THE SHROOMS OF BALI
by Arlo Hennings
|Balinese Bima Puppet|
I stood along the side of the road, having just finished up my village canal cleaning ritual for the week when a tall, strange foreigner approached me. He had long blonde hair tied up into a bun on top of his head, arms decorated with serpent tattoos, and his neck and wrists were wrapped with multicolored beads. He wore a blue tank top and parachute pants with a floral Bhakti print that went just past the kneecaps, where I noticed that his right leg appeared to have recently been savagely mangled. A pair of worn-out sandals covered his dirty feet.
“Transcend it,” he mumbled from within a buzzing ball of flies. “Inhale naturally; be one with nature.” He wandered up to a coconut tree and wrapped his arms around it. The stubble of his chin rubbed against the trunk.
The jungle canopy quavered in the wind and a soft shower of white flower petals drifted earthward. He pretended to chase a flower floating on the air, even though it was easily within his reach. “Try to touch it; you can’t. It’s like time; all you can do is open your mind to it.”
I guessed he was being friendly and that he was making an effort to give me some insight into his world. He gazed up through the shafts of light that penetrated the coconut trees.
“You’re like that flower floating on the wind. Go with the flow, brother,” he said.
What he lacked in self-restraint he made up for in bold self-confidence. One artery pulsated on his temple and a single bead of sweat cut a path along his brow and off the tip of his nose. This was the first time he had faced the trees continuously. There was no pain in his face; just a thirst. He stood among his trees. It seemed that he could smell time on the branches; that he could hear it through the rustling palm leaves. His left eye went ghostly white. His right eye was wild; pleading. He shrugged distractedly and waved at the trees.
“This is my place,” he declared.
He handed me his business card: 52 Goodfingers, Life Coach and Ubud Community magazine editor. He pointed to a compound across the road, apparently indicating that he was my neighbor. I was only beginning to discover who my neighbors were. Across from me lived the son of rich Austrians, who was charged with managing his father’s hotel; the sort that included a private helicopter pad to accommodate those who were wealthy or famous enough to require such an extravagance. At the opposite end of my carport was a deluxe villa belonging to a couple from Austin, Texas, who only stayed there when they visited the island twice a year, and rented it out the rest of the time. Occupying the backlot was an intensely private, middle-aged, single Canadian woman. She never returned a smile or wave when greeted on the Jalan. However, once a year on Christmas Eve she invited me to a cup of Rum flavored egg nog.
“Feel the vibration?” 52 said, enthusiastically. “More cosmic vibes flow through this area than anywhere else on the island,” he continued. “Take a deep breath. Just taste nature’s amusement park. It’s a holy taste, brother. I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to join a drum chant.”
He invited me into his quarters, which consisted of a single room located inside a traditional Balinese family compound. It was not uncommon for the locals to rent out a room in their compounds. These rooms were the cheapest accommodations to be found anywhere on the island. I followed him along a dirt path, retracing footprints that appeared to be his, likely made earlier in the day. We passed by many sets of broken-off doors, belonging to dwellings in various states of disrepair, and continued our descent down the narrowing trail that ended at the entrance to his lair. The modest living space was furnished with little more than a raggedy mattress on the floor, a small refrigerator that was at least a decade old, and a rusty gas cooker. He shared a bathroom with three other families, as was typical of these compounds. A basic bathroom consists of a tub of cold water and a ceramic urinal dug into the floor. You pour water on your body with a bucket to bathe, and squat on the floor to relieve yourself.
As we sat down on the dirty, concrete floor, I observed that his room was cluttered with moldy newspapers, piles of empty water bottles, beer and soda cans, chunks of plaster, blankets, three pairs of soiled couch cushions, a few paintbrushes, and a blank canvas; all accented with leftover rice that was crawling with ants and covered with a heavy layer of dust to complete the effect. The filth of his dharma crash pad made my nose wrinkle and the hair on the back of my neck curl up into tight coils. I hadn’t seen anyone live in such unsanitary conditions since my hippie days.
Although I was already considered by some to be something of a “neat freak” by local standards, this certainly didn’t look like anything I could identify with as “home” by any stretch of the imagination. It was more like a place where an old, burnt out, war refugee might hide when the scars of the past had become too heavy to carry.
52 lit up a cigarette; there were swirls of blue in the smoke that left his lungs in long, slow exhales. His face was gaunt and his body appeared to be nothing more than a shrinking skeleton loosely draped with skin. His gaze betrayed a life complicated by many troubles. The whites of his sunken eyes surrounded oily pupils set in a viscous liquid that replaced once-clear pools of crystal blue.
For whatever trials he had faced, his spirit did not appear dampened. He managed to maintain a happy-go-lucky smile that lit up his face, undeterred by yellow teeth, stained from years of smoking. It didn’t seem to bother him that his clothes fit so poorly that they seemed to belong to someone else, nor did he seem disturbed by the fetid aroma that formed a nearly visible aura around him.
He reached into his worn backpack and pulled out an unmarked bottle filled with a lemon-colored liquid. With shaking hands, he filled two small glasses and handed one to me. In one gulp he emptied his glass, while I was still cautiously examining the brew that smelled like a cross between gasoline and turpentine and wondering if it might be combustible. It turned out to be a local variety of Balinese moonshine called arak. It had been offered to me before by locals who worked at a resort where I sometimes went swimming. It’s pure alcohol typically made from coconut palm sap; however, when the primary ingredient is not available, old tires are used in the fermentation process. It is highly addictive and many people die from drinking it. I sat my full glass back down on the floor.
“Is this our last dance as warriors?” he asked, wiping off his mouth with the back of his hand. He abruptly picked up a paintbrush and stared at his easel.
I asked how long he’d been here. He related how he and his wife had first come to Ubud from Holland over 25 years ago and had been among the first foreign shop owners on Monkey Forest Road. What had happened to his wife, since clearly, it had been quite some time since his current dwelling had been graced with a woman’s touch? He mentioned that she had left him, but then became very vague about details of his personal life. I thought it best not to ask.
He described the Ubud of long ago as a quaint little village with no hotels or restaurants and no traffic; a beautiful and unspoiled paradise of mountains, rice fields, and natural beauty. Everybody knew everyone and the villagers would come together to bathe in the river, wash their clothes, and exchange the latest news and gossip. Although artists and celebrities had been visiting the area since the 1930s, it remained a virtually virgin territory until modern high-tech communication and transportation gave greedy consumerism pimps easy access to Bali’s overwhelmed inhabitants, seducing them into prostituting their island paradise for the promise of material gain. Wasn’t this what I had tried to escape? Now, in addition to the booming tourist industry, Bali had become home to a growing expat community from around the globe and from all walks of life. Like moths to a flame they came; renowned and unsung, scholars, humanitarians, affluent hedonists, seeking peace, tranquility, and harmony.
“Hold still; stop fidgeting,” 52 said. Then he stuck another paintbrush in his mouth and smudged the canvas with his right thumb. I held my pose: right hand on knee, left hand draped to the floor, upright, head slightly cocked, slight shit-ass grin.
“How long do you plan to stay here?” he asked. I stared at a spot just above his head, avoiding eye contact. I couldn’t look into his eyes dead-on without feeling like I was falling into a well. I couldn’t help wondering what had happened to this man; what had his life been like; what trials had he faced and what had happened to his leg. I found it hard to talk to him, so I didn’t dare question him about it. Suddenly, as if just shaken from a dream, I realized that I really had no particular plan. I’d been in this situation before, just living from day to day, but had never dreamed I would ever find myself thrust back into a vagabond lifestyle, particularly at this point in my life and in a foreign land besides.
“I don’t really know,” I finally responded. “I suppose it will depend on what I find.”
I was grateful that he didn’t question me further.
52 studied the canvas like a boxer facing a heavyweight opponent. His first brush stroke turned into an awkward dance made up of head jerks, backbends, and flailing arms. It looked like a mismatched fight. He took another drink and exhaled forcibly across his knuckles in an effort to loosen his stiff hands. The hand was then tested for dexterity on scratch paper before making its triumphant return to the canvas.
Up and down; back and forth; I listened to the soothing, rhythmic sound made by the stiff bristles of the brush scratching against the old canvas. While he painted, the late afternoon sun broke through the gray mass of clouds filling the room with narrow, dust-filled fingers of light. It felt at that moment that we were touched by the gods. I wanted him to go on, never finish, keep this moment frozen in time. As he continued painting, my curiosity grew. I was dying to see what vision had inspired the artist. Had he discovered my secrets? I could contain myself no longer; I had to see the image that my new companion had been so compelled to create.
“What’s with the big furry feet?” I inquired.
“A traveler needs nimble, well-protected feet that can move quietly in the jungle,” he replied.
“You can never tell what creatures dwell in the shadows. You are set upon a great adventure, no?”
Without waiting for an answer, he added a touch of gray to the eyebrows in the portrait.
The face was mine; however, my flat, square face and growing beard had been transformed into a simple, but an oddly beautiful creature, small in stature, with a smooth, hairless face and the innocent countenance of a child. The eyes sparkled like a prism when struck by a sunbeam. It had ears that nearly resembled wings, barely peeking through a mop of shaggy reddish curls and sporting a traveling jacket, backpack, and a long, delicately carved walking stick, as if prepared for a long journey. And those feet; they almost appeared to belong on another creature. Still, it stirred something deep inside of me, like a vision long forgotten, like rediscovering my purpose, like recalling an act of courage I thought I’d long since lost. Suddenly, I felt empowered and a sense of imminent victory replaced that of impending doom.
My face gave way to a smile.
“I like it,” I told him.
The muscles in his face tightened and a tear seemed ready to spill from the corner of his eye. I gathered that he was searching as if to recover something he’d lost, some idea of himself perhaps. His eyes scanned my body, inspecting every detail, each wrinkle in my shirt, every subtle shadow on my face, each visible fold of skin. Finally, he nodded and shot me an understanding smile.
I resumed my pose.
“Turn your head slightly and face me,” he said.
I stared at the painting. Then he began talking to the image in the painting as if there were no difference between the world of his dreams and visions and the conscious world of physical reality where we sat amid the garbage and clutter.
“I’m sorry for not listening to you,” he said to the image he had created. “Do you forgive me?”
He stopped painting for a moment and appeared to be studying something inside his mind. “Have you ever dreamed that you died?” he said, with one eye half-closed. “I think of a mirror when I look at you: a reflection filled with a myriad of colors, crafted by the winds, blowing across the great canvas of life, all mysterious and unknowing.”
He made no further comment and continued painting.
I paused as if observing a lifetime of history filling the vision behind his eyes. I didn’t know where to begin. Somehow I knew that he knew that he would die from drinking. I closed my eyes and thought how too many of my other friends had ended their lives that way. A bottle can kill you in paradise as quickly as anywhere else.
As I returned to my villa that evening, I tried to understand what had just happened. I pondered the events of that strange afternoon well into the night, as I tossed and turned before finally falling into troubled dreams.
Suddenly, I wanted my guitar. I wanted to pluck her strings and feel her resonance, wanted to embrace her and feel the familiar coolness of her body against mine. I needed to hear the purity in her tone that could make me laugh or make me cry. I felt like laughing just then...at the irony of fate. Besides, what better than a song to begin an adventure?
The next night, I left my villa to go for a walk. I felt as though the walls were closing in around me. Had nine months really passed since I’d arrived on Bali? Despite all the trials along the way, time seemed to pass in the blink of my third eye. Had I made any significant progress toward my reinvention goal?
Before I knew it, my villa had faded from view, and I had walked along a path until the jungle swallowed up the moonlight. The muffled beating of drums, in celebration of the full moon, penetrated the darkness. Suddenly, I realized that I was alone in the jungle on an unfamiliar path, and unsure if I would be able to find my way back. I hadn’t planned to wander so far, so I didn’t think I’d need my flashlight or phone. (What could possibly go wrong?) Now the walls of the jungle were closing in on me. I began to panic.
Dawn was hours away. I had to keep my head, but I also had a gut feeling that this could not end well. I took a deep breath, sucking the dense, humid air into my lungs, and imagining that each breath brought me more closely into harmony with the surrounding jungle. If I could align myself with the energy of the jungle, it might help me find my way. With another long, deep breath, I began to assess my situation. I was uncertain of just how far I’d actually walked, having lost track of both time and distance.
Heavy drops of rain began falling onto thirsty leaves above. Insects, frogs, and other creatures of the night began warming up their voices to the drumbeat. Since I could not see any visual clues, or feel any change of topography that would lead me back to the road, I decided to walk toward the drumming. As I worked my way through the jungle, the rain picked up and the rumbling of thunder began to compete with the sound of the drums. I closed my eyes for a moment to concentrate and listen. When I opened my eyes, I noticed a faint glow in the distance. My adrenaline, and a sense of relief, kicked in as I headed with unsteady steps toward the light. But almost as quickly as I noticed it, the light vanished, and the drumming stopped. If a hapless foreigner falls in the jungle and nobody is around to hear him, does he start to scream anyway?
I sensed something brush by me. I could not outrun or outwit a threatening creature that I could not see. I froze in silence, one soon broken.
“I’ve been looking for you,” someone whispered.
I’d recognize that voice anywhere, even as a whisper in a jungle rainstorm. It was 52 Goodfingers. I was shocked and incredibly relieved to see him. I told him how I ended up getting lost, and how grateful I was that he had somehow tracked me down to guide me home. I followed him into a clearing, where a hint of moonlight began to emerge from behind the clouds. I could see him now, as he turned around to explain that he had not come to escort me out of the jungle. Rather, he was about to guide me on a different journey.
“It’s the night of the full moon,” he began, “and I’m here to conduct the magic bone ceremony. I want to foretell your future and help you unlock the hidden powers of your soul.”
I’d had enough excitement for one terrifying night in the jungle and desperately wanted to return to my villa. And I had already predicted my immediate future: this could not end well.
Still, I figured that 52 was my only way out, so I agreed to participate.
52 explained what he called the “Oracle of Bones.” He places sacred pig bones into a fire, then later searches the ashes for four unbroken bones. Upon finding them, he cleans them, then carves sacred symbols onto one side only. These become the oracle bones. They may be used for many kinds of divination in much the same way as people consult the I Ching. The bones can detect stirring, every shadow, and my every fear became magnified a hundredfold in my imagination.
52 told me that we were heading to a place of power. In another half hour or so, we ended up at the entrance to a cave, which, 52 informed me, housed “the temple of Yama.” I hesitated.
“I sense that you do not trust me,” 52 said. “Is this not so?”
I did trust him, up to a point. After all, I barely knew him. I tempered myself, but I had to ask . . . “With all due respect, 52, have you been sniffing arak?”
He bowed in a dignified manner.
“Like the yogi,” he claimed, “I am an uplifter of the people. One who has a foot in the yonder realm and can serve as a conduit for spiritual realities. I involve neither sorcery nor the wielding of parlor tricks. I am accountable, however, to both the natural and the supernatural realms, and ultimately to the entire pattern of the universe.
“When I was born, my father called me ‘One Goodfinger.’ At my birth, a crop of rice sprung forth during a drought. The following year I touched a sick cow and it came back to health. That was when my parents called me ‘Two Goodfingers.’
“Five years later, I became deathly ill. No one knew what was wrong with me, so my father summoned a healer. The healer recognized that I was not ill from any Earthly cause. He consulted spirits, who revealed that I suffered from the ‘vision sickness.’ I could see into the future as well as see into the body. It was a sign that I was born with the power to heal. I would take on others’ illnesses but did not know how to rid myself of such sickness. The healer restored my health, and I became his apprentice. Every year since my apprenticeship began, I have tried to make something especially good happen. That is why I am now known as 52 Goodfingers. Legend has it that with this full moon I will have a new finger.”
“I thought you were from Holland?” I said.
“I come from up north,” he answered, pointing toward the mountains as if he was going to say more but decided not to.
As we entered the cave, 52 told me that it is one of the largest holes in a catacomb that runs beneath an ancient complex of temples. He lit an oil lamp, which illuminated inscriptions, moss-covered statues, and the remains of previous ceremonies.
“I love this place,” said 52.
Perhaps his brand of spirituality had a method that only the spirits could understand.
“We have guests,” 52 announced. “There are warriors camped out within these walls.”
I looked around me as 52 pulled out a plastic bag, filled with “soul-cleansing” mushrooms. These plants are subjectively legal on the island, even served in smoothies at restaurants. I just did not expect them to be part of this process. I could have refused them but decided to place my trust in 52’s trip. My soul could probably benefit from a good cleansing. As instructed, I chewed up a small handful of the dried shrooms.
52 drew a circle in the dirt. Next, he emptied his pocket, which held the bones, and told me to place the bones “in the fire.” That was all fine except there wasn’t a real fire. I was instructed to close my eyes, sit quietly, and meditate. Since I was so tired, I suspected that I’d simply drift off to sleep. I did not.
At some point, I began to transition from this world to the next. I began to cross the divide as though I was walking on a footbridge over a mile-deep gorge. Pieces of my thoughts began to break off like rotten planks. The sensation of falling was overwhelming. I felt the warrior paint break through my skin, come alive, and crawl over my face.
52 recognized my anxiety and held my face firmly between his hands. “Let go, don’t hold on. If you do, you’ll get paranoid.” He looked hard into my eyes. “Look at me, that’s the spirit.”
“Does it hurt the oracle if I ask a question,” I said, tugging on my hair.
“All are welcome,” 52 said, in a peaceful voice.
“How does it work? The bones, I mean.”
He closed his eyes as if he were answering me with telepathy. “The sacred cow bones can be beads of ivory, shell, bone, and other things, which are thrown by the guide to learn the future. When they fall, they describe certain mystic patterns. What those patterns mean would take far too long for me to explain here. For an accurate reading, the bones must be thrown in three different places: on a mountain, in the open country, and also inside a cave. If the message you receive from these places remains identical, then that is the message that you must accept.”
“Have you thrown the bones in the other places?” I asked 52.
“I have thrown ‘the old man,’ ‘the old woman,’ ‘the young man,’ and ‘the young woman.’ If the bone lands face upward, it is said to be smiling. If it lands face downward, it is said to be crying,” he explained.
“What have the bones said so far?” I asked.
“All aspects of the bones’ arrangements are considered carefully. These include which way the image is facing, the distance between the bones, and any unusual configurations in the pattern. In the end, I may not know what the future holds for you — if there is any hope in the situation in which you exist, not only here but in the context of the whole future world.”
52 slapped his hands together. “Tonight, the final reading shall be known.”
“Is there any reason to feel insecure about this?”
“Memory has monsters in its raw form. The past can only hurt us if we summon it unprepared.”
52 began to play a small wooden flute.
I forgot about where I was, who I was, where I’d been, or where I was going. In a happy way, nothing seemed to matter. My fear lifted. The flute music carried me away.
“If you can hear your ally in the valley of tears, then you are ready to understand the bones.” 52 echoed.
His words came out of his mouth like sparks as he used a stick to fish the hot bones out of the ashes of time. Four unbroken bones smoked on the ground. He inhaled the smoke and appeared to bless them. Then stirring the bones with the stick, he flipped them like dice.
I remained rock still; I was transfixed and transported.
“Can you feel the vision coming?” I said from the shadows.
The four bones rolled up to my bare feet. Two-faced up and two were face down. The ones facing down had lines carved on them.
52 knelt down for a closer look. His left eye looked relieved. His right eye seemed to swell shut in disbelief. “It is a strange reading. Never have I received one like this.”
The cave was moving.
“Fear not,” 52 announced. “We go for honor… and we go for the truth.”
The cave became cold. The ceiling and the walls disappeared, opening a great expanse of space. Beyond the imaginary campfire, glowing animals circled. The idea that I was going to die crossed my mind. “Where am I going?”
“Into chaos…” 52 smiled reassuringly.
I nodded as if I understood.
Like a stage curtain had been lifted from my eyes I saw thousands of lifeless shacks scattered across the land. Some clung for life to the roots of leafless trees, with bony branches that shook, as if casting an evil in the hot wind.
“What is this place?”
“You’re seeing the homelessness of your soul,” 52 said.
It began to rain.
52 instructed me to put a blanket over my head and follow him into the camp. Litter guided our steps down potholed paths with numbers painted on them.
I stared at the carnage. “What does it all have to do with me?”
“Think hard. Try to remember. That’s why you’re here… to learn.” 52 suddenly stopped. On the cave floor between us was the corpse of a dead dog, its guts chewed out.
I placed my hand over my heart. It was beating so hard I thought it was going to break my ribs.
Farther along the muddy path, a light came through the shack windows from glowing braziers. As we passed by the shacks, I kept hearing what sounded like an old car backfiring.
“They’re coughing.” 52 said. “The spirits are all sick.”
“Let’s turn around. Why should they talk to us, anyway?”
“We’ll wait here, ” 52 decided.
A young woman arrived with a child wrapped in rags. She was about to set the child down when she saw me. Her reaction was disbelief. She stood back, grasping the child in fear.
I smiled gingerly at her from inside my rain-soaked blanket. The child’s mother looked at my face and froze in terror. Cautiously, she clutched her child and backed up.
The woman flapped her arm at a shack, a gesture of trouble. 52 put his arm around me and took me to the woman. He removed the blanket from my head and wrapped the child in it.
We followed her and the child across a piece of ground named Yard Twenty-nine, stopping at a doghouse-style flap door. We crouched down because the door was too low for a person of average height to pass through without bending over double.
Inside the shack, a small brazier lit a room the size of a large garden shed. The walls were made out of adobe, tin, brick, and scrap wood. Much of the wall lay in flakes upon the floor. I thought the shack might fall over because it was leaning on the edge of a gully. The occupants were an elderly woman in a potato-bag dress, a middle-aged man and woman, three children, and the woman holding a strange child with white skin. The child’s face was made of diamonds. Each jewel reflected upon the other in endless interweaving patterns. I looked into the top, flat portion of one diamond called the table.
“Follow the child into the center of the reflections. What do you see?” 52 waved his hand.
“I see my brother, parents, my daughter, magic loon — everything that happened to me,” I answered.
“You are only seeing the first layer. Past this immediate life is the reflection of your previous lives. Your soul is caught somewhere between what had to be and refusing to let go because you forgot your celestial origin.”
“I feel cheated, betrayed and wronged.”
“You forgot that these experiences taught you how to love. You’ve already lived this life one thousand times before and each time you forget the last note of the song. By forgetting to learn from your karmic memories they have decayed and become bad spirits that dwell in the bottom of your feet. Only the truth can lift the weight of the lie. Only by remembering what you learned from the experiences can you remember everything.” He claimed. “It is only then that you can unlock the door; go beyond the dragons, and name your demon.”
Sprinkling leaves on my toes and taking laxatives had its merits, I speculated.
“The baby made of diamonds is awaiting your soul. This life will end soon. Do you wish to finish the song this time?”
The family sat on pieces of cardboard, dressed in patched khaki clothes, and stared at nothing. The woman with the diamond child held out her empty hands and motioned at the floor.
“She wants you to sit and be dry,” 52 interpreted.
A bowl with a mouse-sized ration of brown-colored things appeared in my hand. We were served cups filled with rainwater. Suddenly, I could feel the reflection of my lips held against the mother’s bare breasts. She put her free arm around a tall man with skin as dark brown as river mud.
“The woman is holding your father,” 52 recognized.
The mother directed our attention to the suckling child. She tearfully rocked the baby.
“The baby is sick. It needs healing,” 52 concluded.
The mother carefully rolled a piece of manure into a ball. The ball was then placed into the dwindling fire for fuel. It burned like coal. A burlap bag was given to us for our bedding. 52 sat cross-legged on his mat and meditated. I tried to sleep on the cold ground.
Raindrops fell on the shack like stones hitting an empty can. The noise brought out empty bowls and cans. Below a dripping ceiling, the precious water was collected. Then, one by one, the family stripped. The door doubled as an entrance to a free bath. Out of the windows, in the freezing water from heaven, clothes, urine-soaked blankets, and cooking utensils got their bath next. A half-dollar-sized circle of water landed on my head. The roof, made from old car parts and scrap wood, leaked everywhere. I sank into the dirt floor, into the food chain, to where the floor was filled with biting red ants.
“Did I choose this life?”
52’s eyes remained closed. “Listen to your heart.”
I sat up, closed my eyes, and rubbed my ears until they were hot. To my left, I heard a rat drinking out of the night soil bucket. On my right, I heard the whimpers of a sick child.
“What do you hear?” asked 52.
“I believe it’s the sound of adversity.”
52 knelt before me.
I didn’t know how much time had passed. My stomach was tied in knots. A metal taste remained in my mouth, and my brain felt like a healing scab. The cave became a cave again; but now the bottoms of my feet were covered in a green, phosphorescent hue. 52 asked me how I felt.
“I can’t really find the words to describe how I feel,” I told him. “I had an amazing experience, but I think I’ve had enough magic mushrooms to last me for quite a while.”
52 smiled and said, “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘magic mushrooms.’ I told you that I don’t wield any magic.”
“Well, call it what you will,” I said. “Your little pouch of shrooms sent me flying off into crazy town.”
“Those shrooms didn’t send you off to anywhere that you weren’t already headed,” said 52. “You walked into the jungle all on your own. I just joined you along the way.” He could see that I didn’t get it.
“For the spiritual record,” 52 continued, “the shrooms you ate were a mix of dried shiitake and portabella, seasoned with a pinch of herbs — I thought you could use a snack. Any magical powers they possess are the powers you attribute to them. You are the source of that power.” I didn’t entirely dismiss the power of the mushrooms, but it always does come down to my own power.
I felt as though I was appearing in a bad mash-up of Don Juan meets Harry Potter. After a night of turbo scrubbing my soul, not only did I end up next to a pile of bones, I ended up covered in clichés.
“Nicely, played,” I said. “But, seriously, couldn’t you have just recommended a few books, or reminded me of a few movies to make your point?”
Before 52 could respond, I answered my own question. “I know, I had to experience it for myself.”
“More important,” added 52, “it’s how you experience it from now on.”
Dawn had already broken. 52 suggested I take some time alone to process it all, while he headed out.
“I suppose I have the power now, like Dorothy, to click my heels together and find my own way home.”
“I told you,” said 52, “I don’t really wield magic. Talk about crazy; you’d never make it out on your own. That’s why I left you a map.”
Ten minutes later, he was across the clearing and was about to disappear into the jungle when I shouted out.
He turned and shouted back, “53!”
When I arrived the following week, the Balinese villagers were outside his room, sitting, staring motionless, frightened, and wondering what to do. Not knowing what happened, I parked my motorbike and walked into his room. 52 Goodfingers was lying on the floor, next to his mattress, and appeared unconscious. I got help from Ketut, the property owner, and we lifted him onto the mattress.
“52 suffered a bad motorbike injury a few days ago,” Ketut explained in English. “I think he hit his head.”
I put my ear to his chest and I heard a faint tom-tom drum beneath the ribs. “Call Sapar, the healer,” I said. Sapar quickly arrived and worked for hours, massaging 52’s stiff body. Slowly, 52 opened his eyes, and I lifted his head for a sip of water.
“Do you want to go to the hospital?” I asked.
“No, I don’t have the money,” he groaned. 52 had gone without food or water for two days and was in other deeper pain. Money wasn’t really the issue; he did not want to go to the hospital for treatment.
“Where does it hurt?” I paid Sapar and he left me with his oils and blessing material.
“It hurts all over,” he yelled. “Help me up,” he said, as his body shook.
Ketut and I got him up, and 52 crawled to the door, sat outside, and leaned his back to the wall.
“All right, everyone,” he spoke in Balinese, “The show is over. I am not dead,” he slurred, lighting a cigarette. “In my backpack are a couple of pain killers. Can you get them for me?”
When I returned, he was pulling on a Coke bottle full of the lemon-colored Balinese moonshine arak. He washed the pills down with a big gulp.
“52, maybe you should try to eat something?” I nudged.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said. “Did you bring the magic bones?”
“Yes, I have them,” I answered.
“Throw them here at my feet,” he instructed.
I shook the bones in my hands and knuckles down tossed at his bare feet, two of the bones bounced and stuck between his toes. 52 assembled the four bones on the ground. “Aha, I’ve been waiting for that reading!”
“What reading is that 52?”
“Did I ever tell you the bima puppet story?” he said.
“No, you did not,” I answered.
“There were these two ancient Balinese shadow puppets that danced behind a thin white cloth. The bima puppet painted in black, wearing bright red ornaments and with an over-sized pointed wooden nose fought back the serpent creature that was trying to swallow him. The bima puppet’s ferocious claw-like hands flinging wildly failed to stop the beast. The battle ensued without either side claiming victory. The puppeteer dimmed the oil lamp behind the screen until there was only darkness. The ageless story about the conflict between this world and the other had no conclusion.”
52 suddenly dropped his bottle of arak, and his eyes and mouth were frozen open. I thought it was his way of expressing what a puppet looks like when their strings are cut. I looked at him for a few minutes until I noticed that his body had stopped moving.
“52, wake up,” I shouted. “Wake up!” I shook him hard, again and again. There was no response. 52 was dead.
I felt his semi-warm flesh as I closed his eyelids and mouth. I took his hands and folded them on his lap. 52 looked peaceful. He had no possessions to speak of other than an old PC rigged to play music. I found his favorite song “Confusion Will Be My Epitaph” (by King Crimson) and turned it up. The song played its melancholy chorus. 52 was on his final mushroom cloud; back to his home, up north. I wept for his safe return. 52 was a heavy drinker, but I did not expect him to deliberately end his life with self-inflicted shots of arak.
The police hauled away 52’s body to a morgue in south Bali.
52’s family arrived several days later from Holland. In accordance with his wishes, they would scatter 52’s ashes over the ocean on Bali at Sanur beach.
His family and I stood in a circle and held hands on the beach. They opened the container that held 52 Goodfinger's remains. One of his sisters began to weep. His family sent him a few dollars here and there was quite aware of his chronic drinking problem and looked for any words to comfort the pain of their loss.
“Every seed contains everything required to become whatever it is supposed to be," I said. "Watered by the rain, warmed by the sun, and nourished by the earth, it is transformed into something more without ever losing its seedness. Over time, something so tiny and seemingly insignificant as a fragile drop of water changes the very structure and design of the Earth. Likewise, something so seemingly insignificant as a seed contains all the knowledge necessary to become a rose, an oak, a worm, a cat, a man.” I broke the circle and scooped up a handful of sand.
“Like the seed that seems so insignificant as to be incapable of anything of consequence until it is exposed to water, sunlight, and nourishment, so, in those moments of being, the eternal now, is profound clarity wherein the boundaries of consciousness are stretched that we may continue becoming something more and grow into the potential of our design,” I said dropping the sand.
“Amen,” his family responded.
His sister then scattered 52’s ashes over the water. The ocean accepted them with graciousness; a welcome wave of forgiveness. Out of nowhere, a flock of white, endangered starlings appeared overhead. They chirped while circling 12 times, picked up 52’s spirit, then flew away.
I sprouted imaginary wings and followed.
I flew to where all things in nature go — to activate the built-in, auto-reconstruct program. To the place that only the whale, starlings, and Bima puppets understand.
Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.
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© Arlo Hennings 2020