Natasha is a Chinese-Indonesian writer, public speaker, and educator based in Naarm. Her work can be found on Kill Your Darlings, ABC, Australian Multilingual Project, Archer & more. Her short stories are part of the anthologies ‘Everything All At Once’ (Ultimo Press, 2021) and ‘New Australian Fiction 2023’ (Kill Your Darlings, 2023). She is currently working on her debut novel, a historical fiction YA.
Winda Ariesta pulls her pistol from under the pillow. She aims. Although bleary eyed, the bullet would’ve lodged itself in Keiko Hara’s forehead.
Keiko drops the comb with a clatter. She keeps one hand raised awkwardly, while the other fists a Balinese cloth bundling her shoulders.
Winda blows out a breath. She falls back and lowers the gun. A year later and her subconscious still translates startling noises into fear.
“Did you sleep alright?”
“Yes, thank you. I didn’t want you to wake up and see, well…”
Keiko grabs the comb again and tries to run it through a jet-black nest that’s formed behind her head. Try, being the operative word.
“It’s more decorative than useful,” Winda says.
It’s the only object on Winda’s oak dresser worth anything. She can tell the comb’s carving of gold and green flowers makes Keiko curious, but she doesn’t press as she puts it back.
Keiko scurries back to the bed, the cloth trailing behind her like a cape. Between the bitten lip, sheepish smile, sweet eyes, Winda can’t decide if she’s relieved or disappointed that nothing happened last night.
“How’d you learn how to do this?”
To Winda’s ears, Keiko’s Bahasa is slow and clumsy, clipped ‘round the edges by her Japanese mother tongue.
“Won’t matter if it doesn’t work. Come.”
Keiko sits cross-legged on the bed and lets the outer wear slip from her bare shoulders. Both Winda’s bandages are still intact. Good. She undoes the knot on Keiko’s upper right arm and pauses when she winces. Worn fabric torn from one of Winda’s old shirts did a fine job of securing the honey overnight. The translucent cracks and goopy webs make Keiko giggle, but under it… fading finger-marks. Very good.
“Street fights. Used to get into plenty of those as a kid. Mbok would help me cover up the bruises.”
“But… you’re the daughter of Otto Ariesta,” Keiko says slowly.
“None of my assigned sparring partners, Papa’s gang members, new recruits, kids in the neighbourhood, or anyone who knew who I was, would lay a hand on me.”
Unless they were paid money. Or blinded by revenge, desperation. Or had a complete disregard for their own lives.
“So I shaved all my hair at nine, wore baggy boys clothes, kept my feet light, fists heavy. I roamed outside our territory and got into as much trouble as I could.”
Winda wipes the remnants of sticky sugar and tosses the make-shift bandages to the floor.
“You shaved all of your hair?” Keiko says, mortified. Her fingers absent-mindedly reach for her own.
“That’s what jumped out?”
“Well… I’m not sure what to say about everything else.”
Winda leaves the bed to change into her everyday white shirt, grey pants. Though she’s not allowed to take her pistol out of the bedroom, she slides her twin celurit from under her bed into her belt’s side holsters. Their size, length, and curvature have been meticulously crafted to attune to her build, speed, and control. So much so, that her balance and weight feel off without it.
“How about you go wash this off and I’ll bring a piping hot jamu from the kitchen? Mbok’s specialty.”
But Keiko stays rooted on the mattress.
“Your reputation is not… you,” Keiko says.
Winda offers her hand. “And that stays a secret between you and me.”
Keiko smiles, accepts it, and stands. Winda’s eyes flick to the purple prints on skin and her stomach roils.
“That man’s not going anywhere near you or The Airlangga.” Her voice drops although they’re the only people in the room. “You have my word.”
Keiko Hara is the newest stripper at The Airlangga; the bejewelled club of Winda’s family’s shadow empire. Last quarter’s clean profit totalled more than two of their gambling dens combined, stripping cash clean of high-profile politicians, military personnel, sometimes tourists. The more cash and power, however, the more entitlement and strings get involved. The secrecy probably has more to do with their shame rather than consequence. It’s not like any high-ranking official’s ever gotten demoted for cheating. Or smuggling things they shouldn’t. Or for misusing national funds. Or, on occasion, collecting body counts—though never by their own hands.
Even though The Airlangga isn’t a pleasure house, some clients have deluded themselves into thinking they can do whatever they want with the right coloured bill. And it doesn’t help that some strippers have fostered that culture for personal benefit.
“You’re going to hurt him?” Keiko asks.
“He deserves it, don’t you think?”
In Keiko’s eyes, Winda sees warring thoughts. Does she want justice for the man who forced himself on her? Maybe.
But does she want someone hurt under her command? Maybe not.
Hurt…or dead? Keiko seems to wonder, looking flabbergasted.
Winda’s mind latches on to Keiko’s quiet sobs as she cradled her last night. The blood-shot eyes when Keiko snuck into her room.
“I don’t know who else to… I don’t know anyone else…”
“You’ll survive this. You will.”
Saying anything more would be a lie.
Keiko carefully nods.
Winda smiles and give Keiko’s chin a gentle pinch. She heads to the bathroom. Winda’s anger calms into resolution as Keiko clicks the door shut.
It’s a gesture Winda’s mom used to make when she was younger. When Winda let a rude remark targeted at her cousin slide instead of cursing back. (As their village’s citizens come from all over the archipelago, she had seven dialects worth of profanities by her tenth birthday). When Winda forgave someone for stealing her sack of mangoes, bought especially for her mom, instead of knocking their teeth out. (She did later that night and didn’t even mind Mbok’s sandal on her bum when she was caught sneaking in). It’s supposed to be a mark of approval for when Winda manages to curb her perpetual hot-headedness, violent tendencies. Since her mother’s death, Winda’s reclaimed it into promises of revenge. Some of them small, yet all of them kept.
The bedroom door swings wildly. Winda stops herself from glancing at the bathroom. It’s noiseless, at least. She hopes Keiko has heard enough rumours about what happens if a girl from The Airlangga is found here.
But it’s only Mbok. The elderly caregiver with a sleek grey bun, wide hips, and two missing front teeth, freezes by the frame.
“Since when you up this early?” Mbok says in only one volume: megaphone-like. She wears a faded, baggy pyjama all day. Most of them with pictures of American cartoon characters which she gets from the market by the dozen. Today, it’s a pink panther.
“I just never sleep.”
“Yes, I know from your,—” Mbok points her under eye.
“Why are you so mean? It’s 7 am.”
Winda can’t help turning into a child again when she’s around Mbok. It’s how they’ve always communicated: incessant whines and loving scolds.
Mbok slams the door behind her as they walk down the hallway. Her sandals echo on the white tiles and despite knowing full well how that surface feels on Winda’s bottom, she finds the skids and smacks homely.
All Mbok’s wanted for Winda since she’s old enough to grasp the concept of gender is for her to meet a nice young man, get married, have two kids: a girl and a boy, and get the hell out of this village. Winda thinks one of them will die before that happens.
“When Silva hears about this, their eyebrows will shoot to the sky.”
“You told them?”
Mbok’s saggy cheeks bounce with every step. “I don’t need to tell them. Everyone know already.”
Winda closes her eyes. She swears this house is built with gossip in its bones.
“Keiko can use my hot water ration. And if you could bring her some jamu, something to soothe the nerves—”
“Yes, yes, okay, okay, I do for you.” Mbok says with a flick of her wrist. “Better hope today’s emergency is more important than yet another girl in your bed, hmm?”
There’s no point coming up with a retort. Silva, the perfectionistic choreographer, star performer, and manager of The Airlangga already hates Winda. She lets out a loud sigh and steps into the kitchen.
It might as well be the gallows.