That Old Black Magic
By Hannah Black
The Bali Times
SILAKARANG ~ Sitting one afternoon with my mother-in-law and husband, I catch the gist of a conversation in Balinese about a crocodile spotted in a nearby village. I tried to cut in, asking where and when, but my extraordinarily animated mother-in-law went on.
Finally my husband reluctantly translated for me, knowing my reaction to what he was about to tell me. The story was somewhere along the lines of “someone spotted another resident of the village turning himself into a crocodile and slithering into the river.” I try not to smile and laugh, because the practice of black magic is serious business in Bali, but I just can’t help it.
As long as I’ve been living here I just can’t make myself understand why people believe such things. I actually feel strange writing this down because I hate my own cynicism, but my British/American-molded brain can’t get past the scientific facts that prove certain things impossible.
My sister-in-law Kadek and my father-in-law joined the conversation, expressing amazement and belief in the crocodile man and everyone’s attention then turned searchingly to me, knowing that I find it hard to believe in such things. I tried to tell them how I would love to believe, but the way I was raised makes it difficult for me to believe something unless I see it with my own eyes.
My father-in-law smiled and shot me a look that said “I’m so sorry you don’t believe,” and I gave him an “I’m sorry I can’t believe” shoulder-shrug back. Sometimes I wish I would have one of the mystical Bali experiences so many people claim to have here, so I could stop feeling so skeptical.
I’m not saying I don’t feel the “magic” of Bali. I have often felt calming, warm vibrations whilst sitting in the temple, or been overcome with emotion just sitting out in the evening listening to the rustlings of the jungle behind my house. I just have never felt or seen anything I could call supernatural.
When I asked my husband, Ongky, if he had ever seen anything he would class as “magical,” he thought for a while and answered, “No.” I then asked him why he believed so completely in magic, to which he answered that “people” had seen things. “But it’s always someone who knows someone who saw something,” I said, exasperated.
Recently our neighbor came bolting up from the river behind our house where he had taken his three-year-old daughter to bathe. He was wrapped only in his towel and was carrying their clothes, which is unusual, but was also looking pretty terrified and his hands were shaking. Ongky asked what was up and half-laughing and half-quavering with fear he explained that his daughter had asked him who the dadong (grandmother) bathing next to them was. He looked around and seeing no one got out of there quick-smart.
I have to admit, although I hadn’t been there or seen anything myself, I could tell his fear was very real and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I can’t deny something out of the ordinary had happened, but again I didn’t see it myself, so it wouldn’t stop me from going down to the river, as it did half the village.
Many times I’ve heard stories circulating the village about people turning themselves into pigs or dogs to steal money from homes or temples; the magic trick is actually the part where they steal money without opposable thumbs, I say. Apparently the most difficult things to turn oneself into are street dogs and palm trees, which to me makes little sense, but who am I to question?
Ongky’s family seems quite baffled by the fact that I have no fear of sleeping in my house on my own. We are right at the back of the compound, where it’s dark and close to the river, which in Bali are known to carry spirits. All I can say is I feel safe and secure in my house because I’ve never had a negative experience that would convince me I’m in any danger. I have to admit I do thank the land, spirits, some power, for letting me live here just to be sure I don’t offend anyone/thing.
Maybe the time will come when I see or feel something unexplainable and my mind is changed, and in a way I hope I can open myself up to the possibility and feel some of the magic so ingrained in the people here. But for now I’ll continue to be skeptical – but I’ll be extra nice to palm trees and street dogs, just in case.
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