit trees could lure customers,” Jum had told her husband. Kartawi only smiled, but two days later a small warung was standing in the front of the young couple’s house.

Jum’s warung sprang to life straightaway. Diligent Jum seemed happy with her warung. Jum probably believed she was destined to run a warung. With her warung Jum proved she could develop her household economy. By the third year, with two children already, Jum made one of her wishes come true, which was to have a stone house. By the following year she had a 14-inch, black-and-white television set. The next thing Jum wanted was the Honda bebek motorcycle. Kartawi fully supported his wife’s desire for the simple reason that to have a wife who sold goods on a motorcycle was an achievement which was hard for fellow villagers to match. Kartawi felt lucky to have a wife like Jum.

Why he had heard his neighbors gossip about Jum these past few days was beyond Kartawi. Nobody knew who had started the rumor that last week Jum visited Pak Koyor, the sorcerer from a neighboring village. And without her husband’s knowledge. People said Jum went there to get a charm for her warung. As for the charm, Kartawi knew about it, even approved of it. Yes. Kartawi believed that to reach one’s goals hard work alone was not enough. There must be more than real effort, but the rumors had gotten out of control. Neighbors said Jum had paid Pak Koyor an offering. Kartawi knew that sorcerer required something to guarantee the success of the magic, sometimes money, sometimes a cemani chicken, or sometimes the client’s body. The neighbors said Jum had given the latter to the sorcerer.


Once again Kartawi felt the pang in his chest. Kartawi hoped the neighbors’ talk was unfounded. They were probably jealous of Jum’s success and intentionally inflated the story, thought Kartawi. What if the rumors were true? The pain returned to Kartawi’s chest, even harder. Kartawi felt torn with uncertainty. It tortured him.

Aware that only Jum could an answer him, Kartawi decided to go home immediately. Accompanied only by his shadow, Kartawi followed the footpath which split the dry rice fields, his hoe slung on his shoulder and a drinking pot in his hand. He turned east at a small junction. Dry leaves crunched under the young farmer’s every step.

When he arrived home, Kartawi saw Jum was serving several customers. Kartawi was to impatient to wait, but, with his annoyance ready to burst, he restrained himself to wait. Jum must serve her customers. Even after the warung was closed, there were certain to be customers knocking on the door.

Kartawi was only able to ask about the rumors when night had far advanced. The children had fallen asleep long ago, and Jum, who was enjoying a TV show, did not seem interested in responding to her husband’s questions. Overcome by anger, Kartawi got up from his seat and switched off the television, sat down and repeated his question.

“Yes, Kang, last week I went to Pak Koyor,” Jum said lightly. “Setiyar, Kang, to keep our warung selling well. You know Kang, now we have many rivals.”

Kartawi swallowed. He felt a tidal wave had hit his veins. Under the light of a 10-watt bulb his face looked stout and sour.

“And you gave him the offering? Didn’t you?” Kartawi asked. His voice sounded deeper and heavier. His gaze stabbed his wife’s eyes. Jum held her head up, only to bend it the next second. She smiled lightly and calm returned to her face.

Kang, what’s the matter with you? To give an offering is usual. So…”

“So it’s true that you …”

Kartawi’s hand reached for an empty glass on the table. It looked as if he was going to crush it with his hands. The muscles in his jaw tightened. His eyes glared. Jum hid her face because she thought Kartawi was going to throw the glass at her. No. Kartawi managed to restrain himself although his entire body was trembling with anger.

Kang,” Jum said when the tension had loosened. “Listen, I want to tell you something.” Jum stopped, finding it hard to swallow. “What I gave to Pak Koyor was not the real thing. I was only acting, it was all a trick. Not with my heart. Kang, I am still sane. The real thing is only for you. It’s true, Kang.”

Kartawi kept silent. His eyes remained glaring. His jaw was still contorted. Kartawi was a lighted firecracker ready to explode. His heart burned with anger. Kartawi saw that the private areas where his dignity and male pride rested had been violated. Shattered. Damn. Jum had invited the obscene sorcerer to invade and mar the very private area.

Once again Kartawi’s fingers strained to squeeze the glass in his grip.

Jum even tried to smile to break the tension. Jum was shocked when Kartawi suddenly shouted.

“So what is the difference between acting the thing and the real one?” he bellowed.

Jum swallowed again. Only her ability to regain her composure forced Kartawi to restrain himself.

“Ow, Kang, it has a lot of differences. Men are stupid. Men cannot tell the difference between the real thing and a playful act. No wonder a lot of men resort to rape because it makes no difference to them; raping or asking for the real thing, the most important thing for them is the bar!

“So, listen to me Kang. Because it was only an act, I did not do the thing with my heart. My goal was only to make the payment so that our warung would sell well. That’s all there is to it. You did not lose anything, Kang. Everything is intact. Kang, if our warung sells better, we are the ones who will enjoy it, aren’t we?”

Kartawi immediately stood up and the glass shattered on the floor. Kartawi slammed the door as he left. Jum cried.


Kartawi was away for three days. The neighbors said that Kartawi was distressed, shamed and humiliated after listening to Jum’s confession. There were even rumors that Kartawi had returned to his parent’s home and had decided to divorce Jum. Others said Kartawi went to cheer himself up with a prostitute. Kartawi hoped to revenge Jum: infidelity for infidelity. Kartawi felt heavier after indulging in a prostitute. He felt a part of his identity had been lost.

On the fourth day Kartawi returned home. His longing for his home, his children, and for Jum was irresistible. No matter what, Jum and his children were part of him. His profound fury failed to evict Jum from the center of his life. But when he arrived home Kartawi was confused. He looked at Jum’s warung which was selling well and had reaped huge profits.

“With this warung my household could improve,” Kartawi thought. “My family could live with a full stomach, cheerful, intact.”

But Kartawi felt his chest deflate when he remembered the offering Jum had paid. The financial improvement had cost an extraordinary sacrifice. Kartawi was doubtful; he stammered limply into his own home.

Translated by Darul Aqsha

Ahmad Tohari

Ahmad Tohari

Ahmad Tohari was born on June 13, 1948. He is best known for his novels, which include Kubah (Dome), Di Kaki Bukit Cibalak (At the Foot of Mount Cibalak) and Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (The Dancer from Dukuh Paruk). In 1990 Ahmad joined the International Writing Program in Iowa, U.S.A. He now lives in his home villge of Tinggarjaya, Banyumas in Central Java and writes for Amanah family magazine. The short story Warung Penajem (The charmed stall) was first published in Kompas daily in November 1994 and is one of the stories which appear in Laki-laki Yang Kawin Dengan Peri: Cerpen Pilihan Kompas 1995 (The Man Who Married A Fairy: An Anthology of Kompas Short Stories 1995). It is reprinted here by courtesy of the Kompas daily.

warung: small stall
caping: traditional bamboo hat
johar: shade tree (cassiva siamea)
bacang: horse mango (mangifera foetida)
kang: a Javanese address for older men or respected males
pak: short of bapak, meaning sir or father
setiyar: making an effort
bar: climax

The Jakarta Post
Sun, Apr 14 1996


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