Oral Histories

  • The following short story is 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.

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.

Oral History 4: Chika

(English Teacher at Seminari San Dominggo, Hokeng, East Flores, Indonesia: 13 February, 2018, 10am)

She remembers nothing from the crash, but is haunted by the aftermath. Eight years ago she hopped on the back of her brother’s motorbike. It’s a shame they both forgot to pray.

On the road her brother veered around a truck that was trudging like a sickly whale, and when he reached the nose-end of the car he entered the tiny wake left by the motorbike just in front. The teenager on the motorbike rode leisurely, ignorant of Chika’s brother behind him. In commencing a turn, he activated his break.

Later the doctors, then the police, would ask Chika what happened. She remembered mounting her brother’s bike. She remembered waking in the hospital, her relatives telling her that her brother was taken from one hospital ward to another. She remembered that a week passed before her brother’s daughter, a child no older than five, spilled the beans that her brother and the teenager driver died the day their bikes fell. Her family lied about her brother’s survival so she would have the tenacity to recover!

It worked. By the time she learned of her brother’s death, she was well on the way to restored health.

All that happened between the beginning of the bike journey and the hospital had been wiped from memory, so that the police asked if she might seek the help of a paranormal to remember the sequence of events. The paranormal advised her not to revisit the memory of the crash, since it would cause more trauma than good.

The law remained ignorant, as it is today.

The few onlookers who witnessed the crash claimed they saw Chika’s brother push her to the side just before the crash took its effect, sending her flying to a safer patch of concrete. Chika has a child of five. At 34, Chika dreams of visiting The United States. She dreams of her brother’s return. He comes to her, sometimes, in her sleep, whispering, “I’m here. But don’t tell anyone.”

 

Oral History 3: Pak Mesiak

(Professional Driver waiting at Frans Xavier Seda Airport, Maumere, East Flores, Indonesia: 10 February, 2018, 1pm)

He approached me the moment I retrieved my suitcases from the baggage belt. “Hello, how are you?” he asked. He led a collection of drivers, all of whom waited for a hire. I wanted to tell him to buzz off, since I had spent the previous night in the airport and already had a ride into the hills. I supressed my exhaustion and told him I would momentarily be picked up by a friend. Knowing I wouldn’t need a taxi service, he softened and began again with honest conversation.

It’s slow season, he explained. There’s much competition among drivers.

Relieved now he wouldn’t pester me now for a tourist packet, I indulged his questions about where I came from and why I had come to the eastern city of Maumere. We took up a few seats in the interior of the tiny airport. Once Mesiak finished his questions, I asked him about his history.

He had been a driver since he was a teenager in Kupang, on the island of Timor. He moved here, to Flores, several decades ago.

Why uproot?

Love, he said. His (now) wife, while from East Flores, attended college in Kupang. Each day he drove her from her boarding house to the university campus. Finding her beautiful, he refused to charge her for the first ride. “OK, today you ride free,” he told her. “Tomorrow you pay.”

The next day he escorted her again to campus, and again he said “Today you ride free. Tomorrow you pay.”

This went on throughout the months until Mesiak grew close with his passenger, then compatible, then eager to wed.

After marriage they moved to Flores, where they bore three sons. The eldest studies management at the university in Kupang.

“I’m a driver, so it’s easy enough for me to find work when season is high,” says Pak Mesiak. “After each journey comes payment. But for my son it will be difficult. If he wants to stay in Kupang he must wait to find work. Office jobs in Flores and Kupang are difficult to come by, even for the highly educated.” Pak Masiak nodded to another taxi driver who collapsed on the seat in front of us, also out of luck for a job that day.

“Everything is based on the networking of families. If a young person comes from outside the network, he or she has to work for two years without pay, until finally someone extends an opportunity for an ‘in’. So is the way of NTT,” Pak Masiak says. “We trust who we know.”

 

Oral History 2: Mark

I learned his name when he pointed to his upper arm and I read his tattooed script. It said “Mark.” Mark had to take a wizz. He gave me a fist bump and embarked for the porta potty.

Later he saw me drawing labyrinths. “Psssst, Julie,” he said. He held out a brown paper-mache skill the size of a newborn’s head. It was hard and had the bumps in all the right places. The interior of the skull held what looked like matches.

Mark was a craftsman since his youth. Now he’s 87, and every day he absorbs the heat with the mosaic artists at the beach. Today one of those artists is me.

Mark shows me how the back of the skull opens like a door, how he learned paper mache technique when he started making piñatas for a living, after the war.

At first he thought he might paint the skull white or black. A man offered him $20 for the standard. But he tells me now he wants to paint it like the sky.

Oral History 1: Marlin

I’ll have to give this composition another go:

OralHistory1

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