by Christa Sulistio, winner of Citarum Repair Writing Competition (English Category)
Centuries ago, animals and humans lived in amity. Peaceful treaties from both sides led to friendly negotiations on their natural resources. The guardian of the Citarum river was a dragon called Nëhir. At that time, the river was bountiful with pearls, and it allowed the humans to harvest them, but only to a certain extent. The humans respected the mighty beast’s rules, but over time their greedy hearts wanted more. So one night, the humans crept into Nëhir’s cave and pierced its heart as it was asleep. They rejoiced, for then it meant the river was theirs. Word eventually spread, and the creatures fled into the forests in fear. All communications between the beasts and humans were cut off, for the humans had been ex-communicated by them. Over the years, the humans treated the river as their own: exploiting the river’s natural resources, and discarding waste from homes and industries into it.
All seemed fine, when a sudden illness emerged and spread amongst them. The disease unfortunately had no cure, and people experienced painful boils. A girl living near the Citarum, called Karina, was devastated. Her grandmother contracted the disease. Karina was desperate to help her; however, all she could do was harvest medicinal plants on the riverbanks to alleviate the pain. As she leaned over to gather some plants, oblivious, her foot snagged on a root, and she fell forward and down into a dark pit.
“Ow!” Karina landed with a thud.
She dusted herself off, and looked around. That was when she realized it wasn’t a pit, but a cave. Sunlight pierced through the ravines above, and in front of her stood an ancient altar. Curious, she reached out her hand to touch it. A loud ringing filled the cave, and mist gathered from the corners of the cave, shifted and twisted, to form a dragon. Immediately, Karina recognized the dragon from the childhood tales: Nëhir.
“Are-are you the dragon, Nëhir, who hoarded the river’s resources?”
“What? Such lies your people have told!” Nëhir roared in anger. It explained it was protecting the river, but then got killed by the humans instead.
“Why can I speak to you then, if you are dead?”
“I am a part of the river. Unless the river runs out, I can never truly die. However, my form cannot be returned; not unless the river thrives again. Karina, your people caused their own demise; the illness is spreading due to the human’s contamination of the river. However, I offer a solution: if the river was cleaned and allowed to be restored, I would have the strength to heal the sick villagers with my powers.”
Karina pondered, but then asked, “But how can I convince the people around me, I’m just a girl!”
At this, Nëhir held out an alabaster pearl the size of her palm. “Take this as a sign from me, the river guardian. However, once the river is cleaned, immediately return the pearl to me. Else, the deal is off.”
Karina then headed back to the village, and explained to the villagers what caused the illness. There, she showed the pearl to everyone. Unbeknownst to her, a pair of greedy eyes latched onto the pearl. The villagers were reluctant at first, but with the threat of more deaths from the illness, everybody helped. In a matter of a few weeks’ time the river was cleaned: waste was no longer thrown into the river and trash was filtered out of it. However, the next morning, Karina was shocked.
“Nëhir, I have something to admit: the pearl is lost.”
Nëhir roared with laughter at her confession, its body now opaque with iridescent scales covering its body.
“It was definitely stolen by someone. Human’s greed knows no bounds, after all. Our deal is off!”
Karina panicked; she hadn’t foreseen this. It almost seemed as if Nëhir predicted this all along. But before she could respond, a sudden stampede shook the ground, and the sound of a thousand angry creatures pierced the air. In her astonishment, Karina climbed back out of the cave to the sight of a horde of animals rapidly stampeding towards her village. Karina rushed out of the cave and ran back to her village. The village men armed themselves with weapons as they faced the animals.
“Humans have killed one of us: Nëhir. But this time, we shall get our revenge!” The leader of the animals exclaimed.
The beasts then charged at the humans, and the villagers fought back. But the beasts were tremendous in their numbers, and so, the humans were overwhelmed. Karina was watching the men fighting as she hid behind the bushes, when she realized a massive bear was rearing on its feet behind her, ready to strike.
“No!” Karina shielded her head with her arms, bracing for impact when suddenly-
“GROARRRR!” A deafening roar stopped everyone and everything in its tracks. A huge form descended to the battle scene; it was Nëhir.
“That is enough. All I wanted was the river cleaned. Not for some bloodshed.” The animals looked on in amazement, as they discovered he was alive.
Karina then spoke up, “Nëhir, I have a solution, let us make a pact to never cross one another again. We humans shall swear to keep our environment clean, and let us openly communicate, just as we did before, like our ancestors.”
“And what if you humans repeat your mistakes? What are the consequences?”
“Then as you said like nature’s wrath, we shall feel the burn of our mistakes. But we would do our best to remember our oath.”
Nëhir agreed, and then proceeded to heal the villagers. Meanwhile, Karina helped the villagers to sustainably maintain the use of the river. To this day, this story serves as a reminder for our people to respect the environment.
But alas, have we forgotten our ancestors’ struggles?
Will history repeat itself once again?
Only time will tell.