By Ibrahim A. Jubaira
Although the heart may care no more, the mind can always recall. The mind can always recall, for there are always things to remember: languid days of depressed boyhood; shared happy days under the glare of the sun; concealed love and mocking fate; etc. So I suppose you remember me too.
Remember? A little over a year after I was orphaned, my aunt decided to turn me over to your father, the Datu. In those days datus were supposed to take charge of the poor and the helpless. Therefore, my aunt only did right in placing me under the wing of your father. Furthermore, she was so poor, that by doing that, she not only relieved herself of the burden of poverty but also safeguarded my well-being.
But I could not bear the thought of even a moment’s separation from my aunt. She had been like a mother to me, and would always be.
“Please, Babo,” I pleaded. “Try to feed me a little more. Let me grow big with you, and I will build you a house. I will repay you some day. Let me do something to help, but please, Babo, don’t send me away….” I really cried.
Babo placed a soothing hand on my shoulder. Just like the hand of Mother. I felt a bit comforted, but presently I cried some more. The effect of her hand was so stirring.
“Listen to me. Stop crying—oh, now, do stop. You see, we can’t go on like this,” Babo said. “My mat-weaving can’t clothe and feed both you and me. It’s really hard, son, it’s really hard. You have to go. But I will be seeing you every week. You can have everything you want in the Datu’s house.”
I tried to look at Babo through my tears. But soon, the thought of having everything I wanted took hold of my child’s mind. I ceased crying.
“Say you will go,” Babo coaxed me. I assented finally, I was only five then—very tractable.
Babo bathed me in the afternoon. I did not flinch and shiver, for the sea was comfortably warm, and exhilarating. She cleaned my fingernails meticulously. Then she cupped a handful of sand, spread it over my back, and rubbed my grimy body, particularly the back of my ears. She poured fresh water over me afterwards. How clean I became! But my clothes were frayed….
Babo instructed me before we left for your big house: I must not forget to kiss your father’s feet, and to withdraw when and as ordered without turning my back; I must not look at your father full in the eyes; I must not talk too much; I must always talk in the third person; I must not… Ah, Babo, those were too many to remember.
Babo tried to be patient with me. She tested me over and over again on those royal, traditional ways. And one thing more: I had to say “Pateyk” for yes, and “Teyk” for what, or for answering a call.
“Oh, Babo, why do I have to say all those things? Why really do I have…”
“Come along, son; come along.”
We started that same afternoon. The breeze was cool as it blew against my face. We did not get tired because we talked on the way. She told me so many things. She said you of the big house had blue blood.
“Not red like ours, Babo?”
Babo said no, not red like ours.
“And the Datu has a daughter my age, Babo?”
Babo said yes—you. And I might be allowed to play with you, the Datu’s daughter, if I worked hard and behaved well.
I asked Babo, too, if I might be allowed to prick your skin to see if you had the blue blood, in truth. But Babo did not answer me anymore. She just told me to keep quiet. There, I became so talkative again.
Was that really your house? My, it was so big! Babo chided me. “We don’t call it a house,” she said. “We call it astana, the house of the Datu.” So I just said oh, and kept quiet. Why did Babo not tell me that before?
Babo suddenly stopped in her tracks. Was I really very clean? Oh, oh, look at my harelip. She cleaned my harelip, wiping away with her tapis the sticky mucus of the faintest conceivable green flowing from my nose. Poi! Now it was better. Although I could not feel any sort of improvement in my deformity itself. I merely felt cleaner.
Was I truly the boy about whom Babo was talking? You were laughing, young pretty Blue Blood. Happy perhaps that I was. Or was it the amusement brought about by my harelip that had made you laugh. I dared not ask you. I feared that should you come to dislike me, you’d subject me to unpleasant treatment. Hence, I laughed with you, and you were pleased.
Babo told me to kiss your right hand. Why not your feet? Oh, you were a child yet. I could wait until you had grown up.
But you withdrew your hand at once. I think my harelip gave it a ticklish sensation. However, I was so intoxicated by the momentary sweetness the action brought me that I decided inwardly to kiss your hand everyday. No, no, it was not love. It was only an impish sort of liking. Imagine the pride that was mine to be thus in close heady contact with one of the blue blood….
“Welcome, little orphan!” Was it for me? Really for me? I looked at Babo. Of course it was for me! We were generously bidden in. Thanks to your father’s kindness. And thanks to your laughing at me, too.
I kissed the feet of your Appah, your old, honorable, resting-the-whole-day father. He was not tickled by my harelip as you were. He did not laugh at me. In fact, he evinced compassion towards me. And so did your Amboh, your kind mother. “Sit down, sit down; don’t be ashamed.”
But there you were, plying Babo with your heartless questions: Why was I like that? What had happened to me?
To satisfy you, pretty Blue Blood, little inquisitive One, Babo had to explain: Well, Mother had slid in the vinta in her sixth month with the child that was me. Result: my harelip. “Poor Jaafar,” your Appah said. I was about to cry, but seeing you looking at me, I felt so ashamed that I held back the tears. I could not help being sentimental, you see. I think my being bereft of parents in youth had much to do with it all.
“Do you think you will be happy to stay with us? Will you not yearn any more for your Babo?”
“Pateyk, I will be happy,” I said. Then the thought of my not yearning any more for Babo made me wince. But Babo nodded at me reassuringly.
“Pateyk, I will not yearn any more for… for Babo.”
And Babo went before the interview was through. She had to cover five miles before evening came. Still I did not cry, as you may have expected I would, for—have I not said it?—I was ashamed to weep in your presence.
That was how I came to stay with you, remember? Babo came to see me every week as she had promised. And you—all of you—had a lot of things to tell her. That I was a good worker—oh, beyond question, your Appah and Amboh told Babo. And you, out-spoken little Blue Blood, joined the flattering chorus. But my place of sleep always reeked of urine, you added, laughing. That drew a rallying admonition from Babo, and a downright promise from me not to wet my mat again.
Yes, Babo came to see me, to advise me every week, for two consecutive years—that is, until death took her away, leaving no one in the world but a nephew with a harelip.
Remember? I was your favorite and you wanted to play with me always. I learned why after a time, it delighted you to gaze at my harelip. Sometimes, when we went out wading to the sea, you would pause and look at me. I would look at you, too, wondering. Finally, you would be seized by a fit of laughter. I would chime in, not realizing I was making fun of myself. Then you would pinch me painfully to make me cry. Oh, you wanted to experiment with me. You could not tell, you said, whether I cried or laughed: the working of lips was just the same in either to your gleaming eyes. And I did not flush with shame even if you said so. For after all, had not my mother slid in the vinta?
That was your way. And I wanted to pay you back in my own way. I wanted to prick your skin and see if you really had blue blood. But there was something about you that warned me against a deformed orphan’s intrusion. All I could do, then, was to feel foolishly proud, cry and laugh with you—for you—just to gratify the teasing, imperious blue blood in you. Yes, I had my way, too.
Remember? I was apparently so willing to do anything for you. I would climb for young coconuts for you. You would be amazed by the ease and agility with which I made my way up the coconut tree, yet fear that I would fall. You would implore me to come down at once, quick. “No.” You would throw pebbles at me if I thus refused to come down. No, I still would not. Your pebbles could not reach me—you were not strong enough. You would then threaten to report me to your Appah. “Go ahead.” How I liked being at the top! And sing there as I looked at you who were below. You were so helpless. In a spasm of anger, you would curse me, wishing my death. Well, let me die. I would climb the coconut trees in heaven. And my ghost would return to deliver… to deliver young celestial coconuts to you. Then you would come back. You see? A servant, an orphan, could also command the fair and proud Blue Blood to come or go.
Then we would pick up little shells, and search for sea-cucumbers; or dive for sea-urchins. Or run along the long stretch of white, glaring sand, I behind you—admiring your soft, nimble feet and your flying hair. Then we would stop, panting, laughing.
After resting for a while, we would run again to the sea and wage war against the crashing waves. I would rub your silky back after we had finished bathing in the sea. I would get fresh water in a clean coconut shell, and rinse your soft, ebony hair. Your hair flowed down smoothly, gleaming in the afternoon sun. Oh, it was beautiful. Then I would trim your fingernails carefully. Sometimes you would jerk with pain. Whereupon I would beg you to whip me. Just so you could differentiate between my crying and my laughing. And even the pain you gave me partook of sweetness.
That was my way. My only way to show how grateful I was for the things I had tasted before: your companionship; shelter and food in your big astana. So your parents said I would make a good servant, indeed. And you, too, thought I would.
Your parents sent you to a Mohammedan school when you were seven. I was not sent to study with you, but it made no difference to me. For after all, was not my work carrying your red Koran on top of my head four times a day? And you were happy, because I could entertain you. Because someone could be a water-carrier for you. One of the requirements then was to carry water every time you showed up in your Mohammedan class. “Oh, why? Excuse the stammering of my harelip, but I really wished to know.” Your Goro, your Mohammedan teacher, looked deep into me as if to search my whole system. Stupid. Did I not know our hearts could easily grasp the subject matter, like the soft, incessant flow of water? Hearts, hearts. Not brains. But I just kept silent. After all, I was not there to ask impertinent questions. Shame, shame on my harelip asking such a question, I chided myself silently.
That was how I played the part of an Epang-Epang, of a servant-escort to you. And I became more spirited every day, trudging behind you. I was like a faithful, loving dog following its mistress with light steps and a singing heart. Because you, ahead of me, were something of an inspiration I could trail indefatigably, even to the ends of the world….
The dreary monotone of your Koran-chanting lasted three years. You were so slow, your Goro said. At times, she wanted to whip you. But did she not know you were the Datu’s daughter? Why, she would be flogged herself. But whipping an orphaned servant and clipping his split lips with two pieces of wood were evidently permissible. So, your Goro found me a convenient substitute for you. How I groaned in pain under her lashings! But how your Goro laughed; the wooden clips failed to keep my harelip closed. They always slipped. And the class, too, roared with laughter—you leading.
But back there in your spacious astana, you were already being tutored for maidenhood. I was older than you by one Ramadan. I often wondered why you grew so fast, while I remained a lunatic dwarf. Maybe the poor care I received in early boyhood had much to do with my hampered growth. However, I was happy, in a way, that did not catch up with you. For I had a hunch you would not continue to avail yourself my help in certain intimate tasks—such as scrubbing your back when you took your bath—had I grown as fast as you.
There I was in my bed at night, alone, intoxicated with passions and emotions closely resembling those of a full-grown man’s. I thought of you secretly, unashamedly, lustfully: a full-grown Dayang-Dayang reclining in her bed at the farthest end of her inner apartment; breasts heaving softly like breeze-kissed waters; cheeks of the faintest red, brushing against a soft-pillow; eyes gazing dreamily into immensity—warm, searching, expressive; supple buttocks and pliant arms; soft ebony hair that rippled….
Dayang-Dayang, could you have forgiven a deformed orphan-servant had he gone mad, and lost respect and dread towards your Appah? Could you have pardoned his rabid temerity had he leapt out of his bed, rushed into your room, seized you in his arms, and tickled your face with his harelip? I should like to confess that for at least a moment, yearning, starved, athirst… no, no, I cannot say it. We were of such contrasting patterns. Even the lovely way you looked—the big astana where you lived—the blood you had… Not even the fingers of Allah perhaps could weave our fabrics into equality. I had to content myself with the privilege of gazing frequently at your peerless loveliness. An ugly servant must not go beyond his little border.
But things did not remain as they were. A young Datu from Bonbon came back to ask for your hand. Your Appah was only too glad to welcome him. There was nothing better, he said, than marriage between two people of the same blue blood. Besides, he was growing old. He had no son to take his place some day. Well, the young Datu was certainly fit to take in due time the royal torch your Appah had been carrying for years. But I—I felt differently, of course. I wanted… No, I could not have a hand in your marital arrangements. What was I, after all?
Certainly your Appah was right. The young Datu was handsome. And rich, too. He had a large tract of land planted with fruit trees, coconut trees, and abaca plants. And you were glad, too. Not because he was rich—for you were rich yourself. I thought I knew why: the young Datu could rub your soft back better than I whenever you took your bath. His hands were not as callused as mine… However, I did not talk to you about it. Of course.
Your Appah ordered his subjects to build two additional wings to your astana. Your astana was already big, but it had to be enlarged as hundreds of people would be coming to witness your royal wedding.
The people sweated profusely. There was a great deal of hammering, cutting, and lifting as they set up posts. Plenty of eating and jabbering. And chewing of betel nuts and native seasoned tobacco. And emitting of red saliva afterwards. In just one day, the additional wings were finished.
Then came your big wedding. People had crowded your astana early in the day to help in the religious slaughtering of cows and goats. To aid, too, in the voracious consumption of your wedding feast. Some more people came as evening drew near. Those who could not be accommodated upstairs had to stay below.
Torches fashioned out of dried coconut leaves blazed in the night. Half-clad natives kindled them over the cooking fire. Some pounded rice for cakes. And their brown glossy bodies sweated profusely.
Out in the astana yard, the young Datu’s subjects danced in great circles. Village swains danced with grace, now swaying sensuously their shapely hips, now twisting their pliant arms. Their feet moved deftly and almost imperceptibly.
Male dancers would crouch low, with a wooden spear, a kris, or a barong in one hand, and a wooden shield in the other. They stimulated bloody warfare by dashing through the circle of other dancers and clashing against each other. Native flutes, drums, gabangs, agongs, and kulintangs contributed much to the musical gaiety of the night. Dance. Sing in delight. Music. Noise. Laughter. Music swelled out into the world like a heart full of blood, vibrant, palpitating. But it was my heart that swelled with pain. The people would cheer: “Long live the Dayang-Dayang and the Datu, MURAMURAAN!” at every intermission. And I would cheer, too—mechanically, before I knew. I would be missing you so….
People rushed and elbowed their way up into your astana as the young Datu was led to you. Being small, I succeeded in squeezing in near enough to catch a full view of you. You, Dayang-Dayang. Your moon-shaped face was meticulously powdered with pulverized rice. Your hair was skewered up toweringly at the center of your head, and studded with glittering gold hair-pins. Your tight, gleaming black dress was covered with a flimsy mantle of the faintest conceivable pink. Gold buttons embellished your wedding garments. You sat rigidly on a mattress, with native, embroidered pillows piled carefully at the back. Candlelight mellowed your face so beautifully you were like a goddess perceived in dreams. You looked steadily down.
The moment arrived. The turbaned pandita, talking in a voice of silk, led the young Datu to you, while maidens kept chanting songs from behind. The pandita grasped the Datu’s forefinger, and made it touch thrice the space between your eyebrows. And every time that was done, my breast heaved and my lips worked.
Remember? You were about to cry, Dayang-Dayang. For, as the people said, you would soon be separated from your parents. Your husband would soon take you to Bonbon, and you would live there like a countrywoman. But as you unexpectedly caught a glimpse of me, you smiled once, a little. And I knew why: my harelip amused you again. I smiled back at you, and withdrew at once. I withdrew at once because I could not bear further seeing you sitting beside the young Datu, and knowing fully well that I who had sweated, labored, and served you like a dog… No, no, shame on me to think of all that at all. For was it not but a servant’s duty?
But I escaped that night, pretty Blue Blood. Where to? Anywhere. That was exactly seven years ago. And those years did wonderful things for me. I am no longer a lunatic dwarf, although my harelip remains as it has always been.
Too, I had amassed a little fortune after years of sweating. I could have taken two or three wives, but I had not yet found anyone resembling you, lovely Blue Blood. So, single I remained.
And Allah’s Wheel of Time kept on turning, kept on turning. And lo, one day your husband was transported to San Ramon Penal Farm, Zamboanga. He had raised his hand against the Christian government. He has wished to establish his own government. He wanted to show his petty power by refusing to pay land taxes, on the ground that the lands he had were by legitimate inheritance his own absolutely. He did not understand that the little amount he should have given in the form of taxes would be utilized to protect him and his people from swindlers. He did not discern that he was in fact a part of the Christian government himself. Consequently, his subjects lost their lives fighting for a wrong cause. Your Appah, too, was drawn into the mess and perished with the others. His possessions were confiscated. And you Amboh died of a broken heart. Your husband, to save his life, had to surrender. His lands, too, were confiscated. Only a little portion was left for you to cultivate and live on.
And remember? I went one day to Bonbon on business. And I saw you on your bit of land with your children. At first, I could not believe it was you. Then you looked long and deep into me. Soon the familiar eyes of Blue Blood of years ago arrested the faculties of the erstwhile servant. And you could not believe your eyes either. You could not recognize me at once. But when you saw my harelip smiling at you, rather hesitantly, you knew me at least. And I was so glad you did.
“Oh, Jafaar,” you gasped, dropping your janap, your primitive trowel, instinctively. And you thought I was no longer living, you said. Curse, curse. It was still your frank, outspoken way. It was like you were able to jest even when sorrow was on the verge of removing the last vestiges of your loveliness. You could somehow conceal your pain and grief beneath banter and laughter. And I was glad of that, too.
Well, I was about to tell you that the Jafaar you saw now was a very different—a much-improved—Jafaar. Indeed. But instead: “Oh, Dayang-Dayang,” I mumbled, distressed to have seen you working. You who had been reared in ease and luxury. However, I tried very much not to show traces of understanding your deplorable situation.
One of your sons came running and asked who I was. Well, I was, I was….
“Your old servant,” I said promptly. Your son said oh, and kept quiet, returning at last to resume his work. Work, work, Eting. Work, son. Bundle the firewood and take it to the kitchen. Don’t mind your old servant. He won’t turn young again. Poor little Datu, working so hard. Poor pretty Blue Blood, also working hard.
We kept strangely silent for a long time. And then: By the way, where was I living now? In Kanagi. My business here in Bonbon today? To see Panglima Hussin about the cows he intended to sell, Dayang-Dayang. Cows? Was I a landsman already? Well, if the pretty Blue Blood could live like a countrywoman, why not a man like your old servant? You see, luck was against me in sea-roving activities, so I had to turn to buying and selling cattle. Oh, you said. And then you laughed. And I laughed with you. My laughter was dry. Or was it yours? However, you asked what was the matter. Oh, nothing. Really, nothing serious. But you see… And you seemed to understand as I stood there in front of you, leaning against a mango tree, doing nothing but stare and stare at you.
I observed that your present self was only the ragged reminder, the mere ghost, of the Blue Blood of the big astana. Your resources of vitality and loveliness and strength seemed to have drained out of your old arresting self, poured into the little farm you were working in. Of course I did not expect you to be as lovely as you had been. But you should have retained at least a fair portion of it—of the old days. Not blurred eyes encircled by dark rings; not dull, dry hair; not a sunburned complexion; not wrinkled, callous hands; not….
You seemed to understand more and more. Why was I looking at you like that? Was it because I had not seen you for so long? Or was it something else? Oh, Dayang-Dayang, was not the terrible change in you the old servant’s concern? You suddenly turned your eyes away from me. You picked up your janap and began troubling the soft earth. It seemed you could not utter another word without breaking into tears. You turned your back toward me because you hated having me see you in tears.
And I tried to make out why: seeing me now revived old memories. Seeing me, talking with me, poking fun at me, was seeing, talking, and joking as in the old days at the vivacious astana. And you sobbed as I was thinking thus. I knew you sobbed, because your shoulders shook. But I tried to appear as though I was not aware of your controlled weeping. I hated myself for coming to you and making you cry….
“May I go now, Dayang-Dayang?” I said softly, trying hard to hold back my own tears. You did not say yes. And you did not say no, either. But the nodding of your head was enough to make me understand and go. Go where? Was there a place to go? Of course. There were many places to go to. Only seldom was there a place to which one would like to return.
But something transfixed me in my tracks after walking a mile or so. There was something of an impulse that strove to drive me back to you, making me forget Panglima Hussin’s cattle. Every instinct told me it was right for me to go back to you and do something—perhaps beg you to remember your old Jafaar’s harelip, just so you could smile and be happy again. I wanted to rush back and wipe away the tears from your eyes with my headdress. I wanted to get fresh water and rinse your dry, ruffled hair, that it might be restored to flowing smoothness and glorious luster. I wanted to trim your fingernails, stroke your callused hand. I yearned to tell you that the land and the cattle I owned were all yours. And above all, I burned to whirl back to you and beg you and your children to come home with me. Although the simple house I lived in was not as big as your astana at Patikul, it would at least be a happy, temporary haven while you waited for your husband’s release.