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 #75: Fossils

Uncategorized

Fabric bunched around her waist, obscuring whatever curve might have been hidden there. She had age marks that looked like chicken tracks across cement, austere cheekbones, a gaze that dove out every time she turned her head — landing, revealing something between judgment and waiting. Her lips stood alone, as if they had been rolled up and pinned, preserving a sensual vitality that betrayed itself only at the corners of her mouth where her creases dipped in exhaustion.

She was the keeper of the home and a mother of two. From the way visitors overlooked her labors, the way her elephant-bodied husband bypassed her on the way to the kitchen, it was obvious that no one recognized how beautiful she was.

I had come here, to this small village in the center of Bali, to celebrate the festival of Galungan. Galungan was a Hindu festival in which young men and women took the places of departed souls; they lay open-mouthed under the hands of Hindu priests who tamed their inner demons by filing away at the bottoms of their teeth; and so children became adults, establishing holy unions through marriage, bridging families and shifting loyalties. Over the course of several days and on numerous occasions I rode side-saddled on Bu Ayu’s motorbike, propping baskets of food and flowers on my head, bowing into family compounds and offering congratulations to newlyweds who supplied pork in exchange for our blessings.

scan _0019 (1)

My original intention was to inquire about Bali’s resident spirits, but in the end what I learned, quite accidentally, was that reality is what we leave behind.

There used to be a beloved matriarch in the house. Bu Ketut, who had grown up in the family compound (but now lived with her children in Denpasar), told me of her mother, whose spirit sometimes slept beside her in her husband’s place, and whose voice followed her like a recording, singing. The “mother” she mourned was in fact her aunt, never married, an ordinary midwife. Word was that this woman’s selfless love was so effulgent that she made everyone feel they were borne of her own womb.

There were stories of Her guiding lonely children through hospitals, tending new mothers, taking visitors on walks through rice fields and taking dips in the river, pushing mattresses together in the living room and laughing late into the night. Bu Ayu said that when this woman died the condolences came like a sea.

Yet it seemed all she had to do was make time for people. And care.

Now that I’m back in the United States and I’m bound to my computer, I feel a new reality creeping in, one I hope won’t permeate. It’s a reality that says I don’t have time for anything apart from finding a path, reaching a ladder and climbing it.

At my first stage of reverse-culture shock, this has me scrambling in a void.

So for sanity’s sake I retreat to the rice fields in the Balinese village where I stayed, where stairs of grass are laid out like a bowl, and beside it runs a stream where Shiva is known to bathe. Grandma — Bu Ayu’s mother-in-law, the only elder living in the compound — waits for me there. She looks as bird-like as ever, perched by the steps with a stern, pretty set of features and slightly bulging belly. Like a sculpted Madonna, her face allows no expression and lets out little speech.

The scene unfolds as it did then. I look down at the stream and observe it flowing cleanly along its gutter of concrete. Step in. The water comes up almost to my waist. I lift up my nightgown so only my hem gets wet. Against the current of the stream my legs wobble like loose pegs and my torso stands exposed to the late-morning air. I’m cold. Down the river are children splashing in their underwear, older men soaping bare bodies. Sometimes they turn to look at me.

Self-consciously I bring each leg to the surface to rub each thigh clean, trying to maintain a grip on my nightgown, which I clutch to my chest using a free arm. Grandma stands nearby, watching me.

“Take off your clothes” she says firmly.

At the moment I’m still fumbling with my wet cotton, and pause to look up. I want to tell her I’m plucked enough. “Take off your clothes,” she says again. The children nearby are still playing, and the villagers who just entered the clearing pause beside Grandma, letting their eyes linger on me. My body bleats like a sheet. A woman as old as Grandma moves off by herself and squats at a place by the riverside, removes her blouse in one motion, undoes her bra, and splashes water over a tumor that protrudes from her neck out to her chin. She motions at me to Grandma and says something in Balinese. The two old women laugh.

I exit the water and walk to where Grandma stands. I remove my dress. Grandma takes it and drapes it over her crossed arms. Not a word, not a blink. “Thank you” I say and look down at my clothes, but I’m really referring to something else. Grandma observes me in my minimal underwear, waiting for me to hide myself, but I don’t. I feel my skin move beneath her eyes like parcels of a used temple offering. But then I see her blink and nod, and this is how she accepts me. Perhaps she recognizes her own youth in my shapes, or perhaps my act of self-exposure has suspended my origins so that, without grace but with humility, they could come to rest within her traditions.

Now, I am neither here nor there.

I am in the United States, sitting beside my mother at our kitchen table. I am half-way around the world, passing a dormant temple on the back of a little boy’s motorbike.

I can teleport myself to where I’m haunted by the love of an immortal midwife, where I watch Bu Ayu inspect my grandmother’s locket, wrap her arms around her children and look out at nothing. I can try to establish a nest in a country that raised me, simultaneously cling to Indonesia, where I can reveal the most volatile part of myself to a strange old woman and no one looks away.

These memories and sensations have their own agency and are tethered to me, more real than whatever it might mean to reintegrate into my own country —

or to be a citizen of anywhere.

"Potong Gigi" or Teeth Filing Ceremony, mandatory in the adult initiation process among Balinese Hindus

“Potong Gigi” or Teeth Filing Ceremony, mandatory when becoming initiated as an adult in Balinese Hindu society

Six children of the same family before the "potong gigi" ceremony

Six children of the same family before the “potong gigi” ceremony

Gates of the local temple, Pura Dalem. The two figures on the door represent the polar forces of Hindu cosmology.

Gates of the local temple, Pura Dalem. The two figures on the door represent the polar forces of Hindu cosmology.

Bu Ayu (sitting far right) in front of the family compound during the Galungan parade

Bu Ayu (sitting far right) in front of the family compound during the Galungan parade

Steps down to the river, unused by locals because of its status as the reserved path for the spirit of Shiva.

Shady route to the river, unused by locals because of its status as the path for the spirit of Shiva.