They told me I had powers.
Powers? I had been a magician for seven years, performing steadily back in the States, entertaining in clubs and restaurants throughout the country, yet I had never heard anyone mention powers. To be sure, once or twice a season I was rebuked by some spectator fresh out of Bible school for “doing the work of Satan,” but the more customary refrain was: “How did you do that?” Every evening in the clubs: “How? How did that happen?” “C’mon tell us — how does that work?”
“I don’t know,” I took to saying, mostly out of boredom, yet also because I felt there was some grain of truth in that statement, because there was some aspect of my sleight-of-hand tricks that mystified even myself. It was not something I could experience when rehearsing alone, at home, or when practicing my sleights before a mirror. But when, in the evening, I would stand before my audience, letting my fingers run through one of their routines with some borrowed coins, and I’d see the spectators’ eyes slowly widening with astonishment, well, there was something astonishing about that for me as well, although I was unable to say just what it was.
When I received a fellowship to support a year’s research on the intertwining of magic and medicine in Asia, I thought I might have a chance to explore the secrets that lay hidden within my own magic, or at least to discern what mysteries my magic had in common with the magic used in traditional cultures not merely for entertainment but for healing, fortification, and transformation. I was intending to use my skills as a Western sleight-of-hand magician to gain access to the native practitioners not as an academic researcher, not as an anthropologist or sociologist, but as a magician in my own right, and in this manner would explore the relation between ritual and transformation from the inside.
As it turned out, this method worked well — at first almost too well, for the potency which my magic tricks took on in rural Asia brought some alarming difficulties. In the interior of Sri Lanka, where I began my quest, I was rather too open with my skills; anxious as I was to get some sense of the local attitude towards magic, I began performing on village street-corners much as I had three years earlier while journeying as a street magician through Europe. But these were different streets now, so much more earth-worn and dusty than those concrete thoroughfares, reeking with smells of incense and elephants, frequented as much by gods and demons as by the human inhabitants of the island. Within a week after I began plucking handkerchiefs from the air, “the young magician from the West” was known throughout the country. Huge crowds followed me wherever I went, and I was approached, constantly, by persons in the grip of disease, by persons blind and crippled, all asking me to cure them with my powers. What a frightful, saddening position to be in! When, like a fool, I attempted to show that my magic feats were but illusions accomplished by dexterous manipulations, I only insulted these people — clearly, to them, I was using such clumsy explanations to disguise and hide my real powers. I fled Sri Lanka after only three weeks, suffering from a severe case of ethical paradox, determined to begin my work afresh in Indonesia, where I would above all keep my magic more to myself.
It was five months later, after carefully immersing myself in the Indonesian island universe, observing and recording the patterns of culture while slowly, inadvertently, slipping into those patterns myself — my body and voice startling me with their natural appropriation of gestures and rhythms that I had thought so alien — it was only at this point that I first allowed myself a chance to explore the more unusual possibilities of my position. For five months I had been true to my resolve, keeping my magic much more “up my sleeve” than I had in Sri Lanka, letting it out only rarely — waiting for just the right moments to make something impossible happen, and for only a few people at a time, perhaps in a tea stall or while sauntering past the rice paddies, yet never calling attention to it, and in this manner slowly and much more surely weaving my way into the animist fabric of the society. I had the sense that I was becoming known in the region, but in a more subtle and curious manner than before — here and there I had begun to hear stories about a Westerner, glimpsed on the far side of the island, who actually had access to the invisible world, to the spirits. Gradually I had been contacted by a number of dukuns, or sorcerers, often in some clandestine manner, through a child or a friend, and asked to visit them in their homes. The initial meetings had been strained, sometimes frightening, for these practitioners felt their status threatened by a stranger who could so easily produce shells from the air or make knives vanish between his hands. And I, in return, felt threatened by the resultant antagonism — I did not want these magicians to view me as their competitor, for I knew the incredible power of the imagination and had no wish to be the victim of any dark spells (when I came down with a nightmarish case of malaria I was sure, in my delirium, that I had brought it upon myself by offending a particular sorcerer). As the months unfolded, I had learned not to shy away from, but to work with these tensions, and had become adept at transforming the initial antagonism into some sort of mutual respect, at times into a real sense of camaraderie. I had lived with a sorcerer-healer in Java and traded magic with a balian tapakan, or spirit medium, in Bali, both of whom were convinced that my presence in their household enhanced their own access to the gods and accentuated their power as healers. But that is another story.
On a certain early monsoon day I sat in a rice stall in a small fishing village on the north coast of Bali. With the rainy season finally breaking overhead, all the Balinese greens were beginning to leak into the air. Inside, the old woman was serving rice across the wooden slab of a counter to two solemn fishermen; in the corner of the hut three others were laughing and conversing in low Balinese. The downpour outside stopped abruptly; now other sounds — dogs fighting in the distance, someone singing. I stood up to pay the woman, counting out the correct number of coins and reaching across to drop them into her hand. I opened my fingers — the coins were not there! The woman and I looked at each other, astonished. I turned my empty hands over several times, looked on the dirt floor behind me, and then, struck by an idea, I reached under my rice-bowl and . . . found the coins. Feigning relief, I took them up and reached across to hand them to the bewildered woman — except that the coins were missing, once again, when I opened my fist. By now the men in the corner had stopped talking and the two at the counter had paused in the middle of their meal, watching as I became more and more annoyed, searching the floor and the bench without finding my money. One of the fishermen suggested that I look under my bowl again. Of course! I lifted up my bowl … but the coins were not there. Upset, I stared at the others. One of them backed slowly into the street. I shrugged my shoulders sadly at the woman, then caught sight of the two half-filled rice bowls resting in front of the other men at the counter. I motioned, hesitantly, for one of the fishermen, his eyebrows arched in puzzlement, to lift up his bowl. He looked ’round at the others, then gingerly raised one edge of the bowl . . . there they were! The coins glittered on the palmwood as the fishermen began shouting at each other, incredulous. The old woman was doubled over with laughter.
The man who had uncovered the coins stared at me long and hard. As the others drifted out onto the street, still shouting, this man shoved his rice aside, leaned over to me and asked, in Indonesian, if I would be so kind as to accompany him to meet his family. Something urgent in his voice intrigued me; I nodded. He paid the old woman, who clapped me on the shoulder as we left, and led me down the street toward the beach. He turned off to the right before reaching the sand, and I followed him through the rice paddies, balancing like a tight-rope walker on one of the dikes that separate the flooded squares.
To our left the village spread itself out along the shore; a young woman nursed an infant, smoke rose from cooking fires, three pigs rummaged through a pile of rags and wood. The man turned to the left between two paddies and led me through a makeshift gate into his family compound. Children were playing. He motioned me inside one of the two buildings — his brother lives in the other, he explained — where a young woman sat with a child on her lap. Before I could make a formal greeting, the fisherman pushed his wife and child out the door, slinging a blanket over the doorway and another over the window. He sat me down in the dark, offered a Javanese cigarette, lit one for himself, then sat down next to me, cross-legged on the floor.
He gripped my ankle as he began to explain his situation. He spoke quickly, but in broken Indonesian, which was good, since I could never have followed his story had he spoken so quickly in Balinese. Essentially, what he had to say was this: That he was a poor and ignorant fisherman blessed with a loving wife and many children, and that despite his steady and enthusiastic propitiation of the local gods and ancestors he had been able to catch hardly any fish during the last six months. This was especially upsetting since before that time he had been one of the most successful fishermen in the village, and besides — he said — it was evident to everyone in the village that his present difficulties were the result of some left-handed magic; clearly a demon had been induced by some sorcery to take up residence in the hull of his fishing-boat, and was now frightening the fish away from his nets. Furthermore, he knew that another fisherman in the village had secretly obtained a certain talisman from a priest, a magic shell which made this other man’s boat fill up with fish whenever he took it out on the water. And so perhaps I, who obviously knew about such things and had some powers of my own, would be willing to work some special magic on his boat so that he could once again catch enough fish to feed his family.
Now, it was clear that this man was both honest and in earnest (his grip on my poor ankle had increased considerably), but I had been in this position before, and though less disconcerted by it than I had been five months earlier, I was still reluctant to play very deeply within the dream-space of a culture that was not my own. And so I explained to Gedé (the one of his many names with which I could most properly address him) that my magic was only good for things like making coins vanish or causing fruit to appear (I plucked a small banana, ripe, out of the darkness and handed it to him, making him laugh), that my magic was useless when it came to really practical matters, and that in any case I had never worked with fish but was sure, since they could breathe underwater and all, that their own powers were even more potent than mine — if a demon was frightening them away, he or she was certainly beyond my influence. Gedé nodded in agreement, released my ankle, and changed the subject. After a few minutes he led me to the door-way and thanked me for coming.
I felt sure that I had convinced him with my excuses. But perhaps I had failed to take into account the Balinese habit of self-effacement before accepting praise (“Saya bodoh”— “I am stupid,” any Balinese healer will reply to the assertion that he or she is skillful), including, apparently, the praise and respect implied in being offered a difficult task. Unaware, I walked along the beach toward the little bamboo hut I had procured for the night. As the sun sank into the land, the moon rose from the ocean, pale white, nearly full. In the distance, between the rising and the lowering, sat the great volcano, silently looming on the horizon . . . That night I had difficulty falling asleep. A weird symphony of chirping crickets accompanied the chorus of frogs gurgling in unison outside my hut. Sometimes this loud music stopped all at once — then just the faint lapping of waves and the afternoon rain dripping off the night leaves.
Toward midnight I was awakened by a persistent tapping at the window. I stumbled to my feet and lifted the thin slab of wood — there was Gedé, grinning nervously. He hissed that we must attempt the magic now, while the others were asleep. In an instant I understood the situation — that Gedé was not taking “no” for an answer, or rather that he had taken my refusal as an acceptance — and I found myself, oddly enough, giving in to the challenge this time without hesitation. Wrapping a sarong around myself, I recalled the dream from which Gedé’s tapping had awakened me: I had been back in the States, performing strange, hypnotic magic for seamonsters in a nightclub that was actually an aquarium. Just before waking, I had heard one monster applauding; his clapping had become the tapping at my window. Now, looking around, hastily, for something to use, I grabbed an empty Coke bottle I had tossed in the corner, then — on an inspiration — dug in my backpack for some flashpaper I’d brought from the States. (Flashpaper is a common tool of the stage-magician; thin paper that has been soaked in a magnesium solution, when crumpled and ignited it goes up in a sudden, bright flash of flame, leaving no ashes behind — wonderful stuff.) I shoved the flashpaper into a fold in my sarong and, gripping the Coke bottle, hurried outside where Gedé was fidgeting anxiously. When he saw me, he turned and led the way down to the beach.
We walked quickly along the water’s edge to where the boats were resting on the sand, their long, painted hulls gleaming in the moon-glow. As we walked, Gedé whispered to me that the fishermen don’t go out fishing on nights when the moon is full or nearly full, since the fish can then see the nets. Only on such a night as this could we accomplish the magic in secret, while the other fishermen slept . . . He stopped before a sleek blue and white boat, somewhat longer than most of the others, and motioned me to help him. We lifted the bamboo outriggers — he on one side, myself on the other — and slid the craft into the dark water. I hopped back onto the beach and scooped my Coke bottle full of the black, volcanic sand, then waded back out and climbed into the boat with Gedé. Really a long dugout canoe with limbs — the two bamboo outriggers and a short, rough-hewn mast near the bow — it rested on the swells while Gedé unrolled a white triangle of sail and hoisted it from a beam on the mast. The breeze rose up and the boat glided effortless and silent into the night. Overhead, the moon drifted behind a cloud and set the whole cloud glowing. The volcano, luminous, watched and waited.
In the Balinese universe the volcano provides a sort of gateway to and from the upper world, the world of the ancestors, of the gods. The sea, meanwhile, provides the passage to the lower world of demons; these mischievous and sometimes destructive forces are known to reside in the black depths of the waters which surround the island. Consequently, those islanders who live near the shore, and especially the fishermen who make their living on the water, are a highly nervous and wary bunch, and they partake even more than the average Balinese of the animistic rites and ceremonies of protection for which the island is famous. At this point in my journey I was only beginning to sense what I would later see clearly; namely, that while the magicians of all traditional cultures are working fundamentally toward the same mystery, still the magic of each culture takes its structure from the particular clues of the region, that is, from the particular powers of earth to be found there — whether volcanoes, or wind, or ocean, or desert — for magic evolves from the land.
The wind shifted, became cooler. I moved close to where Gedé sat in the stern guiding the rudder, and asked him why it was so necessary for us to work in secret. “So other fishermen not jealous,” he explained softly. He lit himself a cigarette. After some time I turned away from him and slipped a piece of flashpaper, crumpled, into the mouth of the Coke bottle. The beach was a thin silver line in the distance. I told Gedé that I thought we were out far enough for the magic to take effect, and he agreed. As I took down the sail, I wedged the rest of the flashpaper under a splinter near the top of the mast. Gedé heaved an anchor over the side, then settled back into the stern, watching me carefully.
How to improvise an exorcism? I leaned with my back against the mast, emptying my mind of thoughts, feeling the rock and sway of this tiny boat on the night waters. Small waves slapped against the hull, angrily at first, then softer, more playful, curious. Gradually something regular established itself — the swaying took on a rhythm, a steady rock and roll that grew in intensity as my body gave in to the dance. Phosphorescent algae glimmered like stars around me. The boat became a planet, and I leaned with my back against the axis of the world, a tree with roots in the ocean and branches in the sky, tilting, turning. Without losing the rhythm, I began to move toward the rear of the boat, keeping it rocking, swinging the bottle of black sand around myself in circles, from one hand to the other. When I reached Gedé I took the cigarette from his hand, puffed on it deeply once or twice, then touched the lit end to the mouth of the bottle.
A white flash of fire exploded from the bottle with a “Whooshh,” propelled by the pressure in-side, a wild spirit lunging for air! Gedé sat bolt upright, with his arms quivering, grasping the sides of the hull. I motioned for him to cup his hands — he did so, and I tipped the bottle down, pouring a small mound of spirit-sand onto his fingers. There were little platforms affixed symmetrically around the hull, platforms upon which Gedé, when fishing, would place his lanterns to coax the fish up from the depths. I moved around to each of them, nine in all, the cardinal points of this drifting planet, and carefully anointed each one with a mound of sand. I then sat myself down in the bottom of the carved-out hull and planted my hands against the wood, against the inside of that hollowed-out tree, waiting to make contact with whatever malevolent presence slumbered beneath the chiseled surface. I felt the need for a sound, for some chant to keep the rhythm, but I could think of nothing appropriate, until a bit of Jewish liturgy sprang to my lips from somewhere, perhaps from my own initiation at age thirteen. I sang softly. The planet heaved and creaked, the hollow tree rolled from side to side, the upright tree with roots in the sea swung like a pendulum against moon-edged clouds. At some point the moon itself rolled out from a cloud-pocket and the whole mood shifted — sharp shadows slid back and forth across the wood. Somewhere inside me another planet turned; I began to feel slightly sick. I stood up and began weaving from one side of the boat to the other, sweeping the mounds of sand off the platforms. When I came to the fisherman, I reached into the sky above him and produced another cigarette, already lit, from the dark. I felt a fever flushing my forehead and cheeks. I held the cigarette first to his mouth, then to my own, as we each took a puff on it; I held mine in, walked back rather dizzily, and blew a long line of smoke from the bottom to the top of the mast. Then I touched the cigarette to the paper wedged in up among the invisible branches. A rush of flame shot into the sky. Instantly I felt better — the fever dissipated, the turning stopped, the little boat rocked on the waves.
I turned to Gedé and nodded. A wide grin broke across his face; he tossed the sand, still cupped in his hands, over his head into the water. We drew anchor, hoisted the sail, and tacked back to the village with Gedé singing gaily at the rudder.
I had to leave the coast the next day to begin work with a healer in the interior, but I promised Gedé that I would return in a month or so to check on the results of my impromptu exorcism.
It was five weeks later that I returned, with gathering trepidation, to the fishing village. I found Gedé waiting for me with open arms. I was introduced to his family, presented with gifts, and stuffed with food. The magic had been successful. The fishing business was thriving, as was apparent from the new gate and the new building Gedé had had built to house the family kitchen. After the meal, Gedé took me aside to tell me of his new ideas, projects which he could accomplish if only he had a little magic help. I backed off gracefully, paid my respects, and left the village, feeling elated and strange.
I am scribbling the last words of this story at a table in the small Vermont night-club where I have been performing magic this winter. Tonight I was doing mostly card magic, with some handkerchiefs and coin stuff thrown in for good measure. Some hours ago, a woman grabbed my arm. “How? ” she gasped. “How did you do that?”
“I really don’t know,” I told her.
I think there’s something honest in that.