Blood Like Water
My friend Budi told me that Pak Eko saw the creature toward midnight. The pensioner was watching a dangdut singing competition on TV when a faint thump came from his front porch. The second time he heard the sound, Pak Eko went to wake his sleeping son. The young man, feeling entitled to a full rest after a day’s work at the sub-district civil office, only grunted.
Armed with a knife, Pak Eko carefully unlatched the front windows. The porch, its cracked tiles dull under the fifteen-watt bulb, seemed empty. Pak Eko caught a whiff of something rotten, and then it was gone. He was about to close the windows when the creature appeared on the left side of the porch.
Pak Eko’s terrified yell rang out in the cold night. Within minutes, his immediate neighbours had arrived one by one at his house. By then, Pak Eko was lying on his bed, eyes closed and taking one slow breath after another. His son, looking mildly embarrassed, sat by the bed and massaged his father’s temples with fingers smeared in cajuput oil.
‘It smelled a bit like fish,’ the young man mumbled. ‘Very tall – all my dad could see was its chest. That’s about it.’
Budi’s uncle had been among the neighbours who gathered outside Pak Eko’s room. Budi passed the story on to me as we crouched beside a stream, a manila-paper water mill sticking out of the bank. We had been struggling to position the water mill just so, to make the water slap consistently at its sails and rotate them.
‘Sounds like an amazing night,’ I said. Rough grass separated the stream from the village’s main street, a bumpy, potholed stretch of asphalt. Beyond the street lay fields of unharvested rice, the water glinting with reflections of the five o’clock sun. ‘The kids in my class talked about it all day long.’
‘That creature was a lelepah,’ Budi stated, with the confidence of someone who was well-versed in Central Javanese folktales. As if I, along with the other children in the village, hadn’t absorbed the same stories from our elders. ‘Don’t you agree, Wiya?’
‘Pak Eko must’ve had a pond on his porch, since those creatures only eat fish.’
Budi flapped his hand in a familiar gesture: Clever Wiya, resorting to sarcasm whenever she can’t come up with a proper response. I briefly considered dunking him in the stream, but instead kept my thin smile on.
‘Lelepah aren’t even from here,’ I added. ‘They live at Progo River, near Magelang. That’s far to the south.’
‘Maybe one of them got lost. Or it could be something else!’
As we continued to fiddle with the water mill, Budi wondered aloud what else the night visitor might have been. A burglar? No, they come in groups and rarely work solo. Pocong, a living corpse? But it wasn’t wrapped from head to toe in a white cloth. Genderuwo, then? No, they usually stalked women and children. And Pak Eko saw no fangs or fur. Finally, Budi concluded that the creature had indeed been a lelepah.
‘Tall and fishy-smelling,’ he said. ‘Can’t be anything else.’
I sat back on my haunches, observing the serenely turning water mill. ‘Why didn’t it do anything to Pak Eko?’
Budi sniffed. ‘Probably got scared. My uncle said these creatures may be strong, but humans are smarter.’
When I got home, the evening chill was setting in. My father was lounging on one of the front veranda’s two plastic chairs. He dragged on a kretek cigarette, his ankles poking out from the edge of his striped sarong.
‘Stay inside after dark,’ he told me. The smoke-cloud he blew out was faintly tinged with the fragrance of cloves. ‘Everyone is jittery about Pak Eko’s visitor. Village security is doubled tonight.’
‘Were you playing by the stream again?’
Taking off my sandals, I stepped into the house. ‘Yes. Budi and I made a water mill.’
At the name, my father stiffened a little, but made no comment. ‘You got plenty of homework today? Better start doing it early.’
Like Pak Eko, my parents were fans of the dangdut singing competition. They stayed up until the show was over, and then went to bed. Lying on my back, I listened to their bedroom door snicking shut. The sound was comforting, a sign that all was right with my family.
Ten minutes ticked past. In the silence, a song clawed its way out from the depths of my memory. It vibrated in my ears, the voice both sly and childlike:
Lelepah, lelepah, eats raw fish I eat it at the house’s west side.
Over and over the two lines played, the repetition turning them into a taunt. My stomach turned hollow with hunger. My bones creaked as they elongated. The strands of hair on my shoulders grew and crept down, thick and matted, to my chest.
I climbed off the bed. The top of my head almost brushed the ceiling. In my ears, the song played on, two words shriller than the rest: raw fish, raw fish.
It was not all that a lelepah ate. Even Budi, steeped as he was in folktale knowledge, had forgotten that.
I left quietly by the back door. Silhouettes of men patrolled the street, muttering among themselves. I waited until they passed before walking on, keeping myself in the shadows.
After last night, I’d learned to be more careful and headed for Pak Eko’s back door. It was locked but, compared to the front door, was farther away from the other houses. And, more importantly, from the patrolling men. With a quick punch, I broke the back door’s bolt in two.
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‘Blood Like Water’ is included in Asian Monsters, published by Fox Spirit Books.