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A short story by Rounsevelle Wildman


Title:     Busuk
Author: Rounsevelle Wildman [More Titles by Wildman]

The Story of a Malayan Girlhood.

They called her Busuk, or "the youngest" at her birth. Her father, the old punghulo, or chief, of the little kampong, or village, of Passir Panjang, whispered the soft Allah Akbar, the prayer to Allah, in her small brown ear.

The subjects of the punghulo brought presents of sarongs run with gold thread, and not larger than a handkerchief, for Busuk to wear about her waist. They also brought gifts of rice in baskets of cunningly woven cocoanut fibre; of bananas, a hundred on a bunch; of durians, that filled the bungalow with so strong an odor that Busuk drew up her wrinkled, tiny face into a quaint frown; and of cocoanuts in their great green, oval shucks.

Busuk's old aunt, who lived far away up the river Maur, near the foot of Mount Ophir, sent a yellow gold pin for the hair; her husband, the Hadji Mat, had washed the gold from the bed of the stream that rushed by their bungalow.

Busuk's brother, who was a sergeant in his Highness's the Sultan's artillery at Johore, brought a tiny pair of sandals all worked in many-colored beads. Never had such presents been seen at the birth of any other of Punghulo Sahak's children.

Two days later the Imam Paduka Tuan sent Busuk's father a letter sewn up in a yellow bag. It contained a blessing for Busuk. Busuk kept the letter all her life, for it was a great thing for the high priest to do.

On the seventh day Busuk's head was shaven and she was named Fatima; but they called her Busuk in the kampong, and some even called her Inchi Busuk, the princess.

From the low-barred window of Busuk's home she could look out on the shimmering, sunlit waters of the Straits of Malacca. The loom on which Busuk's mother wove the sarongs for the punghulo and for her sons stood by the side of the window, and Busuk, from the sling in which she sat on her mother's side, could see the fishing praus glide by, and also the big lumber tonkangs, and at rare intervals one of his Highness's launches.

Sometimes she blinked her eyes as a vagrant shaft of sunlight straggled down through the great green and yellow fronds of the cocoanut palms that stood about the bungalow; sometimes she kept her little black eyes fixed gravely on the flying shuttle which her mother threw deftly back and forth through the many-colored threads; but best of all did she love to watch the little gray lizards that ran about on the palm sides of the house after the flies and moths.

She was soon able to answer the lizards' call of "gecho, gecho," and once she laughed outright when one, in fright of her baby-fingers, dropped its tail and went wiggling away like a boat without a rudder. But most of the time she swung and crowed in her wicker cradle under the low rafters.

When Busuk grew older, she was carried every day down the ladder of the house and put on the warm white sand with the other children. They were all naked, save for a little chintz bib that was tied to their necks; so it made no difference how many mudpies they made on the beach nor how wet they got in the tepid waters of the ocean. They had only to look out carefully for the crocodiles that glided noiselessly among the mangrove roots.

One day one of Busuk's playmates was caught in the cruel jaws of a crocodile, and lost its hand. The men from the village went out into the labyrinth of roots that stood up above the flood like a huge scaffolding, and caught the man-eater with ropes of the gamooty palm. They dragged it up the beach and put out its eyes with red-hot spikes of the hard billion wood.

Although the varnished leaves of the cocoanuts kept almost every ray of sunlight out of the little village, and though the children could play in the airy spaces under their own houses, their heads and faces were painted with a paste of flour and water to keep their tender skins from chafing in the hot, moist air.

At evening, when the fierce sun went down behind the great banian tree that nearly hid Mount Pulei, the kateeb would sound the call to prayer on a hollow log that hung up before the little palm-thatched mosque. Then Busuk and her playmates would fall on their faces, while the holy man sang in a soft, monotonous voice the promises of the Koran, the men of the kampong answering. "Allah il Allah," he would sing, and "Mohammed is his prophet," they would answer.

Every night Busuk would lie down on a mat on the floor of the house with a little wooden pillow under her neck, and when she dared she would peep down through the open spaces in the bamboo floor into the darkness beneath. Once she heard a low growl, and a great dark form stood right below her. She could see its tail lashing its sides with short, whip-like movements. Then all the dogs in the kampong began to bark, and the men rushed down their ladders screaming, "Harimau! Harimau!" (A tiger! A tiger!) The next morning she found that her pet dog, Fatima, named after herself, had been killed by one stroke of the great beast's paw. Once a monster python swung from a cocoanut tree through the window of her home, and wound itself round and round the post of her mother's loom. It took a dozen men to tie a rope to the serpent's tail, and pull it out.

Busuk went everywhere astride the punghulo's broad shoulders as he collected the taxes and settled the disputes in the little village. She went out into the straits in the big prau that floated the star and crescent of Johore over its stern, to look at the fishing-stakes, and was nearly wrecked by a great water-spout that burst within a few feet of them.

Then she went twice to Johore, and gazed in open-eyed wonder at the palaces of the Sultan and at the fort in which her uncle was an officer.

"Some day," she thought, "I may see his Highness, and he may notice me and smile." For had not his Highness spoken twice to her father and called him a good man? So whenever she went to Johore she put on her best sarong and kabaya> and in her jetty black hair she put the pin her aunt had given her, with a spray of sweet-smelling chumpaka flower.

When she was four years old she went to the penager to learn to read and write. In a few months she could outstrip any one in the class in tracing Arabic characters on the sand-sprinkled floor, and she knew whole chapters in the Koran.

So the days were passed in the little kampong under the gently swaying cocoanuts, and the little Malayan girl grew up like her companions, free and wild, with little thought beyond the morrow. That some day she was to be married, she knew; for since her first birthday she had been engaged to Mamat, the son of her father's friend, the punghulo of Bander Bahru.

She had never seen Mamat, nor he her; for it was not proper that a Malay should see his intended before marriage. She had heard that he was strong and lithe of limb, and could beat all his fellows at the game called ragga. When the wicker ball was in the air he never let it touch the ground; for he was as quick with his head and feet, shoulders, hips, and breast, as with his hands. He could swim and box, and had once gone with his father to the seaports on New Year's Day at Singapore, and his own prau had won the short-distance race.

Mamat was three years older than Busuk, and they were to be married when she was fifteen.

At first she cried a little, for she was sad at the thought of giving up her playmates. But then the older women told her that she could chew betel when she was married, and her mother showed her a little set of betel-nut boxes, for which she had sent to Singapore. Each cup was of silver, and the box was cunningly inlaid with storks and cherry blossoms. It had cost her mother a month's hard labor on the loom.

Then Mamat was not to take her back to his father's bungalow. He had built a little one of his own, raised up on palm posts six feet from the ground, so that she need not fear tigers or snakes or white ants. Its sides were of plaited palm leaves, every other one colored differently, and its roof was of the choicest attap, each leaf bent carefully over a rod of rattan, and stitched so evenly that not a drop of rain could get through.

Inside there was a room especially for her, with its sides hung with sarongs, and by the window was a loom made of kamooning wood, finer than her mother's. Outside, under the eaves, was a house of bent rattan for her ring-doves, and a shelf where her silver-haired monkey could sun himself.

So Busuk forgot her grief, and she watched with ill-concealed eagerness the coming of Mamat's friends with presents of tobacco and rice and bone-tipped krises. Then for the first time she was permitted to open the camphor-wood chest and gaze upon all the beautiful things that she was to wear for the one great day.

Her mother and elder sisters had been married in them, and their children would, one after another, be married in them after her.

There was a sarong of silk, run with threads of gold and silver, that was large enough to go around her body twice and wide enough to hang from her waist to her ankles; a belt of silver, with a gold plate in front, to hold the sarong in place; a kabaya, or outer garment, that looked like a dressing-gown, and was fastened down the front with golden brooches of curious Malayan workmanship; a pair of red-tipped sandals; and a black lace scarf to wear about her black hair. There were earrings and a necklace of colored glass, and armlets, bangles, and gold pins. They all dazzled Busuk, and she could hardly wait to try them on.

A buffalo was sacrificed on the day of the ceremony. The animal was "without blemish or disease." The men were careful not to break its fore or hind leg or its spine, after death, for such was the law. Its legs were bound and its head was fastened, and water was poured upon it while the kadi prayed. Then he divided its windpipe. When it was cooked, one half of it was given to the priests and the other half to the people.

All the guests, and there were many, brought offerings of cooked rice in the fresh green leaves of the plantain, and baskets of delicious mangosteens, and pink mangoes and great jack-fruits. A curry was made from the rice that had forty sambuls to mix with it. There were the pods of the moringa tree, chilies and capsicums, prawns and decayed fish, chutneys and onions, ducks' eggs and fish roes, peppers and cucumbers and grated cocoanuts.

It was a wonderful curry, made by one of the Sultan's own cooks; for the Punghulo Sahak spared no expense in the marriage of this, his last daughter, and a great feast is exceedingly honorable in the eyes of the guests.

Busuk's long black hair had to be done up in a marvellous chignon on the top of her head. First, her maids washed it beautifully clean with the juice of the lime and the lather of the soap-nut; then it was combed and brushed until every hair glistened like ebony; next it was twisted up and stuck full of the quaint golden and tortoise-shell bodkins, with here and there a spray of jasmine and chumpaka.

Busuk's milky-white teeth had to be filed off more than a fourth. She put her head down on the lap of the woman and closed her eyes tight to keep back the hot tears that would fall, but after the pain was over and her teeth were blackened, she looked in the mirror at her swollen gums and thought that she was very beautiful. Now she could chew the betel-nut from the box her mother had given her!

The palms of her hands and the nails of her fingers and toes were painted red with henna, and the lids of her eyes touched up with antimony. When all was finished, they led her out into the great room, which was decorated with mats of colored palm, masses of sweet-smelling flowers and maidenhair fern. There they placed her in the chair of state to receive her relatives and friends.


She trembled a little for fear Mamat would not think her beautiful, but when, last of all, he came up and smiled and claimed the bit of betel-nut that she was chewing for the first time, and placed it in his mouth, she smiled back and was very happy.

Then the kadi pronounced them man and wife in the presence of all, for is it not written, "Written deeds may be forged, destroyed, or altered; but the memory of what is transacted in the presence of a thousand witnesses must remain sacred? Allah il Allah!" And all the people answered, "Suka! Suka!" (We wish it! We wish it!)

Then Mamat took his seat on the dais beside the bride, and the punghulo passed about the betel-box. First, Busuk took out a syrah leaf smeared with lime and placed in it some broken fragments of the betel-nut, and chewed it until a bright red liquid oozed from the corners of her mouth. The others did the same.

Then the women brought garlands of flowers--red allamandas, yellow convolvulus, and pink hibiscus--and hung them about Busuk and Mamat, while the musicians outside beat their crocodile-hide drums in frantic haste.

The great feast began out in the sandy plaza before the houses. There was cock-fighting and kicking the ragga ball, wrestling and boxing, and some gambling among the elders.

Toward night Busuk was put in a rattan chair and carried by the young men, while Mamat and the girls walked by her side, a mile away, where her husband's big cadjang-covered prau lay moored. It was to take them to his bungalow at Bander Bahru. The band went, too, and the boys shot off guns and fire-crackers all the way, until Busuk's head swam, and she was so happy that the tears came into her eyes and trickled down through the rouge on her cheeks.

So ended Busuk's childhood. She was not quite fifteen when she became mistress of her own little palm-thatched home. But it was not play housekeeping with her; for she must weave the sarongs for Mamat and herself for clothes and for spreads at night, and the weaving of each cost her twenty days' hard labor. If she could weave an extra one from time to time, Mamat would take it up to Singapore and trade it at the bazaar for a pin for the hair or a sunshade with a white fringe about it.

Then there were the shell-fish and prawns on the sea-shore to be found, greens to be sought out in the jungle, and the padi, or rice, to be weeded. She must keep a plentiful supply of betel-nut and lemon leaves for Mamat and herself, and one day there was a little boy to look after and make tiny sarongs for.


So, long before the time that our American girls are out of school, and about the time they are putting on long dresses, Busuk was a woman. Her shoulders were bent, her face wrinkled, her teeth decayed and falling out from the use of the syrah leaf. She had settled the engagement of her oldest boy to a little girl of two years in a neighboring kampong, and was dusting out the things in the camphor-wood chest, preparatory to the great occasion.

I used to wonder, as I wandered through one of these secluded little Malay villages that line the shores of the peninsula and are scattered over its interior, if the little girl mothers who were carrying water and weaving mats did not sometimes long to get down on the warm, white sands and have a regular romp among themselves,--playing "Cat-a-corner" or "I spy"; for none of them were over seventeen or eighteen!

Still their lives are not unhappy. Their husbands are kind and sober, and they are never destitute. They have their families about them, and hear laughter and merriment from one sunny year to another.

Busuk's father-in-law is dead now, and the last time I visited Bander Bahru to shoot wild pig, Mamat was punghulo, collecting the taxes and administering the laws.

He raised the back of his open palm to his forehead with a quiet dignity when I left, after the day's sport, and said, "Tabek! Tuan Consul. Do not forget Mamat's humble bungalow." And Busuk came down the ladder with little Mamat astride her bare shoulders, with a pleasant "Tabek! Tuan! (Good-by, my lord.) May Allah's smile be ever with you."

[The end]
Rounsevelle Wildman's short story: Busuk