The story begins with heavy rain, a common occurrence in Sumatra during the rainy season. Through the window, the Narrator spots an old man taking shelter under the eaves of the house. The old man is hunched over.
Mother turns out the light and peeks through the curtain, trying to keep the old man from seeing that the family is watching him. She cautions the Narrator and Father that if the old man knows they are watching, he will soon knock on the door. Mother complains that the family needs to build a fence—without one, the yard is open to all. Goats come in and wreck the plants and noisy children chase their toys all over the yard.
Father disagrees with Mother. He sees no reason to prevent people and animals from coming in. ‘‘Let them enjoy what we have. Just let them be,’’ he says. He adds that a fence is not needed if there is nothing in the house worth protecting.
Mother and Father argue about whether they have anything that needs protecting. Mother says the house needs protecting, but Father reasons that no one would steal a house—rather, it is the house which protects its contents. Father argues there is nothing valuable to protect in their house, so there is no need for a fence. Mother gets offended. She asks Father whether he thinks the family is worth protecting.
Father responds that another type of fence is needed to protect people—faith in God. ‘‘That’s what you have to instill in yourself and the children,’’ he says. ‘‘That’s what’s needed to serve as a fence in this life.’’ Mother accuses Father of changing the subject and expresses her fear that their eaves will become a gathering site for vagrants.
The Narrator, who is just tall enough to see out the window, looks out and sees more than five people standing under the eaves with the old man, ‘‘rubbing their chests to keep warm against the cold.’’ Mother is agitated by this news and predicts the growing crowd of vagrants will soon be knocking on the door. Father says, ‘‘If they knock, let them come in.’’
Eventually, the vagrants do knock, and Father and Mother argue about whether to let them in. The Narrator finally opens the door at Father’s urging.
The vagrants tell the Narrator that the old man is freezing to death and ask for some hot coffee and ointment to rub on his chest. Mother protests that there is not enough coffee left for the family, which the reader finds out later is a lie. She reluctantly gives the old man coffee and ointment to rub on his chest. The vagrants take care of the old man.
After a while, the old man feels better. He talks about the rain and how he has to keep running for shelter. He expresses gratitude that not everyone has a fence. But, he says, the rain has slowed down his journey. When asked where he is going, he answers that he does not know. When asked if he has a home, he responds, ‘‘Traveling is my home.’’ When asked how far he is going, he says, ‘‘Let’s say until I reach a fence, but that fence is far away, very far away. And when I’ll reach that fence, I don’t know. So, I just have to keep on going, just keep on going until I reach it.’’
Soon the rain subsides. The vagrant leaves and Mother prepares more coffee, saying that now they are really out of coffee and sugar.
Father and Mother have a discussion about whether there is a need to keep the sugar jar if there is no sugar to put in it. Father thinks they should get rid of the sugar jar if they are out of sugar, and uses the example of the fence. If there is nothing to protect from vagrants, he says, a fence is unnecessary—so too is a sugar jar if there is no sugar to protect from ants.
Mother wins the argument by pointing out that they have to keep the jar so that when she buys sugar, she will be able to keep it safe from ants. Father agrees. He realizes that protection is often needed before one acquires something valuable. And so he agrees to build a fence.
The Narrator and Father build a simple fence made of leftover lumber and bamboo. After that, the neighborhood children have to ask permission to get balls that fall into the family’s yard. Mother feels respected. Father sets up a table and chair outside and Mother serves him coffee and fried bananas there every day. Sometimes she brings some out for herself, too. The Narrator comments, ‘‘Everything was finally safe and secure behind the fence.’’
But one day three months later, during the rainy season, the family forgets to lock the gate and a group of vagrants—including the same old man—takes shelter under the eaves of their house. Again, Mother cautions the family that they should not let the vagrants see them peeking out the window or they will knock. She expresses regret that they forgot to lock the gate and grumbles: ‘‘Now they’ll come in whenever they like.’’ Father again displays his generous attitude. ‘‘Let them come in,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s raining.’’
The vagrants knock at the door and, at Father’s urging, the Narrator opens the door despite Mother’s protests. The vagrants do not answer when asked if something is wrong. They push their way into the house, carrying the old man. When they are in, the old man suddenly comes to life, and Mother screams.
The men pull out knives and tie the family to their chairs. They search the house and are confused when they do not find valuables. They say, ‘‘We have broken into the wrong house. This here’s a poor man’s house! There’s nothing worth taking. The stuff in here is an insult to our profession.’’
They grab Father by the collar and accuse him of acting like a rich man by building a fence. They tell him that it was the fence that made them decide to rob the house. The robbers leave and the Narrator and his family untie each other.
Mother and Father have another discussion about the fence. Father blames the fence for the robbery. The Narrator asks if they are going to take down the fence. Father says they will not decide now. He asks for coffee, but Mother says there is no sugar. Father asks why the jar is still on the shelf. Mother responds that they may get sugar later. Father says he is getting a headache and asks for his tobacco.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Hamsad Rangkuti, Published by Gale Group, 2010