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from the September 2021 issue

The Lovers of Muharram

With this short story from 1977, Fatimah Busu, a writer known to this day for her acute portrayals of the contradictions of Malaysian society, became known for unconventional boldness in her portrayal of female desire and reckless love. 
 

The Angel of Paradise stands at the crest of Mount Sinai. The Angel of Paradise wears a robe of satin, in a shimmering dove gray. The Angel of Paradise holds a shiny black staff, hewn out of wood from a tree of heaven. 

And the sun of the last dusk of the month of Zulhijah casts its yellow-red-gold rays over the green grass and the large rocks and the small white, pale blue, and pink daisies and over the leaves of the tree of heaven, finally falling on the Angel of Paradise’s robe and on his hair that cascades in brown curls until grazing his shoulders.

A gentle cool breeze is blowing. And the leaves of the tree of heaven quiver and surge with life as they rustle, sighing to one another, and some sway and turn upside down. A lustrous glow emanates, reflecting the sunlight that scatters on the leaves of the tree of heaven, pale green and velvety. 

At this moment, two pristine leaves appear on the tree of heaven, unmarked by any inscription. 

The Angel of Paradise is startled. The Angel of Paradise takes his staff and walks toward the tree of heaven. Tok-tok, tok-tok, the tip of his staff clatters against the rocks that cradle the crest of Mount Sinai.

It seems as if these two leaves of the tree of heaven have sprouted only moments ago. Or could it have been an oversight, since these two leaves are concealed by dense foliage? Should these two leaves be left as they are until dawn arrives on the first morning of the month of Muharram? 

The Angel of Paradise turns to face west. The flaming red-gold rays of the evening sun saturate the sky above the desert, unfurled in its ochre vastness. He sees the panorama of the sprawling city all the way to the gray-blue sea. And the walls of the city have turned parchment yellow in the dusk. Ships glide, their funnels churning black smoke into the evening air. He sees the pinnacles of skyscrapers strewn against the boundlessness of the galaxy. He sees the network of telegraph wires. He sees the labyrinth of bridges and roads. He sees countless vehicles crisscrossing in all directions. He sees people moving like swarms of ants. He sees everything. He sees all.

Along a road somewhere outside a city in the west, there is a wanderer. His stride is determined and he looks straight ahead. And along a road somewhere outside a city in the east, there is a wanderer. Her steps are steady, her gaze fixed firmly before her. 

Does each wanderer sense the existence of the other? Where is the end of each of their journeys? Do they intend to keep wandering until the end of the last night of the month of Zulhijah?

The Angel of Paradise spirits toward the wanderer outside the walls of the city in the west. 

“Where are you going, sir?”

“I’m searching for something.”

“What are you in search of?”

“A companion.”

“A companion for what?”

“For the life in this world and maybe the next.”

Then the Angel of Paradise leaves the wanderer outside the city in the west and again spirits toward the wanderer outside the city in the east.

“Where are you going, Miss?”

“I’ll find out when I get there.”

“How long will you wander?”

“I’ll find out when I get there.”

“Don’t you want to stop somewhere to rest?”

“I’ll find out when I get there.”

“Doesn’t this kind of wandering only bring disquiet?”

“I’ll find out when I get there.”

The Angel of Paradise breaks a twig from the tree of heaven that dangles close to his brow. Milky white sap oozes from the twig’s stump, dripping onto the green grass and the large rocks scattered below the tree of heaven. 

The Angel of Paradise dips the snapped-off end of the twig into the beads of sap on the stone. The Angel inscribes the first Arab letter sin, followed by the letter ya, then the letters dal and nun, and then zal, until the letters form the complete name of the wanderer outside the city in the west.  

Again the Angel of Paradise dips the twig of the tree of heaven into the beads of sap and inscribes another letter below the name of the wanderer outside the city in the west, starting with the letter pa, then the letter alif, then the letter ta, until the letters form the complete name of the wanderer outside the city in the east. 

The Angel of Paradise carefully regards the letters inscribed on the leaves of the tree of heaven. These two leaves are now engraved with the names of the two wanderers he had earlier spirited upon.

The Angel of Paradise smiles. He is pleased with the result of his work. The other leaves of the tree of heaven rustle gently in the twilight breeze. And the sun of the last dusk of the month of Zulhijah sinks into the desert horizon in the west and the western sky billows into wondrous variegated clouds.

 

The Wanderer from the West

I am on my way to the small town of Sindalaya, southwest of the city. And I hope I can return before nightfall. 

As I pass through the small town of Langsala, I remember that there are no cigarettes left in my tobacco case. On a lone journey like this, one of course needs something that can help the senses focus on the road and the meandering vehicles all around. 

I stop my car at the roadside, right in front of a row of shops in the town of Langsala. And now I am about to cross the street to one of the shops.

I see her standing by a pushcart vendor selling peeled fruits. Her blouse is black. Her sand-colored sarong is patterned with a pair of brown eagle wings. A black belt, two inches wide. A pair of black sandals, partially concealed by the hem of her sarong. She wears a plastic ivory-colored pearl on a red plastic arm-cuff. And a red bag with long straps hangs from her shoulder. 

From a distance, I caress her arms and shoulders with my gaze. How smooth and bare in the overcast late afternoon. And I stroke her hair. Thick black hair, ending in curls, cascading to the left and right of her chest and flowing down her back. 

She’s tall and a little plump, her body is formed as if by the dexterous hands of a sculptor. 

As she moves on to another fruit vendor, I want to grasp her arm. I go into a shop and buy cigarettes, then I smoke a stick and continue watching her.  

Now she is buying a papaya and talking to the fruit seller. I approach her from behind. 

“May I ask you something?”

“Yes? Oh, what . . . ?”

“What a large papaya you are buying . . .”

“Ah, ya . . .”

She takes the papaya which she has placed in a plastic bag, holding it with both arms together with a tin of powdered milk.

“Your husband didn’t come with you?”

“Husband? Me? Oh . . . ha . . . ha . . .”

“Do you have a husband?”

“Who needs a husband when one can get by just fine on her own?”

“Is that so? May I ask . . .”

“Yes?”

“Where are you going after this?”

“To buy something for dinner.”

“Where?”

“Over there, at that little restaurant.”

“Why don’t you eat with me at that restaurant?”

“Thanks, but I’m afraid I won’t make it back before Maghrib prayers are over.”

“Are you so pious?”

“No. Just fulfilling my obligations to God.”

“I’m Syed Nazri . . . just call me N if you like.”

“Nice to meet you . . .”

“Such soft hands . . .”

“Nature has its ways.”

 “There’s a car that wants to get past. You better move yours out of the way.”

“I don’t have a right to do that. Those who come first go first. Those who come later leave later. Why should someone else always yield?”

“Alright . . . you win. Oh, is this right here your photo?”

“Yes.”

“Where was it taken?”

“On the island of Langkawi.”

“And this sentence: In a crowded world, I only have myself. What does it mean?”

“You don’t understand it?”

“Is it true that you are all alone in this world? Father, mother, siblings?”

“My father is deceased. My mother lives alone in the village. I have three older sisters in the village too.”

“You are the youngest?”

“Yes.”

“Will you go out with me tomorrow?”

“Where do you want to take me?”

“For a meal, for a walk, to gaze at the sea . . .”

“Where should I wait?”

“Here. I’ll come at half-past seven in the evening. Surely you would have done your Maghrib prayers by then.”

“Alright. I think I’ll go home now . . .”

 

The Wanderer from the East

Shall I describe the loneliness of being deserted by a lover like the loneliness of a shore suddenly deserted by the waves? Or the desolation of a mountain suddenly stripped of all its vegetation, until not a single green leaf or blade of grass remains? 

Until now, I do not know where Abdullah is. Abdullah has really disappeared. Abdullah no longer calls to ask me out for lunch. Abdullah no longer takes me out every Saturday night. Abdullah no longer brings me to the beach every Sunday to watch the waves.

And Abdullah no longer cares how I feel. Abdullah might as well be dead. How tormenting it is, Abdullah’s sudden absence. I’m bewildered. Unhinged. I hardly know what to do anymore. 

God, how grateful I would be if You could let me encounter Abdullah again on the pavement of a five-foot way, or a crossroad, or at the edge of any public space!

Now I have come to the small town of Langsala, without any specific intention of buying anything. I want Abdullah to catch sight of me in a public space. 

Only now I remember that there’s no milk powder left at home. And there is no fruit in the fridge. So I might as well buy some fruit, now that I’ve strayed into Langsala. 

As I bargain over a papaya, the sky grows overcast. The evening sun has vanished behind the peaks of the Bukit Bendera range. And I still harbor the hope that Abdullah will suddenly appear before the rain.

Someone is coming. Not Abdullah. A sturdy man. Honey-dark skin. Fine curly hair. A thick mustache. He has a slight belly and stands a few inches taller than me. He wears a long-sleeved shirt with thin stripes—yellow, light green, pale red—in the style of Come September. And dark gray trousers.

Who is he? I feel that I have seen him somewhere. Have I met him before? When? Where? An off-campus student? A police officer? Or what is he?

Now he asks me some trivial questions. And now he is walking on my right, accompanying me to my car. A whiff of cologne drifts over from his body now and then, carried by the dusk breeze. I can hear the click-clacking of his shoes, his steady footfall against the gravel street in the town of Langsala. 

And now he enters the car to sit beside me. I hear him chuckle three times. And I see him grin a few times. His voice is somewhat rough, hoarse, its tone full of teasing. 

He says my car isn’t quite right here and there. He says my car is no good. It will need to be replaced after two or three years of use. Its metal rusts easily. Its engine was assembled locally. They put in a compact engine that’s difficult to repair if any of its parts malfunction.

“I’m thrilled by your ass,” he blurts out. “I’m captivated!”

“You’re crazy!”

“Yes, that’s right! If I had looked at your face first, I surely wouldn’t be this crazy. Perhaps I wouldn’t even have come to talk to you . . .”

I ask God whether this man is a devil or an ordinary, cruel human being. I’m shocked that he behaves so strangely. I’m appalled at the sight of him.

I’m hurt by the way he talks to me. Deeply offended. I bury my rage, to take revenge on him tomorrow night. In God’s name, I will strike back at him with all my wrath for every word he uttered. What a pig he is! What an ape!

I did not come to Langsala to meet him. I came to look for Abdullah. Or I came in search of a little peace, and something to fill my vacant heart.

He takes my right hand and kisses it for a few moments. In his eyes I see a glint of lust, caught in the light from the restaurant across the street. I feel a soft heat on the back of my right hand.

Night arrives with a lingering drizzle. And I feel uneasy and disgraced and guilty for having met him.

Who is he? An off-campus student? A police officer? A devil? A djinn? Why did God put such a cruel man in my path? Was it he who sent his spirit two days ago as the yellow butterfly with white and blue-gray dots that perched on my shoulder, to bewitch me?

 

The Trees

We are the trees thrusting skyward in this botanical garden. We are the ones who watch the sun return every evening to its sanctuary beyond the mountain peaks. We are the ones who see the sun at daybreak rising above the face of the eastern sea. 

And we are the ones who witness lovers exchanging vows. And we are the ones who hear the promises of love. And we are the ones who taste the scent of love’s flesh in the flowers that we scatter.

Now we watch the last sun of the month of Zulhijah disappear behind the mountains. As the damp night wind rustles our leaves and branches and tendrils, we move and rub against each other in the secret solitude of the hushed night. And darkness enshrouds our existence in the color of night. 

Among the cars resting in our shade along the roadside, something is new tonight. Perhaps it is a renewal that will arrive with the month of Muharram?

Two people are walking. Holding hands. There are whispers, words unheard. Words of seduction, flirtatious and playful. They pause beneath our branches.

“I’m so glad I met you. I’ve always admired beautiful women, but I never imagined I would be with one of them.”

“The other day you said my face wouldn’t earn a score. How can I walk beside you without showing my face?”

“You don't have any faults . . .”

“Why did you bring me here?” 

“Have you never been?”

“Never at night like this.”

“I want to tell you a secret.”

“What?”

“The other evening, I did not gaze at you from head to toe.”

“So?”

“I looked at you from the tip of your toes to the ends of your hair. I did not see shadows. I looked straight into you.”

“And what happened then?”

“I immediately loved what I saw . . . I felt I had found what I’ve been looking for. When I look back on my past, I’m filled with regret. I’ve never received love or affection from anyone. Once, when I lay in a hospital for a week not a single woman came to visit and bring me flowers . . . if I fell ill again, would you come to visit me?”

“Of course I would. As long as you don’t die when you see my face.”

“Ah, don’t tease. Tell me you love me.”

“So fast? We just met a few nights ago . . . love and affection must be cultivated, they don’t just explode like a balloon.”

“They can. Love can explode in our hearts like a balloon.”

“That’s just fantasy.”

 “No. My love for you has exploded like a balloon . . . I want to make you my wife . . . will you accept?”

“Hold on. Don’t rush things. I don’t even know you . . . you could be a drug dealer, or a thief, who knows. I don’t want to marry someone I don’t know. Besides, I don’t like anything about you yet.”

“You don’t even like one thing about me?”

“Your shirt, I guess. I like your shirt.”

“How nice of you . . . you seem to be having your revenge . . .”

“Glad you feel that way. Who are you really?”

“Oh, God . . . . this is my deepest secret of all . . .”

“So you are a drug dealer . . .”

“For God’s sake, don’t show such contempt. Here’s my identity card…”

“It’s dark, how am I supposed to see . . .”

“Hold on, I’ll light a match . . . there, look . . . you see?”

“Oh, so you are . . .?”
 

And we, the trees, witness the two bodies sway and fall to the earth and into eternal ecstasy, nestled among our roots. And we hear the dry leaves that cover the earth crackle at the touch of each hair and finger. And our roots shudder for a moment beneath the woman’s sultry breath. And we scatter small flowers to cover her bare breasts.

And now we know of the Angel of Paradise’s wiles. He is no doubt sound asleep now upon his heavenly divan.

 

Blown in Off the Street

I am standing on my balcony looking out on the mountain range in the west. The sun is hidden. But I can see it casting beams of light from the mountain into the evening sky, as clouds form in resplendent, breathtaking tones. 

That’s when I see her coming, walking into our yard from the main street. She’s wearing a dark gray sarong and a sleeveless black halter top,and she’s carrying a navy blue umbrella. The evening light strikes her bare arms.

“Hey! Pat . . . am I dreaming? It’s been ages since you visited. Come up, come up.”

I run down from the balcony and stand before her. I see her eyes are bloodshot and dewy, and her face is sullen.

“How are you?”

“More or less how I look. I’m well . . . fine . . . and you? Are you ill? Come upstairs first . . .”

Pat sits with her legs dangling from a yellow plastic chair on the balcony facing the mountains. She looks as if she is dreaming of a former happiness.

“Is your family not at home?”

“Abah is in the back room, resting. Mak is out with my younger siblings . . . My brother is playing badminton at the club. Why, Pat?”

Pat is still gazing into the distance, toward something near the peak of the mountain. I cannot tell what she is looking at because I don’t see anything in particular at the top of the mountain, except a formless grayish blue.

 

A few months ago, Pat had come to this same balcony wearing a red sleeveless blouse, a white sarong skirt, and a white scarf fluttering from her neck.

I still remember Pat running toward me like a young kijang deer and wrapping me in an embrace. I remember Pat’s cheeks were flushed with a joy that she could not conceal, brimming from her heart.

“Ti,” Pat said, “I’m happy. I’m overjoyed. He truly loves me.”

“Oh, wow, congratulations, Pat. You've finally met someone you love, and who loves you . . . that’s really great. How do you know he truly loves you?”

“We’ve already discussed our wedding. We’ve discussed how many children we want.”

“Ho ho! How many did you say you want?”

“I want them all, girls, boys, half a dozen, a dozen, it doesn’t matter . . . but he only wants two sons. He says if we have two children and they are both girls, he wants us to stop there. He would rather adopt.”

“Oh, I’m getting goosebumps just listening to you, Pat!”

“Ah, you don’t know . . . it gets even more intense . . .”

“Tell me!”

“He always holds and kisses me in front of his friends . . . he doesn’t care anymore, if he feels like kissing . . . he keeps telling his friends to ask me if I love him . . .”

“Eeek, the hair on my neck is standing . . .”

“You know what he did last night?”

“Hah, what?”

“Four of his friends were sitting with us at the park looking out at the sea. He took off my shoes and put my feet on his lap. I was so embarrassed. People passing by looked at us and giggled. I got up and walked barefoot toward the sand. Do you know what he did? He followed me and carried my shoes the whole way . . . he’s really crazy, like a monkey who's found an egg and isn't sure what to do with it.”

“I am happy for you . . . look after his heart. This time I hope it lasts till the end of time!”

“I hope so too. He always says he won’t forget me till the end of time. He always asks me to tell him I love him . . . asks me to think of him . . . oh, I feel so glorious now, I feel that God has given him to me as a new year's gift . . .”

 

But now Pat’s cheeks are no longer flushed. Her lips are clamped, quivering as if hiding a terrible secret. I hear Pat sigh three or four times, still gazing at the mountains in the west that are fading fast in the evening light. 

“Pat . . . why?”

“You want to be burdened with this secret?”

“In the name of Allah . . . I will keep it to myself alone. What is it?”

“Look at my belly . . . Do you see anything?”

“No, it looks normal . . . just a little . . .”

“I am carrying his child . . . almost five months now . . .”

Subhanallah! Astaghfirullah! When will you marry?”

“What point is there to marrying . . . it’s not as if you don’t know, I’ve been living at his house . . . he says a marriage certificate is just a piece of paper . . . a receipt for the purchase of a woman . . .”

“But what about his child, then? Don’t you know that such a sin will be borne by the child down to seven generations? What if your child is a girl . . . when she’s old enough to marry, what will others say when she takes a wali raja because she has no male guardian related by blood?”

“I’ll try harder . . . has your mother ever mentioned anything about a concoction to abort a pregnancy? Or have you heard of anything?”

“No. They don’t discuss that around me. You yourself know that they treat me like a child, because I’m not yet married.”

“I don’t know . . . I have to find a way . . .”

“I once read that some women eat unripe pineapple, some drink the water of the celaka root, visit a traditional midwife . . .”

“I’ve tried everything.”

“Isn’t he helping you?”

“He wants the child.”

“Then get married and quick!”

“How can we? I’m not a Syarifah, not a descendant of Syeds. He is a descendant of Syeds. His parents have already said they don’t like me. He certainly won’t throw away his parents because of me.”

“Oh, God . . . Can I go see him now or tomorrow, before you get any more pregnant?”

“See him?”

“Yes . . .”

“You . . . you know where he is now?”

“Where?”

“I don’t know. He hasn’t been home for a month. He said he has some things to settle in KL. Not so much as a letter… no news… I asked his friends, none of them know anything.”

Ya Rabbi . . . Do you think he has left you?”

“I think so . . . the only clothes he left are the ones he doesn’t wear . . .”

“How are you going to hide your belly at work later?”

“I have already given notice of resignation at the end of this month . . .”

Ya Rabbilalamin . . . how are you going to live?”

“I am applying for a job at a firm . . .”

“What if you don’t get it?”

“I’ll sell my body . . .”

“If you won’t be ashamed for yourself, for your mother or your family, at least be ashamed for me . . .”

“Hahahaha . . . I’m just joking.”

“What about your rent?”

“He paid this month’s rent already . . . next month I’ll leave.”

“Where will you stay?”

“I don’t know . . .”

“I’m afraid, Pat . . . afraid to listen to your story.”

“It’s good if you are afraid. I am far too bold. I feel lighter now after talking to you. Tomorrow or the day after, I’ll come by again, if you aren’t ashamed to be seen with me . . .”

“Come, Pat, come. I feel awful for your predicament . . .”

Pat leaves. Her silhouette disappears at the street’s curve into the twilight. I see the mountain peaks in the west looming in the darkness like a sleeping demon. 

 

Silence

On this terrible morning, everything is relentless—a downpour from a sky heavy with gray clouds, soaked leaves and water dripping everywhere, branches and twigs now refreshed with rain. 

The young monkeys of the troop are nowhere to be seen. Who knows where the infants are taking shelter: under some branch or at the base of some tree. Who knows which roots cradle the offspring, which hollow. The lingering quiet is broken by a long screech, kreeeeeiiiiiiih, in the middle of the jungle toward the top of the hill.

Again, the long-drawn-out screeching. Once. Twice. Three times . . . and all the young ones emerge, bounding in the direction of the sound. From all corners they tumble out, chattering boisterously. The branches shake with the commotion, sending raindrops scattering onto the leaves. 

“Who is causing such unrest?” 

“Is it the troop from the other side coming to attack us again?”

Now all the young ones have gathered, paying no attention to the rain and the drops of water on their backs. The offspring do not care that their fur is soaked. Their black tails dangle close below their abdomens.

Now everyone is jumping at the top of the hill, toward a grove of large trees. 

The male chief reaches the branch of a seraya tree and tells us all to stop. We all stop. The young ones are all drenched.

“Uu! Uu! Uuuuuu!” the male chief cries out, his muzzle pointing ahead. And he shakes the tree with both hands a few times, furrowing his brow and widening his eyes.

And we see it. All the infants come close to gather on the rain-soaked branches. 

A young woman is tossing in the earth by the gnarled roots of a meranti tree. Her arms are flailing, her legs twitching. Her clothes are soaked through. The dry leaves beneath her are smeared with red fluid. Between her thighs, a little creature is moving and shrieking incessantly.

Now the woman slowly gets up. She wipes herself with a cloth stained with red patches. Then she wraps the restless little creature in the cloth. She stands up and tries to walk, staggering while clutching the giant roots. She doesn’t look at us. Her face is almost covered by her thick black dripping-wet hair.

She doesn’t turn around. Slowly she clambers down the rocky chasm, grasping at twigs and roots. Then she vanishes.

We bound forward. The branches shudder and raindrops scatter onto the leaves.

“Uuuu! Uuuuuu! Uuuuuu! Kreeeeiiiiiikkkkk.”

The male chief climbs down to the soil by the roots of the meranti tree, where the little creature lies. The male chief tears open the swaddling cloth, rummaging with both his hands. The female chief runs over and snatches the cloth, tearing it to pieces. Shreds of cloth are now strewn over the leaves here and there.

The cry of the strange restless creature is shrill. The female chief kisses the face of the little creature. The male chief pulls at one of its arms. Their offspring arrive. Each of them pointing with their muzzles, dangling from the branches, and crunching dry leaves underfoot. 

Now all of them reach out to touch the strange shrieking creature. More and more young ones gather around. Some pull at its eyelids. Some squeeze its nose, others pinch its ears. Some tug at its hair. Others pull at its fingers and toes. Some pull the cord that runs from its navel and is attached to a mushy object flung upon the dry leaves. 

Suddenly a young one bites the cord from its navel until it ruptures. The strange creature gives out a long, deafening cry. Another young one bites at its fingers and chews them off. Another bites at its toes and chews them off too. More young ones come and sink their teeth in.

Now the strange creature releases a scream to curdle the blood, as it flails the stumps of its hands and feet. Another young one digs at its eye and plucks it out. The little creature stops shrieking and is silent.

 

Two Teardrops

We see the Angel of Paradise amble to the crest of Mount Sinai. He stands beneath the tree of heaven and tilts his head, observing all the leaves rustling in the wind of this overcast evening. 

“Be still, all you leaves of the tree of heaven . . . remain pristine and untouched . . . . I shall no longer inscribe the names of the children of Adam upon your skin.”

We see two teardrops fall from the eyes of the Angel of Paradise, roll down his cheeks, then finally fall upon the large rocks scattered at his feet, and the rocks shatter into tiny stones.

 

© Fatimah Busu. Translation © 2021 by Pauline Fan. All rights reserved.

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