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The Island-witch of Merubaya

Ficton, Umar Hanif


The Island-witch

On a Sunday, I was seven and sixty, there were no storms and a long-necked sauropod was eating soap nuts from the branches outside, moving its head in between, grabbing twigs with its teeth and shaking. The tree was stripped and still it went on rustling for more, he wanted more, bending his entire front low to the ground and scanning with both eyes and making the sounds Gwaa, Gwaa, for that was how he moaned. Fruit fibers between his teeth. The more you eat, I called, the plumper you’ll grow, the slower you’ll move, the sooner you’ll lie your head down. It’s true, I’ll peel your hide, young lizard hide, I said. For boiling. From around us, he ate manggis, salak, markisa, malang, bengkuang, buah naga. I saw him forgetting to breathe, needing to gasp to inhale. It reminded me of a washed-up fish, which made me embarrassed for him, I think. I don’t embarrass easily. I looked backward into the dwelling and the kitchen inside. The air moves heavy and wet in there. I tossed a gray boiled chicken from yesterday his way and he ate that too, innards and all. I said: It’s good to be so hungry you eat flesh with flat teeth and wander from your herd. It’s good to lick the drippings from the ground. I went deeper inside, came back outside with a thick knife. I propped open the wooden door. He was on the earth, I started. There was no getting up. Sawing, since it was a dull and old knife. When one piece came off, it came off in a shfft, which didn’t match how it felt, on my fingers things felt meaty. Meanwhile, his limbs were all splayed about. He might have chosen it that way. Shfft. Shfft. He might have stumbled, fallen that way. Shfft, shfft. Shfft. It was ridged all over and everywhere, the way people would be ridged all over if they were born the size of trees and their skin was magnified. Shfft! He cried, but reason said there was nothing I could do for him today. Tomorrow, maybe I could manage it. The day went on sunny and damp. Slept. 

Monday, the lizard was gone and a girl with empty eyes came over the bridge. I still kept a place with hot meals for guests, steaming porridge with bits of torn up chicken skin and some salt. I put too much water in not enough rice and let it simmer in a pot for longer than some think I ought to. The chicken skin is golden brown, it’s of Grand Russet birds from Surabaya that I breed big, when I tear it up with my hands, it breaks in directions I don’t mean for it to. I don’t have any of the meat left, only chewy skin, it’s all been used up, it goes so fast. She ate quickly, the girl, and wouldn’t look at me while she sat watching around the dwelling with her empty eyes. Bundled and dangling from the ceiling, I pointed and said: Cabe merah, jasmine bouquets, clay pots, clay bowls, rhesus monkey feet, full turmeric plants, cinnamon sticks, orangutan testicles, lizard hide. To the side I’d put a big Qur’an and a tattered Qur’an and dry and crumbly cakes with pineapple filling on a small woven table. When she finished I took her bowl, scraped the dregs out with two fingers, closed my mouth around them, licking them clean inside. I once ate this often. I once had this made for me. The girl spoke, despite my still swallowing. I need your help, is why she came here. This bewildered me, I couldn’t see why she felt an urge to speak. Oh, the silent murmur of a room in a meal! Hard square jaw, bright eyes, good lips. Still rice from the porridge clinging at the corner of her mouth, and something else, a fleck of something I did not fry or simmer or feed her, but she had feasted on it all the same and it still clung to her. Flick your tongue to the side and lick right there, beyond where your lip stops, it will rot there if you leave it and you won’t ever be able to get away from the smell

Once, before this, I learned under another witch, she was on the verge of rotting, no food at the side of her mouth, and liked to sit in the crook of two massive distended tree roots. The tree bore fine soapnuts, which I like as well for their texture. The tree was one hundred and fifty-three years old, it swayed in the breeze. This was when sauropods walked in herds on the shore and the two of us watched them graze a hundred, maybe two hundred yards away, the waves were soft and only rustling that day — shfft, shfft — and she refused to look at me. In the morning, I can feel the ground moving and I know it’s their heavy feet near us, that they’re moving between the surviving groves for leaves to eat. Maybe for fruit. And in the twilight, if a terrible dream wakes me up, I still hear them, I hear their moans, they’re like the cries of whales. Do they sleep? Tell me, do they sleep? 


The Girl and the Island-witch 

In a country without storms, a man raised a boy, a boy, a boy, and then a daughter, and his crops every year went poorly and his sons grew sick and thin. What food came they pushed aside for the daughter, Hana-Hana, to grow hale. “Ach! The smell makes me sick,” they lied, while their bellies went hard. 

So it was that a stormcloud named Saya heard their woes and came waving at their door. “Hullo, the witch of the island can bandage your ills, for the witch of the island knows all, come now, come quick!” 

The youngest brother stepped forward first, holding his dull rake like a pointed sword in fealty. “I will come,” said he.

But Hana-Hana, whose name was Haniyya but we are told was called Hana-Hana, knew the ways of trickster jinns — who hide behind false faces — and said, “Caution before storms, we cannot see his face inside the clouded dark! How ought we trust a man without knowing his face!”

Now, clouds do not like to be accused of trickery, and Saya began to shake so forcefully that the geckos flew from their perch. The father grabbed his guest by the nape and yanked northward such that, true to the claim, his stormcloud skin slipped off and underneath was a great lizard, a tortoise with no shell who was as fearsome as the volcanoes and as wide as the breeze.  

“Is that all enough then?” said Saya the great lizard. 

The youngest brother saw that it was. 

The youngest brother made his bundle and made it swiftly, for he had little worth carrying, only a stick of butter, a loaf of eggy bread, a folding fan, a holy book, a soap cake and berries. Then he came to Hana-Hana and said unto her, “You know best the ways of the world and of womanfolk, what do I ask the witch to grant us?” and she (ripe enough to be married but a girl still) thought of their pale, fallow fields and said that he should ask for rain. 

So the brother went a long, long way and his family watched for as far as they might see him in the distance, while he wound on a trail deep into that unknowable forest. And they watched with tremendous worry, for, if he should fail to return, it would be left to three men to bear the labor of four. 

Before two nights had passed, he did return and he was borne on the back of Saya, the great lizard. 

The brother spoke fearfully, trembling with his entire body. “Too many perils lie within! Ravines of depths far enough to kill me, thrashing wild rivers! And the forest is far wider than we might have imagined, a week’s trip at least! I would starve before spanning her.” 

“But where was the great lizard to assist you?” said Hana-Hana. 

“Ah, I grew distracted by the wonders of God in the forest. Peonies, ape-men, coconut palms. Foolish me! Only when I heard his frightened screeches, like a chimp in heat, did I recall and rescue your brother,” the lizard who was a storm said. 

The lizard’s insolence angered. The eldest brother grabbed at his nape with tremendous force.

“Seek forgiveness of God the mighty!” 

Again, the skin was false, and underneath was a Buddhist sutra, as might be found in temples to the West. He was as cryptic as the Sun and as old as the same. 

“Ach! I am bruised to the bones.” he squealed. “Animal you are, ought you be in the forest and not your mouse brother!”

So the eldest brother gathered his own bundle that night. He placed in his sack fewer contents than his youngest brother, who had spilled and eaten many in the forest. Only a folding fan, some of a soap cake and what few berries were left went inside. 

And the father said, “Go where your brother failed. The forest will bid you pass.”

And the middle brother said, “Go with the strength of our father, his father, and all who sired before.”

And the youngest brother said, “Go with more courage than I might ever own.”

And Hana-Hana said, “Go to bed first, so that you are rested when you leave.” 


When he was asleep, Hana-Hana leapt at the Buddhist sutra called Saya, hoping to rend him apart. 

She pulled at his nose, his foot, his testes, the place between his neck and chin, and off came the sutra skin, revealing a monkey, then under that false face was an ocean, and under that her own mirror image, then a sundial, then the ghost of a mother, then a clam, and then a coconut which fell to the ground and split in two. 

Knowing now that the creature was only a jinn illusion, Hana-Hana spun her heel around and stole into the forest and she made no bundle, for there was nothing for her.  

Little is told to us of Hana-Hana’s time in the forest. We know she came upon a single bridge, though once there were many such bridges across the pitfalls of that forest, tended by goodfolk coming to the witch for services. We know that when she came upon a furious river as wide as twenty wild boars Hana-Hana cleverly waited until nightfall. The river went to sleep (for all God’s creatures need their rest) and Hana-Hana walked across the still waters. We know that when Hana-Hana grew hungry, she only needed to swallow the North Wind to fill her belly to satiety. 

Through the forest she went fourteen nights and after which she came out and walked two nights more on sandy shores behind the untamed sea. 

Hana-Hana was hungry, though there was meager food fit for man on that beach. She ate from the dead land itself: Fists of sand, palm bark, dead washed up creatures. So hungry was she that she took an entire corpse in her belly, the body of a whale, she thought (though she saw in the sunlight it had been a great lizard).

At last she came upon a house which was stilted for the tide upon poles resembling legs. Hana-Hana heard a voice call out, “Make fast high on the stilts, they are sticky with dew; and when you get here I will have porridge for you.” And so she climbed up to the house of the island-witch.

Here came the time for Hana-Hana to entreat the witch for rain and bring her father relief, but the forest trek had been long and Haniyya’s heart had grown hard. She could not remember the names of her brothers nor the touch of her father’s kiss. 

“A witch I will be,” she said instead. “The forest and the shore are my home now. I will be as your daughter, witch! And inherit your ways.” 

The witch laughed a wide and terrible laugh, “Ha, you are lost, who abandoned her filial honor. Stay if you will, as a guest and student, but no man nor beast wishes for a daughter who goes astray in the forest.” said the witch.

And the brothers and father would surely die soon after, hungry and ill and unknown by the world. And the storm who was a lizard who was nothing was never heard from again. And within this story is how the island of Merubaya came to have two witches, as all countries do.


The Island-witch’s Apprentice

On spells to appease the sea and the sky: To prevent cyclones and tsunamis, find an infant — if it is the kind that grows into a boy, encase the mewling head in hot sand by the shore and trace the script of a sutra or an ayah in the outlying dirt, where it stays cool. For the kind that grows into a girl, bear her out to the sea on a section of buoyant wood, to return to the pelagic matriarch. Merubaya has suffered neither thunder nor waves for seven and sixty years. 

On soapnuts: In the forest, for fifteen nights, I fed chiefly on these. They are favored by macaques, civets, and orangutans. Carnivores will feed on them too — the outer shell crackles like bug-skin and fibered flesh inside though they fail to sate. 

On great lizards: Insistent beasts of the Almighty. Their broad diet has transfused the teeth with all the island flora, giving them a tender toxicity that turns out to be useful for embryocide. One must hold their jaws wide and pull, leaving them with acute pain for months. Then pestle and brew.

On recipes: When she was young, the island-witch Tante Dewi ladled her lamb stew with cumin, star anise, and nutmeg to the townsfolk. They took their portion, ate warm food, then came back for more. The same grievous pots are in her dwelling today.

On great lizards, again: Soft, pillowy meat resides in their heels. Rendered of its fat and boiled with cinnamon and turmeric, the resulting vapors function as an antirheumatic. Boiled, left to cool, then gargled, it is mildly useful as a canker salve. If a man soaks his own heels in the mixture, it resolves bunions. Shaped into a candle, the meat can be employed as incense in hexing ceremonies wherein the customer’s target is meant to suffer bloody stools for a month.

On Sundays: Tante Dewi performed weddings on Sundays. On Mondays, ablutions. Tuesdays, births and embryocides; Wednesdays for incepting spells; Thursdays for employing them; Fridays for rest; Saturdays for stoppering brews, selling, buying, soothsaying, blessing, exorcizing, and all the rest, unless there was a blood moon or an odd-numbered month in an even-numbered year.

On great lizards, again: A friend of my eldest brother once said: ‘The ground used to shake with life and we could see their heads swaying above the forest canopy. My father tells me, he says a shaytan has lurked among us too long. Now the island is dying.” When he spoke, he fixed his eyes on me. We sat in a green clearing by the town. His eyelids drooped and folded intensely by nature, giving him an especially solemn gaze for a young man. No more than fourteen. Perhaps a year more. 

“What do you make of that, girl? What does it do to your bones?”

They used to play a game, my brothers and that boy, and I can’t recall the rules except that they heaved a canvas sack of dried lentils towards each other. I remember when I went to join, they did not refuse, their faces did not fall, but their tosses were careful now, as if the sack had become a tender clutch of quail eggs.

On swallowing the wind: One needs room inside. You need to feel that everything of consequence in the world is your capacity to be filled.

On recipes, again: A witch is not meant to feed herself. In the course of stoppering and brewing and canting and hexing, her hands turn calcified, black with soured spirit, and poison seeps into the pores. The women who came would bring her porridge. It was a sharp hunger in her belly one morning years ago which alerted Tante Dewi that no one had been coming through the forest for months.

On witches: I had seldom heard of them, even in legend. Baba told stories rarely. I think he may die a dull man and it makes me weep a little.

On recipes, again: A witch who feeds herself smells like carrion. 

On poultry:  I despised when my brothers came upon some wild pigeon or other fowl, slit its throat, shucked its down, boiled it into a stew of skin, stringy flesh, collagen lumps, and softened bones, and proceeded to set the bowl in front of me. I despised the new weight in my belly, anchoring me in torpor.

On the river’s sleep: Rest at night is practiced by the unwise. Rest, while the world turns on, while there’s moonlight still by which to look at the horizon? I think God’s creatures have missed half our cosmos. 

On prayers: A bird’s thigh is always reserved and placed on a pyre for the gods of bountiful harvest. “How long until they hear us? How fast do they travel on smoke? Do they hear our voices, I mean, in our beds without the wisping trails to guide the way between? Tell me, do they hear?” 

I’m certain he wanted to answer me, my sunken-skinned and barely upright brother. A substance resembling spider-film floated on his irises, silver and membranous. Behind that partition there was a man and I swear if he had not been caged behind it, he would have tried to answer me more than he did, more than his desperate mutter. 

On Merubaya: An isle, an isle. What have I seen of the world to speak about her with any authority? Let the world be a body and this island as a wart on its knuckle, and everything that I know is the crease in its skin which a fingernail makes. Tuesday, I am northeast to the springs and the clay to study. After that, the man-drenched terraces they made into paddies. And then the forest, a return to the forest. She will need survey too. 

On the forest: I had never known hunger before her.

On the forest: Or I had never known to call it that.

On the forest: Bounty. I have found lilies for poultices, meaty vines, capybara pups, orangutans, things unknown, a curious orb of light that leads travelers on paths of indeterminate intent, massive ossified eggs from dead sauropods or another beast, and I have perhaps seen a furred insect. True fur, like hair. How far north does it span? Are there others forests like this, how many, how alike her sisters and aunts? 

On recent findings: I have been to the town, too. My brother is as beautiful as ever I knew him, now stark skin fastened to bone, and cannot look my way.


Umar Hanif is a St. Louis-based Indonesian-American fiction writer with a creative writing degree from Washington University. His work has appeared in New Moons Anthology, Spires Literary Journal, and Colour Mag. When he is not writing, he can be found rambling about Dungeons and Dragons or tinkering with his noodle recipe.


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