“There it is.” Zubaedah reached for a shawl buried among the folded clothes in her wardrobe. When she unfolded it under the lamp of her room, she noticed the material was faded and stained in several places.
A letter she had received from her nephew in Bukittinggi yesterday afternoon weighed on her mind. Usually, her nephew’s letters only told her about the condition of the house in Bukittinggi that she had entrusted him with when she moved to live with her son, Syahrul, in Jakarta. However, yesterday’s letter also contained news about the death of Mande Siti Manggopoh, three weeks ago, on August 20, 1965. Innalillahiwainnailaihirajiun—we belong to Allah and to Him we shall return. The news had stunned Zubaedah.
For over fifty years, Zubaedah had neither heard nor spoken the name Mande Siti. Zubaedah’s last memory of Mande Siti was when she left in the middle of the night in 1908. However, Mande Siti had always remained in her heart and prayers.
Now, Zubaedah could no longer hold back her tears. She gazed at the white shawl she held; time had yellowed the material, but the border of simple white embroidery was still bright. Zubaedah took a seat on the edge of her bed. Draping the shawl around her shoulders, she started to remember the time when the shawl had become hers—or more accurately, when she had taken it. Mande Siti’s shawl: Zubaedah never had the opportunity to return it to its rightful owner.
“Mak, Mom.” A knock on the door snapped Zubaedah out of her musings.
Yuni, her daughter-in-law, stood smiling in the doorway. “I found the fiddlehead ferns in the market,” she said.
Before Yuni could say anything about her swollen eyes, Zubaedah quickly rose, wiping her tears with the shawl. “Hopefully you also bought the spices and the coconut, Yun.”
“Yes, I bought all we need: chili pepper, shallots, garlic, galangal, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, and bay leaves. I also had the coconut grated at the market.”
“I am so glad someone is selling paku in Jakarta.” Following Yuni to the kitchen, Zubaedah stopped to drape the shawl over the back of a dining room chair.
It always amused Yuni whenever her mother-in-law used a Minang word like paku for ferns; in Java, paku are nails. She thought of her mother, who lived in Surabaya. She would have undoubtedly joked, “Since you married your Sumatran husband, you have turned into a mystic! Now you can even eat nails!”
In the kitchen, Zubaedah immediately washed the ferns. She rinsed each frond thoroughly. As her fingers worked the curled fern tips and touched the small thorns, her memories went back more than fifty years, when, as a teenager, she washed ferns under a water spout near a shack in the forest. At that time, they simply boiled the ferns and ate them with rice or yams from the fields.
“Mak, how much galangal do we use?” Yuni handed Zubaedah some galangal and brought Zubaedah’s attention back from the past.
“Wait a moment. Let me strain this first.” Zubaedah placed the cleaned ferns in the colander. She picked up a knife and sliced the galangal. “A joint of each: galangal, ginger, and turmeric.”
“A joint of whose fingers, Mak?” Yuni smiled.
“The cook’s, Yuni,” Zubaedah replied.
“So, if the cook is tall and thin, the flavor will be different than if the cook is short and fat, because their joints are different.” Yuni was never good at following Zubaedah’s rough measurements.
Zubaedah laughed. “Ah, it’s just like you to say that, Yuni.” She explained, “A joint is just a rough measurement; use your heart and feelings for the rest, and I’m sure that whatever you cook will be delicious. Now, peel the shallots and garlic and slice the chili pepper.”
As Yuni followed Zubaedah’s instructions, she took the chance to ask, “Why were you crying in the bedroom?”
Zubaedah fell silent as she gazed at Yuni. She was truly grateful that her only son, Syahrul, had married Yuni. She was kind-hearted and thoughtful, not only toward her husband and children, but also toward her mother-in-law. After Zubaedah’s husband passed away and her health started declining, Syahrul had invited her to live with his family in Jakarta. Despite her reluctance to leave her husband’s home in Bukittinggi, Syahrul insisted, using the excuse that he would be more at ease knowing his mother was nearby.
“I was reminded of Mande Siti. You know, when I lived with Mande Siti in the woods near Manggopoh, we would always look for these ferns in the fields around the woods for our meals; these ferns were all that was available.”
“Why did you live in the woods, and who was this Mande Siti?” Yuni was surprised. She never knew that her mother-in-law had lived in the woods; her husband had never told her anything about it either.
Zubaedah then began her story. “Mande Siti was a distant cousin of my parents. Even though she was still young—back in 1908 she had yet to turn thirty—everyone called her Mande—Mother. Bagindo Rasyid was her husband; their daughter, Dalima, was still at the breast.
“Mande Siti was a clever and tough woman. She was skilled in bapasambahan, which is the art of conversing beautifully in pantoum, reciting from the Koran, and even performed martial arts. Back in those days, there were not many Minang women who were as brave and clever as she was.
“Bagindo Rasyid was a warrior, and Mande Siti was always by his side. One night in June of 1908, Mande Siti, Bagindo Rasyid, and others from Manggopoh attacked the Dutch fort. I remember the night clearly because it happened not long after my mother’s death. Many Dutch perished that night, but two people fled and reported the raid to Bukittinggi. I heard Mande Siti was injured during the attack. She, along with Bagindo Rasyid and his men, hid in the woods outside Manggopoh.” Zubaedah sighed as she gazed into the distance.
“This should be enough, right Mak?” Yuni showed the peeled shallots, garlic, and sliced chili pepper.
“Yes. Put it over there.” Zubaedah returned to her cooking. “I will grind the chili pepper and the spices. You can squeeze the liquid out of the grated coconut. Can you get me the batu lado, Yun?”
Yuni fetched the stone mortar and pestle Zubaedah had asked for and placed it on top of a short table within reach. Her mother-in-law had insisted on bringing her batu lado from the village when she moved in with Yuni and Syahrul in Jakarta. She said she wasn’t used to Yuni’s earthenware grindstone. Zubaedah said that spices crushed on a batu lado were tastier and more fragrant, and that’s why she would use no other than her own batu lado.
“And how did you come to live in the woods with Mande Siti?” Yuni returned to her mother-in-law’s story.
“After my parents passed away, I stayed with Mamak Maran, my mother’s brother. Mande Siti often visited his house to comfort me,” Zubaedah said. “At that time, around mid-1908, there was turmoil in Manggopoh. People were talking about the belasting that had recently been levied by the Dutch. Can you imagine, they had the nerve to levy taxes on lands that belonged to the villagers for generations. No wonder the villagers were in an uproar. That land did not belong to the Dutch. It belonged to the Minang people.” Zubaedah shook her head.
“Is this enough coconut milk, Mak?” Yuni showed Zubaedah the coconut milk she had extracted.
“Yes. The chili and spices are also ground up enough. Now, boil the coconut milk with the spices, lemongrass, and bay leaves,” Zubaedah instructed and added, “Don’t forget to stir while it is boiling so the coconut milk won’t curdle. Once the bubbles appear, just add these ferns.”
Yuni immediately took out a cooking pot from the kitchen cabinet and turned on the stove.
Meanwhile, Zubaedah continued her story. “Then, around mid-June of 1908, I heard from the villagers that there was an argument between the ninik mamak, the village elders, and the Dutch in Kamang. The villagers of Kamang raided the Dutch fortress and, of course, the Dutch were angry. I also heard that Bagindo Rasyid, who was very close to the ninik mamak and often exchanged ideas with them, had joined the raid. Sure enough, a few days later, Bagindo Rasyid returned to Manggopoh secretly. He never went out during daylight. He said he was trying to prevent the Dutch from coming after him.”
“Mak, the coconut milk is boiling. Can I add the ferns now?” Yuni interrupted while stirring the pot on the stove. The steam of the seasoned coconut milk filled the kitchen.
Zubaedah came closer. She looked into the pot and said, “Yes, it’s ready; let me get the ferns for you.” The aroma made her hungry.
After the ferns were added, Zubaedah warned Yuni, “Don’t stir too hard or you’ll mush the ferns. Once everything is cooked, turn off the stove, close the pot, and let it steep for a while so the spices settle, and it cools off a bit.”
Zubaedah prepared to set the table.
Not long after, Yuni came in with the fern curry, a plate of rice, jangek, beef cracklings, and two pieces of fried chicken.
“Let’s eat, Mak. The fern stew is ready,” Yuni said to Zubaedah.
“Are we not waiting for Syahrul?” Zubaedah asked.
“Uda Syahrul will have lunch at the office. He has another meeting today.” Yuni used the Minang term to refer to her husband, then added, “I’ve made fried chicken for the children, for when they come home from school. This is just for us, Mak.”
When Zubaedah sat at the table, Yuni immediately served her some rice. Zubaedah took a helping of fern curry with plenty of sauce. The blend of the perfectly measured spices—not too salty and not too spicy—and the addition of jangek cracklings that sizzled before shrinking when dipped into the sauce, made Zubaedah’s mouth water. For a moment, her craving for a bowl of fern curry was completely satisfied.
In Bukittinggi, fern curry is usually eaten for breakfast with ketupat, rice packed inside a diamond-shaped, woven palm-leaf pouch. It is served with various traditional crackers, such as jangek, cassava, or yam crackers, and accompanied by a glass of hot tea.
“This is delicious, isn’t it, Mak?” Smiling, Yuni took a big bite.
“Yes, Yun. It’s delicious. Thank you very much.”
“So what happened to Bagindo Rasyid after he ran away from Kamang, Mak?”
“After returning home to Manggopoh, Bagindo Rasyid—along with the ninik mamak—secretly rallied forces to fight again against the Dutch in Manggopoh. Mande Siti was either asked to join, or wanted to come along herself. That’s how she became involved in the attack on the Dutch fort.” Zubaedah carried on with her story.
“When did you go with Mande Siti to the woods?” Yuni asked.
Zubaedah looked at Mande Siti’s shawl that she had purposefully draped across the backrest of the chair next to her own. She briefly caressed the shawl and continued, “I still remember how surprised Mande Siti was when I first managed to find her at the shack.” For a moment, Zubaedah was lost in her memories before moving on with her story.
“Mande Siti was pacing back and forth in the shade of a cempedak tree, carrying Dalima in a sling. As soon as she saw me, she shouted, ‘Edah?! What are you doing here?’ She reached for my arm and continued repeatedly, ‘How did you get here?’ while Dalima whined.
“Mande looked exhausted, and her head shawl had been put on haphazardly. Dalima looked uncomfortable, too. She was crying, and her face was flushed.
“I tried to coax Dalima to stop crying. When she suddenly extended both of her arms to me, Mande Siti let her go.
“Mande then invited me inside the house and, after offering me a drink that was a true thirst quencher, I told her what had happened. Mamak, Uncle, Maran had introduced me to Burhan, his nephew, a distant relative of Tek Banun, his wife. If I agreed to marry Burhan, then the land that I inherited from my mother would safely remain in the family.
“‘It’s only been a month since your mother died,’ Mande said, ‘and Maran already has his mind on the land business? Even if the land is safely in the hands of the extended family, with the Dutch acting like relentless leeches, do you think you will be able to pay the belasting?’
“‘I don’t know, Mande,’ I told her. ‘I haven’t thought that far. What I’m fussing about is that Burhan man. I don’t want to get married yet, Mande. But I realize that I don’t have a choice. I owe Mamak Maran. After my mother died, he and his family were the ones who supported me.’
“‘Yes, you’ve come of age; you’re seventeen, aren’t you? You ought to be married by now,’ said Mande Siti.
“‘But I don’t want to, Mande. To avoid Burhan and Mamak Maran, I planned to go to Bukittinggi. But before I had a chance to leave, the Dutch burned our village, Mande. I didn’t know where to go. There were too many Dutch soldiers. According to rumors, all of the troops from Agam and Pariaman joined the attack on Manggopoh as well. So did those from Kamang.’
“‘How did you run away from Manggopoh, and how did you know I was here?’ Mande Siti interrupted.
“‘I was walking home from the field at that time. The story about you and Bagindo Rasyid at the Dutch fort that night had been the talk of the villagers since morning. The news spread from the village store, and everyone predicted that retaliation from the Dutch would be coming to Manggopoh. The villagers prepared themselves and carried their knives strapped to the hip.
“‘As I was nearing the village, I heard screaming and saw thick smoke rising. People were running in different directions. Shocked, I tried to run home. But it looked like the village was engulfed in fire. The Dutch had burned Manggopoh, Mande. I ended up joining the largest crowd.’
“Deep concern showed on Mande’s face as she listened to the story of the Dutch’s rage. ‘How did you get here?’ she asked.
“‘I ran to the outskirts of the woods. The crowd I was following began to scatter. They said that they wanted to confuse the Dutch, who were not familiar with this part of the woods.
“‘I had heard that you and Bagindo Rasyid had disappeared into the woods, although it wasn’t very clear where you’d gone. So I joined Mak Munah and two others. I knew that you were related to Mak Munah, so I figured she’d know where you were. After two days in the woods, we arrived here. Please let me stay with you for a while. I can help take care of Dalima.’
“‘Finding me was dangerous, Edah! But what’s done is done; you’re here now. There is no other option for you but to stay. But it’s not always safe here, either. We need to be on our toes—the Dutch can show up at any time. I’ve also heard that they’ve deployed troops from all the districts.'”
Zubaedah paused. Sighing, she stroked the white shawl on the backrest. She always thought she would see Mande Siti again and return it. It never crossed her mind that the shawl would ultimately replace Mande Siti’s presence in her life.
Zubaedah looked at Yuni and continued, “So, that was how I came to live in the shack with Mande Siti. There were several women around my age, and brawny, warrior-type men who also lived with us at that time. They said that they were people who supported the revolt of Mande Siti and Bagindo Rasyid.
“During the day, Bagindo Rasyid and a couple of men with short swords stood guard around the outskirts of the woods, while Mande Siti and I, along with several women, guarded the place where we stayed: a shack that had been abandoned by its previous occupants for some unknown reasons. For cooking, we collected firewood around the house; there was a wood stove inside. Since we hadn’t brought many supplies, we just looked for anything that was edible in the woods surrounding us.
“We were lucky to find a cempedak tree with ripening fruit near the house, and a little farther into the woods, there were plenty of ferns that we could cook. We made do with what we had since we weren’t able to find many ingredients or spices. We drank from a spring near the river not far from home.
“At night, we gathered inside the house. We kept our lights low to prevent attracting attention to our hideout. Bagindo Rasyid heard that when the Dutch burned Manggopoh and failed to find him and Siti, they deployed fully equipped troops and traced every location while closing in on the edge of the woods.
“Every day, I helped Mande Siti cook and take care of Dalima, who, at that time, had just begun learning to walk. Poor Dalima, at such a young age, she was forced to experience the difficulties of life.
During her time in the woods, Mande Siti still ardently recited and taught us the Koran. Once in a while, she taught us simple, basic silat moves for self-defense. Mande Siti had been known for her silat skills since she was a teenager.
“On the tenth day I spent in the woods with Mande, two of Bagindo’s men rushed to him in the middle of the night. They informed us that a group of Dutch soldiers had been sighted entering the woods.
“Bagindo Rasyid instantly ordered everyone in the house and those outside standing guard to pack up. I carried and soothed Dalima, who started crying when everyone bustled about, while Mande packed some essentials that she could bring with her. Bagindo Rasyid and the other men gathered in a circle outside the house and whispered amongst themselves.
“Mande Siti forbade me to come with her. She took Dalima from my arms and said, ‘You, Edah, follow the river downstream, then cross it and get out of here immediately. Don’t argue with me. Follow Mak Munah and the others.’
“That night, I watched as Mande joined Bagindo Rasyid and the others to leave the house. Bagindo Rasyid had Dalima in his arms, and Mande was by his side. Some men with torches followed them. That’s when I noticed that Mande Siti’s white shawl had been left in the house, and I took it.
“That was the last time I saw Mande Siti. I did as she had ordered me to. Soon after I left the woods, I headed to Bukittinggi and stayed with my father’s sibling. Shortly afterwards, I met Syahrul’s father. We married and lived together in Bukittinggi after that.”
Zubaedah took the white embroidered shawl off the chair and used a tip to wipe her tears.
“Have a drink, Mak.” Yuni pushed a glass of water toward her.
Zubaedah took a sip, then said, “Those ferns were our everyday meal.” Rising, she draped the shawl over her shoulders. “I am going to pray now,” she said. “Pray for Mande Siti.”