Indah Lestari was born in Singapore and lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. She completed her B.A. in English Literature from Padjadjaran University, Indonesia, and an M.A. in English Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. She translated JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and another novel (in editing process) into Indonesian. Her poems have appeared in Bacopa, Revival, and The White Elephant Quarterly in 2013.
The Eleventh Saint
The assassins hired by the village chief of Lading Kuning sought to murder Sheikh Muso and throw his body into the sea. But Sheikh Bintoro wanted to show the villagers that the blasphemous preacher was nothing more than a rotten dog…
He was not a preacher. Nor had he ever invited the people in the kampong, the native village, which turned into an egret’s haven at twilight, to recite the Koran in the mosque. But out of the blue the villagers regarded Said Barikun as a religious leader and called him Sheikh Muso. He did not have the ability to walk on water, but according to rumors of the fishermen’s village, he was able to part the sea with a staff and walk on the seabed. Surrounded by walls of water, it was as if he walked in a giant aquarium.
He was not only believed to be able to imitate the miracles known to be performed by the Prophet Moses, one villager told in detail that Sheikh Muso survived being swallowed by a sort of dragon, a buffalo, and a giant shark, and he was inside each beast’s belly overnight. Because of these stories, the villagers believed that Sheikh Muso was actually the Prophet Jonah sent to save the kampong from ruin and injustice.
Besides staying in the shark’s belly and standing on the seabed between walls of seawater, according to the children Sheikh Muso could talk with all kinds of fish and marine life. Like the Prophet Solomon, he talked with birds, fowl, creeping animals, buffaloes, cows, goats, and all other animals roaming nearby.
“Did Sheikh Muso tell the fish about us?”
“No. The flying fish told my grandpa about their plight. They said that human beings have become greedier. In the past, people never wanted to eat flying fish, but now they grill them every night,” said Azwar, Sheikh Muso’s teenaged grandson, to his friends.
“What did Grandpa Muso do inside the shark’s belly?”
“My grandpa asked the fish and all living creatures to chant praises to Allah,” Azwar told the small kids who wished their grandfather had the same magical powers as Grandpa Muso. “My father said my grandpa was also able to fly and make himself disappear.”
“Did Sheikh Muso fly on a buraq?”
“No. He used a sarong.”
“Did he disappear like a ghost?”
“No. He vanished like Prince Diponegoro.”
Sheikh Muso’s ability to fly and vanish caused rumors that he was able to say his prayers at the Masjid al-Haram mosque in Mecca, and pray in seclusion at the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi mosque in Medina whenever he wanted. The villagers believed Sheikh Muso founded a kampong and erected a mosque in seven days, and they ordained him the Eleventh Saint.
There must have been reasons why the mild-mannered man who spent his life planting mangroves in the abrasion-ridden cape earned that title. On the island of Java the line of saints ends at the noble Ninth Saint. However, years later a bedtime story about a Tenth Saint who was immune to all weapons and mastered silat, martial arts, was often told. The name of the saint who possessed these supernatural powers was Basir Burhan. His twin brother, Said Barikun, was Sheikh Muso, or the Eleventh Saint.
Basir Burhan, or Sheikh Bintoro, lived in the district known as Raden Fatah Palace. He only arrived on Fridays to lead the prayers. He never allowed Sheikh Muso to recite a single verse. “As soon as he delivers a verse at the mosque, this cape will drown,” said Sheikh Bintoro, who considered every word that came out of Sheikh Muso’s mouth blasphemy.
Sheikh Muso had never been a guru, yet everything that he did was considered as setting an example. He had never killed an egret and the villagers regarded egrets as sacred animals not to be harmed. Since he spent all of his time planting mangroves, the villagers considered destroying the wave-blocking trees a sacrilegious act.
But not all of Sheikh Muso’s actions were easy to follow. In spite of many attempts, none of the villagers learned to be medicine people. Any flower that Sheikh Muso mixed with water cured diseases. Only one or two villagers knew the secret of Sheikh Muso’s healing power, but their cures were not as effective as his.
Sheikh Muso did not have a congregation. Yet every evening a lot of people gathered at his peaceful house. Although Sheikh Muso did not teach anything, the villagers learned from this great man.
If a child asked about the whereabouts of its parents, the answer would be, “Your father is absorbing knowledge and your mother is learning about life at Sheikh Muso’s house.”
Sheikh Bintoro knew something was wrong with the teaching of Sheikh Muso. A law was broken, and on a stormy Friday he paid his twin brother a visit. Just as on previous nights, Sheikh Muso sat surrounded by the villagers. They discussed the essence of the egrets and mangrove trees.
“Sheikh Muso, please help us understand the importance of the egrets,” asked a woman with the innocent face of a rabbit.
“I know nothing of egrets.”
“Come on, you taught us not to kill egrets. The angels must have whispered to you to leave the birds alone to perch on the tree branches.”
Sheikh Muso neither shook his head nor nodded.
“Are the egrets immortal and is that why their number is so great we can’t count them on all the fingers of the entire village? Or do most of them die on Tuesday and resurrected by Allah on Saturday?”
Again, Sheikh Muso neither shook his head nor nodded.
“Why are you silent, Sheikh Muso? Do Allah and the angels once in a while transform into egrets and that is why you forbid us to kill them?”
Sheikh Muso only smiled.
“Are you going to tell us that there are no angels other than those egrets? Are you going to say that there is no God other than Sheikh Muso, you yourself?”
Sheikh Muso only smiled. He neither shook his head nor nodded.
“Why are those mangroves so important to us?” asked a young man with a face as cunning as a fox.
“I know nothing of mangroves.”
“If so, why do you only plant mangroves on this cape? Did you bring all those trees from heaven?”
Sheikh Muso kept quiet. He shivered as the storm grew wilder and the wind whipped his fragile frame.
“Could it be that in every leaf God’s beautiful verses are inscribed? Are those trees are a reminder of God at all times?”
Sheikh Muso remained silent. He was chilled to the bone and shivering. It seemed impossible to answer the questions of the villagers thirsty to learn the secrets of life.
“Are mangrove trees more important than other trees? Is that why you are so preoccupied with planting them that you continue to work even through prayer time?”
Instead of responding to the question, Sheikh Muso started to leave the house. He wanted to spend time in seclusion at land’s end.
“Don’t go yet!” shouted Sheikh Bintoro, who had hid behind a tree.
Sheikh Muso did not heed the thundering call. He continued hurriedly toward land’s end.
“Stop your blasphemous teaching!” Sheikh Bintoro shouted louder.
In his opinion Sheikh Muso preached blasphemy, as Sheikh Muso did not answer the questions of the villagers as stipulated by the sharia, Islam law. Not answering the questions meant agreeing with all they said, and this was dangerous for the workings of religion. It was also dangerous for him because he seemed to be fighting his own shadow. Everything Sheikh Muso did was like seeing his own reflection disrupt the previously still glass-clear lake water.
“If you don’t stop your blasphemous teaching, Allah will take your life. Believe me!”
Still Sheikh Muso did not listen. He hurriedly left Sheikh Bintoro with his heart-breaking suspicions.
“I know nothing of blasphemy. So why would God take my life?” Sheikh Muso said softly. He stared at the open sea and the lightning that scratched the gloomy and darkening sky.
He was upset that no one understood him, not the villagers and or even Sheikh Bintoro, the twin he loved so much.
Did Allah take away Sheikh Muso’s life? Allah never interferes in trivial matters. Allah had a hand in the miracle of the Prophet Noah, who saved people from the flood with a brittle ark, but stayed out of the matters of egrets and mangroves; these issues were between Sheikh Muso and Sheikh Bintoro. Allah also had a hand in the miracle of the spider that protected the Prophet Mohammad in the cave, but did not want to judge who is right and who is wrong in their ways of praising Him. Did Sheikh Bintoro think the sharia is more truthful? Had Sheikh Muso ever taught a misleading verse? Allah is not willing to answer such trivial questions.
Was it Allah who finally took away Sheikh Muso’s life? Allah did not have a hand in the killing of Sheikh Muso. It was the village chief who wanted Sheikh Muso to be killed sooner than later. Sheikh Muso was considered his most dangerous foe because, besides having many followers, the great man and his gullible students were accused of stealing from the houses of village officials and village chiefs.
Not wanting to be known as unable to secure the village and abolish the hoodlums, the village chief hired assassins to murder Sheikh Muso. The chief actually wanted to kill Sheikh Muso with his own hands, but he did not want to look cold-blooded. So he used someone else’s hands to remove Sheikh Muso from the cape that was becoming the most prosperous area among the coastal villages. He hired eleven assassins.
Why eleven? The chief believed Sheikh Muso would transform himself into eleven warriors unbeatable by eleven ordinary men. It would take humans with extraordinary meanness and killing instinct to slay Sheikh Muso.
Before he issued the order for Sheikh Muso’s murder to the eleven assassins, the chief said, “It’s true he never stole anything for himself. He always gave his bounty to poor people. Nevertheless, he is evil although he is called ‘the good thief.’” The eleven men did not care about the chief’s reason.
“Actually, Sheikh Muso can be defeated by Sheikh Bintoro. But Sheikh Bintoro asked for my help to get rid of Sheikh Muso,” the chief went on.
The eleven men did not listen to the chief’s explanation. After receiving payment, they left the area and headed to the edge of the cape.
However, the tough battle between Sheikh Muso and the eleven assassins at land’s end never occurred. Passing through the mangrove forest far before the spot, the assassins were trapped by creeping roots that wrapped around their bodies.
As if following a command, the roots miraculously writhed like snakes and snared the assassins, and brought their bodies down so they sunk into the mud. They were unable to move and looked from a distance like ancient statues standing stiff in the darkness of the night.
The mangrove roots were not ordered to kill. The caring roots only meant to scare these men. As the roots finally loosened and the mud did not bury them alive, the assassins scampered away.
“We couldn’t have killed him,” one of the assassins reported to the village chief.
“We didn’t even look at his face!”
“Lights covered his body!”
The chief did not question the eleven men.
“Don’t be afraid. You’ll win. I’ll ask Sheikh Bintoro to help you.”
The assassins shivered. They had thought they faced a terrifying death. They imagined the mangrove roots choking them or the pointed root tips piercing their eyes.
“Sheikh Muso will be defeated by himself,” said the chief. “Since Sheikh Muso and Sheikh Bintoro are twin brothers, only Sheikh Bintoro can defeat the invulnerable man.”
The assassins did not understand what the chief said. They kept shivering. The death angel with boats from heaven came closer and closer.
Sheikh Muso was meditating at land’s end when Sheikh Bintoro and the eleven assassins arrived at a place the villagers considered to be haunted. Here tree roots crept like snakes, causing anyone at land’s end to live in everlasting fear.
Allah did not seem to want to address all the things Sheikh Muso or Sheikh Bintoro would do. Neither did He delegate the mangrove roots to kill, so the cape turned tranquil. At that moment the angel Gabriel whispered to Sheikh Muso. “Do what Sheikh Bintoro asks you, even if he wants to stab a kris, a dagger, into your belly.”
The angel Gabriel also whispered to Sheikh Bintoro: “You don’t need to kill your twin brother. Your job is only to ask him to go moksha, seek redemption.”
The twins faced each other. The eleven assassins noticed that they did not exchange a word. They only held each other’s eyes. Yes, it is true they did not exchange a word, but engaged in an unspoken, secret conversation.
“I tell you once more, I don’t teach your congregation anything.”
“But you have turned into an idol.”
“I only do Allah’s will.”
“Yes, but your actions have become a decree from Allah. Whatever you do, even if it’s wrong, is regarded as law.”
“I’ve already told them I’m nobody.”
“But they are blinded. They regard you as a saint and have forgotten the Prophet’s teachings.”
“If so, I will leave this cape.”
“Go to a remote place.”
“Yes, I will go. Now leave me alone.”
Then Sheikh Bintoro took a few steps back. He joined the assassins.
“You don’t need to kill Sheikh Muso. He died. While he seems to be standing up and meditating at land’s end, he has actually died. What you see is only his body; his soul has departed.”
The assassins shivered when they heard Sheikh Bintoro’s words. They felt like having witnessed a grand battle without having to watch blood gushing from Sheikh Muso’s belly.
Did Sheikh Muso die?
“We managed to kill him. We tossed his body into the sea,” one assassin reported to the village chief.
“Sheikh Bintoro has no supernatural power. He became frightened and ran away when he stood face to face with Sheikh Muso.”
“We knew Sheikh Muso’s Achilles’ heel. When I stabbed his belly fresh blood flowed heavily. He bled so much that when we threw the body into the water, the sea turned red instantly.”
“We have nothing to fear anymore. There is no more ‘good thief’ and no more creeping roots with pointed tips that pierce the eyes. Everything is over.”
The chief smiled as he listened to the reports. He envisioned the adipati, and tumenggung, the royalty and government officials, as well as every villager praising him for abolishing Sheikh Muso from the cape, which would become a more desirable place for everyone.
Did Sheikh Muso die?
No one told the villagers about Sheikh Muso’s death. That night Sheikh Bintoro carried a sweet-smelling body wrapped in kafan, a sheet of unbleached muslin traditionally used to swaddle the dead, and invited several people to say prayers.
“Who is he?” someone asked.
“Is it Sheikh Muso?” another villager asked.
Sheikh Bintoro did not reply. He signaled to undo the tie around the neck of the corpse. When the tie came off, the people in the room trembled in fear. A decomposing dog lay under the bloodstained kafan.
“Are you Sheikh Muso?” someone shouted hysterically at the rotting dog.
There was no answer. Sheikh Bintoro rushed off, leaving the stunned kampong dwellers. A deep, deathly silence shrouded the mosque.
“Did your grandpa transform into a rotting dog?”
Azwar, Sheikh Muso’s dearest grandchild, did not reply. Yet he knew with certainty that Sheikh Muso had actually gone moksha to the sea. He walked on the seabed and saw fish performing dzikir to Allah by the seawalls erected by Sheikh Muso’s staff.
He was also certain that soon Sheikh Muso would be inside the belly of the giant shark having a conversation about the glory of Allah with small creatures that at night became the sea monster’s prey.
“Come on, Azwar, Sheikh Muso was in fact merely a rotten dog, was he not?”