The Age of Rocks Pt. 3: Pining for a Priest
This is based on a true story I “collected” in the town of Witihama on the island of Adonara (East Indonesia).
The Age of Rocks Pt. 3: Pining for a Priest
This is based on a true story I “collected” in the town of Witihama on the island of Adonara (East Indonesia).
He would wait for the right moment to tell his mother he was gay. It wouldn’t be easy, not in a country where homosexuality was considered a contagion and anti-LGBTQ violence went unpunished.
“I plan to get settled with someone first, then tell her,” said G, spooning soy-sauce-battered egg and rice into his mouth. “I think she’ll accept it, but it might take awhile.”
G and I sat at a street-side tent restaurant, where we looked out at the night scene of Bandung, West Java. G had been living here for two years after graduating from college and stabilizing himself as a fashion designer. After over two months East Flores, my first glimpse of tall buildings and metropolitan streets had the effect of swallowing me like a casino.
G arranged for my transportation from the city of Bandung to his mother’s house in the neighboring city of Purwakarta, where we would meet again on the day of our mutual friend’s wedding.
When I arrived at G’s childhood home, G’s mother greeted me by leaning on the door-frame. I could tell she wasn’t your typical Indonesian “ibu”. She wore a sexy black tank top that hugged her tiny frame, with lace at the bust showing off a boney chest pumped up by a semi-visible bra. Her shorts rode well up her thigh and a trail of smoke followed her sweeping hand like a ribbon. An arm looped around me, then another, and all at once I was overwhelmed by the press of bone and menthol.
“Welcome home, Mommy wants you to stay for weeks, months! Come inside. G said you like vegetables, so Mommy made some tofu and chili sauce!”
We entered her living room, which also functioned as a guest and TV room. Glass glimmered in cabinets, dormant as a painting, while dull furniture sat like domestic animals. These looked lived-in, but had that musk of hand-me-down wood. She told me that this house was part of an inherited family complex, and that her siblings and in-laws occupied the neighboring apartments. “But we’re different, so I rarely socialize with them.”
She seemed afraid of “catching” a case of conservatism, and in a sense I understood what it meant to distance oneself from unwanted influences. Wasn’t I in Indonesia to temporarily distance myself from individualism (a leap that seems comical, now). In the days I stayed in Purwakarta, traveling between G’s mom’s house and the site of my friend’s wedding, I caught glimpses of the female in-laws. They never traveled beyond the meatball stand at the main road, and often sat together in their door frames looking out from periwinkle veils that masked their figures down to their waist.
“The saddest is my cousin’s wife, who is forbidden from doing many things by her husband,” said G’s mom, shaking her head. “She comes here sometimes to help make cakes. When you’re cooped up, you know nothing about the outside world. Look at her sad face, her pillowing body. Such a pity. She doesn’t even know that foreigners eat rice!”
G’s mom held a vision for transcending social pressures, and also for staying young. A consultant for alternative medicine who worked for $2 an hour, she had questionable theories about health, especially as they were usually delivered through clouds of smoke, but they were entertaining to listen to and worked for her just fine.
Mama Tells Me
A) Wear what you like
“Daddy wouldn’t like it if I wore a long veil like my siblings,” G’s mom said. She ran the back of her hand down her body, which, at 50, had born two children but was as petite as a barren yogi’s. “When I started dating Daddy, I asked him, does it bother you that I don’t dress like other women? He said he likes the way I dress, because it looks ‘right’ on me.”
I knew G’s biological father had left the family when his sister was still an infant, and I wondered the steps G’s mother took to recover her self-esteem. Her fashion outside the house consisted of jeans and vests, snatched out of a teen pop magazine. It suited her—her stride was light and airy, so when we moved around the kitchen or traditional market I often forgot who was the younger.
B) Stay Active
“Every day, after we go to the market to sell soft cakes, Mommy and Daddy go to the park to exercise.” We entered a park surrounded by a quarter-mile promenade on which some people paced and jogged. At the center of the promenade was a pond featuring at its center the statue of Prabu Kian Santang, praised sultan of Purwakarta’s ancient kingdom.
Daddy took one lap around the promenade before plopping down, panting. Mommy and I walked side by side, passing up teenage girls whose veils mis-matched their exercise pants, and whose clothes bunched up around consistently heavy frames. “Don’t be like that,” Mommy said. “Once you start being ashamed of your body, you let it go.”
C) Everything revolves around happiness
“If you’re not happy, you’ll never find it,” she said, when she saw me scrambling around for my credit card. I wiped a collection of sweat from my forehead, hand deep in my backpack. On the brink of resign, I was not in the mood for a pep talk, but G’s mom peered over me to advise in earnest:
“Mommy tells her patients, if we are not happy, our head is not at peace, and we will never find what we’re looking for.” I tried to smile. Needless to say, even after a short rest and a coconut-sugar crepe, I did not find my credit card.
There were parts of her “happy talk” that I was willing to buy. Didn’t studies confirm that our immune system responded to stress? How far did that theory go? Mommy says, among things that happiness cured were high cholesterol, cancer, malaria. Addiction, of course, was easier to cure than missing credit cards. “When we are happy, all the bad things stay away,” she said.
Take it Home
During G’s mom’s impromptu lessons on happiness, she would pop in questions about G. She asked me what his dreams were, where he wanted to travel, and I could only relay his updates from the first evening I spent with him. He rarely opened up to her, she said, for reasons she didn’t understand. But he showed he cared by sending an allowance to his younger sister so she could continue her college education without concern for money.
“He’s a good boy. Comes home just for the food, and getting fatter, but a good boy. And he gets looks for those clothes he wears. I just want him to be happy,” she said.
I knew there was much she wanted to say to him in person; that she knew her son’s gender-transcending was a bit “different”, and she was ready to hear whatever secret kept him at a distance. I knew G was happy living as an out gay man, but would he be happier if his mom accepted it, along with his taste for Hillary-esque pantsuits?
Before I left, G’s mom threw her house gowns at me, saying “You like them? Wear them. Mommy likes sex dresses, I have no use for mumus.” Indeed she seemed to have an endless selection of sexy lingerie. It wouldn’t deprive her of anything to drape myself in vibrant cotton like the traditional housewives, not when she pranced around the living room like a Victoria’s Secret mini-model. “You wear the mumus, ya,” she said, hugging me in her see-through mesh top, “when you want to remember me.”
Mommy still sends pictures of her posing with her hubby, and I wonder if I’ll ever be conserved in beauty and energy like a rare insect in a capsule. I do know that when I wear the mumus I am happier, a bit frumpier, and full of memories. In the cheap cotton I can feel a mother’s love for her child, reserved most of all for G—a blessing that both her “children” might remember when we go to sleep at night, and in the morning when we wake up to find ourselves.
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)
“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.
Her mascara dripped into the wrinkles on her cheeks. I smelled her dog from where it lay by her stool, and she clutched the leash with one upturned palm, waiting to be led. “I just don’t get it,” she said to a young couple who looked eager to pay their bill. “How can we have this fucking tard for a president?”
At that moment three people ran into the brewery, the size of a small store-room. The first through the door was a young man wearing a bar shirt that clung tightly to his muscled figure, no shoes. He took a deep breath in and grinned. “I won,” he announced. The remaining adrenaline coursed from his mouth, onto the floor, up the legs of the barstool on which I sat, and for a moment (despite my distaste for the frat boy persona) I shared his euphoria.
Two other young people in their twenties, a man and a woman, came in panting after their victor. The few bar patrons turned towards the new arrivals, and the young couple who’d just paid their bill used this as an excuse to escape. The victor, who turned out to be an off-duty bartender at Hop & Craft Tennessee, stepped behind the counter. Mascara-face, now without a pair of listeners, turned to me and introduced herself as Ann Clare. She scanned over the rest of us, surveying the new victims for her tirade.
“I don’t want to deal with this,” confided the bartender to Justin and I, leaning over the bar to whisper to us. “That guy,” she jutted her thumb at the man beside her, who spoke excitedly with his friends. She furrowed her brow as if he were a rabid dog. “He’s a republican.”
I successfully contained my excitement. I was looking at a real live republican. I yearned to encounter this above all else in my first expedition to the South, perhaps even more than a moist southern biscuit. Among my cohort, a Trump-supporter was as rare as spotting a 3-legged wolf in the woods, as inviting as a prickly Persian cat. But I was taught that democrat folklore teaches us all we need to know about those republicans: they’re uneducated, they carry guns in their pick-ups, they get their hair cut at Walmart and they speak in tongues when they’re not dismantling every advancement towards social progress. I was sure that such folklore was true of only a fraction of the South, but I wanted to gather a few seeds of information on my own.
“Fuckin’ tard!” Silence. “President won’t let the minorities eat cake!”
The young man removed himself from the conversation with his friends, and now he raised an eyebrow at Anne Clare. “Everything alright ma’am?”
“Not with our president! We’re all going to shit!”
“Now m’aam,” the man said, cocking his head, lifting up his palms in surrender. “This is a bar. We don’t need to talk about politics. C’mon. How about sports? How about those—”
Never hush a woman launching herself in the Age of She. “We’re in the midst of the apocalypse because of our shit-hole president, and and all you want to talk about is sports?!”
I watched the man. I watched the republican.
What does republican do when a democrat loses her wits?
In this case he goes calm. He listens. He assigns himself as an arbiter of peace. He does not deny his alignment with conservative values, nor his identity as a Christian and a marine, but addresses the wrongs on both sides, astounding the believer of socio-political lore.
It was clear the woman wanted to be listened to. “I’m liberal. I’m a Californian. I’m liberal” She repeated this, as if committing herself to a refrain. Then she said. “I’ve lived here 16 years. I just want this to be a nice place.” I nodded my head, reserving comment. What she meant was I want to be in a place full of people like me.
The republican listened patiently behind the bar until she finished speaking. “The way I look at it,” he said, “is that there are wrongs on both sides. Extremism in politics is causing the wrong people to get elected, and the wrong kinds of judgment to float around. I don’t like it either.”
Anne Clare drew a deep breath to unleash another monologue.
But the republican wasn’t finished. “But I’m sick of people who claim to be liberal and open-minded talking about how all Christians are the same, and that people who have conservative values are all uneducated. I’m Christian, and I’m highly educated. I’m also not the same as every conservative person out there.”
Anne Clare looked at me, gave the republican a sidelong glance over the bar, and spat. “Protestants. They think they’re so righteous.” She paused, tipping back her glass to finish the dredges of her beer. “I grew up Catholic.” Then she turned to look at the young man again. “But I don’t get it. I don’t get how republicans think they can refuse cake to people they don’t like. You think that if a neighbor was baking a cake, they should be able to refuse that cake to people of color, or a same-sex couple? That’s wrong!”
The republican tried to emphasize that he didn’t approve of discrimination either, but laws couldn’t stop racism. Laws were limitations, not inspirations. The latter came with the ways communities raise their children.
Ann Clare looked deflated. “But the cake.”
The bartender announced that the brewery was closing. If we wanted to continue the conversation, we could do it at another bar. As we prepared to pass through the door, Ann Clare bent towards me. “You know my friends say I’m like an angry black woman.”
I looked at Anne Clare: a lite-pilsner-skinned woman in her late forties, blonde hair hanging to the middle of her back, dressed in pink as if she’d been drafted into a sorority 30 years late. “Don’t call yourself that,” I said.
The man, the republican, opened the door for Ann Clare and gave me a hug. “I’m just trying to stop extremism when I can help it.”
I thought about the cake, how “the republican” gave the cake of service and attention—and the most essential ingredient in the slice, the act of listening—to a person who attacked all his values, along with the people who aligned with them. And Ann Clare?
“We women are smart and intelligent,” she said to me as we met the Nashville air. Her gait was lazy, and it was clear she’d consumed more than a healthy fill of alcohol that evening. “It would be better if all the republicans were just wiped free from the earth. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
I’m on board with Ann Clare in some ways. I believe that the historically silenced should be offered the first rounds of cake. But I do believe that everyone, even Trump, deserves some cake (though he should eat it following his impeachment). And as for “us liberals” observing the American South, if we truly believe in sharing whatever this perplexed country can bake up, then maybe we should stop shouting that we deserve the biggest slice.
After we walked Ann Clare to her home, Justin, who had been silent throughout the whole conversation, said “I got a free beer for not partaking in that argument.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Thousands of years ago, Abraham raised a knife over his first-born son. The boy, trembling before his impending sacrifice, was spared when God decided He had witnessed loyalty enough. As Abe’s blade hovered high before the plunge, the Divine Hand traded the innocent boy for a farm animal, and so sheep’s blood was spilled FOR THE LORD.
Muslims today celebrate Abraham’s sacrifice during the festival of Eid al-Adha, also known as “Feast of the Sacrifice” or “Kurban.” Eid al-Adha praises the solemnity with which Abraham bore his faith and his blade. Every October, communities everywhere join in demonstrations of prayer and slaughter.
For this year’s celebration of Eid al-Adha, I went to the Javanese village of Magelang, where a middle-aged Muslim couple welcomed me into a home overlooking hills of unpicked rice. After serving a cup of milk coffee, the couple asked me about my origins. I learned that for over countless generations the couple’s extended family lived and died within a few hundred kilometers of where we sat. I should feel at home, they said.
Out of hospitality, or perhaps unwillingness to host an unveiled woman near unmarried men, the couple offered a bed in their brother’s palatial home: unoccupied since that part of the family moved to Malaysia. The “villa” as they called it, towered around the corner beside the village mosque. Mid-evening, as I brushed my hair in front of an ornamented mirror, the electricity failed me. In the blackness alone, I was haunted by piety left behind by the absent home owners: a ghost of predatory, secular-related guilt that pursued me in the bedroom from the main hall, where I knew there was a film-noir-style portrait of the lady of the house staring out beneath a stark black veil. My reservoir of sin had been detected. I was convinced I would die.
Instead I woke up at 5:30 in the morning and, shortly thereafter, was taken to the local mosque. I was accompanied by the host-couple’s daughter: a charismatic law student of 23. She taught me how to wear a veil. Because she was menstruating, she was not permitted to attend the mosque service, so the two of us sat beside her grandparents’ grave in a courtyard next to the mosque and listened to the Imam’s voice chanting from the loudspeakers. Beneath the mosque’s outer dome, the non-menstruating women closed their eyes and swayed.
After the conclusion of the official service, my host-sister and I were allowed to enter the mosque. Removing my shoes, I knelt beside the women who lingered to worship. Over the speakers the Imam sang a hymn and the worshippers held up their hands in a cup-like gesture, as if to collect something precious. I closed my eyes and tried to join them. As usual, I couldn’t raise my thoughts above Earth. To my best ability I attempted to shove aside my skepticism and pride and, in doing so, was able to meditate to the chants of the surrounding women. They sang divine praise in soothing vibrations. It was enough.
Later, the villagers congregated behind the mosque to watch the “Kurban” or slaughter ceremony. Upon entering the village clearing, I saw that a white cow, about the size of a car, had been roped beside a sizeable dirt hole.
Four men were required to bring down the beast. The cow struggled. Young men of the village rushed in from all sides to grab the animal’s limbs and stop the writhing. Finally accepting defeat, the cow lay still for the knife. Next to the beast, the Imam stood with a long blade in his right hand. Lifting his head up to the sky, the Imam bellowed the name of God: “Allahu Akbar.” God is the greatest. The voices of the congregants rose to join the cry. Many of the women and children held hands, and soon the whole community sang to God and His unlucky cow.
Before the knife was laid upon the animal, I stepped close to bid a private farewell. Looking at the cow’s eyes, the cow to my surprise did not seem far from peace. I wondered if it knew anything of the pain it would endure, or if — like a baby in the warm arms of a stranger — the cow found comfort in the hands of many men cupping its body as it lay at mercy. Perhaps the sturdiness of the animal’s captive state was just gentle enough for it to surrender and let go. I wondered how many living things, humans or beasts, were given the privilege of dying under the touch of so many warm-blooded creatures.
The actual slaughter, of course, was difficult to watch. I had never witnessed the death of an animal so large, and especially (forgive me) with a neck so thick. I stood at a distance so the spray of blood wouldn’t reach my white skirt, and for comfort I clutched the arm of my host-sister who, upon the first spatters of blood, gently took my head and brought it to rest upon her shoulder. Gaze now pointed slightly below the gruesome scene, I looked at the animal’s legs, which were elegantly crossed and shuddering. As the cow’s movements slowed to a halt, the village men kept their palms firmly on the hide, waiting for the pain of their victim to slip into God’s more merciful hands.
Sheep were brought forth by families who could afford the expense. The animals were hung from a pole, where prayers were administered and knives swiped. The children gathered and waved goodbye to the sheep waiting to die. Some little boys approached the sheep that were already dead and, with a crude and morbid bravery, grabbed ahold of the horns. With innocence the little boys pretended to “steer” the fallen sheep like motorbikes, and — despite the disconcerting disregard for pools of blood beneath their feet — such play made it admittedly easy for me to forget about death, or at least quell the concept as an afterthought.
As the morning wore on, the Imam’s white t-shirt became increasingly red. Between each slaughter, the Imam descended a flight of steps into the mosque washroom to splash water on himself and to sharpen his knife. Upon each request to bless another sacrifice, the Imam ascended the steps like a gladiator.
After the death of all animal offerings, the cow and sheep were skinned. I watched the skinning process with reluctant fascination.
At last the meat was evenly distributed in plastic bags to the villagers without regard for financial status or religious affiliation. Beside me older men gossiped and smiled amongst themselves. Winking at my host mother, they suggested the prospect of marrying me off to a nice Muslim man from the village.
In the morning before leaving Magelang, my host father sat beside me at the coffee table. He encouraged me to bring my parents for a visit to his village. “We are not terrorists,” he said, smiling.
I assured my host-father that not all Americans associated Islam with either violence or terrorism. I also told him that perhaps the greatest hospitality I had ever received was from Muslims in Indonesia. My host father grinned broadly. “Bring your family here to my village and they will see we are a friendly people,” he said. “Bring them here and we will make them feel at home.”
I wondered what it meant to “feel at home” in a place where people unified under a common religion with which none of one’s loved ones identified. And I wondered at how a village so protective of its modesty might approach other members of my culture who found the greatest fulfillment in being — in every way — unveiled.
But then I observed my host-father’s earnest smile, which was in no way burdened by my partially exposed skin, bare head of hair, or even my lack of religious affiliation (which I had admitted upon my first night of arrival). His smile reflected an openness I envied: an openness to accept anyone outside his family as his own blood, to respect all individuals regardless of what spiritual plane they were bound for. It was this realization that made me wonder if I could ever bring myself to return to Magelang: not because I didn’t feel I could belong, but because I didn’t feel worthy of kindness suitable for someone far purer of heart.