Winner of the 2017 Viva La Novella Prize
Sparked by the description of a ‘Malay trollope’ in W. Somerset Maugham’s story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’, Mirandi Riwoe’s novella, The Fish Girl tells of an Indonesian girl whose life is changed irrevocably when she moves from a small fishing village to work in the house of a Dutch merchant. There she finds both hardship and tenderness as her traditional past and colonial present collide.
Told with an exquisitely restrained voice and coloured with lush description, this moving book will stay with you long after the last page.
In the darkness before dawn the village men row out in their boats that are shaped like the half-pods from the criollo tree, and in the heat of the day the women scale, clean and smoke the fish the men bring home.
When Junius comes from town in search of cheap labour for the Dutch Resident’s kitchen, he calls out to the villagers in their Sunda dialect.
An older, leathery fisherman steps forward. ‘My daughter is good with the scaling knife.’ His voice grates, as if a fish bone jags his throat.
‘How old is she?’ Junius asks.
The fisherman stares at him for a few moments and then shakes his head. ‘She comes to here,’
he says, holding his fingers level with the bottom of his earlobe.
Junius’s eyebrow lifts. Although he has only a quarter Dutch blood, he is paler than the crowd of under-dressed men before him, and knows how to wear trousers and a necktie. ‘Bring her to me. I’ll have to look at her first.’
The fisherman disappears in search of his daughter, while the others press the virtues of their family members on the man from town. Two women, still clutching the baskets they are weaving, babies nestled close to their chests in batik slendangs, cry out to him, urge him to take their older daughters. A group of men approaches from the beach, tying their sarongs tight about their hips, bare feet shuffling along the sandy earth. Some of them ignore Junius, return to their shacks clustered in neat rows behind the ceremonial hut, but three younger ones stay on, push to the front of the crowd.
Soon the older fisherman returns, followed by a slight girl, her midriff and legs wrapped in a roughly woven sarong. Her straight hair hangs over her face so that only a glimpse of her eyes and nose is visible. Her feet are bare and her shoulders, rounded forward, accentuate her small, pubescent breasts.
She is jostled on either side by young men and women, hopeful to gain work in the Dutch quarters. The young men call out to Junius, grinning and joking, but the girl keeps her head bowed.
Junius nods to one lean man and then another, gesturing for them to join him, before stopping in front of the girl. ‘Pull your hair back.’
The girl, eyes still trained upon the ground, parts her hair with the backs of her hands, so that the shiny tresses arc like the wings of a black bird.
‘What is her name?’ Junius asks the fisherman.
Junius’s eyes linger on her high cheekbones and fine mouth and he nods. ‘She will do. Have her ready to leave in the morning.’
A sob of dismay rises in the girl’s chest but lodges in her throat like a frog in a tree hollow, for she knows better than to cry out. She has never roamed far from the edges of the tiny village, no further than a few metres into the forest that backs onto the beach. Even when the other children disappear deep into the shadowy folds of the casuarina trees to play, she stays behind to help her mother sweep the house or scrape the fish. How will she bear to be so far away from everything she knows?
Following her father the short distance to their home, she keeps her face lowered, away from the gaze of curious villagers. They reach their hut, elevated on short stilts, the walls a medley of bark and timber with a shaggy, thatched roof. Her mother is standing on the narrow landing.
‘What have you done?’ she asks, her chapped fingers clutching at her sarong. Her eyes switch from her husband to her daughter and then back to her husband. ‘What have you done?’
The old fisherman simply stares at his wife. His eyes are bloodshot — are always bloodshot — as if the glittering sun has saturated him with its heat. He eventually shrugs past her into the darkness of the hut.
Mina doesn’t enter as there is only the one room. She can already hear her mother’s voice, soft and plaintive, working at her father, and his low grunts in response. They very rarely exchange harsh words, the last time being two years before when her father wanted Mina to wed. Her mother succeeded in dissuading him then, saying she was too young. Would she succeed this time?
Mina walks down to the beach and contemplates the small triangles of silver fish arrayed on the nets. Her mother has laid them out to dry but it is becoming dark, so Mina wraps them in spare netting and pulls the lot up to the side of the hut, away from night-time predators. She knows that tomorrow there will be more fish, damp and fleshy, ready to be scaled and gutted. And that the next day there will be even more. She stares at her feet, at the sand and strands of grass, and for the first time feels a flicker of curiosity. What will be expected of her at the Dutch house? More fish?
Standing at the corner of the hut, next to a cluster of freshly salted sardines strung to the end of a rod, she listens for her parents, but all is quiet now. Her father comes out and sits on the end of the landing and lights a rokok, the aura of clove and tobacco smoke rising above his head. A metallic clatter of cooking echoes out from the back and she joins her mother at the fire. She’s frying chilli and fish paste and despite herself, Mina feels hunger stir in her stomach. She squats down and begins to break apart some salted fish to add to the pot.
‘Do I have to go?’ she asks.
Her mother wipes the side of her nose with the heel of her hand as if to brush away tears, although she’s not crying. She nods. ‘Yes.’
‘But why? Have I done wrong?’
There are creases between the older woman’s brows from when she frowns against the glare of the sun and privation. These lines have become deeper with time, and now resemble keen, inch-long slices in her forehead. She shakes her head, chopping kangkung to add to the fish. ‘No. No, it’s not that, Tak-tak.’ Mina knows she’s not in trouble when her mother uses her nickname, starfish. Her mother tosses the greens into the pan and stirs them about, and then wipes sweat from her upper lip. ‘Your father thinks you will be better off there. You can work, and maybe even send us things sometimes.’
Her mother shrugs. ‘Food? Maybe clothing.’
‘Your father says you will exchange your hours of work for things we need, like more spice and tobacco.’
‘But how will I do this?’
‘I am not sure,’ her mother answers, shaking her head slowly. ‘Your father thinks your Dutch master will allow you to visit us once in a while, so maybe then you could bring us back some goods.’
Mina rests back onto her haunches, and sniffs at the salty fish crumbled against her fingers. ‘What work will I do there?’
‘What you do here, I expect. Cooking, sweeping, washing.’ Her strong, bony hand squeezes Mina’s knee. ‘But you must behave yourself. Remember where you come from. Remember your father and me. Remember one day you must return to us, Tak-tak.’ Her voice is quivering now, and Mina feels the force of tears against the back of her eyes. ‘And never let anyone see this,’
her mother adds, folding back a corner of the girl’s sarong.
They stare at the scaly, red rash that covers her inner thighs.
Mina swiftly re-covers her mottled skin, conscious of the fire’s heat upon the weeping sores.
The three of them have their meal seated around the fire. They eat the rice and fish from banana leaves with their fingers, and Mina asks, licking the seasoning from her shiny fingertips, ‘What will I eat there?’
‘Food,’ her mother says.
‘Yes, but what kind of food? Will it be the same as here?’
Her mother glances at her father, and she knows her mother is trying to gauge how long until he loses his temper and slopes off to smoke. ‘I’m not sure, Tak-tak. Shh, now.’
And what will she wear? What is the town like? Who will she work with? She asks herself these questions, a tremor of excitement finally mingling with the dread in her stomach, making her feel pleasantly sick like when she eats too much sirsak, the sweetness of the custard apple curdling in her stomach.
The evening sun sets as they clear away the pots, food and drying fish, and they retire to their rattan mats in the hut. Mina wonders where she will sleep in the Dutch house. She has only ever seen a white man once. He was tall, as willowy as a kanari sapling, and he wore strange clothes like the man from town. He’d trod through their village, peering into their huts, as curious as the villagers were as they gazed upon him.
Through a gap in the wall next to where she sleeps, Mina watches the swaying, frayed leaves of the coconut trees on the beach. The waves roll and clap further out to sea, and she hears the familiar hum of the ocean calling to her. Her father snores softly, but she knows her mother is lying awake too.