It’s hard not to stare at the two remaining teeth precariously suspended in Ketut Liyer’s gummy grin as he leans a few inches from my face while reading my forehead. Since learning about the Indonesian medicine man, painter and self- professed psychic in Elizabeth Gilbert’s best- selling book, Eat, Pray, Love (read an excerpt), I’ve felt compelled to find him, and fate brought me my chance when my husband and I traveled to the island of Bali (see photo gallery). “My great-granddaughter study to be dentist; maybe I get new teeth some time,” he says in a jovial high-pitched voice with misplaced inflections, a little like Yoda.
How’d he know I was thinking about his teeth? Is he reading my mind or just my eyes? Tracking him down took half the day, countless Google searches, three different taxi rides across misty, lush green rice fields and a detour through the enchanted Monkey Forest. But making sense of this quirky, diminutive mystic plucked from a bygone century is turning out to be a greater challenge.
We’re sitting on palm mats on the porch of Liyer’s Ubud village home, which is one of many cozy pavilions ringing his small walled compound. The wings of the mythical bird, Garuda, are carved into dark wood panels, intricate symbols of deities are cast in cement-top archways, and heavy tropical air blooms with the scent of incense from the family shrine. I wonder if a spell is being cast on me.
Liyer leans back and continues studying my forehead with a bright, open smile and a playful sparkle in his eyes. Having no ailments to cure, he focuses on determining my current and future state of being. “You are very good girl, very good girl! You give good, happy energy.” He stares at my hairline, so my eyes wander to his colorful sarong, his dirty, holey T-shirt and sculpted fingernails, which are peculiarly long. His words leap in giant, asynchronous scale steps, making it difficult to focus on what he’s saying, but studying his idiosyncrasies is just as interesting and entertaining. My friend Martha Moore , who loaned me Eat, Pray, Love, would scream if she knew I was sitting with Liyer right now.
“Who is she?” he asks while gently touching my hand with a disarming yet comforting sense of familiarity. Am I thinking out loud? I stammer something about my friend while he reads my palm. He points to a cat that a village boy had drawn on my hand earlier that day, about which I had totally forgotten, and says, “Who is she? She pretty.” I laugh and he giggles coyly, making me wonder if he’s toying with me. Before I get distracted again, I remind myself to ask about his medical books.
Acting on my unspoken desire, he unfurls his crossed legs and springs up, belying his age (anywhere from 80 to 110 – not even he knows how old he is), and collects a handful of faded wooden tubes of varying lengths. He holds one, unties a string, and the two halves of the simple encasement open to reveal a stack of crumbling, dried palm fronds that are hand printed with elegant script and detailed, ornate drawings. In halting English he explains that these tribal medical texts have been passed down though nine generations and that he is the last in a long line of medicine men in his family. The pictures depict gods and goddesses who can either make mischief with a person’s health or improve it, while the words describe symptoms, diagnostic techniques and ancient healing treatments. Mesmerized, I hold the disintegrating fragments of Balinese history in my hands, soaking up that which will soon be gone forever.
I feel a tickle on my back and resist a reflexive shudder. “I read your back now,” Liyer says. “You live to 101 years.” He pauses in thought and then continues drawing with an elongated nail. “You guided by Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and creative things. She live on your back.” A Hindu goddess lives where? Liyer disappears momentarily and returns with an ink-drawn picture that’s set in a hand-carved wooden frame. “I paint this. This Saraswati.” He gazes lovingly at the drawing and points to the lotus flower, bird and beads surrounding the goddess.
He reads my forehead and palm again and tells me that I am impatient (true) and that I have the option of a second husband (interesting). Quickly interrupting my thoughts of polygamy, he says he means a replacement spouse, not an additional one. “But only if this one become not too good. If he stay good, then no number-two husband.” I file this away as future ammunition to convince my husband that he should really be giving me more foot rubs.
After giving his predictions, Liyer walks with me through the peaceful tree- and shrub-studded central courtyard of the small compound. Even the umbrella shading the family’s daily offerings to the gods reflects perfect proportions: The fabric’s black-and-white checks symbolize the ever-present balance between good and evil.
We pet the dogs — one tries to mate with Saraswati — and gather pink plumeria flowers to put behind our ears. He says, “See you later, alligator!” which makes me giggle.
Before I leave, he stops me and holds my hands between his leathery palms. Coquettishly, with his chin to his chest, he looks up at me with friendly yet mischievous eyes. “I have no money, and great-granddaughter education very expensive. Please send friends to me. I read their palms, their backs — very good price for them.” An idea pops into my head (did he put it there?), and I tell him I hope to write an article about meeting him. Overjoyed, he claps his hands and says, “Yes, yes! You write good story. It sell millions of magazines! Many people come visit me! I get new teeth!” He pauses, leans toward me conspiratorially and in a lighthearted whisper says, “You know, I am psychic. I know these things.”
Cimeron Morrissey, lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband, who is now an enthusiastic foot massager.