The Woman Who Married the Mountain

Anthropology, Indonesia, oral history, Religion, Uncategorized

I collected and wrote this story over a year ago. It’s based on a true account relayed to me by the main character in the privacy of her courtyard in Karangasem.

Mount Lempuyang is a mountain god who governs East Bali.

Lempuyang

The Woman who Married the Mountain

I

Beta enlisted. There were six pilgrims at first, and she would have been the only woman, but in the end the ayam kampung, or village prostitute, also volunteered her company in an attempt to cleanse her soul. Her desire was typical: a suitor for marriage at last. Beta wanted to tell the ayam that she was better off a whore.

One day when Beta was at the local temple, her neighbors announced they were about to embark on a pilgrimage to Pura Lempuyang, one of the holiest temples in Bali, and the home of the Protector of the East. To venture to the shrine was to endeavor a test of the soul, and all locals knew that only the pure of heart could mount those 1,700 steps.

Beta was a good widow who bowed to her husband’s body as it burned in the pyre a year prior. But in the privacy of her garden she arched her back in the heat, in the company of plants who babbled because they knew her intimately and encouraged no secrets. It was a widowhood that brought Beta, at 42, freedom in another’s death.

Her husband had not hit her hard or often, only occasionally when he came back from the fields and she wasn’t home with a pot of rice. But the words thrashed from husband at wife, attacking her dowdiness, and his ritual dismissal of affection, was enough to make her cry to the gargoyle in the garden.

II

On the morning of the pilgrimage, the last Spring festival basket disappeared from the floor of the pagoda at the center of town. The seven pilgrims set out to the forests. The forests became the fields, the fields became wet and overgrown, then dry and humped, and then flatlands morphed into another forest with bits of clearing in which the trees stood chopped to stumps. Beta thought she would faint into each bush she passed. She had never traveled farther than the circumference of her village, and, as a pedestrian widow working long hours at Ashram kitchens, she weakened quicker than the others. Beta huffed, but she did not complain. After a full morning and afternoon walk, when they reached the shadow of Mount Lempuyang, the caravan sat to rest.

It would be another several-hours walk before they reached the gates of the temple, and so they decided to rest for the night in the shade of a gargantuan banyan tree.The monkeys watched the party from the branches overhead. It was known that the macaque monkeys ruled this part of the forest, here where the mountain sank His feet into lava and His hairs spread out into branches on which His guards might sit. The animals and fauna were a part of the mountain, and it was condemned to interfere with them. Beta and her companions threw the macaques a few slices of fruit, which the creatures caught and devoured greedily.

That night, tucked beneath a batik cloth beside the ayam, Beta felt something like hands reach out. They sprouted up from the ground next to her armpits, just visible within her peripheral vision: white fingers sprouting from the dirt as stem growths. They scooped up the excess flesh on her chest and hugged her body to the earth. Beta remembered half-waking, hearing the monkeys squall and remembering that this was the sound of grappling. In that moment she remembered the prostitute beside her, the young chicken asleep, plumbing her lungs for air, a monument of endurance and bone. Beta could not sleep through the hands. Her late husband complained that her breasts were small. Surely whatever held her must have wanted a handle more robust. She had no conception of what siege would come.

III

The seven pilgrims woke to find the monkeys watching over them. The steady incline of forest weighed heavily on the pilgrims’ legs as they traversed the final stretch, and they stopped frequently to rest and breakfast on handfuls of rice. By the time the pilgrims finally reached the base of the temple steps, the pilgrims’ batiks clung with sweat to their hips. They prayed in front of the the carved dragon heads that crowned the railings to the shrine.

To everyone’s surprise, the swiftest ascent up the 1,700 steps was by the ayam, whose hair fell loose around her arms as she climbed. Beta decided it was the girl, after all, who Mount Lempuyang wanted best. Not to be out-blessed by a prostitute, Beta’s five male companions climbed quickly behind the ayam, while Beta meditated behind, step by step. At the top, Beta stood between two stone slabs of gate, which resembled the profile of a giant heron. Inside the temple grounds was a court, where dozens of pilgrims prayed at separate stations.

As soon as Beta let her knees fold before a vacant shrine on the court wall, she heard a rumble. The trees and the monkeys, the people and the beetles, the rocks of the temple shook and dispersed. And just in time. From the void in the sky came streaks of electricity. Clouds clashed open, shut, like the mouth of a fish.

By the time other worshippers began running, Beta was deep in a trance. She did not know that her knees bled through her batik onto rock. She didn’t know that a little hair had come loose from her bun and that an ant took refuge in the stillness of her neck, or that some of her hair follicles at that moment resolved to go white. She didn’t know that when the rain came the monkeys were the first to retrace their steps. They were soothed at the presence of a new queen. The insects, meanwhile, lost all sense and defecated under shields of bark.

When Beta awoke she knelt in the same position as before, only now she was soaked with rain and sweat. Her left shoulder pulsed in pain from when a bird, thinking her a statue, sprung off it in its turn to flee. Beta looked down at her hands, which lay on her lap. There rested a knife from the mountain. It was from Him, she was sure. Only later would she learn what it meant to be gifted. At the moment, Beta felt a surge of empowerment. Whatever had opened up above had taken possession of her body; at the same time she knew it was there to free her. There was an eclipse of sight. She heard familiar murmuring, and then she drifted out of consciousness.

IV

Back in the village, Beta writhed under the the old woman’s hands as one of the other pilgrims, Deta, held her down and patted her head with a wet cloth. Dehydrated apples brushed against Beta’s mouth, but she wouldn’t open up. “Alone,” she groaned when the edibles were stowed away. “Leave me alone.” Neighbors crowded at the gate and watched as if she were a pig flinching before slaughter.  

Beta overhead the other pilgrims tell her mother the story. The men had taken turns carrying Beta. They had enough hand-rolled cigarettes to last the journey home. Beta’s body was not so heavy, so she was not so hard to carry. As Beta’s mother thanked them, Beta let her body slump into a stupor.

Then this happened.

Beta felt a shock in her lower rib. She heard a call from the direction of the courtyard. With one wrench from her seat, she leapt towards the sound. She rushed through the hallway to the birdcage. There was a solitary bird inside, hardly larger than a duck’s egg, brown and with a black beak. Beta unhooked the cage from where it hung and rushed it into her bedroom, which promised seclusion a mere pace away. Once inside the room, Beta shut the door and secured the bolt.

With the bird’s head placed partially in her mouth, Beta reclined slowly onto the bed, and her eyelids dropped. This was part of His plan. A suction came from where the bedframe stood against the wall. Shloooooop. It was dark, cool where sunlight had never been. First it swallowed her head, then her shoulders, her lowest rib. She felt her limbs grow weightless like twigs blown from a patch. She heard the vortex close shut as her feet, flexed, drew themselves into the swallow. Her metamorphosis began then, because when she awoke, she never felt the widow again. This was beyond forgetting; it was a disappearing act.

V

Beta placed her hands on the bed and looked around her bedroom. The head of the bird sat on the floor a yard away, separate from its body, feathered frame arched into sprawl. She admired its fat gut, a spherical container with no thought. Within Beta, power mounted behind a levy of consciousness in her own brain. She knew that she could crank her consciousness back, and in those moments a companion would come to inhabit her.

Beta kicked the bird’s body beneath the bed and stood up. When she released the bolt to her bedroom, the first thing she asked for was a glass of water.

For twelve months Beta ate nothing except fruit. Her union with Mount Lempuyang required that she quit her job at the Ashram and tend to the spiritual health of hundreds of visitors. They visited her daily, calling her “Woman Who Marries Beyond Her Caste,” and from that point on she, as the hand of High Nature, lived an exalted life as a treasured healer.  

With each visitor, Beta entered a trance. In those moments, Mount Lempuyang descended into the watery space between her organs. He spoke and acted, told truths from across the island, across oceans, spirit dimensions. People asked for protection against curses and spirits, for blessings in business, plump newborns, post-mortem bequests.

When Beta woke from her trances, she would see her patients’ faces bloat with renewal. She did not always remember what preceded their joy, and wondered if it was wrong to accept their gratitude. Her days passed with a series of absences in which no details mattered, and the moments of waking were full of transformation.

As for Mount Lempuyang, who knew what he felt, if anything at all? He was a providing husband, if not more possessive than most. Beta suspended assertion of her identity for the greater good, and for the partner she convinced herself she loved. The Beta of previous years did not entirely disappear (although this was what the plants, her friends, supposed). Mt. Lempuyang fused his fist with her gentleness, and this became a symbiotic relationship. Nothing stood beyond Beta’s reach or request, but she chose not to exercise the privilege. Beta was grateful, if only for her own resign. And people paid her, not in money of course, because this would cause her to lose the gift, but in other items: dried fruit, worship baskets, boiled eggs marinated in coconut milk.

Beta become so famous that word of her traveled overseas. She went with her son to India, where she was lauded publicly by a provincial ruler long-bearded and costumed in white. He fed her round beans, and awarded her a medal when she cured him of chronic wind sickness, which she knew to be gas.

Meanwhile the garden wilted. Carbon dioxide bled to the leaves. One day as Beta emerged from a trance, she noticed the state of her garden. “Are you growing sick of this?” she asked them. “Know it’s not our choice.” She asked volunteers from the Ashram to help her tend her garden, and the plants revived.

VI

It all changed in a season, when Mt. Lempuyang abandoned Beta as she slept. He told her he had found another vessel: a younger woman who had won his faith sooner than expected. The news was delivered matter-of-factly, in a dream in which Beta sat on a stinking shore and Lempuyang stood in human form smoking a roll of tobacco. Through puffs of smoke he explained how the youthful were efficient for great causes.

Beta spoke up for the first time.

She said All these years you slip your hands into my hands, sneak your words into my mouth, and they become extensions of myself. These limbs have never failed you, and you desert me in a night’s passing, just like that? In what state do you leave me, now that you have occupied me for so long?

“You wanted it…” said Mt. Lempuyang, and drifted off. He did not know what she wanted.

His last gift was to kiss, at every demand, the water Beta blessed for the pregnant women of the East. After that, her other magical faculties dissolved away. Alone in her home apart from a few hormonal visitors, Beta went back to socializing with the plants and the gargoyle in the garden.

Now Beta looks longingly and often at the mountain. She fantasizes about Mount Lempuyang entering her deeply. She remembers, in the months before His coming, the days of embodiment when the owners of the Ashram touched her. This made her feel dirty and powerful. There was nothing wrong about being human then. Those men went off to do great things, and came back only for funerals.

She imagines the mountain shaking with joy at her emptiness. If he was merciful, he would transform her into His rock body, or turn her into a tree on which the monkeys might dump their waste and exchange their faith. She will be a continuum of fruit, dropping down from the trees on younger, female-bodied pilgrims.

Beta does not leave her home, and waits for patients who rarely come. Vacancy is a shared sensation, isn’t it? Or so says the gargoyle. But then again how can he empathize? Like her husband, he’s just a tub of rock.

 

Curiosity #91: Negotiating Mother’s Milk

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

“I could break you,” Pak Heli said, rising from his chair and pointing a finger at the man at the foot of the far table, quiet as a fish. The room lacked motion, apart from the groom’s uncles who stroked the old man’s thighs (to calm the man down, although such a breach of personal space would incentivize any Western man I know to bite a hand off). The groom’s family watched Pak Heli’s body pulse in fury. Despite the fact that he, as the advocate for the bride’s family bloodline, was outnumbered 20 to 1, his authority thundered into the senses of the bulky men and their mothers who crowded the living room.

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(Above: The start of the meeting, before tensions rose. Pak Heli sits in front of the red stripe on the wall.)

The bridal price was to be decided that day, or blood from both clans would be left to curdle, potentially splash, until an agreement was won.  

In the Eastern Indonesian region of Nusa Tenggara Timur, bridal price or “belis” remains a focal point of identity. The bridal price secures the departure of the bride, spiritually and physically, from her birth family. Her husband’s ancestors become her ancestors; his family becomes her burden. For such a transition, the bride’s family demands a price.

Depending on the man’s ethnic lineage, “payment” varies. In Ende, central Flores, the demand can be a fleet of horses. In Sumba, a water buffalo. In East Flores and Lembata, brides’ families demand ivory tusks, multiple for women who are highly-educated.

What happens if there are no horses or elephants left in this region of Indonesia, and the region’s economy already rubs the mass-majority of faces in poverty? Do old requirements still stand?

Tough: there’s no disappointing the ancestors in a place where departed spirits package the prayers of the living; and ancestors, like most old folks, tend to like the same old thing.

Now younger generations work to negotiate bridal prices to align with existing resources (ex. families discuss ivory as a symbol, while the fruit of the exchange comes in the form of a pig or sheep, or even cash). This works in response to global demands to educate children rather than thrust them into debt. In most urban parts of NTT, locals trust that ancestors—sympathetic to their own blood—will warm up to the times. Hell, the youth still have to get married, and there’s enough trouble already with younger generations pumping out babies out of wedlock.

But some bridal reps refuse to budge from dated demands. The island of Adonara is famous for its exacting requests; women from Adonara commonly ask for 3 tusks of ivory, with negotiations only flexible regarding time-until-delivery. A woman’s bridal price might be fulfilled 30 years after vows are stated. So much for saving for post-retirement by the pool. 

Pak Heli, back in the living room in Adonara, identified proudly among the intractable reps. “This isn’t the price of an item we’re negotiating in a market,” Pak Heli stated. “This is our mother’s milk.”

The “mother’s milk” in his family, of the Kedang region (Eastern region of the island of Lembata), demanded a gong. A gong, a simple metal ritual instrument, might require a year of the groom’s savings. But Pak Heli wasn’t satisfied with his own milk; he wanted the groom’s, passed down among the Atodai people of West Lembata.

Ivory. To acquire a meter of ivory (which must be imported from outside Indonesia), pocket-fishing could reach $10,000 deep, which—we’re talking Indonesian salaries, here—would shove the groom’s entire family of drivers and laborers into decades of I-owe-yous.

The first response had come from the groom’s youngest uncle, guardian of the “traditional house” who spearheaded the negotiations before the wedding. “Where were you before the wedding?” he had asked Pak Heli after initial demands were made. “If you intended to make demands outside your own tradition, we should have known about it before the vows.”

First mistake: Never directly challenge an elder, especially during deliberations perceived as sacred.

Second mistake: Never argue from an emotional state, especially if the family we aim to represent hasn’t had the chance to regroup.

The manifestation of these two mistakes by the groom’s youngest uncle sent Pak Heli flying, and not in a charming way.

Pak Heli’s skeletal face, his cheeks that caved in like eye-hollows, captured shadow as he pointed his chin at the uncle who false-spoke.

The anger, rolled and powdered, was almost impressive with the poetry it unleashed.

“I have been trusted for decades because I have CHARISMA! It has been passed down for generations from fathers to fathers. You, listen! I am not a young dud, like you! I am not drunk, like you! I am smart and you are stupid! I am an old man, wise! I’m generous and give with class, unlike you who only think of yourself!”

The groom’s other uncles, who sat on either side of Pak Heli, continued to pet the old man’s limbs. “I have the charisma, I say!” he barked. “I could ruin you!”

The groom’s grandmother, a sharp woman with a lazy eye, sat with her sons and leaned also towards Pak Heli. She mumbled apologies under Pak Heli’s tirade, saying “my youngest son was drunk when he spoke. He should have talked with the family first, our apologies.” She repeated this like a mantra. 

The bride, too, sat there, facing the representative of her bloodline while surrounded by her husband’s family, voiceless.

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(Above: The bride (in white) rising from her chair after sitting silently for hours to the discussion of her “worth”)

“Don’t you dare think you’re greater than other people!” Pak Heli barked,  still glaring at the groom’s youngest uncle. “I have been trusted by the people of Kedang to officiate bridal negotiations all over Nusa Tenggara Timur! Kupang, Manggarai, East Flores, Timor, you name it! I’ve seen it all, and never have I been so humiliated as I am today!”

He slapped a hand on the table. The whole house reverberated.

“Words are sharper than a blade,” he said.

Those of us listening were silent. The women in the room slipped out and reappeared with coffee and siri pinang (areca nut functioning as a sedative).

At last the groom’s youngest uncle placed his head in his hands and wept. Pak Heli’s jaw cracked down on an areca nut. “The wound has been made,” Pak Heli said. “Jesus could place a hand on a wound and recovery would happen in an instant. I’m not Jesus; I’m hurt, and I’m embarrassed. I leave tonight.”

At this point, the afternoon had carried us into the evening, and the number of people listening grew less and less as family members catered to reception guests who danced and fed on pork beneath the front-yard tent.

If we left the discussion at this point of tension, the future might look downright unsafe for the newly-minted couple, who had already borne a child. Everyone waited for a miracle, and for Pak Heli to suffer a change of heart.

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(One of the uncles steps outside the living room to breathe)

The groom’s distant relative, Pak Bol, a public education monitor in Lembata and a man closer to Pak Heli’s age, seized the opportunity for diversion. “This lady here is interested in our culture,” he said, nodding his head in my direction and smiling. She must think this is all pretty interesting, eh?”

I swallowed. For the first time, Pak Heli looked directly at me. It was like watching a T-Rex turn its head.

“Do you have this kind of talk where you’re from?” Pak Bol egged on. Without an explicit cue I knew it was my turn to play along.

“It’s different,” I put in, trying to find the right words. “Traditionally in many parts of Europe and the United States it’s the woman’s family who pays a dowry, but times have changed.” I hesitated, but no one interrupted. “Both women and men have freedom to work and demand equal wages, so dowry is less important than investment in the future: towards educating children and self-sustainability in retirement.”

Pak Heli spat. “Women pay the men, ha!” He looked to the men around him as if, for the first time, they were all in on something. “Future!” His teeth clacked again on a nut, and I saw that the sedative had turned his dentures red. “Well we’re the opposite,” said Pak Heli, narrowing in. “While the West thinks about the future, we survive on our past.”

The groom’s father came to the rescue. Dinnertime had come and I was invited to bathe and enjoy the rest of the wedding reception, which already neared its end.

When I came back from a late meal and line dancing, I found Pak Heli on the living room floor, fast asleep next to one of the uncles. The younger man’s bear snores shook the room. Ivory or no ivory, they slept like empty pots. The groom’s grandmother came up behind me and ushered me to sleep.

“I’m glad he stayed,” I told the grandmother, looking over my shoulder and nodding towards Pak Heli.

“It will all be well” she said, letting her good eye settle on her temperamental guest. We have 100 days to deliver the ivory, and if we don’t…If we don’t, the negotiations will continue next year, when we can hope for more input and better favor. Although the hurt might always be there.”

I wondered how much wounded pride could be slept off, and—if it managed to contaminate “mother’s milk”—that milk could be spoiled for good.

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(Above: the newlyweds after the church ceremony. Their four-year-old daughter is in pink.)

Curiosity #90: Mother of G

Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

He would wait for the right moment to tell his mother he was gay. It wouldn’t be easy, not in a country where homosexuality was considered a contagion and anti-LGBTQ violence went unpunished.

“I plan to get settled with someone first, then tell her,” said G, spooning soy-sauce-battered egg and rice into his mouth. “I think she’ll accept it, but it might take awhile.”

G and I sat at a street-side tent restaurant, where we looked out at the night scene of Bandung, West Java. G had been living here for two years after graduating from college and stabilizing himself as a fashion designer. After over two months East Flores, my first glimpse of tall buildings and metropolitan streets had the effect of swallowing me like a casino.

G arranged for my transportation from the city of Bandung to his mother’s house in the neighboring city of Purwakarta, where we would meet again on the day of our mutual friend’s wedding.

When I arrived at G’s childhood home, G’s mother greeted me by leaning on the door-frame. I could tell she wasn’t your typical Indonesian “ibu”. She wore a sexy black tank top that hugged her tiny frame, with lace at the bust showing off a boney chest pumped up by a semi-visible bra. Her shorts rode well up her thigh and a trail of smoke followed her sweeping hand like a ribbon. An arm looped around me, then another, and all at once I was overwhelmed by the press of bone and menthol.

“Welcome home, Mommy wants you to stay for weeks, months! Come inside. G said you like vegetables, so Mommy made some tofu and chili sauce!”

We entered her living room, which also functioned as a guest and TV room. Glass glimmered in cabinets, dormant as a painting, while dull furniture sat like domestic animals. These looked lived-in, but had that musk of hand-me-down wood. She told me that this house was part of an inherited family complex, and that her siblings and in-laws occupied the neighboring apartments. “But we’re different, so I rarely socialize with them.”

She seemed afraid of “catching” a case of conservatism, and in a sense I understood what it meant to distance oneself from unwanted influences. Wasn’t I in Indonesia to temporarily distance myself from individualism (a leap that seems comical, now). In the days I stayed in Purwakarta, traveling between G’s mom’s house and the site of my friend’s wedding, I caught glimpses of the female in-laws. They never traveled beyond the meatball stand at the main road, and often sat together in their door frames looking out from periwinkle veils that masked their figures down to their waist.

“The saddest is my cousin’s wife, who is forbidden from doing many things by her husband,” said G’s mom, shaking her head. “She comes here sometimes to help make cakes. When you’re cooped up, you know nothing about the outside world. Look at her sad face, her pillowing body. Such a pity. She doesn’t even know that foreigners eat rice!”

G’s mom held a vision for transcending social pressures, and also for staying young. A consultant for alternative medicine who worked for $2 an hour, she had questionable theories about health, especially as they were usually delivered through clouds of smoke, but they were entertaining to listen to and worked for her just fine.

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Mama Tells Me

A) Wear what you like

“Daddy wouldn’t like it if I wore a long veil like my siblings,” G’s mom said. She ran the back of her hand down her body, which, at 50, had born two children but was as petite as a barren yogi’s. “When I started dating Daddy, I asked him, does it bother you that I don’t dress like other women? He said he likes the way I dress, because it looks ‘right’ on me.”

I knew G’s biological father had left the family when his sister was still an infant, and I wondered the steps G’s mother took to recover her self-esteem. Her fashion outside the house consisted of jeans and vests, snatched out of a teen pop magazine. It suited her—her stride was light and airy, so when we moved around the kitchen or traditional market I often forgot who was the younger.

B) Stay Active

“Every day, after we go to the market to sell soft cakes, Mommy and Daddy go to the park to exercise.” We entered a park surrounded by a quarter-mile promenade on which some people paced and jogged. At the center of the promenade was a pond featuring at its center the statue of Prabu Kian Santang, praised sultan of Purwakarta’s ancient kingdom.

Daddy took one lap around the promenade before plopping down, panting. Mommy and I walked side by side, passing up teenage girls whose veils mis-matched their exercise pants, and whose clothes bunched up around consistently heavy frames. “Don’t be like that,” Mommy said. “Once you start being ashamed of your body, you let it go.”

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C) Everything revolves around happiness

“If you’re not happy, you’ll never find it,” she said, when she saw me scrambling around for my credit card. I wiped a collection of sweat from my forehead, hand deep in my backpack. On the brink of resign, I was not in the mood for a pep talk, but G’s mom peered over me to advise in earnest:

“Mommy tells her patients, if we are not happy, our head is not at peace, and we will never find what we’re looking for.” I tried to smile. Needless to say, even after a short rest and a coconut-sugar crepe, I did not find my credit card.

There were parts of her “happy talk” that I was willing to buy. Didn’t studies confirm that our immune system responded to stress? How far did that theory go? Mommy says, among things that happiness cured were high cholesterol, cancer, malaria. Addiction, of course, was easier to cure than missing credit cards. “When we are happy, all the bad things stay away,” she said.

Take it Home

During G’s mom’s impromptu lessons on happiness, she would pop in questions about G. She asked me what his dreams were, where he wanted to travel, and I could only relay his updates from the first evening I spent with him. He rarely opened up to her, she said, for reasons she didn’t understand. But he showed he cared by sending an allowance to his younger sister so she could continue her college education without concern for money.

“He’s a good boy. Comes home just for the food, and getting fatter, but a good boy. And he gets looks for those clothes he wears. I just want him to be happy,” she said.

I knew there was much she wanted to say to him in person; that she knew her son’s gender-transcending was a bit “different”, and she was ready to hear whatever secret kept him at a distance. I knew G was happy living as an out gay man, but would he be happier if his mom accepted it, along with his taste for Hillary-esque pantsuits?

Before I left, G’s mom threw her house gowns at me, saying “You like them? Wear them. Mommy likes sex dresses, I have no use for mumus.” Indeed she seemed to have an endless selection of sexy lingerie. It wouldn’t deprive her of anything to drape myself in vibrant cotton like the traditional housewives, not when she pranced around the living room like a Victoria’s Secret mini-model. “You wear the mumus, ya,” she said, hugging me in her see-through mesh top, “when you want to remember me.”

Mommy still sends pictures of her posing with her hubby, and I wonder if I’ll ever be conserved in beauty and energy like a rare insect in a capsule. I do know that when I wear the mumus I am happier, a bit frumpier, and full of memories. In the cheap cotton I can feel a mother’s love for her child, reserved most of all for G—a blessing that both her “children” might remember when we go to sleep at night, and in the morning when we wake up to find ourselves.

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Curiosity #89: A Nun Tells of Adultery

Uncategorized

This is based on a true account from a Catholic Sister in Larantuka. The nun ran the local orphanage, and invited me and my host, the priest Romo Alfons, in for coffee. She told me that the following story is none too unusual in these parts, since both ethnic rites and Catholic law make divorce near impossible. So when extramarital affairs happen—as they inevitably do—adulterers run for their lives from their in-laws.

Gossip at the Orphanage about an Anonymous Local Woman

East Flores was a land of no secrets, but she managed to keep just one. This saved her from being murdered, and from becoming a murderer herself.

She never told her four legitimate children, or her legitimate husband, what it meant to be a breadwinner whose vitality drove her to seek satisfaction beyond a distant partner. She only confided this to her illegitimate husband (if we can call him that), whose own wife ceased to satisfy, and whose praises in the prayer park inspired visions for a new future.

Her husband had left ten years ago for oil drilling on the far-off island of Kalimantan. There he killed a man and had himself condemned to prison, leaving his wife and children to scraps of inheritance and minimal communication. She never told her husband’s family, who bound her to her marriage vows, that she never intended to stay faithful. They would have killed her, of course, if they knew.

The right people never found out, thank Tanah Eka. She stayed cooped up in her remote garden in the hills as her belly grew with her mistake. Her stand-in-husband hated condoms. As the mistake grew a head and legs, she sold coconut oil and fried yams with the help of a hired boy who went to market. When she scooped out the insides of the sunned coconuts, she imagined running a spoon along the interior of her uterus, scraping out the babe which sought her ruin, then her ties with her husband who swatted away the days behind bars. The meat came off in clean shavings. The plan was to birth the baby in a squat in the garden, take a knife to the throat before the tick could scream, and bury it in a fury.

She had managed to send her children off to boarding school with no homecoming funds for the remainder of the year. Her kids missed mommy, but might not if they knew. Her belly grew to the size of a squash, then jackfruit, so that sometimes when she worked in the garden she squatted in an “M” so her her seeds would soak up her piss. Her illegitimate husband never came to visit her in the hills. His wife, he said, questioned the country women most of all.

She ran one day to a nun at an orphanage, who she heard was more sympathetic than most. It was a day when she woke up from one of many tormenting nightmares; this one in which she dug through the foam of her uterus and, in the watery parts, saw a fetus floating in pitch black. She swam to the body of the fetus and strained to see its face, which was hidden by an arm. As she swam closer she saw that the face was not that of an infant but of her lover. She brushed her palm across the familiar forehead. The eyes opened and the jaws cracked to a “V” to reveal the dentures of a whale. It swallowed her whole.

The orphanage was run by the sisterhood, which also functioned as a school for special needs. It was a Sunday when she sped to the place, and contented families in the surrounding area sat outside drinking tea. When she entered the orphanage, she was introduced to some of the live-ins. Several children couldn’t speak, some were short like forest fairies but with the jaws of fishermen, and there were some children you could tell whose brains melted like chocolate when they drew outside the lines.

She was welcomed by the convent sister, who served her coffee with milk and crushed corn. When she told the sister her story, the holy woman stroked her mole and placed her fingertips on the rim of her coffee glass, but did not drink. The sister said she had heard tales of the man who we call the illegitimate husband. He had a habit of slipping his tool between married women, but we don’t have to relay the numbers: only he didn’t have the balls or or financial security to commit to any one.

The likelihood of killing her child played over and over in her head as she sat before the nun. At last, when she felt she might fly out of herself, she confessed her plans for murder. The details were tugged out of her like weed after weed. When she finished speaking, the water machine in the cafeteria kept humming, the Jesus in the pegged paintings looked down and behind him and everywhere but at her. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary in the corner of the room, and she could feel Her throbbing, waiting to hold a man who was too ashamed of his humanness to hold eye contact. Maybe under different circumstances, when a dangerous thing landed in Mother Mary’s palms, she, too, would slaughter it and throw it away.

The nun convinced her to spare the child, and before the coffee was cold she was off again.

When the time came, she brought the baby to the nun. The last sounds she heard from the orphanage were her own child’s murmuring among the blubbering of the dumb children. The baby was adopted by the brother of a priest, and the woman’s secret was unleashed to the holy family, then to me. 

No one, not the newborn, not the nun, ever the learned name of the sinful mother who perhaps went back to her normal life, or who perhaps was haunted by the throbbing of The Virgin, who — let’s admit it — was likely a sinner herself.

 

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(Below: Nun and storyteller)

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Curiosity #88: Freedom in Lembata

Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

On the same day I published my last post, I took a car to the nearest city, Larantuka, paced across the sea port, and boarded the next boat to the island of Lembata.

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Scenes from Lembata

1

She poses questions about Bible history and marital restrictions of Catholic priests: what does it mean to be pure? Controversy draws her to teach, whereas her conformist culture tells its adherents, particularly women, to listen and listen only.

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2

Back at home, conformity holds sway. Custom requires her as the woman of the house to feed me breakfast, and me, as the guest, to eat it. She sits at the table, her own plate empty, and watches my spatula-ed hand hover over over the tray of fried noodles. My stomach torques so that my bottom lip begins to shake.

Later, I confide my uneasiness. I tell Kak Etik that my stomach crimps when I’m forced to act and eat as if I were a child. In East Indonesia, a respected guest receives food and protection (more like supervision) as a sign of care. But even after three years in this country, Indonesian customs prohibiting choice, especially for women, seem like insults. An American woman, even in someone else’s home, likes to manage a small part of her own diet and schedule in order to maintain her sanity and self-respect.

Fortunately Kak Etik’s respect for my forwardness, and especially my obstinance, breaks the chain of formalities and provides a sound foundation for friendship.

“I don’t want to be protected,” I tell her.

2

Kak Etik’s husband, a headmaster 14 years her senior, drives me on the back of his motorcycle to his school. We traverse Lembata’s small city, Lowoleba. Children and their teachers sweep the roads with stick-brooms to celebrate the island’s independence from neighboring Flores.

Our bike passes a gated hospital. The building stands beside a factory, which spews oil clouds that swirl around the walls of the hospital as if it were the locus of a grand disappearing act. I wonder how the patients bring themselves to inhale. The palm trees in the hospital yard lean away from the smoke as if to puke.

3

Residential dust yard gives way to untended fields. Children dance, one young woman in platform sandals and heavy lipstick leading choreography for children between the ages of five and fourteen. I know that many of them come from broken homes, some “left behind” by the public school system.

4

I cut local spinach with a dull knife as Kak Etik tells me of her kinship with Mary Magdalene. One day she hopes to travel to the Basilica Sainte-Marie-Magdalene, France, to visit the site of Mary’s remains. It doesn’t matter that Mary Magdalene’s romantic bond with Jesus was skirted by Biblical history; in fact, this makes her all the more alluring. That, and isn’t it fate that the two women share a birthday?

5

Gentle hills capture a highlighter green, their grass coats waving erect shafts.

6

Smoke rises from the tops of mountains.

7

Two shop attendants hover over me at the city’s only supermarket, which equates to a small-town general store. I walk down the soap isle, and the two girls shuffle alongside, looking over my shoulder. I know they’re just curious, but their attention is oppressive.

I try to get past saying, “I’m just walking, yeah?” But the girls follow me like mosquitoes. I say the same thing, only this time I gesture theatrically that I aim to pass, and they get the picture. The shop attendants approach my friend, Sarno, who sits at a chair at the front of the store.

“We try to invite Nona (the title for a young woman) to chat,” they say to Sarno, “but we find it so difficult! She won’t let us help her. Maybe it’s a language problem.”

“Of course it’s not,” I want to shout desperately across the aisles. “I just want a few minutes to make choices. I so rarely get the chance!!!”

At my remote volunteer site, I rarely have options as to where I go, or even what I buy for my daily needs.

Choices are what make us feel we take care of ourselves, are they not? Even the simple ones: what kind of soap do we choose to bathe with? What flavor of oreos do we savor during a long week? What drink do we choose from the fridge? In the US choices are overwhelming, but here in this store on the island of Lembata, faced for the first time in 3 weeks with multiple varieties of bath and beverage items, the indecision floods me with the relief and familiarity of home.

How do I explain this? How can I express to the attendants that my choices must be made on my own, without others hounding my judgment? But here, the need to think alone is an alien concept.

8

Kak Etik takes my hand as we walk through the market. All around us are fish of all variety of shapes and colors, as if I were a dull and dry thing.

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9

We sit in a van loaned by a friend of Sarno. On our way home from the market, Kak Etik looks up at the roof of the van. Casually, as if pointing out a leak, she says: “This is the van we rode to the hospital on the night my baby died.”

10

Kak Etik stuffs chocolate biscuits into her mouth as I eat the leftover spiced fish she made for lunch. She tells me me she’s too lazy to eat.

11

Thick forests bend down and up. The rain pelts us as we travel on broken road. The driver, Mas Tom, shakes his hand every five minutes, his hands spent after gripping the break for hours.

12

I flip through a photo album of Kak Etik’s dead child, who cracked her head open after slipping on a wet floor. The electricity had gone off, as it often does in these parts. Two hospitals in Lowoleba tried to tend to the toddler’s wounds, but neither was equipped to save her. Kak Etik’s child wasn’t two years old.

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13

A 70-year-old nun, Sister Alfonsa, delivers a playful slap on the cheek. She tells me of how she once orchestrated the coming-together of different religions to build a garden, laborers contributing their own bricks and iron. This was the nun who helped Etik emerge from grief following her child’s death, who taught her to take ownership of her emotions and her career.

Sister Alfonsa tells me I must drink a local medicine for my bloated stomach, and must reduce my coffee intake if I want to have children. She hands me a butter biscuit, and I bite into the cardboard-like treat to humor my mentor-of-the-moment.

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Curiosity #87: First Glimpses of Flores

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

Snapshots:

– A lizard the size of my forearm hiding in the cupboard shadows, croaking. When he burps, the entire room shakes.

– Poles of bamboo the length of a driveway draped and bobbing over 1980s-manufactured pick-up trucks. The platforms are stuffed with squatting, smoking men.

– Cracked-open coconuts laying meat-side up in the sun. Mounds of of empty coconut shells pile high as a human waist against homes made of wood panes three fingers thick.

– Forests palms envisioned by Dr. Seuss. Beyond: an expanse of sea with hairy islands a gum-drop green.

– Roads swerving through a lush landscape, the concrete continuing as if designed by a two-year-old terror with a scalpel.

– Drafts of rain assaulting pedestrians on valley roads. Those who don’t carry umbrellas protect their faces with leaves the size of street dogs.

– The roar of insects each time the car passes a stretch of trees.

IF ANYONE HAS COME WITHOUT HIS BIBLE, STAND UP AND LEAVE THE CHURCH.

I have come without my Bible to Flores. The island is 95% Catholic, statistics say, with adherents on the rise since the villages cast in their baton. Here at Seminary San Dominggo, Hokeng, I have come to pay my dues. My sin isn’t missed confession or a discarded bible; it’s idleness after quitting my job at a non-profit (where, in teaching children from immigrant families, I at least served as an extra hand) to travel across South America then live rent-and-responsibility-free with my parents as I applied for grad schools.

A month ago, I packed my bags for Indonesia, thinking I would prove myself useful.

I was told that, during my stay in East Flores as a volunteer English teacher, I wasn’t required to reclaim any part of my long-discarded Catholic faith. But here I find myself in the back of the church every Sunday, performing the sign of the cross over my head and chest, watching the heads of 300 aspiring priests commit themselves to Christ.

My first few weeks involved me discussing endless potential duties and shuffling around at the tug of middle-aged clergy who, between words of gratitude and nosiness, stuffed their faces with bananas and bread buns (the only culinary legacy left behind by the Dutch). I’m thrown into classrooms in which high school boys beg me to sing. They tell me in elementary words about their girlfriends who will wait for them at Love Mountain until the day they are ordained, their village’s whale-hunting practices, how much they both love their island and ache to escape it. They dig Arnold Schwarzenegger, especially when he’s pregnant.

I eat three meals a day of circulating fish variety, at the same seat, at one of the two long dining room tables where food is brought each day by two girls my age: Rina, who wears a Mickey-Mouse sweatshirt, and Rinti, with hair down to her butt-cheeks. I want to tell them that I’d rather dine with them in the outdoor kitchen in the late hours of the evening than with the tamed and feathered old men who take notes on my habits and likes as if I were a zoo animal. The worst is Pater Geby, who asks how much each of my belongings costs and who hogs all the avocados for himself.

On outings, I’m brought into throngs of squealing strangers who scramble over one another to take selfies. They shove their forearms next to mine and compare skin colors. Romo Alfons, my coordinator and supervisor, grins from ear-to-ear. To be fair, he uses these occasions to question other locals about landmarks and concepts which might serve my interests. “Julie likes coffee. Julie likes chilis. Julie likes culture, and especially myths relating to customs. Do you know of any place where Ms. Julie can learn more about the traditions of East Flores?” The strangers (although here there is no such a concept) sit agape, asking my chaperone questions about my origins and lifestyle as if their speech was beyond me. As phone calls are made, children come to peer at my plucked expression.

There are about 8 priests in all who live on the seminary, with aspiring priests adding up to about 15 “pure men.” Many of them teach as well as preach, since the morning hours operate as a normal high school. Female teachers (there are five) also work at the seminary. They live at the corner house between the seminary garden and the road which leads to the world “outside.” On rare but happy occasions I’m invited by these women for an estrogen balance over fried cassava.

I live in a Utopia where the priests maintain heavy discipline and a gentle order deems older men automatic “protectors.” They widen their eyes in worry at all that is new and different. I can’t walk around the seminary grounds without one of these protectors following in quick step. Without a motorbike, there’s no pointed glance I can run from, and no hand I can escape.

Today I hop on a truck to the closest city, Larantuka, where I will decide if I want to explore independence in that minor bustle or cross the seawaters to the neighboring islands of Lembata, Solor, and Adonara. In less than a week I will return. Either way, I intend to escape from “The Holy Land,” since The Holy Land knows little of the drives of women, and moral dues are hard to pay when saints prepare me to boil.

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