A Dagger in the Rain
by Marti Booker
The rice crop had shone green in the sun when I stepped out of the field and away from my world. Now, the stubble in the fields was browning in the dry-season sun and the death priests were laying the spirits of the dead to rest. I watched from the edge of the forest, mute, the singing of my people carrying clearly through the trees.
The water buffalo fell to its knees after the first stroke, blood gushing from its throat and spilling onto the rich volcanic soil. The spotted buffalo was my husband’s most precious possession, the pet that he had force-fed in anticipation of his father’s passing. His father watched as the to mebalum slaughtered it, his face impassive. I had no doubt that the waste angered him; anything spent on my behalf was waste in his eyes.
I could only wonder how much more furious he would be if he knew I was still alive. They had found no body to entomb in the caves, but they had included me in the funeral festivities nonetheless. Perhaps they had done it so that my hard-eyed husband could better attract a new wife. The cold knife that had ensnared me had left no corpse for them– my husband would want to make my death a reality for the people; he had been coveting Balin’s oldest daughter even before I had vanished.
“Release me,” I whispered to the keris. “Let me go to them. I will not die so easily.”
The blade strengthened its hold on my spirit. It burned at my mind and, I curled into a ball at the base of the tree, wishing I could scream. I buried my face in the leaf litter and prayed that my suffering would end. After an agonizing minute, the dagger lessened the torment.
I stood shakily, the knife still clutched in my right hand, and peered through the undergrowth at my family. They were dressed all in black, the color of death.
My cousin Upala held my son in her plump arms and watched the procession; Kelinci, my little rabbit, nestled upon her breast and sucked at his thumb. I did not try to stop my tears. After the first terrible week spent in the knife’s power, I had forgotten how he looked, his scent, his soft baby skin. It all came back to me as I gazed at him. The pain inside my skull was nothing next to the pain in my heart.
I had fought the blade; it had taken me the whole month to force myself to draw this close to my village, a month spent dodging into the undergrowth to avoid everyone at the knife’s insistence, a month living off jackfruit and bats that I caught while they slept in the limestone caves.
I tried again to step into the clearing and call to my family. My son needed me: he was my life. This time, the pain sent me into unconsciousness. When I awoke a few moments later, I realized I had fought in vain. I was mother no longer, wife no longer. I could not return to my family’s tongkonan. I was a spirit of the dead just as much as my great-grandmothers were. I, Chut-Nja-Din, now as dead to them as the buffalo, was slave to the keris dagger.
“Damn you,” I said, forcing the words past my chapped lips. I could barely hear myself over the chattering of the birds in the canopy. “Damn you and the ancestor that forged you. I pray that Kali eats your souls.”
The keris sent a tendril of pain through me, delicately hitting the spots that caused agony. South, it commanded. South to Makassar. I was confused. The city of barbarians? Of the Bujis and the Gowas? What cause had I to go there? Another wave of pain shook me as I resisted, hinting of agony beyond bearing. I took a last frantic look at my son. He was fat and healthy. His black hair gleamed in the sunlight. I memorized his features: the curve of his fat baby cheek, the color of his skin, and the build of his sturdy little body. Then I turned to the south and followed the dagger’s call.
The keris urged me southward faster, driving me until I tore the soles of my feet on thorns and rocks. I could see my bones beneath my skin. I fought to eat when I was hungry and to drink when I was thirsty, but the knife did not let me rest for long. My dreams, such as they were, were haunted by twisted figures, warped by the hate that seeped out of the metal of the blade.
I had found the keris while preparing the coffins of my ancestors for the burial ritual. I was straightening a pile of bones and shifting my great-uncle Ne’ Ke’te’s skull when I found it. It had been underneath the coffin, and I took it out of the dirt-caked scabbard to examine it. The family knives were sacred; rarely did they get buried with anyone. I should have known better—there was no shortage of curses and evils upon our island. Still, I grasped the ebony handle, and the evil spirit seized my soul. The taint seeped into my flesh from the touch of the knife, a steady stream of torment.
I had tried repeatedly to force the blade from my hand; I had pried on my fingers with sticks, I had crushed the blade’s handle against a stone and pulled, and I had battered my wrist against a tree, all to make my hand release its grip. Nothing had worked. My struggles had only added to my injuries, spotting my sarong with blood and beading my forehead with sweat from the effort of resisting.
Now, I was too tired to fight for long. I traveled through the mountains and down into the lowlands that bordered the coast, stumbling over my feet as the days stretched into weeks. The scent of Makassar reached me long before I saw the city. It smelled of spices and sewage, gunpowder and gore. The smoke blew north on the hot wind, and the reek caught in the back of my throat and gagged me. I had heard rumors; who had not? Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the hordes of people that streamed from the city. I quickly grew tired of dodging into the bushes, shaking with pain, and I fought the tug of the blade enough to stagger to the narrowest and least-used trails.
I had never been to Makassar before; my people were perpetually at war with the Bujis and the Makassarese and the coast around Makassar was their domain. The Portugese traders and our exiles that came home for the funerals each year were our only sources of information. As I drew closer, the keris allowed me to be seen by other people, but it held my tongue fast.
I do not believe I could have spoken even without its control. The city was unlike anything I had seen. Even at war it was teeming with people; the air was choked with the smell of pepper and cloves and humanity. The people were an odd mix of colors: pale, red faced men, men so dark their skin was glossy black in the midday sun, people draped in so much cloth I could not see their faces, and sallow Chinese traders selling things wherever I turned. Baffling, harsh languages assaulted my ears.
It was the most amazing sight I had ever beheld; I fell in love.
The keris did not allow me to linger. It drove me through the streets like a dog beaten with a flaming stick. I dodged women selling live pigs and turbaned men smoking opium, and I rushed through the city heedless of anything except the dagger’s call.
The dagger knew where it was going, for it led me to a back entrance to the palace of the Gowa sultans. The palace was chaotic; I could not enter. The knife would not understand. It continued to pound at my senses, trying to force me to enter the fortress. I could not see clearly, and the voices without became nothing more than gibberish babbled at me like thrown stones.
The Sultan must die, the keris screamed inside my head. The Gowa must end.
It made no sense. Couldn’t the knife see that the power of the Sultan was broken? His guards were gone from the palace, and strange pale men occupied his towers. I fought against the call: I formed the remnants of my will into a shield and tried to block out the keris’s demand.
I was too weak, too drained, or just not determined enough. The keris seized control again and sent me racing through the city, searching desperately for the Sultan and his retinue. But they were gone.
Even in a city at war, I looked out of place. I could feel the stares as I passed by the market stalls. I smelled of sweat and sickness and blood, and I was dirty. My sarong was in tatters, my skin scratched and beaten. The keris had slowed its assault on my mind: it was planning something. I grew weaker each day with the hunger and weariness. I was starving in sight of food, and one morning I took the demon’s chance and snatched a starfruit from an unoccupied stall.
I had never been a thief; I was soon reminded why. A crowd of men snatched me out of my hiding place behind a grass-thatched hut and took me to an open square. They tried to wrest the keris from my hand, taking turns when the first man discovered that he could not pry it from my grasp. The men spoke loudly in a tongue I did not understand, tugging at the knife and slapping me across the head when I did not let it go. An old man demanded in Malay, “Let go of the knife, thief.”
“I cannot,” I whispered, but I do not think he heard me. The men’s faces turned angry shades of red and a swarthy fat man drew out a sword. I wanted to scream, wanted to run, but they held me down, dozens of rough hands, and the keris did not loose my tongue. I watched in sickened fascination as the bulbous swordsman brought the sword down on my wrist, slicing cleanly through the bone and leaving my right hand in the dust. Then I fainted, unconsciousness claiming me for its own.
“You’re awake,” a soft voice said. “You’ve been very ill. Don’t sit up. I don’t want you to faint again.”
I opened my eyes into darkness. I strained to make something out, but all I could see was a faint outline of sky through a window. The stars were out, and soft clouds blew past, illuminated by a full moon. I was laying on a mat of woven rugs. I could feel the weave beneath my skin. Someone held a cup to my lips, and I drank.
The water was warm and tasted of metal, but my swollen tongue was greedy for it. A soft hand stroked my forehead and pushed me back onto the pallet. I tried to steady myself with my hand, and a searing pain lanced through my arm.
When I came to consciousness again, the sun was lightening the sky. This time, I remembered my hand and I did not make the mistake of moving my arm. The stump throbbed with pain, a steady dull ache that reminded me clearly what had happened.
“You mustn’t fight me,” the voice said. It was a woman’s voice, smooth and calm, speaking in accented Torajan. I heard footsteps on the dirt floor and saw her for the first time.
She was beautiful, with golden skin and black hair flowing unbound over her back. She wore a silk sarong that gleamed in the dim light. Even healthy, I had not approached such splendidness. I did not want to think about my looks now.
She smiled at me and knelt next to my pallet. “My name is Masuri,” she said. She wiped my forehead with a damp cloth and straightened the coverlet that was spread over me. “I took you from the square after they had seared your wound. You spoke in Torajan while they were burning you, and I couldn’t leave you to die.”
I inched to a sitting position, using my left hand to prop myself up. The room seemed to spin. Masuri held the wet cloth to my forehead again as I tried to get my balance. “I don’t understand. What did they do with the keris I had? Where is it?”
Masuri shook her head and frowned. “I don’t know what became of the knife. I suppose one of the men took it. It wasn’t there when I took you away. Don’t upset yourself. Surely a knife is not so important.”
I wanted to stand, but I couldn’t make my legs support me. “You don’t understand. The blade is cursed. It was controlling me.”
Masuri bit her bottom lip and sat next to my bed. “You’ve been feverish. You need to eat and rest.”
I sank back onto the rug and obeyed. I felt my fever rising again; my eyes felt hot and suddenly the thin coverlet was not enough to keep me warm. Masuri gave me another sip of the tepid water, and I sank back into sleep. I dreamt, but this time the keris was not there to warp my dreams. Instead, I saw my hand falling into the dust of the square, the knife still clutched in my palm. The hand changed and became Kelinci; then it became the water buffalo. I slept, but I had no peace.
I stayed in the little house with Masuri until the stump of my arm healed. Outside, the seasons were changing. I walked through the streets to regain my strength, hiding my bandaged arm inside the folds of my loose sarong. Clean and well fed, dressed in one of Masuri’s silks, I felt nothing like the beast I had been when I had stumbled into the city.
“Your hair is shining,” Masuri told me as she brushed out my braids one evening. She grinned and stroked my hair with one hand. “All my cooking must be healing you.”
I did not know what to say to her when she joked with me. Kelinci was ever in my thoughts; although my body healed, my arms ached to hold him.
Masuri tugged me out of my longing many times with an irreverent observation or a scandalous bit of gossip. She was unlike any woman I had ever known. She had no sense of duty; indeed, she had no loyalty to her husband at all. She paid for her little house with silver she had taken from her husband’s strongbox when she had left him.
It was her good fortune that he had fled Makassar at that same time she had deserted him. The world was changing along with the season; the people were moving out of Makassar in great droves. Masuri showed me each day the changes that the Dutch were bringing. They expelled the Portugese and took over the spice trade for themselves, and we heard gunfire in the streets. The Dutch had induced the Bujis to fight against the Sultan, although Masuri did not know where he was. She had not heard anything of the blade, and had decided that they had burnt it along with my hand.
Masuri told me the story of her life as I recovered, amusing me with tales of court life.
“I had to leave the palace when the end came,” she explained. “My husband is one of Sultan Hasanuddin’s closest friends; he would never leave the Sultan’s side, even unto death. I, naturally, don’t want to die. So I ran away.”
She chattered on like a macaque, cheerfully telling me about her husband’s first wife, who had been born in Torajaland and had converted to Islam, and about life in the palace during the war with the Dutch. She had watched the Portugese ships burn in the harbor and told me in detail about the six sinkings. Always, she was merry and unconcerned by the fate of her husband.
“He was not so bad,” she confessed as she cooked over the tiny brazier. “Those shrouded men, you should see how they treat their wives. They make them go about veiled and never let them go anywhere alone — not even to fetch water. It makes no sense; unless of course they are such bad husbands that their wives cannot wait to escape. The Gowa Muslims are more sensible.”
I said nothing, but my thoughts spun while I ground the curry spices in Masuri’s small mortar. Masuri’s religion was a constant in her life, although she ignored the fact that she had disobeyed the Qur’an by abandoning her husband.
When I questioned her, she was blithe. “Inshallah,” she said, cutting up long-beans without pausing. “It was Allah’s will that we parted ways. Who am I to question His wisdom?”
One wet morning, Masuri brought me a fresh rambutan and split the hairy red fruit open for me. The scent reminded me of home, and I realized that I had been in Makassar for four months. My son was probably walking. He must have begun to talk. The rains had begun again two weeks before, and I pictured him, toddling through the puddles.
Masuri watched me closely as I ate the fruit. “I think it is time for you to be honest with me, Chut-Nja-Din. And also time for me to be honest with you. I know what happened to your keris.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded. “I have to find it. It needs to be destroyed. It is evil, damnably so.”
Masuri toyed with a gold bangle hanging from her bracelet before answering me. “I did not tell you because a Dutchman took it. He is fighting against Hasanuddin. And I did not like the light in his eyes.”
Shuddering, I told her about the dagger. She watched my face intently as I spun the tale and wound her arms around me when I was finished. “I will take you to see the Dutchman,” she said when I had finished shaking. She stroked my hair and I relaxed. “Right now he is in the palace. After you have seen him, you can decide if you still want to alter fate.”
We slipped through the crowds that, despite the rain, still filled the streets. The old palace was a beehive of activity, with crews of men working to tear down the lovely old walls and raze the decorated structures.
Silently, Masuri led me to a narrow passageway and gave the native man who was guarding the door a hug. “Do not stay long,” the young man whispered. His eyes were red and his face was thin and drawn. “The Dutchman gets angrier and angrier, and nothing we do pleases him. He would kill me for letting anyone in.”
Masuri gave him a kiss on the cheek. “We will not stay long, brother. Chut needs to see him for herself.” She ducked through a tiny door, and I followed, breathless. I had no time to consider the mystery of her brother, nor did I have time to catch my breath, for the sight before us held my attention.
A giant man stood inside a magnificent room, shouting orders in three different languages. I recognized some of the Malay and enough of the Bujis to know what it was; the third tongue must have been Dutch. Anger flowed off of him in palpable waves and his words were vicious. He pointed savagely at the men he commanded, gesturing wildly with his left hand while he growled orders at them. He turned to shout at an indifferent Bujis nobleman, and as he turned, I saw that his right hand was at his hip. It was clutching the handle of a sheathed dagger, and I saw the carved ebony figure of Kali grasped tightly in his ruddy hand.
It was the keris, the cursed knife. It held another’s soul now. Except this time, the bearer had power beyond that of ordinary folk.
I backed out of the room as hastily as I could. I could feel Masuri following me, but I did not stop to say any goodbyes to her brother. I sped through the passageway until I was out in the cool rain. I stood in the midst of the downpour and let the water soak me to the skin. A few moments later, Masuri came out and placed one arm around my waist. “I must go home,” I said. “My son, I must go back to him. I must try to find the soul that bespelled that knife also. I cannot let this continue. I’m well, you’ve cared for me and fed me, but I must go home.”
Masuri raised her left eyebrow and shook her head at my persistence. She probably thought I was mad. “You’re not leaving me behind, Chut-Nja-Din. I am your friend, and I won’t let you travel alone.”
The monsoon season is the worst time to travel into the highlands; the rain turns the trails into a morass of rotting leaves and sucking mud. Masuri, despite her silks and beauty, trudged through the mud beside me without complaining. Her brother, as disloyal to the Gowa as Masuri herself, had used his position as an employee of the Dutch to get us many supplies, but still we had nothing to protect us from the pervasive rain except makeshift umbrellas.
Even sodden, Masuri was still lovely. She carried more than half of the burdens in order to spare me. The further north we went, the more we had to hide from soldiers. The Dutchman’s troops were voracious; they scrutinized the undergrowth on both sides of the trails. I knew that the Sultan was hiding from the soldiers himself, but it was scant comfort when I was crouched in a gully inhabited by vipers.
The troops loyal to the Gowa sultanate were fewer and less organized, and they paid little attention to anything beyond their own survival. Still, we hid from them. For two women to travel alone was already tempting the gods’ mercy. No matter how fervent Masuri’s prayers to Allah were, I preferred the safety of common sense.
The trails that the keris had found were alien to me now, and we made slow progress in the downpours. As brave as Masuri was, scrambling up the slick hillsides and enduring the pounding rain, she wore out as the days passed and my own returned health proved to be more fragile than I had thought.
After three weeks spent on the trail, I could go no farther. I began looking for a dry place for us to rest. After three days hunting through the mountainsides, I found a dry cave that wasn’t teeming with bats or snakes, and we sheltered inside. I sat in the dry cave on one of the small rugs I had used to pack our supplies while Masuri combed out her long ebony hair.
The rain continued to pour outside, the sound that had filled most days of my life. It was lulling; I found myself dozing as Masuri began to sing in soft Malay. “Are you going to sleep?” Masuri whispered into my ear. “I was going to cook some rice. I needed you to help me look for some wood.”
I stretched, yawning, and peered into the rain. The odds of finding dry firewood seemed slim, and I did not want to leave the cave. “We can just eat some dried fish,” I mumbled. “With the two jackfruit I picked, we can delay getting wet again.”
Masuri settled down on the floor next to me and moved close until her left side was pressed against me. She was warm, and her drying hair smelled like sandalwood. She cradled my injured arm close to her, crooning a lullaby under her breath. She had never shown revulsion at my stump. She had bandaged it for two months while it healed and ignored it as if it were merely a scar like any other.
“Chut-Nja-Din, precious one,” she whispered softly, “you’re falling asleep on me again.”
I didn’t open my eyes. I was imagining home. I pictured my family inside their thatched-roof homes, safe and dry during the rains, but forced into uncomfortable closeness. I envisioned the women laughing at the children, and I imagined my mother and my cousin, Upala, working on their beadwork while they chewed the betel nut.
I tried not to remember my husband and the subservience he had kept me under, but the memories came unbidden. My mind was torn between the painful memories and my riven heart whenever I thought of Kelinci. Tears came to my eyes, streaming down my face.
Masuri kissed them off my cheeks. I was too surprised to react, so I made no protest when she moved her mouth to cover mine. She drew me down to the hard earth of the cave floor and encircled me with her arms.
Her lips tasted like jackfruit, sour-sweet on my tongue. When she kissed me again, I opened my mouth to taste her breath and her spirit. I felt keenly the loss of my hand, for when the time came for me to caress her silken skin, I had only one hand with which to touch her.
We rested for three days before we entered the rain again. Masuri’s jokes were less frequent and her silences were more noticeable. She had asked me once if I really thought going home was wise, but I had no answer to give her. My thoughts were conflicted anyway; no answer I could have given would have been true.
Her touch on my skin was a blossoming flame in my soul, but I had resisted the urge to hold her again. If I touched her soft skin, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go any farther. I pushed on faster after our brief respite, determined to get back to Torajaland. I had to see for myself. I had to see my baby, and I had to settle with the spirits of the dead.
We entered my village’s territory stealthily, keeping within the dark canopy of the forest. I did not want to be seen before I had found my son among them. I wanted to know that he was still alive.
I waited in the dim hot jungle until I saw the women going to the fields, and I held my breath until I spotted him. He was beautiful. He toddled after my cousin Upala with a bamboo shoot held like a spear, his stout little limbs testimony to his health.
Masuri watched, and nodded as she saw him come into view. “He looks like you, beloved,” she whispered.
Upala picked him up, swinging him effortlessly onto her hip as she balanced a picking basket on her other side. They passed so close to us I could have spoken to them without raising my voice, but I remained silent. Kelinci babbled to Upala, his voice high and excited as he chattered in the pidgin of children. Upala answered him, her low voice humorous and rich. I did not move.
“Why don’t you go to them?” Masuri asked me softly when they had passed beyond our sight.
I shook my head. I wasn’t ready to face my family, and my little rabbit had grown a child’s legs to walk on. He looked more like his father than he looked like me, I decided. Still, he was beautiful. My son, my beloved son. Yet, I thought sadly, the price to hold him again was high.
“I must find the spirit that cursed the knife,” I said after a moment’s pause. “That must be dealt with.”
I crept through the jungle to the ancestral caves and climbed the rickety rope ladders that the men had hung from the mouths of the caves. Masuri followed, clinging to the slick ropes and supporting me when I would have fallen. The rain had begun again, and by the time we reached the top, we were sodden.
The damp chill of the limestone walls sent us into shivers. I rubbed my arms as best I could one-handed. It was not easy. Such a little thing to do, I mused, and because of this spirit, I could no longer do it well. I examined the bones of my great-great uncle, wondering if I had the courage to do what I must. The rage inside me provided the answer.
Masuri knelt next to the coffins and watched as I aligned my uncle’s bones. “What are you doing?”
“I am going to stop this insanity.” I continued to arrange the bones.
Many of the smaller ones had been lost or rotted away, but I laid his limbs straight and adjusted his skull so it stared into the ceiling of the cave. Then, I focused and began calling on the spirits of the dead to help me. I prayed and waited.
Masuri moved to the entrance of the cave and watched the village. It began to rain harder, and I struggled to concentrate on my prayer. The apparition of my great-great uncle rose from the bones and frowned at me. With a motion of his hand, he clothed himself in a chief’s headdress of buffalo horn and chicken feathers, towering above me, glowering.
“You have failed me, miserable woman. I will not rest until the line of the Gowa sultans is ended. Until that day, I will have no peace in the netherworld.” His ghost-face was scornful.
“Their house is broken,” I said, defiant to the spirit as I had never been to any man in life. “Their fortress is ruined, and the foreigners have conquered him. I will not let anyone enact your revenge upon a man beaten. You have stolen my life; I will not let you steal another’s for an unneeded revenge.”
The spirit howled at me and cast a wind that scoured the floor of the cave, sending ankle and toe bones scattering into the crevices. “I will have my revenge, faithless whore. You are nothing, you are trivial. The bearer of the knife will find the descendant of my enemy and destroy him.”
“You will not get your triumph, uncle,” I said, casting my arms wide in a gesture of cursing. “I have lost everything, my life, my hand, and my heart in your service. Damn you to nothingness. I will not let you have your peace!”
The spirit roared and cast another wind that sent sand swirling into my eyes. “You cannot stop my destiny. You are not worthy of my tongkonan, you have no honor. Do not come to our family again; you will never rest among these graves, I swear it upon the soul of our ancestors.”
The spirit disappeared into the bones, rattling them against the ground as the last of the essence poured into them.
I stood, wiping the dust from my eyes and blinking away tears. “I will have my revenge upon you,” I swore to the desiccated bones. “I will not rest until your spirit is in torment, uncle.”
Masuri moved to wipe away my tears with her sarong. I hugged her fiercely with my good arm, resisting her efforts to soothe me. I shook the dirt from my hair and let my tears flow freely. “I can’t let him win. I must do something to stop him.”
Masuri loosened her hold on me and sighed. She kicked my great-great uncle’s bones resentfully with one bare foot, sending his femur flying. “He’s only one spirit, Chut-Nja-Din, a ghost, nothing more. He is not a god.”
I looked at the crumbling bones, containing all at once so much power and so little life. There had to be greater things in the universe than this miserable spirit and his petty revenge.
Whatever I intended to do, I knew that I could not desecrate this sacred cave when I did it. It was a terrible thought, to try to destroy a spirit, and I didn’t know how to go about it. Still, I had to try. I knelt down and picked up one of the dusty arm bones. It felt light in my hand, belying the terrible burden that its owner had placed upon me. I imagined my uncle’s spirit tainting Kelinci’s life, making him as miserable as I, and the blasphemous thoughts no longer seemed so terrible.
With a brief, mumbled prayer for forgiveness, I stood up, still holding the bone. “I need a sack, a basket, something to carry these in,” I said.
I searched the cave, but all the caskets and baskets were rotted and decaying. We had left our belongings in the shelter of the forest, leaving us free to climb the ladders but also leaving us without a single basket or rug to wrap the bones in. I searched the cave again, increasingly frantic, until Masuri gave a disgusted snort and began stripping off her outer sari.
“Here, use this to wrap them in,” she said. “You’ll do no good rushing about like a headless chicken.”
I laid the heavy silk on the ground and piled the bones on as quickly as I could with my one hand. After a moment, Masuri knelt beside me and began the painstaking work of picking up all the fragments and tiny remnants of my great uncle.
As a finishing touch, she presented me with the femur she’d kicked. We placed it atop the pile. She tied the edges of the cloth together and slung the awkward bundle across her back. “Where do you plan to take him?” she asked.
I nodded toward the forest. “Out of the caves, away from the others. There is another cave not far to the north. I used to hide there when . . . when I could not go home.”
Masuri’s eyes watched me intently, and I struggled to keep my expression blank. “It’s a good cave for an evil ghost, isolated and empty.”
With Masuri shouldering the burden, we climbed down the slippery ladder and slipped back into the forest. There were no paths except the narrow trails left by animals, the paths I’d used for the months of my terrifying possession. We started down the path that led towards the cave, a light rain pattering on the leaves.
As we approached the cave, a small figure moved out of the undergrowth, rustling the branches loudly. A pig, I thought for a moment, but, no, it was an old woman, bent over nearly double from the hump on her back. I didn’t recognize her for a moment, but when she stepped in the middle of the path and blocked our way, her wrinkled face suddenly lit up in a mischievous smile that reminded me, suddenly, of my cousin Upi and his wicked smiles whenever he’d gotten me into trouble when we were children.
“Auntie?” I asked. I felt like I was a small child again, and desperately in need of a hiding place before my misdeeds were discovered.
“You thought I was dead, eh?” Auntie scrutinized me for a moment, then grinned again. “Not dead, just lost. Lost in the mountains, forever and ever. No one will bury me.” She paused, then cackled out a loud laugh. “Good. I can haunt the other spirits. Damned bombos, they never shut up around here. Need some peace and quiet, you go into the forest by yourself and there’s still people chattering. You never get any rest.”
She walked in a quick waddle over to us and peered at the bundle in Masuri’s arms. “Which one is this, hey?”
“Great-Uncle Ne’ Ke’te’.” I shuffled my feet, trying to shrink back into the undergrowth to avoid her.
“A real mean one, that one,” she muttered, poking the bundle of bones with one gnarled finger. “He should be happy enough, they slaughtered twenty-four buffaloes for him. You’d think he’d have gone right to Puya with the other happy souls. But he was a mean old boar when he was alive, not even that could make him happy, eh?”
I nodded, looking at my feet. The mud was seeping up between my toes.
“And he’s pestering you.” It wasn’t a question—she looked at my stump and nodded to herself. “Bad ghost, alright. Well, come on, then, we have to shut him up or you’ll never get any sleep, either.”
She led the way to a small camp, it didn’t look like it had been there for more than a day or two. The plants had a few bent leaves and broken stems that had just started dying. She must live like this, I thought, moving from place to place, always alone and hiding. Watching us from the shadows. I shuddered, feeling the skin on my arms prickle from fear. What a terrible fate.
“I have something here, hmm, where did I put it.” Auntie dug through a small pile of baskets and sacks until she brought out a bundle wrapped in old dried leaves. “I was saving this for when my sister dies, because I know that she will never shut up, miserable old woman that she is. But we can use it now. Yes, I think that’s the best idea.”
She gestured towards the hills. “Well, come on, we have to put him somewhere. That cave you were hiding in, I suppose? As good a place as any.”
I shuddered again. Knowing that she’d been watching me was worse than just suspecting. What else was out here in the jungle, hiding and watching? Evil spirits abounded, and who knew how many had been attracted to me by my bad luck.
As I had remembered, the cave was barren and small, but isolated behind a thick stand of briars. Masuri laid the bundle on the damp floor, and I opened it carefully, smoothing the cloth and straightening it until the bones looked like an offering ready for the pyre. I backed away, feeling dirtied from the touch of his powdery remains.
Auntie shuffled over to the assembled bones and unwrapped the small package. Inside was a lump of what appeared to be gold. Auntie muttered a few words, too low for me to hear, and placed the uneven rock directly on top of my great-uncle’s skeletal mouth.
After a moment, the bones began to rattle. The air in the humid cave began to shudder with the forces of the spirits, but I could see nothing. My uncle did not materialize again, but I began to hear faint snatches of his mumbled words and see twisted trails of light and energy as they moved in the small space of the cave. After another few minutes, the words became screams, still muffled as though he was screaming through the heavy weight of the gold upon his mouth.
I had felt a burden of hatred upon me for months, hatred toward the malign spirit of my great uncle and all his works. Even so, the inhuman sounds that began to issue from the bones sent chills of pity through me. The screams continued as the flashes of spirit and light grew weaker and weaker. With a final hideous screech, the vestiges of the spirit vanished and the screaming stopped.
Auntie nodded in satisfaction. “That lump of gold has been cursed for centuries. My grandmother told me that only a rich man’s spirit could ever satisfy the curse, every other spirit would just feed it. But, ahh, it seems like Ne’ Ke’te’ was rich enough. Twenty-four water buffaloes, and he still wasn’t happy. Miserable old miser.”
So simple, and yet so final. I had the terrible sense that I could never return to my village now, after having desecrated the body of my ancestor. Still, a strong sense of relief surged through me. My ancestor, demon that he was, would never harm Kelinci now. If he’d been eaten by the curse or just gone on to the spirit realm for good, either way, he was not going to haunt my son.
Auntie led us out of the cave, and with nothing more than a vague wave of her hand, disappeared into the foliage. She was a living ghost, I thought, and my teeth began to chatter as the prickles ran across my skin. Was this me? Was this my fate?
Masuri and I walked to the edge of the forest where the village was just visible through the misting rain and early twilight. Masuri stopped near a tree and, leaning toward me, kissed me. Her lips lingered on mine for a long moment, soft and full.
“My heart is yours. I think you know that, Chut-Nja-Din.” Her voice, so often filled with humor and irreverence, was serious now. “I know that you do not want to leave your child. As much as it would pain me, I’d rather you stayed with him, dearest, if that is your heart’s desire.”
I gazed through the thick greenery to the roofs of the village. They rose like the prows of the ships in Makassar harbor, stately land-bound vessels carrying my people to their fates. Within them, they held all the rituals and honor of my clan, yet they also bound my family with the iron chains of tradition. I would not shackle myself again, even if it tore my heart.
“I am dead to them, in spirit if not in flesh,” I said quietly. A fruit dove called in the trees above us. I waited until it stopped before I finished the thought. “If I returned, I would have to die all over again. Upala can love Kelinci as I cannot. If I returned to my husband’s family, I could not be myself. And, after consigning my uncle to whatever fate we did, the spirits themselves would reject me.”
Masuri reached out tentatively and touched my cheek. “I am going to Makassar,” she whispered. “Would you care to join me?”
I bit my lip, wishing yet again that I was whole and not the mutilated thing that I was. “I can’t give you what you deserve. I have nothing to offer you except my heart, and even that has been maimed.”
Masuri sighed and pulled me close to her. Shaking her head ruefully, she pulled my head down to her shoulder and cradled me against her warm skin. “Silly girl, your heart is all I ever wanted. I love you, Chut-Nja-Din, not your hands.”
We walked into the darkening twilight, my hand clasped in hers. The tarsiers came out of hiding to catch insects, and the sounds of the birds stilled as they settled in to sleep. In his warm and dry home, my son would be curling up on Upala’s lap after the evening meal. The men would be sipping palm wine. The women would be working as they always did, fingers constant in their motion. In the wet forest, I clasped Masuri’s hand tightly and walked through the steady rain.
Original version Copyright 2000 by Marti Booker, Edited Version Copyright 2017 by Marti Booker