Leonardo Variation

This story was initially published to Reddit r/shortstories under the title The New Lodger on 30th December 2021. It was written in repsonse to a writing prompt from the 1st Edition of Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook (link goes to the 2nd Edition). Any comments and criticism is welcome.

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

Amin was a mystery. Shah and Jehan knew him best, in a manner of speaking. Even so, neither could say they’ve solved the riddle that was Amin. They could say who he was, what he wrote and how he died. But in the end, they knew as little as anyone did.

Shah and Jehan worked at the docks as coolies. Whenever ships made port at Pelabuhan Lumpur, they would get paid to move the cargo. They’ve lived and worked all their lives in the city’s Port District. Both of them claim to make an honest living. A bold claim for people who live in a district where cheats, robbers and murderers abound. Jehan has a girlfriend named Mili, who lives a few streets over from him. Mili is a charming girl who could probably do better than Jehan, but sticks by her man — for better or worse.

As the pair tells their story, they first saw Amin around midday. In the city of Pelabuhan Lumpur, that would be just as the muezzin was calling the faithful to church. Both Shah and Jehan were seated in the warong across from the longhouse in which each of them rented a room. They were nursing a cup of arak each and cultivating a significant tab to go with the booze when they saw Amin.

If they had seen him in the North District they wouldn’t look twice. Here in the Port District someone dressed the way Amin did would attract and keep attention. He certainly looked like he had much to keep. His black hair was kept long, and came to a rest on his shoulders. A large blocky head housed a face with ordinary features. The clothes that housed his slender frame were far from ordinary. His shirt was silk — probably imitation, but even that was far beyond the average dock dweller’s income. His pants matched his shirt, a telltale sign of someone who bought his clothes in a set instead of piecemeal. He walked in front of several coolies carrying a large Western style case.

Jehan would say he saw Amin first, while Shah would say the same. Either way, one of them nudged the other and pointed the newcomer out. They watched as Amin spoke with the landlord. Their eyebrows raised when they saw him receive a key from the landlord in exchange for money. Apparently, he would be staying in a room in their longhouse. Shah and Jehan then began exchanging ideas on who this new lodger could be. Various theories were bandied about, from the mundane to the extraordinary. Both agreed on one thing, though; he seemed pretentious, almost putting on airs. One of them — either Shah or Jehan — would then admonish that line of thinking. That was when they decided to go and get to know their new housemate better before passing judgment.

They both worked on another cup of arak each as they waited for the man to settle in. By that time it was late in the afternoon. Shah and Jehan made their way to the longhouse, walking without hurry. They stopped to ask the landlord which room the new tenant had been assigned to. Target in mind, the pair made their way to the room at the very end, one of the largest available to the tenants.

It seemed like they waited for hours after the first knock. They knocked again, many times, louder and louder with each knocking. Just as they were about to start shouting, the door opened and Amin poked his plain face through the doorway. The boys regained their composure, smiled, and introduced themselves to the new lodger.

Their interaction with Amin did not go the way they planned it. Shah would later describe it as “Tanya sepatah dijawab sepatah.” Jehan agreed — Amin didn’t seem to warm to their charms. The man only answered questions and even then did so reluctantly. Never once did he volunteer information about himself. Nor did he ever move from his spot with his face sandwiched between the door and its frame. There was no question of inviting the pair in for a seat as they spoke. As expected, it didn’t take long for the conversation to dry up. When that happened, Amin begged their pardon, and without waiting for the pair to give it he shut the door. Shah and Jehan were left all alone in the hall.

Both Shah and Jehan agreed that at that point it seemed like their judgment was right on the money. That wasn’t the last of their interactions with the new lodger, though. Far from it. They resolved at the time to try and get to know the man better. Even if only to prove their suspicions that he was a rich guy slumming it with the poor Port District people.

A few days later Jehan would get his chance. Between Shah and Jehan, the latter was the more iron-livered of the pair. The warong across the street was where he could usually be found when not working, which was most days of the week. He managed to cultivate a significant tab with the place, and was proud of it. One day, he happened to spot Amin walking out of the longhouse, sometime after lunch. Jehan had called out to the man, and invited him over to share a drink.

“Salam, Amin! Come on over for a drink, bro! You can put it on my tab, I’ve got a solid one going.”

“No, thank you.”

“Oh, are you going to work now?”

“No.”

“Going to find work, then?”

“No.”

“Ah. It’s a girl, is it? She can wait. Come on and tell me about her.”

“No, and no, thanks, again.”

Jehan stared in disbelief as Amin broke eye contact and walked off, away from him. This set him fuming. He understood that some people didn’t have the ability to drink all day as he does. A refusal to drink from Amin, though, was too much. Jehan felt as though Amin thought he was too good to drink with him. Shah would later say he was glad he wasn’t there, or he’d be the one to have to calm Jehan down. As it was, Jehan just downed his drink and went off to find his girl Mili. The poor girl would have had her work cut out for her calming her man down.

It was then Shah’s turn to try and befriend Amin. Shah tempted Lady Luck on a regular basis, and she was at least fairer than Jehan’s demon in the bottle. One day, Shah had amazing luck betting on horses at the track. He had bought everyone in the longhouse lunch and a drink to go with it with his winnings. Nothing too fancy. A packet of nasi lemak and a bottle of arak, which you could get a cup of by knocking on his door and asking. He bought Mili a new bracelet as well. Now, Shah often exaggerates his win rate at the tracks, but this time he’s telling the truth. Mili can show her bracelet as evidence — bronze with a glass emerald set in it. She wears it religiously, and by now the bronze bits had spots from where she’d scraped the verdigris off.

Obviously this bit of charity extended to Amin as well. Before Shah could knock, the landlord told him that Amin wasn’t home. He had gone out early in the morning and hadn’t returned. So instead he stayed outside the longhouse and parked himself on a bench, waiting for Amin to show up.

Amin appeared as the sun began to set. Shah basically waylaid the man, refusing to budge until his gift of rice was received. At the time he felt like Amin may be opening up when he saw the well dressed man smile, take the packet, and say “Thank you.” Encouraged by that, Shah made Amin promise to come by later so they could drain the arak bottle together. Hours passed as Shah waited, but he never heard any knock on the door.

Shah grew curious at this point, and went out to see if Amin forgot about the arak. He knocked, knocked and knocked, but there was no response. All he heard was some shuffling sounds from behind the door. Worried about disturbing the other neighbors, Shah decided to go out back.

At this point Shah was convinced that Amin was inside, and not asleep. From outside, he saw the orange light of an oil lamp from the quiet man’s windows. Amin was definitely in, and awake. Shah planned to throw some rocks at Amin’s window to get his attention. He was looking about to find something innocuous to throw when he saw something that pissed him off. Outside Amin’s window was a rice packet, thrown away unopened. It looked clawed to pieces. Shah thought a dog or cat had torn it apart to get at the food inside.

Shah could not abide that. The rice packet incident solidified his view that Amin was some rich guy thumbing his nose at them. Jehan and Mili also shared his opinion when they heard of the wasted food. By this point, Mili had also grown interested in the mysterious lodger. Wasting food, Mili would say, was one of the most irresponsible things that rich people did.

Mili’s opinion was based on a banquet she had been to in the North District. She wasn’t there as a guest, of course, but to work — washing the dishes and helping to pour the arak. Mili recalls how lavish the feast was. They had three whole lambs roasting on spits. Mounds of oiled rice on platters that would make Shah’s generosity seem miserly. Entire tables laden with fruits for which she could name only a few. After the guests had gone, Mili marveled at the waste. Only enough portions for one roast lamb had been carved. The rice mountain had been reduced to its surrounding mountain ranges. Most of the fruits had been left to rot — to say nothing of the leftovers on each guest’s plates. Even just those would be a feast by Port District standards. Only the arak managed to be drained to the last drop. Mili managed to get away with stealing some of the food for Jehan and Shah, but most of it went to waste. This, Mili was convinced, was why she knew that Amin was one of those rich folks from the North District. Only someone with too much food would even think of throwing any away.

This prior experience helped to colour Mili’s own experience with Amin. This involved seeing him at a warong — not the one from across the street, but one closer to Mili’s house. Mili had been working late that night and didn’t have time to make a meal. She decided to spend some of the day’s earnings on a plate of nasi campur. Plain white rice, a serving of boiled cabbages, and a hard boiled egg, the whole thing slathered in soy sauce. As she waited for her order, she saw someone well dressed seated at a table, frowning at a cup of tea in front of him. She realised that it must be Amin from her boyfriend’s description, and took special notice of him. Though he never said a word to Mili, she noticed he always kept his head down. He acted as if he couldn’t stand to look at anyone around him. Whenever a server would approach to ask if he wanted anything to eat, he would shake his head and ignore them. Mili would say that she thought the man was rude, but otherwise harmless. Maybe a bit entitled. If only she’d known what Shah had been through. She would have walked over and given him a piece of her mind.

This is the point in their story in which Shah and Jehan start to show signs of regret. Jehan would stare into his cup and down it, while Shah would avoid looking at anyone. If pressed, they would say that this is when they started to try and torment Amin instead of befriending him. If Amin wouldn’t be their friend, they thought, they’d make him an enemy.

One of Shah’s torments involved him banging on Amin’s door before sunrise. He wouldn’t wait for an answer. He would slam his fists on the door and leave. He kept it up daily for weeks. Shah expected retaliation. He expected Amin to wake up early and have it out with him, or start banging on his door, or something. Nothing ever came of it. Amin never reacted.

Jehan’s attempt at getting even was, to him anyway, simple but effective. He would sit at the threshold of the longhouse and keep his legs stretched out across the doorway. If anyone other than Amin wanted to pass, he’d nod, ask to be excused and move his legs. He would ignore Amin, and expect the man to step over him. The plan was to trip him when he attempted that, and it worked every time, but Amin walked on and refused to engage.

After all that and still no reaction from the stoic lodger, the duo decided to join forces. One night, they decided to spend all night drinking under Amin’s window. The plan was to annoy him by talking, laughing, and causing a ruckus. They got yelled at by almost all their neighbours, of course. All but one — Amin. He neither yelled nor poked his head out. He might as well be dead for all they knew. At length, after the neighbors threatened to call the watch on them, they gave up.

They didn’t give up on that particular endeavour. They gave up on trying to get a rise out of him, period. Amin did not rise to any of their taunting. The man was ineffable. Whatever they did, he did not respond, no matter how they treated him. Soon they got tired of it and stopped. There didn’t seem to be any point.

And then, all of a sudden, Amin started to warm up to Shah and Jehan. The two had just come home from offloading some heavy crates from a ship, and were hungry and thirsty. They fetched Mili from her home, and together they went out to find something to eat. They made their way to the warong across from their longhouse, but found it full. There was one table that had three extra seats — one occupied solely by Amin. Warily, the trio walked up to him and asked if he minded if they sat with him. To their surprise, he said no, and they sat down and ordered both food and drink.

At first, the three of them kept to themselves. They had written Amin off as a lost cause, and decided he didn’t want anything to do with them. If they spoke, they spoke to each other, and didn’t even look over at Amin. The table ate in silence once the food arrived. Shah, Jehan and Mili did not say a word to Amin, and likewise Amin paid them no heed.

When the arak bottle Jehan ordered arrived, Jehan felt a bit apprehensive. It would be rude not to offer any to Amin, but then the man would probably refuse. Still, Jehan thought good manners trumped however he felt about Amin. He offered the unsociable man a cup. To everyone’s surprise he accepted. After he took his first sip, Amin offered the first bit of information he had ever given the pair.

“This is really good arak.”

Mili’s jaw dropped and remained on the floor for a solid minute. Both Shah and Jehan were shocked as well, but maintained their composure. Amin was probably being polite. As alcohol was wont to do, the conversation started flowing. At first it flowed only between the three of them. Soon, though, Shah and Jehan found themselves starting to try and get Amin to join in again. They confess their memories are a bit of a blur here, having ended the night stone cold drunk. All three of them agreed though that the reserved man was now slightly less reserved. He spoke more than they had ever heard from him up to that point. He was still not very forthcoming, but he at least offered more than just single worded or yes or no answers. He laughed at their jokes. It seemed as if he were finally coming out of his shell.

But before the night ended he retreated back into his old habits. Abruptly, Amin put a few silver pieces on the table and thanked them for the drinks. The supposedly rich man left before they could try and convince him to stay. When he did, the three immediately started discussing his sudden change in behaviour. They wondered what had been the reason for Amin’s warming up to them now. Especially since they had already tried to befriend (or antagonise) him before, to no avail. Jehan put it down to the social lubrication power of alcohol. Shah thought their persistence paid off. Mili wondered if he had changed at all…and froze when the two men stared at her blankly.

“Of course,” Jehan said, slapping the inside of his thigh. The difference was that Mili was with them now. In the past, Mili hadn’t even spoken to Amin. She had never even been introduced to him, as a matter of fact. Shah concurred — this made perfect sense. Why would a rich guy go slumming in the Port District? To sample the delights you could only find in the District, of course. A Port District mistress was the perfect explanation. She was less likely to be known to high society. Probably less expensive to keep, and wouldn’t embarrass him by turning up where she’s not wanted.

Mili crossed her arms and frowned at the two of them. She didn’t like where this was going, and told them so. If they thought she was going to go seduce someone just because they thought he’d be their friend…

Both Shah and Jehan quickly say that it’s not what she thinks. Jehan started acting defensive, saying “And what kind of boyfriend would I be if I just let someone touch my girl?” Shah then clarified; they didn’t want her to sleep with Amin (clearly). But he was obviously more receptive to the fairer sex. Maybe he would be more willing to open up if Mili started talking to him. She could find out if he really was what they suspected him to be. Better still, she could probably get him to be friends with Shah and Jehan. Then they’d find out if their suspicions about Amin were true.

Mili came away from that exchange with a very different idea than what Shah and Jehan had in mind. Shah and Jehan wanted Mili to join them in their attempts to socialize with Amin. That is what just happened, after all. It stands to reason that if they tried it again, Amin might open up more and more until they became fast friends. Mili had no clue of this when she sighed and agreed to help them.

And so the next night Mili went to visit Amin. She put rouge on her cheeks, put on her best dress (the one that had the least stitches) and went over to the longhouse. Surprisingly, he was in when she knocked, and (even more surprisingly) he opened the door. Mili thought there must be something to the boys’ theory as she smiled and asked if Amin was busy. He said he was not. She asked if he wanted to go grab dinner and a drink, since they had so much fun last night. She told him that Shah and Jehan couldn’t go with her. They had gone off drinking with some sailors who had just made port earlier in the day. “It’s not one of those places you bring your girlfriends to, you know?” Mili said. At first she thought he would turn her down, but then he smiled and said he would love to.

Mili panicked a bit at first. She was working under the assumption that Amin was a rich man. She didn’t know where the rich people went on a night out. All she knew were the cheap places in the Port District. Even if she did know a high end place, she was criminally underdressed for such an establishment. Instead she suggested a warong that Jehan only ever took her to on her birthday. This place was where Dock workers went to splurge. He accepted, and off they went.

During the walk Mili didn’t try to pry so much. Instead, she decided to bear most of the conversational burden. She told him about her day, remarked on a new shop that had just opened, and shared a piece of juicy gossip. All without trying to get too much out of him. In Mili’s experience, men grew more talkative once they realised they let her talk too much. They start opening up just to ease her burden in carrying the entire conversation. The sooner she got him to that tipping point the better. And so Amin just endured at first. Soon though, Mili’s efforts were revealed to have not been in vain.

Amin had started talking more by the time they reached the warong. He laughed at her jokes, told a few of his own, and pried into Mili’s stories, but still offered nothing about himself. This didn’t concern Mili, who just smiled and talked more. All was going according to plan, she thought. At this rate, she’ll know what he does for a living after two nights. She took the initiative and ordered for both of them. Soon a plate full of grilled prawns the size of Mili’s palm with enough sambal to drown a sailor arrived. After that there was a cup of fine arak for both of them. Amin paid for the meal once they were done and Mili thanked him for accompanying her.

“Is this kind of thing too much? I don’t want to overburden you,” she asked, as he produced his purse and paid.

“Oh, no, it’s no trouble at all,” Amin had said, but didn’t offer any more information.

Mili thought she would get him next time, as she followed him back to her home. Of course, there wouldn’t be a next time.

As chance would have it, they ran into Shah and Jehan, both walking the opposite way from them. Neither was very drunk — they recognised Mili and Amin immediately. Nor were they entirely sober, either. They reacted to Amin walking alongside Mili with shock, and then in Jehan’s case, anger. First this rich guy thumbs his nose at him, then he tries to steal his girl. At least, that’s what Jehan’s inebriated mind concluded. Jehan stomped forward. Without waiting for an explanation he dragged Amin down a nearby alley. Mili protested, but Jehan shouted at her to shut up.

“What are you doing with my girl?” Jehan demanded.

Amin spluttered out an explanation — that Mili had come to him and asked him to accompany her for dinner. Being possessed by his demon in the bottle, Jehan found this answer unsatisfactory. Before either Shah or Mili could stop him, he pulled out a dagger from his belt. Mili screamed as Jehan stabbed Amin several times in the gut. Shah tried to pull Jehan off Amin, but not before the damage was done.

Neither Shah nor Jehan would ever forget what happened next. Before Amin collapsed to the ground, he smiled at them. In a genuinely grateful voice, he said “Thank you, my friends.” Then he closed his eyes and lay still in a pool of his own blood.

Shah dragged Jehan out of the alley. The three rushed back to the longhouse before anybody could see them. Jehan paused only long enough to throw the dagger onto the roof of a building far away from their longhouse. The three of them piled into Jehan’s room, and spent the whole night there. None of them slept.

By morning, the news of a man found dead in an alley swept across the district. Jehan was buying breakfast from the warong across the street when he heard about it. To his relief, the watch couldn’t find any witnesses. They were working on the assumption that it was a botched robbery. Apparently the man’s purse was missing. Jehan figured someone else stole it when they found the body. None of them took anything from Amin. Shah and Mili relaxed significantly as well when they heard that. The watch wouldn’t waste too much time trying to find the perpetrators — not for a murder in the Port District, anyway. This sort of thing was just all too common.

The sun hadn’t even threatened to set when the landlord decided to clear out Amin’s room. Shah was sitting outside, smoking to calm his nerves. That was when the landlord called out to him, asking if he wanted to earn some extra money. The late tenant was dead, and wasn’t going to be of much use anymore. The landlord decided to sell off all Amin’s things to make up for lost rent. Shah agreed, being more interested in Amin’s room than in the money. He managed to talk the landlord into hiring Jehan for the job as well. And so the two were given what they always wanted — access to Amin’s most private area.

Mili joined them as they opened the door into the room. They entered with bated breath, not knowing what to expect.

The room was a mess. Clothes and pieces of paper were scattered all about the room with no rhyme or reason. Amin seemed to have a habit of leaving his clothes where they lay, and he had a lot of them. They were strewn about, on the floor, on the bed, even on the chairs. The case Shah and Jehan had seen earlier was situated at the foot of the bed. A quick glance told them all it contained was more clothes. Right in the centre of the room was a large stack of paper sitting next to a small book rest. There were more papers scattered about it. Amin seemed to have been using the book rest as a desk of some sort. They imagined him sitting down on the floor to use it, as there were several ink pots and quills on it. Upon closer examination, they found that Amin seemed to always be writing something. He never went beyond several sentences before discarding the paper and starting anew.

Mili wanted to stay and snoop along with them, but Jehan made her leave. Who knows what the landlord would say if they saw her there. Shah decided to take one half of the room while Jehan took the other. And so the two began their work clearing out Amin’s room. As they did so, they couldn’t help but read several of Amin’s writings. They kept these, stuffing the papers in their pocket. After they had moved Amin’s things out, Shah and Jehan retreated to Jehan’s room. They locked the door, produced the papers, and read. Once they were done reading, they said nothing, and went to the warong to drink in silence.

One of the papers read:

I cannot continue living like this anymore. I should be happy, but I am not. I feel nothing. I have a loving family, a profitable business and all anyone could ever desire, but I feel nothing. I am not happy, though I should be. I should die. And yet, I don’t dare take my own life. What a coward I am.

I am going to live in the Port District from now on. I have heard that the people there do not take kindly to rich folk such as myself. Hopefully I will find myself dead in a few days.

Another read:

Two of the Port Dwellers seem to be working up their courage to kill me. I wish they’d just get it over with instead of continuing with this insanity. Why this childish behaviour? Perhaps this is how one finds oneself dead in the Port District. One can hope.

Strange. I find myself drawn to these two men — Shah and Jehan, I believe their names were. They don’t seem bad at all, just…insistent. The constant knocking, for example. Very funny. If I could be happy I would have gladly accepted their friendship. Still, hopefully they can help, if not in the way they thought. Here’s to Death.

Yet another:

God damn and befuddle the Port District. Why am I not dead yet? All I want is to die. I cannot bear the horror of existence any longer. I hear of people dying and disappearing in the Port District all the time. Yet when I actually try to die, I cannot. What a cruel joke! Even my new friends seem to think I am not worth killing. How? How do I find a way to die?

I have it. It seems so simple now. Mili is the key. The man Jehan’s girl. He seems like the jealous type. Hopefully if I try to seduce her, he will be jealous, and kill me. Please, Jehan. Please be the friend I think you are, and grant me release from this hell that is life.

To this day, Shah and Jehan occasionally pull these papers out and read them. Neither can say why. Mili read them once and only once. To her they confirmed that Amin was a rich man slumming, and she dismissed the man from her thoughts. Shah and Jehan weren’t so sure. He certainly was slumming, but as it was when he was alive, there was more to Amin than they thought. Far from solving the mystery, they seem to have stumbled onto another one. They weren’t even sure they knew what it was even about. Perhaps by studying what Amin had written, the only legacy the man had left to them, they could figure it out. Perhaps not. Still, Shah and Jehan kept the papers, and would read and reread them as if they were holy scripture. They didn’t know what they were expecting to find by doing so. Maybe there was nothing to find. They didn’t know that, either. So they kept reading.

One thing they knew — or thought they did, anyway. It seems as if they were Amin’s friends after all. They managed to give him what he wanted, even if they weren’t sure if it’s what he needed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: