(A re-imagination of Ibrahim Jubaira’s “Blue Blood of the Big Astana”)
Although the heart can no longer remember, the mind can always recall. The mind can always recall, for there are always things to remember: joyful days of privileged childhood; playing tag along the seashore; learning to love, lose, and everything in between. So I suppose you remember me, Jaafar.
The day of your arrival caused quite a stir in the astana. I was told that we were expecting someone who was supposed to take care of me. No one could have prepared me for you, five year-old Jaafar. You were made to live with us. We were around the same age back then. I didn’t know I could be looked after by someone who probably had the same wants and needs as I did.
From my bedroom window, I watched your Babo wipe snot from your harelip. She really loves you, noh? She treats you as if you were her own. I was still watching you hug your Babo with your little arms when Amboh knocked on my door. She held my hand as we descended the stairs. It was time to go down and meet our newest tenant, five year-old Jaafar.
“Why are you like that?”
You seemed taken aback by my question. I could not blame you. But your harelip still held my attention. I have never seen a person with such deformity before. I could not stop staring at it.
“What happened to you?”
Your Babo explained how you got your harelip. My chest tightened with guilt by the time she was done. I did not know how such accidents could happen, and how much it affected an unborn baby. Still, I could not hold my flinch back when you tried to kiss my hand.
Despite the harelip, you were a good servant, Jaafar. You obeyed every single order without hesitation. Appah and Amboh only had good words for you whenever your Babo came to visit. But you wet your mat almost every night. I never did such a thing, and you were born one Ramadan before I was. You cannot blame me for laughing whenever your mat gets soaked after another night of failing to hold your pee in.
You were everywhere, Jaafar. I did not want any other playmates. They did not have a harelip like you did. There were times when I could not tell whether you were laughing or crying. I liked to play with you to see how your harelip reacted to the things I did. You even laughed along with me, even if you knew you were laughing at yourself.
I loved bringing you with me to my Mohammedan classes. My classmates, much like me, also found your harelip interesting. We tell you to do the most mundane stuff, like talk, or laugh, or eat, and your harelip became our class clown.
“Dayang-Dayang, do you need me to do anything else?”
“Jaafar, smile for them,” and you would gladly do whatever I asked you to.
“Uyyy! Jaafar has a crush on Dayang-Dayang!”
“Dayang-Dayang has a harelipped boyfriend!”
“Do you like him too, Dayang-Dayang?”
These jokes from my classmates brewed something in you, Jaafar. I could tell. You liked it when we swam together in the sea. Afterwards, you washed my hair and rubbed my back, even if you did not need to. You took Goro’s beatings originally intended for me. I never asked you to. You know I would never do all these things for anyone, ever.
You were at your lowest point when your Babo died. I did not know how I was supposed to treat you during that time.
“I’m all right, Dayang-Dayang. I just want to be alone,” was what you would say whenever I would ask you to go to the beach and swim with me.
So I left you alone, Jaafar. But I overheard your conversation with my Appah. He was wondering why you refused my offer to visit the beach, like we often did.
“No one will love me like my Babo did, Pateyk.”
We grew up together, Jaafar. You witnessed how I bloomed into a young teenager. I witnessed how you grew into a fine, young man. Your harelip stayed with you, even if everyone eventually grew used to it. The trips to the beach stayed, but the routine we have previously established went away with our innocence. During a particular time at the beach, you muttered a question nervously.
“Would you like me to rub your back or wash your hair, Dayang-Dayang?” I raised an eyebrow at you.
“Are you out of your mind, Jaafar?”
That day was the first and only time I left the beach alone. The days that followed were spent pretending that never happened. Things were back to normal after that. I never did learn to hold my laughter in during your attempts to capture my attention with your infamous harelip.
My other friends were starting to get married, one by one. Amboh hinted at arranging my marriage to a young Datu from Bonbon soon enough. I could not object. I did not know if I wanted to object. After all, my life was planned out before I was even born, and I could not ask for anything more. Appah and Amboh never deprived me from the luxuries they could offer. I had everything I needed and I was given anything I wanted.
“Do I deserve any of this, Jaafar?”
You looked at me, and your harelip trembled slightly as you raised your hand to touch my face.
“Don’t ever let anyone think you don’t deserve the world, my Dayang-Dayang.”
Appah arranged for a huge dinner to introduce me to my husband-to-be. I did not dislike him, but I did not like him either. The real issue was I did not know a thing about him. But I had to admit, the young Datu’s physical appearance did not hurt.
Appah wanted us to get married as soon as possible. The days that followed our first meeting were spent for pre-wedding flurries. The only thing I had to do was to fit what I had to wear for the occasion. Everything else was up to Amboh and Appah.
I should not complain. I had every reason not to. I am one of the most blessed daughters in the world. But I did not want to be away from my parents. I was not ready to leave the big astana behind. All my life, I was with people I trusted. Why am I being forced to marry a stranger?
But there I was, waiting for my life to take that terrifying leap it won’t recover from.
The wedding day came two weeks after we met. Datu Muramuraan knew so many people, I can hardly keep count. So that was what the astana extension was for. Appah wanted our astana to accommodate these people who came to celebrate the union of two strangers in the name of marriage.
I caught you watching us, Jaafar. Your harelipped smile made me stifle a laugh in the middle of the supposedly sacred ceremony. That little exchange was my favorite memory during that night.
On our first night as a married couple, I forced myself to be intimate with Muramuraan.
“Dayang-Dayang, I will take care of you.”
I let him take care of me.
I let him explore my innermost crevices.
I let him roam every part of me.
Years flew by. I have learned how to tend a family. Waking up meant another day of looking after the people I love the most. The time has come. Finally, I am being referred to as Amboh. My husband has been nothing but good to me. Together, we live a peaceful life in Bonbon with our beautiful children.
Amboh and Appah could not be happier. The astana buzzed with life whenever we come home to visit. My sons came to love the place we grew up in. Where were you, Jaafar?
“Dayang-Dayang, we couldn’t find Jaafar after your wedding,” Amboh answered me as she combed her fingers through my hair.
I could have made you come with us. You could have lived with us, Jaafar. You did not need to be away from me. I did not want to be away from you. I did not know how to live without you, harelipped Jaafar.
Visits to the astana became less frequent after things got hectic. My sons grew old enough to go to Mohammedan school. On weekdays, I had to wake up before anyone else did. I had to take a bath and prepare the things they needed for school. I cleaned the house up a bit. Afterwards, I had to cook breakfast for everyone. No, I did not have anyone to help me do all these. Life is so much different from the one I was used to. But I grew used to this one, too. The love from family I made with Muramuraan was enough to keep me going.
That is, until Muramuraan got arrested. Jaafar, I did not know life could get this cruel. He dragged Appah with him to a mess he insinuated. I did not know he was brave enough to rebel, Jaafar. I did not know he could risk the life we built together for something he was more passionate about. To top it all off, Amboh died after Appah got arrested with Muramuraan. Everyone has left me.
But I had to be brave, too. Not in the same way my husband was, but in my own way. My sons did not have anyone else to depend on. I would never, ever, let go of the most precious gems in my life.
Jaafar, I was thankful the day you decided to show up. I thought you were dead. I was finally starting to get used to not depending on anyone, Jaafar. My sons needed me, my sons had no one else but me. But when you showed up, I could not hold back my tears. How I missed that harelip!
“Oh, Jaafar!” I hugged you with all the days I forgot to remember you.
Catching up meant having to accept how much you have went on without me.
“I live in Kanagi now, Dayang-Dayang.”
“What are you doing here in Bonbon?”
“I’m here for business. Panglima Hussin has cows he wants to sell.”
I wanted to ask if you were married, Jaafar.
“I see you’re a landsman now, eh?”
“Why, if Dayang-Dayang can live unlike the old days, then I can, too,” you were chuckling.
I felt ashamed of where I stand now. I turned away from you as I felt tears brim my eyes. I am sorry for being rude, Jaafar. But you do not need to see me crying now.
“May I go now, Dayang-Dayang?” I could not do anything but hope you saw me nodding my head. The sound of your footsteps disappeared after a little while. I was certain you would never leave me, Jaafar. I was ready to welcome you back into my life.
But I do not deserve you. I have been nothing but horrible to you, and it is unfair of me to expect the opposite from you. But you must know that I could never forget you, Jaafar. You are still everywhere—you and that harelip of yours.
Emmylou Shayne L. Layog is a student of the Creative Writing program of the University of the Philippines Mindanao.