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Many Thanks to:

YABhg. Datuk Amar Puan Sri Hajjah Dr. Laila Taib for
her gracious and kind support. It is also thanks to her that
Uku Nyalo stepped on a thorn.
The CEO of the Sarawak State Library, Puan Rashidah Bolhassan,
who worked quietly behind the scenes to make our nomination
for the 2008 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award perfect.
Gerawat Gala for clueing me in on clouded leopards and war coats.
Journalists Zora Chan, Sharon Ling and Doreena Naeg
for their invaluable support.
My sister Aileen for editing, despite her heavy workload.
Ken Murayama, production manager, without whom
this book would be full of glitches.
Son-in-law Ken Choi for helping in the layout and design.
My brothers Liam and Pip, for their staunch support.
Professor Emeritus Herbert Whittier and his wife Dr. Patricia Whittier,
for their abiding interest.
My own family, for once again bearing patiently with me,
and without whom Precious Jade and Turnip Head would
never have seen the light of day.
Published in Malaysia by Fairy Bird Children’s Books Sdn. Bhd. 2007

Text Copyright © Margaret H. L. Lim 2007

Illustrations © Su Jen Buchheim 2007
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to persons, living or dead,
is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved.

No part of the contents of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted,
in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise,
without prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of
binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including
this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia, Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

Lim, Margaret H. L., 1947
Precious jade and turnip head / Margaret H. L. Lim ; with illustration by Su Jen Buchheim.
ISBN 978-983-42638-2-9
1. Children’s stories, English. I. Su Jen Buchheim. II. Title.

Cover and Book Illustrations by Su Jen Buchheim

Cover and Book Design by Kenneth Choi
Production Manager Ken Murayama

Printed and Bound by Wisma Printing, Kuching

Wisma Printing Sdn Bhd
P.O.Box A523, Kenyalang Park
93810 Kuching, Sarawak
Tel: +6082-338131 Fax: +6082-333002

Fairy Bird Children’s Books Sdn. Bhd. (691175-H)

Riverbank Suites, Unit # 1005
Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman
93100 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Margaret H. L. Lim

with Illustrations by Su Jen Buchheim

The gurgles of laughter came from Usun’s amin.

Inside the amin, Payah was pouting into a mirror she was holding in
her hand. She fluttered her eyelashes the way she saw her older sister,
Liren, flutter hers, while Usun looked on and laughed.

“Shush!” warned Payah. “I’m ready. Are they out there?”

Usun, giggling softly, tip-toed to the doorway of her amin and

cautiously stuck her head out. She shook her head. Payah came up

behind her and peered over her best friend’s shoulder. There was not a
soul in sight along the communal verandah, neither her grandmother
nor her irascible great aunt.

Gripping their new slippers firmly in their hands, Payah and Usun
made a dash for the stairs. Swiftly and sure-footedly, they went down
the notched log that led to the ground. Once clear of the longhouse,
Payah blew her cheeks out in an exaggerated sigh of relief.

The two girls were dressed for a party. They had also rouged their lips
and cheeks like the teenaged girls. This was the reason for all the stealth
and secrecy, for Payah’s grandmother and great aunt did not approve
of “painted faces.” But while Payah’s Uku would merely frown and
shake her head in disapproval, her great aunt would be
embarrassingly loud and scathing. Payah and Usun did not want their
fun on this particular day spoilt by humiliating remarks from Uku Nyalo.

They were on their way to visit their classmate, Precious Jade, down
in Kampong China, where the Chinese New Year had been ushered in
with a lot of ear-splitting bangs long before the fighting cocks had
started to crow.

A glowing Precious Jade welcomed them. Her cheeks were rosy and
her lips were red. She was a vision in pink. Her frock, a confection of
frills and flounces, made her look as if she was up to her neck in an
extra-frothy bubble bath.

After politely greeting Precious Jade’s mother, Payah and Usun set to
work on the delicacies Precious Jade handed around. They drank
brightly coloured liquids through plastic straws, wrinkling their
noses as the fizz tickled them. They were soon joined by Precious
Jade’s younger brother, a round-faced boy with a close-shaven head
and impish eyes.

He was called Chai Thau, Turnip Head.

“But that’s not a name!” exclaimed Payah, shocked.

“Four Eyes is not a name either,” retorted Precious Jade, referring to the
little orphan boy whom Payah had kept in hiding, but who was now
under the care of Payah’s great aunt, Uku Nyalo.

“He will be re-named when he’s a little bit older, when we know what
kind of person he will grow up to be. Will Turnip Head get a new
name?” asked Payah.

“No. He already has a real name, but we may not call him by this name.
It’s to prevent bad luck,” Precious Jade tried to explain. “He was born
with too much good luck, on a very auspicious day, which is unlucky
for us and him.”

“How?” asked Payah and Usun in unison, looking thoroughly baffled.

“The gods and spirits would be jealous of his double good luck and do
him and his close relatives harm,” said Precious Jade.

“What about you? You have such a beautiful name, Poh Giok. It means
Precious Jade, doesn’t it? Is it because you were born on a… on a…
ah… suspiciously unlucky day?” concluded Payah.

“Oh no. My birthday was not inauspicious. It was just as lucky,”

laughed Precious Jade, enjoying the look of utter bewilderment on the
faces of her friends. “I have foster parents instead.”

“Ah,” said Payah and Usun, nodding their heads sagely. This was
something they could understand. Kayan children, born face down, or
whose fathers had seen a bird of omen when they were still unborn,
were considered unlucky and given up for adoption.

“But you still live with your parents,” pursued Payah, trying to pick her
way through the muddle.

“It was not a real giving away. It was just to deceive evil spirits and
jealous gods.”

“Then why didn’t your parents just pretend to give away your brother?”
asked Payah, wrinkling her brow. She was beginning to feel as
confused as the gods and spirits.

“Boys are never given away, so they have to hide under a demeaning
name. Forever!” said Precious Jade, directing a smirk at her brother.

Her brother gave her a mischievous grin, stuck out his tongue, and
thwacked a rubber band in her direction. Precious Jade took a swipe at
him, but missed. Laughing gleefully, Turnip Head dug into one
bulging pocket and came up with a tub-like piece of cardboard which
he placed on the low table in front of them.

Quick as a wink, he whipped out a box of matches and set alight a

piece of thread that jutted out of the centre of the cardboard tub. There
was a loud WHOOSH as tiny balls of coloured lights shot upwards, hit
the ceiling and ricocheted.

The girls screamed and sprang from their seats. Hearing all the
commotion, Precious Jade´s parents, great-grandmother, and visiting
relatives rushed out of the back room. Their jaws dropped while their
horrified eyes followed the rainbow-coloured balls of light as they
ping-ponged about the room.

On the spot where they fizzled out were tiny heaps of white ashes.
But on the white-washed ceiling there were black pock marks. The new
settee cushions were singed in several places.

No one was more surprised than Turnip Head himself whose mouth
also hung open, startled by the havoc he had caused.

A wail of dismay from Precious Jade, who had discovered a hole in one
of the flounces of her skirt, galvanised her father into action.

“It said ‘Table Fireworks’on the label,” Turnip Head quavered, and
flinched as his father made straight for him.

Without much ceremony, and despite the fact that it was a day of joy,
good luck and goodwill, Turnip Head was yanked into the back room.
His enraged howls could be heard as his pockets were emptied and
everything that looked incendiary confiscated.

After the first shock, Payah found Turnip Head’s prank so hilarious
that she burst out into a fit of giggles. Usun soon joined in, tears
streaming down her cheeks. Their giggles were so infectious that
Precious Jade forgot the hole in her lovely new dress and laughed
hysterically with them. Turnip Head was still roaring his head off
when Payah and Usun left.

Payah and Usun kept the inhabitants of their longhouse entertained

for several days as they described the varied expressions of dumb
horror, sheer astonishment, or outright disbelief on the faces of all
those present as Turnip Head set off his tabletop fireworks. Only
Uku Nyalo was not amused. She was afraid that it might give Four
Eyes ideas.

Four Eyes regretted that he had not accompanied the girls. He had not
wanted to dress up and had gone fishing instead. He should have known
better. With Turnip Head around, there was never a boring moment.
Both were about the same age and got along like a house on fire.

It was a sultry afternoon. Four Eyes and Turnip Head were desultorily
kicking a ball around. They had been playing a game of marbles with
the older boys and had lost.

“It’s boring,” remarked Turnip Head dejectedly.

“Yah,” agreed Four Eyes, giving the ball another aimless kick.

“Let’s do something else,” suggested Turnip Head.

“Hide-and-seek?” proposed Four Eyes.

“Nah! Too boring.”

“Tag?” asked Four Eyes hopefully. He was very good at this game,
being so elusive that he was hardly ever caught.

“Nah! Too hot.”

Four Eyes suddenly lifted his nose to the wind, sniffing, just like his
puppy. He turned to Turnip Head with shining eyes.

“Hey, Uku Nyalo has cooked jagong. I’ll go and ask her for some.”

The mere thought of Uku Nyalo’s sweet corn, the kernels in tight rows,
tender and bursting with sweetness, lifted up the boys’ spirits. Four
Eyes was soon back with several cobs.

The boys lay sprawled in the shade of a rambutan tree, munching with
pleasure and savouring the smell and taste of freshly boiled corn.
Lazily, they watched Uku Nyalo’s hens pecking in the dirt some
distance away. Uku Nyalo was proud of her hens. They might be small
but they were good layers. She sold the eggs at the market in Belaga,
or bartered them for salt or sugar.

Turnip Head loosened a kernel from his cob and threw it at a hen that
had moved away from the rest of the brood. It took fright, squawked
and darted sideways, wings flapping. After a while, as nothing untoward
happened, it cautiously advanced and examined the golden kernel
with a beady eye. It took a quick peck, and then gobbled up the kernel.
Turnip Head threw another. Again it squawked in alarm but, drawn by
greed, it approached the kernel and bolted it down. It soon lost all
caution and darted hither and thither after the kernels, which Turnip
Head and Four Eyes were gleefully throwing about in all directions.

After a while, Turnip Head exchanged looks with Four Eyes. He got
up, followed by Four Eyes. The hen followed them both, intent on the
delectable kernels of sweet corn the boys were carefully dropping
behind them. Soon the three were out of sight of the longhouse.

Girlish chatter, interspersed with shrieks of laughter, mingled with the

drone of insects and calls of birds. Usun and Precious Jade were on
their way back, having spent the better part of the afternoon picking
paku and midin, edible ferns that grew in the cool, moist, shaded
undergrowth some distance away from Usun’s longhouse.

They were chatting gaily away when a sudden hiss made Precious
Jade jump with a squeal, and Usun draw up short with a thumping
heart. They looked fearfully around. There was another sharp hiss:


They clutched each other and remained rooted to the spot where
they stood. Sounds of crackling and snapping twigs followed. The
undergrowth rustled. A head thrust itself out of a thick clump of giant
ferns. A second head pushed past the first.

“You! You little imps!” screeched Precious Jade when she had got her
voice back.

“You gave us a fright!” shrieked Usun.

Turnip Head and Four Eyes, their heads poking out between the
fronds, grinned broadly.

“We’re having a picnic.” Four Eyes chuckled, and withdrew his head.
The ferns whipped back in place with a swish.

“Sis, come and join us,” urged Turnip Head, and scurried off after
Four Eyes.

With misgivings, Usun and Precious Jade gingerly parted the ferns
and followed. They had not far to go. They found the two boys
squatting beside the dying embers of a fire. They were pulling at a
blackened lump in the centre of it. A smell of burnt feathers and
cooked flesh hung in the air.

“Here, try this,” offered Four Eyes, tearing up the lump and holding out
a piece with charred feathers and what looked like entrails still
clinging to it.
The girls wrinkled their noses in disgust and looked distastefully at
the offering.

“Ayam Panggang.” said Turnip Head.

“We roasted it ourselves,” said Four Eyes proudly.

“Where did you get it from?” inquired Usun, a note of apprehension

creeping into her voice.

“It followed us.” Turnip Head shrugged dismissively, and continued on


Usun and Precious Jade traded looks of alarm. Precious Jade’s face

“Ai-yoh,”she wailed. “Uku Nyalo will be hopping mad!”

Payah had finally finished writing the last of the hundred lines:
“I must not forget my exercise book in future.” She surveyed her work
doubtfully. Her writing looked rather cramped and illegible towards
the end. She sighed, chewed on her pencil, and looked out. She saw
Precious Jade and Usun coming back with armfuls of edible ferns.
The shadows had grown a bit long, but she could still join them in
some game or other before Precious Jade had to go home. She
hurriedly shoved everything into her satchel.

Her joyful greetings were cut short as she saw the faces of her friends.
Usun looked grim and Precious Jade as if she had seen a ghost.

“What happened? What happened?” cried Payah fearfully.

“You tell her.” Precious Jade nudged Usun.

“OH NO!” exclaimed Payah in great dismay when she heard Usun’s
account of the two boys’ escapade.

“What do we do now?” Precious Jade wrung her hands in distress.

“It’s always better to tell the truth!” said Usun primly. “Tell Uku Nyalo.”

“NO!” Payah was thinking desperately. If this came to Uku Nyalo’s ears,
Four Eyes, who was temporarily under Uku Nyalo’s care, would be
thrown out on his ears.

“I don’t want to be a… a…, oh, you know what I mean, like a handbag,”
howled Precious Jade, too distraught to think clearly and utterly lost
for words.

“Handbag?” echoed Payah weakly. She gaped at Precious Jade.

Precious Jade must have gone mad!

“I know what she means,” said Usun. Her face brightened and she
exclaimed triumphantly:


“Accessory?” repeated Payah faintly. Usun had also taken leave of

her senses!

“That’s right.” explained Usun calmly. “We know for a fact what Turnip
Head and Four Eyes did to Uku Nyalo’s layer…”

“They… they… ate it!” croaked Precious Jade, shuddering at the memory.

“…so each of us is an accessory, after the fact,” finished Usun grandly,

with a toss of her head.

“So what?” challenged Payah.

“So we are partners in crime. So we get punished as well,” pointed
out Usun.

“Waaah.” bawled Precious Jade, her face crumpling.

“We’ll have to get rid of all the evidence!” said Payah decisively.
Having found Four Eyes in the first place, she felt accountable for all
his scrapes. At any rate, Uku Nyalo would hold her accountable.

“We?” Usun’s eyebrows shot up.

“I, then,” retorted Payah, her eyes flashing. “Chicken!” Though she
admired her best friend for her encyclopedic knowledge, she was often
irked by her prissiness.

“That’s called aiding and abetting. You can get imprisoned for that!”

“Double-chicken!” Payah shot back scornfully.

Uku Nyalo was smiling. But she was smiling smugly to herself.
The sun was low on the horizon, bathing her fruit trees with a warm
coppery glow. The sturdy stalks of her sweet corn, fattened by the
ashes from her hearth, and rising high above her head, were casting
soft shadows. She surveyed her domain contentedly.

She let her thoughts roam briefly to the city folks, to dwell disparagingly
on their amins, stacked one on top of the other, reaching up to pierce
the sky. Even her hens lived better than that.

She thought with pride of her layers roosting snugly in cardboard

boxes that she had lovingly lined with wood shavings and sawdust.
It was always her habit to check on them in the evening, retrieve the
last newly-laid egg or two, and bring a satisfying day to a close.

A frown ruffled Uku Nyalo’s brow as she peered into one of the boxes.
Her best layer was not in it. She clucked and called. Dusk was creeping
in, and insects whirled around her and hummed in her ears. She felt
their wings brush softly against her cheeks, and the occasional sting,
as a mosquito jabbed her with its proboscis. She slapped the air around
her and continued calling. Darkness descended abruptly, and still no
hen appeared. She clucked and cooed until the din of a myriad insects
drowned her voice.

Her brow deeply creased, Uku Nyalo returned to the longhouse and
informed everyone along the whole length of the communal verandah
of her loss. Everyone tried to console Uku Nyalo and make light of
her loss:

“Probably an ocelot, Uku Nyalo. Lots of those pesky wild cats around
here. I thought I saw one lurking in the branches of your mango tree
last evening.”

“A hawk. It can only be a hawk.”

“Ah, no. A kuleh, a clouded leopard. One was trying to bag my kill just
the other day.”

“You don’t have to look far, Uku Nyalo. It’s a buayak, I’m sure of it.”

“That’s it! Most probably that wily old crocodile lurking down by the
bend further up along the stream.”

“It’s just the nature of things, Uku Nyalo. You wouldn’t want to lose too
much sleep over it.”

But Uku Nyalo did not share the same philosophical viewpoint.

Ben Laing looked up irritably as Uku Nyalo burst in upon him while
he was trying to write a report for the Forestry Department.

“My best layer did not come home last evening!” declared Uku Nyalo


“I want to report a stolen hen,” snapped Uku Nyalo. She had slept
fitfully, tortured by dread for her best layer.

“I’m a forest ranger. You want a policeman for that,” replied Ben curtly.
His mood was no better than Uku Nyalo’s. The report he was writing
had been due a week or so ago as an irate superior officer had
reminded him.

“That Mata down in Belaga? Don’t make me laugh!” Uku Nyalo gave a
hoot of contempt.

“Thefts are not within my jurisdiction.”

“It would be if it was a kuleh or some wild animal that had made off
with my layer!”

“A clouded leopard! That would be something! A hen for the sight of

one! I wouldn’t call that a great sacrifice.”

“Well! Really! This is too much!” Uku Nyalo was outraged. She could
not believe her ears that Ben could be so rude and unfeeling. “If that is
your attitude, young man, I’m going to get to the bottom of this myself.
You young people nowadays have no sense of duty!”

“Really, Uku Nyalo, I’m sorry, but I have no reports of leopards, painted
or clouded, in the vicinity.”

Payah hastily gulped down her midday meal. She had been a bit late
coming home from school. She had to stay behind and help clean the
classroom as a punishment for daydreaming. She had been busy with
her thoughts, desperately trying to work out a way to outfox her great
aunt and prevent her from discovering that Four Eyes had a hand in
the disappearance of her hen. She needed a red herring to throw Uku
Nyalo off the scent. She had sniggered at the image that arose from
this figure of speech just as the arithmetic teacher was explaining the
finer points of multiplication.

Among the bric-a-bracs that her grandmother kept in a chest woven
out of rattan, was a war coat. It was very grand and very special, for it
was made from the hide of the clouded leopard. Usually, war coats
were made from monkey fur or goatskin. It was so ancient that the fur
was moulting, for it once belonged to her grandmother’s Akek, Payah’s
great-great-grandfather, who was a renowned warrior. There were
already quite a few bald patches on it, and nobody would notice if two
more appeared. A couple of handfuls strewn strategically about the
place ought to convince her great aunt that it was a kuleh that had
made off with her best layer.

She learned from her Uku that her great aunt had some moment ago
grimly marched off to do her own investigation. With a fistful of
clouded leopard fur in each hand, Payah rushed off, taking a short cut,
hoping to head off her great aunt, and lay a trail away from that fateful
place where the hen had become picnic fare.

She was too late. Uku Nyalo was crouching by the clumps of giant
ferns. This called for a change of tactic.

“Uku Nyalo! Uku Nyalo! Look what I have found!” called out Payah as
she rushed up to her great aunt with both fists thrust out.

Uku Nyalo’s eyes narrowed at the sight of the hairs sticking to Payah’s
sweaty palms.

“Up to your tricks again! I’m surprised there’s anything left of my
grandfather’s war coat the way you children have been playing with
it!” She glowered at Payah. “A spanking is what you need!”

Payah felt her face burn while her hands went cold and clammy at Uku
Nyalo’s rebuke. Her great aunt was not swallowing such a whopper
and she could not, on the spur of the moment, invent another. She
tried to brush off the hairs, which now felt stiff and prickly, but they
clung stubbornly to her moist palms. Uku Nyalo returned to her task of
examining the ground around the giant ferns, noting the broken stems
and crushed fronds. The delicate edible ferns that grew in profusion
nearby had also been trampled on. She followed the trail of damage
while Payah stuck to her like a leech.

They soon came upon the cold ashes of the picnic fire. Turnip Head
and Four Eyes had carefully put out the fire but, unaware of any
wrongdoing on their part, had not bothered to cover up their tracks.

Uku Nyalo knelt down, muttering darkly to herself. She poked in the
ashes with a twig, turning up bits and pieces of charred bones and
feathers. She had unearthed as yet nothing that could incriminate Four
Eyes and Turnip Head. A twig snapped. Uku Nyalo was now prowling
along the edges of the clearing.

“AH-HAH!”exclaimed Uku Nyalo, reaching out to retrieve something

from under a bush. She triumphantly held up a corn cob, the kernels of
which had been neatly nibbled off. She studied it keenly. There was no
doubt that it came from her crop. Only her sweet corn had such tightly-
packed kernels, row upon row, and not one out of place.

“AH-HAH!” Uku Nyalo fished out two more cobs from the
undergrowth. “AH-HAH!”

Payah’s heart sank. It seemed Four Eyes’ fate was well and truly sealed.

Uku Nyalo thrust the cobs into Payah’s unwilling hands and scooped
up whatever was left of her layer onto a large leaf. Still muttering to
herself, she left the crime scene. Payah followed in trepidation.

“Uku Nyalo, please, Uku Nyalo, don’t send Four Eyes away. He’ll be
unhappy, and you’ll also be unhappy,” pleaded Payah, trotting to keep
up with her great aunt, who was striding smartly ahead with
unswerving purpose.

“AIYIIIEE-YOOOOOH!” screamed Uku Nyalo, leaping about a foot in

the air.

Payah gave a startled squeak and sprang backwards while her heart
did a somersault. Her great aunt’s yell was as blood-curdling as the
whoop emitted by a warrior as he pounced on his enemy in the Iban
ngajat bebunoh, a war dance. She cringed before Uku Nyalo’s ire,
expecting the worst. But Uku Nyalo had only stepped on a thorn.

“Serve her right,” thought Payah spitefully as she watched her great
aunt examine her foot. She started to giggle. A withering look from
Uku Nyalo stifled her giggles.

“Hiiii… ick,” hiccupped Payah instead. “Hiiii… ick, hiiii… ick!”

Uku Nyalo mustered whatever dignity she had left and strode on
resolutely, not back to their longhouse, but towards Kampong China.
Puzzled, Payah followed.

Precious Jade’s mother, who was sweeping the front yard, gave a
bleat of alarm at the sight of Uku Nyalo in high dudgeon bearing
down on her.

“I want Ah Choh,” announced Uku Nyalo brusquely.

Precious Jade’s mother scurried off and, before long, Precious Jade’s
great-grandmother, leaning on a walking stick, tapped her way up the
path. Precious Jade, following closely behind, looked scared out of her
wits. She noticed the corn cobs, which Payah was gripping tensely in
hands that looked distinctly furry, and turned even paler.

Payah gave her friend a bleak smile. Uku Nyalo was seething with
rage. Ah Choh’s countenance, however, gave nothing away. Payah eyed
her with awe. Ah Choh looked as old as the hills, and as gnarled and
wizened as the trunk of an ancient tree. Her face was as wrinkled as a
raisin. Her eyes, set deep in their sockets, beady and unblinking as a
hen’s, were sharp and shrewd.

“Turnip Head stole my layer,” shouted Uku Nyalo.

“This is what is left of it.” She held out the remains for Ah Choh to examine.

“Tell Turnip Head to come here,” Ah Choh commanded Precious Jade.

While they waited for Turnip Head, the two formidable women faced
each other like two warriors ready to do battle. Precious Jade’s mother,
in the safety of her sitting room, lifted up a corner of the orange lace
curtain and peered out timidly. Curtains were also twitching in the
windows of the neighbouring houses.

Turnip Head sidled up towards them, eyes wary, a tremulous smile on

his lips. He looked uncertainly from one face to the other. Uku Nyalo
thrust the remnants of his feast under his nose. Under the thunderous
look of one, and the quelling glare of the other, he knew he could not
wriggle himself out of the situation.

“Such perfidy!” shrilled Uku Nyalo, shaking a fist at him.

Precious Jade sprang forward and put protective arms around her
brother, who had the grace to look guilty and embarrassed.

“Please, Uku Nyalo, don’t beat him,” she begged tearfully. “My Pa will
beat him for you.”

“Sorry, Uku Nyalo,” Turnip Head whispered, hanging his head down in
shame. It was a piece of luck that his father was away, trading far up-
river, and was not expected back for some weeks.

“Being sorry won’t bring back my layer, you wretched boy!” Uku Nyalo
screamed. She was practically dancing with rage and was not to be
easily appeased with an apology. “You’re a bad influence on Four Eyes.
I don’t want you to play with him!”

“Uku Nyalo, I shall compensate you for your loss,” interceded Ah Choh.
“You may name your price.”

“No money! A hen for a hen!” demanded Uku Nyalo.

Precious Jade’s great-grandmother was famous around Lubok Belaga

for her flock of imported white Leghorns, which were even better
layers than Uku Nyalo’s local breed. They were the envy of all, for each
hen was capable of laying up to 300 large, white eggs a year. She knew
that Uku Nyalo coveted them.

“Fair exchange!” Ah Choh conceded. Her eyes gleamed. “Wait here.”

Leaning heavily on her walking stick, Ah Choh shuffled to the back of

the house, where not only her legendary Leghorns and the meaty
Rhode Island Reds with their powerful thighs, but ducks and geese as
well, ran freely about in a large enclosure. She unlatched the gate and
went in. All the fowls came running up to her, squawking and honking
in expectation of being fed. She lunged with a sprightliness that would
have astonished Uku Nyalo had she been watching, and neatly
grabbed the wings of one huge white hen that had pecked and jostled
its way to the front.

“Hah, you good for nothing! Always eating your head off! A curry pot
is where you belong!” cried Ah Choh. She struggled briefly with the
protesting hen, and finally managed to truss its legs together with a
piece of twine. “Maybe you’ll start laying eggs for Uku Nyalo.
He,he,he,” she chortled. Uku Nyalo was still fuming, but at the sight of
Ah Choh huffing and puffing breathlessly towards her, a magnificent
white Leghorn in one hand, her eyes shone with the light of victory.
Mollified, she grudgingly thanked Ah Choh and took her leave.

Ah Choh, watching Uku Nyalo’s retreating back, cackled gleefully to

herself. She retired, still chuckling, to her deckchair on the verandah
upstairs, to continue her interrupted nap. Payah, Precious Jade and
Turnip Head were astounded at her good humour.

A furtive movement in the corner of her eye made Payah swivel

around. A sheepish-looking Four Eyes emerged from his hiding place
behind Ah Choh’s highly-polished ebony coffin.

It was kept in a corner of an open space on the ground floor, which

was built for hanging out washing on a rainy day. There it lay in full
sight of all who passed by. Her neighbours were appalled. But it was
much admired by the children for it was shaped rather like a boat.

Ah Choh had commissioned the casket as she lay ill, believing that her
time had come. She had recovered and had scandalised her relatives
by insisting on keeping it. She had come to regard it as her talisman.

All exhortations to have it removed failed. Ah Choh was as immovable
as the jagged rocks of the Pelagus Rapids.

“Didn’t you hear what Uku Nyalo said?” Payah hissed at Four Eyes.
“You can’t play with Turnip Head.”

“She only told Turnip Head not to play with me,” replied Four Eyes
with the logic of his years. “I can still play with him.”

Payah gave an exasperated shrug and went indoors with Precious Jade
to wash her hands off the stiff and prickly hairs, and of Four Eyes.
She was not going to waste her time quibbling with him. She wanted
to play with Precious Jade’s doll whose wardrobe was as fanciful as it
was endless.

Payah had just finished brushing the doll’s hair, which was as fair and
fine and silky as the hair on a young corn, when a mighty thud shook
the house. She heard Ah Choh tap-tapping her way urgently down to
investigate, then her horrified scream:


Payah and Precious Jade sprang up, sending doll and clothes slewing
in all directions. They jostled and shoved to be the first through
the door. They stormed down the stairs, sounding like a charging

They found Ah Choh speechless with rage, her mouth opening and
shutting like that of a freshly-landed fish. Her horrified gaze was fixed
on her coffin whose lid lay split in two beside it.

Turnip Head and Four Eyes stood petrified nearby.

One had a rake in the hand, the other a hoe. They had wanted to play
at paddling a boat. It was the lid, which the two boys had managed to
lift off and then left to lean precariously against a post, that had come
crashing thunderously down.

Four Eyes was the first to make a move as Ah Choh thumped her
walking stick furiously. Looking aghast, he scampered off as fast as his
legs allowed him. Turnip Head, face ashen, quaked, expecting to be
beaten, but his great-grandmother was too overcome by emotion to
even clout him on the ear.

“Ai-Yah! Ai-Yah! Ai-Yah!” she wailed thinly. She tottered off, panting
heavily and calling for Precious Jade’s mother.

“Ah Choh, Ah Choh,” blubbered Precious Jade in panic. “Please, God,

don’t let Ah Choh die.” Howling, she ran off after her great-grandmother.

Payah looked pityingly at Turnip Head. The ruse his family used to
shield him from evil spirits and jealous gods had apparently failed.
They had finally located him, and his great-grandmother was to pay
the price. With a sense of impending doom, she trudged homeward.

There she found an unusually quiet Four Eyes with a hang-dog look,
and decided to keep out of Uku Nyalo’s way for the rest of the day.

Precious Jade was beaming when Payah saw her at school the next day.

“Your great-grandmother is… um… ah… ?” began Payah, cautiously

feeling her way through the maze of Chinese superstitions, wondering
what the right response would be in the face of calamity.

“Oh, Ah Choh is quite herself again,” laughed Precious Jade. She clasped
her hands together delightedly. Her eyes glowed. “She’s giving a party
now, because today is propitious.”

“A party!” exclaimed Payah, feeling truly lost.

“Yes, a party!” Precious Jade laughed at Payah’s look of perplexity. “For

the gods and spirits, to thank them for her good fortune that she is in
good health.”

“Something like a bedera? She’s laying out a plate of food for them?”

“More than a bedera and much better! We get to eat the food after the
gods have eaten. Come home with me after school and you’ll see. You
don’t have to dress up,” Precious Jade assured Payah.

Payah and Precious Jade arrived in time to hear Ah Choh declare that
the gods were leaving. She was on her knees, examining the two
castanet-shaped pieces of wood she had cast down. She deduced from
the position in which they lay that the gods were mightily pleased
with the delectable dishes she had set before them. They had also been
handsomely paid, which was evident in the huge mound of ashes to
which the spirit money had been reduced.

The humans descended like locusts on the banquet of the gods.

Payah bit hungrily into the juicy thigh of one of Ah Choh’s prized
Rhode Island Reds. Her eyes popped as she surveyed the platters of
ducks, hens and geese, cooked in a variety of ways – roasted, steamed,
or stewed.

“What happened to your brother? Was he punished?” Payah finally

managed to ask Precious Jade. She curiously eyed Turnip Head who
was born with such amazing luck that misfortune bounded off him,
like water off a duck, onto his nearest and dearest. Turnip Head had a
drumstick in each hand and was noisily tearing into them with much
smacking of his lips.

“Ma docked his pocket money for the week so he can’t buy comic books.
Now he’s helping Ah Choh feed the chickens and trying to soft-soap
her into buying the comic books for him.”

“Your Ah Choh’s… ah… coffin?” asked Payah delicately. It was

nowhere to be seen.

“The shop where she bought it from is making a new lid for it. Ma
persuaded her to leave it there for safe keeping. Oh, did Uku Nyalo
beat Four Eyes?”

“No, but he can’t play with Turnip Head for a whole week. He’s
collecting firewood for Uku Nyalo.” Payah laughed. “He’s hoping that
way to get back into Uku Nyalo’s good books so he can go with us this
weekend to the cinema at Belaga. Usun is coming too. Would you like
to come with us? Uku, and Uku Nyalo, who’s bringing her sweet corn
to sell at the market, will paddle us there.”

“Oh, yes! Thank you.”

“Turnip Head is invited too,” said Payah generously.

Both Payah and Precious Jade looked doubtfully at Turnip Head, who
was blissfully stuffing a bun, shaped like a tortoise, into his mouth.

“With a little bit of luck…” began Payah, turning to Precious Jade.

Their eyes caught.

“Nothing’s going to spoil our outing this weekend,” finished Precious Jade.

The two girls dissolved into laughter.



Ah Choh (Chinese) grandmother

Akek grandfather

Amin family apartment in a longhouse

Ah Choh great-grandmother

Ayam panggang roasted chicken

Bedera food, usually an egg and a handful of cooked rice, laid out
on a plate to placate the spirits

Buayak crocodile

Jagong sweet corn

Kampong China Chinese village

Kuleh clouded leopard, a wild cat with cloud-like patterns

Mata “eyes”— policeman

Midin edible fern

Ngajat Bebunoh war dance performed by the indigenous group called Ibans

Ocelot a wild cat, also called painted leopard, differently

patterned from the clouded leopard

Paku edible ferns

Rambutan a white-fleshed fruit with “hairy” skins

Rattan Malaysian climbing palm

Spirit money fake “money” burnt as offering for the dead,

spirits and gods

Uku (Kayan) grandmother/great aunt