Photo by Wira Setiawan on Unsplash

The Snake Boy by James Penha

Adapted from a folk tale of Central Java

It is a cliché, but an absolutely valid cliché, to refer to Indonesia as a “ring of fire” for the archipelago was born out of the conflagration of its volcanoes, and its land continues to thrive and shudder atop the planet’s furnace. But Indonesians call their nation “tanah air,” the “earth-water,” for they live as well at the mercy and the mercilessness of the seas, the rains, the rivers, and the lakes that collaborate with their thousands of volcanic islands.

Lake Rawa Pening, the largest lake on the island of Java, was once, the story goes, a great valley. At its center, in the ancient days, a large village rose and fell with the fluctuations of earth and water.

One year, indeed, the season was so dry that most of the wild animals on which the villagers depended for their food had either scattered or been desiccated into the dust that swirled within the valley. Without much optimism, therefore, a hunting party of the village men set out one dawn to find what prey they could to set upon the table at that evening’s annual circumcision banquet, the ceremonial meal celebrating the rite-of-passage through which twelve-year-old boys became men and so assured the village its future.

“Does the village have a future?” wondered Antok whose own stomach growled with hunger.

His friend Junidi turned to him and laughed at the sound.

“Does the village have a future?” Antok said aloud.

“Of course it does. You may not feel the future because you have no wife of your own and no children. But, tonight my son becomes a man. He is the future. He is my future.”

“Not without food. We cannot eat each other.”

“The animals will return.”

“I don’t know,” said Antok. “Why don’t we make our way to the coast and try our luck in casting nets?”

“We are not fishermen. I’d rather starve than smell like a fisherman. This is the day we honor boys becoming hunters: men with knives, not with mesh. I’m ashamed to hear my friend wish to fish.” Junidi smiled at his own rhyme. “You might just as well wish to . . . swish. . . like a lady in a sarong!” Junidi laughed uproariously, but Antok remained sullen.

“Here,” called Yudi, the leader of the hunting party, “let us rest under this tree.” Junidi made to put his arm around his friend and march together to their comrades, but Antok shook off the embrace and headed in the opposite direction.

“To the sea,” said Antok. “I’m going to the sea. I may not be back tonight, but I’ll be back with enough to feed the village by tomorrow.

Junidi shook his head and his hips while stretching with his hands an imaginary sarong. “Swish!” he laughed and turned his back on Antok.

When Junidi joined the other men beneath the shade of the tree, he complained of his hunger and suggested they eat a few of the withered yams they had brought. Yudi tossed a few to Junidi who unsheathed his knife and sliced them roughly on the root of the tree. As he cut the vegetables, a pool of red liquid formed beneath them.

“What is this?” he yelled.

The men gathered around.

“Quickly,” said Yudi, “take away those pieces of yam.” Junidi did so. “Look, my friends. That is no tree’s root. That is a python, the biggest I have ever seen. We shall have food tonight! Kill the snake before it gets away!”

The snake didn’t have a chance as scores of knives slit and cut the reptile into slivers—just right for the grill and a banquet.

Beneath the tree, all that remained of the snake, after the men had returned to the village, were puddles of blood and a discarded head.

As the sun set, evening breezes swept across the plain. The snake head quivered. But there was more movement in that head than the winds could explain. It rolled in circles and bounced in the air. It expanded and contracted as if it breathed. Finally, when darkness ensured no one could see a miracle, a human hand crept out from inside the snake head. The hand crawled along the dry dirt of the plain to lead into the night an arm and a shoulder and then the torso and the whole body of a young boy, quite normal except for the dry scales that flaked from his skin and, of course, for the process of his generation.

Hungry and dazed from his experience, the boy grabbed a sturdy branch to help him walk. He followed the trail of the men who had killed the snake to their village where candles and lanterns and grills cooking meat lit up the night. The circumcision party was a fabulous success. The boy went from villager to villager asking for a piece of snake or a slice of yam or, at least, a sip of palm wine. Some villagers just stared, openmouthed, at the boy whose flaking skin made him look like a furry monster. Others feared the boy, skinny as his own walking stick, carried a plague. They yelled at him to go away. The bravest grabbed their spears and poked and pushed the intruder out of town. Seeing the distraught boy finally turn to leave the village, Junidi yelled, “Every village must care for its own, stranger. Go back to where you came from. Find your comfort there!”

On the outskirts of the village, one young girl, alone in her parents’ house, heard the boy approach. He asked once more for food and drink, but this time, a villager answered with a smile. She waved the boy inside and invited him to help himself from the few scraps on the kitchen table. The girl sat away from the table in a corner of the kitchen. “This was to be my dinner,” said the girl,” but it is too much for me.” She put her hand over her mouth. “Anyway, I prefer company to an overstuffed belly.”

“You are not afraid?”

“Of what? A stranger? Not a bit. I am a stranger in my own village.”

“How can that be? Why are you not at the party?”

“Ha, you have not noticed how strange I am?” The girl pointed to her eyes with her index finger even as she kept her hand over her mouth. The boy saw a strange white film covering the girl’s eyes.

“You are blind?”

“Yes. And I wouldn’t be so popular even if I could see.”


“I have a harelip beneath this hand. I am told it is terribly ugly. So ugly it can dull the merriment of a party. Too ugly to show a gentle stranger.”

“What is your name?”

“Chitra. And yours?”

“Ah . . . Thon.”

“Ahthon. A strange name.”

“Not for a stranger.”

Chitra laughed.

“Chitra, will you do this stranger a strange favor?""

“If I can.”

“I saw a large log outside your hut. Why is it there?”

“The lesung? We pound our rice in the long space carved out in of the middle of the log.”

“I have to return to the village. Will you wait for me—"

“Of course, I shall.”

“—in the lesung?”

“You mean, you want me to sit in the lesung? as if it were a canoe?”

“Exactly. Will you?”

The girl felt her first doubts that Ahthon was a decent man. “You won’t bring the children back here to laugh at the ugly blind girl who thinks she’s floating in the water?”

“Chitra, no, of course not. You have fed me; we are friends. I do wish to join the village entertainments, but you shall not be the butt of my joke. I promise, Chitra. I shall return to you alone.” Ahthon gently embraced the girl and walked her to the lesung. He kissed her on the forehead and made his way, walking stick in hand, back to the village.

No one jeered the boy’s return; the villagers slept, satisfied with their celebration, there in their huts and here in the village square to which Ahthon headed. In the center of the square, Ahthon planted his walking stick and screwed it into the ground until it disappeared. As the boy walked away, a gurgling sound accompanied tremors beneath the surface of the earth. The boy didn’t turn to see the geyser gushing from the point of his walking stick and flooding the entire basin in which the village stood. Barely a scream was heard from villagers who drowned, most of them, before they had a chance to awaken.

By the time Ahthon neared Chitra’s hut, however, he had to swim to the lesung in which the terrified girl floated. “A flash flood,” explained Ahthon. “Let me push you to the shore.” Ahthon alternated propelling the log and swimming back up to it until the lesung landed on a beach.

The boy led Chitra a little ways to the tree under which, earlier in the day and in another life, he had sought refuge from the blistering heat. Already, thanks to the refreshment its roots received from the sudden lake, the tree bore fruit. Ahthon picked some and presented it to Chitra. Exhausted as the villagers had been from their revels, the girl and boy slept, but safely, until, with morning, they were awakened by the cries of a young man dragging a huge bag.

“Oh, my God, what is—what has happened? How can this—where is my family? my friends? my home?” screamed Antok. “Yesterday, this was a dustbowl. Now . . . how can this be?”

Chitra and Ahthon held on to the mourning Antok and shook their heads as did he.

“I am back from the sea with these fish to feed the village,” Antok keened, “but there is no village to feed.”

“Let us save the fish,” said Ahthon. “Let us pour the bag into the lake.”

“No, no!” Antok grabbed the bag. “They are almost dead already from my trek. And, besides, they are sea fish; they will drown in fresh water.”

“This lake will not harm them just because they are different, because they seem not to belong. It will embrace them.” And before Antok could stop him, Ahthon ripped open the bag and threw it far into the lake; its fish swam quickly away, leaping, as they made the lake their new home.

Eventually, on the shores of Lake Rawa Pening, the descendents of Ahthon and Chitra and of Antok and a girl from the coast made a haven for themselves and for many others seeking refuge from a cruel world.


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 three decades ago 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 the story-teller why an angel would do this or why a goddess would choose that, but knew that the raconteur would have no way of knowing and no desire to improvise on what had been told to him. If I did dare to be impolite enough to raise doubts and queries, I would be told to "believe it or not. It's up to you." I took on the challenge to understand the actions and explain the motivations of characters of some great Indonesian folk tales. Using the logic and often the sensibilities of contemporary fiction I have by now adapted a dozen such stories without, I hope, sacrificing the magic and fantasy and exoticism of the originals. The ancient Javanese tale of Rawa Pening, for example, has become in my rendering “The Snake Boy.”

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Big Pulp.