“When I was a boy, you would have been killed for that, British law be damned!”
Here is the conclusion of chapter one of The Courtesans of God, a completed manuscript that I am currently agent-shopping. 50 queries sent out so far, each one tailored to the requirements specified by each individual agency. A half a dozen rejections, but the nature of the publishing business is such that agents inform each submitter that they will only respond if they are interested in seeing more.
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Chapter One, concluded
On the dawn of that same morning, fifty kilometers away and on the fringe of Kuala Lumpur, the city that took its name from the River of Mud, the sky was still the soft gray of pewter, and the faithful had not yet been called to prayer.
“Wake up, Zainuddin. This is the day,” whispered Che’Wan. The boy to whom she had spoken was half asleep as she brushed his hair and dressed him, and she held his hand as she led him through the corridors and out a service entrance to where her driver was warming the Mercedes. Two women bowed as Che’Wan approached, and they ushered the boy into the front seat and opened the rear door for Che’Wan. They sat on either side of her without speaking. Che’Wan motioned for Safir, her driver and protector, to begin. “The Ancient One does not come to help you choose?” asked Safir.
“She does,” she replied, “but only in spirit.”
“Oh, I see. I hear she has not been well.”
Che’Wan avoided truthful comment. She loved the old man but knew he was prone to gossip. “The Yang Kuno will out-live us all.”
The dark spiral of descending road uncoiled before them like a cobra, and leveled out when they passed the guardhouse at the South Gate. The highway was vacant, but for them. In the distance, beneath a thin line of silver, the horizon was still dark and cool, asleep. Occasional shop-houses clung to the side of the road, sometimes in clusters, but they became fewer in number as they motored on, and the scent of pineapples began to flow through the open windows of the car. Half-hidden service roads crisscrossed the fields and highway.
“That way,” she pointed.
The snake-skin pavement turned to gravel, as if molting.
The fields were shoulder-high with pineapples just as the mata hari, the “eye of the day,” began its unfailing ritual of warmth and ascent. The road they followed slithered into the obscurity of the tall grass and the first stand of trees, and shortly thereafter they reached the river. Here the road narrowed, and was lacerated by the ruts of ox carts. The undergrowth to the left and right of the road grew tall and thick, and waited hungrily for the first opportunity to devour the trail altogether.
Safir gentled the car to a halt, and glanced in the rear-view mirror at the woman seated between her two attendants. He had served her half his life, from the time she was a child, and he did not like disappointing her. This was the first time she had made an outing in months, and he felt personally liable for the narrowing of the road, still so far from their destination. He cleared his throat of old age and prepared his apology. He turned over his shoulder. “Forgive me, puan, we can go no further. Are you certain this is the way? It’s been a long time.” He waited plaintively for a response.
“Oh yes. I’m quite sure.” She gave no other reassurance and instructed him to turn off the motor. The river could be felt, even seen, less than twenty yards away though still partially obscured by undergrowth and a prevailing curtain of vines that dangled from the canopy above. She closed her eyes and visualized the bridge to Sentul, which she was certain was not far ahead. She whispered to the boy in the front seat next to Safir, “Zainuddin? Have you fallen asleep?”
“No, Ibu, I didn’t fall asleep even once!” Safir, who knew differently, smiled at the woman in the rear-view mirror.
“Do you know the legend of Sha’anni Kalizar?”
“More than an eagle … a garruda, an eagle with the heart of a human and the spirit of a healer, like us. Have I told you the story?”
“No, but the Yang Kuno has told me.”
“And what did she say?”
“She said Sha’anni Kalizar saved a whole village from fire once, a long time ago. Is it true?”
“Yes. Yes, it’s true. Long before I was born.”
“And she said the garruda protects the virtuous.”
“Yes. This is also true, but did she tell you Sha’anni Kalizar makes her nest here, in Sentul?”
“Cleanse your thoughts of everything, and fill your heart with clear, blue sky. Sha’anni Kalizar has not fluttered a wing nor drawn a breath in seven years, but, today, that will change.” Then she added, “But only if you prepare yourself for her.”
“Yes, Ibu. I understand.”
They were well shaded and comfortable, and Che’Wan was fully confident that the impasse on the trail had been anticipated. She was seldom wrong about anything, and it was only a matter of time (all things, were a matter of time) before their patience bore fruit. She touched Zainuddin on the shoulder. “There! Can you feel it?”
“Feel what, Ibu?”
The air was still.
Zainuddin closed his eyes in concentration. “Yes. I can. What can it be?”
“Sha’anni Kalizar. She comes for us.”
Zainuddin opened his eyes and stared through the windscreen of the limousine. In the near distance and above the grass, he saw the wings of the garruda, just as Che’Wan had said it would be, and he heard the sharp ping of a brass gong. The underbrush was as tall as a full-grown man. That, and the curve in the road, obscured the approach of those who had come under the shadow of the great bird to escort them the rest of the way, and obscured also the cubicle the bird carried in its clutch.
Pak Sarkia, the village headman, was the first to emerge from the trail before them. He bore five hundred years of dignity, and bowed crisply. Without looking backwards he motioned two of the boys behind him to clear space adjacent to the limousine. As one of them reached to his belt to unsheathe his parang, the other stopped him with a curtly whispered “Tidak!” and then glanced furtively to see if they had been noticed. Mercifully the old man’s gaze was still fixed on the limousine.
…But Pak Sarkia had seen, in the reflection of the highly polished grillwork of the car. Later, privately, he would corner the boy. “I only meant to clear the brush!” the astonished boy would say in his own defense, only to see the jaw of the old man tighten.
“It is a weapon! You never draw a blade in the presence of a court priestess! When I was a boy you would have been killed for that, British law be damned! How could you not have known?” …
The two young Malays, both on the tenuous cusp of manhood, bent down the grass and trod it flat. The earlier admonitions of Pak Sarkia echoed in their heads …“and you must never have your back to the priestess.”
Zainuddin was oblivious to their labors. He could not keep his eyes from Sha’anni Kalizar, who hovered above them all until the boys had prepared the nest. The ornate cubicle within her talons was shouldered by four of the strongest Malays from the kampong. Her wings were fixed in perpetual flight.
“Ibu! She’s made of wood!”
She let the boy think through what he had said before responding. “Are you certain?” To some, the garruda was only a wood carving, and lifeless. To others, the teak was a masquerade, encapsulating a living spirit within.
“Bless the ground, Noor,” said Che’Wan to the woman on her left.
Sha’anni Kalizar glided gently to descent and offered Che’Wan passage within the coach she carried.
Zainuddin stared life into the carving, and was certain he had seen the bird blink.
A woman with twisted fingers and crooked legs shuffled her way forward, a bundle of banana leaves cradled in her arms like a sleeping infant. One by one, she arranged an overlapping pattern of the broad leaves upon the trampled grass, laying a carpet for the priestess. She bore no part of Pak Sarkia’s tension or the fear of the young boys who had cleared the path. Her age placed her well beyond that. She held one of the leaves up to the light. The filigree of each leaf, the capillaries through which flowed water, time, and life, were clearly embroidered by the nimble hand of God. She took the time to think this thought, and felt the better for it. The old, unhurried woman admired her work for a moment, pleased with her carpet, though she knew it was unnecessary. Everyone knew that when Che’Wan walked, her feet never touched the ground. The old woman bowed and removed herself.
Che’Wan stepped from the Mercedes and came forward. The sunlight had found a breach, as if for her, in the canopy above. She stood before the village elders and their youthful kin in radiant bloom, gowned completely in white except for the yellow band on the cuff of her tunic. She bowed sparingly to those assembled before her—a slight, dignified nod—a detached acknowledgment by one who is revered to those who are reverent.
She lifted her head to gaze a moment upon the garruda. The wings of Sha’anni Kalizar eclipsed the sun, and her fanned tail feathers shaded the cubicle below, which she continued to hold firmly. Che’Wan bent down to kiss the cheek of Zainuddin, who had stepped beside her. “Is she only wood?” she asked him.
Zainuddin studied once more the silhouette against the morning sky, before answering. “Just now, when I closed my eyes, I saw her blink.” Then the boy tugged on Che’Wan’s sleeve, drawing her close enough to whisper. “Someone watches us. Up ahead.”
“Yes. I know.”
Noor took the boy’s hand. Che’Wan’s other attendant, Sita, held open the light, silk curtains of the carriage, which were opaque with a fringe of yellow ribbon, the sun-color of healing. The carriage itself, a cabin, really, consisted of a high-backed throne carved in teak, generously golden with age, with two posts and a rail in front of the seat to support a cabin top and the weight of the garruda. It was similar though smaller than the confessional of a church, but it was airy and open, with no possibility for a stagnant sin to fester. Che’Wan bowed to Sha’anni Kalizar, whose talons were integral to the roof, and stepped inside.
At this the men who had carried the chair from the village bent down to take the poles on which it was suspended. As they stood erect with their burden, each man was unmistakably aware that it was lighter now than it was when it had been empty. Was it the excitement of the moment? Had Che’Wan made them stronger? Or were the legends true? They were bursting to speak to one another, but it would have to wait.
Pak Sarkia took his place at the fore of the procession. His grandson handed him a small, brass gong, which he struck once, and with his first step forward their pious march had become a parade. He struck the gong every now and then, as he had done coming from the village, and the sound scattered monkeys and birds, and it drove uninvited jungle spirits intent on mischief from the path. But it did not seem to drive away the young girl hidden in the grass, out of breath and spellbound.
Nor did the sharp sound of the brass distract Che’Wan, who listened to the wordless beauty of the countryside, and closed her eyes as it spoke to her. She could see it growing. It was the image of the same jungle, the same path, of years earlier. But it was not the same jungle. Each leaf, each blade of tall grass, was only the replication of generations past. And the river—the same course, the same movement—but not the same river, filled and flowing now with a different season of rains. She saw not the transient body of things, but the spirit within. She, too, was only a replication of an earlier self who had known this trail seven years ago. She felt herself lifted by the wings of a motionless garruda, carved from a fallen tree, and she hovered over memories visible only from the sky above.
Che’Wan, who could hear the trunk of a tree outgrowing its bark, turned her attention to the faint rustling of reeds and grass up ahead. From the higher vantage point of her carriage she could see a child cowering out of everyone else’s sight. She perceived that the girl had been running hard—she could hear it in her breathing, though the girl muffled her breath in her forearm and stayed low to the ground. Her head was pounding and Che’Wan could feel the pulse in the air.
Catherine realized she was too close to the path, and was terrified as Pak Sarkia passed by her, followed by a dozen others. They must be in a trance, not to see me, she thought. Then she felt a shadow overhead and heard the beating of the broad wings and felt the ripple as Sha’anni Kalizar fanned the grass. In the talons of the garruda she saw the one that she was forbidden to see, though her features were made indistinct by the cloud of silk curtains draped over the coach. The witch! shuddered Catherine. The whore! Whatever that is, it must be worse than a witch, she thought, remembering the rage in her grandmother’s voice when she spoke the word.
She stiffened in the grass and watched a boy her own age follow behind Sha’anni Kalizar. He wore a white tunic with gold embroidery, and rather than wearing a sarong he wore loose fitting trousers, also white. A Pan flute made from the tips of river reeds laced together hung upon his chest like a medallion. The only boys Catherine had ever seen were from the kampong, and he was not like them. He was well-groomed, even elegant, and though his black hair grew down to his shoulders, unusual for a boy, he did not seem to be at all girlish. He did not look her way as he passed, obeying Che’ Wan’s telegraphic message to him.
Catherine dug her fingers into the dirt until the last of the elders in the procession had passed. No one, she was certain, had noticed her, and she took some comfort in that. She stood, parted the brush, and followed them at a distance, like a cat that wants the company of humans, but only if the door is left ajar for an unfettered retreat.
“Just a moment,” said the high priestess, as the path they had followed had reached the flowing water and the bridge to kampong. The entourage came to a halt. “Pak Sarkia,” asked Che’Wan, “is this a clean bridge?”
His heart stopped.
The monsoon flood that had purged the jungle of the Second World War had uprooted the bridge as well, leaving nothing. The present bridge, though weathered, was clearly not the one upon which they had trod seven years ago. This had escaped Pak Sarkia, but not Che’Wan.
“Yes …Yes, it is,” he said with relief.
Until recently, and even now in some of the more remote villages, when a bridge was built there would be the coincidental disappearance of a young girl. Speculations would be feigned in public discussion and private gossip. She was lost in the jungle, or taken by a crocodile up the river. Search parties discovered nothing. But the men who would hunt for her would be conspicuously silent, since they were privy to the truth from the beginning. What choice did they have? The more malicious of the river spirits considered a bridge as trespass, and could be appeased in but one way.
After a few weeks, there would be a wake with an empty coffin, and a small basket into which mourners would place money to help the family immobilized by tragedy. The poor surrendered their entire fortunes. Even the well-to-do gave something. The real fate of the girl was never acknowledged, not even privately between the parents. They were admired for the way they endured their grief and played their part, and for the beauty of their sacrifice. Everyone knew the head of their daughter was pinioned beneath the first piling.
“You must be certain, tuan, that the bridge is clean. If it is not so, by the time I am halfway across I will be of no value to you, or anyone.”
“Yes, puan. I understand. I myself sunk the first piling.”
To cross a bridge polluted by violence would condone the misguided ritual, and Che’Wan would have no part of it. Had she remained oblivious and begun the crossing, she would have felt herself choking on the blood of the deed anyway, as it contaminated her spirit, rendering her almost powerless, subjecting her to the punishing forces of human gravity … but Che’Wan trusted the word of the tuan kepala, the village headman, that the bridge was pure.
“Well, then,” she said firmly, “let’s not disappoint all those people on the other side!”
“Yes, puan!” His vigor soared again, uplifted by the current of Che’Wan’s approval. He struck the gong once again and, as his step touched the first plank of the bridge, the air blossomed with applause from the far side of the river.
Sha’anni Kalizar swept her way forward and scanned the crowd that awaited them. The virtuous could ride upon her wings, but evil beings, whether flesh or spirit, would scatter at the garruda’s approach. She could ferret out the deceitful with her black sapphire eyes that only the pure of heart could gaze upon. Invisible demons panicked and fled to the sound of the piercing cry that only they could hear, discharged from the breast of Sha’anni Kalizar.
After seven years of stillness she had spontaneously awakened this summer morning to retrieve her mistress, and was now proudly returning to display the gift she ferried beneath her.
Among these people, Sha’anni Kalizar had earned her place shortly after the turn of the century. Late one night, when everyone had been asleep, she was heard screaming from her perch in the mosque moments before flame was visible or smoke detectable. A few who had been children then remembered how the urgent warning of the garruda mobilized a water brigade that kept the fire from spreading.
Those same children were now the elders who walked behind Sha’anni Kalizar and could see the truth that others were too young to perceive: it was the garruda who carried the sacred one across the river. The bearers carried only the throne on which she sat.
The slender reeds in the shadow of the bridge stood shoulder-to-shoulder in random clusters until the last in the entourage had crossed. At this, the slight girl who had been watching everything emerged from the invisibility the reeds afforded her. The long and open bridge provided no such security, and she scampered across quickly, as Sha’anni Kalizar and Che’Wan were absorbed upon the banks of the kampong. The villagers parted for them and bowed as they passed, like broad leaves bending in a gentle rain. Catherine slipped in behind them before the crowd closed the gap to the trail they had opened, and she followed Che’Wan through the village towards the mosque.
So this is what Kamille had been talking about, thought Catherine. It’s true. Seven days prior to this moment a runner had been sent with a written message to Pak Sarkia, informing him of Che’Wan’s intended arrival. No explanation was given; it was well understood what a visit from the high priestess from the Palace of the King implied.
Preparations were immediate and intense. She had chosen Sentul for a second time. This baffled Pak Sarkia. What would cause her to deviate from tradition? And where was the Ancient One, the Yang Kuno? He kept this to himself and focused on the task before him. A second time. The honor was of unimaginable proportions.
Though pineapples had just come in season, Pak Sarkia culled almost half the men from the fields, this with the begrudging consent of Sarafina Madrigal D’Cruz. Those who stayed with the harvest shared their wages with those chosen to renovate the kampong, and prepare for the arrival of Che’Wan. It had been her blessing of the village alone that had allowed them to be spared so much of the agony that befell the rest of the Malay Peninsula during the War.
Silt that had made the drainage ditches stagnant was dredged, and goats were set free to feed on the random patches of weeds throughout the kampong. The mosque was hastily repainted, and the sand in the square it bordered was raked in symmetrical patterns where a ceremonial tent was erected. The ground was blessed, and the sky itself was washed with prayer. Were Che’Wan to see anything impure, or perceive anything imperfect through any of her many senses, she could become tainted, and any blessing that she might offer to the village would have no power or magic.
The women began planning the menu, and sent their children to gather the herbs and roots that needed several days to prepare and ferment. Mothers would look judiciously at the children of appropriate age, and in the evenings, after prayer, would rehearse with them the dance of their ancestors as the men provided soft-as-rain gamelan music late into the night.
A slight limp disappeared from Pak Sarkia’s step that week, as the challenge to prepare made him youthful. But he could not inspire everyone.
There were the old Chinese families, that owned the stores, the Indian family, that owned a truck, and, of course, the Madrigals, the family that burned candles for Jesus and owned the rubber tree and pineapple plantations.
The Chinese believed— and it was confirmed by none other than Sarafina Madrigal D’Cruz herself— that the garruda could see into their houses and come to life at the bidding of Che’Wan, to swoop through their doors to steal their children. “You let that wooden bird of hers into your house, it will pluck your children from their beds and carry them to a cave in the mountains.” She offered evidence. “The white tops of the mountains? That’s the bleaching bones of the children it eats. The real reason Che’Wan comes…is to feed her pet.”
Because Sarafina spoke so fearlessly, the fearful believed her every word. The superstitious prepared for Che’Wan with a traditional defense against evil; they wired pieces of broken mirror to their closed doors so that the garruda would see no children within, would see only its hideous self. A rusted nail was put upon every windowsill to impale its spirit should it try to gain entry.
The Indian family worked very hard to express no opinion at all.
But among the Malays no effort was spared to groom the more refined children who might pass under the eye of Che’Wan. Their posture, their speech, their mannerisms, suddenly were scrutinized by every adult in Sentul. The children she had recruited seven years earlier were children no more, and it was time to regenerate. Every seven years it had been thus, as far back as anyone could remember, but never twice from the same village, never such favoritism.
So little time to prepare for all this. Who would ever have thought that she would return? For the entire week parents secretly speculated which children might find favor with Che’Wan, and have the chance to become what only she could make of them, vessels of pleasure and healing, the courtesans of God.
On this day Che’Wan would decide whose lives she would change forever, the ones she would patiently tutor, preening wings as yet untried, teaching them to dance, to heal others, to shape the desires of the flesh into the flight of birds, to become the courtesans of God, and to be so light of spirit they would leave no footprint as they walked the ground, transforming them into the intermediaries of the spirit world who could evaporate at will into the future or the past—Bida Devi—the Disappearing Ones.
And perhaps, in this crop of children, she would find the one so strong of spirit but so unfettered of the gravity of the world that the old woman in the temple could at last be free to explore the pleasure of her own death. It was for this Che’Wan had come.
Sha’anni Kalizar surveyed the crowd as she crossed the bridge, and saw only goodness. On a hilltop not far away, Sarafina Madrigal D’Cruz awakened from her morning nap, stepped onto the veranda, and saw only that the gate had been left open.