THE ABANDONED WIFE
Bali, Indonesia, 1959
It was by mere chance that I saw Theo Meier’s wife, especially under the circumstances in which it occurred. It was on the island of Bali in August 1959.
I had no intention whatsoever of going to Bali. Coincidence took me there. I was living in Tahiti, attempting to write the great American novel, but was finding it an impossible place to work with all the diversions the island has to offer. I don’t know how the likes of Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall did it and were able to produce the Bounty Trilogy. In my case, I had resigned myself to the fact that I had to move on to an environment more conducive to writing and was planning to leave Tahiti when one afternoon, while sitting with friends at Viama’s Cafe along the waterfront, a white sail appeared on the horizon.
Even from a distance, we could see this was no ordinary yacht. The rig was that of a schooner, but not one of those battered and bruised lusty trading schooners that operated in French Polynesia in those days. This was a sleek, trim yacht with a white hull that glistened in the sun. You knew at first sight she was not a vessel that smelled of copra and diesel. She tacked once under full sail past the entrance, dropped sails and under power entered the harbor. She was a magnificent vessel, a magnificent yacht flying American colors. She caught the attention of everyone on the quay that afternoon.
Schooner Northwinds, her name proudly displayed across the stern, had no sooner dropped anchor and warped her stern up to the quay when we learned that the skipper, a wealthy lumber man from Oregon, was taking his family-with his wife’s sister and her husband and their two kids-on a tour of the South Pacific. We also learned the skipper was looking for a tutor for the five children. Having spent a few years as a schoolteacher before turning writer, I applied for the position and was accepted. I spent the next six months aboard Northwinds, fulfilling dreams, sailing to forgotten islands, dropping anchor in forbidden ports that one only reads about in the classics.
Indeed, there can be no better dream come true than sailing the South Seas aboard a sailing schooner, bringing up new landfalls, new ports, and new experiences. As exciting as the tales of sailing the South Seas might be though, it has little to do with the story of Theo Meier, except for one important thing-art. Ed Delongo, the skipper owner, was looking for local art in the Pacific, which I learned only after we had set sail some months before.
But he was a hundred years too late. In civilizing the islanders, the missionaries destroyed the islanders’ culture, their traditions, their dance, their music, and their art. We sailed from one island chain to another, picking up an occasional carving, shunning their seashell artifacts and their coconut and bamboo handicrafts. From Fiji, we sailed to Port Vila in the New Hebrides, a muddled condominium governed by France and Great Britain, where, like Polynesia, their art and culture were lost. Captain Delongo searched long and hard for carvings, but was able only to find a few “story boards” and titikis too large to take aboard Northwinds. He had these shipped back to Portland. But not all was lost. At the Yacht Club in Port Vila, he heard an intriguing story about a South Sea island painter who had once lived in the New Hebrides and was now living on Bali, only a short sail beyond the New Hebrides. “He was character,” the old timer at the yacht club said. ”A painter he was, here in Port Vila many years ago, and the last we heard, he now lives in Bali.” The man thought for a moment. “His name is Meier, Theo Meier. You should look him up. He went through the islands painting the natives, getting into all kinds of trouble.”
A month later Northwinds sailed into Berroa Harbor on the lovely island of Bali. We spent our days and evenings victims of the island and the Balinese. In those days, long before tourists, there were no guidebooks or tour guides and you were pretty much on your own, so to speak. Fortunately, our skipper, blessed with a benevolent nature, made friends and we were constantly invited out to dinners and celebrations of every sort. But to his disappointment, Theo Meier no longer lived on Bali. He had left only a month or two before our arrival. He had departed suddenly, they said, but why he left was a mystery, a subject of much talk in the island. Some said he was practicing medicine and got into trouble with the authorities; others believed he was selling drugs to the natives. They even inferred that he had collaborated with the Japanese during the war and his past was catching up with him. Other artists said he had a falling out with President Sukarno who had him and other painters deported. Next, we heard that his Balinese wife had tried to poison him, and he lost face and had to leave. Whatever it was that compelled Theo Meier to leave Bali, he did it in a mighty hurry, and leaving behind his beautiful island wife.
We were on Bali about a week, getting ready to depart, when one afternoon I decided to take a walk into the hills above the village of Ubud. It was then that I saw her.
I had left Ubud and followed a path that led up a steep climb to the hills. Somewhere far above, I heard, was a beautiful temple. “You must see it,” the Balinese told me.
The path led through a thickly wooded area where a forest of banyan trees grew. How magnificent was this forest, perhaps even magical. Banyan trees are beautiful, and they grow with such grandeur and strength. When one sees them as I did that day, there is little wonder that the Balinese believe the forest where they grow are sacred. Here in the dark expanse of shade, the legend goes, their gods triumph. For one to stop and rest among them a while is to be akin with nature, or to be with the gods themselves. The forest, green and damp and heavy with the scent of decay, is especially welcoming in late afternoons, when the tropical downpour of heat is most fierce, and here in the cool shade, the world seems to be still. I found a place to sit and rest at the roots of a spreading banyan tree. Pencil-thin shafts of sunlight filtered down through the foliage and flecked the forest floor in delicate patches of gold. The sounds that came to me, at first, were inconsequential, until I minded them. Birds unseen in the deep foliage above sang cryptically to one another. There were sounds of insects, unfamiliar, suddenly breaking the stillness, loud and shrill at first, and then stopping, abruptly as they began. A dog yapping, barely audible, I could hear in a distant village. An occasional leaf fluttered earthward, catching a ray of slanted light, disappeared and then reappearing until it became lost among purple shadows beyond.
When you sit there long enough, among this tranquil splendor of a Bali afternoon, you begin wondering if it is real, if perhaps the Balinese gods did create the universe, as the Balinese so believe. You wonder if your senses are deceiving you, as I wondered when I heard, very faintly, the echo of a gong somewhere far off. A gong in the forest! Could it be? In an instant, more it was clearer, and louder, and mingled now with faraway voices. Then came the sound of a flute, and another, and more gongs. The yapping of the dog that seemed so distant was now closer, and grew louder. My peace and joy of the forest were being disturbed by something strange and bewildering, something mysterious and unfathomable, as Bali itself is, especially for one like me who had only been on the island a week.
And as I sat there, my back pressed against the gnarled roots of the banyan tree, perplexed and uncertain, and the sounds grew more distinct, there came into view far down the sun-flecked path, a column of marchers, led by men and boys. I watched them grow from fuzzy silhouettes into focus, like a camera zooming in on its subject. I could see them clearly now, all wearing sarongs, white sarongs, and around their wastes were scarlet cummerbunds fastened with rich buckles carved in gold. They wore headbands; these too all white, and pointed at the crown. Those in the lead carried towering bamboo poles, bent over in sweeping arches by the weight of flowing pennants attached to their ends. More marchers followed, boys carrying gaily-colored umbrellas suspended high above their heads on long slender poles. The music, gongs and flutes, accompanied by a chorus of singing, grew louder and louder in intensity until it became almost deafening.
Young children ran with the dogs alongside the procession, laughing and shouting and calling out to one another, adding to the noise and cacophony of sound. The procession passed, the music and singing dinned, gradually, and presently a line of women in single file came up behind the marchers. Unlike the men who wore white, they were dressed in brightly colored batik sarongs, and in place of headbands like the men wore, they carried upon their heads towering pillars of food, with tiny plaited baskets, heaped with cakes and sweets, and others with tropical fruit. These I learned later were offerings to the gods, and what I was witnessing was a religious procession heading to one of their temples further up the mountainside.
Then I saw her!
To say she was beautiful would be an understatement. She possessed something more than beauty itself. There was almost an ethereal quality about her, some intangible mystical quality that only the gods of Bali could have created. She was, perhaps to the eye, perfect. To see her, as I did that first time, marching in a religious procession above the hills of Ubud, she appeared, it seemed, more aberration than real, a living goddess. And then she too was gone and I was alone.
The image of that beautiful face, that lovely graceful body, those lines of elegant perfection, they were etched forever in my mind. I thought she would be gone forever and would remain only as a vision. But I would see her later, in the village of Ubud. As circumstances were to prove, she was flesh and blood and not a goddess. She was, in fact, the island wife of a foreign artist. She was his, to be loved, to be held, and, for the artist that he was, to be painted and made eternal, for all to see for all time to come. They said her name was Madepergi, and her husband was Theo Meier. The two had lived in Iseh on the far side of the island, but for some reason he had left Bali a short time before. He had abandoned his beautiful wife. How could that be?
What fate doomed the artist to leave her, to leave her and his Bali that he had so loved, a Bali that had been his home, his life’s blood and his spirit, for more than half his lifetime? And a woman who was also the mother of his child?
– Harold Stephens