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 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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The Cottage in the Woods


Jane hurried home. A cool breeze whipped her hair across her face and she brushed it aside.
Beware the dusk. Never stay out in the forest once the sun dips.
Very good advice, she agreed—and yet here she was, the sun dangerously low. There was a faint rumble in the distance. She eyed the sky, noticing the heavy clouds on the horizon for the first time.
Half-forgotten stories of creatures that emerged in the night to eat unsuspecting stragglers raced through her brain. Part of her fifteen-year-old mind rejected them as ridiculous—and yet, she couldn’t help shuddering. What if they were true and not just fanciful stories told to frighten young children? After all, there had to be a reason why their village was enclosed by six-foot walls—and why they barred the gates after sundown. Whether wooden walls would actually be able to protect them against mystical creatures was another thing altogether. Jane couldn’t help feeling sceptical but she didn’t want to get locked out either.
‘Were those herbs worth it, Jane?’ she imagined the village sentry asking as he refused to open the gates. She wondered who would be on duty today—hopefully not Mr. Rowan. He rarely ever took sentry duty these days but when he did, he seemed to delight in making trouble. It didn’t help that he hated her father.
“Yes, they keep my mother alive,” she said aloud to the wind. Her heart skipped a beat. Mother will be so worried. If she doesn’t kill Father first for letting me go. At least Mary’s not here to slow me down. The path seemed to stretch out in front of her and she tried to take longer strides, her basket thumping against her hip. At this rate, she might just make it home before it got dark—if the weather held. That was a big if, she figured, looking up at the sky again.
Thunder rolled, followed by a howl in the distance. The icy wind sent shivers down her spine. Jane picked up her pace. Old enough to go out on your own? Hah! You were stupid enough to forget your watch and even stupider for not keeping track of the sun.
Barely thirty steps later, the rain began to pour in torrents. Jane tried to shield her eyes with her arm as she desperately searched for a place to wait out the storm. A dim light just off the side of the path attracted her attention.
Lightning flashed. She hitched up her skirt and ran.

The light she had seen shone from the windows of an old-fashioned cottage. Jane hurried under the shelter of the covered porch and pushed her blond hair back from her face as she looked around. The bareness of the porch and the lack of the customary lighted lamp by the door caused her a vague disquiet, but she was so grateful to be out of the rain that she soon dismissed the feeling. She set her basket down by the door and bent to squeeze the water out of her skirt.
“Hello?” Jane looked around again, pressing against the rough wood of the cottage walls to stay out of the rain. From her current view point, the cottage seemed unlived in—and yet, there was the light that still streamed past her from the windows.
“Is anyone home?” she called again, knocking hesitantly on the door. No one answered, so she peered through the windows. Through the dirty glass she could see various articles of furniture scattered sparsely across the room—a chair, some rugs, pillows—but other than the occasional flicker of the fire in the grate, nothing stirred. Behind her, something howled again, much closer than before. She looked around uneasily and tried the doorknob.
The door swung open silently.
Standing on the threshold, she looked back and forth between the growing storm behind her and the welcoming fire in front of her. The rain lashed harder, drenching her again. It almost felt as if the wind was trying to blow her into the house. She noticed with dismay a small puddle of water forming at her feet. Taking a deep breath, she stepped in and closed the door behind her.
Still, she stood with her hand on the doorknob, her eyes roving the quiet house, wondering if someone would emerge from the shadows. Minutes passed and Jane slowly relaxed her guard. The warmth of the cottage enveloped her and she soon found herself skirting the low table in the middle of the room and sinking down on the rugs that were piled up by the fireplace. She had almost fallen asleep when the door slammed.
“Who’s that?” Jane’s voice was shrill in her ears as she sat upright, clutching at the rugs.
There was the sound of scuffling before a deep voice answered, “Shouldn’t I be the one asking? This is my house, after all.”
“I didn’t mean to—”
“No, don’t turn around!”
Jane froze mid-turn, her gaze settling on the curtains. She could see faint movement from the edge of her eyes. Her imagination ran wild. She squeezed her eyes shut as she imagined him sneaking up on her, wondering if he would have a monstrous face, if his body would be twisted, if he would cook her first, or if he would eat her alive.
“You can stay. Just don’t look at me.”
Jane tried to speak in measured tones, her heart still pounding. “Why… why not? Is there… is there something wrong with you?” He didn’t sound dangerous. In fact, he could be anybody from her village or the next. She relaxed her body as she turned back toward the fire, squinting her eyes to try to catch a glimpse of him. The fire was casting shadows in the wrong direction for her to see anything.
“No—nothing. You’ll just… Just don’t.”
Jane kept her eyes on the fire, trying not to react to the noises behind her or the growing smell of wet dog. The queasy feeling returned.
“What are you?” she blurted.
There was a sudden silence. “What do you mean?”
Jane gathered up her courage. There wasn’t much to begin with but she didn’t want to be eaten without ever seeing the creature. She took a deep breath and turned around.
She saw his face first and smiled. He was a good-looking man, with soft brown curls framing a pleasant—but slightly worried—face. He was in the midst of rubbing himself down with a tattered towel, which he hurriedly swung to cover the lower part of his body. She stifled a scream as he backed away, his four feet scrabbling against the wooden floor.
“Now, stay calm now…” He held out a hand as if it would hold her back.
“What are—are you a—a monster?” She couldn’t help staring as he slowly lowered the towel and held his hands open in front of him.
“You’re—you’re not going to panic and attack me, are you?” His tail curled worriedly around his hind legs.
Jane shook her head so he took a few cautious steps forward again.
“I’m an adlet. I won’t harm you,” he added quickly. “I don’t eat humans. I mean, there are some who do—but I’m not—I don’t—”
“The howling. You were the one howling,” she said in a near whisper. “I thought there were wolves…”
“You heard me?”
“Were you following me?” she asked.
“No, I was out hunting. I didn’t know you were in the area. The rain washed away your scent.”
“Well, you don’t smell that great yourself.”
He grimaced. “I was caught in the rain. This fur…”
“You’re shivering! You’d better come to the fire and dry out. I—” Jane stopped midsentence. Would she be safe in this cottage alone with this dog-human hybrid? But there was no help for it. The rain made it impossible for her to leave now. Keeping her eyes on him, she got up and divided the rugs into two piles, taking the one that was furthest from where he was standing. It also meant she was farther away from the door. She wasn’t sure if it was the right decision, but to do anything else would seem rather awkward.
The adlet also eyed her warily as he made a wide circle around the room to get to the unoccupied pile of rugs. He sighed as he sank down and wrapped a rug around him, basking in the warmth of the fire. The pounding of the rain on the roof and the slight crackling of the fire were the only sounds to be heard as they sat watching each other.

Jane couldn’t stand it anymore. She hadn’t meant to trespass but she had, and now she felt that she had been rather rude about it. “I–I’m really, really sorry about trespassing into your home and uh… intruding, but I got caught in the rain and well, I’m sorry.”
The adlet shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“I wouldn’t have come in, but the rain was crazy and the door was unlocked.”
“No, really. It’s alright.”
“Well, anyway, I’m Jane,” she said, leaning forward and sticking out her hand. “It’s… it’s nice to meet you.”
“Oh. Ataneq.” He shook her hand awkwardly. They leaned back in their respective seats, avoiding each other’s gaze.
“I suppose you’re from the nearby village,” Ataneq ventured after a while.
“Yes. I was out collecting herbs for my mother.”
“Do you do that often?”
Jane nodded. “But I’m usually not alone. I… I don’t remember ever seeing your cottage before, though.”
Ataneq glanced at her strangely before saying, “It’s quite hard to see wood amongst wood.” He turned and looked nervously out the window at the pouring rain.
“Maybe.” Jane sighed unhappily. “I hope my parents aren’t worried.”
“Will they come looking for you?”
“Probably when the rain stops.”
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon,” he replied glumly.
Jane felt guilty again when she saw how unhappy Ataneq looked. “If—I mean, if it’s too much trouble, I’ll just take my chances and—”
“No, no. Don’t do that. It’s better that you stay here than get caught in that downpour.”
“Are you sure?”
Ataneq barely hesitated before he nodded. “We’ll work things out, I suppose, depending on when the rain stops.” He seemed reluctant to elaborate any further, so they lapsed into silence again.
Jane tried to remember if she had ever heard any stories of adlets before but could not think of any, not even stories that described dog and human hybrids of any kind. It seemed rather odd to her, especially since her mother seemed to know hundreds of fairy tales and would tell them to her and her younger sister, Mary, every night before bed. Then again, she had never imagined that any of those stories would come true.
“I’m afraid I’ve never heard of adlets before,” she found herself saying.
“No? Well, we’re not common in these parts.”
“Where are you from then?”
“A long way away.” Ataneq smiled. “I come from a land of ice and snow which makes your British winters look like child’s play. But the rain… the rain is something else.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, were you always this way?”
“Once…” Ataneq seemed to be caught up in his own memories. After a long pause, he continued, “Once, a long time ago, I used to be human.”

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