The Age of Rocks
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.
(Below: Nun and storyteller)
– 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.
“Flores has no written record before the days of the Imperialists,” says Brother Angsel, stuffing his mouth with a spoonful of wet rice and sardines.
“So what do you teach?” I ask, incredulously. It’s a natural question, I think, since it’s Brother Angsel’s responsibility to teach Indonesian History to the 250+ boys at the high school Seminari San Dominggo. The Portugese didn’t arrive in Flores until the mid-late 1500s, and yet the island is home to some of the oldest humans (fossils of the homo floresiensis date back to 700,000 years ago).
“We go off the sources we have,” says Brother Angsel. “Other than that, history teachers in Flores take mostly from the history of Java and other islands where people have a longer history of written archiving.”
I stop eating my peach oatmeal, which has gone stale since I packaged it in Chicago. As I place down my spoon, my mind races toward possibilities for helping local communities revive and immortalize their nebulous history through written archiving; a false call to heroism that, despite coming from a drive to contribute, soils my motives.
I don’t know how to escape it. I’m about to start a PhD program in the Fall, and have no “calling” apart from a profound interest in cultural research that might very well benefit no one.
Within this is a hope that cultural research might be made more accessible through the arts, both for the locals informing my research and for people in the US. My faith stems from a personal history of reading books that have taken me beyond my home in the suburban Midwest to where people thrive on a variety of alternate values, struggle under power dynamics—some factors of myth and religion—that have caused me to loosen up on my definitions of reality.
Is there a possibility that I, like my personal heroes, might channel print or performance media to share a portal between realities on alternate hemispheres, with storytelling both as a muse and a canvas?
Over afternoon tea I speak to Romo Alfons about my interests in, down the road, perhaps enabling oral history projects dictated and run by locals. Wouldn’t it be grand if the rich history of Flores might be written down, fragmented as it might be, for everyone to appreciate?
Romo Alfons smiles at me. I: a child fussing over an empty wallet. Not so simple, he tells me. History is not always meant to be written. “According to our tradition, we value togetherness over reality. Truth isn’t in the facts, but in the solidarity of believing what is and isn’t true.”
History is transmitted orally. Collective decisions define truth, which informs identity. Never static, history moves like a beast with a rubber spine, whipping its head from side to side, sometimes morphing its features entirely depending on what each community finds essential for conservation.
Is it possible that some histories can’t be captured, transcribed, or recorded?
I recall my stint as an after-school teacher for immigrant children in Chicago. I remember the struggle of finding history books touching in equal part on the lives of minorities as well as white Christians. How are historically underserved communities meant to receive the proper attention if they aren’t given adequate representation in what we read, see, and hear? If we fill the canon with media of the minorities, won’t this solve the social imbalance leading to prejudice and its afterbirth?
Eastern Indonesians, overlooked by the Javanese as being primitive in its economic and cultural assets, certainly deserve voice. I was a fool, and am still, in believing that by documenting the Flores landscape for an audience I might stabilize a small platform from which local voices can project themselves.
Maybe this is all because I have no roots of my own.
No one is asking me to transcribe the oral histories of Eastern Flores. No one is asking me to write a children’s history book on ethnic groups pre-Catholic era, or to run around with a tape recorder. History lies with the beast, and it seems that beast would rather die than be contained.
What can I do? I can surrender the hope that my research might be useful to the Indonesians I work with, and resign to the fact that my path of interest might be a solitary one. To the working laborers of Flores, documenting local lifestyle in writing looks like idle play in a rain puddle.
And as I continue to write about culture, I can alert myself to how the act of transcribing cultural narratives can both conserve and kill the spirit of a tale, which acts as another one’s reality, and—in any case—isn’t necessarily mine to touch.
Romo (Father) Alfons and Suster (Sister) Emma in front of a cave shrine in Hokeng’s convent. Despite being wed to Jesus and His Mother Mary, the Catholic clergy foster the strongest culture of intellectualism I’ve witnessed in Indonesia outside university settings, and actively work alongside local traditions: evidence for why the Catholic religion is alive and well in a landscape still presided over by ancestors and folk spirits.
People in East Flores say that water comes from a sacred place. It streams through the hills into the soil of cacao plants and cabbage, to a little house at the crest of a ravine, where a village surrounds a small school. At the source lives a guardian spirit who ensures the purity and sustainability of the water. This spirit takes the form of an eel, but most who have seen it say the spirit is deceptive to the eye, and that sometimes it appears as a beautiful woman, ass gleaming in the still water.
Several generations ago an elderly man visited the sacred pool, curious about the spirit who swam inside. There is little knowledge of who was there to witness it, but legend says the man leaned over the crag beside the pool looking for the beauty. At last an energy pulled him toward the depths, swallowing him like a child.
There was no sign of the old man, although for months his fellow visitors waited for him by the shallows. It was assumed he had drowned in the water, allured and then overwhelmed by the guardian spirit whose body glistened like the scales of a fish, whose hair undulated like a woven cloth.
At last there was a set of villagers who went to the water source to see if they could retrieve something—anything—that would allude to the fate of the old man. They brought with them a fishing rod, and with a wide cast sent a hook plunging into the center of the pool. The villagers waited, taking care not to lean too far over lest they, too, fall into the grip of the guardian spirit.
Line deep, team stooped in a crouch. From inside the water, they felt a tug. A weight pulled at the tip of the fishing rod so that it bobbed beneath the surface of the pool. With a heave they lifted the rod above the surface of the pond, feeling the burden of the catch compound as the buoyancy slipped off. The water’s membrane parted to reveal the crown of a head, then came a face, a frame positioned erect, as if the body stood upon an elevator rising from a flight below. The hook of the fishing rod had caught on to the hole that strained in the earlobe of the old man, where, according to the fashion of East Flores, an earring once was gaged.
So it was by the ear that the old man returned to the reality he knew: fully alive, fully aware, and not a drop of dampness dripping from his skin. He told those who listened the story of his stay in the kingdom of the guardian spirit, whose castle stood over a dominion steeped in tradition, not so unlike his own.