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Nalar’s Mask

Femmy Syahrani has loved stories and language since childhood. She always took along a book wherever she went and, at an early age, took up learning the Sundanese alphabet and sign language. During college, Femmy was introduced to translation, which combined her interest in reading and learning a language. After she graduated, she worked for five years as an editor at an Islamic publishing house. She then began freelance translation. Over the past twenty years, Femmy has translated dozens of books and numerous non-literary projects, covering various topics. Femmy can be reached at



Nalar’s Mask


Nalar has been running a fever for three days. Usually, a wet compress or some shallot slices on her forehead quickly dispels such fevers. Yesterday, her grandmother took her to see Mak Moyong, a healer of children, who said it was a bout of epilepsy. But Nalar’s fever persisted, even after her grandmother made her drink Mak Moyong’s tonic.

When I receive my weekly paycheck later this afternoon, I will take Nalar straight to Doctor Kiki. The public clinic will be closed by the time I finish my shift at the factory, but I can’t bear to wait until tomorrow. Nalar’s fever is very high. As her mother, I need to take responsibility. We haven’t been getting along during this past year and I might have contributed to her condition by upsetting her.

It all started when Nalar saw me perform the mask dance with my mother in the village and demanded that I teach her. I refused. The hereditary line of mask dancers should end with me and go no further. Besides, mask-dancing gigs are not as plentiful as they used to be when I was a teenager. When the interest and requests dwindled, I took a job at a cigarette factory. My regular paycheck, little as it is, proved to be a more reliable source of income than the compensation I received for dancing. It supports the four of us: my mother, Danu, Nalar, and me.

In addition to a mask dancer’s unpredictable income, I didn’t have the heart to let Nalar endure the series of rites I had gone through. Rituals such as performing three kinds of fasts: puasa mutih, when one only eats rice; ngrowot, when one only eats tubers; and a full fast on Mondays and Thursdays. At certain times, I had to sleep on the floor without any mattress, or perform the tapa kungkum, which is meditating while submerged in water.

I had gone through these rituals because I had no other choice. It wasn’t that I didn’t like dancing, but this household had lost its men. Both my father and my husband were gone; they had been fated to die before their wives. I couldn’t possibly let my mother, this late in her life, share the burden of earning a living. That burden should be mine alone.

Given these circumstances, I definitely didn’t want Nalar to become a mask dancer. I wanted her to stay in school, like all the other children, for as long as I could afford it. After she finished school, she would be able to get a job as a factory worker, a shopkeeper, or a sales clerk.

My hope vanished three months ago, when my mother took Nalar to the grave of Nalar’s great-grandmother in Gabusan Village, a two-hour bus ride away. When they came home, Nalar went straight to the room where I stored the masks and rummaged through the tidy collection. Then, right in front of me, she wrapped a long sash around her waist and put on the mask, holding it with her teeth.

My mother denied having taught Nalar to dance. Nalar herself did not say anything. She just pranced about and only stopped when I ripped the mask off her face.

Instead of discouraging the child, my mother was all the more eager to teach Nalar. With what was left of the set of gamelan musical instruments at home, my mother played music to accompany her granddaughter’s dancing.

The girl loved doing the lerep movement, stroking the tassels on either side of the mask while stamping her feet.

I wouldn’t have been too upset if my mother had only taught Nalar to dance, but then she began teaching the rituals she had taught me when I was Nalar’s age. The girl was too thin to practice the fasting rituals. As her mother, I’d be embarrassed if people thought that Nalar was malnourished. I’d lose face if she looked as if I wasn’t giving her enough to eat.

This is why I don’t like to hope—I’ve been betrayed too many times. I hoped Nalar would be able to work as a factory worker or a shopkeeper or a sales clerk. By holding onto my job of rolling cigarettes, I would at least be able to put her through high school. It’s true, she’s only seven now. She still could change and turn out the way I hoped, but once again, I hate hoping. I really hated it when my father died of malaria and my husband failed to come home after he headed out to sea three years ago.

Now, only one male remained in our family: Danu, Nalar’s brother, now in sixth grade. Many other families in my village put their hopes in their sons. I should have been like them, but I could not put my hopes on Danu. I could never trust a child I’d given birth to without knowing who the father was.

Perhaps because I did not accept Danu’s existence, he did not care about mine either. He lived with us, but he cared mostly about Nalar. She was more to him than just a half-sister—she was the toy I never bought him. A toy that responded to his touch and attention.

After Nalar began her dance lessons, Danu spent less time with the boys who hung out at Pak Gatot’s coffee shop. I used to catch Danu coughing from smoking the cigarettes they gave him. As soon as I passed by the shop, he made a show of puffing away, with one leg pulled up onto his seat, just like the truck drivers who loitered there.

Lately, Danu preferred to hang around Nalar during her dance lessons. He would watch while carving a mask out of kapok wood. I don’t know where he learned how to do that. He must have experimented on his own. His work improved from producing the ill-fitting masks he had carved in the beginning to the masks he now carved to the size of Nalar’s face.

I was glad that Danu no longer spent a lot of time hanging out at the coffee shop, but I still found many reasons to scold him— especially when I came home from the factory, exhausted. The wood shavings that littered the porch were perfect to scoop up and throw in his face. Blinking, he would hold back his anger and get a broom. Nalar could do nothing but cry.

My anger at Danu peaked when Nalar became ill. It started four days ago, when I was offered a dance gig in a neighboring village. The rice merchant there had been elected as the village head. I was requested to perform the tayub dance with Yu Wasis.

My mother didn’t approve of me dancing the sexually-suggestive tayub. She thought it was better to stick to mask dancing. She said it was more respectable than the tayub. I couldn’t care less about that; what mattered was to have money to buy rice.

Nalar apparently had heard from Danu that I had a dance gig and looked for me, sulking, because she wanted to watch.

Danu managed to convince my mother that he could look after his sister, and they went after me.

I didn’t see them at first, my whole attention was focused on how many lustful men I could entice by placing my scarf around their necks. The men were certainly generous with the money they tucked into my torso wrap.

As the night progressed, I grew unsatisfied with the dozens of hands that groped at my breasts. I heard that the rice merchant, who was hosting the event, was my secret admirer. He would surely tip me a large sum of money if I could get him to bed me. Unfortunately, I was unable to act on my plan.

Just before midnight, I saw Nalar and Danu standing, stunned, in the back row of the audience. The playful, seductive smile froze on my lips the moment I saw Nalar’s ashen face. As Kang Jono, slipped his hand into my cleavage, Nalar looked like she was about to cry. I immediately ran off the stage and dragged my two children away. Let tonight’s fortune fall to Yu Wasis.

The entire way home, I herded my two children in a state of turmoil. Nalar buried her face between my breasts as I carried her in my arms. Danu didn’t make a sound. There was only the shuffle of his bare feet as he hurried to match my stride.

As soon as we got home, I went straight to the bedroom and put Nalar, who was already asleep, in bed. Then I came back out and grabbed Danu, who had been standing motionless in the living room.

My mother kept shouting, “What on earth is going on?” but I didn’t answer. I dragged Danu into the mask storage room, ignoring his crying. While I locked him in the storage room, I could hear him sobbing.

The next morning, I woke up to Nalar’s hot forehead stinging my armpit. “Mas Danu. Mas Danu,” she murmured with her eyes closed. Her soft voice calling for her brother propelled me out of bed. I changed my mind about keeping Danu locked up in the room. Nalar would be comforted when she saw him.

I couldn’t find Danu—the door to the mask room was no longer locked. My mother must have unlatched it early in the morning. But when I asked her, she denied it.

“The door was like that when I woke up,” she said, as she grated a coconut.

After that time, I never saw Danu at home anymore.

Nalar’s temperature began to fluctuate after Danu left. I took her several times to the public clinic and to the more expensive doctors, but they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. We tried all kinds of medicine — modern and traditional — but the results were all the same. Nalar seemed calm and her condition improved only when she held the mask Danu had made for her.

Since Nalar became sickly, my financial condition worsened. The cigarette factory was temporarily shut down. Friends told me that the family who built and owned the fifty-year-old cigarette company was going to sell it. There were fewer requests for tayub performances.

Fortunately, Pak Saidi, a gamelan musician who often played the accompaniment for my dances, told me about a rally that wanted to have a mask dance.

“How come they’re not asking for the tayub?” I asked.

“Tayub draws a bigger crowd,” Pak Saidi said, “but the leader wants respectable performers for the event. And because the event is about—what do you call it— concern for our national arts, they’re bringing together performers from the area.”

“But they’re only choosing the ones who perform respectable dances. That’s not fair,” I protested.

“Well, what do I know—I’m only doing what I’m told. And they ask that all masks be painted green, to show concern for the environment.”

“What’s with these people? One minute it’s about the arts, the next it’s the environment.”

“That’s how you rally people to vote for you. Candidates do anything that makes them look good,” said Pak Saidi.

I ignored tearful pleas from Nalar, who didn’t want the masks in the house to turn green. I spared only one—the mask that Danu had made for her. I didn’t want her temperature to go up again while I was dancing. At least, after I received my compensation for my performance, I would be able to take her to the doctor in the city.

On the afternoon of the dance, I asked my mother to watch over Nalar at home. Since she began having fevers, I didn’t dare be away from the girl for too long. Nalar sulked when I said good-bye and wouldn’t let me kiss her cheeks. Refusing to look at me, Nalar hid her face in her grandmother’s lap.

After the political party leader who was hosting the event delivered his opening speech, an angklung group was the first to perform. I was scheduled to come after the musicians playing the bamboo instruments finished their piece. Although it wasn’t an official government event, it was crowded with villagers who hungered for entertainment. The distribution of free packages of the nine basic  staples: rice, sugar, cooking oil, milk, egg, salt, fruits and vegetables, meat, and cooking fuel before the party started was surely an added motivation to attend.

I mindfully donned the mask and slowly rose from my cross-legged sitting position. Starting with my back to the audience, I turned around after I made sure that my mask was securely fastened. It was then, when I looked around through the eye slits of my mask, that I saw Nalar and Danu standing among the audience in the back. They were holding hands.

I stopped dancing. My body froze. From behind my mask, I saw Nalar smile. She held her favorite mask in her hand. Slowly, she put it on her face. Then, still holding hands, my two children turned around and walked away to God only knows where.

That was the last time I saw them.




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