indonesian rice terrace
Photo by Jason Cooper on Unsplash

Dust and Stone by James Penha

Adapted from “Sangkuriang,” the Indonesian Folk Tale

After a rival’s magic transformed a young Wizard into a common cur, the latter lit out from his village to the jungle where he attempted to revoke his canine form through self-metamorphosis. This sorcery failed, as would all conjurations requiring the twitch of a thumb or the pointing of an index finger.

The Wizard did retain enough vocal control to shape his barks into words. Abetted by the spin of a tail or the point of a snout, he tried casting some simpler spells. His abracadabra halted a sparrow in mid-air. His astaga turned dew into lace. An orchid whistled to his magic lyrics. But the Wizard failed miserably to articulate the enchanted tongue-twister meant to gild a great teak. He howled like an adolescent hound. The tree shook wildly before it fell, destroying a nest of siamang monkeys hidden in its branches and clobbering a man making his way through the jungle.

The Wizard had always railed against harmful magic; indeed, this was the argument that had so enraged his evil rival. Guilt-ridden now, the Wizard ran to help the monkeys. He found them weepy but unhurt. The dog apologized for his carelessness and promised the aid of his talents, such as they were, forever. No pledges, however, could revive the human. The Wizard-dog followed the man’s scent so that he might make amends to the family whose head he had killed.

When night cloaked the small hut on the riverbank, Nur felt her nervous heart beat even more rapidly. Her husband had not yet returned. Nur feared he had tarried too long at the warung where he loved to talk, to gamble, and to drink palm wine.

“If he comes home drunk,” Nur said to the night, “and beats me again, I’ll…I'll…do something.” She picked up a carving knife from the kitchen table and wrapped it in the folds of her sarong.

That a woman as virtuous and long-suffering as Nur considered attacking another being, even in self-defense, was evidence of the cruelty with which her husband treated his “little pig.”

In truth, Nur was hardly a handsome woman, and many eligible men had ignored her virtues in search of pretty faces and supple bodies.

When Nur had passed her thirtieth virginal year, her father promised her to Yusri, the village lout who had, by way of inheritance, an ample dowry to offer.

Nur complied without objection. What other choice had she? She consoled herself with dreams of the children she would bear and love.

Yusri dashed these dreams. When drink didn’t defuse her husband’s potency, chance or genetics failed him. Tonight, Nur knew, any attentions offered by her husband would hurt. She sat trembling when she heard footsteps disturb the gravel outside her home. But instead of a belch and a bellow, a scratching sounded upon the door. A yelp. An oddly sung “Hello, I have news of the man of this house.”

Nur approached the door, but didn’t open it for fear of a trickster. “What news?” she shouted.

As much as his announcement deserved face-to-face delivery, the Wizard-dog recognized the wisdom in speaking before being seen: “The man of this house is dead. Killed by my carelessness. I stand ready to make restitution.”

Blood reddened Nur’s face. “If what you say of my husband is so, I think I should pay you. But how shall I believe this news?”

The Wizard replied, “If you have stomach for strong evidence, madam, open the door an iota and see.”

Nur narrowly opened the door. She saw the finger that had so often struck her cheek. And around it her husband’s marriage band. The Wizard apologized for the grisly evidence, but, he explained, he could offer nothing else so conclusive.

“And surely my grisly marriage is likewise sundered,” cried Nur. She swung wide the door to welcome her deliverer. “Dog? Talking dog? I am deceived by magicians. Oh, my husband is not really dead! Kill me now before my words are reported to him.” Nur collapsed in a pitiable pile.

The Wizard gently licked her face to revive and reassure her. “Magicians are at work in the world, but desperate lady, you are a widow in fact.”

Nur looked into the dog’s eyes. She saw humanity. And because she did, the Wizard realized that at midnight he might, with Nur, try to be human again.

While sharing the dinner prepared for her late husband, Nur heard the Wizard's tale of his own transformation through to the ultimate demise of her husband. Unsure of his nocturnal power, the dog did not hint at what he hoped might take place at twelve o'clock.

Anticipating her most peaceful rest in years, Nur lay on her bed. She invited the Wizard to curl up at an edge of the mattress.

Long before dawn, Nur dreamed of a dog whimpering for mankind. A dream and no dream: the Wizard-dog that midnight bayed an ancient cry for humanity!

Nur was not certain that she had awakened when she saw her bedfellow stretch himself into a young man of extraordinary beauty, naked as the dog he had been.

"Are you dog or god or devil or man?" Nur asked.

"Had I the power of a god or a devil, I should make myself man for good, but only in your eyes between midnight and dawn can I appear human. For the rest I remain a dog."

"You look like a god."

"I am the one whom you wish to see."

"I see you. I know I do. What shall I call you?"

"Wizard, a name appropriate to all my lives. And how shall we spend these hours before dawn?"

The question was polite, if rhetorical. Nur deserved the love of a good man, and she wanted a child. Wizard lived as a man only for her. And only for a few hours each night.

When at dawn the sound of the threshing of the rice thundered with the power of every wife of every homestead in the area, Wizard, a dog, recoiled panting into a corner of Nur's bed. Nur petted him, nuzzled him, and told him she knew he would soon be a father.

Nur's pregnancy caused no scandal in the village since all assumed the child was the legacy of Nur's late husband. But the neighbors did notice that, in pregnancy, Nur had taken on a glow that obscured her ugliness.

Impending motherhood did beautify Nur, but more important was the Wizard's incantation: "Dear Nur, just as I am the one whom you see, so you shall be the one whom I see: at each midnight a woman perfectly lovely and forever each dawn even lovelier and more vibrant."

Suhardi, like all sons, thought his mother eternally beautiful. By the age of twelve, he had taken on the chores of a young man twice his age. He had resolved to live up to the reputation of his late father Yusri, the bold and canny hunter his mother had imagined for him in dozens of tales that nurtured his childhood.

As she created a legendary Yusri for Suhar to love, Nur hid from the boy any hint of the nightly visits by his biological father to her room.

One afternoon, Suhar roamed the jungle with his slingshot and a bag of well-chosen stones tied in a sack around his waist. He had often killed a jungle chicken or a savory peacock with a single rock. But this day, he allowed several such birds to survive his passing. He needed a new challenge. Near the river, he heard the call of the siamang monkeys in the canopy. Siamang! What a wonderful treat to fry and drop into the curry sauce tonight! How his mother would smile when she tasted real red meat! How proud he would make her! How well he would wear his father’s mantle!

Suhar hid among the stalks of bamboo at the riverside until he was sure the monkeys had forgotten him. Quietly he felt for a rock and placed it in the girdle of his sling. He aimed it at the big male jabbering atop a thick branch. Suhar stretched the band and let the stone fly.

The monkey screamed in pain and fell writhing to the ground. Suhar raced toward him.

Simian cries roused Wizard from his daytime lair in the jungle. Awakened too were the dog’s promises. He raced to aid the monkeys. Finding a siamang winded and wounded, the Wizard offered a healing spell. Within minutes, the monkey and his tribe escaped. And so Suhardi settled for a dog, using another hefty stone from his bag to kill it.

Suhardi butchered the animal on the spot. At home, while his mother took in the sun-dried laundry, he fried the meat with garlic, onion, and chili and slipped it into the pot of curry sauce simmering on the fire.

Later, at dinner, Suhar swallowed a grin along with his rice as he awaited his mother’s discovery.

“Oh? Oh! what a wonder greets my tongue, Suhar. I didn’t prepare anything this succulent in my stew. Did you bag another bird? No, no. This is no fowl. Although we haven’t had it in months, I know meat when I taste it! Oh, my son, have you graduated to a mastery over rabbits?”

“Not so common, mother. My prey was a siamang monkey, but instead I found a dog.”

The blood drained from Nur’s face as the curry spilled from her fingers. “You found a dog? You mean you killed a dog?”

Suhardi nodded, unsure how to take the strain in his mother’s voice.

“You mean we are eating a dog?”

“Yes, mother, I have provided for you as my father would have.”

Nur slowly rose, raised her hands prayerfully to her face, and paused. After a quiet moment, she dropped her hands into the bowl of curry, raised up a pile of meat, sobbed loudly, and buried her face into the dog.


“Leave me alone.”


“LEAVE ME...alone.”

Suhardi, confused and pained, left the table and the hut. He spent the night, walking the jungle, talking to himself and to the father he thought was his.

Nur of course had hoped that her son had killed a dog other than her lover, other than his father. But when Wizard failed to find her bed that night for the first time since they had met, she knew what their son had done. And she knew she could neither bear to tell him nor bear to live with the parricide.

“You will leave me and this house now, Suhardi, never to return. I pray you are your father’s son, for, if so, you will find a way to survive.” Nur entered the house, and closed the door between her son and her.

It was fifteen years before Suhar disobeyed his mother’s edict. In that time he proved himself something of a wizard in charm and commerce. The rich and powerful become used to getting what they want, and Suhar decided he wanted to recapture the blessing of his mother. He dressed himself in princely habiliments and gathered in a casket the jewels of his collection of gems. He meant to dazzle Nur. So as not to alert the countryside or, too far in advance, his mother, he traveled in a simple coach with only a driver for an entourage.

How easily he directed the coachman through well-remembered paths of the jungle to the door of his childhood home. Suhar left the coach, approached the door, straightened his array, slicked his hair, paused, swallowed, and knocked.

A sweetly youthful voice responded “In a moment.” The female who opened the door looked no more than sixteen—and was, thought Suhar, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Forgetting all but the casket in his hands and the face in his vision, Suhar offered his cache of jewels to the girl and said, “You shall be my wife.”

“I can not, sire.”

“Why not? You cannot yet have a husband. Are you already promised? My wealth alters pledges.”

“I am not married. I am not promised. Nor shall I be to you, sire. Please save your gifts. I have no need for jewels.”

“Where is the woman of this house? Where is my mother, Ibu Nur? If you are in her charge, you may wear these jewels yet.”

“Only the spirit of Ibu Nur, ” said the girl, “inhabits this house. Her body is no more.”

Suhar wept for his mother, for he failed to discern the girl’s dissembling. She was herself Nur, altered by the beneficent spell of her loving Wizard. Nur, of course, recognized Suhardi and would in no way submit to him.

Every day, one of Suhar’s retainers, summoned by a messenger, brought new gifts to lay at the doorway of the modest cottage: silks and orchids, perfumes and holy waters, cattle and birds of paradise. And every evening, Suhar proposed. Villagers gathered to watch the colorful drama as, centuries later, their descendants would assemble to watch flickers of light on a sail. Nur appreciated the discretion of her friends and neighbors in not revealing the truth of her identity to the persistent suitor, but she despaired that her life had become a carnival.

And so one evening, in response to Suhar’s ninety-ninth plea, that preceded by the presentation of a pink tiger from Borneo, Nur told Suhar, “ I will marry you tomorrow.

“But only if you prove yourself. Material gifts mean little. However, if you can devote yourself to a project special to me, I shall yield.

“Before tomorrow’s dawn—before you hear the sound of the threshing of the rice thundering with the power of every wife of every homestead in the area...sculpt that great granite island in the center of the river, into the image of a magnificent dog.”

“I can do it. I will do it. What sort of dog?” asked Suhar.

“Choose one from your own imagination or from your memory. Have you the memory of a dog?”

“I do—one seen just before I left this house fifteen years ago.”

“Recreate it. There in the river. Finish it before dawn, and I shall marry you.”

Suhar gathered together the ninety-nine retainers who had remained in the village after delivering the various gifts. None were sculptors, but Suhar organized them to carry out the chores that, under Suhar’s direction, could make massive his memory of a dog.

Nur sat beneath a tree by the shore of the river. She shook to see the rapid progress of the project. By nine o’clock, the Wizard’s paws took their stand on the island; by ten, the moonlight shone between its face and its body; by eleven, its tail pointed to the southern cross; by midnight, Nur discerned carved spots along the back of the great animal. By three, even though an overcast sky darkened the night, Nur apprehended the Wizard’s aspect. Fearing for her gamble and her fate, she left the river and made for the village.

Meanwhile, Suhar smiled confidently atop the Wizard’s head where he chiseled the last details. The race would be tight, but Suhar knew the finish would precede dawn.

In the midst of his carving of the droop of the Wizard’s ear, he heard what he hoped was merely the echo of his work. He suspended the taps of his tools so that he might listen for silence. Still he heard the echo. “Quiet! Cease working!” he yelled to his men even though he knew the project would thus lose precious minutes of labor. The echo continued. It was of course no echo.

Suhar cast his gaze toward the horizon. Cloud cover made the progress of the sun indistinct, but the smell and shadow of dusty smoke confirmed Suhar’s fear: Every housewife of every homestead was threshing rice. The day had begun. It must be dawn.

Suhar leaned on the unfinished ear. When the sun finally burned through the haze, he saw the plumes of rice dust whisper to the sky. And Suhar quietly left the island, the river, the village, and the jungle forever.

Nur distributed Suhardi’s neglected gifts among her neighbors to thank them for their willingness to begin their labors ten minutes early. Nur herself lived quietly in the shadow of the great stone dog until time, powerless to age her, nonetheless took Nur to itself and to the Wizard.


A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past three decades in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work has lately appeared in several anthologies: Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart, Pages Penned in Pandemic, The Impossible Beast: Queer Erotic Poems, The View From Olympia, Queers Who Don’t Quit, What We Talk About It When We Talk About It, Headcase, Lovejets, and What Remains (short-listed for the 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award). His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha.

Author's note

When I moved to Indonesia thirty years ago, I fell in love with its archipelago, its people, and its folk tales. Every island, every village, every tribe I visited had its tales and they became for me souvenirs of my travels in my adopted homeland. But most of the tales, especially when passed on to me orally by natives, were as fragmentary as a chicken riddle or an Aesop fable. I wanted to ask why a wizard would do this or why a goddess would choose that, but knew that the story-teller would have no way of knowing. When I did dare to be impolite enough to raise such queries, I would usually be told to "believe it or not. It's up to you." I took on the challenge, and started trying to understand characters and the plots of folk tales. I rewrote them with the logic and sometimes the sensibilities of contemporary fiction without, I hope, sacrificing the magic and fantasy and exoticism of the originals. “Dust and Stone,” based on “Sangkuriang,” one of the best-known folk tales in Indonesia, was among my earliest attempts at these adaptations.

This piece originally appeared in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art 31 (1999): 149-157.