Good morning, Literati. Selemat Pagi! (Malay for good morning)
Here continues the true story of the exotic woman/child assimilated into the temple of healers on the Malay Peninsula “so ethereal of spirit they left no footprint where they stepped.” And, oh, by the way, the mother of my three children.
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In the fore of the mosque was a treeless quadrant formed by Chinese houses whose parlors served as shops for the entire village. Each of the six or eight merchants stocked the same wares–rice, coffee, batik, lamp oil, a few simple household utensils—almost nothing that cost more than a day’s wages. Each merchant had their own following, and, since they all sold about the same thing, it was the quality of gossip a shop disseminated that created loyalty among customers. Catherine, as always, avoided passing the shop of Ephram Lim, who always saved the finest batik and best gossip for Sarafina Madrigal D’Cruz. Ephram was Sarafina’s most devoted spy.
The square itself would blossom on market days, or on warm, rainless evenings when neighbors would bring out their woven mats to sit together for the wayang kulit, the puppet show of mythical heroes whose shadow images were cast upon a taunt sheet by the glow of a fire behind the puppet master. “Blasphemy!” her Sarafina would say. Catherine was forbidden to attend, and never missed a performance.
The square was filled, shoulder-to-shoulder, and in the crush of so many people Catherine was separated from the view of the garruda. She climbed on top of a covered rain barrel next to one of the shops, and held the downspout from the gutter to balance herself, and from here she saw not only the garruda but also a huge tent, gay and colorful, erected for the day’s activities. The whispered name “Sha’anni Kalizar” was passed from one believer to another, as reverently as bread is passed at a table.
The garruda was lowered to the sand, like porcelain. At this the entire crowd made themselves small as they did for prayers, and made the humbling union of brow to earth. Suddenly the cabin beneath the wings was visible, though no one dared to look. The silk veil that protected Che’ Wan from their stares of the imperfect was about to be parted.
Catherine pressed herself against the wall, becoming shadow, as the witch in her grandmother’s warning stepped from her throne and took the hand of the boy who had followed directly behind her. Catherine held her hand over her mouth to keep from saying out loud “Allah! She’s beautiful!”
Pak Sarkia stood and nodded to the muzzein, the caller of prayer, to enter the tent and invoke a blessing. Islam had groomed the heart and intellect of the Malays for centuries, now, conforming the population the way the banks restricted the waters of the river. But as well defined as the current might be, independent eddies formed contrary to the flow, and were part of the same river. Absolute faith in Mohammed’s god, and absolute faith in a spirit world, the world of Che’ Wan and the Bida Dewi, contained no hypocrisy for the village of Sentul.
Che’ Wan entered the purified tent, where she could converse and engage herself with others without her purity being compromised. A platform dappled with the petals of flowers awaited her. She ascended the three steps, followed by Zainudin and then Sita and Noor. Che’ Wan sat upon the mats, facing the open flap to the tent, and Noor and Sita sat behind her, available to hear a private word or to do her bidding. Zainudin sat by her side.
“You may enter.”
Pak Sarkia bowed and came in, followed by musicians who did the same. “Selemat pagi,” she said. Good morning, and she smiled. A few of them were reluctant to smile back and turned their heads shyly, ashamed that poverty and age had left them almost toothless. Her smile was so perfect. They each carried an instrument of their own construction, and gathered themselves in the corner of the tent. They were eager to offer music. They arranged themselves on the mats, cradled their instruments, and waited for Pak Sarkia’s direction.
With the sharp ping of the small brass gong Pak Sarkia dispersed the same spirits he had scattered from the jungle path, for it was likely they were mustering their courage at the open flap to the tent.
Noor stood by the entrance. She motioned for the awaiting mothers and children who had come for this moment, and purified them with a few drops of water from a vial she had filled from the spring water of the temple. As soon as they were blessed, the auditions began.
Pak Sarkia gestured to the old men, and soon music began to fill the tent as gently as rain evaporating from banana leaves on a hot August morning. With chimes and with drums, with brass and with bamboo, with flute and with humming, a mother gingerly cast her daughter free to the open space before the priestess, and the child began to dance. Barefoot, moving slowly upon woven mats, her hips swayed ever so gently, the fingers of her hands courting one another, all in rhythm to the humble gamelan music that had coaxed her spirit to reveal itself.
Che’ Wan studied the link between mother and daughter. The child’s unsure eyes dashed sporadically towards the mother for approval.
“Come, child.” The music had stopped. “You dance very well!” The girl and the mother approached the priestess.
“Thank you, puan.”
“And such poise in one so young!” Che’ Wan said this to the mother, but with just enough intensity that she could be heard by the others waiting patiently along the perimeter of the tent. “I…shall think on it.” Che’ Wan then lowered her head to the mother, a gesture of humility that would spare the mother of any loss of face she might have for her daughter being rejected.
The next child stood, danced, was interviewed politely and then returned to her place, followed by another. “Let me hear you walk,” she would say to one child. “Let me see you speak.” She would say to another. She was looking for lyric in both step and voice. So progressed the morning, and two girls and a young boy would soon sleep in the temple of the Bida Dewi, within the citadel of the king. Still, Che’ Wan had hoped for more. She closed her eyes for a moment, to listen to what the old woman in the temple was saying to her.
Zainudin, with aristocratic poise, stood from his velvet cushion and put his hand upon Che’ Wan’s shoulder while she sat. He quietly advised her, “Ibu, the one who was hiding by the trail.”
“Yes. I’ve been watching her.” She opened her eyes.
For some time the girl had been standing just outside the tent, peeking through the smallest of holes in the fabric. Each time she heard the music start, she herself began to dance. The morning sun was behind her, and her shadow became the silhouette that intrigued the young boy within the tent. Zainudin whispered once more, “She moves like the wayang kulit. She dances with her own shadow.”
“Yes… She certainly does.”
Only then did Pak Sarkia discover the presence of the girl, and he headed outside to shoo her away.
“Pak Sarkia.” He stopped and bowed when he heard the voice of Che’ Wan. “That girl. Show her in.”
The village elder swallowed hard. “Yes, puan.”
Outside the tent he looked sternly at Catherine, holding her in place with his stare. She readied herself to bolt and run. “The priestess would like you to enter.”
“Yes. Of course. The Seri Jaya. The Highest One. Che’ Wan.”
“I thought she was a witch!”
“Hold your tongue!” Pak Sarkia was beside himself, and looked over his shoulder to see if they might be overheard. “Just…get inside…keep your head bowed, and don’t say anything!”
She stood straight up, gathered her long, tangled hair and tossed it out of the way behind her, and did her best to make herself bigger than she was before making her entrance. She was wearing only a singlet and short pants, a tomboy. Mud from the banks of the river was the only color of her wardrobe.
“Noor. Bless the child.”
Noor produced the vial with water from the temple, and anointed the girl’s forehead. “She has been purified, puan.”
“Good…Come forward, child.”
Catherine did as she was told, and stepped forward meagerly. She glanced back at Pak Sarkia for a moment, and felt small and defenseless, and prepared for her punishment. She paused and then, willfully, as if to say “I have done nothing wrong” to the old man, she took a deep breath that inflated her, she threw back her shoulders. When she turned her head towards the stage she looked the priestess straight in the eyes. Before Che’ Wan could speak, the little girl who stood before her said, “Why, you’re not at all ugly.”
Pak Sarkia rushed forward.
“No, no. Let her be…Well, thank you! Now, what do you mean, I’m ‘not at all ugly’?”
“No. In fact, you’re quite beautiful, for a witch.”
“Pardon me, puan.” Sarkia could not contain himself. “May I have a private word?”
Che’ Wan motioned him forward. He lowered his voice. “This one. She’s from the Madrigal plantation.”
“A servant’s child?”
“Oh, no! The granddaughter of Sarafina Madrigal D’cruz herself! Puan…she is not even Muslim.”
“And the mother? What of the mother?”
“Oh…” Pak Sarkia lowered his head and voice even further. “She was a bad woman. She made a lot of trouble. She is Iban. Borneo. A jungle woman. Her father was even a chief! He took heads!”
“Where is she now, the girl’s mother?”
“No one knows. Singapore, maybe. No one knows.”
“Not back to her own people?”
“She can’t go back. She left them. They’ll kill her.”
Che’ Wan understood. Even the daughter of a chief could not desert a tribe with impunity. She must have left them without consent. Che’ Wan herself was from Borneo, and had even lived among the Ibans, as a child, before she heard the whisper of an old woman calling to her from across the South China Sea, the old woman who even now was meditating in her garden with the morning sun on her shoulders, visualizing the events of the day.
“Thank you, Pak.” She looked thoughtfully at the girl before her, and dismissed Pak Sarkia with a soft wave of her hand.
The water that Noor had run down the girl’s forehead had washed off enough mud to reveal a small scab in the center of the brow, a childhood scrape that meant nothing. But upon Che’ Wan’s brow, beneath a moonstone that dangled from a tiara, was the diamond shaped scar that was branded upon her the day she became Bida Dewi.
“Come closer, girl.”
Catherine obliged. Here was a small girl, a little undernourished but remarkably self-assured. There was the usual array of scratches upon the knees and elbows so common to a child that age, but Che’ Wan was able to discern also, upon Catherine’s forearm, a pattern of deep purple crescents that can only be made by the fingernails of an angry adult.
“Tell me. How old are you?”
The number of completion, thought Che’ Wan.
“And when were you born?”
“In the Year of the Tiger. My mother told me.”
“And where is your mother, now?”
Catherine lowered her eyes, and remembered the day her mother …
“You’ve got her spirit in you, don’t you?”
“Yes. I do.” At this Catherine lifted her head again, defiantly proud of the mother condemned by so many.
“Girl, do you like to dance?”
“My name is Catherine!”
“Oh. Forgive me. Catherine. Do you like to dance?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Then, dance for me…Catherine.”
Pak Sarkia was an elder, but not yet old enough to be amused. He rolled his eyes, looked at the musicians, and had them play. The child began to dance. She had seen the other girls, their moves, their rhythm, but had never been tutored, as had they. It didn’t seem to bother her. She invented movement and was completely oblivious to anyone’s scrutiny. She enjoyed herself. While she danced, Che’ Wan thought, this is a good sign, how the girl replied about her age. She could have given me a numerical answer. She could have said ‘1950’. I wonder if by instinct she knows that time is more than linear measurement, more than beads on a string? What else does she know of what cannot be seen?
“She dances very well,” commented Sita.
“She does indeed.” 1950 is the halfway point of the century, thought Che’ Wan. The pinnacle that divides what has been and what will be. And, she thought, born in the same chasm of time as Zainudin, who will someday need a mate. This could not be by chance. She had seen enough. She raised her hand and the music stopped. “Come here, Catherine. Let me take a closer look at you.” She took the girl’s hands, and looked at the raw knuckles and muddy nails. Almost at once, when their flesh connected, she could hear a voice from the temple urging her. “This one!”
The girl had a high, intelligent forehead, and that scar! It must be more than coincidence. She stared into the girl’s deep and trusting eyes, reading her history, trying to read her future. “This one.” She heard the voice again, and answered out loud. “Yes. I know.” She began to imagine what her little urchin would look like with a bath, and could hardly wait to run a comb through her hair.
And then, knowing what she would find, she turned the girl’s hand in her own, and examined the lines of her palm. There it was. Unmistakable. A perfect square. The sign of a healer. The sign of a high priestess. She kissed the girl’s open palm. “Look, Catherine!”
She traced the square for her. “Do you know what this means?”
“It means you’re special.” Che’ Wan showed Catherine her own palm, with the identical marking.
Catherine looked at the similarities. “Am I a witch?”
Che’ Wan laughed, and kissed the girl on the forehead.
A runner was sent to the Madrigal estate.