There has always been an ox in the family.
There has always been an ox to take a deep breath before dawn and release it with a giant moo that startles every set of dreamy eyes from their slumber and forces every pair of limbs to abandon their immobile postures. There has always been an ox to be pulled out of the barnyard and lifted up onto the old truck laboriously, only to be commuted across the river and dismounted back to the ground to commence the plowing duty. There has always been an ox doing all the dirty work from sunrise to sunset, every single day, over and over since the day I became aware of my existence.
I was born into a family whose very life depends on everything that grows, and I grow with it. My mother gave birth to me in this very barn house, helped by the only midwife in our village. She was not a doctor of any kind nor did she learn medics in any type of school, but we called her Inang Dokter anyway. Who cares? It has been decades since the last person from Porsea had the chance to go to STOVIA. The only doctors as we know around here are mostly priests and missionaries of Dutch or Belgian origin who take tours in the region once or twice a month. Of course, we do not care about them either. What would people from small villages stretched along the extensive shore of Tao Toba expect from the white devils—Si Bontar Mata—who took our land and disturbed the centuries-long peace we had maintained in Tano Batak?
My father has been a farmer his whole life. When Opung Doli married Opung Boru, he bought this land and built our home right in the middle of it, on top of a mound, fenced by wild bushes of sesame and protected by a thick canopy from six pairs of gambiri tree. They had just collected their eleventh harvest of rice and corns when Sisingamangaraja the Twelfth, the last of the Batak kings to contest the Dutch colonialist authorities, was killed in the battlefield and his body was marched through the hushed streets of Balige. It was a grave loss for Bangso Batak. The economy was failing and everybody was trapped in poverty with threats of famine growing closer to every household day by day. Si Bontar Mata took everything for the cost of war, so my father had to start working on the fields at the age of nine to help provide food on the table. Since then, every day was just another day of hard work without any promise of improvements in the near future. And it only got worse. It finally came to pass that we must sell our ox in return for money and spare parts.
Opung Doli knew in his heart that if we lost the ox, we would have to replace the role of the mooing tractors with our own human sweat. My father was barely eleven years old, and his younger brothers respectively seven and four years old. There was no way they could pull the two-hundred-kilograms wagon six hours a day for every other day, not to mention they had school to attend. We could use one or two men who were trained and experienced on the fields, but not only did we have too small amount of money to spare, we also could not find anyone willing to take the job. Everybody was too busy saving their own fields. With nine gaping mouths and ambitious tummies to feed every day, Opung had to find a way out.
It did not take very long for Opung Doli to make a decision. Two weeks after the ox was taken and almost all the fields dried out, he took leave from Opung Boru and went walking barefooted to Hutatinggi, a great wood on the highland near the borders of Balige in Laguboti. When his children asked whither and wherefore, he did not answer, not even to Opung Boru. But he knew his wife trusted him. She did. Everybody did. They bid him farewell and took faith, clueless as they were on when to hope for his return.
Another two weeks had passed since the day our father left, and everything was just going normally when we heard people shouting from the end of the main village road.
“Oi, Simbolon! You are back! For the love of Debata, how on earth did you find this thing and bring it home all the way on foot? You really are…”
We did not wait until the voice finished the sentence. We threw our collecting baskets aside, leaving all the uncracked gambiri scattered on the ground, and ran like an alarmed fox. We did not think of anything else beside the fact that our father had come home. There he was, by the end of the street walking towards us. He saw us and smiled. He waved his hands high in the air excitedly. We were no less enthusiastic.
“Bapa is back! He is here! He has come …”
I stopped yelling when I realized Bapa was not alone. We stopped running immediately when we saw something walking behind him. We could not believe our eyes.
It was an ox.
Now, it was not very common among our people to name our oxen with proper names as we do our children. There was no need for it, since the very purpose of having an ox was to help with the dirty jobs on the fields. They were machines, bred for specific requirements. That was why people were surprised when Opung Doli named the ox he brought home. Si Marmut, he called it—or rather him, as Opung Doli referred to it. Naming and referring to the ox like a person was indeed odd enough for everybody else, let alone to think of the meaning behind the name. I could never tell which part of an ox might possibly resemble those of guinea pigs, but it was just what the name says. Si Marmut the ox. Guinea pig the ox.
Nevertheless, soon everybody got used to the name and the practice of referring to it as him. Si Marmut became a part of the Simbolon family, and was present during the birth of all of my Namborus, the six daughters of Opung Doli. Every day after the heavy work of ploughing and tending the crops, Si Marmut would play with them and let them ride on top of his grey mantle, embarking on little adventures together. Namboru Bene and Namboru Dorlan would lift Namboru Ida and Namboru Friska from the ground up to Si Marmut’s back (although Namboru Ida always insisted that she could hop on by herself), and each of them would hold on to Si Marmut’s giant twirling horn on either side while holding Namboru Udur and Namboru Renta in their other hands. Si Marmut behaved as if he understood the nature of children and took good care of them while Opung Doli watched from afar, trusting his ox like he did his sons.
It did not take long until Si Marmut gained his fame around the neighborhood. People started greeting Si Marmut whenever they passed by him on the road to the fields. My father even said that Si Marmut would moo to the passerby and perform a nodding gesture whenever greeted. People were fond of his gentle temper and treated him kindly. He had become everybody’s favorite until one day a neighboring farm owner, Amani Janter, rushed into the village’s main building—Sopo Gorga—and disturbed the weekly farmers meeting, claiming that a third of his corn plants area were damaged by a wild beast.
This happened overnight. Amani Janter and his family had always been our nearest neighbor. They lived in the foothill below us, just 500 meters away from our frontmost gambiri tree, and we could see the view of his corn fields on our left even as we walk uphill towards our house. The next nearest neighbor, Ompu Saragih, lived one kilometer away in a shack where he ran his small lapo.
Opung Doli was called to the crime scene with the rest of the men. They went straight to Amani Janter’s field and examined the traces left by the intruder. It was indeed in utter disarray: corn stalks were toppled and torn apart here and there, and kernels were scattered everywhere on the ground. It was pattern-less.
“This is insane. What could have possibly done this?” exclaimed one of the men, joined by the others in bafflement.
“This is no work of any man, indeed, but a wild beast!”
“What kind of beast? It has been decades since we had attacks from tigers. They don’t live in the woods around here anymore.”
“Yeah, our fathers have hunted and eliminated them!”
By this time everyone was already arguing with each other. Even Amang Saragih had left his lapo and joined them, curious about the rioting noise. They examined the footprints on the ground, the width of the area and the bite marks on the remains of the corns. Some even developed their own theories. None could reach any agreement. Silence came at last, and Amang Saragih offered his assumption.
“Could it be a boar?” he asked. “I’ve hunted some myself, and a very large hog could leave this kind of trace, or it could as well be…”
“… An ox,” Amani Janter concluded with his reply. “It could be an ox.”
Silence fell once more.
“You surely know really well that every ox in our village is tamed and is either tied to a pole or locked up in a cage every evening after work,” said Amang Saragih who was immediately replied by Amani Janter, “not all of them. I’ve seen one that is left unattended and roamed freely in our village all the time.”
Everybody knew Amani Janter was talking about Si Marmut, and they started arguing again, this time in murmur. Truly, Opung Doli had never tied nor caged Si Marmut ever since he arrived. Why should he? Si Marmut was obedient and, in a way, independent. And Opung Doli loved him dearly, even as to his own child. My father used to tell me about his childhood memory, that on a very lazy Sunday when he was lying around in the morning after church and going for a stroll after lunch until dusk, he had forgotten his daily task to take Si Marmut to graze on the green pasture beside the river. Finding out that Si Marmut had not been fed for the day, Opung Doli was furious. So great was his wrath upon my father that in the morning my father was forced to leave without Si Marmut and plow the fields by himself. He was not given provisions for lunch either. “Go and think about how hard it must have been for Si Marmut to work all day without being fed!” Such is the love of Opung Doli to his ox.
“Alright! Nobody blames anybody!” exclaimed Ompu Silalahi, the eldest in the village, trying to placate the crowd. “Now let us help Amani Janter clean up the mess and go home while we wait with hope that the problem would reveal its own solution. Night is coming. We shall discuss further investigations tomorrow in Sopo Gorga.” With that, everybody set to tidy up the field and went home afterwards.
By the time I entered the courtyard leading to Sopo Gorga, a huge crowd was already engaged in very loud argument, filling every corner of the settlement with insufferable noise. Loud people indeed we are, the Batak people, but this was too loud for even the most threatening situations we had ever encountered. Nobody paid attention to my entrance, but once I was inside the noise faded out. Every set of eyes was upon me. I took my seat and started observing the figures who had formed a large circle on the wooden floor with basins and plates full of food in the center of the room. Everybody was there, even those who had not come to any meetings for years. Question after question started to materialize in my head. As usual, we started by saying prayer and having lunch together before commencing any talk. Half an hour later, Ompu Silalahi opened the discussion.
“Horas everybody!” welcomed he, which was replied instantly with a loud “Horas!”
“As the more perceptive of you have probably realized, we have all come to discuss an urgent matter in our village. Yesterday, we have seen the corn fields of Amani Janter in a terrible condition after being destroyed by a certain beast whose identity we have not discovered yet. Unfortunately, it was not the only field that has been disturbed by the perpetrator. We have now here Amang Dalimunthe from the southern part of the village to tell us what he found in his backyard this morning,” explained Ompu Silalahi, nodding to the man dressed in sarong on the other side of the room.
He murmured something on his lips before addressing the forum. “I am now speaking on behalf of my family and several others who come from the south,” said the man. “We were told about the incident in the corn field and we decided to tell the council of the village the similar problem we have in our fields. For the last two weeks, our potato farms have been intruded by some kinds of animal. This has left us with a very difficult situation. The intruder damaged our crops before they could develop into their prime state. Our calculations show that the production has decreased for more than a third from the regular amount.”
“See, I told you,” uttered Amani Janter. “Somebody’s ox must have done it while being unattended and unleashed. We all know dogs don’t like corns or potatoes and there hasn’t been any sight of a wild boar in this area. The only thing that could have done it must be an ox.”
“But whose ox?” asked Amang Saragih.
“The only ox in the village that has never been on leash,” answered Amani Janter.
I knew what was coming, but I held my tongue. People started to murmur to each other when Amani Janter bursted out once again, “Oh, come on! Isn’t it obvious? Amang Simbolon’s ox must be the culprit behind all of these. That ox has been seen straying around the village on its own. Hey, Amang Simbolon! Why have you let your ox run wild?”
The council was plunged into turmoil. Some people, like Amang Ginting and Amang Dalimunthe, endorsed that confident assumption. Some disliked the hasty accusation and came to my defense (or rather Si Marmut’s defense), like Amang Saragih and Amang Banuarea. Others simply did not care, since their own fields were not in trouble. Ompu Silalahi had a hard time mediating those people, until at last he managed to settle them down. When everybody had calmed down and the room had regained its peace, I dared myself to speak. A long speech it was, indeed, but just enough to conclude the meeting. I left the council, headed to the door, and started trudging home. Just as I reached the entrance to the courtyard, I saw on the road Si Marmut walking beside my son, Oloan, heading to Sopo Gorga as requested by the council. He was leashed. I looked at him and walked away in tears.
My father never said a word about what happened in the council. I knew only from Ompu Silalahi’s explanation that Si Marmut was to be taken by the village council for an investigation regarding the recent disturbance. I did not want to let them take Si Marmut. I did not even want to put a leash on him, but I could not defy Ompu Silalahi’s demand since he was acting for the council. I was hoping Bapa could do something and stand against them, so Si Marmut would not have to leave us, but he walked away in silence. His face was red and his eyes teary. He clenched his fists and bowed down his head. I looked at him as he walked past us. His back was stiff and his pace was ungainly. Si Marmut walked faithfully beside me until we reached Sopo Gorga. There they took him and tied him to a pillar. I headed back home and tried to make sense of everything.
Since my early days, the story about Si Marmut has always been told to me as a story of friendship between my grandfather and his beloved ox. My father always told me that parting with Si Marmut was very hard for Opung Doli, even for a brief time. This tale has developed in an unimaginable way since my childhood, from a fairytale-ish bedtime story to a philosophical reflection about how Batak people see the oxen as a symbol of our values. Alas, neither my grandfather nor my father has ever told me everything that happened in sufficient details. I have not yet found the true meaning of the story, but deep inside my heart I know that understanding this story is as important as finding my own identity.
I have collected some pieces of the story about what happened after Si Marmut was taken by the village council. Most of the people involved at that time has now passed away or long gone from this village, but some of their children or grandchildren still dwell here. It is fortunate that in Batak culture things are traditionally passed onto the next generations through stories, so several things are meant to endure throughout the changing of ages—or at least parts of them. From what I have heard, it is likely that Si Marmut was first taken by Amani Janter for an observation of his behavior, but before long he was taken to the south by the Dalimunthe family because he could not find anything wrong. While he was with Amang Dalimunthe, it is told that Si Marmut broke through the fences and ran wild around the farm, but this story is rejected by some who say that Si Marmut was in his cage all the time and that he could not be the one creating the damages. Others even go to such extent to say that Si Marmut was just trying to protect the crops from other wild animals or the original culprit. This version of the story, along with the others, is just as debatable as some who say that the council killed Si Marmut right away to prevent more damages. For further confusion, nobody can tell what Opung Doli said to the council before he left the meeting. This would be the key to understand what exactly happened, should any kind of proof exist. We could speculate that Opung Doli did confess to have let Si Marmut stray into the neighboring fields and damage the crops, but could we not also expect Opung Doli to have defended Si Marmut in his long speech? Could we not assume that Opung Doli might have put the blame on another animal, or another ox, or another person? As much as I fancy the truth in any sort of explanation, I will not impose anything to be held as the undoubted reality. For what it’s worth, the real meaning of a story is what we give into it and what we make of it.
There has always been an ox in the family,
and there will always be a story about it.