The Tattletale Puppets

By Ted Rockwell

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    Broto stood on the pendapa (large porch) built on the front of his father’s bamboo house. The village, on the north coast of Java at the edge of the Java Sea, was filled with excited people.

    They were arranging for a selamatan (feast) to be held that night because the dalang (puppet master) was making his yearly visit to the village. After the selamatan he would put on an Indonesian wayang kulit (shadow play) with his intricately carved leather puppets. This wayang kulit portrayed stories that were brought to Indonesia over a thousand years ago from India, and the people loved them.

    Close by the tall rubber trees Broto saw an old woman stumble and fall in the dirt street. As she fell, something rolled out of her selendang (piece of cloth for carrying personal belongings). Broto saw Amat, the big bully of the village, rush out from the shadows and snatch up whatever the woman had dropped. Then he ran back among the trees.

    The hot tropical sun beat against the old woman’s body, and dust arose around her. She cried out, and startled birds flew from the rubber trees, scattering their bright colors above her.

    Broto jumped from the porch and ran to help the old woman get to her feet. He noticed that she had been carrying mangoes in her selendang and he assumed that Amat had picked up some of the fruit she had dropped.

    Later, when Broto was eating a lunch of spiced meat, rice, and salad with his family, a crowd of people gathered outside the house and started shouting.

    “Come outside, Broto!” they called.

    “Give back the money, you thief!”

    “Come and face the woman!”

    Broto and his father walked out onto the pendapa. Amat stood in front of the crowd. “A terrible thing, stealing from a poor old woman!” he shouted with pretended anger.

    Broto’s father raised his hands. “What is this all about?” he asked.

    Amat pointed his finger at Broto. “He stole an old woman’s tax money. It was all she had, and the tax collector will be here next week.”

    Amat was so big and seemed so angry that Broto was frightened. He couldn’t find his voice to deny the accusation. All the people in the village were afraid of Amat.

    Broto’s father pushed his son into the house and dropped the split-bamboo curtain that formed the front wall. They could hear Amat’s roaring voice.

    “Give back the money or we’ll chase you and your family out of the village!”

    After a few more shouts, Amat and the crowd left.

    “Did you steal the money?” Father asked Broto.

    “No,” Broto answered. Then he told his father about what he had seen Amat do when the old woman fell.

    “You must tell the people that you did not steal the money,” his father said.

    Broto agreed. But how can I convince them that my story’s true! he wondered. Everyone was too busy with their own affairs to notice the old woman fall and see what happened. She must have told how I helped her up and so everyone suspects me.

    In the afternoon Broto walked by a roundabout way to the puppet master’s camp. Later that night he would help the old man, for they had become friends in times past. As he walked, he worked out a plan to let the people know that Amat had stolen the money.

    At the camp he greeted the dalang affectionately and then told him what had happened.

    “I must tell the people the truth,” Broto said. “I have a plan but I will need your help.”

    Kami berteman (we are friends),” the puppet master said. “I will be glad to help you.”

    Broto explained his plan, and the dalang immediately began gathering the puppets for the new characters. Broto went to work setting up the stage for the wayang kulit.

    He stretched a piece of white cloth over a wooden frame. Then he hung a lamp behind the cloth. When the dalang held the puppets between the cloth and the lamp, the people watching would see the shadows moving on the white screen. Then the dalang would tell the story in a high, squeaky voice.

    As Broto finished helping the dalang, the people began gathering in front of the screen, waiting for the selamatan. Broto watched the dalang arrange his puppets.

    “Now I will prove my innocence,” Broto said. “And I hope the people will be angry and punish Amat.”

    “You’ll gain virtue if you forgive him, and you’ll feel better too,” the wise old dalang told him.

    After the feast of vegetables cooked in coconut milk, rich-smelling meat curries, and turtle and goat’s meat on a stick dunked in peanut sauce, the dalang started his wayang kulit.

    Watching their eager faces, Broto knew that whatever the villagers saw on the screen, they would believe as though it were a real happening.

    The people enjoyed the show immensely, laughing and crying in turn. Then the scene on the screen changed. Lacy shadows of the rubber trees and their houses in the village appeared. The crowd became silent.

    Then the old man began working his thin leather puppets and Broto held the trees and houses in place. While the dalang maneuvered the figures and told a story, Broto felt bitter and revengeful.

    Then the people saw the shadow of an old woman hobble past the trees. They recognized her and let out a long sigh. “A-h-h-h!”

    The dalang made the old woman’s shadow fall and she appeared to drop a bundle. The villagers saw a great, hulking figure dash from the trees and pick up something and then run back into the trees.

    Then the dalang turned off the lamp.

    Amat jumped to his feet, exclaiming, “That’s ridiculous!”

    Now the villagers realized who the large puppet represented, and they were angry.

    Broto stepped from behind the screen. Two men held Amat. “You have been wronged, Broto. Tell us to, and we will drive Amat out of the village!” one of the men said.

    Broto saw the fear in Amat’s eyes and he remembered the old dalang’s words. “No,” Broto said. “If Amat returns the money to the old woman, she will forgive him, I am sure. And I also will forgive Amat that we may all live in peace together in our village.”

    Illustrated by Shauna Mooney