Written by Cinnamone Winchester
Graphic by Hengjia Liu
This piece was originally published in ‘Memento Mori’, Bossy’s 2021 print edition.
CW: Body horror, multiple allusions to murder.
Adapted from the Ulek Mayang legend.
Let us sing a song about the woman in the cave: brown skin, time-worn boots, keeping her torch held high with one white-knuckled hand, grasping the hilt of her sheathed keris with the other.
This is not where she belongs.
Adventuring is only for the daring sort these days—even the most world-wizened souls do not dare enter the inviolable necropolis and risk the wrath of the dead—but the Sea Wolf passes beneath the ancient stalactites, which tremble with each echoing footfall, without very much thought at all; aside from that which lingers upon her destiny.
Her destiny, quite naturally, is split in two like the equator’s meticulous division of the ground upon which she stands. There is the Before: the melodramatic account of her slow rise from street urchin (pitiful, poor, worthless) to pirate lord (revered, respected, feared). What waits for her now is the After.
The After will be greater, so believes the Sea Wolf. The After is imminent. The After will reunite her with gentle Setia, Setia who was taken from her, Setia Setia Setia. Gentle Setia is a song she knows by heart and carries with her always, an ancient call that echoes from ear to ear in the darkest moments of the wicked night before it lays down its arms and surrenders to the dawn.
The Sea Wolf’s downfall, when it comes, will arise from her failure to heed the Now.
Beneath the western wall of the cave, where the villagers’ forefathers once painted tales of monsters, men, and their vessels, the vacant death ship stands stoic and unmoving before her, aching to shelter another soul in search of the unseen realm. Bodies must remain in the coffin for the duration of one full lunar cycle, so that the soul may complete its journey and reach its ancestors—or so the rule once went. As far as the Sea Wolf knows, it had remained unbroken until the grieving villagers had finally abandoned their rituals within the caves.
It would be easy enough to lose herself in the haematite paintings; easy to drown.
One by one, she unburdens herself—white candles, kemenyan incense, mangoes, and bunga malai (made for her by the local bomoh despite his initial protests that he was forbidden to offer his help)—though she cannot quite shake the lingering weight upon her shoulders.
“There is magic here, indeed,” said the shaman, twelve lavender quartz stones richer than before he had entered the cave at the Sea Wolf’s request, “and you will need great strength to use it.”
What is love, if not strength?
So, she kicks off her boots, kneels before the boat-shaped coffin, and unbuckles the baldric at her hip. The Sea Wolf’s keris sits heavily in her hands, and as the cold, serpentine metal catches a glimpse of the light that pours in from the yawning mouth of the cave, she sees her father’s smile, hears the gruff overtures that had sought to disguise the unguarded tenderness in his voice when he had first proclaimed that his dagger—the weapon which had once been forged in fire and imbued with a protective spirit by a particularly powerful empu; the weapon with which he had built his reputation across the seven seas over hundreds of years—would one day be bequeathed to his long-lost daughter, as if a musician’s spindly fingers are plucking at his silenced vocal chords to reproduce the sounds for her now.
The keris has tethered her youth to her body long enough. It is time to pass the guardian’s blessing on, she thinks.
Eventually, she begins to harmonise with this ceaseless hum in her heart as she clutches the keris tightly enough to draw blood from her fingers and calls out to the woman who last lay here in a low chant—but she is not afforded the chance to finish before a cataclysmic tide erupts from beneath the surface of the cave’s nearby river shoreline, dragging the kneeling Sea Wolf beneath the water’s edge and forcing the breath from her lungs.
Let it be her, prays the Sea Wolf as a pair of open palms settle upon her chest and push. I will walk gladly into the arms of death if she so desires. Kill me, like he killed you and I killed him.
(“Speak your last,” she had told Aslam of the Raiders of the Shallows, her father’s keris at his throat. He’d opened his mouth, and she cut him down where he knelt.)
But she opens her eyes and sees a corpse.
A soundless scream bubbles from deep within the Sea Wolf’s chest as she wrenches herself away from the decomposing body and kicks desperately toward the surface. When she breaches, chest heaving, the presence in the river follows.
At first, she sees only the stray tufts of hair that cling to a wet, discoloured scalp—but the skin slippage on the forehead soon follows, along with a pair of hollow eyes and a rotting nose.
Not a corpse, then: a spirit.
“A-mi-na,” the spirit calls: protracted, rasping, as if she cannot bear to breathe above the water. “You came.”
The Sea Wolf’s heart stops. “You are not Setia,” she says, pushing her wet, black hair from her eyes. Not at all—though, she is another girl from the village. Another dead girl. Something is horribly wrong. “Where is she? The bomoh told me that… that they left her for last.”
“The bomoh knew not the truth,” says the spirit, arms unfurling as if to comfort Amina—who lingers in the water—in the wake of this mistake. “You sought the last woman for whom the boat served as a vessel. I am she.” As she speaks, a maggot inches out of her ear and into her empty nasal socket.
“Setia was not afforded the privilege of death rites,” the spirit interrupts. “Her body was left to rot beneath the ground—but her soul… her soul lingered in the space between the mortal and unseen realms. As did mine, and the others—strangers in life, sisters in death.”
“Others?” Amina whispers, her stomach twisting itself into knots. More than anything, she is thinking of absconding from this crime scene and burning down the evidence behind her. “But why?”
“So much carnage,” the spirit wails, fingers knotting into her hair. She does not appear to notice when a clump disconnects from her head entirely—but Amina cringes away as she floats closer.
“So many bodies. The village—they did what they could for us. But our bodies—the smell… the smell was maddening. They could not keep us above the ground long enough to complete six moon cycles—so we each spent only three days… three days in the ship. They could not have known…” As she comes to a grating halt, her mania declines, and she whispers—to herself, more than Amina. “They abandoned this place not long after. Because of you.”
At last, she understands.
“I know,” Amina whispers. “I know I am at fault. This was a mistake—all of this. I am sorry. I did not intend to summon you and invoke your suffering for a second time. I will go now.”
“Oh, but there is nothing your apology can do,” the spirit coos, a cold, grotesque finger trailing down the curve of Amina’s chin, and then her neck. “Besides, the happiest of accidents like these should be shared amongst company, like a plump pomegranate passed between hands.”
“No, I should really—”
“And how I have waited,” the spirit continues, sliding her fingers between Amina’s ribs and coaxing her soul from her sternum with all the exertion of an exhale, “for the pleasure of your company.”
It is a matter of hours before the gentle river carries the Sea Wolf to the ocean’s shore, the length of an evening before her crew recovers her insensate body on the beach and summons the bomoh, who realises his mistake too late.
“This,” he says, “this is why we dare not set foot within the caves. We within the village remember very well what happened here—the spirits do not allow us to forget. They…” They haunt us. “They will not be dissuaded from their plans so easily.”
Miraculously, the Sea Wolf still clutches her keris.
On this first day, the bomoh’s plea is a trickling stream more than a tidal wave. “Spirit,” he calls at dawn, palm frond in hand. “I entreat you, spirit.”
The spirit cackles from the safety of her sanctuary beneath the ocean’s waves, her hold upon Amina unwavering, but she throws her head back and begins her own chant nevertheless. “Sister,” she echoes. “I entreat you, sister!”
The vice-like grip upon Amina’s soul tightens by twofold, and she chokes for want of breath as a second sea spirit appears in the water and her vision blurs.
“What? Who are you?”
“Enough. The Sea Wolf: where is she?”
“I don’t—no! Please!” Cruel laughter cuts through the darkness as a blade is pulled from its sheath with a metallic hiss.
“You,” the second spirit whispers hoarsely as her bloated body comes into focus, “cowardly pirate. You are no better than the rest. You swore to protect us all—where were you?”
“Please,” Amina begs, “please. I know I deserve this. Let me see Setia—once, just once—and then you can kill me.”
“Kill you?” The second spirit repeats, leaning in close. “Oh, no. Mark my words, fiend: you will not be so lucky. You will never know peace, and if Setia sees you, she will help us keep you here—until your body withers away, and your soul has no home to which it may return. Until you suffer, the way we have all suffered by your hand.” The smell of rotting flesh assaults Amina’s sinuses, and she gags.
If she is sentenced by Setia’s hand, then so be it. Amina knows that none came before Setia: her lover was never laid to rest within the death ship’s wooden walls, was never given the chance to find the unseen realm. None, then, became a spirit before she.
Amina will wait for the seventh sister.
“Spirit,” calls the bomoh at dusk, “I entreat you, spirit.” A third hand reaches to bind her soul, and a thin film stretches over Amina’s eyes.
“You: tell me where the Sea Wolf is. She has something that belongs to me.”
The woman is agreeable enough—until she sees the blood dripping from Aslam’s blade and unleashes an ear-splitting scream.
With the dawn of the second day comes the fourth.
“So, you’ve seen it?”
“Yes—but I swear, she told us that it was hers, she told us that it had once belonged to her father—”
“So, she is a liar as well as a thief! The dagger is rightfully mine!”
Then the fifth.
“Aslam,” begins an unfamiliar voice. “Aslam! She is elsewhere, as is the keris. Our time is wasted here—let us return to the ship.” The resulting moment of silence between them is broken by a grunt as something heavy is dragged across the ground.
“I will tear this village apart until my prize is returned.”
And on the third morning, the sixth—who, rather strangely, appears only to tell the Sea Wolf that she wishes for there to be no ill will between them. In the moments before she departs, she extends a hand, life slowly returning to her features, and the Sea Wolf takes it. This, too, makes her See.
“How can I possibly give you what you want when I do not know, myself?”
“If you do not know,” he declares, “you are of no use to me.”
By the third evening, what is left of the pomegranate has begun to rot.
Each of the five sisters’ faces are painted with exhaustion from their plight, though their trembling grip upon Amina does not falter.
The bomoh is desperate, relying upon the Sea Wolf’s faithful crew to keep him upright as he continues in his unending series of choreographed motions over Amina’s body.
“Spirits,” he calls, “I entreat you, spirits.”
A shockwave ripples Amina’s soul—and for the first time, she feels her shackles weaken. An enraged scream passes through what is left of the fifth sister’s blackened lips.
“Call her,” the third spirit quietly insists.
“You know we cannot!” Hisses the second spirit, twisting to confront the third.
“We must,” interjects the fourth, “or else we are doomed—”
“Enough!” The first spirit shrieks—but her eyes, ravenous and desperate, betray her failing resolve. “Sister! I entreat you, sister!”
Like the others, she appears from nothing—but where her sisters have rotted with rage, their faces at varying, discoloured stages of bulbous and sunken degradation, Setia—Setia Setia Setia—looks alive.
She raises her hand, and the Sea Wolf’s sharp edges immediately bend. “I know your origins,” Setia declares, her voice echoing across two realms. “Let those from the sea return to the sea, and those from the land return to the land.”
One by one, all five hands loosen from her soul—but still, something is keeping her here.
Setia Setia Setia. Her Setia.
“Setia.” It’s a choked, hushed sound, and the Sea Wolf surges forward for the length of a heartbeat before bringing herself to a halt. “I killed you.” Her shoulders slump, her head bows—before Setia, the Sea Wolf is nothing but a pup. “Kill me,” she says, “as I killed you.”
In the fraught moments between each of Amina’s quiet inhales and breathless exhales, she hears Setia’s skirts whisper secrets into the abysses of their delicate folds as she draws near.
What she expects is anything but what she receives as Setia’s thumb and finger move to cradle her chin.
“Amina is on the other side of the continent,” Setia tells the captain as he stalks across the threshold of her home and leaves the sweltering heat of the sunlight behind, leather boots marking out bloodied tracks upon the floor in his wake. “What do you want?”
“I want my keris,” he hisses, turning on his heel to face the unflinching woman. “You know the weapon of which I speak, Setia.”
“Do not play me for a fool,” Setia snaps. “It is not yours—you betrayed her father and stole it from his corpse. Amina merely took back what is rightfully hers; you are lucky that she only claimed the keris, and not your life along with it.”
“She may as well have,” Aslam sneers, flicking his dagger into the air and catching it by the hilt as he approaches, “or do you not understand, foolish girl? Only one of us may truly live—the one who is protected from time by the guardian of the keris.”
“The guardian will not protect you, Aslam. It was not made for your bloodline,” Setia cautions, shifting the positioning of her hands to reveal her grip on a sword that Amina recognises as one of her own—but he pays her little heed.
“I warned the little wolf, once: love and sentimentality are naught but tethers… but of course, she would not listen. Now, she must pay the price for her weakness. One way or another, Amina will lose something she holds dear tonight.”
“No more,” Amina whispers, but the vision is already complete. When her wet eyes blink open, Setia tips her fingers, coaxing Amina’s gaze out of hiding.
“You once loved me,” Setia says, “more than anything else—and that is why he killed me. How can I blame you for the truth of your heart, Amina?”
“I love you,” the Sea Wolf corrects, “I love you—and I would have never traded you away for that dagger if I knew I had to make this choice. I am so sorry for what I have done, Setia. If I could go back—”
“You cannot,” Setia interrupts. “Neither of us may change what has come to pass. From now on, every step you take must lead you onward.”
“But—the keris?” For a long moment, silence cradles the two of them in its arms and hums a gentle lullaby as Amina flexes her hand, eyeing the deep cut in her palm. “I thought… perhaps I could relinquish it, from my lineage to yours.” Perhaps it could bring you back, is what she does not dare to say.
Her stomach twists itself into knots as Setia shakes her head. “It will only protect the living, Amina. This time is yours—take it while you can, and use it well.”
“And what of you—all of you? What of your souls?” Amina asks, taking Setia’s hands into her grasp. “What can I do to free you?”
“Nothing. The others blame their stagnancy upon a great number of external forces—but the death ships only hasten a journey that will always be inevitable. It has been incredibly difficult for them to let go of their anger—but we will all be alright in time, Amina, and they will one day move on when they make peace with themselves. I promise you this. In turn, you must promise that you will only come back to me when you absolutely must. Until then, I will be here.”
“You will wait for me?” She dares to ask.
“Silly girl,” Setia whispers, touching her forehead to Amina’s own, “how could I ever go where you cannot follow?” Amina feels the tug of a tether as the bomoh calls her spirit back into her body for the final time, knows that there are many responsibilities in the realm of the living that she has yet to fulfil.
But as their lips finally collide, she decides that she will be selfish for a moment longer.
Let us sing a song about the women in the cave: face to face, hand in hand, bent legs intertwined and indistinguishable from one another now that time has whittled their bodies down to dust and bone. One had been holding her breath for many years, waiting for the other to find her way back—and so she did, once she could state with conviction that her life felt full and satisfied. When the Sea Wolf passed her keris on to its next custodian and was finally returned to the ground from whence she came, her lover was there to welcome her home.