Sa’eda Buang is the assistant head of the Asian Languages and Cultures group at the National Institute of Education. Dr. Sa’eda received her Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Arts from the National University of Singapore, and her Doctor of Philosophy from the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She has received awards from the Singapore Malay Language Council for her poetry and short fiction
The Withered Cherry Tree
Mila danced happily down the steep knoll. She had memorized every inch of that hill. Her tiny bare feet safely avoided the puddles and the thorns of the mimosa plants that were scattered on the slope of the hill. She continued to hop and skip while imitating the Indian dance moves from a ten-cent Hindustani film she had watched from her mother’s lap a few months ago.
She could not stop singing the “Sangam” sung by Vijayantimala. Her curly tousled hair fluttered untidily in the wind, like the plaits of Vijayantimala being caressed by her lover.
“Where are you going?” Mila suddenly stopped dancing. Damn! How dare anyone disturb her dancing on the steps of Taj Mahal!
“What do you want, eh, Botak?”
“I want to come with you.”
“You can’t! Don’t bother me.”
Mila closed her eyes tightly. Botak was not supposed to appear in her Taj Mahal. A ruby stone glittered on her forehead. Both her arms and her chest were adorned with gold and diamonds. Today, Mila was wearing a scarlet sari festooned with golden embroidery and glitter. Her yellow silk scarf was decorated with emeralds and pearls she had added with great care. Beautiful.
“I don’t care. I don’t have any other friends.”
Mila’s eyes grew wide with anger.
“Eh, I don’t want you to come with me. Don’t you get it? Go play with someone else. I don’t want you to come with me.” Mila stood with hands on her hips like Mak Dara in Ibu Mertuaku. Botak grinned.
Mila bent down to dust off the dirt that covered the floral henna on her feet.
“Eeeew . . . Smelly! You’ve got chicken shit on your feet . . . chicken shit!”
Botak, who had been observing Mila for some time, shouted with glee at her comeuppance as he tried to run away from her. Mila had rejected his offers to play together. Served her right.
“Stupid Botak. Your face is chicken shit.”
Mila snorted as she picked up the silk handkerchief Dev Anand had given her and wiped her feet again. The red silk handkerchief was as crimson as the evening horizon blanketing the sun tired from playing the whole day. Mila continued her dance as she glided down to the foot of the hill. She had to hurry before the sky grew darker. As they’d been in preceding days, the moon and the stars were too lazy to come out to play. They preferred to sleep beneath the thick blanket of clouds. Mila did not want her beautiful hennaed feet to trip over the rocks in the dark.
“Wak, one Hindustani chocolate, please!”
Mila proudly took out two five‐cent coins from the folds of her red sari. Today, she was the richest girl in the world. She could afford a really expensive chocolate.
Wak Seman smiled and handed the chocolate over to her.
“Wow . . . you seem to have a lot of money today. Have you sold all your epok‐epok?”
Mila didn’t reply. She grabbed the chocolate and left the small shop. Space inside the shop was becoming tighter and tighter, as the merchandise outside had been brought in for storage.
“Share your chocolate with your sisters, OK? Don’t keep them all for yourself!” Wak Seman called after her. Mila pretended not to hear him.
Mila wanted the chocolates all to herself, as she sat between the boughs of her favorite cherry tree, admiring pictures of the Hindustani actors and actresses that she had been collecting for some time. Mila always encountered her hero while singing Hindustani tunes on that cherry tree. She also sat there for hours, swinging her feet back and forth, surrounded by handmaidens who obeyed her every wish. Mila enjoyed the delicious special treat without being disturbed by others. She closed her eyes as her hero fed her. She savored every bite. She did not want to share this dish with anyone else. Botak must not find out about it. Nor should her sisters.
Damn! Mila’s moment of satisfaction was interrupted by whispers from under the tree. The louder the whispers, the more the cherry tree shook. Mila held on to the bough to prevent herself from falling. Every now and then, squeals erupted and the whispers continued. Mila held on tighter. She could hear the faint call to the Maghrib prayer from a distant surau in the western part of the kampong. Mila dared not breathe. Her heart was pounding. She closed her eyes as she prayed that Dev Anand, who had somehow vanished, would return to rescue her from that unpleasant situation. She pulled her clothes tightly around her to avoid attracting the attention of the whispers under the tree. The cherry tree continued to shake until she heard the reverberating call to the Isyak prayer. Mila avoided looking down. How disgusting. Breathing in slowly, Mila devised a strategy to hang spikes on the trunk of the cherry tree so that nobody would dare whisper under her forbidden tree anymore. The next day, Mila would command her army to hang the spikes there.
Soon after the whispers stopped, Mila swiftly jumped down from the bough of the cherry tree and ran home. Mila no longer cared about her hennaed feet. She had to quickly climb the hill to go back home. The sky had turned pitch dark. The dim light of the kerosene lamps from the houses at the foot of the hill was of no help. She would be lucky if she didn’t step on pieces of broken glasses or thorns. She would be lucky if her father returned late from the surau. Otherwise, Mila was prepared to run around the kampong, trying to save herself from her father’s caning. But not to worry, a white stallion would be standing by to whisk Mila away.
“What took you so long, Mila?” her mother’s voice called from the kitchen. Kak Long, Kak Ngah, and her little sister were busy peeling potatoes and chopping onions to make the epok-epok filling. Her mother was kneading the dough.
“You said you only wanted to go to the shop for a short while. You took hours. It’s past Isyak now. Look how dirty your feet are. You probably stepped on some chicken shit. Go take a bath! Soak your clothes in the bucket.” Her mother’s tone grew more and more stern. Mila obeyed while stealing a glance at her little sister, who enjoyed seeing Mila getting scolded.
“You were eating chocolate, right?” Kak Ngah asked jealously.
Mila remained silent.
“Whose picture did you get?”
Mila tried to slip away.
“You big booger! Scrooge!” taunted the offended Kak Ngah. Kak Ngah pinched Mila with all her might. Mila tried to escape Kak Ngah’s firm grip but failed. She was forced to save herself by biting Kak Ngah’s hand and running toward the well behind the house.
The chattering from the living room irritated her to no end, making it difficult for Mila to fall asleep. On her left and right, her sisters slept soundly. Just like other days, Mila had to wake up early. Tomorrow, Mila wanted to wear a green kurta embroidered with golden and silver spangles. While holding a feast for her subjects, Mila would also entertain them with her melodious singing and dancing. She patted the soft goose-feather pillow and then kissed her little sisters, who had foul saliva all over their faces. That night, she allowed her little sister to share the soft mattress in her chamber.
The chattering outside grew louder and was now accompanied by soft sobs. Mila could not restrain her curiosity any longer. She peeked through the crevices of the wooden panels of her bedroom. Vaguely, she could see her parents and Wak Seman, the ailing kampong chief, muttering something. A woman was sitting with her legs folded, sobbing. Her big round belly was heaving uncontrollably, as heavy as her sobs. Mila could not see her face, but the woman had to be Kak Hasnah, her most beautiful and stylish neighbor. Her own mother’s face was calm. Her father was rolling nylon threads to make a bird trap while muttering something. And Wak Seman was nodding.
Mila did not know how long the chattering lasted. Such late-night gatherings at her home between her mother and the other folks in their kampong and the kampong chief were not unusual. Although her mother did not hold any position in the community, she remained a source of comfort and refuge, especially for the other women. Mila didn’t get it. In all likelihood, her mother simply liked to help people. After the passing of Wak Seman’s wife, he began to hold frequent gatherings at Mila’s house, in private or otherwise.
When she woke up, Mila found herself lying on her little sister’s belly. And as happened every morning, the crow of the rooster behind her house was like an alarm clock marking the start of the day’s tasks.
In the kitchen, Kak Long and their mother were frying epok‐epok. Kak Ngah was getting ready for school. Kak Long helped their mother every morning, since in the afternoons she attended school. Her father had likely left quite some time ago to go to the end of the kampong to snare birds with two of his friends. Her father had been doing nothing else for the past two months. Mila did not understand why her father returned home angrily one afternoon, muttering “mogok.” Mila thought that “mogok” was some sort of mumps that often infected Mila and her friends in the kampong. What Mila didn’t get was why her dad was angry when it was the children who were infected.
Mila donned her shiny green kurta, ready to carry out her task. Two worn-out rattan baskets had been loaded with piping hot epok-epok.
“Mila, come here my child.” Mila walked over to her mother, who was drenched in sweat from the sheer heat of the epok-epok.
“When you leave, can you pass by Kak Hasnah’s house? Don’t enter the house, just pass by, OK?”
“I don’t want to, Mother. Abang Osman always shouts at me. He says that I disturb his sleep. Sometimes he pelts me with stones.”
“But just go past their house this morning. It’s important. When you reach their house, don’t call out. Just be quiet.” Her mother whispered this as she combed Mila’s tangled hair. Mother, don’t forget to use that fragrant MBR oil on my hair, Mila thought to herself. Let it be as thick and shiny as Mala Sinha’s plaits.
“I hate it, Mother.”
“Mila, listen to me, OK? Just pass by Kak Hasnah’s house this morning.”
Mila looked at her mother’s face intently. My Maharani, Mila thought to herself. How beautiful, just like Madhubala. The wrinkles on her forehead and around her eyes only add to her beauty. You are such a soothing sight, my Maharani, as soothing as the waterfall in Kashmir. There is nothing my Maharani does not know.
Fine then, I will do it. Mila danced as she carried the worn-out baskets in her hands. The diamonds embedded in her green kurta glistened beneath the sun, inviting her to play. She headed toward the surau on the western side of the kampong. It would be fun there. Surely one basket will be empty by then. Then my load will be lighter. After that, I’ll head east and then return home to load two more baskets. Keep going until they are sold. They all have to be sold. Otherwise, my Maharani’s face will lose its radiance as she wipes away her tears, hiding them from us, her children.
“Epok‐epok . . . epok‐epok . . .” Mila sang like Lata Mangeshkar. She continued singing from the west to the east of the kampong. As soon as Mila reached Kak Hasnah’s house, she stopped dancing and singing. Mila trod cautiously. Nothing was odd. Nothing was special. Although she had not been there for quite some time, there was nothing new—heaps of newspapers were still left untouched in the shabby ambin. At night, there would surely be two to three unfamiliar young men waiting for Abang Osman at the ambin. They would talk and laugh as loudly as they pleased. Mila had been told by Botak that those men in tight‐fitting pants came from another kampong. I’m not sure.
Kak Hasnah’s secluded house was still dark. The door and windows were shut tight. Wet clothes hung on the clothesline. Kak Hasnah must have done the laundry at dawn before she left for the white man’s house at the far end of the kampong, where she’d wash his clothes until evening fell. On an early morning like this, Abang Osman would still be snoring. I hate him.
“Were you scared when you passed by Kak Hasnah’s house just now? Don’t forget to pass by her house again, OK? Remember, you don’t need to do anything else, just pass by.” Her mother repeated her message as she loaded the empty baskets. Mila nodded while adjusting the sleeves of her kurta. A couple of diamonds had dropped off her sleeves as she danced with so much enthusiasm.
“When you return, I will sew that torn sleeve. Come here, let me pin it up first. When everything has sold out this week, I will give you five cents.”
Five cents this week. Five cents next week. That adds to ten cents already, and I will be able to buy chocolates again. Buy a chocolate and get the picture of an Indian film star. Hopefully I will get the picture of Rajendra Kumar and not MGR. When I’m done eating the chocolate and I get the picture, then I will show Kak Ngah so that she will be jealous. Mila sang at the top of her lungs. Her subjects ought to listen to her singing.
“Mila, I want to come with you.”
“Hey, Botak! You always want to come with me. Go and play with someone else. I don’t want you to come because you will step on someone’s chicks again. I don’t want to get beaten up because of you again. Go away.”
Botak scratched his scabby head. He grinned. Just like Mila, Botak had not yet entered first grade.
“I can help you carry your baskets. One for you, one for me.”
Mila was impressed. Smart Botak.
“Epok-epok . . . Epok-epok . . .” Mila and Botak sang together. They both skipped along joyfully.
As they were approaching Kak Hasnah’s house, Mila quickly put her hand over Botak’s mouth, just as he was about to shout. Mila forcefully pulled Botak by the hand. “Eh, what’s wrong?”
“If Abang Osman wakes up, he will start cursing me. My mother asked me to pass by their house and nothing else.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Let’s look around. I want to know what’s going on.”
“Are you crazy? He will beat you to death. My mother did not ask me to do anything. I do not want to. If you do that, I will not be friends with you ever again.”
Mila snatched the basket from Botak and immediately ran off, far away from Kak Hasnah’s house. Botak grinned. From afar, Mila could see Botak creeping up slowly to peek through the walls of Kak Hasnah’s room. Mila’s heart was beating fast. Without realizing, tears rolled down her cheeks. Mila waited for what seemed like an eternity. She felt waves of panic, just like the time she heard the whispers under the cherry tree. Botak, why are you looking for trouble? I don’t want to be your friend anymore. I’ll get beaten up because of you. But Mila still continued to wait for him.
After what seemed like hours, Botak came running toward Mila, panting. He could still manage a grin.
That night, chatter could again be heard coming from the living room. Kak Hasnah sobbed louder than before. Her mother hugged Kak Hasnah tightly. Her father and Wak Seman’s voices sounded serious. Mila cupped her hands around her ear and pressed up against thin wall.
“This time, Timah and him . . .” she faintly heard her mother say.
“Timah did not go to school this morning, but her parents didn’t know . . . We must tell them.”
“You and Wak Seman must let them know,” ordered Father.
“Aren’t you going to tell them?” asked her mother.
“I promised my friend I’d go snare birds in the forest behind the train station.”
“Can we believe Botak? He is just a child. He can’t be a witness.” Wak Seman seemed doubtful.
“What if it was true? We can’t just remain silent. When he did the same to Yam, he got away with it. He really made her suffer. Yam eventually went back to Johor to hide her shame. Timah is only ten, just like our Ngah. Take pity on her. Let’s ask Timah tomorrow. I will ask her to come by.” Her mother had decided on a plan.
Kak Hasnah was crying nonstop.
“What time does Osman usually return home at night?” asked Wak Seman. Kak Hasnah’s reply could not be heard. It was drowned amid her sobs.
The following night Mila saw Kak Hasnah in her living room again. She was panting. Perhaps due to her bulging belly. Wak Seman looked really worn out.
“Timah came by your house twice when you went out to work. Two more times, when you were home, Osman brought her to the cherry tree,” her mother explained in detail. Kak Hasnah continued crying.
“Why? What did I do wrong?”
“You did nothing wrong. Neither did Timah. Wak Seman and I informed Timah’s parents a while ago. They almost killed Timah but luckily Wak Seman was there to calm them down. I’ve already asked them to make a report to the police, but they refused. They were ashamed and fearful.”
“Be patient, Hasnah. We will wait until you have delivered before we take action,” advised Wak Seman.
“I can no longer put up with him beating me when he comes home drunk.”
“Be patient. He has a bad temper. He’s also a notorious gangster. Do you remember when he wanted to burn my shop because I reminded him of his debts? I don’t want to go hard on him or he will torture you again,” continued Wak Seman.
“Is there no way out?”
“There is, but let’s be patient.”
“I’ve always been patient when he acts up. Can’t the villagers help me? Where are all the men in this kampong?” Kak Hasnah raised her voice.
“I approached everyone but nobody dares confront him. Neither the young nor the old. We will help you, but you have to be patient.” Wak Seman appeared small and weak. His face wrinkled. Father kept himself busy with his snare.
Mila dozed off without realizing it. She had been dancing at the foot of the Himalaya Mountains and among the Casuarina trees that night. She made snowballs together with her beautiful handmaidens as they all sang sweetly. Her blue sari was drenched in sweet-smelling sweat as she danced and played. The anklets and bells jingled to the rhythm of her lively dance. Suddenly, a monstrous creature appeared and began to chase them. They ran everywhere, dispersing helter-skelter. Mila did not manage to escape by the white horse as her legs were already being pulled firmly in the grip of the evil monster. Mila was tied to the cherry tree. The monster began to sneer, ready to swallow Mila up. Its face became more and more frightening like Abang Osman’s. Mila peed in her pants.
In the morning, Mila’s sister screamed and scolded her. There was more work for her now as she needed to wash the flattened mattress and clean the floor. Kak Ngah had already left for school.
“Mila, today you will pass by Kak Hasnah’s house again, OK?” said her mother.
“I hate it. I hate looking at that house.”
“I’m scared. I hate it.”
“Abang Osman did not scold you yesterday, did he?”
Mila shook her head. Just like Kak Hasnah, Mila used to be attracted to Abang Osman, who resembled Raj Kapoor. But ever since he first scolded her, she became afraid of him.
Mila’s mother pulled her daughter close and hugged her tight. Mila then went around the kampong with a heavy heart. She was no longer dancing. She was still haunted by her nightmare. What if Abang Osman really did turn into a monster and run after her?
Mila went off to search for Botak, whom she had previously disliked so much. She searched in the huge drain where he might be catching eels. She then went to the tapioca plantation, but Botak was nowhere to be seen. Botak’s house was dark and quiet. If Botak were at her side, she would be less terrified.
Abang Osman’s house was quiet, as usual. Mila breathed in deeply and continued to walk briskly. Good, Abang Osman is not yet awake.
The ambin of his house was just like yesterday, filled with stacks of newspapers. However, there was a pair of school shoes at his doorstep. Mila gathered the courage to take a closer look at those shoes. She stood there staring at them. She sobbed and ran as fast as she could, leaving the house far behind.
As soon as she arrived home, Mila ran straight to her mother and hugged her. She cried hard. Those shoes belonged to Kak Ngah. Mila could not understand why Kak Ngah was at Abang Osman’s house when Kak Hasnah was not there. Mila was trembling. She did not want Kak Ngah to be swallowed up by the monstrous Abang Osman.
Mila’s mother stood up in a hurry and ran to Abang Osman’s house. She asked Mila to bring Wak Seman over to Abang Osman’s house. When they reached his house, Wak Seman and Mila saw that her mother had become hysterical and was slapping Kak Ngah over and over again. She kept tugging Kak Ngah’s crumpled school uniform. Kak Ngah just looked down and cried. Her hair was a mess. Mila did not know where Kak Ngah had put her schoolbag.
“I just wanted some chocolate . . . just chocolate . . .” Kak Ngah sobbed as she was swamped with questions by her mother, who asked her over and over again why she was there.
Kak Ngah, Kak Ngah please don’t cry. I will give you some of my chocolates. We can both eat in the cherry tree. Kak Ngah, my chocolates taste better. My chocolates have wafers in them. Kak Ngah, Kak Ngah please don’t cry, Mila sobbed behind a tree in front of Kak Hasnah’s house. She wanted to hug Kak Ngah, but she felt paralyzed.
Abang Osman was shirtless, with his hands on his hips; he looked just like the demon Jin Ravana in the Ramayana. The neighbors merely observed from afar while whispering to one another. Wak Seman pointed his finger at Abang Osman’s face. Abang Osman did indeed look like the monstrous creature in her dream last night. He was horrifying.
“You’re inhuman! You don’t pity the girls. You don’t pity your wife. You’re evil, you monster!” Wak Seman shouted.
“What do you mean evil? I did not force them. They love coming here. It’s none of your business!” Abang Osman bellowed arrogantly.
“You are a beast! No human being would have done such a thing! Have you no fear of God? Have you no decency? Damn you, bastard!”
“Go to hell! I can do whatever I like. My wife still wants me. Do you have a problem with that? Get lost!”
Wak Seman grew even more incensed. He pulled up his faded kain pelikat and punched Abang Osman so hard that even he could not hold his balance. He fell to the ground, right where Abang Osman was standing. Abang Osman kicked Wak Seman ruthlessly. Wak Seman groaned in pain. Mila looked around at the people who had been observing the whole incident while praying for someone brave enough to help Wak Seman. No one dared move. With fiery eyes Abang Osman, glared at everyone there. They were petrified.
It has now been a month since Mila stopped peddling epok-epok. Nyai Kesum, the kampong midwife, had come once to her house. Her mother, Kak Ngah, and Nyai Kesum stayed in the bedroom from noon till dusk. Ever since that day, Kak Ngah no longer went to school and was also not allowed to leave the house. Kak Long was devastated when she, too, had to stop attending school. Her father just kept quiet and stared emptily into space. His trips to the end of the kampong to snare birds became more frequent. Mila’s mother had long since stopped crying, but her heart remained trapped in the waves of emotions. She had more wrinkles on her face.
It has been a month since Wak Seman closed down his shop and went back to Segamat to accompany Timah and her parents as they went to meet a prominent traditional healer. Timah and her parents had returned to the kampong but this time without Wak Seman.
Mila lay on her belly in her bedroom, organizing all the pictures of the Hindustani film stars on the floor. She counted the days until she could buy more pictures to add to her collection.
“Mila! Mila!” She heard a voice from outside her bedroom.
“What do you want?”
“Abang Osman and Kak Hasnah are fighting!”
“Near the cherry tree . . . come!”
“Near my cherry tree?”
Mila immediately ran after Botak, who was as swift as a grasshopper. All the villagers had surrounded the cherry tree as if to watch another of the magic shows that had been coming to the kampong every month. Mila followed Botak closely as they squeezed through the crowd just to get a better view, like first-class seats at a circus.
Kak Hasnah was already sprawled on the ground, wailing in pain and misery. Her pregnant belly bulged through her tattered clothes. With his thundering voice, Abang Osman cursed Kak Hasnah and hit her hard over and over again. Mila looked around. No one moved. She saw Timah in a sunflower dress not far away, crying uncontrollably. She was holding the wrapper of a Hindustani chocolate.
“You bitch! How dare you tear my clothes. I will kill you!”
“Have mercy, Abang . . . please have mercy!” pleaded Kak Hasnah.
“Enough, Osman! Have pity on her. She is pregnant,” said a trembling voice.
“I will kill you! How dare you attack me here. You insolent woman!” Abang Osman kicked the side of Kak Hasnah’s belly as hard as he could. Kak Hasnah yelped. The rip on the pocket of his shirt got bigger and three pieces of the Hindustani chocolate slipped out. Mila gasped. He bent down to pick them up. To Mila, a man as disgusting as Abang Osman did not deserve to keep chocolates wrapped in pictures of great heroes and heroines.
Kak Hasnah was still sprawled on the ground. Abang Osman continued to rage. The villagers remained quiet.
Mila could not bear to witness this anymore. It pained her to watch what had happened. Why is Kak Hasnah’s story as tragic as “Sangam”? In the end, shouldn’t the hero and heroine be united?Tears flowed down her cheeks. Standing next to her, Botak no longer grinned. His eyes, too, were filled with tears.
Mila pulled Botak and they left the cruel circus. Mila swore never to touch the Hindustani chocolates again. She would no longer go near the cherry tree. Mila just wanted to hurry home so that she could be in the arms of her Maharani. On the way home, Mila tore up the pictures of her film idols. None of them meant anything anymore. No princes had come to the rescue. There were no dance moves on hill slopes. No heroes. Botak sobbed.