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The remainder of the sun’s golden rays stretch across the field, verdant greens washed with a burnt fiery hue. Each stalk of grass barely moving, their breathing soft as they take in the last light—mourning their loss, awaiting new day.
The figure, who walks on the dirt path next to the endless sight of pastures, is also lamenting. The late afternoon’s humidity has worn them down; skin no longer feels like their own, more like a swamp has taken residence on the pores of their skin. Even with the thin cotton fabric of their dark grey baju panjang, the heat is stifling. The weight of the weave sticks to every surface, its minute batik geometric patterns lost in the darkened patches of sweat. They have also been ignoring the aching at the base of their feet, most likely blistered and torn from the long journey. Eng Neo took no home, no permanent place to return to—always moving, it’s the only way of life they’re familiar with.
Further down the faux road, pitted with trails of other wanderers, they are led to a lone tree. Its bole had twisted out from the soil, branching into a thick mass of light green pinnate leaves. As Eng Neo leans their head by the mottled trunk, taking respite under its generous shade, the muscles in their abdomen begin to contract.
The hunger pangs have returned.
They had survived so far from foraging and kind audiences who paid them in scraps or leftovers for their performances. But work has been dwindling, the art of travelling storytellers only recognised by bodies infused with primeval myths and legends. Yet, Tok Pura Taman’s teachings still seem so clear in their head—the syairs and hikayats, callouses imprinted on their fingertips from practicing on the rebab. Even with their afflictions, that relentless voice, they persevere. They have to.
The next town is a large port town, as was told to them the last time they saw any form of civilisation. Eng Neo hopes to find a good crowd. Some money or food in exchange would be desirable but the penglipur lara’s goal is always to entertain and explore tales that would’ve otherwise been lost to time.
They resort to sleeping, trying to take their mind off the worries of food and shelter. For now, they rest.
Tomorrow. Give me a break and you can bother me tomorrow.
By dawn they make haste down the dirt path—hunger gnaws, its acerbic maws growing impatient as it tightens around their sides. Eng Neo finally spots the river, a wide plane of freshwater teeming with merchant and fisher boats. The track they have been on expands from a mere trail into a proper road, other foot travellers populating it. The majority of them are pedlars, shoulder yokes almost curving at the weight of their baskets. Some are journeying with families, children in wrapped selendangs; others like Eng Neo are wandering in hopes of better prospects.
The stream doesn’t lead them astray, guiding them into the entrance of the port town. The district roars with sounds, clashing against one another to assert dominance: the clambering of bicycles and rickshaws, a motley of languages exchanged melding into a gibberish speech of its own. It’s quite the contrast from the weeks Eng Neo had spent in the gentleness of forests, where its susurrations and cricket whispers were their only companions.
Warm scents of fresh spices and food hawkers catch Eng Neo’s attention, specifically the stall owner selling satays in front of one of the peranakan shophouses. Most hawkers holler at the top of their lungs, trying to make ends meet, but he continues his cooking, trusting that the lure of his satays will suffice. The large bare-chested man dons a dhoti, its white cloth chalked with wear and dirt. Eng Neo looks down at their own outfit. Their batik sarong is in a similar condition. It’s their favourite one too: the kepala of their sarong is a deep turkey red with a large chrysanthemum bouquet as its motif. Underneath the front panel, one can see the soga brown dyes of the patterned skirt peak through.
They sigh, attempting to look as presentable as possible by straightening out the wrinkles and dusting off excess mud on their shoes. “Excuse me sir, I’m a travelling performer.”
Eng Neo removes the wrapped rebab they had been carrying on their back, presenting it to the owner as proof of their expertise. The wooden instrument consists of a triangular resonator with a long ornate neck that extends from the top. There are only two strings attached to it, the pitch controlled by a pegbox with two dextral pegs and one sinistral peg. The most embellished part of the instrument lies at its peak, the handcrafted kecopong: made of intricate wooden carvings, the crown’s earthy tones brought out by the reds and blacks.
Eng Neo lowers their rebab, careful with its handling. “Would you allow me to perform next to your stall, in exchange for some food?”
The hawker had not glanced at them this entire time. His face entirely focuses on the meat on his charcoal grill, redness colours his cheeks, and endless sweat beads down from his forehead. He simply nods and with his unoccupied hand, passes them two satay skewers as if he had expected them. Eng Neo doesn’t refuse the generous offer but is taken aback nonetheless, bowing and offering their thanks to the satay uncle. They savour the meal—such charity won’t be common in other towns—and saves the remainder for tomorrow.
After replenishing their energy, hunger satiated, they unfurl the cloth onto the pavement and sit crossed-legged on it. With closed eyes, they begin concentrating on the ebb and flow of their breathing: a meditation ritual to hone the mind. Every performance takes not just skill but a clear head and heart.
As their teacher said, what feels like a lifetime ago: “You are no longer Eng Neo. You, are the story. You cannot receive the tales I told you and regurgitate them in empty words and song. Portray them truthfully and they will guide you.” They take in a deeper gulp of air, placing the rebab vertically on its wooden leg, and with their curved bow ready in hand—they begin.
Their story begins with a quick-witted mouse deer who escapes the clutches of a ferocious tiger. From the crisp ring behind Pelanduk’s voice to the natural bass tones found in the thunder of Harimau’s pride—this is where their rigorous vocal training comes to light. Weaving between different timbres in their arsenal, a prized technique that has been passed down to them.
Some stragglers and children among the crowd slowly approach them, the tale unravelling before their ears in archaic phrases paired with the unfamiliar gravel of the rebab’s tunes. The young ones giggle and gasp with each dramatic revelation, filled with bright-eyed wonder as they mimic the characters; the more mature audience listens intently, glazed over with memories where similar yarns were told in their own youth.
“That was a wonderful performance, si penglipur lara.” A grey-bearded man in only a checkered sarong stands before Eng Neo as they pack up, wondering which tree will be their next resting spot for the evening.
He gives them a toothy grin, the gaps in his jagged arrangement of teeth visible, but the man doesn’t seem bothered by it. Although he has a genial aura, there’s a certain taste of sorrow that Eng Neo recognises. The cursed voice heckles in their head and the prickling down the base of their spine worsens, like a swarm of ants crawling beneath their skin.
He looks like a good person. Don’t.
The older gentleman continues: “Your craft is certainly rarer these days. I remember the Awang Batil of my grandmother’s village but he has long passed now.” He pauses for a moment, unearthing the echoes of his childhood—the batil’s hollow metallic beats and the distinct shrills of the serunai. “Oh, look at me rambling on. My name’s Yassin, what’s yours si penglipur lara?”
“It’s Eng Neo, sir.”
He tuts at this, wagging his finger with disapproval. “No need for formalities, call me Yassin. Do you have a place to sleep tonight? It’s getting quite late and there’ll be rain too.”
“Rain? Sir—I mean Yassin ...” They look up to the sky. Besides the evening hues and a few stray clouds, no sign of rain or petrichor in the air.
“Been a maritime trader for a long time. Even after retirement I can still predict the winds. If you’re willing, why don’t you stay at my home? My humble contribution for the enjoyable story.”
Eng Neo had certainly been very lucky with all their encounters here. They wonder if it’s too good to be true but wave the thought away; they need to be thick-faced. “Thank you Yassin, that is extremely gracious of you to provide shelter to a stranger like myself. I will remember this for when I return to Melaka again.”
Yassin folds his arms behind his slouched back and guides them to his house. “Come, let’s talk as we walk. You won’t be staying?”
“I’ll be looking for a boat tomorrow morning. A lot of places I would like to visit while I can.” Eng Neo feels a twang of guilt in their chest. They weren’t lying but it isn’t the whole truth either. No sane person would keep them in their home otherwise.
He gives an understanding nod and by the time they arrive at the abode, night catches the tails of their heels. Yassin lives further on the outskirts of Melaka but a sizeable place for a retired merchant. He gives them a tour of the traditional stilted wooden house, highlighting the paraphernalia that he has collected over the years.
“Abah, who’s this?” A voice calls out from the verandah. The figure emerges from the doorway, clad in the latest Baju Melayu: a plain round-collared tunic with long sleeves, matching ankle-length pants tied with a kain samping at the waist.
“Ah! Mat! You’re back early, come meet Eng Neo. They’re a penglipur lara who performed near Uncle Ehsaan’s stall earlier.”
Yassin’s son squints, scanning Eng Neo with a slight suspicion in his eye. He huffs, bowing slightly before heading to the back where the kitchen is situated.
“Don’t mind Mat. I hope he didn’t offend you. He’s been having a hard time … We’re … not doing great …” The jovial man’s tone ripples into a melancholic afternote, but he quickly bounces back with a terse grin.
“Yassin, if you’re not doing well, I don’t mean to intrude on you and your family. Please take care of yourselves. I’m sure I’ll be able to find someplace else to sleep.” Eng Neo insists, although they are dreading the thought of sleeping out in the rain.
“We’re doing well financially, so please don’t worry about that. It’s … my husband. Come, sit. It’s a heavy story.”
This is the first time Eng Neo shifts from their stoic expression, a sad smile plastered on their face. “Tales of all kinds are my expertise. I have had a lifetime’s worth of tamarind and salt, Yassin.”
“Right, yes. I would first like to apologise. While I, of course, would have extended my help if you needed it … I saw so much of my late daughter in you … I couldn’t leave you out on the streets like that.”
Knells of death ring once more, the endless drag that follows them, down into the black in their veins. Eng Neo winces at the pain that shoots up their back, no longer a tingly sensation but a sharp reminder of their duty.
“My daughter went to Java for traditional batik studies but her return ship never reached Melaka. We waited for months … and …” A hesitant swallow, accompanied by bleary eyes.
Eng Neo has seen and heard all such stories, of lovers and illness—death, that unforgiving liege over mortal kind. “If it’s too much Yassin, please don’t push yourself …”
He looks up to them with a weary smile: “She … eventually returned to us … Her body was found off the shores of the port … I’m glad we could give her a proper burial but she was so young … I want to at least know how she died … my poor Mina must’ve been alone …”
Yassin gestures to a brass jewellery box next to the family pictures: “My husband … haih he refused to bury that … I think we’ve been cursed, by some hantu air that latched onto Mina’s jewellery. Mat doesn’t believe me … I just don’t know what else could explain what happened to Zahil.”
“I presume doctors were of no help either?” Yassin confirms this as he massages the bridge of his nose.
“They just said it’s old age … Meredaphati, I’m desperate. Called in a pawang and he said he’ll be visiting tomorrow.”
Eng Neo raises their eyebrows at this and attempts to recall the last time they met a skilled pawang during their apprenticeship. A time when Tok Pura Taman performed for royalty. They remember briefly encountering the pawang as they left the Sultan’s manor: the middle-aged woman donned masculine attire, an all-white outfit topped with a headwrap. There are plenty bomohs and pawangs in service, but charlatans who desire worldly riches still run amok.
“I apologise again Eng Neo; I’m sure you must be tired, hearing this old man grieve. Let me show you to the guest room.” He shakes his head and stands, patting Eng Neo gently on their back.
“Not at all, Yassin. My condolences for your daughter and I wish for your husband’s swift recovery as well.” They want to reach out, to console the kind old man, but their hesitation impedes them. Yassin leaves soon after escorting them to their room, back to nurse his ailing partner.
Wake up Eng Neo. Wake. Up.
Their eyes burst open, mouth parting and heaving; their knuckles are white from clenching the side of the bed. Turning to the window shutters, they see it’s still dark out with the gentle pitter-patter of the rain on the nipah roof. Sunrise won’t be arriving until a few more hours.
Remember. Bargain. Death.
The voice hammers down on them. Anxiety swells in their chest; sleep does not come no matter how many times they pretend to shut their eyes. Sometimes, it takes the form of their mentor, the richness and warmth lost in its vile clutches. Today, it twists the breathiness in Yassin’s tone, using the wavering nature of an older man’s speech—a chilling cry, a creeping omen.
Eng Neo relents. They can’t avoid it: as much as they want to escape, nothing has helped—running away certainly didn’t. They exit the guest room, moving carefully on the wooden floorboards. The shades of darkness are less tangible in the living room, lifted by the moon that pours from the blinds. Underneath the sheer swathe of light, the jewellery box emits a soft glow.
“I’m sorry.” Eng Neo whispers the apology between their teeth as they open the forbidden case.
The golden circlet kerongsang is still in mint condition: the awan larat motifs entwined with leaves and flowers don’t possess any rust. Eng Neo exhales, clenching their fists to force the tremble away, and places their hand on the brooch.
A young woman is waiting for a ship that never arrives, her departure home severed in two. That obstinate mind refused to be away from family for too long, knowing her fathers especially would worry. She takes a different route, another merchant ship that would be willing to cross the waters. Nature, however, wouldn’t bend to one stubborn girl’s wish. The darkened faces of the sky continue to weep onto the earth; oceans too wail, their surging cries calling out to the storm berating them. One will find no mercy here. Final judgement awaits foolish creatures. The crash comes. Bodies sink. There’s thrashing and yelling; a yearning to survive as her heart pounds through her ears—all lost, engulfed into the deep.
It’s too late when she appears.
A Barsam, human-shaped, limbs indistinguishable from those on land, yet dwells in the ocean’s cradle. She finds the limp corpse on the jagged rocks in their depths—to drift until its flesh disintegrates or is swallowed by hungry mouths. She moves closer, observing the human’s face. There’s a silence that falls, the waters around them stagnating. She caresses the young girl’s face and scoops the cadaver in her arms.
Ancient tongue evoked in a single sentence, one that quivers with the might of the sea: “I know your origins; let those from the sea return to the sea and let those from the land return to the land.”
Eng Neo flinches away from the kerongsang; the metals had turned blistering hot under their touch. The deed is done. Are you satisfied?
Their shoulders finally get to relax, the dull ache that had spread to the base of their neck leaves them. Despite that, they know that’s not the end, bracing for the next wave of biting pain. The stab traces across their upper left arm. It’s fleeting, but an indelible mark has been placed. Eng Neo rolls up the sleeves of their baju panjang, revealing the ink that mars their skin—a Barsam with a young woman in her arms.
Another story, another burden to carry.
Exhaustion looms, their muscles refusing to move to their command, each movement costing every drop of will. They must leave, soon, because staying might bring unwanted spirits. Eng Neo lowers their head when they approach the entryway, but leaving in such a manner would make their mentor frown.
They rip out a piece of paper from their journal and scribble a note for Yassin before proper dawn arrives. Both apologies and thanks are written as eloquently as they can. The part they dither the most with is what they witnessed—the truth behind his daughter’s demise. Would he see it as nonsense? Or would it provide him some comfort, knowing a benevolent creature had brought her home? Eng Neo hopes it’s the latter.
When the family wakes, there will be no trace of their presence, only the note and the hushed sobbing of an old man.