Growing up, I lived in a village up north of Peninsular Malaysia, with my parents, brothers and Tok, my maternal grandmother. Every evening, my brothers and I would be at the field playing. As dusk fell, we would hear Tok’s loud voice interrupting the muezzin’s call for Maghrib, hollering at us kids to get inside.
“Hantu, setan saja duduk kat luaq senja-senja ni, hampa tau dak?” And believing her wholeheartedly, we would rush into the house - away from the skulking devils and demons, and Tok’s menacing glare.
“Too quiet, too early for a backpacker's lane,” I muttered to myself, looking around anxiously.
Just as I was contemplating to walk back to the entrance of the alley, I saw the cafe. I squinted my eyes to read the signage. Money Laundry?
Menu booklets lay stacked on the counter. Behind the bar, I saw a shelf lined with clear tall glasses, big circular jars; tiny espresso cups and large coffee mugs. Tucked in between the glass jars, a shiny white ceramic maneki-neko, the welcome cat, its left paw moving up and down, beckoning.
I had smelled her fragrance even before I saw her. She always smelled of Sedap Malam, and often her fragrance just lingered on, even when she had left.
I recognized the scent instantly. When I was a kid, I would watch Tok make bedak sejuk, a traditional facial powder made from fermented rice. On its own, the powder had the most disgusting smell. To kill the horrible stench of fermented rice, Tok would put these small, white flowers together with the dried bedak sejuk beads.
And yet, despite Tok liking the smell of Sedap Malam enough to have its scent on her bedak sejuk, we were not allowed to play anywhere near the tree.
Stay away from the tree, said Tok. Pontianak likes to play there!
“Tok, pontianak ni mai mana?” I asked Tok curious to know the origins of the dreaded entity.
She said that a pontianak is a ghost of a woman who died giving birth. It targeted men and fed on their internal organs. But, there was a way to change a pontianak into human.
Tok smiled, she took her time answering while she carefully put a bit of lime paste on a betel leaf, preparing it to be chewed. We inched closer to her, eager to find out.
Then she said, one would need to put a wooden stake into the back of the pontianak’s neck. Then it would transform into a beautiful woman.
“And what happens if we take the stake out, Tok?” Amir, my older brother blurted.
“Dia tukaq jadi pontianak balik la, hang ni pun…” Tok answered impatiently.
I sat staring at my Tok’s red teeth, a result of her chewing the betel leaf and spices. I forgot to ask her why the pontianak did not fight back when someone was about to stake it. Seemed to me, a ghost should be strong enough to do that.
She sauntered past by me. From the back, I could see her straight, shoulder-length black hair swinging slowly to the rhythm of her graceful walk. She walked quickly towards the bar, pausing briefly to join in the conversation there and laughing. Her laughter was bright and cheerful, breaking the monotony of loud chatters.
I saw her reached for the menu, and turned towards me smiling. I returned her smile sheepishly, having been caught staring. I pretended to look at something on my phone.
“Hi, my name is Mustika. Can I take your order?” She asked me in English.
When I answered in Malay, her eyes grew bigger slightly, her smile widened. Mustika leaned her body slightly to hear me better. Unfortunately, I had caught a bad case of sore throat after being stuck five hours in the delayed flight coming to Yogya. Now, in this damp humidity, my already hoarse voice had deteriorated to a pathetic whisper.
Up close, I could see her face fully. She had round eyes and her eye brows were thick and neatly trimmed. Her nose was small and slightly pointed and her lips were the shades of plum. She had coffee brown skin with slight reddish undertones – the most striking thing about her.
Slightly stupefied, I muttered…
“Hitam manis…” out loud, absent-mindedly.
“Sorry?” I heard her say.
Mortified, I quickly said a little too loudly in my hoarse voice the first few things that caught my eyes in the menu - “Minta saya warm water, iced americano and garlic bread!” - I saw her grin as she walked away.
“Abang dari Malaysia ya?” Mustika asked me in Indonesian, when she came back to deliver my order.
“Yes, how did you know?” I smiled and asked her back in Malay, eager to redeem myself.
“From how you pronounce your words. People from my place speak Malay too, dialeknya pun hampir serupa! That's how I figured you're from Malaysia,” she replied excitedly.
“Oh…kamu bukan dari sini? Where are you from?” She did indeed have a dialect like mine when she spoke. I thought she just code-switched to accommodate to a foreigner like me.
“Saya dari Pontianak. And I am Malay, sama seperti abang. I came to Yogya to continue my studies, and right now I manage the café,” she continued.
Mustika was a Sociology graduate from Universitas Gajah Mada. As I listened to her, my mind reeled quickly downloading old stored knowledge of Indonesia's geography. Pontianak is the capital city in West Kalimantan, Borneo.
“I only know that there are Malays in Bangka-Belitung. Rupa-rupanya, di Pontianak pun ada orang Melayu ya,” I told her, interested.
“Oh yes, we are quite a big community in Pontianak. And there are also people of Madura descent, Dayak, Javanese and Chinese.”
That was my third day in Yogya. I was there for a three-week workshop by Javanese batik artisans somewhere near the Kraton of Yogya. Ever since meeting Mustika, after my work was done for the day, instead of going back to my guesthouse, I would spend my evenings at Money Laundry. The whole of my day was spent fully in the studio, so seeing her was a good break.
When she had the time, Mustika would sit by my table and we would talk about books, art, movies, music and sometimes, world politics. I would tell her about my family, but she hardly ever mentioned hers except that they were in Pontianak.
“So, are there pontianak in Pontianak?” I jokingly asked her one time.
“When Abdulrahman Alqadrie, the would-be Sultan of Pontianak, first set foot in a place called Batu Layang, his entourage came face to face with a group of pontianak. Eager to get rid of them, he ordered his men to fire cannons at the forest where the pontianak were hiding,” Mustika whispered as though she was sharing the world’s oldest secret with me.
“And as the story goes, the cannons apparently drove the pontianak away…”
“But then again, we don’t know if they had ever really left…” She winked at me and laughed.
I went to see her again on my last day in Yogya. Mustika was busy so I sat at my usual spot and started leafing through my sketchbook.
“Abang Adam balik Malaysia esok pagi?”
“Ya, flight jam 11. But I’m coming back in 2 months’ time…
“…and you have my number, so you can text or call me anytime, and I can do the same too, of course…” I sounded a bit too cheerful.
She smiled. Her big eyes looking straight into mine.
“Saya ada sesuatu untuk kamu,” I rummaged through my sling bag, looking for the small leather pouch I had for her.
“Wah, cantiknya! Did you make this yourself?” Mustika exclaimed, admiring the batik pendant made of resin.
“Yes, I did, khas untuk kamu. That’s your flower.”
“Bunga Sedap Malam…” she whispered.
“Come, let me help you put it on,” I hurriedly move to go behind Mustika. As I was about to lift her hair, she swung quickly to face me.
“It’s okay, I’ll do it myself…” Mustika said quickly. “I...umm…I have a tattoo on my neck, it’s kind of embarrassing…” she laughed, nervously rather than amused.
“Tattoo? I don’t mind if you want to share it with me,” I teased her.
Ignoring me, Mustika took the pendant from my hand and swiftly put the chain around her neck.
“It’s lovely! Terima kasih abang Adam,” she smiled, touching the pendant gently.
2 months after, I was back in Yogya. I had not heard from Mustika and was eager to see her.
“She’s no longer working here,” Andi, the cafe's owner told me when I asked him about Mustika.
“Bapak tahu dia ke mana?”
“Maaf, I don’t know where she is now,” he answered curtly. “She left this for you.”
I stared at the chain and pendant that Andi had just placed on the bar. For the longest time, I just stood there, hands in my pockets, staring.
I picked up the chain and pendant off the counter, and turned to leave.
“Forget her…” I stopped in my tracks hearing his voice.
“She is not our kind.”
I turned and looked at Andi’s solemn face, and I left the café.
It was already nightfall. Darkness was slowly inching upon the backpackers’ lane of Sosrowijayan. I walked slowly towards the entrance of the alley, the chain and pendant felt heavy in my palm.
“Abang Adam…” I smelled the scent of Sedap Malam wafting in the air for that swift second.
I turned around and stood facing her.
“Where did you go?”
Ignoring my question, Mustika said, “I have something to tell you, tapi bukan di sini.”
Then, in her gentle gait, she walked past me.
“Abang Adam, will you come?” She called back.
I should have known it then, maybe I did. Breathing in her fragrance, I walked in her steps.