Curiosity #89: A Nun Tells of Adultery

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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.

 

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(Below: Nun and storyteller)

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Curiosity #73: Tree Magic

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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.

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Curiosity #57: Satan as the Third Wheel

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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.