Fiction / September 2010 (Issue 12)

The Earth that Stands Before Us

by Elizabeth Weinberg

The dancer is old. Since childhood, he has known the rhythms, the intersections of thundering gongs and chiming metal. When he begins to dance, the music bleeds into his body and he ceases to know the difference between sound and movement. His inhalation is the resonance from the gangsa, his exhalation the silence in between strikes. His heartbeat, the gong, pulsing his blood from heart to limbs and back again. His footfalls, the drum, whirling and treading faster and slower with the whim of the body.

He is weak from days spent leaning over masks, his fingers arthritic from chipping at the wood with chisels and knives, sanding away at the rough surfaces. His legs, though still supple from his daily hours of rehearsing dance, cannot support him as they did when he was a boy. Years of sitting cross-legged, mask between his feet, have made his knees delicate, ill-suited to the vast amount of time necessary to perfect a dance.

So this, he has declared despite his family's protest, will be his last dance. Following this evening, he will sit in the audience, watching his sons and grandsons as they switch masks, embody characters, bring the stage to life. He will watch as they speak in a language ancient and symbolic, almost telepathic in its subtlety, to the musicians sitting to the side of the stage. He will watch and become entranced with the rest of the audience as his children transform the world.

But first, one last hurrah, one last moment of flight. He stands in the center of the stage, and as the first gangsa sounds, it is as if he is reborn into a new body, one as heavenly as the gods. The melody plays through once, and when it circles around, the dancer begins to move.

He begins slowly, capturing the rhythms of the river and adjusting them to suit his will, flowing with the cadences of rapids and eddies and changing his feet to match. As he turns, the musicians play faster, and he matches them, losing himself in the arcs of the gamelan. He is unaware of how much time passes as he dances, but it feels as if universes come and go, as if each time the rhythm changes the world grows old and is once again reborn under his feet. Continents shatter and break apart, only to rearrange themselves into new lands, with new mountains, new oceans. His hands usher in new winds, his eyes look to the placement of new suns and planets. And then, just as quickly as they arise, they are gone, to be replaced by a new variation, each as fantastic as the next.

Finally, the dancer's eyes tilting toward the gamelan and his left foot lifting until even with his right knee, the gangsa slows. With a flourish, the dancer lowers his foot as the gong resounds once more. With this, the dancer's career has ended, and he stands silently, reverently. He slides the mask off of his face and waits for his sons to take the stage.




The master inherited this workshop from his father, who in turn inherited it from his own father. Theirs is a family business and it has existed, it seems, since the beginning of time, and will exist until time ceases, vanishing into the ether like a ghost, leaving no trace but darkness and cold.

The workshop is a catalogue of his greatest achievements, of all a man may create and sustain with his own two hands. In one room, the tools and his four students, hard at work, steaming cups of tea waiting patiently beside their knees despite the relentless afternoon heat. Wooden mallets drum against chisels, which create their own rhythm against the wood of the masks-to-be. Beating in time with these is the axe of a young man beginning a new mask, gracefully hacking out a curve from a formerly square chunk of wood. Finally, the violin in the overture of the workshop, the oldest student, his son, pulls his knife across the cheekbone of a mask, the scraping as melodious to the master as any music in the world. As they work, the young men hum bars of the music that will keep time in their masks' dance. The music must inhabit the face, so the woodworkers sing it as they create from scratch.

Through the northern door, the showroom. These are the master's prized possessions, the works he will never in a thousand years sell to middlemen for the market. Before he passes one of these masks on, he insists on meeting its recipient, ensuring its safety.

They are grouped by performance and intention. On the far wall, the ornamentals. A long mask, the rainy season, whose nose drips into his mouth like a damp leaf. The wood, although technically solid, appears fluid, melting and sliding in waves like water along a windowpane. Its counterpart, the face of the dry season, is painted the deep red of dry earth. Its lips are spread as if thirsty, and in place of hair the master wove in dry rice husks to rim the face.

The wall to his right holds the enormous visages of Barong and Rangda. Rangda leers, buckteeth grinning. The master can almost see saliva dripping out of her mouth, demonic fangs ready to devour all those in her path. Next to her, compassionate Barong, the protector, the lionhearted. His eyes are kindly but fierce, and before him Rangda will cower and hiss.

The wall with the door is kept blank, but the wall to its left is covered in masks destined for performances of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The strong face of Draupadi is surrounded by her husbands, the Pandavas, each more noble than the next. The red glowers of Ravana—a challenge to create a mask with all of his faces, but the master had of course managed it—lusting after Sita, golden-skinned and virtuous, her nose straight and lips curled into a subtle smile. Lakshmana, painted yellow, placed between them to protect her.

And in the center of all the masks, Rama, blue-hued, his jawline strong and brow line calm. To his right, Krishna, emblem of the discus painted on his forehead. Together, they preserve the dharma and protect the world, ensuring the prosperity of the master's workshop along with all of the cosmos.




The apprentice lifts the pale wooden mask to his face, pressing it against his skin to check the fit. A mask must be one with its maker, or from where will it derive its power? His cheeks lie flush with the concave surface of the mask's interior, his nose nestled into its basin like water in a bowl. His chin juts uncomfortably into its cavity; he will have to fix that later. Always an imperfection to be improved upon.

From the outside, he is transformed, no longer a seventeen-year-old struggling to learn his family's craft. Even as unfinished wood, the mask is majestic, and the boy becomes the king of them all. He stands taller, his shoulders firm like those of his father's, his long arms no longer gangly. Against the creamy wood, his sun-darkened body looks stronger.

He strides over toward the mirror hanging on the far wall, standing statuesque in front of it. His companions, they too apprentices, turn to face him. He is a black hole; their gazes are drawn toward him with a power they have never experienced. Their friend has stumbled upon something, or rather created it: taksu, divine inspiration. In this mask he is a god. In this mask, they think, he can create the world, bending it around him as he likes.

And bend it he shall. Raising his toes, he flexes his foot, shifting his weight onto the opposite leg. His shoulders tense as he raises his hands, one slightly higher than the other, fingers of both spread wide like the harsh rays of the sun beating down the midday heat outside.

His friends gape. In beginning his dance, he has removed his hands from the wood, but still it remains on his face, perfectly balanced as if it is his own skin. In this moment, there is no possibility that he might ever exist without this mask.

As he takes his first step, the light changes. The room darkens and as he waves one hand and then the other. He steps again, and a golden hue diffuses throughout the room, a perfume of sunlight. He turns, and in the distance a gong rumbles, its reverberations signaling a gamelan about to begin playing. The boy-god moves with such fluidity, such grace in time with the music that there is no chance of knowing who is leading and who is following: the musicians or the dancers.

Still, the others know without doubt, even without seeing the musicians in the distance, that the power belongs to their friend. Their friend in the mask, their friend who is the mask, who is creating this dance, creating this new world as he coils and unwinds.

"The Earth that Stands Before Us" was named a finalist in Best of the Net 2011. 

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