What she felt was only the first stirrings of pain. It rose from within, spreading up to her navel and over the curve of her tight belly. She discovered that if she breathed slowly and held her breath for a second or two, the pain would stop. But Queen Kesuma Indah wasn’t one who was accustomed to discomfort of any kind. She threw her head back and released bloodcurdling screams that reverberated throughout the palace.
Her devoted husband the King was out hunting on the palace grounds. The screams of his consort soon reached him and instead of propelling him towards her, his legs buckled under him. The arrow poised in his bowstring dislodged itself, quivered through the air and pierced the shoulder of his parasol bearer. Shaken, His Majesty had to be lifted all the way to the Queen’s bedchamber.
The King had never been so fraught with anxiety. He had waited ten years for an heir.
The royal midwife and two of the most renowned doctors in the land were summoned to the Queen’s bedside. At the King’s behest, they were ordered to attend to her smallest needs whilst she screeched and swore at them like a woman possessed. Defying traditional custom in which important members of the court had to be present at the royal birth, the Queen banished the King and everyone else (apart from her closest servants) from her bedchamber.
The sun rose and fell and rose again before the baby’s head finally crowned.
The royal midwife received the royal baby, wrapped it in yellow silk and held it up for the Queen to see, “A healthy and beautiful baby boy, Your Majesty. Would you like to hold him?”
Queen Kesuma took one glance at her newborn and her face broke into a grimace, “You want me to hold it? There is still blood and filth on that thing. Take it away and clean it up. I almost died, you ingrate. I need my rest now.”
After a day of sleep and half a day of cleansing and pampering rituals, the Queen finally asked to see the royal baby.
“Surely, there has to be a mistake! It’s too ugly to be mine. You call those eyes? They are slits on top of a bulbous nose. And its skin looks so murky.” The Queen lamented, grabbing her gilded hand mirror and holding it up to her face. She ran her fingers along her smooth cheek, admiring the porcelain whiteness of her skin.
The baby shattered the bedchamber with his hearty cries, partly because he was born with strong lungs and partly because he sensed he was not wanted. “Forgive me, Your Majesty but I think your baby wants to be held by you.” The royal nursemaid mustered the courage to say.
“How dare you tell me what to do!” The Queen flung her mirror at the poor woman, missing the baby’s face by inches. “Now get out of here and fetch me Tun Darim.”
Tun Darim was the Grand Vizier, the man responsible for giving the King advice on the most important of matters about the country. Yet, the King also held him responsible for fulfilling Queen Kesuma’s endless ‘official’ needs. There were rumours that the King had been under a spell. He would do anything for his Queen because despite her vain and foolish ways, she was by far the most beautiful woman in the great Malay kingdom of Sari Canang and many other kingdoms beyond.
Tun Darim entered the room, bowed and raised two palms pressed together at The Queen. “Felicitations, Your Majesty. I’m here at your service and also to inform you that preparations for the celebrations have begun. His Majesty awaits you and the Prince.”
“Let him wait, the old fool. I have just gone through the depths of hell and back to give birth to his spawn. Come hither. I have a mission for you.” The Queen beckoned Tun Darim and whispered in his ear things that made Tun Darim’s jaw grow slack and his eyebrows point to the seven heavens.
After long minutes, Tun Darim found his voice and the courage to speak, “Your Majesty, I don’t think I can. It will be too risky…”
Before Tun Darim could finish, the Queen said, “Yes, it will be. But you will do it, nonetheless. If you value your position and your family, you will get this task accomplished before the sun sits squarely in the sky tomorrow.”
Tun Darim wasted no time gathering his warriors. They rode on horseback to every corner of the Kingdom with the newborn Prince and his nursemaid. They were forced to move with the speed of a sloth with such a precious cargo on board. Still fear and grit took them to the most remote of kampungs only to discover that apart from the Prince, there were no other baby boys born that week.
One thing that did happen was that every single person who saw the Prince fell in love with the delightful newborn. He not so much as squeaked the whole time and always slept with a contented smile on his face. Finally, as the silver moon perched amongst the clouds, they stopped to rest at the fringe of the jungle.
When the first glow of dawn cut through the slate skies, a baby’s cries roused the party. Everyone turned to the Prince. To their surprise, his eyes were still shut tight. Only his lips were curled gently at the corners. He’s smiling to the angels, his nursemaid repeated for the hundredth time.
“There must be another baby in the jungle. Find it and approach it with caution,” Tun Darim instructed his men. At a clearing not far from where they camped, they saw something lying on a bed of palm fronds placed on a stump of wood.
It was a newly born child. Uncannily, he fit the Queen’s descriptions of the ideal baby boy, down to the little mole on his chin. The baby had a complexion whiter than the Queen’s nightly beauty mask. His eyes were black marbles that glinted in the soft light of the jungle. Most importantly, he had a strong straight nose. The Queen believed this to be the mark of a person destined for lofty heights.
When he saw that apart from his entourage, there was no else around, Tun Darim lifted the baby. He inspected its face, torso, limbs, fingers and toes. It was a perfect real life human child. Swiftly, with the help of the nursemaid, Tun Darim made the switch. He swaddled the jungle baby with the royal blankets and left the Prince on the stump, in the coarse wrappings they found the other baby in. Every single person who witnessed this cried, even if some had to do so silently, when they bid the Prince farewell.
Not ten minutes after they rode away, a woman bent double with old age, came out of the trees. “God Almighty. I left this sickly child pale as a ghost and came back to find him healthy and swarthy as a horse. This jungle is more enchanted than I thought.” She said to herself.
She took the newborn home to her husband and told him, “The dying girl begged us to take good care of her baby. Let’s not leave him in the jungle for someone else to find. We will somehow find the means and energy to raise him. The fact that the child is improving so rapidly is a good sign.”
The old man never questioned anything his wife said. That was how the old couple, who were both healers, came to raise the Prince as their own in their modest wooden house by the green waters of a great lake. They named him Jaguh, which meant champion in the Malay language.
The old lady schooled the Prince with all the knowledge she possessed. She taught him the Science of using herbs and plants in the jungle to nourish the body and heal the ailments of the villagers. Her husband taught him to swim like a fish, hunt like a predator and passed on to him the mysticism of communicating with animals. They cherished him and Jaguh always felt like the most important member of the family. He grew up to be strong, handsome, knowledgeable and not only well loved by his adopted parents but also all who knew him.
When the baby stolen from the jungle was presented to the Queen, she clapped her hands in glee. It delighted her no end to see such a fair-skinned and beautiful baby boy. The Queen clasped the baby to her bosom constantly but yet, the baby was always fussy and could not be settled. It soon became apparent that he was fragile and beset with all sorts of maladies. The King, who was none the wiser about the switch, summoned the best doctors from known and unknown lands to cure his precious Prince.
He was given the name His Royal Highness Prince Raden Shah and he grew up in the folds of the Queen’s silken sarongs, away from sunlight and any physical exertion as advised by many doctors. The Queen simply adored him because they shared a love for jewelry, the finest silks and other extravagant things of beauty. Not many could fathom the Queen’s affections for Prince Raden, however. Prince Raden was very self-centred and indulgent. He often overrode the King’s decisions about important matters concerning religion, politics and finances in the Kingdom despite possessing scant knowledge in those areas. After all, he had his mother as his greatest ally. A fortnight before Prince Raden’s 18th birthday, he was struck by a mysterious illness. He found sunlight too harsh for his eyes. Exposure to it could send the world around him spinning senselessly in his head. When the sun warmth the smallest spot on his skin, the affected patch would turn red and blister. The royal physicians were baffled. The best they could come up with was to instruct him to spend his days in his completely darkened bedchamber until a cure could be found.
Upon discovering this, his sycophants scrambled to the Palace to keep him company. They competed with one another to present him with healing gifts and to offer magical stories of hope. One of them had the greatest story of all. He had heard about a little village not far away, that flourished by a green lake with healing waters and plants that cured all kinds of sicknesses.
What intrigued him most, he said with eyes that sparkled in the dim light of the room, “Your Highness, most of the villagers live to a ripe old age of a hundred and over. Yet, physically, they don’t appear to look a day over 50.”
The Prince’s eyes widened. He stood up and immediately began pummeling the bearer of this news with questions, “Where is this village? How do I get there? Why hasn’t anyone told me about this before? How do you know about it? Why did you wait so long to tell me?”
He couldn’t stop thinking about this mythical village nestled by the lake with curative waters. Even in his weakened state, he assembled a group of warriors amongst the most merciless men in the Kingdom, to seek out this village. “Do what you must to get the villagers out of there. I want the land cleared in a week and the building of my palace to begin, right next to the lake.”
For weeks, the warriors set to work making preparations for their journey and marshaled all their wit and resources to find the location of this village. It turned out that the village was not very far at all, only it was hidden by a wall of dense jungle. When they were completely certain of its whereabouts, they charged forward like a horde of barbarians on their mighty horses.
But the jungle that surrounded the village was truly enchanted. It knew of the Prince’s intentions and conspired against the warriors. The trees marched forward and crowded menacingly to block their path. Roots on the jungle floor grew thick and long to ensnare the legs of the horses. Branches sprang to life to snag on the warriors’ clothes and whip their faces and bodies. The pores on every leaf emitted thick green fumes to fog up the atmosphere. The warriors found themselves in a jungle that was alive and hungry for their blood.
Yet, they soldiered on, driven by a lust and greed for the riches and gold Prince Raden promised them upon their return.
Bleeding and wounded they rode on until the thatched roofs on the village houses appeared in the horizon. When they finally reached the village, they found the villagers waiting for them with Jaguh, a brawny young man far taller and built much larger than the others, as their leader.
Jaguh’s parents had foreseen this impending doom weeks before the warriors started on their journey. The villagers were as prepared as they could be but Prince Raden’s warriors had the mightiest horses and swords and weaponry that far surpassed the villagers’ in strength and sophistication.
Prince Raden’s warriors wasted no time at all in negotiations. They simply charged forward and began slaying anything that moved in their path. Before long, many young men including Jaguh’s closest friends fell victim to the savagery of those warriors.
As Jaguh’s best friends lay dying, Jaguh fell on his knees and in a raspy voice recited an ancient chant over and over again, despite his parents’ protestations.
“Oh mighty dweller of the lake and protector of this verdant land, rise from your exile of a thousand years. Serve justice to the destroyers of what is rightfully ours. Rise and protect. Rise and protect.”
A strong wind blew over the lake and whipped the still green waters into a million ripples. The ripples swelled into waves that kept growing larger and swept further on to the shores. Before long, those still alive, fighting or dying began to notice the emergence of a white hump from the middle of the lake.
The hump kept growing and pushing past the waves and turmoil of the water. It wasn’t long before the rest of the hump came into view.
It had turned into a creature not unlike a crocodile the colour of chalk and the size of an island. It fixed its red eyes, which bore right into your soul, on the chaos in the village. Then it leaped in anger into the air. When it landed again, its tail had lashed the waters into a majestic wave. This wave rode over the shores for a great many miles inland before finally crashing and wiping out the entire Kingdom.
Only the strongest swimmers like Jaguh were able to swim safely to a higher ground. He only managed to save his parents. Most people, especially the weak like Prince Raden and the Queen, were drowned by this tidal wave.
Jaguh truly regretted summoning the dweller of the lake. He never intended for such a catastrophe to happen. With his parents and a handful of survivors, they made their way to a land far away from the Kingdom of Sari Canang.
The water never receded and the entire Kingdom lay buried under the lake. Centuries later, visitors to this place will find a beautiful lake that stretches out like the sea. On the Eastern side, on a clear day, they might see the tops of a submerged palace in the waters. If they took a boat out to the middle of the lake, they will find an island made entirely of white chalk. It is shaped like a monstrous crocodilian. In the snout of this monster are elongated protrusions, which look uncannily like the limbs of its struggling victims.
Maizura is an English teacher by training but she decided to devote all her time to her two children and to Facebook … she means to say, WRITING. So far, instead of actually writing, she spends all her time reading about writing, doing background research for her stories, gleaning information about her favourite authors and seeking inspiration for her writing on Facebook mostly…sigh.
Still, someday, she hopes to write the great Malaysian novel. Incidentally, Maizura is a foodie too.
The remixed line-art drawing “Chief’s House and Rice-shed in a Sumatran Village” (1869) is by E.W. Robinson and is in the public domain.
The remixed photo is of a Malay Village in the Straits Settlements, dated circa 1890, and by Lambert & Co., G.R.and is in the public domain.