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 #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.

 

IMG_6578 (1)

(Below: Nun and storyteller)

IMG_6580

Mazes and Labyrinths – the Myth of Direction

Uncategorized

labyrinth9

He leaned over the coffee table, batik revealing just a little belly above his waist. The fried horderves and avocado had been cleared, and on a doily-like cloth sat a plate of papaya smelling of soiled legs. Into my glass he poured a few shots of margarita mix, channelling the living room light like a bulb of emerald candy.

His face had grown less owlish since he tried to kiss me in his car. This was when he took me out for barbeque fish and candelabra-lit juice, and I used every back muscle to lever myself out of a hug that hadn’t known breasts in years (I wasn’t surrendering anything), beneath the shade of my church tree.

I still wanted to find in him my grandfather, who I otherwise envisioned as a leaf somewhere, crumpled and brown, but actually dead, really dead, haunting me with memories of goodbye kisses in front of Danish boat paintings.

As I took my first sip from the margarita glass I watched him stand from his armchair, emitting a little grunt as he rose. He shuffled in slippers toward his wife, who had fallen asleep in the chair to my left. Barely sixty, she suffered a stroke that laid her fragile. He often, sometimetimes endearingly, called her “crazy”, delegated her need for bathing-assistance to his children. Now he dutifully supported her weight beneath her elbows and escorted her across the living room, at last lowering her onto the mattress in front of the television, where protagonists from “The Mahabharata” jingled.

When he returned to the coffee table, he put his paw on my knee. Now where were we? The wisdom of the Kancil folktales? The tiers of propriety leading from here to the heavens?

Was he my grandpa in his rocking chair, telling me The New Yorker wasn’t for dummies?

I had gotten used to the grey parameters of his teeth. They, too, matched my late grandfather’s, only my grandfather’s were yellow. They had the same way of twinkling when they lent a sip of something forbidden, or when they let gleam a hint of youth.

Absorbing the heat of the early afternoon, I let the margharita cradle my idleness. I confessed my urge—coming from my American drive—to leave company in order to create.

He said, there is a saying in Java that reminds us to “follow the flow of the river.” We believe here that if something is meant to happen, it will come to fruition in due time. We don’t have to be the log and the current.

From the mattress, his wife guffawed at the television, and my eyes fixated on the framed shadow puppet pegged on the wall: the wise Semar, crafted—regardless of modern deviations in the chosen epic—with his finger pointing forward.

labyrinth2

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.

Curiosity #73: Tree Magic

Uncategorized

Javanese myths are full of ordinary folks who acquire magical powers under trees. Men and women practice asceticisms in the forest, acquiring heirlooms, encountering long-dead princesses, discovering immortality. Accumulating sperm. Sitting under a tree might seem a dull path to sorcery, but the complexity of seated meditation – or perhaps the very process of purging the self of complex materialism – is beyond Western comprehension, especially now that the ubiquitous, perhaps mis-led correlation between sophistication and chairs have ruled out cross-legged sitting. Not to mention trees (see Curiosity #71).

In a village called Bandungan, Central Java, there lived an Islamic spiritual teacher (called a Kyai) who, instead of sleeping, meditated under trees to acquire spiritual blessings. As a hermit he cooped up inside a simple dwelling at the center of the village’s neighboring forest, beside a river and field of rice plants he cultivated himself.

One night on a full moon, a scream was heard from the depths of the forest. No Javanese civilian in her or his right mind would venture into a forest at night, and so the villagers waited until morning to investigate. First they inspected the Kyai’s home. They were devastated by the scene. Surrounding the dwelling, they found a spattering of blood like a bed of strawberries splashed beneath an ogre’s foot. The village leader told the people to gather the bloody dirt and bury it, resigning to the fact that, despite the absence of a body, there was no way their Kyai could have survived such a spill.

Forty nights later, second cry was heard from the forest. In the morning, a village widow was found dead in her bedroom. It was clear that whoever conducted these killings sought more than power, and the villagers panicked. Some of them fled the village, fearing they would be pulped like guava. The braver ones resolved to stay, seeking a shaman to get down to business.

Shamans in Java are of various specialties: some of dark magic, others of love, many employed for the trolling of businesses (we hope forever outside the hands of American capitalists), others for the control of rain, the provision of prophecy, restoring relations with the patronizing dead. The shaman of Bandungan could see beyond material reality and into the soul of the present, peering into truth like a jeweler unzipping a purse of diamonds. The shaman pronounced to the villagers that the killer did not come from outside but rather lived among them, and that only a confession from the offender would save future generations from an irrevocable curse.

One hundred days after the first disappearance, on the day the villagers planned to commemorate the Kyai’s death, the chief elder of the village was found dead. He had stabbed himself with a bamboo rod uprooted from the Kyai’s grave. Like a film noir, this shadowy mystery came to a twisted but conclusive end. The villagers perceived the suicide as evidence that the village leader was in fact the murderer. It seemed the village leader’s act of skewering himself served as sufficient “confession”, since after the village leader was kicked to the dirt, Bandungan suffered no more mysterious killings. The villagers lived in peace.

The grave of the Kyai, known as “Oncak Ancik” (“the act of standing on one’s leg”, referring to the late Kyai’s state of unbalance), is a haunted space. Locals say there was once a visitor to the village who, upon nearing the grave out of curiosity, was possessed by a spirit that forced him to roar like a tiger. It is believed that this beastly spirit belongs to the Kyai, who is still ravenous for a human form.

Those who take the tiniest twig of bamboo from the site suffer disastrous consequences: degrading illness, combusted homes. Infertility. The grave occasionally attracts power seekers who aim to one-up the Kyai’s wisdom by spending a night in the forest, but before their meditation is complete they—without fail—are chased out by forest demons, attacked by animals, or consumed by a mysterious force that causes them to disappear before the morning dew rises off the canopies.

OncakAncik2

Curiosity #72: Guilt Never Goes Dry

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel

Rongkop3

Thank God the religious archipelago still prizes stories over science. Despite the fact that there are several geological factors that lead to water shortages in Gunung Kidul, nobody in Java gives a damn. Instead the locals cling to two old tales that pin the local people at fault, and God (with his handy saints) on high.

Back when trespassing wasn’t a concept, an old beggar stopped by a widow’s home to ask for water. He wished to rinse his soles, because even Muslims even who are uneducated and homeless know that God hates dirty feet. He knelt before the widow, who sat weaving on her porch, and asked for some water to cleanse himself. When Mbok Rondo (“Mrs. Widow”) ignored him, the beggar drew his breath, spurned. Was it too much to ask for a little acknowledgement?

Stooped to a reverent kneel, the beggar renewed his efforts to earn Mbok Rondo’s attention. He waved his hand (in the only abracadabra known to ancient South-East Asia), at last blurting aloud that a pond had magically appeared in the widow’s back yard. On the house. But the widow didn’t want to hear absurdities from a rag-of-a-man who made a living by whining his way from home to home, a lifestyle she imagined charred away whatever sense or use he might have otherwise tucked away inside those old bones. The widow mumbled a rebuff into the stitches of her weaving, something that might translate to “Stupid old kook. Full of crap!”

Too bad kooks can sometimes be saints. The old beggar, who was among the revered Javanese spiritual figures known as the “Wali Songo,” frothed at the woman’s appalling hospitality. Before disappearing like a Las Vegas magician, he cursed the region of Rongkop and sucked the already thirsty land dry.

In another tale, upon otherwise parched land there was an old pond of rainwater, in which people farmed fish and took their drinking rations from the same sordid hole (but hey, it was better than the chalk-loaded eau-de-fatale that came up from the wells). It’s said there was a spirit, or danyang, who guarded the lake to make sure it never evaporated.

Maybe it was because the resident spirit was an illusive, pretty thing. Or maybe it was because Indonesian Muslims were weathering nudges from the Middle East telling them to trash their local spirituality. But for whatever reason, some men in the region of Rongkop conspired to lure the danyang from the water. With the help of a shaman, they coaxed the spirit from the pond.

The shaman’s spells were overpowering. The danyang waded from the reservoir’s center like a Bond girl on an abandoned beach, swinging her hips over the waters as she neared the bank, sprinkles of contaminated water flinging off etherial thighs, and upon reaching the shore disappointed drooling onlookers by evaporating into thin air. She brought the pond with her, transforming the land into a bed of brown. The men at last realised their misdeed and fell to their knees, begging the danyang to return. Even had she heard them, her self-respect left them weeping, her knack for justice leaving their children susceptible to skin disease.

Thanks to modern pipelines, the people of Rongkop no longer rely solely on rainwater. The dry land reminds locals, in a way hard science might never manage, that lack of gratitude leads to lack of sustenance, and that blessings may come in filthy disguises.

Curiosity #71: A Spiritual Strain of Environmentalism

Uncategorized

There are some forests in the world where genies still exist. They hover in the shadows, heads grazing the canopies, on the look-out for fools keen on chopping down trees for profit. The genies, despite being hump-backed and saber-toothed, are just like you and I, and wish to dally away their lives free of fascist scumbags who think they know what’s what.

Central Java is one region where genies, and trees for that matter, have managed to hold their ground. In Wonosadi Forest, it’s known that whoever chops down trees for economic purposes will wake up a vegetable. Naughty teenagers who dare copulate in the bushes are mysteriously transported to public spaces where their sins might be exposed and ridiculed. For this reason people don’t mess with the beasts of nature, and it all traces back to an agreement maintained since the Middle Ages.

Back when the Majapahit Kingdom swept its authoritarian sovereignty over Indonesia (we’re talking between 1293 and 1500), there was a royal concubine named Roro Resmi who ran away with her two illigitimate children, seeking freedom from the royal bedroom and the confines of servitude. After a long time traveling West, she found haven in the womb of a formidable forest.

Roro Resmi was not alone in running. Together she and others escaping the Majapahit collaborated in building an outpost beside a stream in the center of the forest. But like with all new settlements, the land was already occupied; and like all other settlers, Roro Resmi and her followers had every intention of oppressing the natives in efforts to further their agenda of freedom.

But these natives weren’t human. They were genies the size of the trees themselves, governed under a king who took the form of a white tiger (with the strength of five elephants and the mercy of a B-52). Good thing Roro Resmi’s children had the magical powers to defeat the giants in a valiant display of underdog ferocity. Finally subdued, the genies entered into a civil negotiation. They agreed to subject themselves to coexistence with humans in exchange for health guarantees on behalf of the forest, which, since the humans’ cave-dwelling age, seemed to attract the attention of axe-carrying buffoons (to say nothing of future tractors).

And so the people of the forest raised ninjas. The genies built houses. And the humans and genies lived together happily ever after. At least until now.

Whoever says environmentalism doesn’t yet exist in Indonesia knows squat about this country, but the foundations of this environmentalism might not impress the pragmatists sitting at the UN round table, itself made of wood chopped down from only genies know where.

Wonosadi

Curiosity #57: Satan as the Third Wheel

Uncategorized

In the United States, I rarely think of Satan. When I do, I think of Him as a representation of everything human: of hunger, lust. Jealousy, passion, greed. These animal energies might not WOW the heavens with their beauty, but even the most pious ascetics might admit that these filthy instincts feed us homo-sapiens with our fair share of excitement and color, without which some of us might not care to wake up in the morning.

Satan holds my hand in Indonesia. For this I admit I’m grateful, since — when I step away from co-workers who seem to enjoy my company well-enough, but who, being several decades my senior, spend their spare moments with their families; and also of my students who share my age but, even if their desire for friendship did extend beyond curiosity, have no idea how to befriend a professor whose attempts at language acquisition and cultural assimilation tend to be desperate and clumsy — Satan is my most steadfast companion. That demonic presence, whatever or whoever it may be, helps me smile through cigarette smoke, watch male cross-dressers rolling their hips in the streets next to veiled old women and thank the universe that there are some people in this country who still choose joy over shame.

Now shift gears to an Islamic boarding school outside Yogyakarta. I was escorted here by one of my graduate students who offered to help in my religious explorations throughout Java. Today’s religious conservatism is largely centralized in Islamic boarding schools, or Pondok Pesantrens. As the Muslim population grows, so the Pondok Pesantrens also increase in prominence throughout the cities and villages. These schools promote independence and solidarity, and, under the guidance of revered spiritual teachers, the education of Islam as a perspective and lifestyle rather than a tentative implementation of beliefs.

The Pesantren I visited was particularly friendly to those dedicated equally to Islam and Javanese culture. Not only was it a sanctuary where Muslims could learn the “stiffness” of religion, but also a school where people of all ages could further their education in Islamic law and the practical sciences. Like at all Islamic boarding schools, this living space enforced a separation between males and females, endeavoring to uphold purity by protecting both genders against the undulations of Satan and LUST. This effort seemed almost endearing, only perhaps because it seemed as possible as curing hunger with starvation. But, as I often ask myself in this country, what do I know?

Upon entering the grounds of the boarding house, I was invited to remove my veil. As a non-Muslim, I was not asked to conform to a set of standards to which I didn’t belong. Two residents of the boarding house led me through a door into the courtyard. When I reached the interior, I was surprised to find that the boarding house looked like an ordinary Javanese residential compound, apart from the air of studiousness that weighed on the expressions of wandering residents and filled the area with reverential quiet. I could see into open-aired classrooms, which contained books and simple desks, and — across from an an administrative building — an estate-sized concrete building with doors propped open into the communal worship space. Around the corner were narrow corridors where the women slept, and from where a few of them emerged half-veiled. Upon seeing the male graduate student who accompanied me, these women clasped their scarves beneath their chins as if they had been caught in their underwear.

I found myself in a large discussion room. Shelves of books towered from floor to ceiling, many of them with Arabic titles. The chairs around the discussion table were faded antiques, clearly passed down over generations. Circulating the air was the familiar scent of old bookshops and of things well used and rotting.

A woman entered the room to greet me. She was long-skirted and slim, and had a face of smooth and dignified features. I was surprised to find her so young, perhaps in her mid-forties, since I had learned that she had been recently widowed. My host was known as a “Rumah Putri”, or “daughter’s house”, and was in charge of directing all the managerial affairs in the women’s Pondok Pesantren. In her heavy-palmed rejection of all things uncensored, this woman embodied everything I couldn’t understand.

The Rumah Putri’s family had served as representatives of the high Islamic clergy for generations. Her uncle, husband, father, and grandfather were all Kyais of Islamic boarding schools and religious communities. Kyais are Islamic gurus here in Java and are regarded on a higher spiritual plane than typical Imams. Their status equates to that of Ayatollahs from the Arab world: powerful in their influence, gifted in their wisdom. Women of Kyai families, while perhaps not visibly at the forefront of gender-integrated efforts, play powerful roles in guiding affairs in religious communities.

Attempting to place my own feminist ideas to the side, I asked the Rumah Putri about her perceptions of gender. The Rumah Putri placed her hands in her lap and responded with composure. She informed me that men and women are no different under God. In fact, Islam wants men and women to be the same, but the fact remains that there are material differences between genders. It is because of these gender discrepancies that Islamic boarding schools and Indonesian society firmly reject integrated living spaces outside of marriage. Even in casual social situations outside the workplace, men and women run the risk of falling prey to sexual impulses and so must avoid these “immodest” interactions entirely. Sexiness is not allowed. Desire is not indulged. And so it is for the residents of the Pondok Pesantren: pre-marital religious life is a gender-isolated one.

I thought momentarily of confiding to the Rumah Putri memories from my recent college experience, in which gender-neutral students stripped off their shirts on hot days, and where every semester between fifty and one hundred students ran naked through the public library to liberate their fellow-students from the stress of final exams. Would my hostess still speak gently with me, as she did now? Should I tell her that my alma mater was one of the first United States colleges to integrate genders in shower rooms?

Perhaps not. Besides, this woman was a feminist in her own right: a firm advocate of women’s equity in the workplace and in the public sphere: a leader in the push for higher education for men and women on both a spiritual and practical level. She believed in respect and demanded it for all people, and felt it should have nothing to do with sexuality due to its tendency to distract people from the more substantial qualities that made genders equal.

In the United States the “separate but equal” thing doesn’t really fly, but here there seems to be cultural richness and balance dependent on the differences between men and women. It extends well beyond religion into historical tradition and communal belonging: two things of which I am wholly ignorant. So despite my full support of liberation pertaining to gender identity, I am beginning to learn (with the help of traditionalists like the Rumah Putri) that standards of fulfillment change with shifting social constraints and freedoms. In all cases we win some, we lose some.

What was harder for me to understand was the interpretation of all exciting energies as “Satan.” The Rumah Putri explained Satan as an energy that hovered over every human weakness, waiting to possess the body whenever discipline wilted under animal instinct. Satan was present in traditional markets among the dirt, among peddlers and their usury, and most especially in situations when when men and women found themselves alone.

Satan took the form of desire, stated the Rumah Putri matter-of-factly. To describe the word desire, she used the word “nafusu,” which literally translates to “appetite” and could apply to anything related to craving. So if we were to think of Satan as any emotion that takes us beyond our realm of self-control and into that ugly space of want and gratification, think of what a loyal audience Satan has been in our daily lives. And then think, if you were in fact able to go about life without Him, you would actually do anything interesting.

William Blake states, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,

“Dip him in the river who loves water.”

What’s wrong with a swim as long as we’re the only ones at risk of drowning? If Satan is in fact watching every time I show weakness to human appetite, then to me He is a polite spectator rather than a poisoned influence; or perhaps at His very worst, The Ache for beauty to which I’m lucky enough to have access, even if it’s a little bit dirty. “Evil”, as far as I’m concerned, comes with stress and lack of sleep.

Where would we be if Robert Johnson never sold his soul? If the romantic poets never gave way to ecstasy? Yes, from Satan comes appetite. But from appetite also comes energy, from energy comes art, and from art comes intimacy that — especially when I’m coping here on my own — I’d rather not do without.

Women preparing for their ritual/dance performance. This dance genre is known as "angguk" and is most often performed by women.    This dance ritual is rejected by most of the conservative religious powers in Java.

Women preparing for their ritual/dance performance. This dance genre is known as “angguk” and is most often performed by women. Due to its provocative nature and connection to trance, this dance form is rejected by most of the conservative religious powers in Java.

Curiosity #49: Eager Communicators

Uncategorized

Harry Burger sat across from me, grinning with a sandaled foot crossed over a skinny leg dressed in pleather. This would be one of the most pure-hearted people I would ever meet.

On either side of Harry Burger and I were six male college students gathered in this café and soccer bar just to practice their English conversation skills. This late in the night, I was one of the few women left in the gymnasium-sized venue, and certainly the only female accompanied exclusively by men. As I sat exhaustedly on the cafe bench, I reminded myself that I had been invited here to communicate about my culture to anyone who was curious, and since I had taken residency in Indonesia to teach and be grateful, I felt I had no business saying “no” to an innocent night of coffee and grammar.

Harry Burger was the first to lean across the table. “I love American English,” he said, although it was clear he spoke little of it. The men sitting around him were quiet, but Harry lunged at every silence to share the few phrases he knew in my language. He began reciting a rhyme he learned from a former American acquaintance: “Five little monkeys sitting on the bed. One jumped off and broke his head!” Then, like a cowboy from an old Western, he stood up from his chair and reached forward to shake my hand. Somewhat startled, I took it.

“My name is Harry Burger,” he said fiercely. “Congratulations to your family!”

Harry’s phone began to ring, and its tune was unmistakable: it was “Jingle Bells”. As I began to explain how his ring-tone referenced a specific Christian holiday, Harry burst out with song-like exclamation. “Congratulations! Merry Christmas!” he said, then sat down in the October night like a champ who had won a battle of wits.

I laughed, but hardly knew how else to respond. The young man sitting next to me explained that Harry Burger was older than he looked (perhaps in his thirties) and had come to this city on a whim. In Indonesian, I asked Harry where he came from.

“I’m from Sunda, West Java,” he said. “I came to Yogyakarta because I wanted the experience of living in a city.” It was clear Harry had no wife or family, and so had no qualms moving to a new metropolis without a plan, even if it meant relying on a low-wage job that required minimal creative-power.

“I found a job at a burger stand,” he said. “It’s called Mr. Burger. That is why I am now called Harry Burger.” And that was that. In my life I had never met a person with a less appetizing name, nor with a more buoyant smile.

The night wore on. Harry asked me if “I have to pee” had the same meaning as “I have to wash my hands”. He pronounced “p” like “f”, then ran off to the toilet to “fee”. He asked me the different variations of the word “mother”. Then he told me of the female giant of Java, and how — like in America — there was a place in Java for women who were strong. He delivered a 10 minute recitation of an Islamic prayer in English (all memorized) about how God designed men and women differently, yet did not hope to limit one gender or the other. Oh Allah, the most merciful.

Harry Burger’s greatest dream was to generate the largest family possible. He made friends from all over the world, including Europe, Brazil, and Kansas, and kept in touch with every new “sibling” via Facebook. He cared about all humans because regardless of religion or geographical origins, people were all the same.

An exotic cross-dresser sang and danced beside our table. Harry gave the dancer a tip and shook the dancer’s hand in greeting.

I was driven home on a motorbike by a wild man with static hair who suggested that some time we go swimming together in a hotel pool. But all I could think of was Harry Burger flipping meat at a mediocre burger stand, grinning because he had a colossal network of friends founded in a limitless capacity for unconditional love. Furthermore Harry had no one to hate, and infinite confidence that his international “family” — be it in spirit, person, or Facebook — would keep him company until the day he died.

Before I went to sleep that night, I received a text from Harry Burger telling me that, at that very moment, he was studying English in his bedroom. “Congratulations and Merry Christmas,” the text read. “Have a nice dream.”

This is a typical Mr. Burger stand, found on almost every major street, where many locals in Yogyakarta stop to find gourmet street-meat

This is a typical Mr. Burger stand, found on almost every major street, where many locals in Yogyakarta stop to find gourmet street-meat