The legend was that in the hinterland, three sisters lived with their old grandparents on an island created by the Flood that had covered almost all their ancestors’ lands when the Great Dam had been constructed. The villagers had been compensated with land near the town and a longhouse of forty rooms had been built for them.
But the sisters’ grandparents had left the longhouse room that they had been given and had taken a longboat across the lake and along the great Rajang River and its tributaries, seeking the lands of their ancestors. Some of the boatmen had explored the new lake and the new tributaries and while most came back shaking their heads, some had claimed to have seen pockets of the old forest and farms.
The three sisters had begged their grandparents to take them. They had been orphaned even before the Flood that had changed their world, so a third upheaval was too much to bear. They refused to be left with aunts and uncles and cousins and so the old couple had taken the three sisters with them.
It was many years before any of the villagers had seen the old couple and their grandchildren again. Fishermen travelling far downriver or young men exploring the tiny tributaries caught glimpses of smoke from a campfire or sometimes, of an old man fishing with a fair maiden who cast the net with strong and steady hands, catching the gleaming fish in the clean, clear waters.
The legend grew as legends do, that the three sisters were slim and fair, strong and swift, but beautiful as only the maidens of old could be. And so young men would leave the longhouse to search for the three sisters. Some young men came from other towns, pretending to have heard of the great fishing waters and the forests full of bearded pigs and deer.
Then, one day, it really did happen. A young man from the city found the family. He told the old grandparents and the three sisters about a world of skyscrapers gleaming of metal and glass, night skies that were lit with the lights of many buildings and homes and cars that sped day and night on roads all through the Land of the Hornbills.
The youngest sister said she would go with him to see this bold new world. The old grandparents had known that this day would come and so they remained silent, but her sisters begged her not to leave. The oldest, strongest and wisest, tried to reason with her. The middle sister, gentle and less sturdy, held her hands and begged her to think of all the good things they had in their island home. Despite their pleas, the youngest sister left with the young man.
But the world the young man took the youngest sister to was strange. A terrible cloud of death had covered the Land of the Hornbills while they had been away. The roads were still; few cars sped on them and though there were lights in the night sky, people stayed indoors and hid from the unseen danger.
The youngest sister told the young man that she must return to her home on the island with her grandparents and sisters. Realising this bold new world held only loneliness and fear for his fair maiden, the young man took her back to the hinterlands with a heavy heart. After days of travel on empty roads and dodging roadblocks and storms that beset the travellers on the rivers, they finally boarded a longboat for the island tucked away in the labyrinth river system. Even before their boat had arrived at the island’s docking site, even from afar, they could hear the howling.
Barely waiting for it to dock, the youngest sister jumped from the longboat and ran to the house on the stilts. Her eldest sister alone was howling. Around her was a burial ground; their grandparents already lay beneath the earth. Before her, on the simple bed, her middle sister drew her last ragged breath. The death cloud had come this far.
As if from a distance, the youngest sister heard her own howl.
Cover image by Quang Nguyen Vinh / Pexels. The copyright of ‘A Legend Of Our Days’ belongs to Christina Yin.