Barong and Rangda Do Battle In Missouri by Mark Rigney

An art museum curator's daughter is intrigued by a shipment of powerful ancient Balinese masks; by Mark Rigney.

Precious few immortals dwelt on the planet, but even Mother Sea and Father Sky agreed that there had always been Barong. This pleased Barong enormously, for she enjoyed her exalted status and mighty reputation. Unfortunately, as seemed to be the case so often in modern times, she was currently trussed up in a box, bound with packing tape and string and surrounded by little white pebbly objects which she'd heard some fool baggage handler refer to as "peanuts." Worse, there was a human woman, a very pallid, white-skinned specimen, peering down with the sort of detached, academic hmmm that Barong hated even more than she hated Rangda the Witch, her sworn enemy for as long as the stars should dance in their places. Was this woman, perchance, a trick of Rangda's, a spirit sent to drown Barong's will and sap her strength? The woman certainly wore peculiar clothes, very sheer and tight-fitting. And that color! With a complexion like hers, did she really believe she looked good in such a weak and watery green?

"Mommy, what's inside?" cried a voice, a voice which came from beyond and just below the circumference of the lid. "What is it? Can I take it out?"

Ah, thought Barong, a child!

"It's just another mask, sugar bun," the woman replied. Her slender fingers reached out and grasped the cardboard flaps of the box. Barong tried to weave a spell, but before she could finish, the woman closed the lid and plunged Barong into darkness.

"Sorry, Katie," the woman continued, her voice muffled by the box. "These aren't for you, okay? How about we put on a record and do some drawing?"

"Okay," said the child, wilting, "but can we do Spotify instead?"

The woman laughed and said, "Sure, sweetie," and then Barong heard the sound of receding footsteps, one the gliding, confident tread of an adult, the other the scuffing, tripping gait of a little girl in pint-size saddle shoes.

Plague and pox! Barong yearned to lash out, to beat the woman with reeds and sticks until she wept. Didn't she understand the potentially devastating consequences of jailing a cosmic champion? Ah, but Barong was helpless, helpless as a newborn lamb. Without a wearer to direct her gaze, Barong could do nothing, and so she sat and fumed amongst the peanuts and the costive gloom of her box, hatching plans of beneficent revenge. Memories as strong as ocean currents seized her - audacious tales of glory, great startling battles and stunning, epic deeds - they swept her away on wings of gossamer and sand. Dreaming, dreaming, always dreaming. Reaching... reaching for the bright and supple mind of a saddle-shoed child.

It was Friday, June 19, 2012, and Barong sensed, even as she passed behind the shrouded wall of slumber, that she would soon again be free...

Tish Colson managed to get Katie involved in a Teddy Bear coloring book, but she couldn't drag herself up and out of her own blue funk. The entire shipment was a disappointment, but Barong - all fearsome splayed teeth and bulbous, desperate eyes - Barong was in particularly sad shape. The stab mark over the lip could be hidden with a little effort, but the fat dent below the eye - as if the mask had been brawling and wound up with a proper shiner for its trouble - that was a blemish beyond easy repair. Depressed and angry and brewing like a kettle, Tish plunked down in the kitchen and allowed herself two squares of raspberry chocolate, a food she never ate except in times of personal crisis.

Crises and spiritual poisonings were not uncommon for Tish. She recognized her despondent streak, but successful campaigns against it were the exception rather than the norm. At home, a single smile from shy, contemplative Katie was usually sufficient to raise her spirits, but, at work, easy cures escaped her. She knew perfectly well that the museum docents and most of the support staff called her bitch and battle-ax behind her back. She tried to take their rejection as a sort of unintended compliment, a tribute to her obvious power and ability, but she didn't often succeed. No matter how many exhibits she planned, no matter how many galleries she inducted, the timid respect of her colleagues paled before the conviviality she craved, and couldn't get. Austerity, that was her element. It ruled supreme in her exhibit designs, in the manner of her dress, in the stateliness of her tall, sturdy body. Narrow above and wide at the hips, she had pillars for legs and curtains of black, straight hair. Her staffers routinely stood back from her, as if in the presence of the legendary elephant, forever poised on the brink of a violent sneeze.

Tish admitted it was a wonder the museum hadn't fired her. Ornery, that was the term she would have used to describe her professional self; pig-ornery, and quite unable to see the forest for the trees.

Apparently, her dealer-contact in Bali had been no better. She realized now that her first instinct had been correct, that she should never have trusted him. How could anyone trust a man named Elsworth Frosby? Why, in fact, had she trusted him? Such an important commission, such a tight turnaround for getting the exhibit up and running! Islands of the Balance: the Masked Tradition of Bali. "A bit shady," that was how Peter Schwartz, from the Getty, had described Elsworth Frosby. "Shady and a mite difficult to read. He's not Balinese, he's not even Dutch - but he gets results. That I promise you. He gets results."

To a degree, Tish conceded that Frosby had done exactly that. He'd procured a veritable family of antique masks, each one boisterous and colorful, exquisite examples of the art. None, however, quite matched her expectations. She'd done her research - carefully, as she always did - and she knew what the parameters were for, say, a typical clown mask. Frosby stretched the limits every time. A mask that ought to have been brown held, instead, a bizarre shade of cobalt blue; two of the tiaras for the Baris dancers came adorned with weird tufts of hair where Tish had expected shells or spangles. Frosby had tried her patience, too, with his adamant refusal to ship directly to the museum. In the second and last of their phone conversations - after abusing a half-dozen interpreters, she'd finally tracked him down at the poolside bar of the Bali Hilton - Frosby had been polite but infuriatingly recalcitrant. "No, no, my dear Mrs. Colson," he purred, in an oily, villainous voice, "a mask is upset enough about spending time in a crate. It would never do to awaken in the dank, stuffy halls of a museum."

"Mr. Frosby, the St. Louis Art Museum is neither dank nor stuffy."

"Acclimation, Mrs. Cohen. A place for re-entry. If you must, think of it as therapy. I believe the insurer's term is 'medically necessary.'"

Tish's response, a derisive snort, would have put the fear of God into most museum collectors, but Frosby only laughed. "I see you doubt my seriousness. Never mind. You will get your money's worth, Mrs. Coogan, you may be sure of that." Tish had been about to jam her proper name, complete with the requisite "Ms.," down Elsworth Frosby's disembodied throat, but the man cut her off by hanging up. "It's Colson, you lunatic," Tish breathed into the deserted receiver. "Colson."

Frosby's attention to her name had not grown over time; on the perfunctory note accompanying the pile of nineteen crates and boxes, he'd addressed her as "Mrs. Conan."

Inside, she found a set of brief, patronizing instructions:

  1. Show respect: sprinkle with holy water from Mount Agung before using
  2. Avoid immersion; prevent immolation
  3. Practice daily
  4. Gaze out, not at
  5. Never hang on walls!

Elsworth Frosby, Esquire
Doctor October

(Collectors at Large)

Collectors at large? Both the bill of lading and the invoice listed Frosby's permanent address as Percival's Grail, a private yacht. As if they could ever collect anything worthwhile from a boat! Still, and despite her contempt, Tish knew better than to inquire as to how Frosby and October had actually obtained these pieces. She had long ago learned that acquisitions, in the museum trade, were much like stocks; the savvy investor knew perfectly well that any play of the market resulted in someone, somewhere, getting stepped on. It was both a moral quandary and an accepted occupational hazard. So what if Frosby had bought these treasures - and they were treasures, all of them, even the dented Barong - for pennies or worse? The point was that he'd found them at all; the point was that he'd saved them. Now the masks could be treasured and protected for millennia. For Tish, ethics could damn well wait until after the show had moved on to Tulsa.

As for the instructions, Tish had crumpled them up and tossed them into the trash. Did Frosby think he was dealing with an amateur? The man was outrageous! Adding legitimate injury to the annoyance of insult, the entire shipment had arrived not only very late on a Friday but at her house instead of the museum, which meant that days would be wasted in the transfer. Precious days, too, with the exhibit set to open Friday next! Tish sighed, ripped another hunk of chocolate from the bar and contemplated quitting. She could go back to teaching. She could run away to Mexico. Or, she could start on dinner. It was her day to cook, and Adam would bounce in the door at any moment, insouciant and cheeky, appallingly energetic, like some demented ape - an ape who expected her to take her turn at the stove without complaint.

Hell, she thought. Lasagna. Take-out.

By midnight, Barong knew that she was not alone, that others had made the journey with her to this sterile, silent building. She could dimly hear a half-dozen frogs, maybe more, croaking out their vows of rowdy love. The frogs grated on Barong's nerves; not only were they beneath her, but they were useless in a crisis. Nor could she count on the clowns. Scratch one even slightly with a kris, and the whole lot would turn tail and run, shouting about how none of it was their concern anyway. We're entertainers, they'd cry, not defenders of the pantheon.

Ah, but then there was Hanuman, the monkey general! Barong felt Hanuman's presence like a physical thing, she could sense Hanuman poking and testing at the confines of a box not unlike the one which held Barong herself. If anyone could discover a means of escape, it would be clever, daring Hanuman. And, not far off, was that Garuda, Lord of the Birds? Old ally, trusted friend! Snake-hater, warrior of the air, beaked and feathered like a rainbow, nearly as great in power as Barong herself.

But hold! What was that? A cold, morbid stench seeping across the floor, emanating from somewhere at the fringes of the room. Barong shuddered. A leyak, it could be nothing else! Leyaks, their faces dull bone-white, had talons of steel and eyes as dead as space. This might be Creluluk herself, the leyak's chill and dreaded matriarch, in which case...

Hesitant now, testing the wind through the flaps of the box, Barong listened, wondering - yes! She was here. Rangda herself, lurking in the shadows. It made sense; Creluluk would not venture so far alone. Not without Rangda, mother of kings turned outcast and witch, the embodiment of wickedness, the hideous Queen of Rot. Rangda, Barong's immortal foe, she who had given Barong her terrible injuries, the bruise with the fist, the cut with the knife! Rangda here, here in this exotic, distant place! The Heavens would rage for this, creation itself would tremble!

Barong forced herself to calmness and focused her mind; one thought burned bright above all others. Had Rangda, too, seen the little girl?

The next morning, five of the neighborhood children sat in a ragged circle on the lawn of Nate Webb's house, poking at an unfortunate ant's nest with dogwood twigs. Katie, who had just been asked that most traditional question of "What do you wanna do?" decided to answer in turn with the easiest accepted response. "I don't know," she said, "what do you wanna do?"

"I asked first," said Nate, playing out his role with bossy relish.

Katie didn't mind that she'd been trumped. She'd fully expected to find the ball back in her court. She made a concerted effort to sound bored and said, without much commitment, "I don't know. We could go to my house. My mom brought some cool stuff home from work."

"Where's your mom work?"

"At the art museum." When this revelation met with blank stares, Katie decided it was time to show her cards. "They're masks," she said. "Like for Halloween."

"Can we wear 'em?" Billy Tavens asked, more than idly curious. He loved Halloween and he loved candy even more; he generally equated the two, and wished passionately that Halloween could come more than once a year.

"Of course we can," said Katie. "That's what masks are for." She hoped she sounded calm, indifferent. She was close, so close! The prospect of wearing the masks was so enticing, it was all she could do to keep still. Would Billy take the bait? It was now or never.

"Okay, cool," said Billy. "Let's get Chester and Laura. Laura's got that old ghost costume..."

The day was warm and windy, not too humid, and Tish and Adam were raking leaves and testing the harmonies of "The Boxer," when suddenly a large bipedal frog darted past, pursued closely by a deathly white leyak. The chase was ethereal, nearly silent, and, in an instant, both of the apparitions were gone, disappeared by the walls of the house and the gnarled old cedar growing by the down spout.

Adam, who hadn't noticed the frog's sad plight, leaned on his rake and stared across the back yard at his home - large and brick, like virtually all the buildings in swank, exclusive Clayton, a place he was still mystified to be living in. Such obvious, excessive wealth confused him; it seemed to him to be almost exotic, foreign, and a long, long way from the childhood soy fields of Fogal, Illinois. And who had decided on such enormous lots and such tremendous trees? Raking leaves in June! It was ridiculous, but he and Tish had been so busy in the fall, and in any case the oaks seemed to drop their leaves year round. Their neighbors expected him to keep a tidy yard, and so here he was, raking away his weekend, dreaming that maybe someday he might cut down the cursed, sloppy trees and turn the whole bunch of them into cheaply made computer hutches -

Adam stopped, drawn up short by a movement in the shrubbery. Something was peeking at him. What was that? Were those... fangs?

"Honey," he said, trying to be nonchalant, "where's Katie?"

"Over at Billy's house. Or maybe the Webb's. She's around." Tish turned to look at Adam with every intention of telling him to get on with it and help her, that the leaves weren't going to rake themselves, but then the image of the chase finally sank in. That hadn't been just any leyak lurching after a frog - dodging around the swing set, leaping over the lip of the slide - that was her leyak!

"Tish, honey, do you see that thing in the forsythia?"

A louder-than-usual squeal of childhood laughter rang out from the front yard and, before the sound was halfway gone, the thing in the bush quickly withdrew in a rustle of stiff green leaves. Tish dropped her rake and then she was off, racing for the driveway. "Adam!" she hollered as she ran, "get over here and help me!"

Adam made a face, gently set his rake against a tree, and jogged half-heartedly after his wife. To hurry anywhere in Clayton seemed positively gauche, as if doing so might insult somebody's mother. Nevertheless, he reached the front yard in good time, and there he stopped. For a long, stupefied moment, his breath refused to return to his body. His peaceful yard had been invaded by strange beast-children from a foreign world, and they were prancing about, some making mad rushes, others darting this way and that, and all of them shrieking and caterwauling to wake the dead. That one there, that was a frog, no question about it, snub-nosed and smooth, with fat-black eyes - except that the frog child had dressed himself up in convict's clothes, complete with a plastic ball and chain. And there, trying hopelessly to clamber up the sycamore, wasn't that little Nate Webb? But somehow, the boy's face had grown a great bushy mustache and two enormous eyebrows. Even more shocking was the collection of hissing, bone-faced creatures waving garden-gloved hands at Nate's retreating sneakers. Their tusked, bloody-lipped faces all matched, but their costumes did not; Nate was besieged by a pink ballerina, a t-shirt tuxedo and a chubby little Iraq vet.

All of this paled in comparison to the sight of Tish, who stood in the middle of the costumed frenzy, spinning this way and that like an uncertain top. Suddenly, one of the children, burdened by a homemade potato costume, wobbled unsteadily into the back of Tish's legs. Tish responded by bodily tackling the potato-child and ripping off the girl's white, lotus-topped mask. The potato, a gawky six year-old named Megan Holmes, had never before been pinned by an adult and, finding herself flat on her back, she let out a thin, terrified wail.

"Tish!" Adam yelled. "What are you doing? Get off her!"

Tish whirled to face him without getting up; she clutched Megan's purloined mask in one outstretched hand and shook it at her husband. "Dammit, Adam!" she spat. "This is Frosby's shipment! They're playing with them!"

Barong raced through the fray, exulting in the thrill of combat, the resumption of the cosmic dance. She leaped into the air, kicking all four of her legs - somehow Katie had known that Barong must have two bodies, currently conjoined by an encompassing bedspread - and then she shuffled back and forth along the cobbled walk, scanning this way and that, seeking for Rangda amidst the noise and the chaos and the remains of the trampled petunias. Ah, to feel again the wearer's gaze! To direct the flow of battle!

And there, at last, there was Rangda herself, red-faced and slavering, newly fetched from the temple doorway and still struggling to hold her mask on straight. Barong scuttled forward, lolling her massive tongue and puffing her cheeks, hoping to frighten the witch; she circled, seeking the advantage, wagging her head and giggling with childish ecstasy. She kept her feet stuck sideways, legs turned out, hands on knees, ready to pounce, but Rangda, after bounding ferociously down the three small stairs, scooted away and hid behind the lamp post.

Cars stopped on the street to watch as the children capered and the two adults wrestled on the lawn, tugging back and forth at Sanghyang Tjintiya's lotus crown - as if they could hope to keep hold of He Who Cannot Be Defined! Garuda soared across the grass on unseen wings and Hanuman, fresh from defeating a pair of Rangda's kris-wielding warriors, tried to leap the azaleas by jumping off the porch swing. Barong threw back her head and let out a triumphant whoop, for it was just like old times but better, better because life had spilled over from the fire-lit villages and the remote dancing circles and entered the wide, wide world, and then Barong chased Rangda all the way to the basement, where they both collapsed on the couch, helpless with laughter, and proceeded to hide their leering faces, not at the bottom of the toy chest - too easy! - but in the space behind the paneling, the secret place which only Katie knew, where Mom would never, never find them.

1 comment:

  1. I liked the descriptive writing and the two different narratives of the humans and the masks. It was also a very original idea (to me at least) of how masks have their own lives, consciousness and stories, but I also like how the last paragraph the focus goes back on Katie herself. Great work!