EVERYONE IN THE VILLAGE knew that Luh Kenten was a stubborn woman. She was strong and sturdily built, and possessed the strength of ten men. No one dared speak coarsely to her or be rude to her. People respected her. She had a special type of beauty, the beauty of a woman from the lower, sudra, caste, with black skin, sharp eyes, and a strong body. She also had very long hair, and although it was often piled rather carelessly on top of her head, it was her hair that really made people marvel at her beauty. In short, she looked like a typical village girl. That said, there were rather unsavory rumors going around about Kenten’s relationship with Sekar.
"They’re in love. It’s shocking. How can they fulfill their biological needs? Do you think they have intimate relations like we do with our husbands?"
One day, Luh Kenten overheard the whisperings, but as soon as the skinny, withered-up woman standing inside the food stall noticed her, she stopped speaking, and appeared rather frightened.
Luh Kenten just took a deep breath and asked herself, "Was it a sin if she could only love a woman and only felt aroused when she looked at a woman’s body?"
For Kenten, the female body was truly everything. Without women, the earth would have no soul. She thought that a world inhabited only by men would be a very cold place indeed.
Kenten remembered the time when she was an adolescent who was just becoming aware of what it meant to be a woman. She had been shocked when her body no longer functioned in the way she expected it to. Something had changed in the original shape she had been given. She trembled, not knowing to whom she should protest.
After undergoing the ceremony to mark her rite of passage into womanhood, she had become aware that her body possessed certain inherent characteristics, which forced her to play the role of a woman. There were two lumps of flesh beginning to emerge from her chest, and these mounds of flesh restricted her freedom. They annoyed her, because she had to bind her upper body with meters of cloth to cover them. What’s more, every month, a flow of blood streamed from between her legs. It seemed to flow at will, and every month, Kenten had to busy herself cleaning her body of blood. This condition was particularly annoying when she had to work hard transporting firewood from the market.
One day Kenten overheard the men talking about her. "That young lady has an amazing body. See how strong she is, and just look at her breasts! Every time she picks up a piece of wood, they swell so beautifully. If I could just catch a glimpse of them, it would be such a gorgeous sight! But she’s very odd, that one. She’s very beautiful, but she’s so cold."
Kenten chose not to respond.
One day, she asked her mother, "Mum, what does it feel like to be a woman?’
"What sort of question is that, Kenten? You’re starting to behave strangely again."
"No, I’m not. But I don’t like listening to the men gossiping in the coffee shop every morning. They just laze about there, taking it easy and putting their feet up on the chairs, while I have to work hard to earn a living. I’m sure that they don’t even take a bath before they go there because they’re usually just wearing a crumpled sarong. And they behave so strangely! Every day, from morning until about noon, they just sit around talking. Their eyes are always roaming around wildly, and they often tease me. It makes me feel like throwing a piece of firewood at them.
"But it’s true, Mum. In fact, I’ve heard that the one who always tries to pinch me on the bottom already has two wives. He’s just a two-timer who wants to have lots of women, but he doesn’t even have a job to support his family. Do you know what he said to his friends?"
"What did he say?"
"He said, ‘Look for an independent woman who can earn a living. That’s the key to a good life! With women like that, you can relax and live comfortably. They won’t make too many demands. All they need is a little affection, love, and attention. Give them that and they won’t nag too much. Give ’em praise because that’s what they like to hear; it’s one of their weaknesses. But when you’re with them, play the role of a devoted servant so that they will respect you and serve you without having to be asked to.’That’s what he said, Mum. Is it true?"
"I don’t know."
"Mum, did you love my father when you married him?" "I don’t know." The old woman turned away.
"No, I’m not. It’s true. I don’t understand what ‘love’ means or what it’s like to be in love. I was married off to your father because my family felt embarrassed about having an unmarried daughter. I just accepted the man who was offered to me. After about a year, you were born..."
"And after that, he left?"
"Yes, and I don’t know where he went." "Don’t you miss him?"
"Miss him? What does that mean? I only thought about my responsibility to bring you up, and to convince you that I loved you. I love you, Luh. You’re what gives me my motivation. It was only after I had you that I realized what it was like to have someone I really cared about. Perhaps that’s what you mean by love, but I truly don’t know."
"Are all men like the ones in the coffee shop?"
"Why are you asking me that again? Are you attracted to one of them?"
"I don’t know."
"If you meet the right man someday, you’ll let me know, won’t you?"
"Why are you talking like that?"
"Because I want you to be happy. I don’t want you to choose the wrong person."
"I’m not going to get married, Mum. I don’t want to be deceived by them. I hate all those men who talk about women in such a disrespectful way."
"What do you mean? You can’t abuse men like that. You have to respect and appreciate them."
"They don’t respect women."
"You might have misunderstood, Luh."
"No. I see what they do everyday. They spend the morning drinking coffee, and in the afternoon, they go to the cockfighting. Then, in the evening, they just relax and sleep with their wives. They lead truly enjoyable lives!"
"Luh, don’t be too hard on them. One day, you’ll fall in love with one of them too."
"No, I won’t, Mum." "You frighten me, Luh." "Why?"
"You sound like you’re making a vow for life."
"But I’m serious, Mum. I’m going to prove that we can live without men. I’m going to prove it."
"Don’t worry, Mum. I know what I’m doing." "I want to have a grandchild from you."
"Stop dreaming, Mum. We’ve suffered enough. Don’t make things worse."
Luh Kenten hugged the old woman tightly. She was sure that she could live without men. What was the point of living with men if they couldn’t protect women? She believed that women were extraordinary creatures.
By way of proof, one only had to look at the structure of the female body, which was more complex than the male body. Moreover, every curve of the female body exuded an extraordinary sensuality, each one offering its own intrinsic qualities.
Kenten felt really upset every time she overheard the men talking in the coffee shop. Was it true that a woman needed a man to support and guide her. Were men really so wonderful that women wanted to give birth to their children, to look after them, and to raise them? Were men so wonderful that women wanted to provide food for both their children and their husbands?
How lucky men were! Every morning the women would go to the market place to sell their wares, and their bodies would be baked under the blazing sun. Their skin would become black and smelly, and their bodies would become wrinkled. Then, the men would choose new women to satisfy their sexual needs.
"Oh God!" Kenten groaned and sighed deeply.
Was it wrong if she now began to feel attracted to women? Was it something to feel ashamed of? Would God not provide a place for a woman who loved one of her own kind? If God could be angry, why couldn’t Kenten?
Kenten knew that to go against society’s norms was a serious matter. She knew this, and she wanted to keep her feelings to herself. Nevertheless, she would continue to converse with nature and to try to learn from experience.
Kenten also knew that people were starting to gossip about her relationship with Luh Sekar. She didn’t understand why, but for her, Sekar possessed an extraordinary beauty.
She had never felt so close to anyone before; it was as if her body had undergone a sexual awakening. In fact, every time her skin brushed against Sekar’s skin, she felt herself becoming aroused.
The aroma of that woman’s body truly motivated Kenten to protect her. She really hated it when other women glanced at Sekar. She felt jealous! Angry! She felt like shouting, "Don’t look at my sweetheart’s body! She’s mine!" Kenten very much wanted to say that, but she wasn’t brave enough. She was frightened that Sekar would be shocked. Kenten felt sure that Sekar would never understand the battle going on inside her heart. Sekar would also never understand the meaning behind the drops of sweat and the stabbing pain in her chest.
One day Sekar came to her room very late at night. Her face looked hot and moist. Sekar threw herself at the woman who was five years older than she was, and hugged her tightly. Then she cried until she could cry no more.
"I want to sleep here, Kenten. I’m so upset," she said haltingly, dropping her head on Kenten’s shoulder.
"I’m not going to give up, Kenten. I’m going to become a joged dancer, a soloist. I love the clothing: the sheer kebaya blouse, the length of beautiful kain for a skirt, the delicate selendang scarf, and the headdress too. I just adore the joged headdress, Kenten, and the magnolia flowers decorating it. Those flowers last forever because they’re made of wood. Joged is a social dance, Kenten, so I’m free to dance in any way that I want to and free to choose my dance partners too. I want to arouse the passions of everyone who watches me. Do you think I’m asking too much?"
"Then why does the head of the joged group always try to avoid me, or look the other way whenever he passes me?"
"Try to be patient."
"I can’t put up with that sort of treatment, Kenten. It’s an insult! One day, I’m going to make everyone who tried to prevent me from fulfilling my dreams sit up and take notice. It’s obvious I’ve got what it takes to achieve my aspirations."
"I’m embarrassed to cry in front of you. I feel so embarrassed," said Luh Sekar loudly.
Kenten looked into Sekar’s eyes carefully. This was the most beautiful woman in the village. She not only had a beautiful figure, but she was also ambitious. She wanted to achieve a better life. Kenten’s feeling of affection for her intensified. Was it possible for her to possess this woman? She wanted to touch her skin, and to know her every want and desire.
Kenten drew a deep breath as Luh Sekar wiped away her tears rather awkwardly.
"Will you come to the temple with me?" she asked. Sekar sat down very close to Luh Kenten, and grasped her hand tightly. Then, she started to sulk. She begged her.
Kenten caressed Sekar’s hair. Her chest felt painful. She didn’t understand who was actually playing the subservient role in this relationship. It was a relationship that contravened the established norms of society. People said that only sick people had this sort of relationship. "Am I really sick? Just because I can’t experience pleasure from looking at men, people immediately jump to conclusions and decide I’m sick. I’m mentally disturbed. I need psychiatric help. But who is actually sick? Me? Or them? Those people have never tried to understand how I feel. If every man always feels ‘ravenous’ when he looks at Sekar, why aren’t I allowed to feel like that? And if the men can relish Sekar’s body with their eyes, is it wrong if I also want to touch her? To touch her lips, and imagine what she looks like naked?" Kenten thought to herself, as she sat gazing mistily into the distance. She felt almost breathless from emotion.
"You’re daydreaming again, Kenten. Come on, do this for me." Sekar started to sulk again, and dropped her head in Kenten’s lap.
"Why do you want to go to the temple so late at night?"
"I want to pray, Kenten. I want to let the gods know how much I want to be a joged dancer. I truly want to promote this joged group. I want the gods to convince the village leaders that I’d be a good joged dancer."
"What will you do if the gods don’t grant your wish?" "Don’t talk like that!"
"Are you frightened that your wish won’t be granted?" "Yes."
"So you’re starting to have doubts?" "It’s not like that."
"Listen carefully. In order to achieve our goals, we have to believe that we truly want to achieve them. I’m angry, Kenten, really angry. Can’t the village leaders see that I’d be a wonderful joged dancer? I deserve their respect. You have to believe that my prayer will be answered. If you believe in me, then the gods are sure to help me. Come on, Kenten, concentrate. Do this for me. I’m sick of being poor. I’m tired of my family not being accepted by society. I’m fed up with being pushed aside. I’m sick of being me. I want to be someone important. I want to be a woman who is capable of making decisions for others. Come on, Kenten." Sekar looked into Luh Kenten’s eyes.
"Are you brave enough to go to the temple so late at night?" "If you come with me."
"Aren’t you worried that people will see us?" "Why should I be?"
"Who knows? Perhaps people will think that we’re learning black magic. Doesn’t that worry you?"
"Are you serious? Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Yes. Come on. Change your clothes. I’ve brought everything we need to pray with. We have to be in the temple by midnight. We’ll come home early tomorrow morning."
"Sekar, Sekar. When you want to do something, nothing can change your mind."
"It’s for my future, Kenten." "Yes, I know."
Kenten felt truly moved by Sekar’s earnestness. "This woman is definitely from another world," she thought to herself.
THE GODS AND ANCESTORS eventually granted Luh Sekar’s wish. She was certainly a woman who had set her goals.
"Thank God! I’m so grateful, Luh. I’m in debt to the gods in the temple for this."
"You’re sure to want something else now." Luh Kenten looked at the woman in front of her, mimicking an expression of dissatisfaction.
"Yes. I want to know whether I’m the most beautiful dancer in the village. I want to know whether I can capture the heart of every man who watches me perform. Do you think I can do it?"
"You dream too much." "They’re not dreams, Luh."
"Then, what do you call them? You’ve been accepted as a joged dancer.
You’re a star. What more do you want?"
"I want to be the most beautiful. "Sekar looked carefully at Kenten. For the first time, the two women looked into one another’s eyes intently. Kenten was overflowing with love and affection, whereas Sekar was brimming over with ambitions that continued to grow in magnitude.
"Why are you so quiet?" Sekar looked carefully at Kenten, hoping that Kenten would help her take off her dance costume. Kenten’s hand trembled, realizing that she was about to witness Luh Sekar’s body naked for the first time.
"Oh God! How many years have I secretly hoped for this moment? Help me God, give me strength, so that I won’t panic when I touch the body of this woman who makes me almost keel over with emotion." Luh Kenten closed her eyes tightly, frightened that Sekar would see that she was crying. She felt as if all of her feelings and emotions had gathered together and united as one within her body.
"Oh God! My body feels like it’s going to explode. Help me God, help me!" Kenten closed her eyes, as she felt the strips of cloth covering Sekar’s body drop one by one to the floor. Sekar turned around, still wearing the joged headdress and her dance make-up.
Sekar stood up straight. The only light illuminating her body came from an oil lamp hanging on the wall, and the atmosphere became even more eerie as the wind started to sway the oil lamp every now and then. Luh Kenten trembled as she picked up the pieces of Sekar’s costume, one by one.
"Do you think I’m beautiful?" asked Luh Sekar, taking Luh Kenten’s face and lifting it up. But Kenten bowed her head, frightened that Sekar would learn her secret.
"What’s up with you? Why don’t you want to evaluate my body? Are you embarrassed? I thought you were a true friend. You’re not like the other women who just look at me jealously. Ever since I’ve known you, I’ve considered you to be part of my life, not an outsider. One day, if my dream comes true, I want you to come with me. We’ll still be friends and always be together. I hate those other women. They only know how to make fun of me. I know that they’re just cowards who are too frightened to compete with me. Because my life has always been fraught with bad luck, I want to take a gamble. I want to take control over my life. My life has been a never-ending struggle, and there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight. I want to succeed. I don’t want to die before I have conquered life. Right now, I only desire one thing from our friendship, Luh. You have to judge me. You’re free to criticize me, but don’t just bow your head and say nothing!" Luh Sekar snapped sharply. She made no attempt to cover her naked body, and Luh Kenten shivered.
"Oh God. I can’t do this. I can’t do it," mumbled Luh Kenten to herself, the tears streaming down her cheeks.
"My God! You’re crying? Is it because of me? Is it because of what I said?" cried Luh Sekar.
"No. No, it’s not your fault, Sekar."
"Then why are you crying? I’ve never seen you like this before. What’s wrong?"
"Nothing. There’s nothing wrong." Kenten drew a deep breath. "Put your clothes on!" This time Kenten’s voice was more like an order.
"I don’t want to!"
"Someone will see you Sekar!"
"I don’t care. Let them see what my body looks like!" "Don’t be crazy!"
"I’m not. I don’t want to put my clothes on before you answer my question!"
"You’re just like a little child when you go on like this." "I don’t care!"
"I don’t care if you’re angry. I’m still not going to get dressed!" said Luh Sekar defiantly, standing up straighter and glancing towards Luh Kenten. She was absolutely naked, and Luh Kenten took a deep breath.
"I’m going to dance in front of you. Maybe if I dance, you’ll be able to evaluate my body."
"No, you mustn’t! Please don’t do it, Sekar!" "Why not?"
"It’s too difficult to explain, Sekar."
"You’re lying. I don’t believe that feelings can’t be explained in words." shouted Sekar.
"Sekar, try to listen to people’s feelings with your heart."
"I don’t want to! I want to dance. I want to dance legong kraton in front of you. One has to be very supple and elastic to perform this dance, so you should be able to evaluate my body easily. It’s the basic dance that every female dancer has to master." Luh Sekar took her fan, and raised her arms. She spread her fingers slightly, and the light of the oil lamp made them appear golden. She looked truly amazing. Luh Kenten plucked up the courage to glance at the curves of her body.
Luh Kenten took deep breaths over and over again. She never thought that her wish to see Luh Sekar naked would be granted, let alone complete with her dance headdress.
Sekar’s body kept moving, and beads of perspiration became visible on her chest and neck. The two mounds of flesh that Luh Kenten had previously hated suddenly appeared very attractive. They swayed strongly with the movements of Luh Sekar’s body.
Luh Kenten tried to calm the turbulence she felt mounting inside her. She knew that she was becoming damp, increasingly damp, and eventually she couldn’t stand it any longer. She hugged Sekar. She was breathing heavily.
"Don’t do this in front of me again, Sekar. Please! If you’re a true friend, you’ll surely do as I ask," said Kenten haltingly. Luh Sekar just laughed and hugged Kenten even more tightly.
"Now, tell me. Am I the most beautiful woman in the village?" "Put your clothes on."
"I..." Sekar wanted to protest, but Kenten put her fingers over her mouth.
"I’m not going to answer your question until you put your clothes on!"
Kenten’s voice sounded serious. Sekar took off her joged crown, and picked up her clothes.
"Okay. I’m ready. So what do you think, Kenten?"
Translated by Gai Littler.
This extract was originally published in Menagerie 7: People Like Us, John H. McGlynn, Series Editor; Erza Setyadharma, Guest Editor, Lontar Foundation, Jakarta, 2009. It has been re-published here with their permission.