Maria Pinto’s Flying Horse – Linda Christanty
Before dusk falls, Joseph Legiman sees Maria Pinto sailing through the sky on a flying horse. The wind suddenly stirs and hisses. The air transforms into a strange mantra that hums in the language of witches; fragrant, drugging anything moving or still. Arrested, he looks up, hugs his automatic rifle, and remembers his commander’s message: “Let her pass, do not shoot.”
Maria Pinto’s soft gown slices the stench of war with a blinding, white flapping. Joseph feels like he’s trapped in an old love. In the mix of fear and longing, he cannot run.
The hissing wind becomes harsher when a war chariot follows, gliding in the same direction as the flying horse. Two guards—dark skinned giants, hair trailing—follow this ritual journey, guarding their liege. Joseph allows the heavenly procession to pass. His knees are weak. He sits upon the ground, hugging his weapon.
Gradually the wind calms. Lush, tall grass, thorny bushes upon dry land, and a steep rocky mountain in the distance return to fill his sight along with the memory of that girl.
Joseph first heard the story of Maria from a friend who had been sent earlier to this island: “That’s why we have difficulty winning – because the rebels have a protector. A woman at that. Huh! How annoying.”
Maria Pinto was originally an ordinary girl who studied literature at a well-known university in Jakarta, remaining until semester three, before returning to the land of oranges and coffee. The people of that land were rushing to die, disappearing, killing themselves, going crazy, or entering the forest to unite with wild pigs and deer.
Calamity was striking the land of her ancestors, so Maria was called home by the leader of the tribe to fulfil her destiny. The tribe’s shamans initiated Maria as a commander with ancient magic and a flying horse because she had been chosen by the prophetic whispers of the ancestors. From then, Maria Pinto became the leader of a dangerous army of mist, surrounding the enemy in every zone, bringing fear to those who depend upon reality; those who disregard legends and dreams.
“When the mist came, rolling across the battlefield, members of our army one by one suddenly died with a bullet wound. One day, the mist came again, rolling above me and I shot it, without stopping. When the mist disappeared, I saw seven men lying dead on the ground. That land is truly magical,” said Joseph’s friend, smiling bitterly.
Now Joseph is trapped in a chariot, speeding through the night; he cannot close his eyes. His drowsiness has passed, frustration taking its place. The chariot feels like it’s gliding in darkness. Specks of light from villages, like a row of fireflies, appear at the window. But the rest is impenetrable darkness. Beside him, sits a woman engrossed in a Stephen King novel – that’s the name on the cover. She occasionally smiles or exclaims in amazement at the soldier’s stories.
“But I never shot Maria Pinto and her flying horse – never … She is powerful; it wouldn’t be any use,” says Joseph slowly, almost mumbling.
The young woman is annoyed momentarily, and then returns to studying the pages of the book. Initially, she wasn’t interested in hearing the ramblings of the wimpy soldier. How weird to see a sharp shooter believing in things so removed from the laws of matter and light. However, looking at the face of the soldier, she’s now taken aback. Maybe this is the face of one who lives and dies for war, she thinks.
The man’s face resembles a child’s rag doll that’s too loved – although dirty and tattered, it’s not thrown into the bin. A face full of stitches; a pair of eyes drooping, adorned with a scar close to the eyebrow that looks like a roughly sewn border and an amateurish embroidered vine.
“This morning, my mother cried again. This is my final trip home before I return to duty. My mother is traumatised, poor woman. However, it’s my decision,” says Joseph, looking straight ahead.
Six months previously, his brother had died, tortured by the rebels. His body was returned without a heart, intestines, and genitals, locked tight in a mahogany coffin. Now Joseph was the only boy in the family.
“The coffin was wrapped in a big flag – really huge!” His tone is a mixture of pride and sadness.
The young woman shudders. How quiet a hollow corpse!
“We come from a farming family, poor. You’re lucky you can go to university, have money to travel. It’s hard for us to even eat. Being a soldier makes us feel respected. The people of our village are wary of us.” This time, he looks at his fellow traveller who has returned to her book.
He feels relieved having shared his stories that sound weak and gutless to the young woman. Like an awful cliché in a novel, he feels at peace beside her, beside a stranger on a journey. Is this a sign he is getting ready to welcome death, making a confession and becoming vulnerable? Ah, death’s whisper is not yet perfect.
The train continues to pierce the interior, passing sea, salt fields, teak forests, gardens, fields, and villages. Specks of light rise and fall on the windowpane. They remind him of a different possibility, spreading another pain in the depths of his heart.
“I really love my girlfriend. However, this afternoon I was really hurt. Her family doesn’t condone our relationship. Her brothers threatened to kill me if we continue. One of her uncles is very close to the governor. Maybe my wage is too small and life like this makes her family worry. Maybe …” says Joseph, faintly.
He reaches for a brownie in the snack box, chewing slowly. The carriage is so quiet. People sleep in uniform, navy cotton blankets. Soft snoring sometimes creeps from nearby chairs, sounding like a grandfather’s old gag for his grandson.
“Yeah, maybe I should delay my duty. In the middle of a problem like this, I become clumsy and lazy. Someone who has a problem isn’t usually sent out to war. He could be killed stupidly.”
Suddenly a strong wind blows in the corridor. He befriends the wind, absorbs its sharp or soothing ripple, reading its messages.
“Try, feel this wind,” he whispers, touching the shoulder of the young woman.
“This isn’t wind, but cool air from the airconditioner,” she retorts.
“If we are in the wrong position, our body odour will be sniffed out by the enemy, easily detecting our position.” He begins to worry.
He is always alert. One mistake and the result is shame.
One night, Joseph was separated from his platoon after exchanging fire with guerrillas. He walked alone, following the river under the twinkling stars, looking for the nearest village.
Close to midnight, he crept behind a thatched hut, moving with the gun’s muzzle pointed in all directions. There was no village; only a small, isolated hut by the forest’s edge. The silence and his patience were jarring. The sound of cricket wings brushing together echoed, scratching the quiet.
Joseph plucked up the courage to push the hut door with his gun, while preparing to pull the trigger if danger appeared. The hut was pitch black dark. He flicked his lighter. The view before him made his heart skip.
A girl lay on the floor of the hut, hugging a wooden winged horse – a child’s toy. His throat felt constricted. However, he didn’t stop coming closer, directing his gun at the face of the sleeping girl. Beads of cold sweat swelled from his tired body’s pores.
The glow of the lighter made Maria Pinto stir, look at him softly, and in silence. The commander and soldier were now both alone, face to face. Maria Pinto arose slowly, moving her hand in the air … and thousands of fireflies gathered to ignite the hut, dancing and frolicking.
Maria Pinto took off her white, fairy gown. The naked body of the girl was like the wax statues of saints, slowly becoming transparent. He could see the girl’s heart, intestines, lungs and skeleton clearly. The small, pretty head swelled with pupils bulging and the skin of her face withering. For a moment, he remembered a film about an alien that he had watched in his barracks, long ago.
The following day, when the dew was still on the shrubs and grass, he was found leaning on the door of the local guard post. His friends scampered over, staring in awe. But he was just anxious to get going, to check the surrounding land, without a word. His friends were confused and frightened, thinking he had lost his memory. Joseph had been missing for days.
He crouched close to the ground. ‘No traces of my steps on the soft soil,’ he thought, disappointed. Maybe the commander had brought him here on her wooden flying horse after seeing the stupid soldier collapse in front of her? Why did Maria Pinto not kill him? Why was he so stupid not to have aimed his gun at the girl’s temple?
He began to laugh, louder and louder. ‘Wooden horse, wooden horse, wooden horse, wooden horse ...’ Joseph kept saying the words like a mantra. His scrawny tummy heaved, twisted by an irrepressible urge to laugh. Doctors said he was in a deep depression, then forced the troop’s commander to return him to the peace zone to rest for a while. But it was impossible to be sure of truly peaceful zones in a war-torn region. He was quickly sent home. His recovery was rapid, but he was transferred to a different division.
“This is my secret, just between the two of us,” says Joseph, ending his story.
The young woman sighs. ‘A complicated and tragic love triangle,’ she thinks, ‘sad. This soldier is wavering between his girlfriend and the ghost commander. Both have sad endings.’
The train is about to finish its journey. The air becomes cooler. People begin to busy themselves, tidying unkempt hair, blouses, or shirts, and using words once again. Two stewards gather the passengers’ blankets in a big black bag, tottering along the carriage.
“Would you like to be with me tonight?” Joseph looks at the woman, directly.
“I want to finish this novel.”
“I want to go for a walk to relax my mind.”
“Well, enjoy yourself.”
They separate, once again becoming strangers to one another.
One afternoon in a clear month, Joseph Legiman climbs the stairs of a skyscraper in the heart of the city, carrying a bag filled with weapons. For almost a month he has been observing someone. He hides on one of the floors of the building, observing his surroundings with an infrared telescope; then allows the wind to hit his body. He feels the direction and force of the wind, allowing its wings to brush his skin, then decides on an accurate position for taking aim. A mistake in reading the wind could be fatal. His enemy could trace his steps from his body’s aroma or from the stench of a wound traveling on the air. But life and death are close lines in a rhyming couplet, a prelude and message bound in verse. He is ready for both.
The light blue sky looks quiet. Joseph connects the muffler to the weapon’s muzzle. The sun shines weakly. He returns to spying on his target.
On the seventh storey of the building directly across, curtains at a window open wide. Someone is walking to and fro in the distance, talking to two friends. The red dot in Joseph’s lens follows. Pupils sharpen. He imagines himself as an eagle. Now his target stands with her back to the window. He slowly pulls the trigger, towards the red dot on the circle, striking.
The window shatters into tiny shards. Someone falls face down.
Joseph has completed his duty. Now he switches on his cell phone and reports to his superior.
When he had first seen the picture of the terrorists’ leader, Joseph had stopped still. He remembered the woman he had met on the train a month before. ‘It must be her,’ he had thought.
Yes, the world can be cruel to soldiers. Now he has killed that woman, erasing the soul of the person who had held some of his life’s secrets.
A gust suddenly blows through the window. Cold needles pierce his bones. Joseph’s body shivers and aches. When he steps away from the window, he sees Maria Pinto sailing through the sky on a flying horse. Why does that woman follow him wherever he goes? Maria Pinto smiles, extends her hand, white and smooth. Bewitched, Joseph accepts the waiting girl’s fingers. He feels he is flying between the clouds, gliding, watching a world that is fading below.
Translated by Kadek Krishna Adidharma
‘Maria Pinto’s Flying Horse’ is the title short story from Kuda Terbang Maria Pinto by Linda Christanty (Khatulistiwa Awards, Indonesia, 2004).
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