The Man Who Killed Coen

by Lawrence Stewen

The Man Who Killed Coen

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“The Man Who Killed Coen” was originally published in The Spectatorial.

Come now, anak-anak. Gather close and listen.

I know you’ve come to hear tales of fiery men who fly garuda through the eye of a typhoon, or of naga who rise from the sea to swallow the moon.

Yet this is a story set not long ago or far away, but right here and right now.

Listen closely, for there are cracks in my story. Cracks where the black magic seeps through.

Do not fall in the cracks, anak-anak.

Do not seek the man who killed Coen.

I lived alone in my workshop near a village, in the heart of the jungle. Once, the villagers came to me and I hammered tin slates for their roofs, smelted steel parts for their scooters, and beat copper for their rebab so that even the old gods in the trees slumbered to their sweet song. In turn, they paid me with money and with talk from the village. In time, I knew who was chief among the elders, what the dukun advised for forlorn lovers, the name of the latest newborn, what hantu haunted the jungle, what trinkets I needed to avoid them, the newest phones the youngsters brought back when they returned from the city, and the ones who were exiled.

Then, one day, a road was carved through the earth by yellow machines driven by young men who could not stop smoking. I remember watching them as I curved a fish hook. They were distant, but I could see their shapes through the leaves: iron teeth chewed earth, dried lips breathed fire.

The first van came when the road was finished. It brought the village everything I already made, sold it all for less, and then drove away to the next village, full of money and nothing else.

Every week a van would come.

Every week I saw fewer villagers.

My tongs lost their warmth and became stiff while bird-shit coated my anvil. I no longer bothered to make the long trek to the bus station where I picked up my ore, my coal, my ardour. At times when the night was black and moonless, when the tapirs roamed the lightless village following the sweet stench of garbage, when the screams of a penanggal smothered any curious minds, I would kindle a little flame in my furnace and beat a lump of bronze with my smallest hammer until the dawn found me, grey-haired and red-eyed.

It was on one such night that I saw him approach.

He emerged from the foliage with nothing but his muddy shorts and sandals. His body was pale amber, with prominent ribs like a horrendous maw closing around his sarung. I thought him hantu, but the holy trinkets I was given by the villagers had long since lost their power. I pushed over my anvil and opened the iron box beneath.

“Bapak, forgive me, it is I—Arief,” he said.

I shut the box, replacing the anvil.

“Arief—Fauzi’s son, am I correct?”

“Not anymore, bapak.”

We shared a meal of rice and dried fish. At first he ate timidly, but the way his eyes watched the steam from the pot, the concave arch of his sunken belly, the layer of grime over his scratched and stung skin—it all spoke of days wandering the jungle with only mosquitoes for company and grubs for nourishment. I told him to have as much as he wanted, and he shovelled handfuls of food into his drooling mouth.

After he licked his pincuk clean, we sat in silence, listening to the fading flames of my furnace. Then he spoke.

“Bapak, I need you to make me a weapon.”

A juvenile monitor lizard scampered through a pile of dead leaves, and the music of the insects stopped.

“I will not help you begin a feud, boy. You can take some food, a shirt, and some money for the bus. Then you leave at sunrise. That is all.”

“No, bapak, I swear by Allah’s might that I intend no harm for my family or those who chased me from the village. I need a weapon to kill Coen.”

The lizard snapped at a pale, formless thing tangled in the bushes.

“Boy, I’ve forged parang that have cut branches from the jungle’s first trees and keris sharp enough for a man to shave. But even I doubt I could make a weapon that would puncture old Coen’s granite hide. And even if I could, where is the great hunter who would wield it?”

The hands that gripped my shoulders held on like the talons of a pontianak. Arief’s eyes were sunken and hollow, but they held a soul that burned with star-fire.

“Listen, old man. Three days ago my mother tied my hands behind my back while I slept, and my father dragged me to the elders’ hut. There I saw Rafi, whose face had been torn and beaten by his grandfather’s bamboo cane. I would have held him. I would have kissed him, but I was scared to even look at him, because the elders said that if I did so I could expect the same. There, my father proclaimed that I was no longer his son. There, the elders agreed that we were no longer welcome in the village. All this because a young girl saw us holding hands by the river. We were led to the village edge, at the jungle’s mouth, where my friends and my cousins waited, boys who we played football with and who laughed with us under the swollen moon with smuggled rum. There, they held your parang and your keris and chased us into the jungle until our feet collapsed from under us because of the thorns and twigs that stuck through our soles. But even so, I was okay because I had Rafi and he had me, and on the second day we joked and smiled while we washed our wounds. We talked about finding work as sailors and visiting Singapore or Thailand where no one would glance our way. I did not see…”

He broke off as tears etched his features. His grip slackened, then he let go. He held himself now, curled up and shaking.

“I did not see… did not… there was nothing left—”

I clutched his head to my chest as he broke.

“We shouldn’t have… shouldn’t have slept by the water.”

His sobs ruptured the night’s silent skin. My scarred hands have handled molten steel and fiery embers, yet they felt useless against his cold, shaking back.

I held him until we inhaled the smoke of the dead fire and heard the insects resume their music. The lizard waddled back into the dark, a plastic bag caught in its teeth.

We were deep into the night. My furnace kept us awake with its heat, like that of a fallen sun, and my hammer, engraved with my father-in-law’s blessing, tamed the glowing steel.

Was it the steel that would kill Coen? I admired Arief’s confidence, but young men are fickle fires, and even the brightest may be blown out by a puff of wind. Even as my sweat mingled with the metal, I could not banish the thought that another morsel was throwing itself into Coen’s waiting jaws.

Coen? An old name, a foreign name. A name that came from across the sea on ships bearing guns to erase us, clothes to constrain us, and a language to silence us. If you asked the village elders what they remember from that faded era, they would tell you how they were reduced to servitude, and how they were displaced within their own lands to practice customs not their own. But there would be gaps in those tales where the events are not so clear, a blurring where the shadows slip through, where reality distorts and bends. Ask anyone else and they will either recite paragraphs memorized from history books at school or just smile and shake their heads.

“Sorry, mas.”

But these are not events to be passed through the mind and then fed to the past’s hungry shadow. They are ripples from a distant time. They are rituals that call him from the jungle’s depths, and give him an appetite for toxic waste and human flesh.

The villagers named him Coen. They said he was once a gnarled, old, white man who combined the stolen arts of dead dukun with the worship of the cannibalistic Yesus Kristus, and took the form of a great reptile to torment his pribumi slaves. Others have said that Coen is even older than this: the result of Setan walking the earth on the night of an eclipse and mating with a Jurassic abomination half-fossilized in the womb of a volcano.

But I will say that Coen is neither of these things. Coen is what slipped through the wrinkle of our history. He arrived when the yellow machines carved the village roads; he came with the silver vans full of empty wares; he appeared with the electronic devices that children hold with hands too old; he emerged with the empty hovels where the ghosts of craftsmen stand, as their bodies are replaced by distant factories churning out more things than any two hands could ever put together.

The red spearhead screamed inside the bucket of cold water. Metallic steam clouded my vision and filled my lungs.

“Bapak, what are these?”

Arief squatted beside the hole beneath my anvil. The iron box was open, and in his hands he held a bronze figure. It caught the sparks that flew from the flame.

I laid down the spearhead and knelt beside him.

Reaching for the box, I picked up an idol of a woman. As I traced the fine details of her hair and face, my callouses met the waves of her dress, the curves of her body.

“This one was my wife. We stayed in the village once, together. She left me when I refused to move to the city.”

I put her back, and one by one I examined each of the bronze figures I had created in my nights of solitude. My father-in-law, who taught me how to wield a hammer; my parents long passed; the villagers who once frequented my workshop; even some of the young men who dug the road and never came back.

Arief nodded as I put them away, his eyes vacant.

“Bapak, why didn’t you follow your wife?”

I opened my mouth, but my reasons and my excuses formed into an iron ball in my throat. I swallowed the ball and muttered something about how he should sleep. He didn’t ask again.

I continued to work on the spearhead, though it was already sharp enough to puncture three layers of hard leather. I brought it to the grindstone. It needed to puncture the hide of Coen.

The sparks flew skyward, returning to the stars.

The sky was white on the morning she left.

I saw her walk out the door in a dream, heard it close like an eyelid: swift, quiet, blinding.

Our television droned: a colourless cathedral filled with a crowd of people, their faces a blurred mass of pixels.

She took the bus at noon. She could hear the roar of the city from the bus stop. It was guttural and low, the moans of an animal in labour.

The bus was empty and the driver was a computer terminal.

“Ticket?” the driver purred, its screen struggling to form a human smile.

There was a television on the bus; she stared at it and refused to look out the windows.

I was on the television, still sleeping in our bed.

My face was missing.

The sky was white on the morning she left.

I turned it black when I burned our house down.

We left before the birds broke the dawn’s silence, while the scent of frangipani still lingered between the trees.

Arief led the way, the glittering spearhead fixed to a teak branch that glowed red in the patches of frail sunlight.

I brought my skinning knife with me. Arief did not question why I took the blade, and his bloodless face mirrored my own: the masks of dancers on death’s sharp teeth.

The twigs beneath our feet echoed like cracking ribs in the green maze.  As the hours went by, the sun told me we were running out of time.

We did not want to catch Coen wide awake and hungry.

The trees vanished as we stepped into a clearing. The barren expanse stretched for kilometres until the distant edge where the jungle returned, a dark line against the horizon.

It was a vast scar, the remains of an old fire that burned out decades ago when a company from the city deforested the land to build a factory. Somewhere, somehow, they had lost their investors and their money. What remained was the plain of dried grass and the stumps of trees scattered like small burial mounds. Those mounds surrounded a malformed skeleton of steel piping, which lay collapsed where the aborted factory was meant to be. In front of its base was a circle of empty machines,  paralyzed in a tableau of action as though their operators had jumped off and fled from some unforeseen and terrible force. One excavator still had its teeth sunk in the ground, and the depression had become a pond, a spawning pool for water insects and tadpoles.

Crushed cigarettes, dusty plastic bottles, a construction helmet, a dried bucket of paint, a woman in a bikini on the cover of a crumpled magazine: the detritus followed us like an old conversation.

We stopped walking when we saw the pit.

Lined with concrete, cracked and broken, the pit’s intended use was forgotten. I could only guess that it was a site to dump industrial waste.

The dry inner walls were scrawled with long, jagged scratch marks. Black water, still with tar, gathered like shadows far below the rim. Rusted barrels floated in the mire with a buoyancy so still they seemed static. Along with the barrels bobbed an old rectangular slab of corrugated tin plate. The plate blinked –

ripples formed on the water, like muscles tensing beneath skin.

Arief stepped onto the pit’s crude inner platform, a thin corroded ring that lined the rim. The platform creaked under his weight, bending inward towards the filth. He kept the spear raised, its tip angled to pierce.

A flash of teeth, a surge of dirty water, a pale grey blur covered in scales. Coen slammed onto the platform, which bent and snapped as he dragged the ruined metal into the water.

Arief jumped back to the grass, made jabbing motions with his spear, and yelled as a shade passed over his calm features.

Coen lunged halfway out of the pit, his claws scrambling to get a hold of the dirt, his jaws gaping.

The spear flicked and thick blood oozed from the creature’s tongue. A reptilian hiss slithered through my bones.

Steel slid through scales, then struck again, twisting—and opened a hole in Coen’s belly. A puddle of brackish blood formed under Coen, who flailed and snapped. The hiss that had shaken me was now pitiful and soft, the wheezing of a balloon as the air squeezes out.

We waited a while after Coen stopped moving, listening to our breathing and the thrum of adrenaline in our hearts.

In his stillness, the blur that obscured his appearance dissipated. Those bright cobalt eyes slowly closed, and then opened again. Crimson tears trailed from their corners while the round pupils contracted, before dilating into shapelessness. Pearlescent scales shimmered beneath a layer of oozing tar, like patches of light in a fading storm. Rusty shards and rotten splinters protruded from that slender serpentine body: the remnants of previous hunters who contested Coen, and failed.

Then we saw his left leg. It was strangled above the foot by a length of barbed wire that disappeared down the pit and into the water. Shrivelled and atrophied, it was a wonder that he had possessed the will to even move.

Coen released his last sigh in a sound as soft as a dreaming infant’s breath. The air that twisted between the gaps in his teeth follows me still. It carries the silence of something forgotten.

“Cut him open, bapak. I must know.” Arief’s voice contained no room for negotiations.

I bent over the pit and nearly dropped my knife as my eyes were flooded with the chemical reek. I sawed at the bit of wire until it snapped, then together we dragged the enormous reptile completely onto the matted grass.

We turned Coen over and I cut just below the ribs, sawing until I reached his pelvis. A repugnant odour gushed from the incision. It smelled like a garbage dump. Several times, my knife hit something solid inside him, but despite this and the smell, I carried on until the creature’s organs were splayed beneath the midday sun.

The flies gathered like an afterthought.

Coen’s insides were filled with gears, cogs, pistons, old batteries, wires, scrap metal, and a transparent liquid that shone rainbow hues at a certain angle.

There was no sign of anything that could have possibly been alive.

Lawrence Stewen is a writer who is fascinated by weirdness and hybridity. At various points in time he was an infantry lieutenant, a statue digger, and a cafe waiter. Currently he is the Online Editor of The Spectatorial blog, and a third-year English major in the University of Toronto. He has fourteen articles published in the Singaporean newspaper Tabla!, and two other works of fiction that will appear in The Spectatorial‘s zines. He hopes to one day kill the world with pure empathy.