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Sri Lanka
  Photo: Paul Cowan
Sri Lanka
 Photo: Paul Cowan

Sri Lanka: Cobras In The Bedsprings 
By Kim Forrest

I expected mosquitoes; I expected humidity; I expected gargantuan spiders and snakes would crawl into my bed at night; I expected scrappy monkeys screeching at me from roof tops and monster bats; I expected stray dogs, cats, and cows; I expected uncomfortable stares and jeers—I was an outsider after all; I expected a challenge—but I didn’t expect a poltergeist.

I learned about the poltergeist at dusk—just before I crawled into her bed.  My Sri Lankan host (my amma, my protector) nonchalantly told me while we chatted in front of the old colonial estate—her mother-in-law’s house.   Apparently, her mother-in-law was a mean woman: “she was so stubborn,” my amma said, “she refused to ever leave her house.  She refused to go to the hospital even when she was sick!  She stayed there until she died in her own bed.” 

Luckily, her death left an empty room so the family could take on an American guest; after the corpse was removed, they even had an extra bed.

My sleep that first night was restless, I was too afraid to open my eyes—afraid I would see her standing beside me.  I was particularly worried about the language barrier; if this little old Sri Lankan woman appeared in her flowered burial sari and began ranting in sinhala,I would be at a loss for words.  After my first few sinhala classes, I felt more confident; if she showed up, at least I could explain my reason for being in her bed.

The sleep first few weeks was relatively uneventful. I heard fights between wild boars and packs of feral dogs in the street, monkeys running across the metal roof at night, crickets, and the muted whistle of a distant train—but I never heard a poltergeist.  I woke up to cockroaches scratching across the floor and geckos eating ants on the walls at night, and in the morning I woke up to the distant chants of monks and the singing of house servants cooking early in the morning—but I never woke up to see an angry ghost. 

This soon changed.  My bed began shaking at night; it shook violently for no reason.  I comforted myself with the explanation that a cobra or rat had nested in my springs; it was less frightening than the idea that the old woman was trying to shake me out of her bed.

My friends said I was crazy; they suggested that my Larium was giving me hallucinations.

But I came home one day to find the frightening truth—I was possibly not crazy.  A group of silent men in solemn white sarongs were at work building an altar in the living room.  They laid white cloth over the picture frames, tacky gift shop statues of cocker spaniels and the china my amma kept to convince visitors she was a western woman. 

By the time dark fell, they had crafted a large altar of palm leaves and lit the room with small candles and incense.  I asked my amma about the process, the men, the statues of Hindu gods that now blocked the television in our living room.  She gingerly searched for the right word: “exorcism.” 

"It is an old ritual that must be kept secret, don't tell the neighbors," she said.  The exorcism was ordered on the authority of her astrologer—who perceived a bad energy remaining in the house months after the old matriarch’s death.


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