Cover Image
James Penha
Malin Kundang

Although the villagers of Tapanuli were uniformly and utterly destitute, Malin Kundang did not realize he was poor. His town was situated in the midst of a lush farming area of Northern Sumatra. As long as there was rain, there was food. And because all the villagers were kinsmen of the same tribe, as long as one mother had rice or as long as one father had tapioca, no one starved. Even in the worst times, during the civil war, Malin's main meal consisted of four spoonsful of rice, six beans and a slice of fried tofu. And if the spare but healthful menu didn't quite satiate a boy of fourteen, Malin and his friend Awal knew where to sneak into the graveyard to shake loose a few mangosteens or rambutan from the great fruit trees they found there. Unlike their elders, the boys didn't see the sense in sharing their harvest; they kept these unjust desserts a secret between themselves. Among their schoolmates, Malin and Awal spread only tales of their terrifying encounters with the cemetery ghosts — ghouls frightening enough to keep every other child away from the two boys' bounty.

     The local school hadn't charged fees in years; if it had, no students could have attended. How their teacher Pak Isman survived was of course not Malin Kundang or Awal's concern. Their concern was reading, writing, and calculating just when Pak Isman was likely to judge that the durian fruit growing in the schoolyard was ripe and ready to be picked. Malin and Awal wanted to anticipate Pak's decision by no more than hours to insure that when they snatched it, it would be perfectly sweet.

     In Indonesia still it is typical for the owner of a durian tree to cover its ripening fruit with a bag or old newspaper to warn away those who might think the tree is wild or otherwise in the public domain. Pak Isman had thus copyrighted a beautifully burgeoning durian with the penciled-in pages of a student exercise book. Each morning since, on his way to teach, Pak Isman passed under the tree and breathed in deeply to smell the maturation of his durian. He was one Friday shocked to see, when he entered the classroom, Malin Kundang and Awal already seated and ready for their lessons.

<  2  >

     'Boys, you have beat me to school every day this week. Have I somehow finally persuaded you that school is the key to your future?'

     'Ya, Pak,' replied Awal, 'we remember your words: 'One who sits by the well will never go thirsty'.'

     'Ah, so,' smiled Pak Isman.

     'Ya, Pak,' added Malin, 'didn't you also say: 'The early bird catches the worm?' Look, I even copied that proverb in red here in my notebook.' Malin proudly held up his printing for Pak to admire.

     'Many times I have said those words, boys. But only now do I believe you have been paying attention.'

     'Pak, we watch you like the hawk,' said Malin.

     'Indeed? Like the hawk?' Pak Isman furrowed his brow.

     'Ya, Pak,' Awal added, 'we are the early bird!'

     Very early on each of the last five days, Malin and Awal had perched in Pak Isman's durian tree to sniff beneath the pages of the exercise book minutes before Pak Isman's nose performed the same daily chore. On Saturday, the aroma was profoundly different.

     Pak Isman sniffed. And he sniffed again. He smelled only the morning and the dampness of an old exercise book. He reached his hands gently against the pages, and he squeezed. The fruit was gone. Redfaced and clutching the papers in his trembling hands, Pak Isman proceeded to his classroom. No one was there to see his tears or hear his moan. But Malin Kundang, stuffed and sprawled with his pal in the jungle, imagined the look on Pak Isman's face as the teacher saw the red scrawl on the papers in his hand: 'The early bird catches the worm.'


Ibu Ana stretched her hands gently against her son's cheeks. 'Malin, once again I beg you to listen to me: If you apologize to Pak Isman, he will let you return to school.'

<  3  >

     Malin Kundang shook his head. 'Apologize for what? How can he know I stole his durian?'

     'Malin, please, I ask you again to apologize. Your father and I cannot afford to send you to another school--one that charges fees, that asks you to wear a new uniform.'

     'I don't need school. Shall I really learn anything from someone like Pak Isman? Isn't it obvious that I am already smarter than he is?'

     'Oh, yes, you are smart. And you are spoiled. You don't know how painful this world can be.'

     'But I do, Ibu, I do.' Malin Kundang rubbed the scar on his forehead where, having once lost her temper to the hardheadedness of her son, Ibu Ana had struck out recklessly with the carving knife in her hand. Guilty and grieving, Ibu Ana swore that she would never hurt her beloved child again.

     Malin concluded his speech, 'And I know that I can overcome it. Awal and I shall make our marks in the city. We have decided.'

     'Pak,' said Ibu Ana later that night, 'Malin intends to travel to Sibolga.'

     'To do what? To beg? To sell himself? To die in the streets? Probably all three. I will forbid it.'

     'And he will run away.'

     'And I will catch him and--'

     'And what? Beat him? Cage him? Kill him?'

     'All three tempt me. He is a hardheaded boy.' Pak Basirun thought a moment. 'You are the one who could make a difference.'

     'Me? You know how Malin ignores me. Ever since I lashed out at him with that knife, my son finds me worse than useless. He hates — '

     'No boy hates his mother.'

<  4  >

     'He has no love for me.'

     'But you do for him. And you can use that love to pray to God to, oh, break his leg — not in any permanent way . . . but just enough to keep him home for a while.'

     'You want me to curse him.'

     'A nasty word.'

     'A nasty activity — especially for faithful people. Pak, you know what I have sworn to God — never to curse even the floods that ruin our rice. This is my penance for the mark I left on Malin Kundang.'

     'But that's exactly the point.' Pak Basirun was excited now. 'All this power to damn is just sitting there in you waiting to be used. Most of us waste our potential magic cursing this rash or that stupid horse all day every day. Why don't you spend at bit of that witchcraft for a good purpose: preventing Malin from making a stupid horse of himself!'

     'I have sworn to God.'

     'God is too busy to go around making deals with foolish women.'

     'I sign no contracts with God — or the devil — or men even,' said Ibu Ana. The deal I have made is with myself.'

     Pak Basirun sighed. 'If you will not curse your son, I guess I shall have to help him. I will accompany Malin and Awal to Sibolga tomorrow.'


At dawn, Pak Basirun asked the village chief for the loan of a mule. 'Is it important that you have the mule today, Pak? My children promised to help their aunt in Batang Toru with her chores. She has just given birth to their new cousin, you know? But she lives three hours from here. I was going to let them have the mule. Why do you need it?'

     'I am taking Malin and Awal to Sibolga. The boys want to quit school and run away to the city to find their future. I've told them I can help: Pak Dirin, my old schoolmate, captains the most successful ship on the coast. But I shall arrange with him to tell the boys that not even he can afford in these times to hire two boys without skills or experience. That, I hope, will persuade Malin to return to finish his education.'

<  5  >

     The chief loaned Pak Basirun his mule, but not because he had faith in his neighbor's strategy. The Chief would have a far more temperate village if single-minded Malin foiled his father's plan and refused to return to Tapanuli.


The chief port of Northern Sumatra, Sibolga, seemed merely another sleepy fishing village to Malin. 'This is a city?' he said to Awal. 'My father is right about one thing. This place is the past; Sibolga is not our future.'

     'So you are ready now to return home where your future has always been?' said Pak Basirun. 'Good, my son, I admire your willingness to change your mind. It is a sign of wisdom. But let us at least rest the Chief's mule before we go back.'

     'Let the mule rest at the wharf, father, while Awal and I find our future on Pak Dirin's ship. I have not changed my mind at all. There is no reason to. Sibolga is but a gangway, and Padangsidiumpuan . . . ha! that is no way at all! Come on, Awal.'

     Pak Dirin, on the deck of the four-masted Singha, greeted Basirun warmly. 'Sit in my cabin and let my cook bring us some lunch. We old men shall catch up on the years while the boys smell on this ship lands of which they have never dreamed!'

     'Nor will ever see, Dirin, if you are still my friend,' Basirun whispered.

     Malin strode across the deck, as if he were the captain. 'I love it, Awal, don't you? This wooden floor moves with tides and time. Feel it?' He approached the bow, stretched his arms to the rail. Gazing at the horizon, he said, 'Awal, do you feel the future rumbling beneath your feet? in your hands?'

     'I wouldn't mind some food in my hands,' said Awal.

     'Well, then, let's get our hands on some!' And Malin strode to the ship's kitchen where a skinny young fellow sat on the floor picking sand out of a plate of uncooked rice. 'Yes, yes? Who are you? What are you doing in my kitchen? What are you doing on this ship? Trespassers? Shall I have you thrown overboard?'

<  6  >

     'Relax, brother, before we have you thrown overboard,' replied Malin.

     'You?! Why?! I shall call the captain at once!!!'

     'Please do,' Malin calmly replied, and the cook raced out, calling, 'Help! Captain! Stowaways!'

     Malin gestured to Awal, and they quickly set about gathering all the papaya and mangoes and rambutan and salak and jackfruit they could find in the kitchen. They peeled and slurped to their hearts' and stomachs' content even when the cook sheepishly re-entered his kitchen.

     'I apologize, young sirs, but how should I know you were guests of the Captain.

     'Not just guests,' Malin imperiously suggested, 'but as close as cousins to the Captain.'

     The cook bowed. 'I am ashamed, and the Captain has warned me to be gracious or this shall be the last lunch I ever serve on this ship.'

     'Oh, brother, I am sorry,' Malin winked aside to Awal. 'We regret that we caused you such shame. That was hardly our intention. Let us make it up to you. We shall assist you in making the best lunch the Captain has ever had.'

     'But how can-- You are guest-- You are his cousins.'

     We may be the Captain's wealthy cousins from Tapanuli, but, as you can see from our humble clothes, we are not aristocrats. Our wealth comes from our labor in the goldmines of our town.'


     As Malin and Awal kept their eyes on the skills of the cook and the secrets of his kitchen, Malin dazzled the cook with tales of Tapanuli, the City of Gold.'

     'Then this shall be the last meal I cook on this damned ship,' said the cook. 'Why toil for another, when I can make my own fortune as have you young fellows! Fellows? Angels! God bless you for this news from heaven. I'm heading to the City of Gold tonight!'

<  7  >

     'Why not immediately? You are not afraid to walk out on the Captain surely?'

     'The man who threatens to fire me? Hardly. But without money to hire transport, I shall have to go by foot. And that is better done in the cool of the evening.'

     'Then perhaps I can do you a favor--that will do me a favor in return?

     'I have a borrowed mule here in Sibolga needing a rider to return it quickly to its owner in Tapanuli. If you are willing to be that rider, we shall reward each other.'

     'Only tell me its bearings and it shall bear me to the City of Gold.'


The Captain and Basirun were naturally surprised to see Malin and Awal, rather than the cook, spread the luncheon buffet before them. Malin explained, even before a question was posed, that he and Awal had learned of food preparation from their schoolmaster in Tapanuli. 'It's a sort of hobby for us.'

     'Of a professional quality,' said the Captain as he sampled the stewed jackfruit. 'Oh, you are the kind of clever boys I could use on my ships, but, as I was just telling Pak Basirun, I haven't even one vacancy to offer you.'

     'But you would,' said Malin, 'if you had.'

     'In a moment.'

     'The moment is now, for your cook has resigned.'


     'In shame, I think, that Awal and I could so exceed his talents as a chef,' said Malin. 'Shall we continue to serve you such delights--for a proper wage?'

     Captain Dirin glanced quickly toward and away from Basirun. 'What-- what can I say?'

     'Yes,' said Malin.

     'Yes, Malin, but . . . '

<  8  >

     'But, Dirin,' Basirun quickly added, 'you need only one chef, not, sadly, two. And Awal and Malin will never be separated.'

     'Never!' asserted Malin, 'for we are forever joined.' Awal, moved, draped his arm around his lifelong friend. Malin continued, 'So even though I may sail half a world away from Sumatra on this ship, Awal shall always be in my heart.'


At dawn the next day, Malin stood in the bow of the Singha as it sailed toward the Malay peninsula. And as the sun rose on Tapanuli, Pak Basirun and Awal, exhausted from their walk from Sibolga, slowly walked past the Chief's house in front of which a mule stood with closed eyes. At least, Pak Basirun thought, he wouldn't have to work for years to pay the Chief for a lost mule. The animal had somehow found his way home. God willing, so would Malin Kundang.


But God did not will it. Malin did not return to Tapanuli. Nor did any messages, any news, of the boy filter back to Malin's hometown. For all Pak and Ibu Basirun knew, the years and the waves had devoured their only child. Of course, it was not unknown for children of the village to seek their fortunes far from home and, in that age, to disappear for years or forever. But Ibu Basirun reached a point where she could stand the uncertainty and the worry no longer.

     'Pak,' she said, 'shall we not make our way to Sibolga to ask Pak Dirin after our boy?'

     'I have been thinking of it. But do we really want to know that our old age shall come without a son and grandchildren to surround us, to care for us, to bury us?'

     'Our old age is coming, no matter what we know.'

     'I am afraid,' said Basirun with glistening eyes, 'that the certainty of our childlessness will hasten it.'

     'Without Malin,' replied his wife, 'what reason have we to fear the hastening of our end? I hate the years without him. Without Malin, we have no future. Without Malin, I want no future.'

<  9  >

     The village had grown even poorer since Malin had left; the Chief's mule had long ago served his master on plates and in bowls. And so old Pak Basirun rose one morning to hike to Sibolga. But the tidings brought back to Ibu Basirun that evening were the bones of her husband, whose body and soul gave out on the road to the coast.

     Ibu tossed a lock of Malin's hair among the petals on her husband's grave. 'Hard-headed boy of a soft-hearted father! If the words of your mother can somehow reach your heart, know that she needs you to be her rock now that her husband has died.'

     And Awal, hearing Ibu Ana's plea, decided himself to complete Pak Basirun's journey to find Malin Kundang and bring him home.


Sibolga was no longer the lazy hamlet Awal had entered years before. The streets were wide and straight to support all the horse-drawn carriages competing with the man-drawn becaks. Freshly-painted shops and factories lined the roads. Awal had to crane his neck to see the roofs of several of these buildings. 'They touch the sky,' Awal said to himself as he counted the levels of the tallest among them. 'Four floors? Who would dare to live so high off the ground?'

     But Sibolga's tallest edifice rightly touched the sky, Awal thought, and he headed to the mosque to pray for God's guidance. He would never find his little friend in so grand a city as this without providence.

     He washed his head, hands, and feet of the dust of his journey and entered the house of God. Awal dropped to the floor as much in awe at the spectacle of the building as in piety. The gold dome of the mosque rose dazzlingly and dizzyingly above; intricately designed mosaics decorated every wall; the floors embraced the faithful with marble. 'God, indeed, is great,' whispered Awal. 'Will he know so poor a creature as Malin Kundang?'

     'He certainly does now,' said an elderly pilgrim sitting next to Awal.

<  10  >

     'Excuse me, Pak, but do you think so? I have come from Tapanuli to find my friend Malin Kundang in this great city.'

     'You will not find him in Sibolga, my son.'

     'No, I do not think so,' Awal realized. 'If I were to knock on every door on every street in every neighborhood of Sibolga, I might be an old man before I found Malin Kundang.'

     'Worse, you would die,' said the stranger, 'before you would find Malin Kundang in Sibolga.'

     'Like his father.'

     'Yes, you would be like his father in one way. But, son, I do not think Malin Kundang will build a mosque like this to remember you.'

     Awal understood now that the pilgrim was mad. He added a prayer for the old man and rose to leave the mosque.

     A marble plaque separated two huge doors. It stopped Awal. He could not move, but only read and reread the plaque's gold calligraphy:




     'I must be the madman!' Awal shrieked. 'I walk right into the name of Malin Kundang etched in gold? This is an illusion, not a coincidence! How could Malin know of his father's passing? And, anyway, how could he have built this mosque in the five days since his father died? God help me! I have gone insane!'

     'Do you know your name, my son?' The old pilgrim held Awal; he absorbed the boy's trepidation and sobs. Tell me your name, son.'

     'Awal, Pak.'

     'Where do you come from, Awal?'

     'From Tapanuli, Pak.'

     'And you came to Sibolga looking for your friend — your friend, Malin Kundang?'

<  11  >

     'I did, and now somehow God or a devil or my madness has emblazoned his name in gold in front of my eyes!'

     'I see the name of Malin Kundang, myself. There, Awal, on the plaque between the doors.'

     Awal looked at the plaque and again at the pilgrim who continued, 'I have seen it on each of my visits to this mosque since it was dedicated three years ago.'

     'Three ye — but, Pak, the father of Malin Kundang was buried only this week in Tapanuli! I am here to carry the news to Malin and to beg him to come home to care for his hopeless mother.'

     'Perhaps you are not so mad. Malin Kundang dedicated this house of God to his adopted father Dirin, the father of Puan Azizah, Malin Kundang's wife.'

     Awal recognized the name. 'Dirin, the Captain of the Singha?'

     The pilgrim laughed. ' Ha, yes, but that's like calling a diamond an old fossil. I haven't heard Dirin referred to as a Captain in years. Of course, he was a Captain, Before he made Malin Kundang his first mate in everything and allowed Malin to use his wits to monopolize the ports and sea lanes of North and West Sumatra, And so don't be surprised to see the name of Malin Kundang in Sibolga's greatest mosque. Walk the waterfront and see the names Dirin, Puan Azizah, Malin Kundang and their Company on every ship of substance and on every building of value! Their names aren't just written in gold, Awal. Their names are gold in Sibolga.'

     'Then, Pak, why did you tell me I would never find Malin Kundang in Sibolga?'

     'If you mean the man and not just the name, you need to go to Padang. Dirin loved Sibolga. Thus Malin Kundang left him here when the old man died. But for Malin Kundang and for Puan Azizah, the north is not an important enough possession. They sailed south to conquer Padang, the business capital of the whole of Sumatra!'

<  12  >

     'Pak, you have told me miracles today.'

     'Miracles are merely new truths, Awal.'

     'And you are not mad yourself, Pak?'

     'Who can say that of oneself? But, for certain, Awal, I have told you only truths today.'


     'For you, perhaps.'

     For me, no doubt, thought Awal as he headed for the seaport. If Awal's best friend were the greatest man in Sumatra, Malin Kundang's mother could rest her future on the most solid rock on the island!


'Puan,' said Malin Kundang softly yet firmly to his beloved wife, 'You will tell your two brothers that they are no longer in our employ.'

     'Out of the question. I should fire the sons of the man who built this Company?'

     'Be honest, dearest Puan, our father built a ship; he chose me, not your brothers, to build a Company with that ship. In all these respects, Pak Dirin was a wise man. Your brothers are greedy--'

     'You are a funny one . . . to sit there on a throne in a palace that would make the kings of Europe green . . . to twirl your diamond necklaces in your fingers as you abuse me . . . to call my brothers greedy.'

     ' — greedy and stupid. I — we, dearest — are greedy and smart. Your brothers have promised more contracts than we can possibly provide — or want to provide--to the elders of Padang. This is no way to make friends here.'

     'Since when do you want friends?'

     'I want friends . . . until they become my subsidiaries. Your brothers will go. You know it, and you will tell them so.'

     'But how will they survive?'

<  13  >

     'The bribes they received in return for the contracts should keep them and their families well-threaded for quite a while. After that, we shall put them on an allowance. A substantial allowance, my dearest. They must continue to look as if they deserve to be your relatives, of course. But they shall no longer speak for this Company!'

     'Company. THE Company! THE COMPANY! Oh, God, how I hate the Company. You care about it more than anything. More than me.'

     'I care about the Company more than I care about myself. The Company is greater than me or you. The Company is limitless; the Company knows no bounds; the Company is immortal. And as long as I care about the Company more than anything, the Company will have the resources and the power to care for us, to support us, to give us anything we want. Our ship. Our rock. Our island. Our Company.'

     'Shall I applaud?'

     'I should prefer a kiss.'

     Puan Azizah gave herself to her husband with passion, with awe, and with love.

     Later, she told her brothers to go.


A fortnight later, Puan Azizah slipped into her husband's reception room just as Malin Kundang was concluding a conference with the Mayor of Padang. The two men had agreed that the city would from that day provide an exclusive franchise to Malin's Company for ferry service between Padang and all islands and coastal cities of Sumatra, including the key ports of Bungus and Sweetwater. The Mayor, who was to head the Company's new ferryboat subsidiary, kissed Malin on both cheeks. 'We shall see each other tomorrow at Sweetwater for the selamatan ceremony insuring good fortune for our new venture, eh, my good friend?'

     'Tomorrow, Mayor. But, trust me, our agreement is all the insurance our new venture needs.'

     'But the people will trust no ferries without the blessing of a selamatan!'

<  14  >

     'And my Company always gives the people what they want and what they need.' Malin dropped his voice to a whisper: 'Mayor, you have just learned the secret of my Company's success. I beg you to share it with no one.'

     The Mayor wasn't sure if he should agree or laugh or object. He chose merely to say, 'Tomorrow, God willing, then, at Sweetwater.'

     'Tomorrow at Sweetwater.'

     The Mayor was out of earshot when Puan Azizah said, 'One more subsidiary who believes he's a friend?'


     'Bravo. And the matrons of Padang have invited me to join their arisan. Imagine a girl from the North in such a society of dames!'

     'Ah, excellent. Once you are installed in the arisan, any reluctance from the city's business community to work with our Company will be viewed as a slur upon the noble matriarchy of Padang. We are, my dearest, almost atop Sumatra's slipperiest slope — thanks in large measure to your own style and grace . . . and your cleansing us of the slippery slime of your brothers.'

     'Oh, speaking of slime, Malin . . . '


     'There's an incredibly filthy vagabond at the gate of the house, according to the guards, asking for you.'

     'This is news? Every peasant in Padang has been asking for me these last weeks. You know that. And so do the guards. Their instructions are to send them to the employment office. As our Company grows, so shall jobs in Padang. That confidence among the people is the secret of the Company's success.'

     'So many of the secrets of Malin Kundang revealed this morning.'

     'And so many still hidden.'

     'Even from your beloved Puan.'

<  15  >

     Malin Kundang embraced his wife, kissed her open lips, took a breath, and said, 'So many.'

     Puan Azizah's eyes widened and smiled. She knew there were so many, and she knew she was the only one in Malin Kundang's life.

     'One more secret, though, dearest. The beast at the gate is not from Padang.'

     'Then the guard knows to offer him alms. The faithful here respect charity.' He raised his voice. 'Okay, okay, let's have it. What's the secret? What's so special about this beggar?'

     'He says he is your friend — '

     'Oh, please!'

     ' — from Tapanuli. Your childhood friend Awal. With a message from your mother.'

     Malin Kundang was silent. Sad, reflective, and silent for several moments.

     Puan Azizah asked, 'Shall I have the guards send him in to you?'

     'Are you mad? And have the news spread through the city how well poor Northerners are treated by Malin Kundang — how differently from the poor in Padang? Shall we ourselves start the rumor that the Company is just waiting to allow an immigration of thousands from Sibolga and Tapanuli to overwhelm the natives of Padang?

     'But I owe Awal. Do this, Puan Azizah. Have the guard send him to your brothers. No one in town will interpret that as a particular honor. You shall take a bag of gold to your brothers to give to Awal.'

     'And what of the message from your mother.'

     'Look again at this scar on my forehead, Puan Azizah. I want no more messages from that woman.'

     'How amazing to see a scar on the face and even the heart of such a stone as you.'

<  16  >

     'There will be enough gold for Awal to share with my parents.'

     'Rocks from the man of stone.'


En route to the address given him by the guard, Awal looked in on Malin Kundang's mother at the rented room where she rested after the long voyage from the North. He reported the day's events and his hope that Malin Kundang would be waiting for him at the next destination. Though weary and frail, Ibu Ana insisted on accompanying Awal. 'I have little time left to see my son.' Awal recognized this truth and virtually carried Ibu Ana to a grand house, just outside the city limits amidst verdant rice fields.

     'This must be Malin's retreat from the commerce, Ibu. A natural place where he can be himself. Find himself. No wonder he asked us to find him here.' Ibu Ana nodded, but without the certainty of her guardian. Awal rattled the iron gate and sang, 'Assalamulaikum.'

     'Alaikumassalam,' replied the servant who peered through the fence.'

     'Ibu Ana here wishes to see her son Malin Kundang,' explained Awal.

     The servant directed the visitors to 'wait here' and retired into the house. Awal looked sheepishly at Ibu Ana.

     'Shameful to leave us here on the street,' she said.

     After several minutes, a tall, red-robed and scented flamingo of a gentleman approached the gate. A hand hung from each wrist like the pistil of a hibiscus. 'Yes, yes, my brother and I have been told to expect you.'

     'Praise God,' said the devout Awal. 'At last Malin Kundang will be reunited with his mother.'

     'Not in this life. This is all you shall see of Malin Kundang.' The flamingo plucked six gold coins from his bulging pocket and tossed them at the feet of Ibu Ana. Awal quickly bent to collect the coins, two of which were rolling perilously close to the open sewer.

<  17  >

     'Don't touch them!' Ibu Ana yelled with a voice somehow as strong as the monsoons. And as sinister. 'Those coins are returning to the bowels of the earth from whence they were snatched and digested. The hand that sent them spinning is no less filthy.' Ibu Ana rattled the flamingo with her words and her stare. 'Yours is a stench no perfume can sweeten, an excrement no gown can beautify!'

     On hands and knees, Awal watched the precious coins drop into the muck. By themselves, they could have supported Ibu Ana and all her needs for at least a year. He looked at the other four coins scattered on the street and turned to Ibu Ana.

     'I know what you are thinking, Awal. But I did not need the two. I do not need the four.' She herself bent to retrieve the remaining coins. 'But you will.' She pressed them into Awal's hand as she helped him to his feet. She turned again to the flamingo. 'The rest,' she demanded. The flamingo stood as still and silently as a stone. 'The rest!' Ibu Ana repeated. 'I am an old woman, but one refreshed at the last by my anger. In my life, except for one sinful moment of rage, I have never cursed so much as a mosquito sucking from my vein. Much power to damn and to ruin has built up in me over these decades, And my forbearance and patience have run out. Know then, Birdman, I shall ask God to turn you into the creature you resemble if you do not release the rest of what my son left for me. NOW!'

     The flamingo opened the gate, poured everything from his pockets into those of Awal, and knelt before Ibu Ana begging her mercy.

     'I shall leave you to be,' Ibu Ana said waving her hand above the flamingo's head, 'whatever you are. As long as you tell me where I can find Malin Kundang.'

     The flamingo had no reason at all to withhold that information from Ibu Ana. Like all Sumatrans, he knew that a good woman who wills herself to be a witch is more dangerous than the blackest magician. Ibu Ana, anyone could see, had transformed herself into a white witch. 'Tomorrow, Malin Kundang hosts a selamatan for his Company at Sweetwater.'

<  18  >

     'Tomorrow, Malin Kundang hosts his mother. Come, Awal.'

     Awal followed. The flamingo, smiling, rose to return to his house.


Awal and Ibu Ana made their way south over the hill from Padang to the port of Sweetwater as they had all the way from Tapanuli to Padang: hailed carriages and mulebacks alternating with footpower. But, even walking up the steepest of grades, Ibu Ana no longer leaned like an exhausted papaya tree on Awal's frame. Rather, the woman strode ahead of her awed companion. By the time the two paraded toward the bay's shore, all of Sweetwater's inhabitants and most of Padang City's — at least those who could afford a day off — crowded the piers and beaches assembling an amphitheatre of flesh and blood around the first of the franchised ferries of Malin Kundang.

     The Man himself wore a traditional Padang costume although no one in the throngs could remember quite that much golden thread in their tradition. Puan Azizah similarly outdazzled the Mayor and his wife. The four masters stood in the prow of the ferry facing and waving at the cheering audience until Malin Kundang signaled his intention to speak.

     'People of Padang and Sweetwater, welcome to a new day of prosperity as our two towns join together in one great commercial and trading center thanks to this ferry on which I stand and the fleet that shall soon burst from the shipyards of this area! We ask God to bless this union as He might any other marriage between families.'

     The crowd cheered and applauded. Malin Kundang beckoned the high Imam from Padang's greatest mosque to come forward to the prow and lead them all in prayer. As he did so, everyone sat, cross-legged, in obeisance.

     Except for Ibu Ana who shook off Awal's attempts to help her fold gently her bones. 'Assalamulaikum,' she said loudly and clearly.

     'Alaikumassalam,' responded the Imam.

     'Before God,' continued Ibu Ana, 'blesses this ship, I ask Malin Kundang to prove his devotion to unity and family with more than just lip service.'

<  19  >

     Her dialect clearly identified Ibu Ana as a Northerner, and the crowd grumbled that this ragged and barefoot nomad would dare disrupt such an important and sacred ritual.

     The Mayor of now-Greater Padang, hearing the sentiments of his constituents, rose and demanded, 'Beggar woman, be seated for you are in no position to ask anything of Malin Kundang except his charity.' Hands around Ibu Ana tore at her rags in an attempt to pull her to her knees.

     Awal stood and threatened anyone who dare touch this woman again. 'Be warned. This widow asks for nothing but the chance to embrace her son . . . Malin Kundang!'

     Malin stood and said what was on the minds of most: 'Do you think Malin Kundang would allow his mother to be dressed in tatters?' He looked at his mother for the first time since he had left home with Awal, 'Beggar woman, take these alms and return to the North to live well there for the rest of your life!' He filled the pockets of his golden jacket with coins and tossed the ensemble to the shore to be passed on to Ibu Ana.

     The crowd gasped at Malin Kundang's generosity. How God would bless the man!

     'Praise God,' the Imam intoned, 'Ibu, thank God that you have been rewarded instead of punished for dishonoring a selamatan. Malin Kundang has transformed your sully into something glorious.'

     'God in heaven,' chanted Ibu Ana, 'hear my dying wish: let the world see what lies beneath these transformations and these glories. Malin Kundang is my son. He should have been my rock, but a rock is all that he and this Company is.' Ibu Ana swung the golden jacket round as she spun like a dervish in place. Coins flew everywhere and a dizzying shower of gold poured on the people of Padang and Sweetwater who leaped and ran and trampled each other to collect a bit of the treasure.

     Most in the crowd did not see Awal bear the crumpled old woman in his arms. Nor did they see the grimaces and horror on the faces of Malin Kundang, Puan Azizah, and all the others on the ferry as the ship and all aboard petrified into sandstone.

<  20  >

     But they were seen later by those who survived the chaos on the shore and by generations since, who still make the pilgrimage to the Sweetwater cliff into which Malin Kundang, his wife, his ship and his Company have after centuries eroded.

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