The Banana Hearts
By Ismim Putera
Jekin chooses the sturdiest banana tree in the plantation and sits beneath it. He rubs his back over the trunk, pressing against it with all his weight. He lays the parang next to his right thigh and pays no attention to its rusty blade.
The tree hugs him from behind, as if Jekin is its young sapling. Jekin's skin is on fire. He exhales steamy breath. As he moans, sweat oozes through his singlet as magma.
The tree sways three of its oldest, thickest leaves towards Jekin to cool him. Those leaves are fatherly arms with brownish flaps and frayed ends. They form an umbrella above the young man, embracing or imprisoning him. Other leaves detach themselves from the main trunk, fold into halves, their fibres blanketing loamy ground.
Jekin shuts his eyes tighter, savouring hundreds of circular phosphenes whirling behind the eyelids. Red and playful, they change from indigo to maroon to crimson to pink to rosy, like old blood. They graffiti corners of his mind. He lifts his head and rests it on the trunk. Sweat coats his forehead, trails his cheeks and suspends from his jaw. Droplets drip and pool in a recess of his neck. The dampness makes the veins stand out.
At noon, the banana plantation is strangely calm. Birds nestle in the bushes. Insects, clicking, worship the sun in secret communion. Desiccated trees and vines withdraw their leaves, and let the heat melt everything. A sweet breeze ruffles his hair.
"Sial! The headache is coming again!" He mutters, vexed. "Why it comes at this time? I have so many things to do!" Jekin tries to stand properly but his limbs do not obey his command. The heat has fried parts of his brain circuit.
This is the eighth time today he has to stop to rest. The fatigue is unusual for a farmer his age. A healthy farmer will rest at most two or three times. The rest time is used for taking a nap, having lunch, or a smoke break. Jekin flexes his elbow and bends his knees. The cramps feel like leech bites. The sting is not perceptible while in motion. Only when one is at rest that the razor-sharp pain returns. He bends his torso back and forth then left and right to rewire the circuit.
"I still need five more banana hearts, and then it's over for today!" Jekin tells himself after dousing his face with water. He grabs his parang, secures it around his waist, and walks into the plantation.
"Jekin! Kin! Oii!"
Jekin turns. Pak Jamal is standing behind a tall bush and waving at him.
"Pak! Anything?" Jekin rushes towards the old man.
"Here Jekin! Two fresh banana hearts for you! I don't need these." Pak Jamal smiles at him.
"Pak, why? I can pick them myself."
"Never mind, just take these. You need them for the officer, right? Bring these and you can go back to rest. You look tired."
"You look as pale as the dead body we buried two days ago. Hai, he died at such a young age! Pity Hassim. I'm still angry. What a waste of good body and mind!"
"I hope his family is alright," says Jekin, sadly.
"Yeah, Jekin, I hope so. I heard his mother was hysterical the whole night. Too many bad things had happened to that guy but that woman denied everything. I don't want to badmouth him anymore. My tongue is too tired to say it out. I have warned him and his mother a thousand times but they didn't do anything. Now, God settles it for them!" says Pak Jamal, passing the banana hearts to Jekin. The fruits, purplish and heavy, look like two restless human hearts.
"Nah, take these and go back. It's already dark. The officer will come in few days' time and he will inspect our plantation. Tomorrow we will cut the grass."
Jekin nods and places the fruits in his rattan basket.
"Try this. This will help you sleep." Hassim emptied his pocket to reveal a sachet filled with glistening, powdery crystals. In the dark, they glimmered like little stars.
"H…How…how did you get this?" said Jekin as he pinched the sachet.
"It's medicine. I took it. It cures my headache and everyone else's headaches. I don't have much left. I've kept this just for the two of us."
Jekin looked at his friend's emaciated face. Hassim was no more than a scrawny frame. His arms were broom sticks. His eyes popped out. The cheeks sank. His chest is like a barren paddy field. The veins on his neck were vines crawling out for more sunlight.
"I don't want it anymore. It did no good at all."
"You should be grateful that I have brought this for you. I will keep this because you are my best buddy." Hassim put the sachet back into his pocket.
"When are you going to work? It's been almost a year," Jekin asked.
"Probably not. I don't like the people in the department," said Hassim. "The people are arrogant and selfish. They just talk and talk the whole day. Why don't you ask them to work in this farm?"
"Hey, don't say like that. We applied for these jobs last year, remember? They gave us the permits and helped us market our products. I just want you to work in the farm again, like before."
"Like before, huh?" Hassim grinned at him. His teeth were oddly spotless.
Hassim rose from the floor and dusted his pants. "See you soon. I'm going to Kuching tomorrow. Let me know if you want it. You know where to find me."
Kevin stands in front of the house. He knocks the door and introduces himself. "Hello, Jekin? It's me, Kevin, from the Food and Agriculture Department. Hello?"
"Yes?" Jekin walks out from the house, shirtless. His eyes are red, and his jaundiced skin highlights his blue irises.
"Hi, emm, sorry to disturb you. I…I just want to see you. Are you okay?"
"Hmm. Sure, whatever." Jekin invites him inside.
They sit cross-legged on the mat, facing each other, reading each other's mind. "How are you Jekin? I heard that you're not working anymore. Is everything okay?" asks Kevin, trying to fill the awkward silence. The house is dry. He wipes the sweat beads on his brow.
"I'm fine. Sorry this house has no air conditioner. This place is as hot as it is outside." Jekin stands up and opens the windows wider.
"It's okay. Anywhere is fine. I'm not good with air-conditioned offices. I have rhinitis and asthma. I don't like getting cold."
"So, how can I help you, officer? Kevin?" Jekin reads the name woven on the uniform. "Sorry I don't have anything else to serve. I only have mineral water."
"It's okay. I'm not thirsty."
"Are you going to let me go?"
Kevin opens his bag and takes out a plastic file. "No. Unless you want me to."
He flips the documents slowly. Jekin has trouble reading them, with their fancy terms and conditions. "I'm not ready to work yet, Kevin. Look at me, do I look that good?"
Kevin closes the file and looks into Jekin. "Yes Jekin. You look sick. I mean, you are skinny and your eyes are yellow. You must go to the clinic for a proper check."
"Why should I?"
"I want you to get better again," says Kevin, raising his voice slightly. The man in front of him is not the happy-go-lucky Jekin he used to know many months ago. "I want you to go to work and harvest the banana hearts as usual. My mother likes them very much. Your plantation… The trees are dying out there."
Jekin stays quiet.
"Tell me. Don't be afraid. I'm not a police officer," Kevin says, adding, "Did you…did you take drugs?"
Jekin scratches his head.
"Tell me my friend. I won't do anything. I promise. I just want to help."
Jekin nods his head. "Please don't tell anyone."
"It's okay. I won't. I understand. That's not the right way. That thing is killing you slowly, just like it did my brother. I will not let those pills kill another person."
Jekin opens his eyes. "Yes."
"What is it?"
"Syabu and Nospen."
"Why did you take them? Just tell me." Kevin asks.
"I can't sleep at night. I cough now and then. Everything hurts," confesses Jekin. "My eyes… they can't close at night. Only with those pills I could sleep well."
Kevin remains calm. "I see. Those things will never solve the problem at all. They'd make you feel good at first but over time, your sleep will become worse. When you wake up, you'd feel like a dead man the next day."
Jekin put his hands over his face.
"Jekin, put your shirt on. I'm taking you to the clinic. The doctor knows how to treat it. I've seen my brother struggling through it. Let's deal with this before it drags you six feet under."
Kevin takes Jekin to the clinic. The consultation – a detailed history taking session, blood-taking, sputum sampling and urgent chest X-ray – takes up almost two hours.
"This looks like tuberculosis. We will confirm it with your sputum result. If we detect the bacteria in your sputum, then we will start to treat you," says the doctor, after examining the X-ray film.
Jekin feels the whole world is looking down on him.
"Hey, it's okay." Kevin pats his shoulder. "We will settle the issues one by one. Trust the doctors and give them the cooperation that they need to treat you. Never give up."
Never give up. Those words remind him of his late father. "Never give up, Jekin," his late father had told him once at the farm. "No matter how hard it gets, remember even the hard earth becomes soft after rain."
After a six-month course of anti-tuberculosis treatment, Jekin swallows the final Akurit-4 tablet with a gulp of hot water. The latest smear, thankfully, reveals no acid-fast bacilli. His chest X-ray shows significant improvement. Those vivid white patches in the top region of his lungs have vanished like morning mist. "Clear," declares the doctor after reviewing the lung field on the X-ray viewing box.
Jekin's jaundice was directly caused by the accursed substance. His liver is on the mend.
The afternoon sun is beating down, and Jekin is lying in bed at home for a nap after collecting banana hearts in the morning.
"Hi, how are you?" beams Kevin as his head pops up at the window.
"Oi! What are you doing there?" Jekin gets up. "Come in. Your banana hearts are on the table. I can sleep better now, although sometimes I wake up at the middle of the night staring into the darkness."
They laugh heartily and walk towards the kitchen. They peel off the outer bracts and immerse the fruit in hot water. Inside, slender, yellow-tipped florets are lodged between two adjacent layers. The florets are then made edible, after one detaches the sticky pistils and calyces from each stalk. More pinkish inner leaves are removed, exposing the cone-shaped, fleshy heart. The flesh is then cut into half length-wise.
"This is delicious. I've been waiting for this!" Kevin peels open another banana heart. "Thanks, Jekin, for the meal."
"Thanks for helping me too. We manage to save the trees. Half of them have started to bear fruits and flowers."
"You deserve it. You've worked hard for that for the past three months reviving the plantation."
"Stop flattering me," says Jekin as he removes the florets from the fruit. "Have you heard the Malay proverb, 'The banana tree will never bear fruit twice'? My father used to say that all the time. I wonder what it means."
"Oh, the saying is famous. 'Pisang takkan berbuah dua kali' means a same banana tree will never produce two batches of fruits," says Kevin who licks his fingers. He then scoops the balacan shrimp paste into his plate.
"I don't understand."
"Fruiting and flowering occur only once in a tree's lifetime. Therefore, each tree has only one 'heart.' Inside the heart these yellow florets will blossom to become individual bananas. After the bunch is harvested, the tree becomes sterile and weak and it eventually dies," Kevin says.
He adds: "It means we must take good care at what we have. Some things will never grow back, like our hearts. Each of us has a heart. But once it is ruined or broken, the whole body will die too."
Jekin glances at the two fresh banana hearts on the table. He brings his hands towards his upper chest and feels his own heart.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 3 Jul 2020