Image © Vice

Pot Na Enga Tako

Translated by: 
Toni Pollard

This is my biggest chance. This is my biggest chance. The words seemed to make every cell in Dani’s brain seize up. Trembling all over, he followed the shopkeeper upstairs. The stairs were of solid boards, old ones which made an odd squeaking sound when stepped on. On the top floor in the gloom he was greeted by the sight of a doorway into an ancient burial cave, the staring eyes of tau-tau effigies looking like they were soaring upwards towards death. 


The shopkeeper gestured to Dani, a young man in his thirties, to keep following him and moved carefully so as not to bump into any of the antiques. (Didn’t the sign outside say ‘Souvenir Shop’? Did that mean that these pungent, musty old objects were all souvenirs?) The shopkeeper, a man in his fifties called David Lebang who said he was a Torajan, walked to an object covered with a tarpaulin. For a moment they both stood before it. Dani held his breath as the shopkeeper carefully lifted the tarpaulin. Death ... to kasalla.... This is my biggest chance. 


With the tarpaulin off, before them stood an old coffin complete with its erong, the front end of the coffin in the shape of a buffalo head. Again, Dani held his breath. The shopkeeper gazed at him as he asked, ‘Shall I open it?’ Dani nodded. 


With the same slow and careful movements, the shopkeeper opened the coffin’s lid. Once again holding his breath, Dani craned his head and peered inside. 


The corpse was medium sized. As the shopkeeper had told him, it was intact except that some of its hair had peeled off along with the scalp. But that was normal. It had long fingernails and its mouth was slightly open, revealing dull grey teeth. Most of its body was still clothed, wrapped in a type of cloth the shopkeeper said was made of pineapple plant fibres. 


‘Four hundred years old?’ muttered Dani. 


‘Yes, four hundred years old,’ said the shopkeeper. 


Four hundred years old. It was over! The white guy had said that the age must be at least three hundred years. Really, thought Dani, after weeks, months of waiting and searching all around Madandan, Dende, Sanggalangi, Makale and God knows where else for that mummy, he had actually found it in a souvenir shop, one of the many such scattered along the main street of Rantepao, a street which is on every tour guide’s itinerary to Torajaland. Dani himself had passed along it often. 


This valuable object, this treasure – it seemed too contrived that it should end up in a souvenir shop. Although it was hidden away on the stuffy upper floor, he felt that it was still too obvious. And hadn’t his fellow guides always said that Torajan grave objects were nonsense, because all mummies were fakes? By a certain chemical process, they could be made from dummies covered in chicken skin turned inside out. 


It was as if the shopkeeper could read Dani’s uncertainty. ‘The least likely places are the most secure locations for valuable objects. Except for this mummy, it’s widely known that all the grave goods in David Lebang’s shop are fakes.’ 


‘You still haven’t convinced me.’ 


‘So you want to meet the owner of the coffin?’ 


‘That would be very good.’ 


‘OK then, tomorrow, six p.m.’ 


Still trembling all over, Dani descended the stairs. He needed a few moments standing outside the shop to calm himself down. To get to the nearest telephone office – this was the first thought that came to mind. He marched straight towards his old bomb of a jeep. 


At the telephone office he dialled the number for a long-distance connec­tion to speak to someone on another continent. Having made the call, his thoughts wandered between joy and fear, relief and guilt, and maybe even to nothingness, to death – to kasalla – to suffering and heaven. Torajans honour their corpses. Death for them is the achievement of eternal life – the burial rites are the process that brings relief from suffering. 


 ‘To hell with it!’ In a loud whisper Dani brushed aside everything he’d ever been told by his colleagues. Fifteen billion rupiah. When would such an opportunity come again? He was fed up with earning his living as a tour guide. If he carried on as a tour guide, life would forever be the same. He wanted to go home, to fly back to his village on another island. To move on to a new life. Any life he wanted.


Fifteen billion! Nine billion for himself, one for the shopkeeper, and five for ‘him’, the mummy’s owner. 


Clearly, the thing was more than convincing. And not at all what Dani had expected. At first, he’d assumed the mummy must be a fake – it was sure to have come from some counterfeit network or mafia-like group. But now he didn’t think so. The source was far more authentic. . . . ‘He’, the mummy’s owner, was clearly a direct descendant of the mummy. Dani was able to stop trembling from the moment he realised this. 


On his guard, he deliberately arrived a bit late and turned up at the end of the day at David Lebang’s shop. The shopkeeper stepped forward to meet and berate him, saying ‘I’m afraid you almost blew it. Five minutes and Tanete would have left.’ 


‘Who’s Tanete?’ 


‘Didn’t you want to meet him?’ 


Dani stared at the shopkeeper in shock. David Lebang nodded in confir­mation. ‘Yes, him.’Taking Dani inside, Lebang pushed open a door which he had not noticed before. Behind it, in a cramped room that contained only a table and three chairs, was a man who looked like a typical Torajan, about the same age as Dani, sitting behind the table. Despite what the shopkeeper had said, he didn’t look like a man who had been kept waiting. On the contrary, he appeared very relaxed. 


David Lebang introduced him as Tanete Sarungallo, a descendant of the corpse of so many generations. When Dani seemed nervous and unable to speak, the man said very, very calmly, ‘So everything has changed. We are alive now, today, and look to the future, right?’ 


It did not seem like anything a traditional Torajan would say. But Dani tried to put aside his astonishment with a smile, saying, ‘Yes, yes, I agree.’ He then painstakingly began to investigate, to get a provenance for the mummy. 


But his efforts were evidently unnecessary. Tanete explained everything very explicitly and in great detail. Calmly, casually even, very casually. But also (was Dani imagining it?) with what appeared to be hatred and resent­ment.


Dani was completely taken aback by his rancour. 


When it all became too much, Dani couldn’t stand it any longer and interrupted him. ‘Excuse me, you’re a descendant. A direct descendant?’ 


‘Yes, I am. Why?’ 


‘You seem unafraid. Not afraid of being cursed.’ 


‘Cursed?’ Tanete roared with laughter. ‘Cursed for being guilty? Is that what you mean?’ His face suddenly hardened, and he peered into Dani’s eyes. ‘Once we were rich, from the nobility, high caste. But because we belong to the nobility and because all funeral ceremonies involve huge expense, now we’re poor. Who do you think is the guilty party here? Us or these mummies?’ 


It didn’t take long. Just a few days. The transfer and disbursement of the money, and of course ensuring that the process was transparent. On the sixth day, along with the mummy and the coffin with the animal head, Dani set off for Makassar. Michael Lightman, the white guy, who (he’d been told) was a researcher, was also due to arrive that day. Dani would hand over the mummy and throw in the old jeep as well, and his business would be well and truly done. 


The journey to Makassar would take six or seven hours, which now felt much too long for him. If only the day could fold in on itself and he could disappear out of time for a bit. That would be nice. But impossible. All he could do was try to relax, take it easy, let his thoughts drift. 


But his thoughts always came back to what he was doing. To what his colleagues used to say. To the first time he’d met Michael when he had been his tour guide, and then to his offer. Then David Lebang. And Tanete – Dani really didn’t believe (had he imagined it?) that Tanete harboured such anger and hatred toward the processions and the ceremonies that were his society’s traditions. 


Dani was unaware of how many hours had passed when he heard a voice behind him. A voice from the open coffin? He immediately turned around.


‘Pot na enga tako.’ 


He felt as if he were about to be thrown from his seat. His eyes widened. The corpse! The mummy! It was sitting upright in the coffin. The coffin lid had been opened. 


‘Pot na enga tako.’ 


The mouth was moving. The jaw, the cracked lips uttering the words ‘pot na enga tako’.What did they mean? It wasn’t Torajan language. 


Because he was driving, Dani had no time to think about it. But it seemed he didn’t need to drive the suddenly veering car, because something very strange, something unbelievable, was happening. 


He noticed that the hood of the car was gradually transforming. It folded inwards, collapsing in on itself. Then from the sides grew what appeared to be horns. Slowly also, the body of the car changed colour from green to brown, a dark brown with black cracks, wood with mould growing on it. A coffin! Good God, the old jeep was turning into a coffin, complete with an erongin the shape of a buffalo head! 


Then the road disappeared. His jeep, now an ancient coffin, seemed to be flying in space, in a void. He had the sensation that everything was moving very slowly, languidly within the vastness. Time! As if time no longer existed – or rather that it was like a pool, stretching out to infinity. It seemed to go on and on. For years. Three hundred years? Four hundred years. The age of the corpse, maybe. ‘Help!’ he screamed, but no sound came out. 


Behind him the corpse was still uttering the same words: ‘Pot na enga tako.’ What did it mean? Pot na enga tako. 

More Fiction

Please Register or Login

Register now for full access to News and Events, Web Exclusives, Blogs and Comments.

If you've already registered, please login.