The Ossuary

by John Michael Gorrindo

He had been preoccupied with death for many years now.  There was always the need to self-explain.  The arrived upon conclusion was always the same, so why raise the same question repeatedly?  Beating a dead horse couldn’t be all that edifying- or therapeutic.  And certainly the same answer to the same question inevitably felt pat and hollow.  He was getting nowhere.  Maybe he lacked imagination.

It was all about being an asthmatic child.  The asthma that took him to the brink of death all those times while he was still a young child had to be the cause of it.  Of this he was logically sure, but the explanation somehow never satisfied. 

The facts spoke loudly.  All those years ago the family pediatrician had told his parents that he was allergic to the “dust” out on the ranch where they lived, and that they simply had to remove him from the source of irritation.  It seemed incredulous to him that his parents wouldn’t have guessed that the culprit was the parathion spray used to kill that virulent strain of aphid attaching the alfalfa fields.  Unfortunately, the use of lady bugs as natural predators to the aphid had stopped being effective.  Hadn’t his father had to seal his body from head to toe within the confines of something akin to a lunar space suit when he handled the insecticide, pouring it into the spray canisters attached to the sprayer hitched to the tractor?  He remembered standing on the edge of the field, watching his father prepare to spray the alfalfa.  The understood the danger as a three year old. Then his mother would walk to him back to the ranch house as his father mounted the tractor and slowly rumbled through the fields, spraying while the wind swirled all around.  His father told him later that a drop of parathion on unprotected skin was lethal.  It all seemed insane in retrospect.

Now as a middle-aged adult, he thought of himself not as having been an asthmatic child, but just another victim of America’s petrochemical industry.  The winds that swept across the ranch lands in that desert area certainly carried with it the residues of poisonous spray, and had not only caused his asthma, but also that of his grandmother’s and sister’s as well.  How could it be otherwise?

And then there was the asthma medication used to control his insufferable coughing attacks.  It made him irritable and caused his head to spin and churn.  The cherry colored syrup that never did hide the taste of the medicine was fed him from a tablespoon as poured out of a dark amber apothecary bottle. How many spoonfuls a day had he downed as a four year old?  Maybe eight- sometimes more.  He remembered the medicine quelling his cough, alright, but it more often that not incubated a monster in his brain.

His mother told him that the worst asthma attacks occurred when the family still lived on the ranch.  The cough would suddenly seize his body and not let go.  There was no way to predict is any given coughing attack would subside or continue until his lungs would begin to fill with liquid.  If the cough became life threatening, he would say, “Mommy, I can’t breathe.”  Then his skin would lose its flushness and begin to turn blue.  Maybe it was his mother or maybe his father, but someone would hold him upside down by his legs and rush him out to the car and race him into town to the family pediatrician.
But he couldn’t say he truly remembered any of these life-threatening attacks.  The stories came down to him second hand from his mother.  The blunt force trauma of repeated near-asphyxiation must have scarred him for life, he reasoned, but his memory had probably suppressed it, hoping to spare itself the burden of reliving those moments time and again.

But the medication he took for his asthma struck him as having taken a worse toll, though it seemed fair to believe he would have died without it.  He remembered as a school boy his health text books trumpeting the mantra “better living through chemistry.”  It seemed both ironic and perverse that chemicals used to make medicines were used to combat other chemicals used to make insecticides.  Maybe the crops were spared in the process, but at what cost?  No one in those days seemed to question the side effects of medication.  It had spared his life, but impaired his thoughts and troubled his emotions.  There was a cost benefit analysis to be considered.  On the one hand, crops were saved, the economy improved, and even a life saved.  On the other, that saved life had been left to live as damaged goods.  Maybe that last point was simply denied importance, left unrecognized, or not given any credence.  The mantra of modern technology had put everyone in a trance.

He could see clearly the entire picture in retrospect.  But it was at the hands of another chemical that he had not been able to escape the memory of yet another trauma.  That chemical was ether.  At the age of four his pediatrician- the same who prescribed that terrible cough medicine- had decided that after several tonsil infections, a tonsillectomy was in order.  The tonsillectomy was a trendy operation at the time.  Tonsils were considered pesky, and not worth the trouble.  Better just get rid of them than have to deal with their fickle nature. 

The day of the scheduled operation arrived.  After admission to the hospital, he remembered being rolled down a long, nearly pitch-black hospital hallway on a gurney, his mother walking alongside.  The attendant pushing the gurney didn’t seem present and might as well have been a ghost.  The gurney simply rolled on its own.  His mother did her best to comfort him, telling him everything would be alright.  He knew it was all a lie, though.  At the end of the hallway was a double doorway that led into a surgical suite, and the characteristic high temperature lamps used for surgery shone from inside the suite as cold shafts of light spilling onto the hall’s drab, cement floor just outside.  Otherwise he rolled smoothly along in darkness.  He clearly remembered wondering why such a long hallway would be kept as dark as an abandoned mine.

Once the gurney pushed through the double doors into the surgical suite, he panicked.  There stood the bespectacled surgeon and three nurses, all dressed in full-length surgical gowns, caps, and wearing masks.  His mother had told him the waist belt that secured his body to the gurney could be thought of as a seat belt like those used by jet pilots, but now he knew why he had been so strapped down.

He began to kick and scream as his gurney was rolled up in parallel and flush against the operating table.  His belt buckle unclasped, all three nurses were needed to slide him over onto the operating table where the doctor awaited, holding aloft an ether mask.

The source of his future’s worse nightmares was about to be etched indelibly into his brain.  He remembered his well-placed kicks didn’t faze the nurses, though he truly believed he had an outside chance of freeing himself.  Eventually they were able to hold him down long enough for the doctor to securely place the ether mask over his nose and mouth.

Why the surgeon had chosen to administer ether- a violently hallucinogenic drug- to a four year old when other means of anesthesia were available was never properly accounted for.  Like all anesthetics, ether in too large a dose is lethal.  But recovery from the drug was a harrowing journey as well- taking a patient from the depths of unconsciousness closer to the edge of death than of life- and bringing them back into a conscious state vis-à-vis a route through hell.

It was in the recovery room after the operation that the nightmare’s journey began. The audio and visual hallucinations accompanying the recovery were memories that would never be erased.  He was placed on a cot or bed situated directly beneath a bright, circular ceiling light.  Flooding his face, it penetrated his eyelids, and as the ether began to lift and he started emerging from an unconscious state, the diffused light was perceived as concentric rings of jagged-edged pulsations- a kind of colored noise he believed to be a living hell he would be forced to occupy for eternity.  He felt completely disembodied- trapped inside a singular sensation; his life reduced to this single phenomena.

Then there were the terrifying audio hallucinations which were electronic in nature-sounding like the screeching of a thousand harpies held captive inside a nest along with another thousand hornets all wrapped around and encapsulating his head.

The hallucinations obliterated his erstwhile reality, and he felt consigned to this hell with no chance of escape, abandoned and utterly isolated.  His mother told him later how she stood helplessly outside the recovery room listening to him scream.  She had to suffer along with him for the next six months, as he awoke with nightmares every night- still screaming.

Fifty years later he lie beneath another ceiling light, on a sagging single bed mattress in a cheap hotel room that could have doubled as a prison cell.  He had fallen asleep about an hour after check-in, exhausted from a ten hour bus ride through the mountains, and had left the tiny, fifteen watt light bulb burning.

At 1 AM, the same audio hallucinations he had experienced in that recovery room fifty years previous had returned, waking him with a cruel start.  He thought maybe a general alarm had been sounded throughout the town.  The sound was tremendous.  He stumbled out of bed and towards the window that looked out onto the hotel’s upstairs balcony, peering out to see if there were any signs of disorder- maybe even chaos.  Baffled to find it was pitch black and perfectly still outside his room, he began to nervously pace the floor, cocking his ears about like a dog, vainly attempting to locate the point source of sound within the room itself.

It was not long before he realized the source of sound was only to be found inside his head.  Something had completely triggered his audio cortex into hyperactivity.  He was experiencing what could only be considered ear-splitting audio hallucinations.  Several more seconds after the realization, the sound abruptly ended.

Sitting down on the edge of his bed, he heard yet another strange sound- that of a giant black beetle flying in slow, lazy circles around the ceiling light.  He slowly arched his head back to watch the air-born creature circumnavigate the dimly lit bulb, like an incoming aircraft directed by the control tower to lock-into a circular flight pattern while hold-off on its landing.

Insects never had bothered him, and he let the huge beetle be.  In fact, this tropical creature was damn fascinating.  Rising from his sitting position, he stood and took a step, reaching for the light switch on the wall.  Turning off the light, he returned to bed.  Feeling oddly relaxed, he soon fell asleep.

Waking at 7:00 AM, he quickly prepared for the day, and walked downstairs to the hotel Wisma Maria’s restaurant.  Breakfast was included with overnight accommodations.  He sat alone at a table for four, his room number imprinted on a small placard placed atop the table.

He had come as a traveler to visit a people and a land known for their mortuary rites.  It would not be correct to say it was a land preoccupied with death, but a land where the reminders of the dead ancestors were everywhere to be found.  Within a few minutes he would be meeting his guide and given an itinerary which would include visitations to several ossuaries.

After breakfast, he walked into the hotel lobby and found his guide, Anton, sitting on a couch, waiting for him.  Anton was a native Torajan.  An exceedingly serious man, Anton bore a black mustache and always wore a fedora hat.  He was partially sighted, the iris of his right eye a mottled gray and blue like that of an Australian shepherd while the black pupil was fixed dead in position, unable to focus.

“Good morning, Blake.  The driver will arrive soon.  We can wait here,” Anton said while remaining seated.

“Good morning, Anton.”  Blake sat across from his guide and said nothing more.

The two men had already negotiated a contract for a guided tour, car, and driver the night before, shortly after Blake’s arrival.  The first day’s itinerary included trips to multiple grave sites, most of then ossuaries set inside of caves or cliff sides.

The Torajan highlands lie in a fertile river valley, bifurcated by a sparkling clean, fast flowing river.  Surrounded by verdant mountains, its remote location had helped protect it from the outside world for more than seven hundred years.  Anton had chosen six sites for the first day’s tour, most of them located in or near small villages scattered throughout the valley.

One village was tucked away in some rocky hills, situated in a small valley of rice fields flooded by nearby streams flowing down side gorges and surrounded by vertical cliffs of stone.  As Anton directed Blake to follow him down a rocky trail towards the Torajan grave site, several small children accompanied them, and two grabbed hold of Blake’s hands to help lead him along.

Half-way down the trail they stopped in front of the landscape’s centerpiece- a perfectly flat vertical wall of stone scores of meters tall and wide.  High upon the wall, far from the reach of vandals or thieves, were balconies carved out of the stone, and behind their wooden railings stood in a long row a multitude of painted wooden effigies, each carved in the likeness of a dead ancestor whose life had been lived in the village below.  The ancestors of only the richest villagers could be immortalized as such, their actual bodies interred in adjoining stone tombs whose passage ways had been hand carved into the same vertical walls high above the ground.  Wooden doors closed off the square-shaped tomb openings, within which the dead bodies of an extended family were stored in one or more chambers.

The commoners were buried in caves accessible from the ground.  The children resumed holding Blake’s hands after having stopped to observe the cliff side graves and effigies.  Anton led the way to where a clear stream flowing from the side gorge drained bellow into a small reservoir where a wooden sluice gate controlled the release of water into the surrounding rice fields.

Where the stream entered the valley from the gorge was a gaping hollow eroded out of the steep and rocky hillside- a cave mouth that reached back into the hillside’s underbelly ten meters or so.  Here, too, carved effigies were set standing on wooden planks above the cave’s rock floor.

Of greater interest to Blake were the human skeletal remains scattered about the cave- limbs piled in haphazard heaps on top of large rocks, along with rows of skulls lined up on top of yet other rocks.  Other collections of bones were stored in weather beaten, decaying wooden sarcophagi, stacked high inside.

Anton explained the nature of the Torajan ossuary.  He also told Blake that he could touch the remains but pick them up or move them.  Blake was drawn to a row of green tinted skulls lined up on top of one of the cave’s larger rocks.  He cupped his hand gently about the cranial vault of one, and once so fit, suddenly realized how naturally the human hand was to a skull.  It was as if the hand and skull had been so designed.

Blake suddenly felt at peace with the prospect of death.  He also wished the skulls of his grandparents and father could be so available to touch, while their effigies stood nearby to comfort him with their symbolic presence.  The western way of death was a terrible sham, he thought- a thievery of the worst kind that stole away the remains of one’s ancestors, removing them from one’s presence and touch for life’s duration.

He also wished for a moment of solitude with the dozens of dead inside this Torajan cave; that his guide, Anton, would fade away and leave him to meditate alone, as accompanied by only the sounds of the flowing stream from outside the cool cave environs.

Blake wished he could stand outside of time as provided by this space, without having to bear in mind the nagging knowledge that the dictates of a tour itinerary was egging him to move on.

He fought off these distracting thoughts, and handled each of the other skulls as set in a row before him, their bone turned green with age. Then he looked up at the effigies to the rear recess, focusing his thoughts on how perfectly well an ossuary set the stage for what would happen to ones body after death, and how one would be accompanied by one’s ancestors.  He suddenly recalled how his mother had once told him that she had seem her own ancestral spirits hovering above her as she lie in bed during a near death experience.  Things were not so different in a Torajan ossuary, he thought, except the spirits were embodied in bone and wood.  And certainly, one need not be at death’s door to afford the experience.

No, Toraja was not a land of the dead, but a place where life came face-to-face with death in natural equanimity.  Each the living and the dead could continue a kind of dialog.  The ancestral spirits who now resided in the land of souls could look down from their balconies upon the living toiling in the flooded rice fields. The living could return their gaze, knowing that the presence of their ancestor’s effigies held out a promise of future fortune and prosperity.

Even if good fortune and prosperity weren’t to materialize, the balconies of ancestral effigies were a finer sight that that of a mausoleum or graveyard found back home, Blake thought.  Grave markers, headstones, and sealed mausoleum vaults were mainly faceless and declamatory of death’s indifference to each soul’s individual mark in life. They were rather like staring into black holes.  What was beyond was anybody’s guess.  They signified an undifferentiated nothingness. 

One brought flowers to a grave in remembrance and honor of the dead, but in Toraja, the dead honored the living as well.  The effigies standing watch made known their own desire to shower offerings upon their descendents from the land of souls beyond.  The living could be so reminded, and know one day they would be doing the same.

It didn’t matter to Blake if these Torajan beliefs could not be corroborated.  That the human willed it, so let it be done.  It was the human will to power that fashioned a meaning to what lie beyond death just as one has the potential to self-determine life.  Graveyards and crematoria signified morbidity and the cul de sac of existence.  But it was in a Torajan ossuary where life, death, and the land of souls beyond could share the same place, outside of temporal restraint. 

He felt the Torajans had got it right.

If it weren’t for his two grown children back home 8,000 miles distant, Blake thought, this would be a good time and place to die.  He didn’t think anyone could possibly understand, but he was content to hold on to that thought in sublime privacy.

Anton stood at the cave’s moth, waiting for Blake to cease with his ruminations.  Their next stop awaited them- that of the babies’ graves which were bored into the trunk of a special species of tree whose sap resembled mother’s milk.

Blake emerged from the cave’s mouth, his eyes squinting in the brilliance of the late morning sun.  He had gotten it wrong all these years, he realized.  It was not that he was preoccupied with death- it was that death and what lie beyond had been preoccupied with him.

“How did you find the Torajan grave, Pak Blake?” asked Anton.

“I think it found me, Anton.  You Torajans- you damn well got it all right,” Blake replied.

“Yes, well, now it’s on to the babies’ graves.”  Anton turned and walked purposefully back up the rocky trail.

The children who had held Blake’s hands had waited for him to emerge from the cave.  They approached and took his hands once again, and coaxed him gently to follow their lead.