by Michael Love
This is a story about something that happened in my town. I’ve told it to a few friends and from their reactions I probably shouldn’t be committing it to print now. Mine is a western mind and until this experience I was properly smug in looking down on the occult. The Indian rope trick, ghosts, magic were all collusions of hysterics, dupes and charlatans. Every word here related is true-I am neither a hysteric nor a charlatan, so I’ll leave it to the gentle reader to decide if I’m a dupe.
It was about eight o’clock in the evening, a night of a full moon, that the ferryman oared me across the Chao Phrya River to the Chinese temple. About eight or ten Chinese merchant women, dressed in white blouses and black pajama pants of the market, were packed in the boat with me. We docked at the end of a narrow plank extending into the river. We inched our way across it and climbed the bank to the Chinese temple:
At the gate to the temple a dog snarled, then backed away. Inside the courtyard, several old Chinese men who were sipping tea and chatting looked up and stared at the farang in their temple. The expressions were, I’m afraid to say, inscrutable. I looked around for the priestess, in vain it seemed, for no one was to be seen in ceremonial vestments, or even in a simple robe. Everyone was dressed as if he had left the market just five minutes ago—which was probably true.
A woman at the far end of the courtyard drew my attention. She seemed only about thirty, yet her hair was already pulled into the tight bun of middle age. She was sitting on a wooden bench, swinging a net-work cradle to and fro. Her arms were thick and strong; a child ran by and she scooped him up in one of them. In her eyes there was a kind of cognizance which you sometimes see in the market, only unflawed by cunning, as if she had peripheral vision acute enough to register everything happening in the courtyard. Was this husky, laughing woman the, priestess I had heard so many stories about? Excepting her eyes she was no different from thousands of others in markets anywhere in Asia. At that point several old women approached her and bowed deeply. This must be she, I decided, and walked to her.
There were many stories about her. In trance state, she was reputed to have solved several robberies by describing the physical appearance of the thief in detail and even the location of the stolen goods. Further, she was also said to be able to communicate with spirits of the dead. At these times, the spirit would enter her body and she would take on all characteristics of the deceased in manner of speech, posture and even language. These are often people she’s never seen, but whose mannerisms are recognized by close relatives. There was yet another story. The town matriarch last year succumbed to a peculiarly deep slumber. Even her son, a western doctor, couldn’t keep her awake over a few moments. This state continued for several weeks. In one moment of semi-wakefulness the old woman asked that the priestess be sent for. The son complied. The priestess brushed a string of Chinese characters on a strip of paper, turned it, and directed that the ashes be mixed with water, and drunk by the old woman. This was done and three days later the old woman was normal and full of detailed stories about her dream wanderings through heaven and hell.
The priestess seemed amused to have a farang come that evening. She laughed and welcomed me in broken Thai. I replied in equally broken Thai, then went into the temple to buy incense.
I held the incense sticks in a flame and looked around the chapel trying to keep my head back from the greasy smoke that crawled up from the tips into my eyes. The side walls were covered with murals of fat Chinese babies playing with dragons; the back wall with photographs of the priestess’ family; the front wall was lined with statues. The statues typically had vermillion faces, gold-cloth vestments and beards made of human hair. A rack of fortune slips leaned against the right wall An altar dominated the center of the room. It was littered with dead flowers, colored strips of paper, writing brushes, tea cups, a jug of water and a few things I couldn’t identify. Almost unnoticed, a rusted sword lay cradled in its stand.
At this point maybe I should mention something spooky—BUT there wasn’t anything. An overhead fluorescent tube glared into a too naked clarity. There were no deceptive shadows, or mysterious dimness.
I carried my joss sticks around to each of the effigies, inside and outside the temple, and then returned to .sit on the floor next to the altar where I would have the best view. Already, there were about twenty middle aged women sitting on cushions before the altar. Some where chanting softly, some gossiping. Several were making obeisance by bowing almost to the floor and flicking their fingertips to the ground twelve times. They all belched freely. I watched idly, often closing my eyes to avoid the stinging smoke.’ Then a friend behind me whispered :
“That woman over there... the soul of a three-year-old baby always enters her.”
And there, rolling and bouncing on her cushion with all the glee of a baby was a plump woman of about forty-five. I stared as she fretted with an invisible adult who evidently was scolding and playing with her. She was oblivious to us and to all else that happened later in the evening.
Soon the floor was filled with women, about a quarter of whom were in trances, some quiet and some blubbering soundlessly
Then, the priestess strode through them into the clear area in front of the altar. A metal folding chair was placed behind her. Without looking, she sat down, and pulled her legs up under her, cross-legged. Her eyes closed and her knees began jiggling rapidly. An almost inaudible muttering periodically fell from her lips. Several more women went into trances. All was quiet except for occasional mumbles and belches. It continued this way for five or ten minutes.
I began to notice my cramped legs and the sting of the incense seemed to become more acrid. I looked around carefully to shift my legs into a less cramped position. With a crash the metal chair sprawled backwards across the floor as the priestess lurched to her feet.
She stood transfixed half a minute. Then slowly wheeled around to peer intently into the face of everyone in the congregation. Her eyes were closed. I assumed my cramped position. A rustle of prayers and exclamations brushed through the congregation. Some looked up at her; others pressed their foreheads to the floor in obeisance. The ones in trances seemed to notice nothing.
For the next hour, we listened to a sermon delivered in a harsh sing-song. Periodically she sang. I used this time to try to soak in all the details and impress as much of it on my memory as I could. The spirit that had entered into her body and which was speaking through her had a clubbed foot and some peculiar motions with the left fist. In all that time, none of the characteristics were ever relaxed. Further, she walked all about the room with closed eyes in full confidence without ever stumbling or bumping into anything. As it all began to stretch to monotony a singular incident occurred.
A moaning sort of singing drifted in from the courtyard. Presently, an old woman holding smoking incense sticks danced into the temple singing at full lung power. She looked at none of us and, excepting me, none of us looked at her. Her dance was elaborate; it carried her to a far corner where she stuck her incense in an urn and then danced out of the room. Nor did she return.
For another quarter hour I watched the ladies in trance when I noticed the activities at the altar. The sermon had stopped and the priestess was smashing one of the teacups with a stone. Chips and fragments were flying towards us, a wave of obeisances surged through the crowd.
She took the old sword from its stand, held it out from her body, and paused. She stopped singing. All noise stopped. She stuck out her tongue and held tip pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Then she lay the sword across the tongue and, as I watched in disbelief, pulled it across—cutting into her own tongue. When she lifted the sword, a thin line of blood appeared and then thickened. Twice more the blade sliced the tongue. The entire tongue was covered with a thick pulp of blood, like a mashed beet.
Then she took the strips of lavender paper and smeared a long zigzag down each one. After ten or fifteen strips she paused and began slicing her tongue again to replenish the blood. This process continued for about thirty or forty minutes. Every few minutes she would either slash laterally across the tongue with the sword or longitudinally down with a fragment of broken teacup.
Let me repeat a few things. This all went on for thirty or forty minutes; I saw her slice and saw the blood flowing forty or fifty times. She wore a sleeveless blouse. I had looked at all the equipment earlier in the evening. The whole scene was illuminated by a bright fluorescent light. Absolutely no shadows were on her face. I’m familiar with techniques of hypnosis and am positive that there were no mass hypnotics practiced. And I was less than three yards away and could see everything very clearly.
Finally, she had made enough of the paper strips. She lay down the sword and drank deeply from the jug of water. Then she spewed the water out of her mouth in a great spray over our heads. Immediately, grateful obeisances were made. Since I was sort of a guest of honor, most of the drizzle was aimed at me. I quickly made obeisance to show my gratitude for the favor.
After this she answered a few questions that had been submitted to her. She sat down on a chair and two minutes later was out of the trance. It was all over. Everyone scurried around picking up chips of cup and extra strips of paper while she laughed and joked with people at the door. My friend and I hurried over to her.
By the time we had gotten to her through the crowd she had a little girl balanced on one hip. We thanked her and said the usual things you say to a minister. I was excusing myself and edging out the door when my friend made the grisly suggestion, “Why don’t you show Mr. Mike your tongue ?” I looked over at the priestess and gulped as I realized she was actually going to display the bloody mangled thing to me. I clamped down a shudder and braced myself. Slowly, the tongue was pushed out to its full length. Maybe my mouth dropped open-anyway, several people started laughing at my surprise.
For you see, after all that happened that evening, on her tongue there was not even the slightest trace of a wound. Not a scratch.