It was one of those moments when you weren’t quite sure how to behave. Do you stare this person in the eye, meet their gaze and assert your stance and power? Do you hold your head down in deference, hands folded in front of you, showing subservience? Do you clutch onto your child’s tiny hand, holding on for any means of support? What is the best way to approach this sort of situation?
Mak Labu looked at her with an unreadable expression. Her face was slightly wrinkled with age, though the lines in her eyes looked more like laugh lines than actual age. Her hands, still holding some semblance of youth, held themselves together in front of her; a young child peeked out from behind her loose baju. The girl, a blooming beauty with round eyes and a round, healthy face, looked inquisitively at the newcomers on her porch.
“This is for you.” The woman handed Mak Labu a note, keeping her hands steady.
Mak Labu took the note, her eyes lingering briefly on the woman and child before scanning the letter.
“We were married.” The woman spoke, her voice husky from being anxious. Her hand clutched her daughter’s tightly. “We were honourable people. I am an honourable woman.”
Her voice caught in her throat and she tried again, this time having ordered her voice into a steely calm. “Bawang Putih is our child. And he has assured me that if anything was to happen, you would have to follow his words.”
“Bawang Putih?” Mak Labu’s voice sounded slightly surprised and tired. She looked at the young girl standing by the woman’s side. There was a short pause.
Mak Labu reached for her own daughter from behind her kain batik. “Bawang Merah, go take your sister out back. Show her the gardens.”
Bawang Merah looked up at her mother, confused.
“Your sister, Bawang Putih.” Mak Labu sounded impatient, as if this was supposed to be something obvious. “Go. To the gardens.”
The round-faced Bawang Merah stepped forward, looking unsure but reaching out to her half-sister, Bawang Putih. They left together, hand-in-tentative-hand, turning back once for their mothers’ approval before disappearing around the back of the house.
Mak Labu looked at her guest.
Mak Labu felt too tired from the grief of losing her husband to focus on the crawling feelings of betrayal, a centipede worming its way into her senses. She saw that the woman in front of her was young – younger than her, to be precise. The woman was not pretty. She was not lovely. There was a slight meanness to her looks. Mak Labu thought all this without any tinge of vanity. It was the truth.
In her prime, Mak Labu had been the treasure of her kampong. Young men had fought for her affections and she turned her eyes away demurely each time as had been instructed by her parents. In the end, they chose Pak Ali for her. He was slightly older but he had land and he could provide for her more than any of the others in the kampong. He was never cruel and the thought that he would seek out another woman never crossed her mind. And here was his second wife.
Mak Labu looked at the contents of the letter again. Mak Kundur, Pak Ali had written. That was her name. Mak Kundur.
There were no explanations from Pak Ali. He didn’t say why he had married her. Why he had kept this second family a secret. There hadn’t been a need for secrecy; she wouldn’t have disagreed with any of his requests. Mak Labu didn’t understand and it seemed Pak Ali didn’t want her to understand. He only wrote that he wished for Mak Labu, his first wife, to live with Mak Kundur, his second wife, as a family in his humble estate with their children.
She had been to his burial only four days ago. She had controlled her tears – they were unfit for the burial ceremonies and they would not have allowed her anywhere near her husband should she be overcome with emotions. Instead, she did as she was taught – she held back her tears, she moved through the day with precision and an expression of calm. Only after her husband was buried; only after Bawang Merah had gone to bed; only then did Mak Labu cry.
And only a little bit. She did not want to upset the dead with her tears.
Mak Kundur stared up at her with determined eyes.
“This is home.” Mak Labu gestured for Mak Kundur to come up the wooden stairs. “We’ll see about your rooms.”
Mak Kundur walked into the dark house, holding her head high. She decided she wouldn’t look weak to Mak Labu. Her steely facade concealed her anxieties: she didn’t know the ways of this kampong. She she didn’t know how influential Mak Labu was in her kampong had and she needed to be careful. The house was spacious – far spacious than her previous home.
Pak Ali, Mak Kundur and Bawang Putih had lived on the outskirts of another kampong. Away from others, Mak Kundur was happy to raise Bawang Putih by herself. Pak Ali would return once every four days to perform his right as her husband and then she would be left to go about her day doing almost anything she pleased.
She had worried about the day when Pak Ali wouldn’t be around to provide for herself and Bawang Putih. He had always assured her, just as he slipped into bed with her, his hand finding her breasts, that she would be well-provided should anything happen to him. Mak Kundur had always thought of his assurances as empty, placating words – Words to keep her quiet so he could continue as he pleased.
When he was gone and she was going about her daily rituals – washing clothes, bathing Bawang Putih or cooking dinner (always cooking extra, just in case he decided to drop by) – she would concoct plans on how to survive should he one day disappear. On some nights, desperately clutching Bawang Putih to her as she slept, she thought about whoring herself, and knew that if it came to it – she would.
She never thought that Pak Ali would have provided for her so generously.
Mak Kundur looked around the room that was to be her own as well as Bawang Putih’s. Mak Labu was staring after her, her face still unreadable.
“He was buried four days ago.” Mak Labu spoke, she was no longer looking at Mak Kundur. “If you want, I can bring you to his grave.”
“Perhaps another day.” Mak Kundur was not sure how to react upon seeing Pak Ali’s grave. She did not mourn his loss. Nor was she pleased with his death either. She was not sure whether she could conjure the appropriate amount of tears to be tasteful.
Mak Labu nodded absent-mindedly.
There was a rapid thud of footsteps and the two girls appeared from behind Mak Labu. Bawang Merah attached herself to Mak Labu. Bawang Putih went to Mak Kundur’s side and hugged her; an act of reflex more than love.
“Bawang Putih, this will be your room for the time being. You’ll share this with your mother.” Mak Labu looked about the barely furnished room. “When we’ve rearranged the house again, we’ll find space for your own room. I hope you won’t mind.”
Bawang Putih looked up at Mak Kundur for approval before shaking her head at Mak Labu.
Mak Labu gave a small smile before reaching for Bawang Merah.
“We’ll make dinner. Tonight, you are our guests.”
Mak Kundur watched Bawang Merah walk away with her mother, the child looking like a young princess as she started to chatter about showing Bawang Putih the gardens.
“Mak?” Bawang Putih’s timid voice broke through Mak Kundur’s thoughts.
She felt as if she was a lowly servant come begging for scraps at the palace of a queen and her princess. Bawang Putih, her beloved daughter, who was her pride and joy in life, could not possibly compare to the sweetness of Bawang Merah. Mak Kundur foresaw a future where her daughter would continuously be left in the background, doomed to be an aging, unloved andartu as Bawang Merah would have princes and lords fall at her feet.
She wouldn’t allow it. She had come so far and she had survived Pak Ali’s death.
Mak Kundur bent down, opened her arms and Bawang Putih gladly went into them – a warm welcome in a strange home.