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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 48-62
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She was weak and frail, a pathetic-looking woman. She usually sat in the shadows, her face cast down, hoping that no one would notice her. When walking down the corridor, she seemed to cringe, scuttling from sight as quickly as she could. It was hard to tell how old she was. Probably around forty, but her face was tired and lined. With a glance, you could tell she had never been in prison before and was scared out of her wits by the women with whom she was incarcerated. Occasionally, other prisoners would try to engage her in conversation, but she was so obviously ill at ease that they would stop.
Asih nudged me and whispered, "Poor thing! Scared of her own shadow! That's Nunung, the one I told you about. She's in for murder. She poured kerosene over her husband and set him alight! Burnt the bastard alive!"
"Her? Hard to believe."
"Yeah, she doesn't look like she's got the guts, does she? She looks like if her husband wanted to kick her, she'd run and get him his boots. You're good at talking to people. See if you can get her to talk to you."
Nunung stayed in her shell for weeks, effacing herself as much as possible. When I said hello, her eyes darted around nervously, avoiding mine. At times, she couldn't even stammer a reply. But I didn't push her. I knew from my many years as a political prisoner that it takes some women longer than others to get used to the idea of living in a jail. In the end, I knew, she would need to talk to someone, so I tried to let her know that I was available if she needed me.
Two weeks went by, and Nunung grew more accustomed to her surroundings. I think she sensed in me the possibility of friendship. We often took our meals together in the dining hall. By this time, she could sometimes manage a feeble smile when I said hello. I still found it hard to believe that such a timid little mouse could have killed her husband the way she did. When reading about her case in the papers, I had imagined a fiery-eyed and rage-filled woman.
Not long afterwards, Nunung found an excuse to come to my cell when I was alone. I saw that she finally wanted to talk, but still lacked the courage [End Page 48] to begin. I asked her to sit down next to me, and then I encouraged her: "Sometimes it helps to talk to someone else. I'll listen if that's what you need."
Nunung let out a long sigh and looked down at the floor. "You know, I still can't believe I'm in jail. I never had trouble with the police before. I always tried to be a good mother, and to do what my husband told me. I know I'm nothing special. I know I'm dumb; I can't even read or write. When I was a kid, my folks never sent me to school. What was the point?
"I was fifteen when my parents married me to a cousin from a village a half-hour's walk from where I was born. His name was Mang Adi. At first, our life together wasn't so bad. Mang Adi had his faults, but he worked hard--had a little business carting stone to the market in a nearby town. I soon got pregnant and was glad, I suppose. Even if I couldn't do anything else, at least I could have babies. But I didn't know it hurt so much, or how difficult it is to look after a kid. Even so, as soon as I had the first one, I got pregnant again. You know, even if you're looking after one baby, you can't say no to your husband when he's in the mood. There wasn't any family-planning...