THE MORNING OF THE WORLD
The darkness arrived quickly, the abrupt nightfall of the tropics. Seth Longstreet always felt amazed at how in just the span of contemplation, the twilight faded to shadow so deep it often caught him unprepared, on some forest path without a flashlight, or in the middle of writing his notes and the kerosene lanterns not yet lit. After a while, he learned to pause in whatever he was doing and to wait, savoring its approach. This anticipation soon became a cadence, the cadence a habit, and the habit, he reasoned, a way to endure his self-imposed exile.
Now watching the light fade, he found himself wondering whether the strength of habit would prove to be enough to also endure his current circumstance. He turned to look at Dori and then at Brenner. No one had spoken for some time, each of them content to listen to the chorus of frogs and crickets as the night collapsed over the expanse of rice paddies surrounding the compound. It was the end of the monsoons, and the evening's clear sky finally promised release from the relentless heat and humidity. Two months of rain had flooded the rivers and fields, transforming everything, even the air itself, into an unnatural, irritating shade of green.
Seth picked up the bottle of beer and poured the last of it into Brenner’s cup, ignoring Dori, who sat across the candle-lit table staring at him in sullen silence. She started to say something when Brenner grunted and pointed with his chin out to where the paddies clung to the last of the light. Seth stared for a few seconds, unsure of what Brenner had seen. A trio of ghost-like figures emerged from the forest and threaded their way single file across the dike, their conical hats interrupting the ragged edge of the skyline. Rice farmers returning home, he assumed. Another long moment passed, and the darkness erupted all at once with the flickering lights of hundreds of fireflies. The illusion created by their reflection in the still water coupled with that of the stars overhead was at once disorienting and mesmerizing. It was as if Seth had just witnessed the birth of a galaxy.
Brenner turned and smiled. “That what is not science is magic. How could it be any simpler?” he asked in his precise Dutch accent.
Seth made no effort to answer, but instead studied the man seated beside him. A breeze caused the candle flame to heel and almost die, casting Brenner's face into shadow. As the flickering light righted itself, the flare seemed to consume the old priest’s eyes, lending an added urgency to his gaze. Brenner raised his cup and paused with his mouth open to glance again out into the darkness. In profile, his angular features resembled some unfinished sculpture, all burrs and clefts, yet amorphously fluid in the wavering light, his face unreadable. Seth realized he had known Brenner for three months, had come to rely on him for information and contacts, and still had no real sense of the man sitting next to him.
“I recall reading somewhere that magic is nothing but bad science,” Seth said, sipping his beer. “Malinowski, I believe. Forget which one of his books.”
“Actually, the eminent professor stated it much more eloquently," Brenner replied. "In the vacuum left by science, we have only magic.”
“You know something, guys?” Dori said, her voice slurred. She leaned across the table as if to emphasize what she would say next. “You’re both so full of crap.”
She had too much to drink, and whenever this happened her Dallas drawl became more pronounced. It gave her an edge that after three years together, two of them as husband and wife, Seth still couldn't be sure if he found scary or alluring.
“Perhaps. And slightly intoxicated,” Brenner said, his mouth curling in what passed for a smile.
“I mean it. All this esoteric crap,” Dori said. “Mental masturbation.”
Brenner shrugged. “If you wish, we can go back to discussing politics. I’m sure your husband wouldn’t mind.”
“No thanks,” Seth said, raising his hands. “Why ruin a perfectly nice evening?”
Brenner, still grinning, took a final puff of his cigarette before dropping it down the throat of the empty beer bottle. He glanced once again at the fireflies before turning to Seth. “One of the first things I realized when I came to Bali was that one must dispense with the construct of science,” Brenner said. “What I mean, is if you wish to complete this dissertation of yours, I think it would be wise to forget what you learned at university. Here there is only the sekala and niskala. The secular and the supernatural. And most of the time there is very little that separates them.”
Dori clicked her tongue and flapped her hand at the thin curl of acrid smoke wafting up from the mosquito coil at her elbow. “There's an understatement. This place is like Halloween every damn night of the year. It's annoying is what it is.”
Seth continued to scrutinize the older man's face. If Brenner took offense at Dori's comment, Seth couldn’t tell. If anything, he seemed to be making an obvious effort to ignore her. Maybe Dori was right. Bali was like some never-ending Halloween celebration. Spirits both good and bad seemed to populate every aspect of life. Even more unsettling was the spare distinction made between the physical world and the supernatural. For a Balinese Hindu, life presented a constant struggle to achieve balance between order and disorder, light and darkness. A world of good and evil, gods and demons existing side by side, neither overpowering the other. A village fruit vendor might be a witch. The bird in the window, the robber of a child’s soul.
"Seth likes make believe, don't you?" Dori said, picking up her cup. She realized it was empty and set it back down. "You like things to be… How did you put it the other night? Ambiguous? Yeah, Bali's damn sure ambiguous."
He looked at Dori who met his gaze with a mixture of spite and casual indifference. He had always felt that she had the kind of face that disagreement somehow made even more attractive, a quality that she had long ago learned to wield to her advantage. Only her dark, liquid eyes revealed any vulnerability, something of which she was also too well aware. As if reading his mind, she looked away.
“Halloween. The celebration of the dead," Brenner said.
“Well, back in the States it's become nothing more than an excuse to party. And here I thought you liked Halloween," Seth said, turning to look at Dori.
She stared at him, her expression blank. He reached for her hand, but she pulled away.
“Perhaps I should go,” Brenner said. “It’s getting late.”
Dori started to say something, and then cocked her head to listen over her shoulder. Seth heard it also. Hannie, their one year old daughter, had started to cry. Even after five months in Bali, she still hadn’t adjusted to a regular sleeping pattern. Most nights they had put her to sleep in their bed before moving her to the makeshift crib on the far edge of the porch where it was cooler.
“You want Gusti to get her?” Seth asked.
At the mention of his name, a slight figure wearing only a sarong emerged from the shadows at the edge of the porch where he had been sitting in the hammock.
“No,” she replied, motioning to Gusti to sit back down. “I’ll give her a bottle and put her to bed.”
Gusti, their landlord and cook, hovered a moment, waiting until Dori had picked up Hannie and gone inside, then came over to the table to remove the empty pot of rice curry. He was a small man with the too large, rounded head of an infant. It made him look comedic, in spite of his dourness.
“Terima kasih,” Brenner said, bowing his head. “Makanan ini nikmat sekali. I must say that is the best meal I have had in quite some time.”
Gusti nodded before slipping back into the shadows, the soft flip-flop of his sandals marking his passage across the small yard that separated Seth and Dori's bungalow from the adjoining one Gusti shared with his wife and family.
“Dori seems disturbed by something,” Brenner said, downing the last of his beer. “Perhaps I should not have accepted your invitation.”
“Don't worry about it. It's just the heat. And the isolation. The food. Not having anyone else to talk to. No hot showers,” Seth added, draining his cup. “Did I leave out anything?” he asked, raising his voice so she might hear him. He forced a grin.
“Ah, yes. The fate of an anthropologist's wife,” Brenner said.
Seth leaned forward in his chair so he could see into the small anteroom where they hung the hammock Dori used to soothe Hannie to sleep. He could just make out Dori's silhouette in the shadows as she cradled her.
“I’m worried about her. She's not supposed to be drinking, you know.”
Brenner grunted in vague agreement, his gaze fixated on the cup in his hand.
Seth had to admit it hadn't been easy for Dori living in a foreign country with no friends. The primitive living arrangements. And Hannie to watch after. And now pregnant again. It had already occurred to him that she wouldn't be able to last out the year he still needed to complete his project. The bottom line was that she needed more than he did. Needed things. Other people. Or so he liked to tell himself. His vanity had always reassured him that he had gotten to where he was without debt or obligation. Beholden to no one. That such a progression through life engendered more rejection than approval had never discouraged him. At least not until now.
He let the silence grow along with his resentment as he watched her. She could've stayed with her folks in Dallas. Or flown to Jakarta or Singapore to meet him every couple of months. A year was all he needed, maybe less and the research for his dissertation would be complete.
“I could use your help,” he said to Brenner, his gaze still focused on the shadowed figures in the other room. He shook his head, annoyed with himself. Asking for help was like a foreign language, and even now, he felt like a school child stumbling over some difficult alliteration. He glanced up at Brenner half-expecting to see smug disdain. Instead, Brenner tilted his head as if deliberating some curious new possibility.
“Remember I told you I wasn't finding out anything,” Seth went on. “It's not getting any easier. I finally found that old guy in Campuan. That shaman. The balian you told me about. Wasted almost three days trying to get him to tell me something. Tried everything. Gifts, money. Nothing. Least not anything I can use.”
Brenner stared at him for a moment before removing a clove cigarette from the pack that lay before him on the table. He lit it with the candle and inhaled, the cigarette making a faint popping sound as the clove oil ignited and filled the air with its incense-like aroma.
“You know how these people are,” Brenner said, exhaling. “For them to talk about the supernatural is taboo. Especially witches. A delicate subject at the very least.” Holding the cigarette between his long, elegant middle fingers, he took a deep drag off the cigarette and smiled. “You must have noticed Gusti's face earlier when you mentioned the leyak?”
“Yeah, well, Gusti's part of my problem. I think he's been sabotaging me with the villagers. A few of them are getting a bit hostile. Last week Dori had some trouble at the market.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Maybe it was just her imagination. Dori tends to misread people. In a place like this, I can't say I blame her. It's not easy when you don't know the language."
The woman, a fruit vendor, had most likely done nothing more than offer Dori a slice of coconut. When Dori declined, the woman had perhaps felt slighted and grew more adamant that Dori take the slice. Dori admitted that she had pushed the woman's hand away. In her mind, the woman had overreacted and began yelling at her for no reason. Obviously, Dori had no idea what the woman was saying. All she knew was that the other women in the market had grown silent and refused to even look at Dori.
"She's got it in her mind that the woman put a curse on her or something."
Brenner started to say something, and then caught himself. “Tell me something. This sudden interest of yours with the leyak. Do you intend to approach this as if witchcraft, the supernatural is just some form of delusion? Or simply a psychosis?”
“You're asking me if I really believe this psychic vampire, shape-shifter stuff?” He shook his head. “Look, Anton. I know how much these people believe in demons and witches, and how important the concept of evil is to their social fabric and their religion. But just because they believe in something doesn't mean it's real. For chrissakes, it's like believing in guardian angels.”
“We believe what we want to believe. Besides, when I was in seminary, guardian angels were dogma.”
“Yeah, sure. You really expect me to believe that? In a Jesuit seminary?”
Brenner grunted in amusement. “I suppose you are right. We Jesuits forsook the Archangel Michael to study Marx and Darwin instead.” He took another puff of his cigarette, all the while fixing his gaze on Seth. “There is something though I don't understand. You have spent all these years investigating these various cultures, and yet somehow I sense you don't truly believe in what you find. Surely you have encountered some phenomenon that one cannot explain by Western logic. In New Guinea, Irian Jaya. Something that requires faith, perhaps?”
“There’s plenty of stuff I can’t explain. Like how some old Aborigine can find water in the outback with a bent stick. Or those firewalkers we watched the other night. But do I believe it’s real? I don’t think I know anymore. What’s real and what isn’t.”
Seth looked out at the darkness. Brenner was right. Everything he had observed and recorded over the past four years – the rituals, the trance states, the mysticism – he found increasingly easier to rationalize as just some more weird psychopathology masquerading as culture. Somewhere along the line cynicism had overtaken the wide-eyed curiosity that had lured him into anthropology in the first place. Was it any wonder that his research had gone stale?
“What did you say awhile ago? You believe what you want to believe,” Seth said.
“Yes. And believing requires a certain faith.”
“Faith doesn’t always explain things, Anton.”
“My friend, faith is something I have never been able to explain. Even to myself.”
“Is that what made you quit the Church?”
“The Church left me,” Brenner said. Only a brief shifting of his eyes betrayed some mute emotion. “I am still a believer. And I most assuredly am still a Jesuit.”
“Yeah, well I guess believing in both the Resurrection and witches isn't all that great a leap.”
“Or changing bread into the Body of Christ,” Brenner said.
Seth didn’t reply, but instead looked past Brenner at the dark silhouette of the forest. A nightjar screeched; its call almost drowned out by the disinterested croaking of the frogs. Brenner cocked his head and held up his finger.
“Do you hear that?”
Brenner gestured again with his open hand. As they listened, the night seemed to fill with sound. The soft bird song of conversation coming from Gusti's bungalow. The lowing of a cow. The chirping of a gecko in the thatch above them. From the village behind them came the hollow tokking sound of someone in the village banging on a kulkul, the carved wooden cylinder used to summon the villagers to a ceremony. And again, the nightjar.
“We hear a bird. The sounds of the night. But is that all? To these villagers, those sounds may mean something entirely different. Was that really a nightjar? Or a leyak in the guise of a bird? And who can say whose reality is more valid?”
“Come on, Anton. What someone believes isn't necessarily real.”
“Perhaps not always. But we Westerners have somehow lost the ability to integrate our inner lives, our spiritual world with our secular world. We have lost the vocabulary to express things we know exist but cannot see. Angels become as fanciful as unicorns. Ghosts are cartoon characters.”
“That's my problem,” Seth said after a long moment had passed. “Part of me can intellectualize, even accept the supernatural, but where I come from people who believe in witches and werewolves are just plain crazier than hell.”
Brenner smiled. “And what of the horrors that men commit? Are they only the result of mental aberration? A mere malfunction of the machinery? Your error is to confuse psychopathology with something as vestigial and primitive and real as evil.”
“You're saying evil has some kind of extra-human dimension. Like there’s really a Satan?”
“Satan. Or their witch Rangda,” he said, nodding over at Gusti’s hut. “Why is it that we can no longer accept that a witch here in Bali and some evildoer, say someone like Pol Pot or the African butcher Idi Amin. Or even a murderous psychopath on the streets of one of your cities. How can one deny that they are one and the same entity?”
“You don't accept that evil is universal? A force unto itself that is transcendent of time and place?”
“I'm just saying that I only know what I can prove.”
Brenner smiled. “Ah, yes. The good scientist. But you are right in one respect. In a culture such as this, evil, or at least the traditional depiction of evil, is inherently different from our own culture. Here it serves a purpose. A moral symbol, an explanation for tragedy. A way to deal with sin. We enlightened denizens of the modern world have lost that. For us, God no longer bears responsibility. Misfortune and malice can always be explained by chance, by upbringing, by mental disease, by any host of alien influences.”
Brenner fell silent for a moment, then nodded. “Perhaps I shall tell you a story. Something that happened twenty-five, twenty-six years ago. In my missionary days. Fertile soil back then,” he said, smiling to himself. “Back then there was a great deal of conflict throughout Indonesia. The promises of the Communists found the ear of the poor. Some still feel that President Sukarno even encouraged this in order to strengthen his own hand. In hard times, it is better to have an enemy than not. Yes?”
“These people…" He paused as if lost in thought before going on. "These villagers were starving. Crops had failed. There was a plague of locusts. Food riots in the streets. And the government too corrupt to care.”
He paused to light another cigarette, first offering one to Seth who shook his head.
“We spoke before about Eka Dasa Rudra, the purification ceremony they perform every hundred years or so. Remember what I told you happened when they held it before its time? Gunung Agung, the Sacred Mountain, erupted." Brenner shrugged. "Coincidence? Or was the balance between good and evil upset? One need only look at the aftermath. Pestilence and unrest. Whole villages uprooted, refugees everywhere. And then the civil war. Devout Balinese Hindus at war against the godless communists. Neighbors turned against neighbors. Friends against friends.”
Brenner lowered his head into his hand, almost as if to hide the grimace of pain that Seth saw reflected in the ex-priest's face. Brenner's other hand trembled, almost causing him to drop his cigarette.
“In one month…” His voice faltered, and he looked away. When he glanced back up, his eyes were moist. "You know they killed fifty thousand of their fellow citizens. I saw things. Young boys clubbing old women to death. Hindu priests beheading children." He shook his head and glanced out at the darkness, lost in some private vision.
“You see,” he said after a long moment had passed. "The delicate balance between good and evil had been upset. Or so many of them believed. You ask me if I believe. In evil, yes. In good?” He shrugged. “Of course. I must. They are both necessary. Two sides of the same coin if you may. I just can't explain how these devout people could suddenly butcher one another.”
Neither of them spoke for a long time, each absorbed in thought. It was only the creaking of the floor behind them that finally pulled Seth back. Turning, he saw Dori standing in the doorway.
“I'm going to bed,” she said, removing the barrette from her long blonde hair and shaking it loose. “Good night, Anton.”
Seth started to rise, but she disappeared into the darkened room. Turning back, he saw Brenner studying him.
“You want my help with your research?” Brenner asked, his voice betraying resignation. “First, tell me why it is you want to meet a leyak. What is it you hope to find?”
“I just want to know for myself what's real.”
Brenner stared at him for a moment before rising to his feet. “For that, you must simply gaze into the eye of the locust. An old Javanese proverb,” he added in response to Seth's quizzical look. “All that is true is revealed in the eye of the locust. One merely needs to look closely enough.”
“Yeah, sure. I'll remember that next time I come across one.”
“Remember this, my friend. What is real may be more than what you bargained for. I will see what I can do. Apologize to Dori for me. I fear I outstayed my welcome. Good night.”
Seth rose to shake the older man's hand, and then stood for a long time on the steps watching the bobbing of Brenner's flashlight as he picked his way along the dikes. Glancing down to the table, he saw among his notes the faded, dog-eared photograph that Brenner had given him earlier that evening. He picked it up and held it to the light.
The image was that of a garishly costumed figure posing beneath the draping limbs of a banyan tree. At first glance the baggy red, white, and black striped attire made the photo’s subject appear almost clown-like. But on second glance, one noticed the enormous, misshapen mask framed by a tangled shock of white hair, the grotesque fangs, and the long, rake-like fingernails. Seth flipped it over and leaned closer to the candle in order to read the notation scrawled on the back.
“The Leyak are living people, diseased in spirit, who have allied themselves with the forces of evil by reversing the positive energies of their psyche. During their ceremonies, they transform themselves into animals and then seek out those fatigued by emotional duress and psychically drain their victims of their life forces.”
All those years of school, and here he was searching for witches in clown suits. He looked at the photo again, then inserted it into one of his note pads and blew out the candle. He stood there a moment waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. A faint breeze carried with it the distinct aroma of sandalwood incense, and just as quickly it was gone, replaced by the muddy smell of the paddies. Again, he heard the nightjar screech several times in rapid succession. It seemed to be flying towards him. Suddenly, he felt the vibration of the bird's wings drumming the still air, a flush of heat against his face. Startled, he stumbled back against the table.
Dammit, Brenner. You've got me spooked by my own shadow.
He started to turn and go in, but then hesitated. Picking up one of his note pads, he held it at arm's length, and then waved it back and forth. Nothing stirred in the muggy air. He stared into the night a moment longer before going inside.