new Indonesian folk tale)
of Muak in Sumatra might disappoint a visitor expecting to
see something like a Stonehenge or Sphinx, for although some
of the great rocks scattered about the village are engraved
with iconic animals and mysterious pictographs that somehow
survived the sun and rains of the tropics, most resemble
nothing much more than the big boulders that dared a long-forgotten
Sumatran tribe to worship them. Unless the traveler were
an archaeologist, therefore, she might find more amazing
the magic of Muak’s sweet woods of cinnamon where dozens
of women daily peel and dry the bark of trees to produce
the spice that enchanted the world even before the Sphinx
was imagined. The visitor will be forgiven for seeing in
these trees a miracle, a gift of God, whereas the villagers
see only the nature of every day’s occupation.
Some years ago,
two such cinnamon collectors, Siti and Minah took pause from
their endeavors and sat on the horizontal megalith known
from its shape as the breadstone. But they took no break
from the conversation that had obsessed them since at dawn
Siti cried that her childless marriage was over.
“It’s not Ahmad.
Not really,” said Siti. “It’s the pressure on him from his
parents. There must be children; otherwise a marriage isn’t
a marriage. And I’m not a woman; I’m a rock no more alive
than this!” She pounded the breadstone with her fists.
“Siti, no. You’ll
hurt yourself,” said Minah, grabbing her friend’s hands.
“I cannot hurt
any more than I already do, Minah. Oh, God, look at that!”
A goat munched
grass near the collected curls of cinnamon. Its two kids
stretched on their back legs to reach their dam’s teats.
“What’s more natural
in this world? What’s more normal? A mother and her babies!
Oh, God, where are my babies? What’s wrong with me?”
Minah. “Your own mother-in-law’s midwife told you that. But
then she was never asked to examine Ahmad, was she?”
“No. Of course
“So don’t blame
yourself. Blame Ahmad.”
The family of
goats grazed closer. “Oh, so adorable. These little kids.
So cute. So lovable.” She turned to her friend. “It’s not
about Ahmad, Minah. It’s not about blame. But…if Ahmad does
leave me, I’ll be left alone. All alone. No one to love me.
No one to love.”
She leaned to
pick up one of the kids, but the dam snorted her away. “I’m
telling you, Minah, if God would only give me a baby—even
a goat baby—I would be so happy!”
“Siti, don’t say
such a ridiculous thing. Not here. What if, God forbid, it
came true and you gave birth to an animal?”
“I don’t care,
Minah; as long as it came from my womb, I’d be fulfilled!
I’d have something to love.”
“Siti, shush.” Minah
rose and pulled Siti to her feet as well. “This rock, these
rocks here, are from the ancient times and ancient gods.
You know the story.” She pointed at a tall spindly stone. “That
was once Sampuraga whose mother Hijra turned him into a rock
because she couldn’t bear to see him leave her.”
Siti turned to
her friend and took her face in her hands. “Minah, I want
to feel a love that strong. I pray for it.”
Minah put her
hand atop her friend’s. “I understand, Siti. I love my children
more than I love myself.”
“No matter what?”
“Yes, of course.”
came from your womb. No matter what. And they love you…”
“No matter what.” Minah
shook her head and laughed as she gathered up the cinnamon. “I
never could win an argument with you. But be careful what
you wish for. These rocks have ears.”
“I hope they do.”
Siti had finished preparing dinner when her husband arrived
home. “You are late, Ahmad.”
“I dropped off
some of the crops from today’s harvest with my parents, and
my mother went on and on about…the usual.”
“Well, she refers
to it as your barrenness.”
“And there was
talk of your remarrying—”
“My young cousin
Bedah, yes.” Ahmad flopped onto the mat that covered the
cabin floor. “Siti, I would never abandon you…but we have
been married ten years…and it’s not only my parents who—My
friends call me mule and not because I’m strong; they hint
that we never…”
“Make love? But
we do…” And they did. There on the mat.
Siti dreamed that
night of Hijra prostrate and crying before the Sampuraga
monolith. When she realized she was being watched, Hijra
stopped crying and held before her a baby goat. Siti reached
out her arms to accept the offering—then she awoke.
But it wasn’t
the dream she recalled when she turned to gaze upon her sleeping
husband. It was their passion and the feeling Siti bore that
this time they would be blessed.
Siti kept her
suspicions to herself, but one morning in the forest as she
and Minah were peeling bark from adjacent cinnamon trees
near the batu roti, she turned away and muffled her retching
mouth in the folds of her sarong. “Get the dust up your nose?” inquired
“Must have,” said
Siti as she wiped her chin.
“Or?” Minah smiled
“Or are you pregnant?”
“No. I don’t know.
Maybe. I hope so. I think—”
“Well, have you
had your period?”
“Not in two months.”
“Well, maybe your
wish has come true—but,” Minah laughed, “not the goat wish,
I hope! A real little baby finally for my best friend.” The
women hugged each other and cried and giggled indistinguishably.
As the weeks went
by, it became more than obvious that Siti was in fact going
to have a baby. At the lima bulanan party held by
Ahmad’s parents to celebrate the fifth month of the pregnancy,
it seemed as if the whole population of Muak was in attendance
as Ahmad’s mother, Ibu Nur, served her daughter-in-law the
traditional sweet-and-sour pomegranate salad. “Eat up, dearest
Siti,” she said. “This will make my grandchild strong.”
“Ah,” Ahmad laughed, “Siti
will follow the ritual, but I don’t think it’s really necessary
for her to have that much pomegranate. This baby is already
so strong. Trust me: I’ve felt him kick like a football player.
That’s how we know he’s a boy!”
“Yes, a sure sign,” affirmed
Ahmad’s mother, “but pomegranate strengthens the mother as
well. And from what you say, Siti will need her strength
to bear this child.”
Siti, “bring on another helping of fruit salad. After waiting
ten years for my womb to be blessed, I’ll do anything for
He was a proud expectant father. More than once that day,
friends of his had cracked, “I guess you are more stallion
than mule, ‘Mad!”
Very early next
morning, Siti was startled to wakefulness by pains in her
lower back. No matter how she adjusted herself in bed, the
discomfort continued. When the pain worsened and spread to
her abdomen, Siti shook Ahmad and said he had to run for
Rubbing the sleep
from his eyes, Ahmad asked, “Why? What’s wrong? You can’t
be having the baby already?”
“No, I shouldn’t
be.” She struggled to find the breath to enunciate each word. “But
I’m in agony. I’m scared something is wrong. Go. Go now for
Ahmad tied no
more than the sarong in which he slept around himself and
ran for help. Siti sat up and felt a lightening in her rib
cage that allowed her to breathe easily and deeply. She felt
relieved and suddenly embarrassed that Mak Tuo would find
When Ahmad returned
rushing into the house with the midwife, he was surprised
to see his wife looking so calm, but Mak Tuo wasn’t disconcerted.
She told Ahmad to wait outside the house, and she removed
Siti’s sarong and felt her chest and abdomen and looked for
dilation. “Stay relaxed, dear, but know that you are beginning
“No, not now,” screamed
Siti, and her cry brought Ahmad through the door once more.
“Out,” Mak Tuo
directed Ahmad. “You are about to have a child, and if you
want it to survive, you will leave the matter to the women.” Ahmad
again retreated to wait under the banyan tree in front of
the nearby mosque. He sat on one of the many small, undistinguished
megaliths scattered around Muak and as the hours of the morning
collected into mid-day, rings of attendant townsfolk encircled
him. He hoped that he would soon have the chance to whisper
into the ear of his son his first prayer of thankfulness.
pushed according to Mak Tuo’s chants and encouragements. “Help
your child, dear; give it life!” As the baby’s head slipped
into the world, Mak Tuo staggered backwards and threw up
her hands to heaven. “Astagfirullah! God almighty!” She
had thought, and had often said, that in her many years of
service, she had seen every possible kind of birth. But never
before anything like this. Nonetheless, she stepped forward
to collect the baby as it flumed from the womb; quickly she
attended to the tube and afterbirth as normal, but she decided
not to swaddle the baby, but to set it naked on the floor.
Siti caught her
breath. When she neither saw Mak Tuo carrying the child nor
heard her baby crying, Siti plaintively asked, “Is it…?”
“It is alive;
it is well; it is male, but…”
“But what?” Siti
sat up and faced Mak Tuo.
“But it is not
human.” Mak Tuo pointed to the corner where a miniature goat,
wet and terrified, struggled to stand in the corner.
a piercing Noooooooo with a sound even more inhuman
than the gentle, hesitant bleating below her. But her mind
contradicted the word she uttered. Yes, she thought, yes,
my wish came true. God forgive me.
brought Ahmad back into the house and a crowd to its threshold.
Ahmad embraced his hysterical wife.
“No? No? Is my
son dead then? Is he dead?”
“He is not dead,” Mak
Tuo said. “But he is not normal. Prepare yourself.” Ahmad
turned to her who cradled now the baby goat that had just
“This is your
son,” Mak Tuo said quietly.
There were immediate
echoes of Mak Tuo’s words among the audience outside the
door. Ahmad’s face, sweat covered now, had lost all its color.
With a frightening firmness, he stared at Mak Tuo. “This.
Can. Not. Be. My. Child.” He looked at the mass of staring
eyes outside his door. “This. Is. Not. My. Child.” He turned
to Siti. “Is this your child? Did you bear this animal?” Siti,
her own face drenched with exhaustion and despair, nodded. “Then
you consort with demons, you…you…witch! This is a child of
Ahmad struck Siti
with the palm of each of his hands and then forced his way
through the mass of people in front of his house, all the
while yelling over and over, “This is not my child!” until
he disappeared from view.
who, like everyone else, had heard what was said to have
transpired in the home of Ahmad and Siti, wended her way
toward her friend’s house. Once inside, she shut the door
firmly on the gathering crowd. She looked at the cowering
little goat and then at her friend who was begging Mak Tuo
to take the animal away. “Give it to some goatherd.”
her friend and sat next to her on the bed. “Siti, your wish
has come true.”
“Don’t you recall
saying, ‘If God would only give me a baby—even a goat baby—I
would be so happy!’ The rocks were listening. God blessed
“No! God hasn’t
blessed me. He has damned me. He has punished me for my insolence.
What shall I do? What shall I do?”
“You will understand
that God has bothered to intervene in your life. He has answered
your prayer. Exactly as you wished. You will take care of
“Listen to your
friend, Siti,” said Mak Tuo. “And look at this baby. It’s
so cute, so beautiful, but it will wither and die without
someone to nurse it and love it. It came from your womb.
Of that I can swear. You must love it for it truly is your
“Bring it to me,
then.” And Mak Tuo brought the kid to Siti’s bosom.
Over the next
few weeks, Siti cared for the goat, and admitted to Minah,
her constant companion and supporter, that she was coming
to feel something like love for this baby, as much love as
one can have for an animal. She had named the goat Sakti,
and she was, indeed, almost happy, except that she dare not
enter the town where jeers and insults and worse were hurled
at her in a cruel campaign orchestrated by Ahmad’s mother
who swore that no grandson of hers could possibly be a goat.
Minah was Siti’s lifeline to the outside world and one day,
as the festival of sacrifice approached, she warned Siti
to take her son and leave the area altogether. “Ahmad’s mother
has convinced the elders that your son can only be the devil’s
own child, just as Ahmad had said. They plan to make Sakti
the first animal to be slaughtered on the Eid.”
“But where shall
we go? And will they let me go?”
“Siti, on the
other side of the cinnamon forest, in a village far even
from where we used to work, my mother’s aunt Hamidah has
a cabin. She is aged now and can use the company and some
help—especially with her granddaughter Mariyam, just a baby
herself, whom my cousin left behind when she went off with
her boyfriend to the city. So beautiful, my cousin! And always
So you will be
welcome there. You can care for Sakti without anyone, even
my aunt, knowing your story. In any event, my aunt is in
no position to gossip.”
“Minah, you are
the best of friends. But how can we safely make our escape.”
“Tonight, in the
dark. I will guide you.” And so she did.
And so Siti became
wet nurse and mother to two children, and she came to adore
them both. Sakti stood on his own legs far sooner than Mariyam
of course, but Siti would never let the goat roam too far,
for fear that tigers or pythons or, worse, Ahmad’s relatives
might find him. A member of the family, he slept in the cabin
on the floor next to the mattress on which his mother and
Mariyam slept, his head always between them, nestled in the
crook of Siti’s arm.
The two children
were as inseparable during the day as they were at night
and became each other’s best friend. When it was time, against
Hamidah’s better judgment, to send Mariyam off to school,
the goat followed and grazed just outside the simple schoolhouse.
Unused to other youngsters, Mariyam was taciturn and insular
during lessons and was the favorite of neither her teachers
nor her classmates. She smiled only when she gazed out the
window and saw her friend Sakti curled beneath the mango
tree waiting for classes to end.
When some of the
older boys tied bracelets of tin cans to the snoozing Sakti’s
legs at recess and laughed uproariously when the animal awoke
and stumbled helplessly and noisily in circles, Mariyam screamed
and threw stones to clear away the boys from her friend.
She freed Sakti of his shackles and walked him home even
as her teacher yelled for Mariyam to return immediately to
It was weeks before
Mariyam agreed to return and then only after negotiations
among the teacher, the head of school, Siti, and even old
Hamidah required Sakti, for his own protection, to come no
closer to the school than fifty meters. The marker, said
the principal, would be the half-buried old megalith, “the
one that looks something like a skull there near the little
river.” Mariyam could barely see Sakti then from the classroom
window as he grazed and waited round the stone, rain or shine,
for the end of every school day.
But at graduation,
when Mariyam finished third in her class, well ahead of every
boy who had ever teased Sakti or called her “goatgirl,” Siti
and Hamidah and Sakti, wearing a red-and-white neckerchief,
proudly sat in the front row of the audience. Mariyam had
never smiled so much in school as she did on her last day
Siti was Hamidah’s
greatest comfort in the last years of her life, and when
the old woman passed on, the cabin in the cinnamon forest
became Siti’s own home from which she continued to harvest
cinnamon at a time when the sweet spice was an increasingly
valuable commodity. Siti was able to purchase more and more
of the forest that surrounded and protected her, her adopted
daughter Mariyam, and her Sakti.
Siti and her children
had been together fourteen years when Minah made the latest
of her annual visits to the cabin. She found her friend anxious.
“Why the wrinkled
forehead and open mouth, Siti? I haven’t seen you in such
a state since the old days. It’s not just our age. Something
is bothering you. What?”
“Minah, do you
know how long goats live?”
“Not usually as
long as Sakti, I know, Minah. But you and I know that he
is not an ordinary goat.”
“No, he is my
own child and, God knows, I love him as much as I can imagine
any mother loving a son. But he is a goat, and he is not
well. He has lost his appetite, and when in the morning he
tries to follow Mariyam and me into the cinnamon forest,
he—” Siti’s words were hidden in her sobs. “He hasn’t the
energy. He sits and waits for us to return with the bark
He is dying, Minah,
and I don’t know how I will live without him. I don’t know
how Mariyam will live without him.”
“Oh, my old friend.
You must think of these years during which God blessed you
with your Sakti—”
“And with Mariyam.”
“And with Mariyam,
yes. You have been doubly loved when once you were empty
and feared being so forever. Thank God for the miracle God
“I do. I do. But,
oh, Minah, it hurts.”
“Where is he now?”
of course, who is too smart not to understand what is happening
to her friend.”
“She doesn’t know—”
“No, not that.
But she knows what she feels. They are down near the river,
by the stone where Sakti had to stay for so many school days.
It’s a special place for them. But now it only reminds me
of Sampuraga. Am I like Hijra? When Sakti is gone will I
only have a rock to keep him close to me? Oh, God “
“Cry, old friend.
Cry. I won’t tell you to do otherwise. But let us go see
your children. I come every year to see them as well as you.”
Tears were indeed
in order, for when they reached the rock by the river, they
saw Mariyam hunched over Sakti who, on his side, whimpered
loudly. “He is in pain, mother. What can we do?”
Siti sat on the
ground and held her son’s head in her hands. Nose to nose,
she looked into Sakti’s eyes. “Just love him.”
“I do, mother,
I do.” Mariyam held her friend as closely as she could. She
kissed his back. “I do love him.”
A terrible spasm
forced the women to let go of the goat who writhed and screamed
and stretched its legs straight out and then again in on
themselves until Sakti’s body was as tight as a ball that
shot upwards some two meters like some great firecracker
and landed on its two feet. Its two human feet. For when
the eyes and minds of the three women cleared they saw before
them a beautiful boy of fourteen, naked and, it must be said,
startled himself. While his hands discovered his own shape,
his lips trembled as he silently formed the word Ma and
again Ma. He looked at Siti with awe. And she ran
to her son and held him before she collapsed at his feet.
It was some time
before Sakti learned to speak and move as a human with ease.
But from the first, he understood what had happened for he
had always had the mind and soul of a boy although he had
been given, for reasons that Siti and Minah had to explain
to him and to Mariyam, the body of a goat for just as long
as a goat shall live.
But the rest of
his days were as a man’s should be—wed to his loving Mariyam
on their house in the cinnamon forest, blessed with seven
wonderful girls and boys of their own (one of whom sported
a goatee when he was old enough), and loyal ever to the mother
who loved him no matter what.