Where Beauty Lies
a tale reimagining
“Why do they think I’m beautiful when they’ve never even seen me, Duku?” The oil lamp light reflected her profile to the wall. She looked much larger than she feels, but even her shadow flickered unsure.
“Some did, and word flies faster than the garuda, Roro,” Servant Duku brushed Roro Mendut’s hair in slow strokes. Its length passed the seat of the stool and it gleamed like the crow’s feathers. She flicked her index finger against her thumb across the length and with each flick tiny yellow flowers grew and adorned her mistress’s hair. She then proceeded to wrap the length of the hair to itself, creating a complex and heavy knot on the nape of Mendut’s neck. She was proud of her handiwork today.
“And why do you bother with this, when no one sees me.”
“General Wiraguna might want to visit you today. Who knows?”
“And why would I want to be beautiful for him?”
“Because you need all the help you can get.”
Mendut laughed bitterly, and her unfortunately beautiful face could only glow lovelier with it. “Can I trade all this beauty with freedom, Duku. Can I?”
“You are in pingit, Roro. Freedom has a different meaning here, but even so, often beauty does not eat at the same table with freedom.”
“Hmm.. neither do you, no matter what I say,” pointed Mendut. Servant Duku insisted that she will take all meals in the kitchen. Mendut imagined her crouched beside some stove as she eat scraps of rice and chili. She was also not allowed to be in the kitchen, so imagination was all she had.
The floor vibrates with heavy steps from outside. Servant Duku took a peek behind the blinds. “General Wiraguna.”
Wiraguna crunched his fist tight. Damn the woman for being so stubborn. If she was a man he would’ve beaten her senseless by now. She looked demure with a slight smile carved on her lips. He knew it for false but wanted it all the same.
“With all due respect, General, I am betrothed to another man. Surely you cannot break this on your honour.”
“That is a lie, why would your father give you to this Pranacitra? I found you in Pragolo’s house. If anyone’s, you would’ve been his. But I killed him and so now you should be mine.”
“Know that I am forever grateful for killing Lord Pragolo. But he, too, held me against my will and engagement. Unfortunately my father is now under stones and earth that he cannot tell you this himself.” Fleetingly, she recalled her own hand in Lord Pragolo’s death. Not her hand exactly, but..
Wiraguna shook as if he held lava. “Pranacitra..” he mumbled.
Mendut held expression still. Her cloth bindings felt tight and bit into her skin, reminding her of what she is. Within her, something stirred awake like a long pact. She spoke within, Sleep, I do not need you now.
Wiraguna squinted and said, “Your father had large debts with the kingdom. You are required to pay this to the king. Otherwise, if you were to marry me..”
Roro Mendut pursed her lips, oblivious that even this action pulled a string within Wiraguna. She did not expect that angle, but the man was smart too. She lowered her eyes to her lap. “Very well…”
She could feel Wiraguna’s bloated inhale and the Servant Duku leaned forward beside her on the floor.
“I will pay this debt.”
“WHAT?” His eyes bulged as his face turned red.
“Roro..” Servant Duku started to speak. Both Mendut and Wiraguna snapped their head and glared at Duku. It was completely out of line of her to speak up without being asked. She scooted backwards and lowered her head down to floor.
Mendut continued, “Yes, I will pay this debt. But, I cannot earn anything within these walls, surely you know this. So you are obligated to allow me to go outside to earn this money for you.”
Wiraguna reeled, not only did she refused him, she was asking for more! The nerve. What were the chances for a woman like her to earn anything, though? Unless she was planning to sell…
“Are you selling yourself in the market? Why not marry me then!”
“Of course not. I will find something to do without compromising my honour.”
“Huh! Fine, let’s see how much you can get. Maybe you’ll sell cigarettes, huh? Or vegetables. You can go out for ten candles worth a day. You have three moons to earn the debt.”
“Twenty candles and five moons.”
“Hah! Fifteen candles, three moons. And you must not let anyone see your flesh. No more!”
Why don’t you let me kill him for you? Mendut’s inner turmoil finally awoke her demon.
“Roro, you must have lost your mind, how are you going to get all that money in three moons! Are you really not going to sell yourself?” Servant Duku crawled in front of her.
“No,” she announced to both. “I must find a way.”
“What if he finds out the truth about Pranacitra?”
Pranacitra, this name again. Did I not kill him?
Mendut shifted her sarong as she stilled her heart. He must not be allowed to read her mind. Yes, you did. We did. I lied to Governor Wiraguna.
“Enough about Pranacitra. Leave me. I must think on how to solve this.” She shooed Servant Duku away. Servant Duku bowed, the ends of her sarong swished as she crept backwards on her squat.
You won’t be able to easily keep me asleep again, now that I’m awake. Now tell me what’s been happening. Her shadow on the wall formed a different image, something closer to a nightmare than beauty.
Thank you for reading. I’m working on a continuation but I have no timeline. Please let me know if you want to read more.
This is a loose reimagining of a classic 17th century story “Roro Mendut”, which is a part of Babad Tanah Jawi — an ancient historical text in Java region.
“Roro” is a title given to daughters of royal blood.
“Pingit/pingitan” is the time/process where a daughter is held at home in preparation for her marriage. She is not allowed out and visitors are restricted.
Other translations of titles may not be entirely accurate since the title structures are complex and may not translate directly to English.