Citation: Matthew Black. "Faceless in the Dark: An Experience with Ayahuasca (exp12807)". Erowid.org. Dec 5, 2002. erowid.org/exp/12807
All day long I’ve been fasting from food and water; at three o’clock in the afternoon, the headache sets in from caffeine withdrawal. I’m lying face down, stretched out in the best hammock. This large hut has no walls, just a palm-thatched roof and a floor that’s up on posts, three and a half feet off the ground. Most of the family is away. Somewhere upriver, Joaquin’s friend and fellow shaman Huhú is brewing yage out of vines and leaves. Around me, the sounds of the jungle. After urging my teacher for some time to make time for a ceremony, the day has arrived and I’m apprehensive, dreading the awful taste in the mouth and the vomiting I remember from previous ceremonies. I complain to Joaquin’s twelve-year-old grandson Luis: 'Poor me.' 'Why?' 'I’m going to drink yage tonight.' He laughs.
Luis has never tried yage and has no plans to. In the past, boys sampled it at about nine years of age, just a little at first. It wasn’t as essential for girls. After Joaquin was orphaned, he learned to drink it under the guidance of his mother’s parents, who were both shamans, and he began healing when he was about fifteen. When Protestant missionaries from the United States entered the area thirty years ago, shamanism and the yage ceremony went underground and nearly disappeared altogether. Joaquin’s wife Maribel, having begun her training as a shaman, was abandoned by her helping spirits when she accepted Christ, but she retained the ability to heal by laying on hands. Today’s youth, for better or worse, seem to care more about learning to read and write, and to deal with the outside world, than about old customs. This helps explain the fact that Joaquin’s few apprentices are all outsiders.
Luis wanders off to play soccer with his brother and sister. I close my eyes. Nearby, in the trees by the Tajino River, black and yellow oropendula birds are singing a sad, liquid tune.
It’s dark when Joaquin and Huhú arrive, and I’m confused by sleep. The two men bear flashlights, speak in their alien tongue, laugh. In my dreams, I was far away. Now I’m in a laughing darkness, unsure of the order in which things will happen. I sit up in the hammock, collect my thoughts, wait a while. The family is bedding down for the night in the enclosed room at the other end of the hut; the native schoolteacher and his son, who are visiting, are already asleep under mosquito netting in the dining area.
Faceless in the dark, don Joaquin bustles over and hands me a flashlight; a tin-framed, rectangular mirror; and a seedpod of uculi to be used as a pigment. 'You can paint your face now,' he says. I crack open the soft, spiky pod, work a finger into the moist, red juice around the seeds, and apply a standard, basic yage drinker’s design: a spot on each cheek, and one spot each on the chin, tip of the nose, and forehead.
Huhú builds a small fire of palm wood on a wide metal plate that rests on three squat ceramic pillars on the floor. I wrap myself in a blanket and recline in a hammock; Joaquin and Huhú are side by side in the one I was sleeping in before, facing opposite directions, Huhú closer to the fire. This is the first time I’ve seen him. He seems to be in his fifties, a decade younger than Joaquin, with a strong jaw and small eyes. Unlike Joaquin, he doesn’t speak much; he seems uncommunicative, and he makes me nervous.
In front of Huhú are two plastic jugs, one filled with yage, the other with water; and two plastic cups, one for yage, and one for water to rinse out the mouth. It’s no problem to spit or even vomit on the floor: it’s easily washed off in the morning.
I close my eyes and listen. Huhú unscrews the cap from the jug of yage. The sound of the cap being placed on a floorboard. The sound of liquid pouring into a plastic cup. I watch Huhú as he holds the green cup in his hands. Praying, he sings; singing, he chants. It’s very intense and serious and goes on for about five minutes. He’s a priest consecrating a sacrament. Then there’s a pause, and he drains the cup. He rinses his mouth with water from the other cup, leans over and spits the water into a crack between floorboards. He pours yage and prays over it for Joaquin, and lastly does the same for me. I thank the creator of the earth and sky for the day, for this moment, and for the yage, and I drink it.
The taste is even worse than I remember, instantly nauseating. It’s hard to get to the bottom of the cup. He brewed it very thick and strong. I rinse my mouth, lie back and try to move as little as possible. I rest for an hour, calm, bored, praying for good visions, unable to sleep, listening to the night sounds and the sporadic conversation of the shamans; wishing I could speak their language.
I look for alterations in my vision or thought and find none. Huhú sings, and his voice makes me uncomfortable. It’s somehow less human than Joaquin’s, less mammalian, even: it contains some of the pitches and rhythms of insect songs.
Huhú finishes his wordless song, chats with Joaquin, and prays over and drinks another cup; offers me another, which I accept. Another uneventful hour passes and I drink a third. I feel the yage building up like water behind a dam, and eventually I have a fourth cup. Now I’m shivering, waiting for the dam to break. Feeling cold and electrified, I shake violently, rock forward and backward in the hammock.
At last a vision begins: a complex, light blue arabesque arising from the song of nearby cicadas. I relax as I focus on it. It occurs to me that each part of this visualized song, each element within its pattern, contains a different piece of information. The cicadas seem to be describing the environmental conditions of the area.
Huhú chants like an insect, very fast. In the near-complete darkness, his face blurs, half cricket, half visual song, bluegreen sound patterns like fan corals shifting in the air. Joaquin prays now too, as if he were an old scat singer, improvising riffs on ancient melodies. He’s been singing when he drinks yage for more than fifty years, and he sings the antique syllables with a fluent beauty. From time to time one or another of the shamans breaks off singing to mimic a howler monkey or a jaguar, a sudden HUH! HUH! HUH! or HRRR! in the common language of the mammal tribe. Now Joaquin picks up a shesh, a ritual fan made of leaves, and shakes it as he sings, for rhythm and to move energies. It sounds like the wind rustling leaves, fast, over and over.
A rumble in my belly leads to pain, which I visualize as a huge glowing serpent writhing in my belly. The pain makes me cry out, gliding from agony when I scream like a hurt child, to triumph when I’m at the top of a hill of pain and feel tremendously strong and alive, and back down again. The pain becomes awesome--I’ve never felt this much pain before. It’s as if I’ve been poisoned and I’m dying. The pain makes me writhe in my hammock, like a fish dying in the air, or like a butterfly trying to shake off its chrysalis.
Keep the yage in as long as possible as it extracts its price, the tax on transformation. Its price is pain, and I’m willing to pay. This is where some of the healing comes in. It’s what being Rolfed must feel like, only from the inside: I’m stretching out my back in wondrous ways. As I scream in pain, Joaquin and Huhú build a brilliant wall of song nearby from their shamanic spaceship hammock, a song that says to me very clearly, 'You’re doing fine. We’ve been there too.'
As I finally vomit out the snake, my cries turn to roars of victory and ecstasy. With the piney smelling vomit pooled on the floorboards inches from my face, I scream, my body facing the floor, swaying, just my head out of the hammock, looking at the upside-down world in darkness. Now’s the time to growl, no human language needed, now’s the time to howl, to roar, to pound the floor, imagining enemies.
Now I lie back in the hammock, my body humming like a well-tuned machine, now’s the time to sing Aumm… omm… home… heyyy!… ommm… hey, hey hey hey hey…. With simple sounds I sing of the growth of plants, the birth of stars, the alliances between some rainforest peoples and certain outsiders.
Be silent now, and listen to the shamans’ songs, Huhú and Joaquin singing different songs at the same time. Complex patterns of soundwaves and vibrations mix with the songs of cicadas, crickets, tree frogs peeping in the woods.
Listen to the silence of the shamans, and to the peaceful song of the forest night.
The two men sit up in their hammock, their legs in opposite directions, and converse. Huhú pours, chants a magic spell, drinks another cup of the potion. To me he says, 'You want another?' 'Yes,' I reply. I watch while he pours, prays, passes it to me. Horrible glittering holy yage, welcome to my body, even as I shudder as I drink.
Since I’m sitting up, I feed the fire, blow on it, get it going again. Smoke blows back in my face. I lie back in the hammock, swaying a little. Along my jaw, my fingers explore razor stubble, 2 A.M. shadow from shaving yesterday morning in the river. Thoughts lead to thoughts and I wonder how the U.S. military mission in Haiti is going. A newspaper article I read in town a week ago said the death toll on our side was up in the twenties. Now I see the dead ones marching, about thirty yards southwest of the hut, lost among planes of darkness in the roadless jungle of the night. They’ve found out what we wonder all our lives, what it is to die. I sing to them, Now you know, now you know, now you know. Honor the fallen soldiers, we wish you well, we wish you well. Immediately they have taken refuge in my stomach, and I know I’m going to throw up.
I sing to the dead soldiers of the pride America has, and the love their families have, for them. Later on in my life I’ll die too. We all die, we all die, we all die.
A peaceful, deathlike calm floats over and around my body. I lie without moving, practicing to be dead, rocking gently back and forth. Thoughts drift away like smoke.
Someone clears his throat loudly.
There is silence, there are crickets. In a dream once, a dead friend told me that for a week after he died, he didn’t know he was dead, and he ate cabbage and the tops of the waves on the whitewater river where he drowned.
The cicadas start up again. I hum, wondering about the birth and death of the universe. I fall silent, agnostic. What are the shamans seeing?
Joaquin coughs and begins a song, tentatively at first, then stronger. He’s told me it’s his job as a shaman to protect his people with his song, with his magic, with his prayer. Demons--a metaphor for what?--can’t stand the sound of it and flee back to hell-realms below. Invisible to me, but not to the shamans, the sky people descend, radiant. After a while my stomach turns over and I know it’s only a matter of time.
The waves of nausea come closer together now, and stronger. I’m singing hard, trying to persuade my body to keep the yage down. Then the waves of pain break over me and I cry out, then I’m singing again, knowing I’m going to feel a lot worse before I feel better. Nine people are more or less asleep within earshot, and while it’s acceptable to roar, howl, scream or yell as necessary, it feels important to sound good while doing so. I think about them thinking about me and reassure them with my song that I’m all right.
No, I’m losing it, a groan is wrenched from my lips, and in a moment I’m puking again, as inevitable as death. It’s strong, my whole body bucks, I think my eyes must be squirting tears. Cleaner inside to start with, I’m not roaring as much, but I seem to be staring right through the earth into outer space. The fingers of one hand grip the webbing of the hammock, the other hand braces against the floor as I spit out the last of it--Ptah! Empty, but racked by dry heaves, I shout Dau! Huh huh huh HUH! Hrr! Cough and spit again and then lie back feeling lighter, sing Haaa to signal that I’m at peace, and that rage is a gift that must be used only for good. Sing Hey… the defense of peaceful communities. Hmmm… healing and the color green. Heyy… the sound of sunlight. Hai, the blue sky. Ha, ha, ha… the pleasure of being alive. I mix a surreal song from shining fragments of words and sounds that come out in all colors; I sing real nice, then falter; try to regain the magic, fail, and subside. I remember something funny that happened in ninth grade, and laugh and laugh. Then there’s silence again.
Huhú sings his funny insect song, Joaquin is serious and I laugh, Joaquin sings, shaking the leaf fan, and I hum along, wishing I could sing like him. I’m grateful to him and his ancestors for their songs of freedom and redemption. Later, Huhú gives me more yage, and later still I throw it up again, the vision machine humming around me, painting intricate colored patterns in the black air. Even later, we all sing together, and it’s like flying through clouds.
A distant roar of howler monkeys in the jungle to the south at 4:30 A.M. sounds like a storm on the ocean.
Huhú stands up and begins to march up and down in the deep blue pre-dawn light--marching forward, stepping backward, all the while shaking his leaf fan, sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh. I lie there eyeing him, thinking, This is weird. Truly, deeply, embarrassingly weird. But the following evening, Joaquin would ask me, Did you see how beautifully he danced? And did you see the sky people dancing alongside him? So many of them, they were like leaves in the forest! And so beautiful!
Soon the roosters begin to crow, and then the light creeps into my companions’ bright tunics, one orange, one yellow, and into my green tunic as well. Doubled over with dry heaves, gagging, gut-wrenched, and utterly thirsty, I feel a sudden nostalgia for the café where I work back in the States; I wish I had a raspberry Italian soda.
In the early morning light, Joaquin and Huhú joke with me, broad smiles and laughter all around. Joaquin is relaxed, bemused, red spots of uculi on his cheeks, his legs crossed at the ankles. He always looks like a Tibetan lama, but right now he reminds me of René Magritte. Huhú takes a long swig of yage directly from the jug… just watching him do this nauseates me, and I belch and throw up a bit on the floor. I stay where I am, perfectly comfortable, and watch the pool of vomit--pure yage--as some of it begins to slip slowly down between the floorboards. I study the chainsaw pattern of the floorboards, and the tiny, white saliva bubbles on top of the thick brown liquid.
I hear the sleepers rising in the other part of the hut. Joaquin, who’s drunk less than Huhú or I, converses with them. I shift my head and watch, for a long time, the upside-down jungle, and the way that the breeze picks out certain leaves to caress while leaving others unmoved. Huge, upstanding leaves of banana plants, transfixed bright green by the morning sun, rock back and forth. I study the clean clothes hanging on the line outside, and the flight paths of small birds as they zoom by, little more than blurs. An immense black beetle buzzes through the hut.
I lie back in the hammock, chatting with Joaquin and Huhú. My whole body feels good. From the dining area where he was sleeping, the schoolteacher regards me intently. His son is wary of me, remembering my wild roars. Two of Joaquin’s grandchildren smile at me, proud of my fortitude. And Joaquin’s wife Maribel beams her gorgeous grin and sits down with a knife to pare her nails.
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