Fiction
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The Song of the Kuwok Bird

Translated by: 
Suzan Piper

Those birds of misfortune, it is said, always fly upside down under the full moon or in the dark skies of the new moon, cawing loudly as they cross the kampung, bearing misfortune. This of course instils fear in families with babies or young children and incites foul curses to spill from every home. 

 

Oh, long before he understood much at all, Hasan’s grandfather would tell him stories on the terrace late in the afternoon when he had come home from the market garden. Grandfather Atuk said their song sounded like hens squawking after laying eggs, yet terrifying. Whoever heard it could only shiver, the hairs erect on the back of their neck. 

 

Usually the birds would come to perch and sing in large shady trees or on the roofs of homes with infants who were still breastfeeding, or mothers in late pregnancy. When the target baby cried, that was when the birds would snatch the unfortunate child’s aura and fly off with it far away, soaring high into the grey supernatural heavens. The baby would immediately sicken, its body slowly turning blue and eventually dying. 

 

‘But, Atuk, why do they snatch the baby’s aura?’ he asked, wide-eyed, uncomprehending. 

 

‘Because the birds are following their owners’ orders. They are kept by evil people who try to gain advantage from the suffering of others,’ answered Atuk, smiling. ‘That is why if the baby’s parents don’t come quickly and see the owner, or if the owner cannot be found, it’s a bad sign: the baby then has no chance of being saved.’ 

 

‘What does the bird look like, Atuk?’ He was becoming more afraid. 

 

‘Who knows?’ said Atuk. ‘People say it looks like a turkey, but when it stands its head is bowed, and when it flies its body is upside down, the head and chest facing skywards’. 

 

As a boy only five years old, he was truly frightened by Atuk’s story. In fact, it proved quite effective in controlling his naughty behaviour towards his mother, whom he called Emak. She had been forced to call out his name repeatedly before he would come home at dusk. But once he heard Atuk’s story, he began to do as he was told. As soon as he heard the call for prayer coming from the prayer house at the edge of the kampung, he was already running home, afraid he would be taken by a Kuwok bird, which is what the village’s inhabitants called these birds of misfortune. 

 

‘They’re also fond of naughty children who won’t listen to their parents!’ said Emak threateningly. 

 

Ah, as he stood at the kitchen door looking at the hill that loomed behind his home, Hasan’s memories – his childhood fears – suddenly came back to him, for no apparent reason. 

 

That’s how it was, though even now he was still uncertain whether his grandfather’s tale was just an old myth told to scare naughty grandchildren into obedience, or whether those birds were indeed very real and – beyond logic and reason – a threat to people. 

 

Certainly, there was one episode in his childhood that never ceased to haunt his thoughts, remaining fresh in his memory. It happened when he was already a growing boy, in year four of primary school. After dusk, as usual, the family was sitting together on the terrace at the front of the house. His father was chatting to Emak, who was pregnant with Asmi, his only younger sister. And Atuk, as usual, was intently listening to the news broadcast on the old radio. Suddenly they were startled by a blood-curdling sound that made the hair on everyone’s necks stand on end. 

 

Yes, the cawing cry did sound like a hen squawking, but with a long echo at the end. It came from the dense foliage of the rambutan tree beside the house. Emak’s face immediately turned a deathly pale and Father led her quickly into the house. Hasan drew close to Atuk, who appeared to be muttering to himself, chanting vague, inaudible words. But Father snapped at him to come in quickly. After taking Emak to the bedroom, Father re-emerged, pumping the air gun they used for shooting squirrels. His uncle, Mang Soleh, who was still living with them at the time, let loose with a flurry of foul curses and immediately seized the catapult. Further armed with a lemongrass stalk from the kitchen, Mang Soleh darted down the side of the house, following Hasan’s father. The cooking herb was reputed to terrify the Kuwok bird. It was one of two items that could kill it, the other being chicken bones placed in its nest. In her room, Hasan found Emak sobbing as she stroked her bulging belly. The next day, Father chopped down the rambutan  tree. 

 

Ah, that episode really stuck in his memory. Especially when neighbours added their own stories. This mother’s baby, fine one night and cutely giggling, had been found blue the next morning, just because the Kuwok bird’s song had been heard close to the house. Or that woman’s three-year-­old, who had been playing in her yard when an old man went past, giving her sweets and pinching her chubby cheek: she was found dead three days later with no one knowing exactly why. The nurse at the community health clinic could only shake his head, unable to say what had made the child sick. Then whispers were heard that the unknown man who had pinched Eti’s cheek kept Kuwok birds. 

 

Hmm, the island of his birth indeed held many mysteries and strange events! People said it was because their sacred land was bound by the promise of the Urang Lom, who lived on Mount Pelawan and were the first people to inhabit Bangka Island. It was their covenant with the supernatural world. Therefore, it was no surprise that the Bubung Tujuh, the first seven houses of the Lom people’s ancestors in the Air Abik settlement, could be seen only by those with mystical knowledge. Or that at the peak of Mount Maras there were seven springs, very clear and fresh to drink, but if you tried to wash your feet or hands there they would blister. Often too, a young child who unthinkingly peed in the jungle or on a rock would then pee blood when they returned home. 

 

But these were stories from decades ago, before many people from Java and other regions had come to try their fate as miners or labourers or to clear land for pepper, and before the jungles began to shrink from illegal mining, and only a few seruk trees remained for making the wooden stakes on which to grow pepper vines. 

 

Now sand hills could be seen stretching everywhere as the topsoil was stripped clean by the tin sprayer machine. There were many pits filled with water that were breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes – although, when the drought came, they were handy for washing bodies and clothes, and for drinking water. Even the reforestation areas, planted with paper trees on the old colonial mining site now owned by the company, were not spared from human onslaught (‘We need to eat!’). 

 

Yes, the wheels of reform had indeed brought many changes, more so once the small island and its neighbours became a new province. People spoke loudly of being local sons of the soil because for too long they had been sidelined by their own country. They were concerned too. Tin had once been seen as haramor forbidden; now anyone could compete to dredge for it. 

 

For a long while Hasan focused on the hillock that rose behind his house, feeling a subtle pull. He recalled how, as a young boy, he and his friends would go looking for rubber nuts there, in what was indeed a rubber plantation area. It felt like he still knew by instinct which places had the best rubber nuts, and they would usually go home with a plastic bag full of them. Bepangkak buah karet was what the game was called. Two rubber nuts would be pitted against each other to determine which was the toughest: the one that split lost. After school, they would sometimes remain there, playing all day until their hands were swollen and red. Emak would of course get angry, worried that Hasan would not be able to write at school the next day. Or sometimes they would drill holes in the hard-skinned nuts, scooping out the sticky white contents with wire, and then inserting a broom twig or thin bamboo into the hole as a spindle for a length of twine. A small cross-bar made of bamboo would then be attached to the twig’s end. And you had a propeller! Ah.. .. 

 

Not to mention when the fruit season arrived. The hillock would be overrun by fruit-eating wildlife because it was covered with all kinds of fruit trees: duriandukumangosteenrambutanand rambe. Birds chirruped loudly and melodiously. And people fond of hunting would of course not want to miss such an opportunity, including his father, who often brought home large fruit bats (‘You can eat them,’ said Father, ‘though they’re forbidden food according to Islam’). Even at night the hillock would be lit up by the torches of the impromptu hunters. 

 

But people said the hillock was also the home of the Kuwok bird. An eyewitness once claimed they saw a flock of these birds of misfortune flying upside-down out of the hill’s lush vegetation on the night of the full moon. 

 

‘Moh Thian Liang’ is what the Chinese who lived in their ownkampung called that hill. It means ‘Hill Reaching for the Sky’, and the hillock had indeed once been filled with Chinese graves. When he was little, the Chinese people always tried to avoid the graves of people with no living heirs; or, if they were forced to pass by, they would bow towards the tombs. If they happened to step on a grave that had been levelled, with just a few brick fragments left, they would quickly draw their hands together to their chests to signal their apology. Indeed, Emak would worry if Hasan played on that hillock, warning him not to pee just anywhere and not to talk dirty because the hill was clearly occupied, and not just by Kuwok birds. So, before they climbed up the hill they would usually first say, ‘Akek-Anek, cucung numpang lewat– Grandfather, Grandmother, please excuse me for passing through,’ just to ask permission, to be polite. 

 

Oh, playing there was too much fun to miss, even if fear or worry would sometimes grip them. There were so many astounding things to drive their adventures. After all, Kuwok birds did not venture out in daytime, and ghosts actually feared the sun. 

 

He didn’t know the fate of those old graves now that the government had decided to build a new road that cut across that hillock, closer to the new markets. The old markets had been demolished because the main road there became congested, with traffic jams each morning due to vehicles and the spread-out pavement traders. 

 

His small sub-district town had already vastly changed. To the east of the hillock, a Cave of the Virgin Mary had been built a few years before, the largest pilgrimage site for Catholics in the Pangkalpinang diocese. The cave, at the back of the school complex, was always busy with pilgrims visiting from the island and beyond. According to Mang Mi’un, his old neighbour, the garden of the late Pak Dakil had also been affected by the new road. When he was still alive, no one would even dare approach it, let alone pass by because they said he was an expert in guna-guna or black magic. There was one story of a naughty child who had picked some of his snakeskin fruit and had been trapped for two days and two nights unable to get out of the garden, just going round and round and round. 

 

Yes, the hillock was famously haunted. Stories of people seeing flying balls of fire or hearing terrifying howls in the dead of night were common. 

 

‘Lost in thought?’ asked Sekar, his wife, startling Hasan a little. Who knows how long she had been standing beside him, also focusing on the hillock that still poked out through the lush vegetation? He just glanced at his wife, smiling. And Sekar sweetly returned his smile. Sekar, an anthropology graduate, had been raised in a Javanese family still steeped in Javanese mysticism. Of course, he did not want to trouble the thoughts of this woman with tales of his strange childhood. 

 

He had chosen to take leave and invite his wife home to the kampungfor a short while because in Jakarta there was no one to care for her when she gave birth. Both her parents had passed away, and her brothers and sisters could not be relied upon because they all had families and were busy earning a living. Furthermore, he and his wife could not yet afford to pay for domestic help. 

 

He had thought that they could also spend some time with Emak, who was getting old. Let Emak’s gentle, practised hands be the ones to help take care of Sekar and their baby. Emak would certainly be happy to welcome the birth of her first grandchild. 

 

Suddenly he heard that birdsong again. Startled, Hasan jumped from his bed. He could see Sekar sleeping soundly beside him. Not sure what to believe, he sat down on the edge of the bed and sharpened his hearing. Ah, no mistaking it; he had heard that sound over ten years before. And the hairs on the back of his neck began to prickle uncontrollably. The birdsong sounded so close, as if it came from the roof. 

 

‘San, Hasan, open the door. It’s me, Emak.’ He heard a soft knock on the door of the room. He bolted up from the bed and opened the door. Emak rushed in. 

 

‘Kuwok birds, Mak?’ he asked hesitantly. He watched Emak nod, the face of the old woman looking worried as she glanced at Sekar still sound asleep. He immediately grabbed a torch from the table drawer, but Emak stopped him. 

 

‘Don’t San. Guard your wife.’ Emak said, her voice distraught. The cawing was getting louder, and more frightening. 

 

For three consecutive nights, the song was constant, always beginning at midnight. Each day it grew louder and more distressing. 

 

‘It’s been more than ten years since you left, and it’s never been heard since,’ Emak sighed softly. Suddenly he felt panicked. All the stories of his childhood that he had neatly stored away rang once more in his ears, those terrifying stories he could never forget. Birds of misfortune! Where did they come from? And which damned person was keeping them? Emak placed a few small onions at the corners of their bed. 

 

‘Just to keep you safe. Usually such “things” don’t like onions,’ Emak explained. Naturally, she didn’t forget the lemongrass stalk. 

 

‘What must we do, Mak?’ He heard the tremor in his own voice. Fortunately, Sekar never woke up at night; at most she wriggled a little. Perhaps because of the child she carried, she was easily tired. But every time the birdsong grew louder, he worried his wife would wake up and ask questions. 

 

‘Go see Wak Toha tomorrow, child. Ask for something.’ 

 

‘Is he still alive?’ He imagined an old man always wearing a singlet and shorts – guests or no guests – whose gaze was inexplicably always gentle and soothing. He had never been to school and was totally illiterate, but he knew many things unknown to others. 

 

Emak nodded. The birdsong could be heard until four a.m. Then it slowly faded into the distance with the growing sounds of motor vehicles driving through, signalling that the small town was waking up again. When the call to morning prayer came, he hurried to the bathroom for his ablutions. 

 

Pan Tian Tiauw, the bird suspended between the sky and the earth. That’s what was written in the thick book with Chinese letters, explained Ko A Liong, the Chinese shaman famous in the Parit Empat district. Hasan gazed unblinkingly as Ko A Liong showed him the picture of the bird in the Chinese almanac and prognostication book, Thung Su.The bird’s head, bent down­wards, terrified him. 

 

‘Because you’ve been given guidance by Wak Toha, I won’t give you anything more,’ the pot-bellied man of forty or so years said politely in Bangka Malay, after Hasan had explained the intent and purpose of his visit.

 

Hasan recalled Wak Toha’s words: ‘Go to A Liong’s place; he has a book, if you want to see a picture of the bird.’ That had been his suggestion when Hasan expressed his desire to know what the bird looked like. The older man, who lived alone in a cabin in the market garden and had never married, gave him a small plastic bag of pepper over which he had read some incantations. 

 

‘Spread some of it around your house after evening prayers as you read the Al Fatihah chapter of the Koran. Mix the rest into your wife’s food,’ ordered the village shaman who refused to accept gifts from those who came asking for his help. The old man, who still looked youthful even though he was over seventy years old, then spoke a lot about Hasan’s deceased Atuk, who had been his good friend when she was alive; and also of Hasan’s late father, who had wanted to study with him but had not been able to resist forbidden foods and practices; and about how his mother had asked his advice about Hasan when he was small because Hasan had been so naughty. 

 

‘Who’d have thought it’s been so long. Young Hasan has become a city man. But you must come home often, yo? Don’t forget your kampungnow, just because you’re already a city man,’ said Wak Toha with a broad smile, displaying his toothless mouth. And he laughed. 

 

On the Pangkalpinang-Jakarta return flight, nightmares continued to loom and turned into a black pool in his head. His feelings had been torn to shreds. Sekar, who still seemed to be in shock, was asleep with her head resting on his shoulder. Her beautiful face was tired and clearly lined with sadness. He could not bear to let his gaze linger on his wife. Sekar’s eyes were still puffy and swollen. For almost three weeks after the event, she had not stopped weeping and barely slept. A full month had passed and yet her sobs were often heard. He had decided to take his wife back to Jakarta, because staying any longer in the kampungwould only prolong her torture. One wrong move and her thoughts could become disturbed and her mind anxious. As the youngest in her family, Sekar was not that strong a woman.

 

They had lost the child that they had been dreaming of since they married two years before. Sekar had slipped beside the well and miscarried after eight months and ten days of pregnancy. Hasan contritely thought he had been careless to allow his wife to wash the clothes, even though it was only two of her nightdresses. 

 

Ah, he could see that small island, his hometown, getting smaller and smaller through the plane window. As it grew further away, so did the shadow of that tragic event. But he knew its terrible memory could not be easily erased. 

 

For no apparent reason, suddenly he imagined that the plane they were flying in was like a Kuwok bird – flying upside-down, spreading the sad news. 

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