Authors: Barbara Ismail
Tags: #Travel, #Asia, #Southeast, #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
Volume II in the Kain Songket Mysteries Series
For my parents
Maryam could hear the drums thudding from across her village while she did the dinner dishes and knew soon enough that the chanting would begin. The patient in this exorcism, a woman of a certain age named Jamillah, worked in the main market near Maryam's stall, which is why there was a bond between them, of neighbours and businesswomen, though they were not close friends.
Jamillah was suffering from a variety of complaints, none of them serious on their own, but debilitating when put together. She was tired, she was occasionally vague and pessimistic, her arms ached and sometimes her back hurt. She was no longer the energetic and commanding
she had been; several times Maryam noticed her stall had stayed boarded up during the business day, behaviour unbecoming any Kelantanese market woman.
Her grown children worriedly intervened, calling in a
, a healer, to diagnose her illness, and â it was devoutly hoped â to cure it. He concluded, after due examination, that Jamillah was possessed by spirits who yearned to be understood and propitiated, and he wasted no time in arranging for a
, Princess Play, an exorcism which would allow him to speak to the spirits involved, learn what they needed and then provide it, thereby freeing Jamillah from the lassitude enveloping her.
The drumming signalled the start of the ceremony, and the brushed and flattened dirt in the front yard of her house was becoming crowded with neighbours and family who travelled to show their support and concern. Jamilllah slumped spinelessly in the lap of her older brother, who struggled to keep her upright, while other relations sat next to him, sponging her face and encouraging her to take notice of the ceremony around her.
Her husband was nearby, staring dreamily at the ground while emphatically not taking part in the group hug going on nearby. However, from the gimlet looks he received from his two daughters, it did not seem likely he would continue in his isolation. In the general uproar, Jamillah was clearly the centre of attention and, just as clearly, he was not.
By the time Maryam and her husband Mamat ambled across Kampong Penambang, the
had gone into trance and was in the possession of a princess spirit. In this state, he engaged in spirited repartee with one of his troupe to the amusement of the assembled crowd.
The ceremony combined healing and exorcism with general entertainment, and since the
's research into the case provided him with a wealth of information about
gossip, the spirits themselves were able to comment pointedly on local affairs.
Maryam took a seat among the women, next to her cousin Rubiah, while Mamat wandered among the men smoking cigarettes and buying each other cups of coffee from an enterprising barista who had set up shop on the periphery of the performance.
Suddenly, Jamillah sat up straight, brushing off the hands of her relatives, raising her head high, her eyes flashing and alive, her expression imperious. She ordered the
to account for himself in a voice not her own, and he bowed and scraped before her, offering a brief explanation of the problem as he saw it. In the background, the music continued, the drums joined by a flute and a fiddle.
Jamillah, laid low by aches, pains and exhaustion, barely able to keep her eyes open moments ago, now rose and danced in the traditional manner: fluid, graceful, full of energy and skill. Her daughters gasped, though they expected it as part of the
. But seeing their mother move like a young dancer â confident, commanding â was astonishing, like seeing this most familiar of figures as a stranger.
danced as her opposite, encouraging her first in this direction and then that, drawing her out in conversation. She gave her name as Mayang Puteh, a female spirit, and explained why she had invaded the body of Jamillah: to help her, to cure her, to encourage her spirit and life force, which was slowly draining away as Jamillah suffered, oppressed by evil, unable to rid herself of invasive spirits. She, Mayang Puteh, summoned by the entranced
himself, would bolster Jamillah's flagging spirit, and drag her, if necessary, back to health. So she announced, as she glided effortlessly around the open space.
The appreciative murmurs of the crowd did not seem to please her husband, now being prodded by his son to smile and nod. His sulkiness was noted by Jamillah's family, all of whom had heard about his recent lack of interest in her and her fear that he had turned his attentions to a younger woman. If that were the case, an accusation he strenuously denied, and for which even Jamillah could find no real evidence, then certainly he had not seen his wife as active and commanding as she was right now, the centre of attention and deservedly so. His children hoped this might change his perspective: his son encouraged him mightily to notice Jamillah and to admire her. The father smiled thinly, and nodded distractedly, watching his wife dance as she never had before.
The ceremony continued until nearly dawn â trance interspersed with comedy, dancing, singing and chanting, and Jamillah was the star. At the end, Mayang Puteh left Jamillah exhausted but exhilarated, cured of her symptoms, and buoyed by the Princess Play. Smiling, Jamillah staggered to her bed, from which she never rose again.
The Kota Bharu
, or main market, dominated the centre of town. It towered two stories high, with the cloth and produce sellers on the first floor as well as the building perimeter outside, while takeaway food and drinks were sold upstairs.
Maryam had inherited her cloth stall from her mother, who got prime territory when the building first opened, and she was in the middle of the market, on the widest lane winding through the stalls. She sold the pride of Kelantan,
, fine silk woven with geometric designs in beaten gold thread.
Kampong Penambang was the hub of the
trade and was littered with
looms throughout. The main road from Kota Bharu to the beach, which also served as the village's main (and only paved) street, was dominated by imposing
emporia, monuments to the
trade, and Kampong Penambang's place in the centre of it.
Maryam was energetic and sturdy (as she liked to think of it). She had lovely eyes, large and liquid brown with long lashes, and a round and cheerful face with a small nose and full lips. Her hair was rarely seen at work, when it was bound in a cotton turban, almost always some shade of blue, her favourite colour. She wore, as did just about all of the women working at the market, a practical sarong covering her from waist to ankle and a long cotton shirt over it.
In the waist of her sarong, where it was tied, she kept a stash of home-rolled cigarettes, to which she often had recourse during the day. Mamat smoked Rothman's cigarettes, store-bought in a cardboard pack suitable for offering around in the coffee house, but Maryam didn't feel right spending so much on her own: she was comfortable with a more slapdash look to her tobacco.
In addition to
, Maryam also sold cotton batik sarong, made by her brother Malek in his factory just down the road from where Maryam lived. She adored Malek with the enthusiasm of a little sister, which she maintained even in adulthood, and Malek, for his part, seemed to believe she was still eleven years old and was accordingly protective.
It amused Mamat to watch his otherwise completely take-charge wife defer to her older brother, and he in turn expressed concern as to whether Maryam should be coming home from the market alone after dark. Privately, he pitied any thief who tried to wrest her fabrics from her, but he amiably agreed to ferry his wife home every day, as he had always done.
Like Mamat himself, Malek cultivated a luxuriant moustache, which he stroked thoughtfully when he needed time to think. Maryam, of course, thought he was marvellously good-looking and didn't shrink from reminding her sister-in-law how very lucky she was. Malek's wife was a good-natured woman who usually, though not always, reacted with a smile to these pronouncements.
The morning after the exorcism, Maryam and Mamat piled folded lengths of
carefully on the back of Mamat's motorcycle. As Maryam leaned over the side, adjusting the rope holding them in place, a commotion began across the village. She looked up in mild surprise: the
was usually quiet at this time of day, with people concentrating on getting to work or preparing breakfast rather than socializing. But this was not socializing either: the talk was strident and getting louder. Shooting Mamat a questioning look, she walked towards the activity, hearing snippets of conversation.
âJust like that â¦'
âLast night, she was so happy â¦'
âNot a mark on her â¦'
Maryam picked up her pace, her heart now beating faster. Jamillah's oldest daughter, Zainab, pressed her hands over her temples and looked around wildly. âIt can't be,' she repeated.
âWhat is it?' Maryam asked to no one in particular, though she believed she now knew what she would hear.
âShe's dead,' their nextdoor neighbour answered, looking confused, as though she couldn't understand what she herself was saying. âI mean â¦ Aziz tried to wake her and she just â¦ didn't â¦' She ended lamely: âShe must have died during the night.'
Maryam turned to Zainab. âNab, what happened?'
Zainab looked at her wide-eyed, her hair disordered and becoming more so with each movement of her hands, which she did not remove from her temples. âI don't know, I don't know. She was fine going to sleep last night. Nothing happened. Then this morning â¦' She bit her lip, unable to go on.
âHas someone gone for the police?' she asked gently, and Zainab nodded. âMy husband. I don't know why,' she added vaguely. âWhy the police? No one could have hurt her: we were all there!'
Maryam soothed her. âWell, it's better to have them take a look. After all, it's unexpected, we should check â¦'
Zainab's younger sister, Zaiton, came down the steps of the house, and put her arms around her older sister, resting her forehead on her shoulder. She said nothing: the two women held each other in silence. Maryam patted them on the back and looked around for their father. After a moment, she asked softly, âWhere is your