Excerpt from Shadowplay

In Java during the reign of King Senapati, a master of the shadow-puppet theater heard, by chance from a Portuguese sailor, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.


Guntur was already past fifty when he was granted, by virtue of a supreme artistry or a special destiny, the power to possess the woman he adored since he had first seen her standing shyly in his puppet theater. He had been forty then, his hair not yet gray or his back bent. Candra had come from the batik clothmaker to buy puppets, and for six afternoons Guntur had questioned her from behind the story-screen about her life. During the sixth night, she was taken by a fever whose origin might have been Guntur’s own ardent interest in her, his desire to ravish her of words. For ten years after that first death, he sought her among the shadows while the theater remained closed, the puppets shut away. At the end of the tenth year, Guntur took up the puppets again and with one of them, Arjuna, brought Candra back from the dead. Had he refused the gift and resisted the arrogance its acceptance entailed, the artistry and destiny (which for a time exalted him) would not have exacted so absolute a punishment.

Candra was unhappy to live always inside the shadow theater, which itself seemed composed of shadows. They clung like soot from the oil lamp to the edges of the table and the strings of the rebab. They collected like rain in the hollows worn into the floor. Shadows obscured the faces of the musicians when they turned toward the darkness as if seeing there Sinta abducted by Rahwana, the Monster King, whose story Guntur performed behind the illuminated screen. Were Candra to leave the theater and its enchantment, she would return to the sleep from which Guntur and Arjuna had wakened her. This, she knew when she did leave, finally, to follow her lover there. She stepped outside and, in an instant, died.


Guntur is once again undone by grief. He weeps but is not inconsolable, for he knows how Candra can be restored to him-knows by what secret ways she can be brought back. (That she could have chosen death is a possibility he rejects.) He asks two Sikhs, who are watching him kneel beside a woman in the street, to carry her body into the theater.

Guntur has only to make the puppet rods dance at the door to the Land of the Dead to draw the woman out of its iron embrace. He has only to take in his hands the buffalo-horn rods to send the Warrior Prince, Arjuna, on his difficult way across death’s doorway to release, for a second time, Candra from her dream of life. Although Arjuna’s journey to Yama’s island kingdom will be painful for Guntur while he sits bent over his puppets behind the story-screen, with the music of the gamelan and the rebab heard only in his mind now that the musicians are home sleeping-he would suffer this and more to have Candra with him again.

It is after all a small thing for a dalang, who long ago mastered his shadow art, to work the puppet rods and, with them, walk into Death on the legs of his puppet warrior. It would be the puppet master who enters the lovers’ pavilion. It would be he who lifts the sleeping woman from the soldier’s arms and carries her across the threshold of the afterworld, through the nothingness that separates it from the village with its huts and pigs and squabbles and dust, into the theater where Guntur has performed ever since he was a young man. It will be Guntur in the form of Arjuna, who rescues Candra.

The sleeping woman whose hands are blue.

His heart wishes it. His mind does, and his body- his hands, which for forty years have manipulated the goat-skin puppets behind the diaphanous white screen. His hands move as if they are themselves wayang, as if they are no longer part of himself but belong, instead, to them. His hands move with no more thought given them than to the spoon with which he eats his rice and fish. They move with no more thought than a Dutch soldier’s wife gives to the needles as she knits out of a strand of yarn, woolen hose for her husband, which he will not wear in the intense Java heat; but knit she must-obedient to the will of her hands and, perhaps, also of the wool. So, too, a dalang knits out of shadows the Hindu stories his people love, not knowing whether his hands will it or the stories themselves do.

Guntur’s hands have wandered the ancient realms of the Ramayana and Mahabharata-have made formidable journeys during a thousand nights while the oil lamp casts his puppets’ shadows onto the story-screen. The flat parchment puppets-wayang kulit– and the hands of their master are one. This is true of all dalangs. Unlike them, however, Guntur once went to the Land of the Dead. He became Arjuna and brought Candra back with him to the shadow theater. (Unless it was that Arjuna became Guntur; it is impossible to say in whose mind the story was written.)

Now, Guntur’s mind and hands are bent on one thing: to deliver Candra from death and, though death be a paradise, to return with her to Surakarta.

Why, then, does he hesitate to light the oil lamp and take from the banana-tree trunk in which it rests the goat-skin puppet; to play in his mind the two-stringed instrument, whose songs are as intricate and seductive as the sea’s; to hold the puppet rods and send Arjuna where Candra, whose hands are dyed indigo, is dreaming? Why does Guntur not hurry with Arjuna to where there is neither time nor words nor dust?


“You mustn’t!” the old woman admonishes Guntur, taking from him the puppet Arjuna, so that the dalang cannot travel a second time beyond death’s door and return with Candra. Here, there is only a likeness of death. In the room’s heavy shadows and in the single shadow that is night, death admires its image as if in a mirror. When the rain beats mournfully against the leaves and the thatched roof, it is as if the night sea were hurrying into the room’s corners and the spaces between its rafters. “You mustn’t!” she repeats, roughly handling the puppet as though she intends to cripple Arjuna. Guntur stares at her as he would a ghost who has entered his room from a seam in the air. He sees Arjuna gripped in her hand and wonders, idly, if the pressure of her fingers hurts the Pandava warrior, whose invisible presence the puppet signifies. For a moment he forgets Candra-forgets his determination to abduct her from the blue pavilion where she sleeps in the arms of the dead soldier, enfolded together as if

death were a silk shroud wound about them both. For a moment, Guntur does not see Candra where she is sleeping without end-does not see her asleep as though in a mist, a shimmering heat, or the waning light. Now it is this old woman he sees, who seems to have arrived from the passageway connecting life and its reflection-so suddenly did she appear. He grasps her wrist to prevent her flight from the shadow theater with his puppet. But she has no intention of leaving.

The woman may be herself a ghost quickened by the dalang‘s hand on her wrist while in her hand Arjuna has halted in his preparations for the difficult journey. There are many such formidable women in Hindu stories. May not this woman be one of them? Might she not have left the shadow world, attracted by the lamp light wavering on the cotton screen? The theater is silent beneath the black trees; what music there is, plays only in Guntur’s mind. Perhaps this fierce woman has possessed the puppet master’s hand clenching her wrist. Perhaps she has cast her shadow, from where the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are eternally occurring, into the theater- drawn by a light and music unheard by all save the two of them.

“You must not wake her!”

She releases her grip on the puppet, but in her eyes Guntur sees that she has not relented. He inserts the puppet rod in the banana-tree trunk, letting Arjuna rest. Lying between Guntur and the story screen, the trunk has the heft of a man’s arm.

“Who are you?” he asks.

“Candra’s aunt.”

And Guntur remembers how, after Candra’s mysterious first death, he had gone to beg of her aunt the young woman’s wooden bangles.

“I did not recognize you,” he says, letting go her arm.

“You destroyed her once-now let her be!” The weak light seems to shrink from the woman’s fury as though her gusting anger shook the flame in the unchimneyed lamp, which yielded its small and timid fire to the room’s expectant darkness. She may be only a mortal woman; but in her rage against Guntur and his indecency, she is like Amba, an exemplar of supernatural vengeance. Guntur feels the storm of her buffeting him, and his hands tremble so that he cannot take up Arjuna and with him drive the woman from the playhouse.

Arjuna rests, his puppet rod in the hollow green trunk. He is without resolve, emptied of purpose-now that Guntur’s will, like a boat submissive to a powerful tide, has ebbed away from the seaward journey.


If Guntur was destined to live among shadows, Candra was fashioned for bright sun. She was born in the light and twice died when darkness was already gathering in the corners of the room where she lay waiting to be engulfed by night.

Her father was a fisherman. Her mother tended fields of sweet potatoes and rice. Their house was raised on stilts above the marsh grass. The house looked out upon the Java Sea, into which Candra’s father disappeared each morning, early, when the sun trembled on the horizon, and from which each night he appeared out of the darkening sky when the fishing was done.

Like a wayang. Ghost.

There were the three of them together; and then a fourth, Lastri, was born.

As the sisters grew, they became bound in affection- each to each and each one also to the mother or father. Lastri followed her mother into the fields while Candra was already in the boat when the sun came up over the rim of the world, making light spill across the sand, turning it pink, then gold, then white. The sand would be white until the sun’s leaving turned the grains to rubies, which shone until the light was put out suddenly in the sky and the shadows that all the while had been lengthening joined to become night.

Her father was almost always silent. He spoke only of what was important to know in a boat far from land.

“You must coil the rope this way,” he said, showing Candra how to make the rope lie flat on the bottom of the boat. “In the water, it will come alive again, like an eel.”

“You must hold the net this way,” he said, showing Candra how to gather the corners of the net in both hands. “So that when it is thrown, it will turn in the air like a wheel before falling into the water.”

“You must reef the sail this way,” the father said, showing the girl how to fold and tie the sail. “So that the increasing wind will not overwhelm the boat.”

In the boat, he spoke little, preferring to listen to what the wind and water sang. When he spoke, he did so with deliberation so that Candra would understand the importance of what he said. The only exception to his solemnity, which she, too, observed, was the nonsense words they sang to encourage the fish to swim into the net.

The nights were dark but not entirely when the weather was fine, for the vast quantity of stars was like a shining dust against the blackness. So many stars were there that they seemed to sift down onto the sea and, when the tide was high, into the tiny bays that coiled among the marsh grasses. The stars seemed also to cling to the tops of the palm leaves-their bottoms blacker than night itself.

Later, inside the house, Candra would sit mending a torn net under the oil lamp, or eating fish and rice sweetened with coconut, or singing with her father the nonsense song they sang, waiting for the fish. Lastri helped her mother to wash and put away the pots. Such a division as this is natural when the work must be divided. This story is not about the envy of sisters or the jealousy of parents. This story tells of an impossible love, which overrules reason and the boundary the gods have ordained between life and death.

Back to Norman Lock’s Shadowplay.