Star_Offering.jpgPhoto by Theo Sheko
Julia L. Star is a spiritual counsellor and writer, author of Work, Love and Wisdom (Book One of the River Books).
Arriving in Bali is like walking into a wall of hot, damp air with plumeria perfume turned on high. I greeted my friend Ketut with a big hug, slipped into the washroom to shed my jeans, put on a sarong, and argued with the immigration officer about how much I had to bribe him to stamp my extended visitor visa. I was very tired and my ankles were swollen from the twenty- seven-hour flight.
But I was glad to see Ketut and to be doing the work I love and to be supporting myself with it. I draw up my designs, the seamstress cuts out the patterns, the factory makes the prototypes and sends them back to me for inspection and changes. Repeat from step one. A rookie like me could never have my own line of clothing in Canada. But here in Bali I had my own brand of clothing, and this spring I was looking forward to finding new fabrics for my spring line.
Ketut started out as my driver, and after a year of struggling with delays, officials who must be bribed and corrupt pricing systems, I realized that I needed a good local ally, confidant and honest associate. Ketut knows half the people in Bali, or so it seems. He knows who to talk to, what the prices should be, how to haggle, where the best wholesalers are. He is much more than just a business associate, he’s my best friend in Bali. Once, in a slightly drunken haze, I even made a pass at him.
But on this day, something was up with Ketut. His normally serene face was lined with anxiety and he seemed on edge as he drove through traffic even faster than usual, mopping his forehead.
“What’s the matter, Ketut?” I asked.
“She is jealous of me.”
I leaned back into my seat and sighed. I had been expecting another of his long tales in which some fabric manufacturer or seamstress tried to cheat him, and how by dint of his diplomatic charms he overcame the difficulties and got my order in on budget. Ketut is a treasure, but he does like to boast about it.
“This time it bad,” he continued. “She hate me because I marry her niece. Now she hate me more because I build the temple. Now no one go to her for magic rings and spells. Instead they go to my temple. She lose her customers, have to work in the rice fields.” His voice cracked a little, perhaps in fear or frustration. He swerved to avoid a little girl navigating a bicycle, and a suckling pig stuck its head out of her backpack to stare at us.
“Woman like Rangda.”
In Balinese Hindu mythology, Rangda is a formidable goddess witch—a hideous old woman with dangling breasts, tangled white hair, long, predatory nails and sharp incisors. She plots to overthrow the good King by casting spells and possessing his most courageous warrior. A holy man is solicited to do battle with her, as enacted in village mask dances, but he succeeds only in putting her into a long sleep.
“You mean a witch?”
“She is widow, no man, no income. So she become witch. Now, my son have malaria!”
He slammed on the brakes to avoid a motorcycle and growled under his breath, which was not like him at all.
“And this morning I trip, catch leg on nail.” He pointed down to a bandage showing beneath the hem of his pants. “Blood everywhere, I almost late.”
I’ve heard of Balinese magic—flying sorcerers, hungry ghosts, witches who cultivate animal spirits or familiars and train them to do their bidding. To me these accounts are just stories—dream images that play out the dance of life in metaphor and staged narrative.
“I think she get something from me,” Ketut said. “She need something of mine for her magic. Could be anything, just clothing I throw away, hair, even a cellphone.” He laughed nervously as he squeezed us between an oil truck and another car. “I lost my cellphone last week.”
“This woman is jealous and she stole your cellphone,” I said. “You don’t believe that, do you?”
“Magic, just need something and then—” He took both hands off the wheel and waved them in the air as he searched for the right words. “—a curse on the whole family!”
“Hey, keep your hands on the wheel!”
He shook his head emphatically. “You too, madam, because you are like family to me.”
“I’m a visitor, Ketut, a friend. She can’t hurt me.”
He fell silent for a while, then asked me to go with him to the temple, where he would seek protection and pay another witch to counter the spells. He was truly distressed, and really, he wasn’t asking much. But—pay a witch for protection against another witch?
“Drop me off at the home stay, Ketut. I’m going to have a massage and then sleep.”
Neither of us said anything else about the witch for the rest of the trip.
Ketut was born into a lower-caste family and married a woman of higher status, a circumstance almost unheard of in a society where caste is illegal but still practised unofficially. His wife was the only daughter of doting wealthy parents, and the couple had settled into their large courtyard home. With his affable personality, Ketut steadily gained influence in his village, and through the work I had given him, he had improved his financial situation to the dizzying height of being asked to serve as committee head of the banjar (community).
The first thing he did as banjar head was to apply for funds to build another temple to the god Bima, son of water and earth in holy union. He chose a breathtaking sandy spit with rocks keeling out of the aqua blue sea, showered with white waves and brushed by cool northerly breezes. Then he found patrons— government, religious and business investors. This elevated him further within the banjar, to the position of lay priest. I celebrated his success by making a large donation to the celebrations and buying all the white, gold, red and black silkscreened sashes that were wrapped around house pillars, bridges, statues, roof beams and other structures.
After a restless night of strange dreams, I rose early, woken by doves cooing softly from the pale white frangipani blossoms by my veranda. I stepped out in the small courtyard surrounding my pondok. Above me, through the leafless branches, a sickle moon lay on her back, a bright morning star tailed her into the horizon. I reminded myself of how vulnerable I am, a stranger in an ancient culture. And I have made it policy to be careful not to get involved in matters that I don’t understand. But . . . was I missing something? No—I was going to plan a normal day, despite the dreams. I’ll show them! But who? Why did I feel that someone was watching?
As I rose to go back into the house, I froze and almost choked on my own breathing. A monstrous figure rose up behind the bamboo screen that separated my veranda from the rest of the courtyard. She was as tall as the house and had the head of a water buffalo, wrinkled and black with flat, hairy nostrils. Her eyes were steady and intelligent. She grinned at me, revealing two long incisors, and panted like a dog in the heat of the day. In the next instant, she vanished. I collapsed into the rattan couch and put my head between my knees to stop myself from fainting.
At that moment, Putu, the young steward for the pondoks, appeared with my breakfast. “Good morning, madam,” he called out cheerfully.
I was so glad to see him, I jumped up and took the tray out of his hands. I fought the impulse to hug him and gasped, “Putu! Please! Just sit down for a moment and have a coffee with me!”
He sat politely on the edge of the chaise and carefully wrapped his sarong around his thin legs as I chatted gaily about anything but what I had just seen. Gradually my hands stopped shaking and Putu excused himself to go shopping at the market for supper. I was alone again. I hummed to myself as I dressed and gathered my drawing tools. I am not a person to imagine things or see ghosts or demons, so this strange visitation must have been caused by the heat. On every visit, it takes two or three weeks for my northern blood to acclimate to the relentlessly hot, humid climate. In a few days this will all be something I’ll email back home as a funny story.
I settled down to work at my makeshift drafting table. It was hard to concentrate. I drew a few sketches and then had a brilliant idea—this year I would name all the designs after goddesses. But I needed to do some research into their names and domains. Relieved to have a distraction, I packed up my notebook and water bottle, flagged a taxi on the main road and dropped in at the only English-language library in the region, a tiny operation run by a New Yorker called Beatrice, Beatie for short. She knew just the book for me, written by an anthropologist couple who had “discovered” (air quotes by Beatie) the island in the early 1920s. Bali was an anthropologist’s heaven then, with complex social structures and rituals that seemed exotic and not yet compromised by modern Western ways. I left a deposit with Beatie, tucked the book under my arm and walked down the street to my favourite warong to look it over.
I ordered a beer and a plate of nasi goreng, then put on my reading glasses and picked up the book. The pages fell open to a picture of the very water buffalo giantess I’d seen that morning! This was the leluk, said the text, a familiar—someone that a witch could order to do her evil deeds. I felt swoony, as if I might fall off my chair, and a cold shiver took hold of my gut. I sat at the table for a long time, smoking and sipping beer, ignoring my lunch, until I had the courage to go home.
That evening, Putu’s mother made an offering basket with rice and cut leaves and blessed my pondok with a chant and some incense. Her ritual, or perhaps her maternal demeanour, brought me comfort. I slept well that night and awoke refreshed and excited, ready to begin shopping for fabrics. I borrowed a bicycle from Putu and rode off toward the seamstress’s shop. But as I cycled down the path to the main road, I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was following me. The road was full of potholes and the red earth steamed from the morning’s sudden rain, leaving the air soft and scented with jasmine and frangipani. I rode by a wild hibiscus hedge with hummingbirds hovering over its blood-red blossoms, and packs of little wild dogs trotting to the beach, where they would feed on the balls of white rice in the offering baskets.
The main road was crowded with hundreds of vehicles carrying worshippers from surrounding villages to festivities for Hanuman, the monkey god. The pilgrims sang and laughed, dressed in red, white and black sarongs and lacy kebayas (translucent blouses) tied at the waist with matching sashes. They waved as they passed.
I was trying to avoid a particularly loud truck that coughed out billows of greasy smoke when I hit a patch of gravel, braked too fast and skidded sideways into the ditch on my right leg. I cried out and lay in the putrid water for a moment to catch my breath. Then I stood up, trembling, sopped up the blood with a tissue and biked on to the first warong I could find. The waitress bathed my cuts and scrapes in cold water, then dressed them with antiseptic cream, gauze and tape from a little first-aid kit. I sat down and ordered a small beer, lit up a clove cigarette and brooded. Was that just an accident?
This island is steeped in spiritual activity; that is obvious to anyone. The women spend as much as two hours a day hand-weaving baskets, filling them with plumeria blossoms, jasmine, rice, cut leaves, pieces of fruit and other offerings, and placing them about. “Even if you offer me only a leaf or a sip of water, I will accept it, for you are giving it to my universe,” Ketut had said, quoting Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, when I first asked him about the rituals. I suppose it is only natural that the dark arts would be practised here too. Where there is light, there is shadow. He told me why the ritual included waving the incense smoke upward, to the magnanimous gods, then down to the hungry ghost worlds. “You must feed good and evil spirits,” he explained. “We say: I are so sorry that you are in the hell realms, and we hope after you have paid off your karma, you will be good again. Good and evil are both creations of Shiva’s dance, all part of God!”
I finished my beer and walked my bicycle back out onto the road, careful to take the back routes now and avoid the crowds. Later that day, while carrying a case of bottled water to the kitchen, I slipped on some freshly washed tiles, landed on my back and twisted my ankle. Two accidents in one day.
The next day Putu brought me breakfast on my veranda. Always the same—banana pancakes and fruit salad with fresh lime juice. I had slept well and calmed down by then, and I tried to forget the beast woman, bike accident and kitchen fall as I resumed work on the new designs. Working with the library book, I named each new design after one of the benevolent goddesses: a practical linen walking skirt after Sita, goddess of chastity; a straight, simple dress after Radha, the goddess of hearth and home; and a layered blouse of batiked brocade after Saraswati, the goddess of the arts.
That day and every day around dusk, Putu’s mother appeared with the offering basket, laid it on a little shrine on the veranda and blessed the pondok. The beast woman didn’t appear again.
The following week I accepted Ketut’s invitation to attend ceremonies at his new temple, the opening and blessing of the outer courtyard where villagers would gather to watch morality plays and traditional dances, play music and enjoy picnics during the long, humid nights. As we waited for Ketut’s wife outside the temple gates, he suddenly grasped my arm and whispered, “There! There she is! Witch!”
A woman stood across the street from the temple gates. She was perhaps my age or a little older. Her hair was streaked white at her temples in a becoming way, slicked back with coconut oil, gathered into a bun and pinned loosely at the back of her neck. Her features were aristocratic, her face was calm and she held herself erect, apparently without effort. She wore a black sarong, tight underblouse and kebaya, all of which were edged with gold. On her head she balanced a vat brimming over with ice and bottles. As she swayed forward toward the temple gates, I could see that she was straining to catch a glimpse of the foreigner whom Ketut called his Canadian sister.
“Don’t look at her!” he hissed.
But she had caught my eyes and I was pulled into her gaze. Ketut tightened his grip on my arm and shook me. Just then the gamelan orchestra started to tune up. “I must go now,” he said. “You stay here, do not go past here.” He drew a line in the air across the carved sandstone gate protected by fierce guardian statues, ugly demon creatures holding swords and maces. Then he moved into the crowd. I watched him for a moment in his ceremonial white and black checkered sarong wrapped loosely around a bright gold underskirt.
When I turned back, I saw that the woman whom Ketut would not name was still standing across the street. No one seemed to be buying any water from her. Once again she locked my eyes with hers. Loud music blasted out from the temple courtyard, and in the shock of crashing cymbals, she dropped her gaze. Was she really a witch, tracking me through the dreamtime? Or just a poor widow reviled by the villagers? Without looking directly at her, I stepped outside the gates, calling out to her to bring me a bottle of water. Her eyes narrowed but she nodded, stepped off the high sidewalk and glided into the road. She looked neither to right or left—suicidal in any Balinese street, but the traffic parted around her as she walked toward me in quick, mechanical movements. One second she was across the road, the next she was on the sidewalk beside me.
I was overcome with a feeling of weakness in my lower belly, and a shiver dropped down my legs into my knees. For a moment I thought I would collapse onto the stone steps. I regretted having called to her and feared that I did not have the strength to back into the safety of the temple grounds. But I was curious, I wanted to know who she was. I searched her smooth, oily face and golden eyes. If we had met under different circumstances, would we become friends? We were both businesswomen, struggling to live in a man’s world. Why was the witch always bad in the masked dances? Why were witches always ugly elderly women, and the only good women young and dutiful?
I held out twenty thousand ruphiah, four times what the small bottle of water should cost, and her face cracked into a smile approaching sadness. Her large teeth had been sanded into points, a ritual often performed for women studying the spiritual arts. She nodded and lowered her vat. As she did so, she withdrew her gaze and I regained possession of my limbs. I backed into the temple grounds a little farther, watching her.
She studied me for a moment. “Madee,” she called out, and for the first time I saw a young woman trailing behind her, holding a basket of shrimp chips. Madee was also staring at me, her long, shrewd face hidden partly by a red hibiscus flower. She set the basket down and disappeared. The older woman held my gaze, nodding and waving to me invitingly, trying to draw me out of the gates.
But I held my ground, and just as I was about to turn my back and join the festivities, the young woman appeared at my elbow with the bottle of water. Startled, I backed away from her, but she thrust the bottle into my hand and snatched the bill from me. Then, in one fluid motion, she leapt forward and grabbed a small kerchief that I had tied to my purse to mop my forehead.
“Hey!” I shouted into the clamour of the music and bustle of the crowds, but she had already melted into the throng.
“Apprentice,” Ketut said when I told him about it. “She can come through the side gate. Now she have something that belongs to you.” He shook his head unhappily.
Although I put on a brave face for the rest of the day, little geckos were hanging upside down in my belly.
The next afternoon, Putu brought me a cabled message. It was with deep regret they must inform me that an entire container of clothing had been lost in the South China Sea, in a storm along the coast of Taiwan. Insurance would cover only a fraction of the loss. I poured myself an English gin and tonic, extra gin on the side. From my courtyard I could see the silhouette of the volcano, hidden in a milky heat haze. As the day cooled, mists rose, brushing the lava slopes with shadows. The loss would not destroy me. I could ask the bank for another loan to sustain me until I prepared a new order. Still, it would take three months to get the clothing assembled, sewn, packed and shipped. Worst of all, I would miss the spring rush, my best selling time. My wholesalers would be livid. To cheer myself up, I went out for supper.
When I came home, my pondok was in darkness and someone was playing drums in the terraced rice fields. I opened the bamboo shutters and listened to the two tones that vibrated over the paddies, down the open aqueducts and up to my window. I listened for a long time, waiting for the player to vary the music, but the drumming continued long into the night, changing only in rhythm, not in pitch. The hypnotic music entered my sleep and I had bizarre dreams of demons and monsters with animal heads and human bodies. I started awake before dawn, and the drumbeats persisted. Was the witch or her apprentice conjuring up another mishap for me?
After making myself a very strong spiced coffee I phoned Ketut. He came over straightaway and I told him about the lost container. “I’m worried about you, and your family,” I told him. “I truly am. But there is nothing I can do.” I did not need to tell him that I could no longer be his Canadian sister.
He agreed, hugged me affectionately and muttered his apologies. When we parted, I said goodbye with finality. Later in the day I would send him a message by courier, severance package enclosed. It would be difficult to find another manager so intrepid and so honest.
A good woman knows when she’s beat, a very good woman knows when to retreat. Whether these goddesses inhabit heaven or hell, temples or factories, their magic must be honoured. Ketut and my container were my offerings.
Later that evening I began a fresh set of designs for the fall. For my contemporary line I added a new one: a black silk evening dress with gold lace along the hem and a row of white bone buttons down the left side. Under the plate I scribbled its name: Rangda.