Her bare feet weren’t allowed to touch the ground.
Even in Ilyas’s earliest memories, the dark haired baby was always in someone’s arms or atop their shoulders. He saw the way they cradled her in their embrace. Precious. Treasured.
“Why don’t they put her down?” he asked his mother one day, eyes still drawn to the girl, “They can’t carry her around forever.” She was dressed in yellow from head to toe today. A golden yellow that seemed to swallow her whole. Yellow, the colour of Malay kings and queens. His brow furrowed.
His mother hummed in agreement. “That’s why we’re holding the ceremony now, since more than thirteen months have passed after her birth.” Ilyas counted the difference and found that she was only a few years younger than him.
“What ceremony?” He was curious.
“It’s called berjejak,” she said. To tread. “Once they do this, she’ll be able to walk amongst us. Look.”
A wizened man bent over the ground, spreading a large yellow cloth over it. He threw a handful of red flower petals over its expanse; all the while his mouth moving quickly in some sort of chant. Ilyas strained to hear what he said, but he was too far away and the man’s voice was too soft.
Then he saw her. The girl, in her mother’s embrace as they settled on one end of the cloth, her face pinched and eyes glassy. Ilyas felt the urge to comfort her. It baffled him, and he moved forward but his own mother pulled him back firmly to her side.
A tray was brought towards the old man, filled items Ilyas could not give names to other than the short keris. The chanting grew louder. The girl was passed to the man and he gently coaxed her to walk, Ilyas realised. She had to walk across the length of the yellow cloth.
It was simple.
Ilyas couldn’t comprehend why such a big fuss had to be made.
And then, suddenly, she burst into tears. The old man still held her body up, urging her towards the end of the path but she struggled viciously, twisting and pulling in his grasp as she cried and screamed. She refused to step forward, shoulders stiff in terror of something. The world held still. She was frightened, Ilyas knew. He was, too. His hands trembled, eyes wide in fear. But against what?
The instant her foot touched the edge of the cloth, the girl seized her tears. Another step, her first contact with the cold dirt, and the world moved again. A heaviness was lifted off his chest and Ilyas could breathe freely again. He watched her take a few tentative steps, marvelling at how the ground felt beneath her small feet.
It still didn’t make sense to him.
But ten years later, it would.
The girl would be the one to tell him, as they sat together on the raised pavilion near her residence.
He knew her name now. Maya smiled, “A long time ago, a royal family made a contract with their people and the djinn of the land. Their descendants are to be respected and celebrated, to always be above the common man and so, forbidden to tread the same ground as them. In times of old, they would be carried in palanquins or litters borne by their servants.”
“When war ravaged their lands, some of their descendants with royal heritage fled to other countries. They gave up their titles and privileges, but while that caused the contract with their people to be broken, the contract with their guardian djinns still held. Anyone who violated the contract would suffer consequences. Prolonged high fevers. Some became deaf, others, mute. It became their curse-”
“So it was a djinn that made you cry that time?”
She blinked at him. “Was it? I can’t recall something that happened so long ago.”
“Then, what was the ceremony for?”
“I was told it’s to break an age old contract between my family and the djinns. But the world is different now,” Maya said, wringing her hands together. “To be realistic, if I can’t walk on the ground, I wouldn’t be able to go to school, would I? It’s more of a formality, I think.”
Ilyas shrugged his shoulders, feeling the cool evening breeze kiss his skin. That day ten years ago, when everyone else might have just seen it as another traditional ritual to be done, in his eyes-he sneaked a glance at Maya- he saw a child’s first real step into the world.
The berjejak ritual is usually done by people in Perak, Malaysia with Rawa and royal heritage that has its origins in Pagar Ruyung, Indonesia. This story is purely fictional (although the gist and history behind the ritual is as true as oral stories passed down from old to young), and is based on a friend’s personal experience with it. It is also part of my effort to narrate more of old Malay customs and traditions that are rarely known by my generation in a more modern way of story-telling.
Glossary: keris – Malay traditional weapon that resembles a sword with a wavy blade