It cut through the night like a knife with a vengeance and silence fell in two; the dogs woke, pricked up their ears, barely whined and curled up tighter, eyes searching fearfully. A baby cried, but the village slept on.
In the deadness of that 13th hour, the slow measured breath of each villager resounded like a well-trained choir to a choral master – nothing less than a maestro. It had been hovering, searching for that right tone and now had found it.
Pius, found himself half awake in his mummified state, weak and trapped. He couldn’t open his eyes, his mouth or move his limbs. The only sounds he could make were unintelligible ‘umms’. Useless. The air was putrid, heavy with the smell of rotten meat, fouled feathers, breath that breathed not life into him but putrefaction. It was nauseating yet he could not escape it, locked in his own body. He felt himself decaying.
His heart gripped painfully as he saw, he sensed the heavy black form that lingered over him now. It moved with measured power swaying over him as if to smother him. It was more than just a physical heaviness that frightened Pius: the blackness took up the whole room, but it was its heaviness that exuded all consuming inescapable pain and a foul that knew no end. It moved about screeching the logs with its talons. The sound pierced right through Pius’ body. He couldn’t decide which was worse torment – this or the final destruction to come – dying by the Swangi’s hand, for this was what the creature is – the evil spirit which elders have always warned against.
Grabbing his head, Pius was slit from chin to his groin, and whipped straight up through the tap leaf roof. The Swangi’s talons painfully sharp, pierced his throat and blood began to flow. Pius heard his wife and neighbours start to get up from their crash through the roof. Soon people were out with kerosene lamps and torch lights. Screams rang out as they saw the Swangi dangle Pius triumphantly, challenging them to save him. It laughed tauntingly.
The Swangi shook Pius about vigorously with much relish – it was one of its favourite moments. It grabbed one of Pius’ legs, turned him upside down and shook out what it could of his stomach and intestines. Like a rag doll Pius was thrown about, swung and shaken, knowing that the torture would not stop until everything inside was out.
He was losing consciousness even as the Swangi, impatient to begin his midnight feast decided to finally yank out Pius’ oesophagus, move its lips further down and plunged its teeth into the best bit of all – Pius’ still beating heart.
Swangis appear in Kamoro legends and fables as bad spirits and they always have this fascination for innards. The victims have severed heads appear or gory scenes of men in full extension – just the kind of thing that little boys love. Thankfully you won’t find Swangis in most Kamoro carvings except from one village. This village (I won’t say which – you’ll have to come to the exhibition to find out) has an excellent fretwork style and very good tools so they are able to do very fine and precise work. One year someone did an especially good piece with a Swangi in it that sold very well and since then we’ve had a Swangi wave.
Grandmas and Grandpas
If savage Swangis are not your thing then you don’t have to look further than your own home for your own fairy godmother or Peter Pan. When there is a major ceremony like the initiation of the boys, a huge totem pole is carved and installed in front of the ceremonial house. On the pole are carved two or sometimes three people – usually very honoured ancestors, so it could be a couple of grandparents or great-grand parents. They’re there to make sure that everything goes well and bless the occasion. They’re also seen in smaller carvings in single figures.
Good spirits are also seen in festivals wearing masks of woven bark string and palm leaves .
Yopi picked up his parang and stomped off into the jungle behind him. Sullen faced and always brusque he had a tough day ahead and was not going to wait around babysitting some newbie. Arnold would either have to use his senses and find him or be written off as useless.
He had been working at the tree, chopping at its bark and got a portion off. It was tough, but more could be harvested. Then Arnold showed up. “Hey, what’s up Yopi, why didn’t you wake me? We could have come together.”
No answer except the steady chop, chop, chop of metal on wood. “Since you’re here, get this piece off, I want to start on the next tree. When you finish, go there. And make sure you get as much as you can from this tree.”
And so the day went, each man working separately until Yopi reckoned they had enough bark to start the next process of soaking, beating and drying the bark.
Every morning he rose early and began without Arnold. It seemed that the young man was not ready for learning this art. But he wasn’t going to say anything.
Finally the time came to twirl the fibres into strings. Arnold got excited by this process. “Good morning, Yopi, I thought we should finish these ropes soon”.
Yopi felt a lightness in his heart and began to include the boy more in his plans. “Tomorrow we start the weaving. You have a lot to learn.”
By himself and without any distraction, Yopi could have finished the mask in about two weeks but with a student it required another. But Arnold was turning out to be a worthy one.
So far the mask has been hidden from the women and the children so nobody knows what it looks like and Yopi is proud that it is magnificent with its yellow feathers, beads and fine decorations.
A week later, the drummers played in front of the ceremonial house and everyone danced happily. Kids were laughing and chasing each other around or lying down half asleep. Suddenly there was a commotion as down the village lane a strange apparition hopped and skipped towards the ceremonial house, intent on its destination. The kids were rooted to their spots, screaming immobilized. Some jumped onto their mothers who also started screaming. Others fled into the jungle behind. The creature with its rough conical head, big black eyes, stick growing out of his head and beaky mouth looked ready to eat up anything small enough it could bite.
While the cane rubbed on his shoulders and he couldn’t really see through the eye holes, Arnold was really happy to be wearing mamokoro which was made and dedicated to Yopi’s grandpa’s spirit who brings blessings even though everyone knows it plays boogy man with the kids.
A bird on a wire
It didn’t look quite right to him. Something was a bit off. Maybe the mask was a little askew. Not a big problem, he only needed to get the ladder and tweak it a bit.
The show was a joint exhibition of Contemporary Indonesion Artists and Kamoro Art, and John the Curator was making his final checks.
The tension cable that stretched across was of industrial grade and they had used it before. So no problem leaning the ladder against it, which is what he did, climb up and did the tweak.
The tweak didn’t happen. At the top, he leant across and fate took hold. Life slowed to a painfully slow speed as he watched the mask crash to the floor in a heap of leaves, the tension wire whiplashed across the room while he and his ladder were left for all that time suspended in mid air until another staff ran in and grabbed the ladder. For those three seconds, John and his ladder were in mid-air, frozen with no support.
As far as we know, all masks are made for commercial purposes, but it looks like a Kamoro Grandma (or Grandpa) likes John. We still have the mask, and John is still with us.