JENNIFER JEANNE MCARDLE
Living with Creepy, Crawly Things
In a village in East Java, I witnessed a horse spirit possession dance. Men and teenage boys wore horse shaped cut-outs around their waists as they danced, stomping their feet and bowing their heads. A crowd of people, which included locals and visiting Americans, watched them while older men beat on drums until the boys’ eyes rolled back, and they could tolerate eating a dark green, slimy slop that was fed to them. Lightning flashed in the dark sky. A man snarled and chased us Americans down the dirt path back to our homes.
Months later, while we sat in hammocks, listening to crickets and motorcycles zoom by, and drinking instant coffee, some young men in West Java told me that had been possessed by a demon during their childhoods. They couldn’t give details of exactly what that meant no matter how many questions I asked. It was rude of me, perhaps, to dig at their past trauma. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe them—I could relate to feeling as though you lost yourself for months at a time. I just wanted to understand.
From March 2014 until June 2016, I served in the Peace Corps in Indonesia. Where I lived in West Java, most people were still rice farmers, we didn’t have running water in most of the house, and the electricity would often go out. Because this was a tropical climate, there were plenty of insects and animals around, and because the house had gaps between the roof and the walls and the windows and doors were old, there were plenty of places for those animals and insects to come inside.
I am a spoiled American from a colder climate; I started this experience living in terror, not of people, spirits or demons, but of the animals that might crawl on me in the middle of the night. I could spend hours watching chirping crickets and lines of tiny marching ants. The tickles I felt on my skin could be beads of sweat or little ants that liked to bite. Often, I could hear the skittering of roach legs across the tiled floor (they were a few inches long and could fly), the squeaking of mice and moles, the soft hop of little frogs, the croak of house geckos, or the high pitched buzz of mosquitoes (that could be carrying dengue fever). We were sometimes visited by snakes, praying mantises, foot-long millipedes, bats, and spiders larger than my hand. I woke up one night feeling a fast heartbeat against my palm, but I never figured out which animal I was holding.
There were also many, many cats. When I left the house, cats followed me. When I ate, they watched me and begged for food. At the school where I worked, they snuck pieces of chicken off my plate when I wasn’t looking or interrupted classes by giving birth to kittens inside some student’s desk. This sounds cute; like those cats in the United Kingdom and The United States that live in libraries or become mayors of cities. But stray cats are extremely territorial, dirty, covered in fleas, loud, steal food, shit and vomit everywhere, and feral cats can switch from being sweet and loving to aggressive without much warning.
There was a small calico cat that I had named Bonnie because she and a white male cat with a gray tail used to try to sneak into the house and steal my food. Clyde was the more “friendly” of the two and would often meow at me or chase my feet, acting as though he wanted to be pet, but he also tried to bite me a few times. A cat bite is easily infected, and if the Peace Corps medical staff found out, I would have been required to go to the other side of Java for rabies shots immediately. So when I saw Clyde sitting near the house, his white paws tinged red, his voice hoarse and desperate, and his body too weak to move—I kept walking.
After Clyde disappeared, a nursing Bonnie snuck into my house and started leaving her flea-covered kittens in random places. I picked up ragged little animals and placed them back with their mother, who was hiding in the exposed part of the ceiling in the kitchen. She hissed at me. I wondered if the smell of human on her kittens would make her hate her babies. I figured she couldn’t hate humans too much if she was living in our house. Eventually, without kittens and weeks later, Bonnie approached me slowly and stood up on her hind legs to nuzzle my outstretched hand.
I expected this to be a onetime interaction. However, the little cat became very attached to me, a complete 180 turnaround from her previous attitude, and would follow at my heels and jump on my lap every time I sat down. She was also constantly pregnant but could not keep her kittens alive for more than a week or two before they disappeared. My host family was not a fan of cats and generally reacted with annoyance or disgust. However, no matter how many times they shooed her away, yelled at her, or hit her with a broom, the little cat would wait for me every day when I returned home from school, try to gift me half eaten rats nearly the same size as her, and sit her flea-covered body on me anytime she could. She brought me her doomed litters of kittens and banged on my bedroom door in the middle of the night. For my part, I saved her chicken bones, fish heads, and bits of egg all the while telling myself that I should not be petting the stray cats.
One evening, I had not seen Bonnie for a couple of days. The power had gone out. Without the electric fan on, the air was too sticky and hot for sleeping and more bugs found me. I could hear people talking in the other room.
I lived with a woman in her sixties, whom I called Ibu, and who seemed to know everyone in the village, so she often had company over. Originally, I was assigned to live with a different family, with a larger and more modern house, but the couple decided to divorce right before I arrived. So, I was placed, last minute, in this home that wouldn’t have passed an inspection by Peace Corps staff due to its lack of locks and the fact that the structure was directly behind a Mosque with static-y, nearly broken speakers. Those old speakers were still somehow loud enough to vibrate the walls of my house when old women with raspy voices sang prayers into the microphone early in the morning.
Ibu was a blunt, but kind, tough, and self-made woman who had earned a significant amount money years ago when she had been a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. She was much courser than the elegant professor’s wife I had lived with during my three months of training in East Java, and admittedly, I had needed time to get used to her. She made me feel like a teenager again with a nosy parent. It didn’t help that I only partially understood her due to my lack of native fluency in Indonesian language.
However, I grew to respect her savvy; the way she wielded respect and wisdom when young couples came to her for advice for applying for work in the Middle East or to borrow money. I liked how she told me to ignore the judgments of other people. I admired the complexities of a woman who complained about her older, late husband’s misuse of money and infidelity, but who also seemed to cry genuine tears at a ceremony marking the second anniversary of his death.
“I couldn’t wear jewelry when I was younger,” she told me once with a great sigh.
“Why?” I asked.
“I was the younger, beautiful wife of an older man. People would have gossiped if I dressed up.” She smiled.
“Wear it now.”
“Never mind. I’m too old.”
I was being grumpy that night without electricity, hiding in my room because I didn’t feel like socializing. I am sure that Ibu would have liked me to join her gathering, but she was used to me isolating myself sometimes, shutting the door while she watched a loud variety show on TV or talked to a noisy friend. I was reading about Indonesian ghosts on my phone (which is a totally smart thing to do in the dark when you can’t sleep). I read about witches who turned into flying heads with tails of intestines and about creepy little doll monsters made from the fetuses of unborn children. After a while of hiding in the dark, I decided to get up to use the bathroom.
I wondered who was at my house that night. My Ibu had lost more than one child, including a little boy who died while she had been away in Saudi Arabia. She had trusted the wrong people to watch him. As an older, more powerful adult, she had habit, it seemed, of extending generosity to all sorts of odd people. One was a mother with a teenage daughter who had a Saudi Arabian boyfriend. He talked to her on video chat late at night and sent her videos of him shooting guns at ranges or ignored her messages, which caused her to collapse in to loud, shrill sobs. Other guests included middle class and wealthy college students from the capital studying village life, and, of course, the pale, weird American woman.
To get to the bathroom, I had to walk through the living room area, through a narrow dining room, and into the kitchen. I was stepping slowly, using my phone as a dim flashlight, trying not step on too many ants or any other bugs that might have been running around in the dark. Most of the talking coming from the kitchen had gone silent. I wondered if Ibu’s guests had gone home.
When I pushed the curtain that divided the dining area from the kitchen to the side and stepped through the doorway, I saw a neighbor sitting with his two young children in absolute silence as they stared at the wall. A lit candle sitting on the floor flickered, the orange glow reflecting from their wide open eyes. I turned to look at the wall they were staring at. Thick, red globs of blood were dripping from the ceiling and slowly making their way down to the floor.
I stopped. For a few moments, I just stared.
My first thoughts were:
“Oh, great. I guess we have poltergeists now.”
I began thinking about how one dealt with an active haunting. Bug spray? No. Salt? Putting water around you tea…no that was for ants. Calling a Priest? An Imam? Should I go pray? Is a poltergeist really any more of a nuisance than cockroaches or mosquitoes? At least a poltergeist can’t give you dengue fever and probably doesn’t crawl on you in the middle of the night. Actual terror gripped me for a few short moments when I remembered that those flying head witches could ooze through the cracks in the house, in search of female blood.
Finally I asked:
“Why is there blood?”
My neighbor blinked his eyes a couple of times but didn’t turn to look at me.
“It’s from a cat,” he answered after a long silence. He explained that a cat had tried to eat one of our other neighbor’s chickens, so the man had attacked it. My neighbor said he shot him with a BB gun, but more likely, he probably hit the animal with a machete. After the cat had been injured, he jumped up onto my house, got into the attic and was laying in the space above my kitchen, presumably bleeding to death. Ibu then came in and used her favorite expression:
She explained that one of the men would go into the attic to clean up the mess tomorrow.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I’d rather we were just haunted. When the power came back on an hour later, I went to sleep.
The next day when I returned from work, Ibu told me that someone had gone into the attic to look for the body, but he could not find anything.
“Even the cats have to honor their dead,” she told me in a low voice. Over the next few days, I caught a number of cats sneaking into the house and smelling where there had been blood on the wall before running away.
She also worried that my cat, Bonnie, had been the one that was injured, which surprised me because she never really seemed to like the cat before. Perhaps she cared about the animal because she knew I did. I kept this fact in mind when I became frustrated with her when she did things I didn’t like. For example, she repeatedly tried to convince me to go on a date with a married man who was “also Catholic and therefore a good match for you.” He had seen me once when he was selling Ibu jugs of gasoline for her corner store. He told Ibu he would take the whole family to eat grilled fish at a fancy restaurant if I agreed to date him.
Luckily, within a couple of days, Bonnie was back, still covered in fleas and still waddling with a big, pregnant belly.
When I had to pack all my belongings into my suitcase before I left Indonesia, Ibu tried to repack everything, like my own mother had when I had left America for Indonesia.
“Never mind,” I told her. Bonnie the cat also watched me pack.
“What?” Ibu teased the animal in a high-pitched voice. “You want to get in her bag and fly back to America, too?”
I had actually considered taking the animal, but it would have cost expensive vet visits, surgeries, and she probably needed lots of medication to be dewormed and de-flea-d and de-whatever-other-parasites she carried. Then she would have had to endure a long and scary flight and be quarantined before starting a new life in a completely unfamiliar place. Was I protecting this animal, who seemed to love me so completely and unconditionally, or my own pockets and peace of mind? I don’t know.
Ibu shed a few tears the day I left their home for the final time. I was too proud, too filled with mixed emotion, to cry. I think I should have. I spent my last week in Indonesia filling out paperwork in East Java at the Peace Corps office and then flew to the capital, where I waited for my flight home, away from my host family. I wanted to avoid extra travel and how slow and boring rural villages became during Ramadan for someone not participating in the religious ceremonies. I probably should have visited them again.
Once back in America, I sent Ibu a handmade blanket from my mother, some Autumn-scented candles, and other knick-knacks and toys for Ibu’s great-granddaughter.
Ibu passed away less than a year after I left Indonesia, probably due to untreated complications of diabetes. But, I hope she had gotten used to Bonnie, who, I was told, still waited for me to come home from the school where I worked, months after I’d already moved away.