The Century Carver

Kopag dropped his sharp chiseling knife, almost slicing open his own leg—and all because he'd detected a strange smell coming from the direction of the door, an aroma of dry leaves and damp wood. Odd, where was it coming from, this smell that made him feel so agitated? It wafted closer.

"Who's there?"

"It's me, Srenggi."

"Srenggi? Srenggi who?!" Kopag was trembling with trepidation now. The smell was coming closer and he was finding it hard to breathe. His hands were bereft; he needed his chiseling tools. His mind conjured up images of sharp knives. Kopag trembled as the smell exposed him to the reality of being a man.

"Tell me who you are!"

"I am the one who will serve all your needs—from this moment on, till the end of time." The voice sounded nervous.

"What did you say your name was?" Kopag began to calm down a little.

"Srenggi," the voice quivered. It was the voice of a woman. What was happening to him? Kopag cursed himself. He had the strange sensation of suddenly being submerged in the ocean. The voice seemed to be full of honesty, compassion and sincerity. Kopag was sure his judgment was right: this was the one, the woman he'd been seeking for centuries. And now God had sent her for him. A woman, was that really the voice of a woman?

When Kopag went to pick up his cane, Srenggi quickly stepped in to help. Their hands touched, increasing Kopag's anxiety. The woman's skin felt like bark. Surely her beauty rivaled that of a tree trunk, she was more beautiful than the most sacred pile of timber.

For the first time Kopag felt able to enjoy life. He was able to provide an objective evaluation of the living creature known as man. Usually he was treated as an object, merely subject to the decisions of the people closest to him, submitting to whatever was said by those around him. This time he felt that he had encountered a truth that was different from that developed by people who used their own truth as a personal yardstick.

"Is truth always manifested on earth in a homogeneous form?" Kopag had asked his servant Gubreg with a trembling voice. "Even when I'm judging beauty, do I have to use their criteria?"

"Their criteria? I'm not convinced that they're capable of genuinely seeing the beauty of life!" Kopag's voice was tense; his thoughts in a muddle!

Kopag was aware, intensely aware. Although, of course, it was no cause for celebration to have been born blind. His eyes would never see a woman. But are people born complete with all their senses capable of capturing all the secrets of this life—secrets that are held onto and kept hidden by nature? Would it be wrong if Kopag were suddenly to encounter extraordinary beauty in Srenggi? A beauty that he could see with his thoughts and feelings? Would that be wrong?

The beauty of this young woman was extraordinary. The indentations of her body and her face resembled those in a piece of timber. She was timber of exquisite beauty. It was odd that other people were unable to see her loveliness, to appreciate the beauty that nature had entrusted to her. Even old Gubreg made no comment when Kopag praised the prettiness of this eighteen-year-old girl. What was wrong with the criteria he had used to judge her beauty?

As a boy, life had imposed the label "Ida Bagus Madé" onto Kopag, so that people would recognize him and be able to distinguish him from others. He was the second son in the richest family in the compound. The title "Ida Bagus" indicated that he was of the brahmana caste, the highest caste in the Balinese social structure. His father was a highly respected man who held an important government position. He also owned dozens of painting and sculpture galleries. Unfortunately he had a wandering eye. He was an animal, an appalling one. People used to say that any woman was fair game for him. It didn't bother him whether she was beautiful or not, healthy or not; for Kopag's father, any creature with a hole could be entered. One day, after an absence of many months, he came home in a sickening state. He was thin and pale. Before long his debts began to mount. His wealth evaporated. And in those circumstances he forced his wife to have sex with him. She resisted. She knew he would impregnate her with the seed of an animal. But what is the power of a woman? Especially since, from an early age, she had been educated to become a noblewoman who would respect her husband. She became pregnant—and died giving birth to a baby boy.

Being born blind was redemption of a kind, considering the circumstances of his birth. How miraculous it would be if life could be acted out, turned into a performance. Like a piece of timber with its captivating curves, Srenggi's body was where life was created for this man who, ever since his first encounter with the aroma of the earth and life, could feel only darkness as his language, his life. The life that Kopag so frequently cursed turned out to be quite democratic in fact. It gave him qualities that others could not possibly possess. He could transform a piece of dry wood into a work of art that attracted the elite of the art world. Kopag had reinvented the idea of artistic endeavor. He didn't just carve wood; he carved his thoughts, his brain, and his dreams as well. For the first time, nature had surrendered to his power, just as Kopag had surrendered to the blindness that was his constant companion.

Kopag drew a deep breath. He touched the dry wood that always accompanied him wherever he went. To be honest, Kopag loved the wood that had introduced him to his world. The world he wanted. Solitude fenced in by beauty—without the sound of his sister-in-law harping.

"What can that blind brother of yours do? Tell me? He's a bloody nuisance!" The young woman's voice always set his nerves on edge. She was always making a fuss about something. He'd trodden on the plants in the side garden, or his cane had got tangled up with the bougainvillea that that gasbag of a woman had just planted, or the plates and glasses were in the wrong place in the kitchen.

His sister-in-law's voice constantly rang in his ears. How could a woman that everyone said was so beautiful and elegant speak with such a foul mouth? Her screech was enough to blunt his chiseling knives. Her name was Ni Luh Putu Sari but because she hadn't been born into the brahmana caste she had had to change her name to Jero Melati. A member of the commoner sudra caste, she had married Kopag's brother and had thus become a member of their noble family.

Outsiders only knew her extraordinary physical beauty and her much-lauded skin; in short, her body was one that all the men talked about. Kopag often wondered whether human beings could ever share a genuinely objective set of views. How could this incredibly crude and carping woman be the one all the men adored?

In Kopag's view, she was the perfect example of a playactor. She had been focused on joining a brahmana family. In her absolute commitment to assuming the role of the wife of a brahmana, she had to demonstrate to everyone in the village her right to join the family. Kopag had sensed this the first time his sister-in-law greeted him. Her hands felt like those of a rotting corpse. Every time she opened her mouth, Kopag could smell the rancid stench of blood, a smell that leaped from those lips that were apparently so sweet, so red, so perfect. Even Gubreg, the faithful servant who had looked after Kopag since he was a child, commented on how lucky his brother was to have married the most beautiful girl in the village.

Gubreg also talked about the beautiful skin of Ni Luh Putu Sari, now known as Jero Melati, on account of her having married into a high caste family. Her bearing, he said, resembled that of the daughters of the Balinese king.

"She really is extraordinarily beautiful."

"Describe her to me, Gubreg. Tell me everything in detail. I want to know what she's like, and I want to feel it too. For the moment, I'll trust your eyes."

The old man fell silent. He looked deep into Kopag's eyes. A pain fluttered in his chest. Ida Bagus Madé Kopag had a very fine body. He was tall and exceptionally skilled with his hands. Since he'd been a small boy, his grandfather alone had taught him how to work with wood, to better acquaint him with life. On occasion, a teacher would be brought in to teach him to read.

"The boy is blind, Gubreg. He's paying for the sins of his father. When I watch his development I am constantly reminded of the things that my son did. His karma has fallen to his own son. My grandson will know darkness for all eternity. I still believe that we can learn from such a life. You see it, don't you? Life has given him an extraordinary gift. My grandson is in possession of all the eyes of everyone on this earth. See how he produces perfectly carved statues. Look after him well, Gubreg. Think of him as your own son!" That had been Ida Bagus Rai's last instruction before he passed away.

"Gubreg, you haven't answered my question. Tell me what she's like. Is she like this piece of banyan wood—cold, but still appealing? Can you see, Gubreg, how it moves me? Gubreg, what is this feeling that overcomes me so often, is that what it feels like to be a man? Is that a sign of masculinity?" Kopag spoke slowly.

God in Heaven! Master of the universe! Kopag had grown up; he was approaching his twenty-fifth birthday. He loved reading his Braille books. And from time to time, the Frenchman Frans Kafkasau would pay him a visit.

The middle-aged Kafkasau got on Gubreg's nerves, with all the things he always brought with him. Sometimes he would read foreign books to Kopag, books he'd translated, about Michelangelo Buanorotti who Frans said was a famous Renaissance sculptor.

It was hard. Too hard. Every since he'd gotten to know Frans, Kopag would ask Gubreg all manner of questions.

"Aren't you going to answer my question, Gubreg?"

"Don't ask me weird things, master. I can't explain things like Frans can. Why don't you ask him?" Gubreg's voice was heavy with envy.

The old man was quick-tempered these days. It didn't take much to fire him up. A single sound uttered by the Frenchman was enough to make his stomach churn. It made him so mad! Kopag no longer had any time to talk about things. The Frenchman had given him a new sort of education, a different perspective on the world. Kopag didn't need Gubreg any more. The old man felt that something was missing inside him. Kopag had always been as much a part of him as his own breath. Ever since Kopag was a child, it was Gubreg who had taught him about the texture of wood. He transferred everything he knew about carving to the body of the powerless little boy. It was Gubreg who taught Kopag that all things have souls, including his rows of chiseling knives. And Gubreg taught him how to bring out the best in the knives and savor the aroma of their sharpness. He still remembered Kopag's cry when he first touched those naked knives; he had been seven years old at the time.

"Gubreg, I tremble every time I touch these knives. Their sharpness, it's so beautiful. So mysterious. It's extraordinary, Gubreg."

The sun's rays flashed off the edges of the chiseling knives. Gubreg noticed how the powerful rays scattered and died away the moment they touched the sharp edge of each knife. The knife's brilliance seemed to challenge that of the sun. In Kopag's hands the knife became cold, arrogant, and hungry.

Despite pondering it until almost midnight, Gubreg couldn't answer the question about what it means to be a man. What were these feelings struggling inside Kopag's body? Gubreg was afraid—afraid of answering the question about the true meaning of masculinity.

Kopag was already in his studio bright and early in the morning.

"I need to talk to you." Kopag's voice was laden with curiosity.

"About what, master?"

"About the beauty of a woman."

"I…I can't talk to you about the beauty of a woman. Everyone makes their own judgment about it. A woman…"

Gubreg's voice broke off. He drew several breaths. He understood. He knew what was happening. He too was a man and had felt the stirrings of desire upon first encountering his own humanness. It was such an onerous thing, so unsettling, when his body began to need, to crave the body of another to feast upon. That feeling suddenly reemerged in his own brain and his brittle bones began to connect him to his past once more.

At the time Gubreg was a disheveled fourteen-year-old. He was often given the task of escorting Dayu Centaga when she went to bathe in the Badung river. Her body was like a snake, encircling and squeezing his body. His legs would cramp every time her wet body emerged from the water, encased in a sarong. Her white feet made his brain explode. And on top of all that, she would always get Gubreg to scrub her back with a river stone. Until this day Gubreg could still sense her aroma on his body, a scent that could not be erased by the borrowed time that he lived on. Over time Gubreg was wracked by extraordinary pain. He was anxious, wounded from a sort of misplaced hunger. As a commoner male he knew that he could never possess the body of a brahmana woman. A woman he had put on a pedestal, a woman he greatly respected. There wasn't a soul with whom he could talk about his anxiety; he was nobody, a man who lived off the compassion of Dayu Centaga's family. Every time he thought about the barriers between himself and Dayu Centaga, Gubreg felt as if someone was boring holes into his body. Often he would wake up in the middle of the night, breathing fast. Gubreg realized that his hunger could no longer be contained. He became pale. The brahmana family sought out a balian for him.

The old ritual healer cast her spells. Gubreg's body was encircled by smoke which restricted his breathing. The balian explained that Gubreg had thrown rubbish on the river's edge. The river god happened to be resting at the time. The balian went on to say that the river god had also wanted to get his hands on Dayu Centaga. Thanks to Gubreg's efforts, she had been unharmed. And Gubreg incurred the wrath of the river god. In order to restore Gubreg's health, the brahmana family took an offering to the river god.

Gubreg could not talk about his male yearnings. He did not resist when the balian bathed him at the edge of the river. She said it was so that evil spirits would leave the family be. Out of respect for the brahmana family, Gubreg was prepared to undergo the ceremony.

Nobody knew that the healer's communications with the spirit world were false. Gubreg was not sick, and he hadn't been possessed by an evil spirit. He could feel the changes in his body, the current within him no longer resembled the flowing of a river, it was more like floodwater. And Gubreg knew that the water in his body needed an estuary. He felt a deep and powerful love for Dayu Centaga. It was a love that rendered him rigid, cold, and no longer able to enjoy normal human diversions. To this day, approaching his seventy-fifth birthday, Gubreg was still faithful to the Griya family. Without a wife, without the passion of a man.

So Gubreg could understand why Kopag was asking about beauty. Nature had entrusted something awe-inspiring to him.

Gubreg looked closely at Kopag's body as he finished his carving.

"Gubreg, you haven't answered my question yet," said Kopag slowly. He took several breaths. "Gubreg, do you remember what Frans said?"

"What in particular?"

"He said that my wild manner of creating the human form from wood reminded him of Picasso's Guernica. Basically I'm curious, Gubreg. Why does the wood always draw me into a discussion, a dialogue, encourage me to debate, to think? It's a consuming curiosity that overwhelms my brain, my hands, and my body, and even works its way into my dreams. Dreams of the tree with its growing branches, and its body, until in the end its timbers find themselves in my hands. I have my own dreams, too, about those fragments of wood. Frans and one of his friends once told me that my carvings of women were perfect. Very surrealistic, they said. The beauty of the women that I portray in wood reminded Frans of the passion of Martha Graham, who used her whole body to bring into being the character she was playing. I feel the beauty of the women through my fingertips, Gubreg. Wood and knives have given me different eyes."

Gubreg said nothing. He was trying to come to terms with the very private and very profound thing that Kopag was trying to convey. Kopag had been taught to endeavor to understand life. In fact Gubreg was willing to let the boy steal, page by page, the secrets of the journey and pain he himself had endured as a man whose whole life had been dedicated to serving others.

Thanks to Kopag, the extended family managed to recover from their debts. Kopag's carved statues were in great demand and drew a great deal of interest from both local and overseas collectors. And now all was calm within the family. Jero Melati had stopped her nagging; she was at liberty to spend Kopag's money however she pleased. Kopag's brother had even been able to open a big sculpture gallery, which was the most highly regarded in Bali, on account of the rigorous selection process it subjected potential exhibits to. Last month, the gallery had received funding support from Germany and France.

Gubreg never knew what Kopag wanted. The young man never attached any meaning to having money, or not having it. The only thing that Gubreg had picked up on was that Kopag needed a woman.

"We need to find a wife for the boy," Gubreg's voice was very guarded. Jero Melati smiled when she heard Gubreg's words.

"How about he marries the girl I've picked out for him."

"You've already chosen someone?"

"I have. I've been thinking about it for a long time."

"Who?"

"My sister," she replied seriously. Gubreg stared sharply at the woman. For the first time he sensed that this beautiful body was enveloped by an evil force. Kopag was right; she was not a good woman. She was driven by a desire for status.

"Surely you can convince him that my sister is the right woman for him." The tone of her voice verged on a command. Gubreg did not respond. He knew that Jero Melati's sister was a wild and wicked woman. Rumor had it that she sold her own body. Unthinkable! But she was very beautiful. Unfortunately, she couldn't tolerate being poor. Whereas, poverty, if one makes a commitment to it, has its own beauty.

"Gubreg, I want to talk to you!" This time Kopag's voice was serious. Gubreg did his best to figure out where the conversation was headed. Five minutes passed with not a word. Pacing the room, Kopag seemed distracted.

"My Lord, what is it you want? Don't be afraid. You seem very distressed."

"I am, Gubreg. I want to get married." Kopag's voice was very serious indeed.

"I hope you'll forgive me, my Lord, but I've already discussed this with Jero and your brother."

"And what did they say."

"They agree. In fact they've chosen a future wife for you."

Gubreg raised his head, keen to see Kopag's face light up. But strangely, the face remained as impassive as stone.

"I've already chosen my wife. And this time nothing will change it!"

"Who is it?"

"Srenggi!"

"My Lord…?" Gubreg felt as if he was suffocating. Srenggi…? Were his old ears deceiving him? Wasn't Srenggi the woman who attended to all Kopag's needs, cleaned his studio, prepared his meals and fetched his chiseling knives for him? She wasn't a woman. She was more like a horrible monster—lame, stooped over, with a hump on her back. And she had but one good eye; all that remained of her left one was the socket. Her face was a pitiful sight. Her skin was rough. God in Heaven! What had possessed Kopag? Did he have no idea of the meaning of beauty? Gubreg took a deep breath and clutched his chest.

"I've been taking her to bed every night, Gubreg. Her body is a hollow in a piece of wood. Her skin is bark. Do you know that when I fell into her body, I was swallowed up and I disappeared? She is the most beautiful woman, even more beautiful than my timbers. When she is naked, no knife can rival her sharpness. She is the one who honed this male body of mine."

Gubreg collapsed, a chiseling knife in his bony chest.