A Jessie Michael explores blind belief in a Malay village
The nerves of Kampong Semut were aquiver with anxiety, fear and excitement, all melded together. The haven of wooden houses several miles from the nearest town and surrounded by coconut groves and padi fields, which were more and more a rarity, now had its slow, meandering peace shattered and its people shaken awake. Adrenalin flowed fast and they jumped at shadows.
A hysterical village girl claimed that she had seen, against the light of the moon, the shape of a naked man climbing through her window. When she sat up, the shape slid out again and vanished. The village religious body initially put the claims down as the imaginings of a frustrated young woman but when more girls made similar claims, the villagers decided that there might be some truth to the matter. The village elders claimed the sightings could be that of an Orang Minyak, (Oily Man) — that grease covered, naked, dark, male malevolence that prowled villages, seeking to molest and rape virgins. This entity had long been quiet in the whole country and was beginning to be dismissed as myth.
The village police first looked suspiciously at the village boys but could find no evidence. No fingerprints, no grease trails. Their parents, some of whom were in the police force too, could vouch for the male members of the family being home on the nights of the intrusions. It must have been a male from a neighbouring village; but, increasingly, by the very nature of these apparitions, they were prone to believe the old myth. The apparition came on moonlit nights and never in the rain. The police could only advise stop-gap measures. The girls were told to sleep close to their mothers or grandmothers and barricade all the windows. The men set up night patrols.
The ‘prowler’ stopped for a couple of months and then struck again when the villagers had dropped their guard a little to enjoy their evenings with family meals and chatter. This time, the Oily Man attacked Pak Din’s daughter as she was going to the outhouse nearby late at night. The light of the moon was bright enough so she carried no torch or lantern. The outhouse was clearly outlined as were the clumps of vegetation around. She could leave the outhouse door open for the quick visit.
He succeeded in raping her as she was returning. Her family could only glean scraps of information from the shattered girl — a naked, oily, masked, man, the whiff of a strange incense and passing out. By the time she recovered to find herself half naked and screamed, the intruder had disappeared without a trace.
As usual the village descended on the village headman’s home. As usual Tok Baharuddin was not yet home. Tok Baharuddin was village headman, businessman cum politician, all rolled in one, who had to travel to town daily to drum up grass root support as well as business. As everyone knew, politics and business go hand in hand; one cannot exist without the other. He was good for the village, getting them a decent clinic, school, roads and always writing job recommendations for school leavers even if most did not land the jobs. He was so busy with meetings that he was out every day and often travelled out station for a few days. He was a feather in the village cap for the mention of his name put Kampung Semut on the local map.
When he returned that evening, Tok Baharuddin was apoplectic that the police were so negligent as to let this crime happen and not have any clues or suspects. He visited the victim’s house for a first hand version of the incident. “I’ll talk to the Police Chief,” he declared. “I’ll make sure this criminal hangs.” As village chief he must be seen to take action to secure the safety of his village and naturally his own effectiveness and reputation.
The villagers listened to him respectfully. He was a good leader but he straddled the old world and the new and more and more he leaned into the new. He tactfully avoided, meaningless rituals and shunned dabbling in the occult.
The village men gathered again in each other’s homes to study the situation from another perspective. Ariffin, a retired police officer who had served in other states, gave some hair-raising information. “You know, the Indians and Chinese also have this spirit phenomenon. Another being or spirit can enter a person and completely alter the personality and behaviour of that person until the spirit decides to leave. The spirit can speak in strange languages, make the host sick and harm others. When the episode of possession is over, the person reverts to normal but cannot remember anything of what happened. In the most idyll of places, evil preys; it roams to feed its primal lust.”
Ariffin’s audience looked at each other. Was he saying it could be any of them? Perish the thought. One of the men burst out, “This is evil let loose. It is not human. The police can’t do anything. We will have to call the bomoh (local shaman /medicine man) from Trengganu to exorcise this village”.
Such practice was publicly declared to be pagan and unIslamic, so, a little argument arose if this was even allowed. The village Imam was soon outvoted and persuaded that all old customs could not be thrown out at the risk of harming their daughters and that they were to resort to this without blaming God for what was going on. The Imam bowed out gracefully, since his prayers all these months had proven ineffective. They did not worry about the headman who they knew considered himself a little too advanced to believe in shamans and bomohs. So, he could be expected to close an eye to their plans and not attend the exorcism exercise out of political correctness.
The exorcism was to be an expensive affair, for even a bomoh needed to make a living. And he had to exorcise the evil entity not only from the victims but from the whole village as well, which meant a visit to each house and building and there must have been fifty buildings at least. Every household contributed; at least RM200 each. Life was disrupted for two days over the weekend. The bomoh arrived from across the state border with his paraphernalia of keris (dagger), frankincense, pots, roots, oils and herbs. The village women sourced flowers and limes to make large pots of infusions.
Tok Baharuddin tactfully took a two-day business trip out of state, leaving his wife to attend to all the rituals.
The main ceremony began at the village hall where the bomoh lit a small bonfire in a pot, fuelled with the herbal leaves and roots. He held a silver keris hanging on a chain over the flames and declared that the swing of the keris indicated the presence of an evil spirit lurking in the village. Someone had sent this entity from the nether world and it was unlikely to leave until it had claimed its prey of seven virgins to satiate its lust if the exorcism was not performed. The bomoh threw incense into the flames and a great cloud of smoke enveloped him and most of the room. While the smoke billowed and the attendees choked on the pungent odour of the incense, he muttered incantations and occasionally gave an almighty shout, commanding the evil spirit to leave the village.
The exorcism in the hall lasted an hour, ending with the medicine man sprinkling water infused with flowers and cut lime and into which he had blown and spat vehemently. No corner of the hall was spared. A similar but shorter, smoky ceremony was enacted at every house after which the occupants were instructed to bathe in the flower and lime infusion which they had prepared and into which the Bomoh had blown spells. Unmarried girls and women were given amulets to wear around their necks to ward off all harm. The following day all the public buildings were exorcised – the school, clinic, the police station, and as an extra precaution, the little mosque too. The villagers gathered at every building, the older ones, nostalgic for the practices of their forefathers and fearful of missing out on something, the younger ones fascinated by these old rituals they never knew existed in their culture. It was quite a spectacular performance at each stop. When it was all over, the bomoh was gratefully sent off with his tools and stash of cash. The villagers finally breathed in relief.
The exorcism gave the village two weeks of peace. Then the bold, daring, greasy phenomenon struck again in the dark, to attack Muna, the twenty-year old only daughter of the widower Pak Som. Fortunately, Pak Som had not let his guard down. He boarded the windows and doors and kept a long pounding stick next to his mat. He gave a knife to Muna to keep beside her. They regularly burnt incense in the house to ward off evil. But that night Muna felt a slimy hand smelling of car engine oil trying to smother her. She could not scream but her hand clutching the knife obeyed her father instructions. She swung the knife hard against the thing’s back and it yelped. Her scream had her father out, swinging the pounding stick but he hit only air. The thing was gone. He rushed out and could not spot anything. The moon was shining full and looking up he saw, silhouetted against the silver orb, a black dog flying.
“Allahu Akbar,” he muttered repeatedly. The neighbours were alerted and they came with their lanterns. They could only see the gap on the floor of the raised house where the Orang Minyak had removed a plank, and traces of blood on the knife, nothing else.
It was mid-day by the time Tok Baharuddin rushed over. He had been delayed arriving home from one of his late-night meetings in the town. A crash between his car and a buffalo had landed him in hospital to tend to his minor wounds while a mechanic tended to the car’s wounds and made in drivable. The villagers were too distraught to bother with his misfortunes. They were on a warpath. “The bomoh has been useless — not powerful enough. This evil had to be fought with evil. Someone has set a curse on the village and that person has to be found and destroyed by a stronger evil entity!”. Muna’s father was distraught. Black magic had the propensity to attract all the jinns and dark forces to the place where it was practiced and to the people who practiced it. Already he felt its tentacles tightening around his chest. He was quite sure his death was imminent. He had seen the ominous sign – the flying black dog.
The headman complied with their request. There was no other way to appease them except to let them fight fire with fire. He also had to show concern for his daughter just returned from the University in the city. Her polish and elegance might make her the next target. His wife was super vigilant, barricading the doors and windows, covering the wooden floors with linoleum and nailing planks against the eves so there was no entry to the rafters. What more could one do?
Tok Baharuddind’s daughter, Hasinah, while respecting the fears of the villagers was thoroughly bemused in private. She was quite sure it was a case of mass hysteria, the kind that occurred with village girls confined in boarding schools; only here they were confined to their village. To appease her mother, she agreed to keep a big stick next to her. As a precaution, despite her doubts, she took her camping flick knife to bed too
“I’ll be back at midnight. Be careful to lock up properly,” Baharuddin announced to his wife and children as he left for yet another business/political meeting.
His daughter played with the flick knife while waiting to sleep. She imagined the many ways in which she would attack an intruder and surprised herself with her imagination.
It was at midnight, when she drifted between sleep and wakefulness that Hasinah felt a hand slide up her thigh and another smother her. As she struggled against the naked being mounting her, she flicked the switch knife clutched in her outstretched hand and transferred all her strength into plunging him deep in the neck.
It was definitely blood, not oil, that spurted out of the Oily Man, warm and musty, mingling with the suffocating smell of grease and oil. He sprang up and ran to the front door, stumbling. She chased him and grabbed his arm but he slid from her grasp as the grease was intended to allow. She followed him out, shouting for the sleepers to awake. She looked around and saw a black dog flying, silhouetted against the moon.
The neighbouring men brought out torches and hurricane lamps and followed the clear trace of blood but could not track it beyond the front door. Still they persisted, fanning out their search. No one could bleed so much and go far, and spirits don’t bleed. Half an hour later they found the village headman, naked, oil covered and masked, bleeding to death in a ditch. Next to him, a dead black dog.
A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia and a writer of short stories and poems She has been published in anthologies and literary journals online.
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