[SNEAK PEEK] DONGENG

Dongeng by Anna Tan

 

“So,” Mary turned brightly to Sara, “What shall we do now?”

The young woman seemed to be looking around, her face a confusion of awe and uncertainty.

“The Court is nearby,” Ataneq observed, cricking his neck and looking up at the dark sky nonchalantly.

“And?”

“And your grandmother might be interested…”

Mary shushed him. “Oh, not on the first day, dear. All you’ll do is scare the poor thing. She’s already so overwhelmed as it is.”

“Why would it scare me?” Sara asked.

“My grandmother is a crotchety old thing. She might probably tear your head off. But then again, you’re here validly, by invitation—special invitation, mind you—even if you’re a little older than she usually expects.”

“Older?” The young woman stared blankly at her.

Mary continued on obliviously. “Yes. The humans she tolerates are usually between eight to eighteen. Any younger and they’re pests, any older and they’re opportunists.”

“But… but aren’t you human?”

Ataneq laughed. “You missed explaining that part, Mary.”

“Oh! I’m sorry. I must have confused you so much. Yes, I’m mostly human. But my grandmother is the Fairy Queen.”

“The Fairy Queen!” Sara squeaked.

“You’ve heard of her?”

“Oh yes, of course. She’s in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and Tam Lin—and there’s a whole book about her too, I think, though I haven’t read that. And isn’t she in Peter Pan? Or referred to anyway. And probably in a lot of Enid Blyton. She just… exists.”

“I see.” Mary wasn’t quite sure what she saw. She didn’t think it was quite the best decision to show Sara the Court on her very first visit, but she could not think of where else to go. Besides, Mary had always thought the Court the most beautiful part of the Old Fairy Kingdom, especially in the still of the night with the stars twinkling like ethereal fairy lights. She was eager to see if Sara agreed.

Sara’s sharp intake of breath as they approached told Mary exactly what she hoped. The old woman smiled to herself.

“It’s gorgeous!” Sara gushed.

The Fairy Queen stirred on her throne. “What is this?” she mumbled. It was late. The fae had drunk their fill, scattered across the grass like fallen soldiers.

“A visitor, Grandmother. From Malaysia,” Mary added breezily, hoping the faerie would know where it was.

The Queen looked up in interest. “Eh? Where’s that?”

Apparently not. “Oh, somewhere quite far away.”

“How did she get here?”

“Apparently, we have a new annexe.”

This finally roused the Queen fully. “When did that happen?”

“Did you not feel anything, Grandmother?” Mary asked.

“No, I never feel anything, foolish child. It’s an addition to my Kingdom, not my body.”

“So this has happened before?”

“It happens all the time, in smaller or greater extent, anytime someone is familiar with both worlds.”

“Hmm.” Mary had to think about that. Something of the sort must have happened in the past sixty years, just that she hadn’t been aware of it.

“Of course, someone also has to will it to happen. That doesn’t happen as often.” The Queen stared at Sara, a calculative look in her eyes. “So? When did this new addition come about?”

“Today, I would think. At least, we only stumbled upon it—and her—today.” Mary looked over to where Ataneq was leading the young woman to meet the Council of Centaurs. Sara seemed quite excited, almost babbling.

“They brought her in?”

Mary nodded. “Special invitation.”

“To what end?”

“To save their world, or so I gather.”

“All worlds die in time.”

“True, Grandmother. But not all inhabitants wish to die with it.”

“Still, I wonder.”

The Fairy Queen rose to her feet and walked over to the young Chinese woman. Sara stopped mid-sentence, blushed and performed something like a mix between a curtsy and a truncated bow.

“Tell your folklore kin that they must abide by my rules or they won’t stay long in this land,” the Queen said imperiously.

“By… by your rules, your Majesty?”

“Yes, by the rules I have set, which includes—mind you—limitations on human visitation. I’m sure you wouldn’t care to be torn limb from limb by an ogre?”

“Oh, oh no, of course not!” Sara stammered.

“Then do let them know.”

Mary shook her head as her grandmother left them. Sara stared after her with wide eyes and said in a small voice, “But what rules are they?”

“Don’t you worry, dear. We’ll settle it amongst ourselves,” Mary said, putting a comforting arm around her shoulder. “Why don’t we head somewhere else? Somewhere more pleasant?”

The three of them took their leave of the centaurs, Sara casting one longing glimpse at them.

“I told you it was a bad idea,” Mary murmured to Ataneq as they walked.

The adlet smiled wryly. “Well, it had to happen sometime, didn’t it?”

They soon left the Court far behind them. As they walked, Mary pointed out the different plants and the different fairy creatures that crossed her path. It reminded her of that day, a long time ago, when her late mother had done the same for her, Jane and their father. Oh, what a terrible—and yet terribly exciting—day that had been! And yet, she wouldn’t exchange it for the world. Not when she had gained a whole new world from it. She’d arrived too late to see Jane’s show of power, only stumbling in towards the end with the imps and Mr Rowan when Ivy Iliana, her mother, was already quarrelling with the Fairy Queen. Poor Mr Rowan had been green and trembling by then!

Sara was saying something to Ataneq and Mary focused her attention to listen.

“But why don’t you want to help them?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Sara said miserably. They sat down by the river. Sara slipped off her slippers and stuck her feet in the cold water. “It’s that I don’t know how.”

“Why not?” Mary asked.

“Because I barely know anything about them!” Her sigh was like a mini breeze of itself. “I didn’t grow up with them. I mean, yes, I’ve heard of them. It’s hard not to when you grow up in a multi-cultural place like Malaysia. There’s an overlap, a passing through. But it’s not the same. I grew up with different stories altogether. Stories like these. Places like these. I’ve dreamed all my life of escaping to a wonder-world like this. All their stories are horrid and gruesome about dead people and dead babies and women being ripped apart and ghosts coming to kill you or haunt you…”

Mary saw Ataneq’s eyes flicker to find hers before returning to study Sara’s face. Then he deliberately turned his face away and stared into the sky.

“And now they’re trusting you to change that for them,” he said softly. When she didn’t reply, he continued, “I was once supposed to be a child-eater, did you know that? Some stories said that the adlet prowled to catch children unawares, stealing them away from camps to eat them. Some said they guarded children. And encampments. Guess which one I wanted to be?”

“Not all our stories started off pretty, you know,” Mary added.

“Yes, I do… but… but I don’t want to be the one who appropriates another’s culture and changes them into something else. I don’t want to be that person.”

“Why would you be?”

“Because as much as I am a Malaysian, I am not a Malay! It’s not my culture. It’s not my stories. It’s… difficult.”

“Not all those who need voices can find them.” Ataneq’s reply was so soft that Mary almost missed it.

He cleared his throat and turned to face Sara. “You have this privilege of standing between three worlds. Not many do. Most are confined to one. They struggle to express what they mean in their own language, much less in another language. And here you are—straddling at least two. Maybe three, if I understand you right. Why do you not want this?”

“Because I don’t know how. I’ve always been in one world, excluded by everything else. It feels weird when you say I have access to these other worlds that aren’t mine. That don’t want me. I’m a stranger in my own land, Ataneq. I’m not wanted.”

“Except that now you are.”

“I am wanted by figments of my imagination. What if I write everything they want me to and then I get into trouble for it by real world people? I’m not imaginary, as much as I’d like to be. I can’t run away and disappear forever.”

“You could, if you wanted to.”

“But should I?” Sara sighed. She didn’t really know why she was making such a fuss. A story was a story was a story, after all. Cultural appropriation was an American issue, not something that any Malaysian really understood. It was all just a silly fuss. Wasn’t it? Except it wasn’t, not to her anyway, not now, when she was afraid of giving voice to people who might not want her voice to rise above theirs. Had she always been living in fear?

“All stories are important, Sara,” Mary said now, holding her hand and rubbing it calmly. Her hands were so soft, so warm. “These ones from your homeland are just as important as the ones you have grown up with. There are so many of our stories out there. There are not enough of yours. Don’t you think you should at least try?”

“But it’s so hard, Aunty Mary. I don’t even know where to start.”

“You will, child. Trust your heart. You will know.” Mary smiled and rose to her feet. “I think it’s time for a late night snack. Are you hungry?”

“Rather.” Sara glanced at her watch. It was nearing noon, but the sky had the look of deep night. Britain, she reminded herself. Somewhere behind us on the timezone.

They made their way to Ataneq’s cottage, which was quite near to the stream where they’d been sitting. The adlet fried up some eggs and bacon for them. As they ate, Mary told Sara the story of how she first gained access to the Old Fairy Kingdom. Sara listened in wide-eyed astonishment.

“You saw Smaug?” she said with a tinge of jealousy.

“Yes, I did indeed. He was a large, frightening creature. Very majestic.”

“Do you think I’ll see him?”

“It depends. He often flies overhead in the mornings and evenings, so there is a chance.”

“He won’t… eat us, will he?”

“Now you’re afraid?” Ataneq teased.

Sara blushed. “A little.”

“You’re too small for him, dear. He’d rather eat a cow.”

Mary yawned. “It’s late for me, Sara. I think I’ll take a short nap.” She got up and walked to the cottage.

Sara looked at Ataneq. “If you need to sleep, that’s fine with me,” she said.

“I’m fine,” he said with a smile.

They sat watching the sun rise as Ataneq told Sara his story.

 

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