Fear of Landing

Fear of Landing

It’s the early 1980s. Even as President Suharto violently stifles dissent, the islands of Java and Bali are under the million-dollar development schemes of Western governments. Canadian veterinarian Abner Dueck ...

About The Author

David Waltner-Toews

David Waltner-Toews is an essayist, poet, fiction writer, veterinarian, and a specialist in the epidemiology of food and waterborne diseases, ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

There is something warm and comforting about doing an autopsy on a cow. It’s real. You don’t have to worry that they don’t speak English or Flat German. You don’t have to speak Indonesian or Javanese. You forget about your addiction to chewing sunflower seeds. All you need is a sharp knife and all your senses on heightened alert: touch, sight, smell, even sound. You lightly brush your hand over the coarse hair along the belly, feeling the stiff hairs flip back against your palm, ruminating on the life of this beast, one of those infinitely curious bovines, dwelling in her ever-present years with a kind of dim-witted patience that sometimes passes for wisdom. Perhaps, in a devious and fast world, this is, indeed, a kind of wisdom. But where did this one’s nose lead her? What salt did she lick from whose hand?

# # #

For a minute, while he mentally blocked out the crowd of villagers gathering around him, Abner Dueck stood over the cow and scanned the body for any obvious bleeding. With anthrax, you would see blood oozing from the orifices. There were, he knew, cows dying of anthrax down at Perusahaan Susu Senang, directly translated from Bahasa Indonesia as “The Happy Dairy Farm,” some Ottawa development officer’s fantasy name, which sounded to Ab perilously close to a kind of retreat for disturbed or mentally challenged bovines. It was usually just called Susu Senang, or “Happy Milk,” for short. It was the main farm  for a large dairy development project from which all the imported cattle like this one were distributed to smallholder farmers in the area.

Seeing no obvious bleeding, he probed his fingers into the wide, maternal nostrils, pushed his fingers into the mouth, between the sharp bottom incisors and the toothless pad at the roof of the oral cavity, and the heavy grinders top and bottom at the back, a combination so perfect for cutting the grass and cud-chewing. He pulled out her thick, muscular tongue, checked for little parasite cysts, lifted her eyelids and observed the sclera, raised her tail and palpated around the anus.

Every orifice tells a story.

Squatting next to the carcass, with the Javanese sun already singeing the treetops, Ab sliced into the pits between the legs and the body and pushed the legs back and out of the way. He slit through the layers of the belly wall to expose the glistening, yellow, under-skin fat. He loved the part where he was inside the body, running his bare hand over the big fleshy expanse of the rumen, that big swamp of a stomach every cow carries around inside her. He dug in, up to his elbows in the slippery offal, running the soft, splotchy sausages of the intestines through his hands. On a good day, he felt an irrational urge to just dive right in. He knew that this work was dangerous, that he should be wearing gloves, like a condom, putting his hand where no hands were meant to go. Protection against all the little bugs he could pick up.

Once he’d checked all the surfaces, he stabbed into the rumen and leaned into the scent. He relished the rich sour scent of fermented grass wafting up into his face, the pungent breath of life, still here, in death. Those bacteria produced over three hundred gallons of gas a day, and kept right on chugging well after the cow was dead. A cow in the sun could blow up like a fat balloon and then quickly putrefy. He leaned again into the scent. There was something off, more bitter than usual.

He dug his hand down through the swampy fluids, into the muscular second stomach, the reticulum. This was where nails, wire, and metal farmyard junk of various sorts usually got caught. Sometimes the stomach would clench it and a cow would stab herself as the piece of wire pierced through into the heart. His hand brushed against something cool, and hard. He closed his fingers around it and withdrew his hand. With his other hand, he brushed away the bits of half-digested grass and straw. Just fitting comfortably across his palm lay a silvery, capsule-shaped chunk of metal. He moved his hand up and down, feeling its weight. It was smooth and heavy. In North America, farmers sometimes forced cattle to swallow these large silvery magnets. The magnet dropped through the rumen into the reticulum and, so the theory went, kept the nails and bits of wire from wandering.

Here, in Indonesia, this was not a common practice, but all the cows at Susu Senang were given one of these. He wiped it clean again. There was a length of string taped to it, and, on the other end of the two-inch string, a piece of plastic bag with holes poked in it. Some white crystals were stuck to the inside of the plastic. He stuck the magnet and plastic into the pocket of his coveralls. He reached in again and his hand brought out a second magnet, but with no bag attached.

Ab looked around, resting his hand still in the warm flesh, thinking. He tried to ignore his sore back and cranky knees, and, looking over his shoulder, the audience: the Lura; a distraught farmer; the usual crowd of little kids; and another man, looking upset and angry. Who was that, and why was he so upset? He wished Soesanto were here to translate from the Javanese. He scanned the body and fondled the second magnet as if it were a small religious artefact. He always hoped to make these occasions into learning opportunities for Soesanto, his Indonesian counterpart from the Gadjah Mada veterinary college in Yogyakarta. The farmer’s tragedy could at the very least be salvaged as an object lesson. One man’s shit, another man’s bread and butter, as the old saying went. But this had been a two-day trip. The first day he and Soesanto had driven an hour out to Susu Senang to check on some sick cattle; it looked like anthrax, and they’d had to set up vaccination and treatment protocols. Ab stayed overnight at the main farm, just to have a night of fresh air, away from the heavy mix of diesel and garbage that the city offered; Soesanto had gone back to his home in Yogyakarta. Indonesian veterinarians often held down several jobs, just to make ends meet, and Soesanto couldn’t always get away for extended periods. In fact, as far as Ab could see, he often disappeared to his other jobs for extended periods, without saying where he was going.

This morning, in part to clear his head in the slightly cooler, cleaner air of the green country-side, and in part because there had been reports of cattle deaths up in this area, Ab had decided to come up here to this village just to look around.

The village leader, the Pak Lura, or, less formally, the Lura, said he’d called Soesanto already, but if he’d called this morning, Soesanto wouldn’t be here until late morning. For a post mortem, that would be too late. By now, Ab felt the sharp fingers of the tropical sun already frisking the top of his head, and was glad for the baseball cap with the shade turned back shielding his neck. He had been thrilled to have been presented with such a fresh carcass. As his pathology professor back in Saskatchewan would have said, it enabled him to better appreciate the lesions. Here in Java, a freshly dead body was a rarity. Usually the body would already be bloated with the legs stretching like a post-prandial yawn into the blue sky, so if you poked the rumen there would be a big putrid sigh of relief. Then, if you had the guts to cut it open, the inside was a gelatinous mass, not dust to dust, just muck to muck and slime to slime.

This fresh post mortem exam had almost not happened. An hour earlier, just after dawn, Ab had driven his sporty little Suzuki Jimny 4X4 into the tiny village of Gandringan, just outside the central Javanese city of Boyolali, capital of the district of Boyolali. He was happily chewing a mouthful of southern Manitoba sunflower seeds. The Lura came out in his traditional, tight-fitting black jacket, traditional dark blue-and-black batik sarong, and the little black Muslim hat atop his head. Ab smiled despite himself, despite almost two years of seeing those hats everywhere. His mind unexpectedly flipped back twenty-five years to 1957, to the Mennonite World Conference in Ontario, when his parents had taken him and his two sisters on a side trip to Niagara Falls.

The Falls thundering like a steaming avalanche terrify me, stir up in me a deep urge to fly over the flimsy railing, to soar into the mist. What a stupid primal urge, the urge to fly. Like a good Canadian, I re-direct my primal desires into shopping. I drag my parents—two older sisters trailing, scoffing and complaining of sissy brothers—back away from the platform behind and under the Falls. I want to be away from there, where the mist hisses and sprays and the thunderous grey waters make it seem as if the whole world is crumbling down around me. Back up through the slippery, claustrophobic tunnels we climb, up the stairs, into the safety of the souvenir shop. Souvenir shops in such places thrive on re-directed anxiety. They know we are coming. They have been waiting for us. My father, hesitating in a moment of weakness and love—or inspired by the thrill of seeing fear in my eyes—buys me a black Shriners-type cap with a picture of the Canadian Falls painted on its side in lurid fluorescent paint.

The hat the Lura was wearing was almost exactly like the one purchased by his father, but without the picture. This was the first time that a memory of his father had ever made Ab smile. The Lura returned his smile, and Ab wondered suddenly what was behind it. Was he smiling at Ab’s smile? Had he opened the door into a forgotten room in his own labyrinth of memories? Was so-called cross-cultural communication really just a way of opening doors into each person’s own experience, and therefore not really communication at all? The thought was disorienting and distancing. He could barely understand his own culture. What made him think he could do any better here?

Ab had stood outside for a moment, drawing the cool, slightly steamy green air of this rural village, or kampung, so close yet so far from the tarmac roads below, deeply into his lungs. The rich air grounded him. His body was suffused with the scent of palm trees, composting earth, spilling-over-itself-abundant, over-ripe vegetation, the friendly smell of buffalo belch gas, the  homey comfort of cow dung. He emptied his mouthful of sunflower seed shells into the bushes beside the door. Doing this discreetly was the kind of skill you learn by practising with wads of gum in church in Winnipeg on hot Sunday mornings, the way other people stubbed out cigarette butts, those worms of half-burnt leaves covered with spittle.

He followed the Lura into the spacious front room to sign the guest book: name, address, purpose of visit, religion. Carefully, he wrote Abner Dueck, and stared at it for a minute. Someday, he would have to change that and go back to a name unmodified by ignorant immigration officials. Abraham Van Dyck or Van Dijk or something like that. He sighed. Address: Gadjah Mada University. Purpose of visit: disease investigation. Religion. He paused again. In earlier centuries, the Bugis, the sailors and pirates of South Sulawesi, had made themselves feared and respected throughout the archipelago, the South-East Asian version of the European Bogeymen, malicious Viking spirits with which  to frighten children. But for President Suharto, who had come to power in Indonesia in 1966 in a C.I.A.-inspired bloody massacre, the real Bugi-men were what the government called latent communists. Now, everyone in Indonesia was required by law to have a religion. Available options were: Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Catholic, and Traditional. Ab wrote Mennonite. He had been tempted to write Russian-Canadian Mennonite Brethren in order to differentiate himself clearly from the black-hatted horse-and-buggy Mennonites, but writing Russian into an Indonesian guest book would be really pushing your luck. He was asked to be seated on a very hard, cane-backed chair.

Within moments, a grey-haired, somewhat chubby lady brought in a tray of coffee and cassava sweets and set it on the table before him. The Lura motioned for him to eat. He took a sweet and motioned for the Lura to also help himself. The Lura declined, and seemed content to simply watch Ab eat for a few moments, as if the sight of a foreigner eating local food were pleasure enough to pass a slow morning.

# # #

After a few moments of watching, the Lura had said, “It is Ramadan. I cannot eat or drink until sunset.” He had paused, as if wondering whether he should let the next sentence out. “We have a dead cow. I mean, one that has just died.”

Ab had set his cup down, surprised. He stood up. “Well, then we should go have a look at it.” The Lura had waved him back down. Ab remained standing.

“The dead cow will wait. I have called for Dr. Soesanto to come.”

Ab had stayed standing. He knew better. He knew about the urgent need for the dead to flee whence they had come, back into the primordial soup, resurrected in flies and fertilizer for food crops. “But perhaps it will then be too late.”

The Lura had laughed at the absurdity of this, or perhaps at the delightful thought that Ab had so quickly understood the nature of things. Ab stared into his coffee. Why did the country that gave the world Java coffee serve the worst sludge at home, coarse dregs mixed with equal parts sugar in lukewarm water? Soesanto’s answer would be that Indonesia’s elites needed foreign exchange, so that they sold their best products overseas. Ab tipped the cup back and felt the swamp crud accumulate in his teeth as some of the liquid trickled through. Was this the cost of being part of some global trading system?

The Lura did not elaborate on his laugh. No one ever elabo- rated on things in this country. If people misunderstood each other, well, what else was new with the world? At best, a long explanation just filled the air with unwelcome noise. If you communicate clearly, then people will not only hear what you say, but they will understand. He wondered if that was the point. They didn’t want you to understand. Obtuse communication was a way of guarding privacy on a crowded island ruled by a dictator, where your every step could be watched, and where you never knew who was listening. Ab had set down his cup, but did not sit. The Lura, a tall, very thin man with eyes that appeared to be perpetually smiling, either in mockery or simple happiness, remained where he was. Finally, when he had realized that Ab wasn’t about to sit down again, he had risen and had motioned for Ab to go outside and to a nearby farmstead. On the way, Ab stopped at his car and pulled out a pair of coveralls, which he pulled over his plain cotton pants and batik shirt.

Now, with the post mortem finished, Ab stood up and stretched his legs and pushed a hand into the small of his back. He could hear the whining of a vehicle coming up the track from the main road. In a moment, a Toyota Land Cruiser entered the small clearing behind them, with Soesanto at the wheel. American development projects had to buy Jeeps to support American business. British projects usually bought British Land Rovers. Everybody else, Canadians included, bought whatever would handle rough back roads, was cheapest and most easily serviced, in this case the Japanese Land Cruiser. Like many of the expatriates, Ab had bought a hardy little Suzuki for personal use, but used it mostly for work. He was never sure when the project vehicle might be available. It always seemed to be commandeered by bureaucrats for their own personal reasons.

Soesanto had made good time from Yogyakarta. Must have been driving recklessly fast. Well, good. There was still time to review with him the highlights of the autopsy. Then they would need to interview the farmer in some detail about exactly when and how this death had occurred.

At that same moment, a frantic, dishevelled teenager rushed past the arriving car, brandishing in the air a wavy-edged knife, shouting in Javanese. The Lura rose immediately from the wooden chair on which he had been perched while watching the autopsy. He called to the teenager in a serious but calm voice. The boy shouted something in response and then turned to run back down the lane whence he had come. The Lura followed him, oblivious now to Ab and to Soesanto, who was watching this through the open car window.

Ab walked over to the Land Cruiser and looked past Soesanto into the empty passenger seat.

“No driver?” Each project car was assigned a driver, who was supposed to chauffeur the real project workers anywhere and everywhere. This was a way of spreading development money around, and freeing up the professionals to think about more important things than traffic. Ab also suspected that there were liability issues involved. The rules of road accidents were that the bigger vehicle was always at fault, no matter what, but a wealthy person or a foreigner trumped everything. They had to pay no matter what happened. It was a kind of insurance for development projects to hire experienced, and lower class, drivers. Soesanto looked at the seat next to him, almost as if expecting to see someone materialise.

“I found the car parked at the university, but the driver doesn’t seem to be here, does he?”

Sometimes—often on this project it seemed—drivers went AWOL, or were commandeered by senior bureaucrats for their own uses.

“With that leg, I didn’t know you could drive.”

Soesanto pushed open the door and lowered himself out of the car with a wooden cane. Soesanto had a gimpy leg from a bout of polio as a child. He looked down at his bad left leg, then back up at Ab. “Have you ever seen a dog with three legs? Or even two. I once saw a dog in the village hopping around on two legs.” He snorted. “We have our ways of getting by.”

“How did you get here so soon? You must have really been screaming down that highway.”

“I was going to ask how it is you are here at all.” “I asked first.”

“Actually, the Lura phoned the vet college yesterday afternoon and left a message. He just wanted to talk about some unspecified problems. I left pretty early, which is why I got here so soon. I stopped by Susu Senang but you’d already left, nobody knew for where, so I decided to come on my own.” He paused. “I would have been here even earlier, but there was military roadblock on the road. I guess someone tried to blow up part of the Hindu temple at Prambanan.”

“Blow it up?”

“They managed to destroy a minor deity.”

Ab shook his head. “Last week it was Buddha losing his head at Borobudur. This week it’s Shiva under attack. What’s happening?” Soesanto looked around, as if checking the weather, then switched from Bahasa Indonesia to English, which is what he did when he didn’t want to be overheard. “Borobudur I can understand. It is being re-built with all that outside money, IBM and all that. Besides, the president’s oldest son was visiting, just to make sure that the work is on schedule. So one can understand,” he smiled very slightly before continuing, “even if one does not approve. But Prambanan.” He looked around again. “The usual idiots trying to make history by destroying history I suppose.” “So, after sixteen years, Suharto still isn’t in control?”

“Still too much in control,” Soesanto muttered, then, more loudly, in Bahasa, “So, and you, what brought you up here? You also must have left home before the cow died. Must be that superior Western scientific knowledge.”

“Ah, no such thing, I’m afraid. I stayed at the guesthouse on the main farm at Susu Senang last night. Just wanted to get out of the city and breathe some fresh air. George also said there were cows dying up in this area, although he didn’t think the causes were the same as on the main farm. So I came up first thing this morning just to check in and arrived just in time to do a post mortem on a freshly dead cow.”

Soesanto rubbed his bad leg and poked with his cane at a rut. “Freshly dead. A miracle then. And, was it anthrax?”

Ab’s mind reviewed the post mortem he had just completed. “The animal had thin, white, watery fat. There was no major bleeding either externally or internally. The spleen looked normal.

There were tiny red, measle-like speckles all through the flesh. The rumen gas smelled off. More bitter than normal I’d say.”

Soesanto grinned. “A test! Given the lack of major bleeding, it wasn’t anthrax and not likely hemorrhagic septicemia. The watery fat means that the cow lived mostly on fresh green air, some roadside grass and a lot of rice straw. That’s not unusual for a poor Javanese farmer. The petechial hemorrhages are a sign of acute distress. This one did not die quietly or slowly.”

Ab drew the magnets out of his pocket and held out his hand.

Soesanto picked up each of the magnets in turn, and then set them back into Ab’s palm. “Magnets for hardware. Been years since I’ve seen one, and that was back in the States. I assume that George and his co-workers administer these at the main farm before they distribute the cows to the villages. But why two magnets?” He tugged at the string and rubbed the plastic bag between his thumb and forefingers. “And what’s this?”

“Good questions. I would guess that somebody really wanted that cow to swallow whatever was in the bag, and wanted her to keep it there, not regurgitate it and ruminate.” Ab stuck the magnets back into his pocket and gestured after the shouting teenager with the knife. “What was all that about?”

Soesanto shrugged.

“Well, we might as well follow. We won’t get our interview with the farmer until this is sorted out.”

They walked down the village path in the direction in which the teenager and the Lura had disappeared. They were joined as they walked by an assortment of children from the village, who seemed almost as interested in Ab as anything else. Ab filled his lungs again with the thick country scents of foliage and dung. It was such a pleasant change from the sour odours of diesel and open sewage in the city. They arrived shortly at the gate leading to a house from which shouts and cries emanated. After about ten minutes of this shouting and hysterical crying from inside the house, a man emerged, head down, and stormed past the onlookers at the gate. Ab recognized him as the upset man who had been leaning over his shoulder during the post mortem. He was followed a few seconds later by the teenager, sans knife, and finally, a thin, dark man, who mounted a motorbike and snarled out of the village. Ab stared after him; there was something vaguely familiar about him. Finally, the Lura came out, smiling. Soesanto talked with him in Javanese as they walked back to the cars.

It still annoyed Ab to have learned Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, and to be able to speak it in all his daily conversations, only to have the nationals fall back to Javanese whenever they spoke of anything of substance. How easily language could shift from being a means of communication to being a veil separating people from each other. How easily a few words in the wrong language could cut a person off from the shared complexity of physical and social reality.

At the supper table. I am thirteen years old and can speak God’s mother-tongue, high German, but not Flat German, the Mennonite tongue of everyday life, of jokes, the one in which God isn’t supposed to be listening. Suddenly my father, in mid-sentence, switches to Flat German. This is the language they use to keep secrets from me. I know he is talking to my mother about me, probably about whether I will be allowed to go to play with George Grobowski, the Greek Orthodox kid from across the street. I strain to understand that rough, guttural cousin to Yiddish, with its resonance of barn gutters and cow manure. It is the language that makes many Mennonites feel at home. I understand only that they are talking about me and that it must be important. I look over at my oldest sister. She is ahead of the game and understands what they are saying. She is smiling. Later, if I want to know what they said, it will cost me something. A chore, like washing dishes. Home: I can’t wait to take off, to get out of there.

Within a year, his father would be dead, and not that many years later, Ab would get his wish. He was out of there. But where had it got him?

Soesanto dropped back to talk with Ab, the children still crowding around, tugging at Ab’s coveralls. He brushed them away.

“So what really happened?”

Soesanto sighed. “Even I am not so sure. I think it was like this.

There was a fight between the butcher and his, um, cousin.” “The teenager?”

“No. The butcher was the upset older man who came out first. The teenager was the butcher’s son. He had come for help from the Lura to break up the fight. The man on the motorbike is the cousin. Did you recognize him?”

“I think I have seen him somewhere before.”

“Waluyo. The new farm manager at Perusahaan Susu Senang.

This is his home village.”

“Oh yeah. George said something about a new manager.

Okay, so what was the fight about?”

Soesanto paused, as if carefully weighing each word. “Money, I suppose you would say. But it is more than that. The butcher and his wife have had a difficult time making a living here in the kampung and Waluyo has been helping them out. In a traditional Javanese kampung, everyone has an obligation to help everyone else. The quarrel seemed to be over the kind of help Waluyo has been giving, and something about what he was expecting in return. I think that had something to do with the kris, that knife the boy was waving. Living in a kampung is like being part of a family, only more so. If you lived in a kampung, for instance, you, as a veterinarian, would have to share your skills for free.”

“Have to?”

“Have to. In your country, you take your rights seriously. Here, our obligations are what matters.” Soesanto paused a moment. “It is a common story in the countryside, that people are forced by economics to leave, torn from their obligations.” And then, more quietly, “At least now, since Suharto’s American friends have come.”

They were now back at the Lura’s yard. “And now can we go back to the farmer and ask him more about the cow?” Ab suggested hopefully.

Soesanto motioned to the Lura’s house. “I must go in and sign the book and have something to eat first.”

“This is Ramadan. I thought you were Muslim.”

Soesanto turned to him and Ab thought he caught a hint of a smile. “I am traditional.”

“Which is exactly what, I’ve often wondered?”

“Which is what you are when you are hungry.” Now there was a real smile.

Ab pulled off his dirty coveralls, and tossed them into his car, but not before he had transferred the two magnets to his trouser-pockets. Back at the Lura’s, drinking tea, Soesanto turned to Ab. “The Lura now wants to know your impressions.”

Ab set down his tea. “Impressions of what?” “Him. His village.”

He looked over at the Lura, sitting behind a desk, watching his guests drink tea and eat sweets, smiling broadly. Several of his front teeth were missing. “I think you have a very nice village,” Ab said in Bahasa Indonesia. “Only I think it would be nicer with snow. Next time I go home to Canada, I will send you back a jar of snow.”

Everyone laughed uproariously. It was an old line based on a stale joke, going all the way back to Voltaire, who had called Canada a few acres of snow. Ab was depressed and felt reduced to those few acres, dissociated both from his past and from his present surroundings. He was also getting anxious about interviewing the farmer, and wondered if they would ever get around to it. Apart from the extra magnet with the bag attached, there had been nothing outstanding in the post mortem. She had died suddenly. The straw in the stomach meant the farmer was poor, and the cow had been very hungry, but she hadn’t died of starvation. She still had some body fat. That wasn’t much to go on. He would need a good clinical history to start to figure out what had happened.

Tea was followed by dinner in another room: heaping plates of rice, quail eggs in a very hot, spicy sauce, a kind of vegetable stew, and, for the Canadian, a heaping plate of boiled potatoes. Ab took a plate of rice, some eggs, stew, and, to be polite, a couple of pieces of potato.

“Oh, already eating rice?” The Lura seemed amused at this. “Yes, already.” It was a way of saying you were now at home here. Fat chance. Fat chance that he would be at home anywhere these days.

“Take more potatoes. They are for you,” said Soesanto.

“In Canada, when we eat rice, we usually don’t eat potatoes as well. We eat one or the other.” Soesanto stared at Ab. Ab took several more potatoes.

The Lura and Soesanto watched Ab eat. When he was almost done, Soesanto dug into his non-Muslim repast as well, but the others kept their eyes trained on Ab. Soesanto cleaned off two platefuls, as a man who had known hunger, or who might not know where his next meal was coming from.

After the meal, they finally returned to the home of Pak Machmud, the farmer whose cow had died. The carcass was no longer there, nor was the butcher. Machmud, a thin, middle-aged man, sat in shorts on a stiff bamboo chair next to his doorway. His ragged shirt hung open in the limp heat, and he slowly bounced a bare-bottomed baby in a T-shirt on his knee. His wife, looking half his age, wrapped in a faded sarong, leaned in the doorway. Machmud spoke Javanese, with Soesanto translating into Bahasa. He had been awakened early this morning by the sound of his animal bellowing and thrashing around in the barn. Quickly he had fired up his lantern, but by the time he arrived at the barn, the animal was quivering on the ground, gasping out its last breaths. Soesanto listened to the next few sentences, then turned to Ab. “You are going to have to buy the cow.”

“I’m…what?” He looked around. “Where is it anyway?”

Soesanto put his arm around Ab’s shoulders and guided him to the side before speaking quietly, in English. “Actually, he says that the cow was not quite dead when you arrived. The butcher was going to do a halal kill and give him a decent fee. When you arrived unexpectedly, they were not sure what to do, and the cow died before the farmer and the butcher could agree on a price.”

Soesanto looked questioningly at Ab, then turned to ask the farmer a few more questions. “Just a few thousand rupiahs.” Ab stared at him, recalling the distraction of the butcher’s “cousin.” Soesanto stared back. Ab dug into his pocket. He wished he were back with his hands in the carcass. “Well it looked pretty dead to me. Anyway, where is the animal?”

Soesanto waved his hand into the air. “Something to do with the feast of Eid al-Fitr. It seems the butcher might be able to use the meat after all, maybe as a donation to the poor, even though it is not worth paying for. The cost of the meat covered the cost of carcass disposal. Consider your payment as a donation to the poor.” Ab pulled the magnet with the plastic out of his pocket.

“I’ll give him some money in a minute. But first, does the farmer know anything about this?” He handed the magnet with the bag attached to Soesanto, who handed it to the farmer and said something. Machmud shook his head.

After Ab had handed over the money, they went to the barn and Machmud showed them the place where the cow had thrashed a hollow in the straw. Ab brushed the chickens aside, picked up some of the straw and sniffed it. Normal, fresh, musty manure odour. No sour diarrhea smell. He turned to the Lura. “Have there been any other animals like this?”

“Many. Here, there.” He pointed in various directions, naming people, counting on his hand. “Ten, twelve.”

Ab tugged at his beard, badly wanting sunflower seeds to help him think, but instead lifted his baseball cap and scratched the top of his head. And were the signs always the same?

“The animal is very stiff, and seems to be lame, and then they fall down and will not stand up. After this, we know they will die.”

“And these animals, are they all in Gandringan? Or the next kampung? The animals that die, have they had any contact with each other?”

“They are mostly in Gandringan,” answered the Lura, “but just one here, one there. Never in a group or on the next farm. Only a few in other kampungs. All in Boyolali District.” He was silent a moment. “So, what is this disease?”

Ab combed his fingers through his beard. He recalled the scent of the gas from the rumen. He had an idea, but the idea contained an accusation, not something lightly made in this country. He said: “Don’t know. I don’t know any diseases that act like this.”

Soesanto, who had until that point been content to merely interpret and translate, suddenly said, “Do any buffaloes die?”

The farmer shook his head. “No, only cows.”

“And these cows that die, are they all foreign animals?”

The Lura thought a moment, then broke in. “Most of them.

Yes. Perhaps all.”

Ab looked at Soesanto. “You think these foreign animals are more susceptible to tropical diseases? After all, they haven’t been exposed before to most of the bacteria and parasites you have here.”

Soesanto smiled. “Maybe.”

Before leaving, Ab handed the Lura a business card, with both his home and the university number on it. “I know you called Dr. Soesanto very quickly this morning. That was very helpful. It would help us if you did that next time as well. You have Dr. Soesanto’s number at work. You can also call me at home, and we will come. Maybe if we can see one of them before it dies we can tell what it is.”

The Lura looked at the card in his hand and seemed bemused. “Even as Lura, I do not always know beforehand when animals will die.” He paused. “But I will keep your number, just in case.”

A short time later, as Ab got into his Suzuki, Soesanto came over and leaned on the door. “Maybe it is not the particular disease we should look at; maybe they are just dying of whatever is convenient,” he said, quietly, in English, through the window. “Maybe the cows just do not like it here, these American dairy cows. Too hot, wrong kind of people.”

Ab rested his hand on the key for a moment before starting the engine. “Will I see you at the office tomorrow?”

Soesanto nodded, then stepped away and leaned on his cane as Ab started the engine. Too hot. Wrong kind of people. As he drove away from Gandringan, Ab considered his first diagnosis: deliberate poisoning. He would have to talk about this later with Soesanto. Who were the wrong kinds of people? What was the point of killing dairy cows?

Mystery Delivered Weekly

The Poisoned Pen Press Newsletter