Red, White, Black, or Before the Eclipse

Originally posted to The Good Men Project on August 21, 2017. 

Red, White, Black, or Before the Eclipse

14 Aug 2017

The darkness drops again – W. B. Yeats

Odd to see it there in the old temple this summer, the sign
of wellbeing—a bent cross turning, a swastika, the sun—
so odd to see it in stone, even though we know it means

it meant something different. Was that the same temple where they
said Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims prayed together, bathed
together in holy water, until they no longer did? The place

was holy; we wore the red sarongs required to enter.
That seems so long ago. Back home we see flags the color
of blood, that bent cross, stark, in black and white. At Tirta

Empul’s holy springs we didn’t bathe, despite an offer
of lockers and green robes. Bert said it felt wrong
to step into someone else’s sacred ritual. We watched

wet tourists standing waist-deep in the pool smile
for selfies, flash peace signs. It didn’t feel holy. Still,
there among grinning tourists and Hindu faithful, we’d filled

a water bottle, not knowing what for. Tanah Lot
felt different, the sky white with rain, the sun a bright spot
out on the face of the sea. Our guide said our offerings

would help with renovations, so we fell in line, leaned over
the pool to wash our faces. Priests daubed foreheads with water
and rice, tucked frangipani behind our ears, the tide

coming in
the beach a babble
of scattered voices,

a book
of useless phrases
in my pocket.


The Balinese wrap trees and statues in sarongs of checkered black
and white like men at worship, the harmony important, balance.
Guardian figures flank a temple door. Our guide explained a mace

against the left shoulder means evil, mace against the right,
good. Otherwise they look the same. You must have both,
he said, but you have to see the difference. Everywhere

we saw small offerings at doorsteps, bright flowers and rice
cupped in leaves woven with prayer. The air was incense and kites,
everywhere the empty black chair of the god of gods, outside

every home, in every field, at the bend of every road,
at the bookshop where we bought incense blessed
by a priest and bound together with braided thread, red,

white, and black. Temple signs still forbid entrance
to menstruating women. A woman at the coffee market
asked why travelers don’t like Trump. We talked difference

and fear. You are you, she pointed at Bert. I am me.
We accept. The only lingams we found were gaudy
bottle-openers in souvenir stalls. Our last day in Bali,

we found a small bird shuddering on our front step—
small sounds and then it was still. Bert scooped it up
gently, left it in the flowers. It felt something like a sign.

One day, when I told Wayan I’m a teacher, he pulled over
for a large statue of Saraswati, so I could see her better,
her book and lute, her beads, her swan, her jar of water.

One night, as he drove us back, we saw men in white
shirts and dark sarongs walking along the road, the night
quiet. Wayan drove slow. They’re going to temple, he said,

The thin line of men and boys, torches lifted, thickened
into a crowded procession, women with baskets, children,
and then at the end, like a grinning apparition

from the dark, the barong—more giant dog than lion,
more muppet than rough beast, great shaggy guardian
of the good, and then it was gone,

and we drove on,
and darkness

took back
the road.


Coming back, jet lag was hard, our bodies on a different clock,
the news one long banner of anger, hard to watch,
men in white shirts lifting torches on a college lawn,

and then the air was tear gas and mace, banners
wielded as weapons, that old sun sign back on flags
and armbands the way we know it now, in white and black.

A card tucked with the incense said to wear the braided
thread around the right wrist for protection, red,
white, and black. I’ve placed Saraswati on my desk,

the bracelet on my wrist. Soon, a wave of darkness will pass
over us, the sun gone, the air cold. We’ll wear the glasses
that let us look into the dark without going blind. Our last

day there in Bali, we avoided news from home.
We ate breakfast at a French bakery, watched a woman
bless the ATMs across the parking lot. At the museum,

we picked our favorites. Bert stood at the fountain
of Ida Sang Hyang Widhi Waça, radiant and one,
god of all gods, beams of light like spikes shining from

his body, like forks at each joint, his genitals a curling
trident of light. For me it was the painting of Rahu swallowing
the sun, light shining between his teeth, the sun emerging

from his severed throat. Everywhere,
that last day there, I remembered,
tried to remember

to say thank you
in their tongue—

That evening,
when we returned
to our rooms,

Bert washed the step
with the bottle
of holy water.