Sang Rimau stopped visiting a decade ago. Some days, Cempaka wondered if there were any were-tigers left at all. She chanted prayers, incantations, and set out unholy brews by the salt licks of the forest, but Sang Rimau never returned. He never came back to deliver the Empress’s retribution. She waited in vain to be collected like a bad debt.
The potency of Cempaka’s remedies never ceased to draw unwarranted attention. She had learned over the years to grow crafty in the dispensing of her potions and balms. One did not want to induce or encourage accusations of heresy, even if bomohs and medicine women were part and parcel of their heritage. She learned to utter euphemisms when necessary. She would need to constantly explain that her secrets were holy secrets. If pressed, she would say that the djinns that came to aid her were really Islamic djinns. She would recite chapter and verse from the Holy Book.
There were many things that were unsaid and unknown by both sides: the New Faithful who had returned from abroad with their convictions, and the Old Faithful who merrily combined animism and skulduggery with their version of faith. Cempaka still had her uses in a world caught between the two schools. She kept both thieves and insects away with her spells. She found lost items. She made people fall in love. She plied her craft with smooth words and poems, the way that bunian courtier so many generations ago romanced her unnamed ancestor.
– 1 –
“Definitely his progeny, we’d recognize that nose anywhere,” the Empress of the bunian had said to one of the admirals, her eyes appraising the sixteen-year-old girl attempting to hide beneath the shelter of a banana tree.
The Empress was swathed in songket cloth—an elegant weave of gold, purple and green threads. More gold of a diaphanous nature covered her bare shoulders, and made a halo around the thick black waves of her hair. Her hooded eyes fixed upon Cempaka’s face. She made a patrician gesture with her right hand, the nails of which were glistening and looked as painfully sharp as knives.
Filaments of light knit together in an image of an elaborate palace with arched eaves of gold or golden wood, of upward-curving roofs, of stilts that were as sturdy and as tall as tree-trunks. From the palace, immeasurable gold steps curved downwards to the undergrowth. Three claw-footed Khinnaree admirals stood guard at the base of the ornate gold staircase, their handsome heads crested with silver and gold songket tengkoloks. Cempaka knew they were admirals because of the shape of their tengkolok, but she had never seen women wear the tengkolok—it jarred with her understanding of the world. She also knew this woman was too grand to be merely a queen. No, she was an empress, supreme, and she was to be both adored and feared.
Music unfamiliar, mathematical in precision and painfully perfect inflicted itself upon Cempaka’s hearing. The music drew her forward, and she stepped out from beneath the sheltering leaves of the banana tree into the clearing before the palace. The admirals responded to her presence by walking towards her. She immediately retreated into the undergrowth, still too lulled by the music to feel terror, but not so lulled that her instincts for self-preservation did not take over.
“What do you want me to do with her, Your Majesty? Would you like to collect the debt now?” asked First Admiral, whose tengkolok was grander than the other two, positioned on her head in stiffly starched magnificence.
“Leave her,” said the Empress, before she second-guessed herself. “No, wait, let us give her this.”
First Admiral turned towards the Empress, who held out a curved hand. Cempaka craned her head forward to see what was going on. She tried to speak. Shyness and a profound feeling of unworthiness shrank her tongue, making it impossible for her to breathe. She gulped a little, hoping the action would allow the air egress into her body. It was not much help. She watched as something took shape in the Empress’s curved palm, that same hand that almost made to beckon in Cempaka’s direction. It was a mango that was partially yellow, and partially the bashful blush of a mawar blossom. Cempaka yearned for that fruit.
Nothing in her life had ever looked so perfectly shaped, so luminous and yet so solid all at once.
“Your Majesty,” Cempaka finally said, “I am not worthy. I am a beast of burden, fit only to bear your rags. By Allah I will do all that you ask of me. I do not deserve such wonders.”
The Empress smiled. “Oh, but we know you do not deserve it. Nevertheless, you must take this fruit, or you will offend us.”
Cempaka trembled but obeyed the Empress, moving closer, close enough to touch her.
“Give us your hand,” the Empress commanded. She beckoned. The gesture hung mid-air with a swoop of her forearm, and lay suspended there before the woman moved her arm back to her flank, those fingers now curved around her own hip. Her eyes fixed on Cempaka—the intense focus of her gaze was hypnotic, but the half-formed beckoning gesture felt like a rejection.
This rejection stung her more than Awang Puteh deciding her cousin was prettier than her, or her father bringing her younger sister to town instead of her last week. This rejection felt like nothing she had ever experienced. It did not make her feel fit to be on the earth.
Entranced, she moved closer to the Empress, her bare feet cringing against the slimy feel of mud on the undergrowth. Her hands extended, she accepted the fruit. It felt as heavy as lead on her trembling palms. The weight and the impact of that fruit coupled with the overpowering influence of that music were such that her precarious balance on the mud failed. Cempaka fell down on her bottom with a loud thud, hurting her ankle in the process.
The pain weakened her, but her eyes were replete with light and colour, her ears with music. Her heart was a huge, hungry gnawing hole. She needed more. A glimpse was all she was allowed, in the end.
The drizzle abated. With the disappearance of the rain came the abrupt disappearance of the palace, and that of the Empress. The sun had vanished behind the clouds. The fruit remained on the ground right beside her, luring her with its perfection. Cempaka grabbed the fruit and wiped it on her sarong. She did not wait to bring it home. The skin looked just as luscious as the flesh, a succulent yellow tinted with the faintest blush of a mawar. She sank her teeth into the fruit, her tastebuds encountering the first bite of tart, bitter skin and sweet, juicy mango flesh. Her eyes rolled back.
The taste of the fruit was like the music. With every bite it felt as though the celestial music was invading her. The music deployed texture and colour to her world: feathery hues of peach, and mawar, and saffron. The colours that she tasted played beneath her eyelids in patterns of pigments and grainy textures. She chewed, sometimes slowly, sometimes greedily. She could not decide if there was greater pleasure in gulping all of that flavour in one go, or in extending the pleasure, not wanting it to end. But the end did come. Her face was wet with mango pulp and juice.
The seed she planted right next to where she was seated. The after-effects of the Empress’s enchantment lingered here. She hoped against all hope that this would encourage the seed to grow into a tree, and that she would have more of the fruit to eat. She licked the pulp and juice off her face by extending her tongue forward, and she sucked her fingers till they hurt.
When even the dregs of the fruit were gone, she was beset by a dreadful hollowness. The fruit was not all the Empress had left her. There was also certain knowledge that what she had seen was real. This was the only thing she could keep. It was a wicked gift, just like the Empress’s half-extended hand, with its painful, inviting claws.
“Cempaka! Oi Cempaka! Ke mana perginya budak ini? Where have you gone? All afternoon I have been waiting for you!”
Cempaka could hear her mother calling out for her. She attempted to stand, and then cried out in shock. Masya-Allah, it hurt. Her ankle hurt so much. Her fall had not left her unscathed. She felt half-deformed. Tiny machetes of agony ran up her left calf and thigh. She hobbled towards home, anticipating twisted ears because she had missed her Quranic reading class again, and because she had hurt her ankle. She entered the clearing where her brother was polishing the handles of his bicycle while he whistled a cheeky love-song.
Cempaka’s mother stood with a lidi broom in one hand, and the other braced on her sarong-clad hip. She gasped at the sight of her daughter, bent with pain.
“You’ve fractured your foot! I should have known something was up when you were gone for so long. Abang! Come and help me with your foolish daughter!” Her mother’s keen eyes knew the difference between a sprain and a fracture. It was an ability that Cempaka would inherit when she too became the village’s medicine woman.
Later that evening, when her mother had bandaged her foot, and her father had left for his evening prayers at the mosque, she sat watching the shadows that flickered around the kerosene lamp set in the middle of the living space. Her brothers had helped with the chores that night, following strict instructions to leave her alone. Now, her mother sat down beside her and looked urgently into her eyes.
“What happened back there in the jungle, Cempaka? You were as pale as a winding sheet, earlier!”
“It was a palace, ibu. A bunian palace, floating in the air. The Empress. She looked at me, and gave me fruit, ’bu. She said she recognized my nose. What does it all mean? She was so beautiful and so cruel. And the music, it felt like it was eating my brain, ’bu…”
She expected her mother to scoff at her answer. She expected to be disbelieved. Instead, her mother clutched her daughter to her in a protective gesture.
“Masya-Allah! The Empress has come for you! I have been hearing horror stories about her since I was a young girl. I never believed it, except once when the langsui came for me and a golden mousedeer chased them away. But the bunian saved me that night. They could have taken me, but they saved me. Why did they come for you?”
“They didn’t come for me, ’bu. They just gave me fruit.”
Her mother’s look was resigned.
“And so you ate the fruit? You didn’t think that there would be a jampi on it?”
“I ate the fruit, ’bu. And I planted the seed! I can show you where!”
“No, ’nak…not now. You are hurt. You rest. When you get better we will look for the seed together-lah. But you need to know that the Empress feels that we owe her a debt. And we have been waiting all of these years for her to collect. Please don’t let it be you, ’nak! I cannot lose my anak bongsu!”
Her mother hugged Cempaka to her with a fierce affection that she had never before displayed. She was not to know that the words she uttered had thrilled her daughter.
It was a story that more than one mother in her lineage had reluctantly told her children. Cempaka would not tell any children the story. She was the last of her line. She was the only one to taste the fruit of another world.
She was the daughter who was left waiting.
– 2 –
The world outside was at war. The Germans had invaded France, although the villagers were not entirely sure how the Germans were different from the French, except that the one had agitated their colonial masters. Of the other, they knew nothing at all.
A bombing had happened, somewhere beyond the Indian Ocean, so far away that they could barely imagine the world existing there. The medicine woman found war to be a concept that was difficult to understand. Cempaka had seen men die, but not on the scale being described. Bombs that fell down from the sky sounded like divine punishment, and more.
Above her, the tree-demons heckled for her attention. The song the grasshoppers made was as deafening as ever, but the years had desensitized her ears. Her arthritic digits unearthed a red-leafed plant loved by the djinn of the loamy forest. She would need its roots. She dug with fingers that no longer had the elasticity of youth, letting the earth seep in the cracks between broken nails and finger-pads.
It took twenty years for the seed that Cempaka had planted to grow into a tree. It blossomed the night she met Sang Rimau for the first time. It fruited two years later, when she was well into her third decade of life. Perhaps it would have grown faster if her bunian blood were not so diluted.
The tree she planted yielded a different kind of fruit—the slightly tart mangoes worked no wonder upon her, but helped in the crafting of the most effective love-spells, particularly when combined with noxious oils from graves that were but seven days old. The fruit opened Cempaka’s eyes up to the world, allowing her to discern sinew, and texture, and the properties of plants in ways her ancestors would have envied.
– 3 –
Generations ago, another girl had plucked herbs in a tender gap between the majestic giants of the Belum-Temenggor rainforest, the meranti. Her name could have been Melur, or Melati, or even Cempaka. Cempaka’s mother had never told her the name of this ancestor who challenged the Empress of the phantom-folk.
This ancestor picked kacip fatimah for the strengthening of feminine parts, daun panjang umur for the cleansing of the blood, betel nut leaves to be ground in a special container for her near-toothless great-grandmother. That afternoon, she noticed a kemboja tree growing right in the middle of the forest clearing. Kemboja trees were not altogether rare but they did not grow like this, alone, surrounded by grass and undergrowth. Its frangipani blooms seemed to glow with iridescent light, and with a golden heart that pulsed within each bloom.
The girl found to her delight that the branches reached down to her shoulders. She extended her right arm. She had plucked a frangipani bloom, but barely one, when a shining man gracefully climbed down from the tree, resplendent in golden songket-cloth, his tengkolok perched with precise elegance on a head of wavy black hair, the pleats of cloth geometrically perfect, the pointy edge of the headpiece stiff as though carved from wood. The man’s brow was broad and his eyes the deep brown of aged coffee beans, a colour that seemed to embrace and absorb light without being affected by it at all.
“This bush is mine. By plucking a kemboja blossom you have consigned yourself to my care,” he said, in a paternalistic tone of voice that was half-bluster.
She laughed. The preposterousness of his claim reminded her of the claims of the boys in the village that she occasionally had to dodge when she went about on her errands for her family. Her laughter astounded the shining man. He was even more determined to win the regard of this brave girl with dirty, calloused feet and knots in her ikal mayang hair. The shining man wooed the curiously unfrightened girl with mellifluous ghazals, resplendent with imagery of fantastical lands, but she ran away, straight to her mother’s home on the fringe of the village.
The beauty of the ghazals brought her back the next day, and the day after that. The shining man did not lay a finger on the girl. He had long-term plans. Instead, he wooed her with songs, and with gifts of flowers infused with the essence of kayangan: luminous melur, with petals as delicate as the moon’s rays, fragrant kenanga, the richness of the perfume that infused the soul with yearning, and vibrant cempaka, a scent that lifted the mind to thoughts of immortality and the secrets of worlds that lay beyond the veil of human existence.
It did not take long before the girl was won over by his persuasion. In fact, it did not take a week, which was a very good thing, because the shining man was living on borrowed time. He wanted freedom from the bunian kingdom.
When the maiden’s eyes were liquid with longing, he said, “My love, if we are to be united in a way that is sanctioned by the Almighty, we must be wed. And for us to be wed, I must become mortal, like you. You will need to turn me human, my love. You must free me from my servitude to the Empress of my people.”
The man never told her why he wanted to be free of the Empress, nor was the Empress ever seen by the girl, except as an unbearable light that cast a shadow on her and her suitor when she hugged him to her fiercely, stubbornly, one night when the moon hung so low in the sky it seemed like a red ball waiting to consume the Belum-Temenggor rainforest.
She clung to her love even as courtiers in the flying vehicle made of carved wood grabbed his forearms, lifting him half off the ground. She clung to him even as he turned first into a tiger that buried its claws in her shoulders, and then into a small, translucent dragon with wings that buffeted violently both the air-vehicle and his beloved.
She held on to him even as he turned into a forest porcupine that hurt her with its dangerously long prickles. She held on to him as he transformed into a heavy armadillo with armour so dense that it nearly knocked the vehicle out of the air when he bucked against the grappling hooks that lodged into his skin. He brought the girl flailing to the ground when he finally dislodged those hooks and landed on her belly as an angry forest fowl, waiting to tear her eyes out with its beak.
Her eyes filled with tears of virtuous consternation when he finally turned into a neatly muscled, bare-skinned man, bereft of his adornments and regalia. Any shyness she felt at his naked form was destroyed when the voice of the Empress seemed to boom from the sky, causing the forest to tremble in fear as the echoes filled every crevice, every pore, and every cavity.
“Celaka! If we had known you would defy us in this way, wayward admiral, we would have had the cenderawasih rend you limb from limb. If we had known you would defy us in this way, we would have turned you into a mouse-deer for Sang Rimau’s feast!”
The Empress then uttered the curse, a curse that now seemed to be etched on every loamy grain, every tree-bark, and every ghost of a leaf in the Belum-Temenggor rainforest. In the aftermath, all that Cempaka’s ancestor could have done was that which any maiden of their village left with a naked man was supposed to do. She wrapped him up in the kain pelekat she had brought along for the night’s adventure, her eyes modestly averted from the prize for which she had battled all night.
Cempaka would probably not have been so virtuous, but this was, after all, the story that her mother told her. Virtuous maidens always abound in such tales.
No mother wants to tell her daughter about a curse. No mother wants to dwell on the nature of a debt about to be collected. The first mother, that intrepid girl who laughed at a phantom courtier, and who defied the Empress, would never have told her children of the debt, had it not been for the were-tigers that pawed the trees surrounding their house at night, and roared the children to fretful sleep with their oddly soporific promises of retribution. She would have wanted them to have the autonomy of choice. But her progeny did have choice, and they did have the happy, normal lives the first mother wanted for her descendants. But it was also a choice tinged with knowledge of the debt.
No daughter has ever yearned to be the debt that would be collected. No daughter but Cempaka, who was named for the bloom that yearned for holy ascension. Perhaps that too was her choice, to be claimed. Or perhaps that was the wickedly subtle nature of phantom punishments—creating prey who would eternally long to be preyed upon. This is particularly true if they had partaken of the fruit of paradise.
– 4 –
Betel-nut stained her teeth red. She clenched her gnarled fingers and remembered when her body was still supple and taut beneath the thin covering of her sarong and cotton top. She would make this brew that her grandmother made before her the night she disappeared from sight. It had been conjectured that the women of their family possessed another gift from their bunian ancestor, that of shape-changing. It was a conjecture that Cempaka was willing to test.
She dug up another root, placing it inside a bundled-up sarong, along with the other acquisitions of the day. The brew required an invocation. That much she remembered. It may or may not have changed over the years but the effects remained. The ingredients were varied: bile of the earth, mother’s tongue, cat’s whiskers, leaves of longevity, gourd of the toad.
She remembered the first time she had come face to face with Sang Rimau. It had been shortly after her beloved had married a girl of his family’s choice. She had been gathering roots at midnight with a half-formed intention of making the brew. There had been little to betray the were-tiger’s presence. His eyes had gleamed, standing out in the uninterrupted darkness of a forest’s night.
The tiger made a yawning sound that trembled the ground.
The eyes blinked. They stared at each other, Cempaka breathless, the tiger still. It was twice as large as an ordinary tiger, its stripes slanting in the opposite direction. Then, those feral, almost floating lamps in the dark disappeared. Had it moved on, or was it moving closer? She waited for his teeth, still breathless. She waited but there was no sharp, savage pain. There was no end as soft fur sank into her at the same time as sharp teeth.
Cempaka soon realized that Sang Rimau had not come for her. It had other prey in its sight. A scream was soon followed by the wet, crunching sound of mauling. Rather perversely, Cempaka felt rejected by the were-tiger. It could have saved her the need to make a brew, if it would only scar her. Perhaps she would have been like the old shaman in the nearby village, one of the tiger-folk as well. Perhaps she would see the kinds of visions the shaman sees, and have more power then. Perhaps they would bring her milk and salt in saucers as offerings, watching her lap with her tongue as she became the most powerful being that roamed the forests.
She visualized Sang Rimau’s stripes and lean muscles beneath that glossy coat, yearning for it even more than she had ever yearned for her phantom ancestry.
Back home, she mixed the brew feverishly. She threw away more than one flawed batch. She ventured into the forest again and again to dig for roots and leaves. On other days, she foraged for dried twigs and bones to be ground in her pestle and mortar carved from rock. To bind the mixture together, she hunted the civet cat for its musk and bodily fluids. She then fashioned new incantations that wove together the energies of the four elements.
Naturally, she failed.
That had been years ago, and before many, many hundred versions of this brew. Every time she felt like giving up, she would come face to face with the were-tiger, reminding her of what had started the night her beloved had wed. Always, they faced off. Always, the were-tiger left. She was convinced it was the same were-tiger, periodically keeping her company since the night her solitude was confirmed. Cempaka’s beloved came from a righteous family who were members of the New Faithful. There was a clash and faith won over love. She was part of the superstitions they followed but refused to acknowledge.
Her beloved was now buried in the same graveyard that had accepted the bodies of his children. She sometimes saw his grandchildren, now grown and with families of their own, at village kenduris, religious gatherings where the men would cook huge vats full of curried goat meat and banana hearts, while the women worked together to prepare other dishes. Cempaka hovered at the fringes of such communal gatherings, poised in a society torn between honouring the elderly, the customs of their ancestors and those of their renewed religious imperatives.
The medicine woman took a sip of the bitter brew and waited for some sign of a change to manifest. The brew was thick, bitter and almost painful in its astringency. She felt it slide into her body, the pain contorting her form, rending her insides from left to right. Claws began to jut out of her fingers. Stripes furred their way out of her skin and her spine. Her whiskers grew, pushing her face outward, creating jowls more pronounced than those bequeathed by advanced years.
Her muscles knit closer together, becoming compact and lean. The hunger for blood that moved through her was rivalled by a vital need to frolic through the trees, roll about on the loamy ground, and to tongue long, luxurious swathes through sylvan salt licks. The burning eyes etched on the insides of her lids moved into her pupils, becoming her own. She went outdoors into the waiting rainforest, bounding away on all fours from her ancestral home. There was no one left to wonder or to care. Muscles rippling underneath her coat, she danced deeper into the dream of the rainforest.
With her disappearance came the stories. Rumours and speculations were the way of her people, after all. Rumours of her bunian origin, rumours that perhaps one of her old lovers had murdered her in some old vendetta. There were some who claimed her familiars had finally devoured her. These rumours disappeared after World War II became more than just hearsay. Troops began to mobilize, and boys were pressed from every village to help the colonizers prepare. There was no time to think of who would be the new medicine woman, or to look for a shaman or witch-doctor to utter incantations for them.
A bomb took half of the village population, destroying their crops. What the bomb did not destroy, the Japanese occupied. The Belum-Temenggor rainforest’s tranquility was marred by the war. Later, it was infiltrated by humans who fought for the greater glory of the socialist creed. The forest witnessed pain, blood and massacre. More pain than any forest should ever have to witness. But it was mostly indifferent.
Also indifferent was the medicine woman.
She was a were-tiger, running between the shadows of trees as she sought the kingdom of the bunian, seeking atonement for her ancestor’s escape, even though she never learned why he had been so desperate to do so. She was the last living descendent, and so she was sure they would find her if she failed to find them. Every fairy tale has its debt, and a debtor waiting to collect. She was prepared for them, for she was not alone.
Two were-tigers could easily defeat any fairy tale.
Story copyright © 2015 by Nin Harris
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Paula Arwen Owen
Nin Harris is a Malaysian poet, writer, and Gothic scholar who writes Gothic fiction, cyberpunk, planetary romances, nerdcore post-apocalyptic fiction, and various other hyphenated weird fiction. Publishing credits include The Harrow, Jabberwocky 3, Goblin Fruit, Strange Horizons, and Alphabet of Embers. Nin is also the founding editor of Delinquent’s Spice and Truancy.
Paula Arwen Owen is an artist who works in hand-cut paper silhouettes and collage, using the contrast of darkness and light, of dreams and reality to create compelling illustrations. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Mythic Delirium and Strange Horizons, and on book covers by authors including Cherie Priest and Catherynne M. Valente. She lives at the edge of an enchanted forest in the Catskill Mountains with her husband and a variety of creatures domestic, wild, and mythical. Paula’s unique cut paper greeting cards, artwork, and decals are available at her Etsy shop and in retail stores.