Malin Kundang: An Indonesian Folktale – Sarah Donaldson

In a beachside village on the Island of Sumatra, there once lived a widowed mother and her son, Malin. Scarcely able to feed and clothe themselves, they suffered those regular indignities of folks in fairy tales whose poverty-stricken lives portend great rewards in the end.

A filial son, Malin cared for his mother as best he could. Every day at the crack of dawn, he’d walk to the village center where he sought work from the wealthiest villagers. These villagers, who’d never seen the bottoms of their rice barrels, paid him little more than a pittance to harvest their sugar cane or clamber up their coconut trees.

Malin worked until his arms and legs were scarred, and his cheeks stained with tears, all while his employers yelled at him to hurry up.

“Don’t fall!” one of Malin’s employers once told him, as the bamboo ladder teetered under his feet. “I don’t want to pay someone to drag your rotting corpse out of my yard!”

On days he failed to procure any work, Malin offered part of his dinner to his mother, claiming his employers had fed him so well that he could hardly endure another spoonful of rice. At night, he chewed on billets of sugar cane to quiet his empty stomach.

“When I grow up,” Malin often told his mother, “I’ll save enough money to build you a grand house, bigger than any other on this island.”

“Oh, but how will I manage to keep it clean?” the mother teased him.

“You won’t have to do any housework. I’ll hire ten servants to do all the cooking, washing, and cleaning. And every night we’ll feast on beef curry and thousand layer cake.”

“You say this now, but what will happen when you marry and have children of your own? You won’t forget about your poor old mother, will you?”

“I’ll never forget you,” Malin said.

One day, a merchant ship arrived on the shore of their village. Malin, realizing this opportunity to build for himself a better life, asked for his mother’s permission to work as a deck hand on the ship.

“Never again will we beg for food scraps,” Malin promised her. “When I return, the beggars will come to our door and we will do some giving of our own!” They laughed at the absurdity of it.

Knowing she couldn’t deny her son anything, the mother gave him her blessing. And so the ship set sail, with Malin in it, for foreign lands.

At every port the ship disembarked, Malin mailed a letter to his mother, in which he enclosed a generous portion of his wages. In these letters he told her of the wonderful adventures he’d had since the last letter, and how he wished that she too could share in his travels. True, the work was arduous, but each night he went to bed with a full stomach, and there wasn’t much to complain about that.

Eventually Malin caught the attention of the ship owner, who praised him for his diligent work. Promoted to the position of third mate, Malin further proved himself to be an indispensable member of the crew. Tirelessly he worked through the ranks, until the day he was appointed as captain of the ship.

As in all great fairy tales, the ship owner offered Malin his daughter’s hand in marriage, and they were wed in a most extravagant ceremony.

Meanwhile, Malin’s letters grew fewer and farther between. The mother, ever trusting as she was, reasoned her son didn’t have much time to write letters. He was a ship captain, after all, and a new husband besides.

And then there came the day the letters stopped.

When she had not a coin left in her coffer, the mother relied on her neighbors’ pity to fill her dinner plate. “What an unfilial son you have,” they told her, “to let his mother starve her way to the grave.”

“My son hasn’t forgotten about me,” the mother said. “One day he will return to this village, and together we’ll live in a grand house. He promised me this, himself.”

The neighbors whispered among themselves that she was delusional, but what could they say? The woman couldn’t be convinced that Malin had deserted her.

Many years later, Malin’s ship did return to the village. Upon hearing the news, his mother went straight to the port to welcome him. Standing among the throng of villagers who’d come to see this poor boy-turned-captain, she breathed a sigh of contentment. How joyful she was, to see her handsome son standing beside his lovely wife, the two of them dressed in sumptuous silk clothing.

“See what I told you?” the mother said to her neighbors. “Today my son has come for me!”

The neighbors agreed that they were wrong about him.

“Malin!” the mother called to him. “It is I, your mother, come to bring you home.”

As if she were a mosquito buzzing at his ear, Malin turned his head away.

“Malin!” she called, louder. “Perhaps you don’t recognize me. It has been many years since I’ve looked upon your face. Come closer, my son, so I may—”

“Who are you, woman?” Malin asked her.

“Why, I’m your mother,” she replied. “Surely you can see—”

“I have no mother,” Malin said. “Certainly not one as dirty and poor as you.”

Upon hearing these words, the mother wept bitterly. Forsaken by her only child, no physical blow could have stung her so.

What had become of the boy who sacrificed his youth to work the fields? The boy who shed his pride to fill his mother’s dinner plate each night? This venerable man who stood before her, the mother thought, was not the son she raised.

“Malin,” she said, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Is this how you speak to your mother? I, the woman who bore you, who nursed you of my breast, who cared for you—”

“Enough of your babble!” Malin said. “Get away from my sight, before I have you removed.”

“What a fickle son you are!” the mother said. “Your heart is made of stone.”

The moment those words fell from her lips, Malin’s feet transformed to stone. “Wait!” Malin called after her, but she had already left for home.

To his wife, Malin said, “Hurry, my dear, for you must find my mother. Tell her to reverse this curse before it’s too late.” But when he reached for her hand, she recoiled from his touch. Lest she incur a similar fate, she fled from his side and ran aboard the ship.

Malin, did you forget your mother? Did you forget your promise to her?

Slowly the curse made its way up his legs, torso, arms, and neck, until only his head remained of flesh and blood. “Mother, help me!” he cried and cried, until the curse took hold of his tongue and he could cry no more.

Sarah is a writer, folklorist, and filmmaker. Her short documentary film on the multiracial identity, “What Are You?,” was aired on Oregon Public Broadcast in 2015. She has presented her research at national academic conferences. Prior to her writing career, Sarah worked in the Reserves section of the Portland State University Library.

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