(a new Indonesian folk tale)

The megaliths of Muak in Sumatra might disappoint a visitor expecting to see something like a Stonehenge or Sphinx, for although some of the great rocks scattered about the village are engraved with iconic animals and mysterious pictographs that somehow survived the sun and rains of the tropics, most resemble nothing much more than the big boulders that dared a long-forgotten Sumatran tribe to worship them. Unless the traveler were an archaeologist, therefore, she might find more amazing the magic of Muak’s sweet woods of cinnamon where dozens of women daily peel and dry the bark of trees to produce the spice that enchanted the world even before the Sphinx was imagined. The visitor will be forgiven for seeing in these trees a miracle, a gift of God, whereas the villagers see only the nature of every day’s occupation.

Some years ago, two such cinnamon collectors, Siti and Minah took pause from their endeavors and sat on the horizontal megalith known from its shape as the breadstone. But they took no break from the conversation that had obsessed them since at dawn Siti cried that her childless marriage was over.

“It’s not Ahmad. Not really,” said Siti. “It’s the pressure on him from his parents. There must be children; otherwise a marriage isn’t a marriage. And I’m not a woman; I’m a rock no more alive than this!” She pounded the breadstone with her fists.

“Siti, no. You’ll hurt yourself,” said Minah, grabbing her friend’s hands.

“I cannot hurt any more than I already do, Minah. Oh, God, look at that!”

A goat munched grass near the collected curls of cinnamon. Its two kids stretched on their back legs to reach their dam’s teats.

“What’s more natural in this world? What’s more normal? A mother and her babies! Oh, God, where are my babies? What’s wrong with me?”

“Nothing,” said Minah. “Your own mother-in-law’s midwife told you that. But then she was never asked to examine Ahmad, was she?”

“No. Of course not.”

“So don’t blame yourself. Blame Ahmad.”

The family of goats grazed closer. “Oh, so adorable. These little kids. So cute. So lovable.” She turned to her friend. “It’s not about Ahmad, Minah. It’s not about blame. But…if Ahmad does leave me, I’ll be left alone. All alone. No one to love me. No one to love.”

She leaned to pick up one of the kids, but the dam snorted her away. “I’m telling you, Minah, if God would only give me a baby—even a goat baby—I would be so happy!”

“Siti, don’t say such a ridiculous thing. Not here. What if, God forbid, it came true and you gave birth to an animal?”

“I don’t care, Minah; as long as it came from my womb, I’d be fulfilled! I’d have something to love.”

“Siti, shush.” Minah rose and pulled Siti to her feet as well. “This rock, these rocks here, are from the ancient times and ancient gods. You know the story.” She pointed at a tall spindly stone. “That was once Sampuraga whose mother Hijra turned him into a rock because she couldn’t bear to see him leave her.”

Siti turned to her friend and took her face in her hands. “Minah, I want to feel a love that strong. I pray for it.”

Minah put her hand atop her friend’s. “I understand, Siti. I love my children more than I love myself.”

“No matter what?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Because they came from your womb. No matter what. And they love you…”

“No matter what.” Minah shook her head and laughed as she gathered up the cinnamon. “I never could win an argument with you. But be careful what you wish for. These rocks have ears.”

“I hope they do.”

At nightfall, Siti had finished preparing dinner when her husband arrived home. “You are late, Ahmad.”

“I dropped off some of the crops from today’s harvest with my parents, and my mother went on and on about…the usual.”

“Our childlessness.”

“Well, she refers to it as your barrenness.”

“And there was talk of your remarrying—”

“My young cousin Bedah, yes.” Ahmad flopped onto the mat that covered the cabin floor. “Siti, I would never abandon you…but we have been married ten years…and it’s not only my parents who—My friends call me mule and not because I’m strong; they hint that we never…”

“Make love? But we do…” And they did. There on the mat.

Siti dreamed that night of Hijra prostrate and crying before the Sampuraga monolith. When she realized she was being watched, Hijra stopped crying and held before her a baby goat. Siti reached out her arms to accept the offering—then she awoke.

But it wasn’t the dream she recalled when she turned to gaze upon her sleeping husband. It was their passion and the feeling Siti bore that this time they would be blessed.

Siti kept her suspicions to herself, but one morning in the forest as she and Minah were peeling bark from adjacent cinnamon trees near the batu roti, she turned away and muffled her retching mouth in the folds of her sarong. “Get the dust up your nose?” inquired Minah.

“Must have,” said Siti as she wiped her chin.

“Or?” Minah smiled broadly.

“Or what?”

“Or are you pregnant?”

“No. I don’t know. Maybe. I hope so. I think—”

“Well, have you had your period?”

“Not in two months.”

“Well, maybe your wish has come true—but,” Minah laughed, “not the goat wish, I hope! A real little baby finally for my best friend.” The women hugged each other and cried and giggled indistinguishably.

As the weeks went by, it became more than obvious that Siti was in fact going to have a baby. At the lima bulanan party held by Ahmad’s parents to celebrate the fifth month of the pregnancy, it seemed as if the whole population of Muak was in attendance as Ahmad’s mother, Ibu Nur, served her daughter-in-law the traditional sweet-and-sour pomegranate salad. “Eat up, dearest Siti,” she said. “This will make my grandchild strong.”

“Ah,” Ahmad laughed, “Siti will follow the ritual, but I don’t think it’s really necessary for her to have that much pomegranate. This baby is already so strong. Trust me: I’ve felt him kick like a football player. That’s how we know he’s a boy!”

“Yes, a sure sign,” affirmed Ahmad’s mother, “but pomegranate strengthens the mother as well. And from what you say, Siti will need her strength to bear this child.”

“Mother,” said Siti, “bring on another helping of fruit salad. After waiting ten years for my womb to be blessed, I’ll do anything for this baby.”

Ahmad nodded. He was a proud expectant father. More than once that day, friends of his had cracked, “I guess you are more stallion than mule, ‘Mad!”

Very early next morning, Siti was startled to wakefulness by pains in her lower back. No matter how she adjusted herself in bed, the discomfort continued. When the pain worsened and spread to her abdomen, Siti shook Ahmad and said he had to run for the midwife.

Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Ahmad asked, “Why? What’s wrong? You can’t be having the baby already?”

“No, I shouldn’t be.” She struggled to find the breath to enunciate each word. “But I’m in agony. I’m scared something is wrong. Go. Go now for Mak Tuo.”

Ahmad tied no more than the sarong in which he slept around himself and ran for help. Siti sat up and felt a lightening in her rib cage that allowed her to breathe easily and deeply. She felt relieved and suddenly embarrassed that Mak Tuo would find her well.

When Ahmad returned rushing into the house with the midwife, he was surprised to see his wife looking so calm, but Mak Tuo wasn’t disconcerted. She told Ahmad to wait outside the house, and she removed Siti’s sarong and felt her chest and abdomen and looked for dilation. “Stay relaxed, dear, but know that you are beginning labor.”

“No, not now,” screamed Siti, and her cry brought Ahmad through the door once more.

“Out,” Mak Tuo directed Ahmad. “You are about to have a child, and if you want it to survive, you will leave the matter to the women.” Ahmad again retreated to wait under the banyan tree in front of the nearby mosque. He sat on one of the many small, undistinguished megaliths scattered around Muak and as the hours of the morning collected into mid-day, rings of attendant townsfolk encircled him. He hoped that he would soon have the chance to whisper into the ear of his son his first prayer of thankfulness.

Meanwhile, Siti pushed according to Mak Tuo’s chants and encouragements. “Help your child, dear; give it life!” As the baby’s head slipped into the world, Mak Tuo staggered backwards and threw up her hands to heaven. “Astagfirullah! God almighty!” She had thought, and had often said, that in her many years of service, she had seen every possible kind of birth. But never before anything like this. Nonetheless, she stepped forward to collect the baby as it flumed from the womb; quickly she attended to the tube and afterbirth as normal, but she decided not to swaddle the baby, but to set it naked on the floor.

Siti caught her breath. When she neither saw Mak Tuo carrying the child nor heard her baby crying, Siti plaintively asked, “Is it…?”

“It is alive; it is well; it is male, but…”

“But what?” Siti sat up and faced Mak Tuo.

“But it is not human.” Mak Tuo pointed to the corner where a miniature goat, wet and terrified, struggled to stand in the corner.

Siti unleashed a piercing Noooooooo with a sound even more inhuman than the gentle, hesitant bleating below her. But her mind contradicted the word she uttered. Yes, she thought, yes, my wish came true. God forgive me.

Siti’s scream brought Ahmad back into the house and a crowd to its threshold. Ahmad embraced his hysterical wife.

“No? No? Is my son dead then? Is he dead?”

“He is not dead,” Mak Tuo said. “But he is not normal. Prepare yourself.” Ahmad turned to her who cradled now the baby goat that had just been born.

“This is your son,” Mak Tuo said quietly.

There were immediate echoes of Mak Tuo’s words among the audience outside the door. Ahmad’s face, sweat covered now, had lost all its color. With a frightening firmness, he stared at Mak Tuo. “This. Can. Not. Be. My. Child.” He looked at the mass of staring eyes outside his door. “This. Is. Not. My. Child.” He turned to Siti. “Is this your child? Did you bear this animal?” Siti, her own face drenched with exhaustion and despair, nodded. “Then you consort with demons, you…you…witch! This is a child of the devil!”

Ahmad struck Siti with the palm of each of his hands and then forced his way through the mass of people in front of his house, all the while yelling over and over, “This is not my child!” until he disappeared from view.

Meanwhile, Minah who, like everyone else, had heard what was said to have transpired in the home of Ahmad and Siti, wended her way toward her friend’s house. Once inside, she shut the door firmly on the gathering crowd. She looked at the cowering little goat and then at her friend who was begging Mak Tuo to take the animal away. “Give it to some goatherd.”

Minah approached her friend and sat next to her on the bed. “Siti, your wish has come true.”


“Don’t you recall saying, ‘If God would only give me a baby—even a goat baby—I would be so happy!’ The rocks were listening. God blessed you.”

“No! God hasn’t blessed me. He has damned me. He has punished me for my insolence. What shall I do? What shall I do?”

“You will understand that God has bothered to intervene in your life. He has answered your prayer. Exactly as you wished. You will take care of this baby.”

“Listen to your friend, Siti,” said Mak Tuo. “And look at this baby. It’s so cute, so beautiful, but it will wither and die without someone to nurse it and love it. It came from your womb. Of that I can swear. You must love it for it truly is your child.”

“Bring it to me, then.” And Mak Tuo brought the kid to Siti’s bosom.

Over the next few weeks, Siti cared for the goat, and admitted to Minah, her constant companion and supporter, that she was coming to feel something like love for this baby, as much love as one can have for an animal. She had named the goat Sakti, and she was, indeed, almost happy, except that she dare not enter the town where jeers and insults and worse were hurled at her in a cruel campaign orchestrated by Ahmad’s mother who swore that no grandson of hers could possibly be a goat. Minah was Siti’s lifeline to the outside world and one day, as the festival of sacrifice approached, she warned Siti to take her son and leave the area altogether. “Ahmad’s mother has convinced the elders that your son can only be the devil’s own child, just as Ahmad had said. They plan to make Sakti the first animal to be slaughtered on the Eid.”

“But where shall we go? And will they let me go?”

“Siti, on the other side of the cinnamon forest, in a village far even from where we used to work, my mother’s aunt Hamidah has a cabin. She is aged now and can use the company and some help—especially with her granddaughter Mariyam, just a baby herself, whom my cousin left behind when she went off with her boyfriend to the city. So beautiful, my cousin! And always so selfish!

So you will be welcome there. You can care for Sakti without anyone, even my aunt, knowing your story. In any event, my aunt is in no position to gossip.”

“Minah, you are the best of friends. But how can we safely make our escape.”

“Tonight, in the dark. I will guide you.” And so she did.

And so Siti became wet nurse and mother to two children, and she came to adore them both. Sakti stood on his own legs far sooner than Mariyam of course, but Siti would never let the goat roam too far, for fear that tigers or pythons or, worse, Ahmad’s relatives might find him. A member of the family, he slept in the cabin on the floor next to the mattress on which his mother and Mariyam slept, his head always between them, nestled in the crook of Siti’s arm.

The two children were as inseparable during the day as they were at night and became each other’s best friend. When it was time, against Hamidah’s better judgment, to send Mariyam off to school, the goat followed and grazed just outside the simple schoolhouse. Unused to other youngsters, Mariyam was taciturn and insular during lessons and was the favorite of neither her teachers nor her classmates. She smiled only when she gazed out the window and saw her friend Sakti curled beneath the mango tree waiting for classes to end.

When some of the older boys tied bracelets of tin cans to the snoozing Sakti’s legs at recess and laughed uproariously when the animal awoke and stumbled helplessly and noisily in circles, Mariyam screamed and threw stones to clear away the boys from her friend. She freed Sakti of his shackles and walked him home even as her teacher yelled for Mariyam to return immediately to school.

It was weeks before Mariyam agreed to return and then only after negotiations among the teacher, the head of school, Siti, and even old Hamidah required Sakti, for his own protection, to come no closer to the school than fifty meters. The marker, said the principal, would be the half-buried old megalith, “the one that looks something like a skull there near the little river.” Mariyam could barely see Sakti then from the classroom window as he grazed and waited round the stone, rain or shine, for the end of every school day.

But at graduation, when Mariyam finished third in her class, well ahead of every boy who had ever teased Sakti or called her “goatgirl,” Siti and Hamidah and Sakti, wearing a red-and-white neckerchief, proudly sat in the front row of the audience. Mariyam had never smiled so much in school as she did on her last day there.

Siti was Hamidah’s greatest comfort in the last years of her life, and when the old woman passed on, the cabin in the cinnamon forest became Siti’s own home from which she continued to harvest cinnamon at a time when the sweet spice was an increasingly valuable commodity. Siti was able to purchase more and more of the forest that surrounded and protected her, her adopted daughter Mariyam, and her Sakti.

Siti and her children had been together fourteen years when Minah made the latest of her annual visits to the cabin. She found her friend anxious.

“Why the wrinkled forehead and open mouth, Siti? I haven’t seen you in such a state since the old days. It’s not just our age. Something is bothering you. What?”

“Minah, do you know how long goats live?”

“Not usually as long as Sakti, I know, Minah. But you and I know that he is not an ordinary goat.”

“No, he is my own child and, God knows, I love him as much as I can imagine any mother loving a son. But he is a goat, and he is not well. He has lost his appetite, and when in the morning he tries to follow Mariyam and me into the cinnamon forest, he—” Siti’s words were hidden in her sobs. “He hasn’t the energy. He sits and waits for us to return with the bark at sunset.

He is dying, Minah, and I don’t know how I will live without him. I don’t know how Mariyam will live without him.”

“Oh, my old friend. You must think of these years during which God blessed you with your Sakti—”

“And with Mariyam.”

“And with Mariyam, yes. You have been doubly loved when once you were empty and feared being so forever. Thank God for the miracle God gave you.”

“I do. I do. But, oh, Minah, it hurts.”

“Where is he now?”

“With Mariyam of course, who is too smart not to understand what is happening to her friend.”

“She doesn’t know—”

“No, not that. But she knows what she feels. They are down near the river, by the stone where Sakti had to stay for so many school days. It’s a special place for them. But now it only reminds me of Sampuraga. Am I like Hijra? When Sakti is gone will I only have a rock to keep him close to me? Oh, God “

“Cry, old friend. Cry. I won’t tell you to do otherwise. But let us go see your children. I come every year to see them as well as you.”

Tears were indeed in order, for when they reached the rock by the river, they saw Mariyam hunched over Sakti who, on his side, whimpered loudly. “He is in pain, mother. What can we do?”

Siti sat on the ground and held her son’s head in her hands. Nose to nose, she looked into Sakti’s eyes. “Just love him.”

“I do, mother, I do.” Mariyam held her friend as closely as she could. She kissed his back. “I do love him.”

A terrible spasm forced the women to let go of the goat who writhed and screamed and stretched its legs straight out and then again in on themselves until Sakti’s body was as tight as a ball that shot upwards some two meters like some great firecracker and landed on its two feet. Its two human feet. For when the eyes and minds of the three women cleared they saw before them a beautiful boy of fourteen, naked and, it must be said, startled himself. While his hands discovered his own shape, his lips trembled as he silently formed the word Ma and again Ma. He looked at Siti with awe. And she ran to her son and held him before she collapsed at his feet.

It was some time before Sakti learned to speak and move as a human with ease. But from the first, he understood what had happened for he had always had the mind and soul of a boy although he had been given, for reasons that Siti and Minah had to explain to him and to Mariyam, the body of a goat for just as long as a goat shall live.

But the rest of his days were as a man’s should be—wed to his loving Mariyam on their house in the cinnamon forest, blessed with seven wonderful girls and boys of their own (one of whom sported a goatee when he was old enough), and loyal ever to the mother who loved him no matter what.


# # #

The Cinnamon Forest by Ferdinand Siregar and James Penha
originally published in the Winter 2011 print edition



James Penha, a native New Yorker, has lived in Indonesia for two decades; his adaptations of classic folk tales from the archipelago have appeared in Big Pulp, Columbia, THEMA, and in his book Snakes and Angels (Cervena Barva Press, 2010). Many of those tales were first told to Penha by Ferdinand Siregar, a Sumatra native, whose original idea for “The Cinnamon Forest” prompted the friends to collaborate on this brand-new take on an ancient tradition.

For more of James' work,
visit his Big Pulp author page


This feature and more great
fiction & poetry are available in
Big Pulp Winter 2011:
Interrogate My Heart Instead

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