My first marriage began at the age of 21 and ended at the age of 32. It had come as such a shocking end that I was still providing marital advice to all of my divorcee friends the day it ended. It ended while eating spaghetti as my first husband admitted to a year-long affair with my best friend and the decision to run off with her.
I went through the typical misery of depression. I ended up in Rehab to find new coping mechanisms. The problem with alcohol is that it’s a very good one…too good. It left me with no coping mechanisms, so I jumped out of an airplane. Then, I did it eight more times.
Above: I’m getting ready for my first jump. Just look at the misery on my face 🙂
I tried one-night stands and slept with all sorts of men whose names I didn’t remember.
Above: Even penguins remember their partners. It wasn’t a proud moment of my life.
I tried manual labor. I replaced the carpet in my entire house with wood laminate and built wooden stairs outside by cutting eight 4x4s into 32 pieces with a dull handsaw.
Nothing worked, so I went to Peru to meet a shaman.
In the Amazon, I met Onorato, a shaman who lived in a village with about ten other people. An aged man in a short, wiry, boyish body, the years of shamanic wisdom hid between the wrinkles of his lively eyes. Wearing a plain, fitted white undershirt and faded jeans, he watched me earlier this afternoon, amused, as I chewed a leaf they used as a local anesthesia. I drooled leaf juice down my chin and onto my shirt, while he spoke about its uses in village dentistry, pausing at intervals for his translator.
My guide, Carlotta, led me to the middle of a large wall-less hut in the center of the village. The bluish light of the flashlight glimmered off of her long, dark, tangled curls. She gestured toward a dirty bucket and a roll of toilet paper next to a flat, stained mattress, and then pantomimed vomiting. “You use when you need. It is normally, Michelle.”
The buzzes and rustles of the nocturnal animals replaced the caws and hollers of the daytime. It was 9pm exactly, according to the shaman, who wore no watches or clocks. He and his intern formed faceless silhouettes underneath the one lit candle in the village.
Onorotto brought the candle to his face, illuminating something darker than the amusement he presented hours before. My focus turned to a two liter Coke bottle filled with a dirty liquid, the beverage that would supposedly change my life. He swirled it, then blew heavy pipe smoke into the container. His face lifted upward, he sang something brief, then gestured for me to come to him.
“He says you drink all,” said Carlotta, instructing me by drinking deeply from an invisible glass.
With a bitterness of an orange peel and the flavor of green leaves, it slugged down my throat thick as watered-down mud. I joined Carlotta back on the old mattress and wrapped myself in a tattered plaid blanket, though the night felt warm. Onorotto drank directly from the same bottle and extinguished the candle, leaving a dancing ghost of smoke in its absence. “Limpia, limpia, limpia,” he chanted in his clear, deep voice toward the sky. Clean, clean, clean.
“You now have 20 to 40 minutes. Then, you feel…”Carlotta noiselessly pantomimed vomiting again, “It is normally. You don’t worry. It is normally. The visions begin then.”
According to the accounts I’d read, a full glass preceded extreme experiences. One guy claimed absolute horror as gigantic lizard people chased him. A woman from National Geographic screamed so loudly during her first experience that the other members never forgave her. A friend of a friend of mine said that he enjoyed flowers with pirates and later made music to his own farts. Interviews and documentaries detailed intense visions of demons and gods, a spiritual journey through one’s worse terror in order for the spirits to guide him or her to personal triumph and euphoria. For the last month, I wondered what I would see.
I also wore no watch, but I suspected that it had been more than an hour since Onorotto began, and I felt bored and a little tipsy. No goblins emerged from beyond the hut, and at that point I wished they would. Might it not work?
Onorotto refilled the cup, and I drank again. In none of my research did the initiate drink a second glass. Another hour went by, then two. In the articles, it always worked. The stories shown vividly with color and spark. What was wrong with me?
I cried a bit, then gave up. Resting on the mattress, I closed my eyes and feigned sleep, hoping the shaman would eventually halt his begging of the foreign gods to save my stubborn soul. Near my face, I could hear a tarantula scuttling loudly across my mattress. Then, I saw a flower flash in my vision like a purple-leaf and green-vined cartoon bathed in bluish clouds. A vision! It disappeared before it took meaning. Then, a vivid rat scurried behind my closed eyes in my brain’s feeble attempt to accept the hallucinogenic liquid. It didn’t sustain. Carlotta guided me back to the hut where she instantly fell asleep and I stayed awake.
After tucking my mosquito nets around the mattress, I continued with my predicament. How do I proceed with life? I am more alone now than I was before I came here. I should never have believed in…well, anything.
A baby cried in the neighboring hut, interrupting my thoughts. Starting as a whimper, the cries intensified slowly. After about ten minutes, she bawled loud and congested and sounding somehow closer than the hut.
She sounds sick. Why doesn’t anyone attend to her? I should do something. A parent or sibling should come to the rescue. Nobody helped the baby, and nor did I.
Will I be a mother someday? Perhaps it is too late. I’m nearing my mid-thirties. Will I even marry again someday? Do I even want to?
An anteater snorted loudly next to my bed, but I couldn’t find him anywhere in the hut. Are anteaters dangerous?
The baby continued crying more loudly, more congested, until her whimpers and the anteater’s hungry snorts became indistinguishable.
I can’t help the baby!
I covered myself with the blanket and distracted myself with the real problem at hand. Will I live alone, an adventure writer like the women in the travel essays books, having affairs with Bedouin strangers and surviving on fried guinea pigs? Perhaps my destiny is as a lone adventurer.
The merger of baby and anteater demanded my attention, savage and aggressively. As an EMT, I should help the baby, but I would not move. I couldn’t. Why? It was outside of the blankets. Is the anteater eating the baby? Where are the baby’s parents, and why aren’t they doing anything? Somebody do something! It isn’t my baby. I held the blanket tighter, fearful of what might happen next.
I strained my attention away from the animals. Will I be a wild grey-haired woman with 20 cats, an overgrown yard, and neighborhood kids daring one another to touch my door? I could do that. I could be an eccentric. Perhaps I’ll have a laboratory. I never did like mowing.
The sobs and snorts separated again. The anteater rooted near enough to eat me, and still, nobody tended the baby. I knew she might die soon while I lay on the mattress, hiding beneath the blanket from the oppressive sounds. All I have to do is get up, but I am too scared.
I shouted internally, “Someone answer me! I’m here for answers. Why don’t I get them like everyone else? Where are the spirits? Something should have happened. What is wrong with me? Help me, please.”
No heartbeat. No baby. No anteater. No internal videos. No answer. Silence. Complete silence since the first time I entered the jungle.
A new image emerged like a smoldering campfire on a cool, foggy night. The affair in my marriage had been a familiar treachery. I’ve hidden beneath blankets before, waiting for the pain to disappear and sleep to provide escape, but then as a taciturn and friendless child. Desolate and contused, I encountered monsters in my youth. Sometimes, the racing footsteps found me, quavering beneath the blankets, and I reaped my punishment. Often, though, the footsteps were only my heart beating, living a cynical life in its worse circumstances. Regardless, I always crawled out of the covers the next morning. I learned how to earn friends, I put myself through college, worked fast food, sacrificed comfort to buy a home, built a career, and fought terror. I’m no coward. I’m 33, and I know that the demons hide under the blankets with me.
I walked alone into the Amazon, and two days from now, I would walk out of it alone too. Finally, the silence comforted me. Carlotta breathed deeply beside me. She had slept the entire time, undisturbed by the raucous altercation.
It was the first time I could see my future, and it didn’t matter what I decided to do. It was euphoric, probably because I had taken a hallucinogenic drug, but also because I felt alive more than I had ever felt before.
I am now 37 and I realize that the anteater had to eat the baby in order to save me. Since then I’ve been living like I’ve never lived before.