Every evening, she set up the altar afresh, because she couldn’t leave it out overnight. Even if it didn’t rain, the dew at dawn was heavy enough to ruin the fabric in a few days. She didn’t want the altar in the house. The rooms were too claustrophobic to hold so much light and power, too closed in to expand into the ether her songs – the shhush-shush of her feather wand, the smoke from the wood chips that had come with her all the way from the Amazonian jungle.
Every evening, she smoothed the altar cloth onto the flat stone she had found in the woods, hefted into the trunk of her car, and then half carried, half dragged into the circle of pine trees she had decided to make her temple in the backyard of the house that was not hers, but where she cooked and cleaned and copulated anyway.
Altar cloth down, then came the sacred objects. Granite fist for pachamama – earth goddess. Abalone shell that looked like a bright white stone for the moon – mamakilla. A feather for the creator – wiracocha. A white candle for the sun – inti. South, west, north, east. And in the center, a green and black and brown crystal rising from its stone covering – for Qu’ichi, the Self – deepest and highest.
Some evenings, she was bored. It didn’t seem worthwhile to take the blue cloth bag out, pour the tobacco and blue corn circle, unfold the cloth, place the pieces, start the evening chant. Nobody was listening, anyway. Nobody would get anything from this meaningless exercise, and stones were only stones, even after being “woken up” with her rattle. The trees around her were quiet and dull – wood and leaf inanimate, ground a little damp from not enough direct sun.
But about once a week, for no reason at all, the air itself seemed alive, her stones and shell and candle shimmering in the evening light that dribbled through the green and brown walls of this twilight church. The songs seemed to come from her heart and when she chanted, in ancient Quechua, I am the bearer of medicine, she believed it in her cells. Days like that, she wondered if there were still some hormones in her bloodstream that drove the energy in her fingertips. She didn’t believe in spirits, the moon was a piece of stone that moved around the earth because of gravity, the candle was flammable wax. But sometimes something was different, and so she came out every evening anyway, hoping for that tingle under her hairline that began as she shook her Amazonian rattle over the pieces and became the pain in her chest as the songs poured out.
The world was a rotten place these days. The world was always a rotten place, that was sure. Poverty, racism, climate change, pandemic – you name it, they had it. Animals dying out, trees on fire, oceans turning into plastic – there was nowhere to turn anymore. So, having returned from a retreat in the rainforest six months ago, she had decided to do something about it all. At 62, she was not an activist, not an artist, not a teacher. She had wasted her whole life with the three C’s and had a fourth flung at her every now and then. Now, with her rattle and a candle, some stones and shell and feather, she might just change the world. Or so she had been told.
Fifteen months ago, she had met a woman in the Tops in Greenville. They were both in a checkout line that had taken too long, and they had struck up a conversation. A young woman, maybe thirty years younger, dressed in strange ballooning trousers, with long earrings, blonde dreadlocks, and an armload of tattoos. An unlikely friend, but something had clicked. The woman was from the City and was looking for a place to pitch a tent. “Come over to my place,” Ginny had said on impulse, and had spent the rest of the evening and most of the night listening to stories of sacred plants in the Amazon rainforest and altered states that made one feel one with nature.
She had lived in the mountains of Upstate New York for almost forty years and had never thought about being one with nature. Nature was three-foot snowfalls to be endured, logs to be cut into smaller logs and put in the woodstove in the kitchen so that the house was always a little less cold than the outside. Nature was ticks in the summer and too much rain in the spring. Rose bushes. After the woman had left the next morning, Ginny had stared at the rose bushes. What did it mean to be one with them? She couldn’t imagine. But the woman’s voice went on and on in her head. The roots of every aspen in the world are connected. (Not under the ocean, surely?) Trees communicate with one another like we do. (Ever heard of a tree writing a poem?) On and on. The young voice declaiming, the older one mocking in response until she thought she might go crazy.
That night, after a slightly sullen dinner during which she’d said almost nothing and nor had he, she began a journey to South America. The number of sites that came up when she googled “sacred plant medicine” was astounding. How had she never known any of this? Why did nobody talk about this when there was so much of it? The accounts she read were not encouraging. Plenty of “one with nature” stuff and healing mental illness. Nothing she could relate to. Youtube had weird and crazy videos with music that didn’t sound like anything she would want to listen to. And yet, she didn’t stop looking. Driven by some strange urge, the presence of her new, young acquaintance still with her, she clicked and skimmed for hours through stories of vomiting – vomiting! – and visions. Not attractive at all.
Two nights of this.
Not a bad way to avoid the bed. “I’m looking something up. I’ll be right there.” So that, when she did go to bed, he was asleep and she could turn away and fall asleep herself.
Finally, she found it. A women’s retreat to the Peruvian jungle. No drugs. No vomiting. A shamanic journey. She had to look up the word. It didn’t sound like her kind of thing, but it looked less dangerous than the others. Singing and drumming. There were pictures of women who looked about her age. With feathers in their hands. Whatever. Lying on woven mats with eyeshades and peaceful smiles. She could use that. She had some money tucked away. It looked less expensive than other retreats. She decided to go.
Returning home was the difficult part. Re-entry – they told her – was bound to be difficult. Leaving the quiet of the river bank, the noise of the jungle, the evening gatherings in the wooden maloca, the fire dancing late into the night. Songs that became constant companions. And the crying. Ginny had not imagined that she could cry so much, but she had. While lying on the grass mat with her eyes closed, listening to the drums and the strange flute; while listening to her hermanas talk about their lives; while praying for pachamama – Mother of them all.
She hadn’t said very much about her own life – what was there to say? Certainly nothing much to cry about. When she thought of home, her neck tightened and a grayness filled her belly. Dishes in the sink. Laundry. A king-size bed in which she was groped and tussled, hair and breath and fingers invoking a rage that never exploded but that seeped into everything else during the daytime. The sullen silence of sunlit hours giving way to noisy discomfort and bad dreams in the dark.
While others in the sharing circles had come up with various resolutions to change their lives when they went home, Ginny seemed to be in constant confrontation with a wall she could not see over. When she closed her eyes and let go into the drumming, there it was – sometimes a wall on fire, once made of glittering blue gems, often a bare, straight up and down cement block with no footholds. She tried to insert a gate, throw up a ladder, but nothing worked. Stuck with the wall, stuck behind the wall, the wall stuck in her, she got into the car that met her at the airport. “Let me give you a quick hug,” he said. “Welcome home.” Like the customs officer who had stamped her passport. Then, she had felt something – an American returning from foreign lands. This was just a bore.
At home again, mornings came with dread in the bones. Some days, her hands felt weak and she even broke a few dishes in the sink. Every breath she took seemed tinged with fear. While going about her chores, the songs she had learned became earworms, humming themselves over and over so that she felt crazy, but her lips remained shut tight, so the songs had nowhere to go. Twenty-six days after she had returned from Peru, finding herself unable to breathe one fear-filled morning, Ginny scrambled in the drawer of her desk and found the number of the woman who had begun all this.
Marjorie. An old fashioned name. She called herself Jorie. It took enormous effort to ask for advice, so Ginny kept it simple. “It has been a difficult adjustment, returning home,” she said, once she had reminded the vagabond of her hospitality, explained her choosing the shamanic retreat, and talked a little about the two weeks in the jungle. It felt as if a whole lifetime had passed since she had met the young woman, and it would have taken all day to explain it on the phone, but Jorie grasped it all almost before the words were out.
“Of course it has,” she said. “Are you practicing?”
“All that you have learned. Are you setting up the altar, praying every day, using your powers?”
“I don’t have any powers,” Ginny said, dropping her voice on the last word. She looked around, but she knew that the house was empty. On a farm this size, there was always work to be done. She would be alone until dusk, at least.
The woman on the phone laughed. “We all have powers,” she said. “You’ve learned some ways to harness yours. If you don’t practice, you’ll end up getting sick. Once you’ve opened Pandora’s box, you need to let the energies flow, or they’ll eat you whole.”
“I don’t know what to do,” explained Ginny.
“Find a place to set up your altar and sit in front of it every day. You’ll figure it out. Who knows – you might end up saving the world. You’ll be surprised, I guarantee.”
Which brought her to this circle of pines every evening, lighting the candle on the north side, blowing into the bottle of Agua de Florida, turning to the four directions just as the sun was setting. Fall had arrived, and she had to wear a few layers. Winter would need more. The routine helped. Now, when she felt the fear in her wrists, she put down the dish she was washing or the sheet she was folding and look a long breath. She called up the image of her altar under the trees, the great pines silently watching, the feel of her rattle in her hand. It calmed her down.
At night, when the groping began, she brought up the image of the central crystal and knew she could get through anything.
One morning, as she was clearing the breakfast dishes, he stared up at her.
“What’s the matter?” Ginny asked.
“I’ve never heard you sing before,” he said. “What is it?”
A sudden hot flash made her heart thump so hard she thought she might faint. “Oh, sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize …”
She felt his stare as she moved to the sink, so she pushed the handle of the faucet to full spray so she wouldn’t be able to hear him say anything. As he got up from the table and left the room, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I wish I had the house to myself,” she thought.
It wasn’t her house, and Ginny had been aware of this every minute of the almost forty years she had lived here. They had been so sure of themselves – ex-hippies from bohemian New York City escaping to the Catskills. They didn’t believe in marriage, in letting the fascist State into their lives. They didn’t believe in bringing children into this world, in increasing the population by even one person. They were to live off the land, grow their own food, and take care of the animals that depended on them. Alpacas. Goats. His parents had left him money. She had none. But owning property wasn’t natural, anyway. How could one own a tree – any more than own a person?
The first time he called her a cunt, she had laughed. But she had looked for a place to move into, away from him. She was still young, and her life was all ahead of her. But she had had no savings, and the rents in New York were unimaginable. Besides, she had dropped out of high school decades ago. Where could she go now? She had become more careful, instead, keeping out of his way, not provoking rage and putting up with disdain. It was a small price to pay for the comfort of a big bed in a big house on big land.
That evening, she sang with more fervor than usual, her bells in her left hand, rattle in her right. Great creator Wiracocha, she intoned in Quechua, I am the bearer of medicine. And she felt it in her chest, in her knees, in the back of her neck. Chanting some Quechua, some Spanish, some nonsense syllables, her mind in the background still chattering, one deep breath produced a whole sentence, as if there was another voice speaking inside her. “I wish I had a drum,” the voice said. Ginny stopped moving, stopped breathing even. She had never heard that voice before. She said the words to herself again. “I wish I had a drum.” She had never played a drum before. Did she want one now?
The next day, she drove the thirty miles to Woodstock and, in one of the touristy new-age stores, she found the perfect drum. “Calf skin,” the guy told her, “warm it up before you play it.” It came with a padded stick. Ginny gave him a hundred and fifty dollars of hard-saved money. “Mine,” she thought, as she took it from his hand, unusual desire tingling the glands under her tongue. It took her weeks to play the drum well but, every evening, she thought to herself, Mine.
The cold had begun to settle in by four thirty in the afternoon, as the weak sun disappeared. The first snow had not arrived but was right around the corner. Ginny wore her parka to her altar these days, with gloves and a woolen hat. The drum had to be heated on the lamp in the living room and played quickly before it lost its tightness. Her feet crunched on freeze-dried leaves, and her nose blistered from the cold. “I am the bearer of medicine,” she chanted, “child of the sun.” Now, regularly, the thought formed behind the songs, “I wish I had the house to myself.” She closed her eyes and imagined – a quick heart attack in bed, she calling 911 too late; a car accident, and she receiving a phone call from the state police. There were many accidents waiting on a farm – sharp tools, tractors, icy pathways. Nobody was getting any younger these days, and there were always strokes and quick aneurisms. Taytantin Wiracocha, bearer of medicine, I am the child of the sun. The space under the pines was dark and cold earlier and earlier these days.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner slipped by easily. Ginny felt light headed all the time, as if the top of her skull had been opened and too much air let in. The corners of her eyes were dark, as if the lens of a camera were being shuttered. She sang often and even quite loudly, not worrying about stares, not noticing that there was anyone who could stare. The house was already beginning to feel like it was hers alone. She polished the wood and cleaned the windows, sanded the top of the dining table, fixed the legs of the shaky chair. She re-hung the full length mirror in the bathroom that had been falling out of its frame. She cooked elaborate meals and ate them with gusto. And once or twice, in the big bed at night, she felt like she had when she was young, wanting something more.
By mid-March, evenings were lighter, and the perpetual snow had melted. Ginny was often at her altar for long hours, expert now at blowing tobacco and creating a powerful mist of Agua de Florida with her pursed lips. The stones had become friends, allies, daughters. The pines were benign grandparents whom she spoke with every day, the ground under their droppings a lap of comfort and calm. The drum and the rattle, sisters in sound, wove a cocoon around her, sealing her into her light-headed trance. “Nyokakani Munay Sonko,” she chanted, “I am a compassionate heart,” while images of ambulances, out-of-control tractors, and wood-chippers-gone-crazy played themselves out on the screen of her closed eyelids. Always the voice rising into her chest, “I wish I were alone in this house.” She remembered how she had wished for the drum and it had come to her. More complex wishes took longer to fulfill, and she had patience.
On a Thursday in late March, she felt the familiar tingling at her hairline and knew that today would be special. It was right after the equinox, when the veil between the worlds was thinner. The moon had been full almost two weeks ago, and the imminent power of the new moon was all around; she could feel it in the skin of the drum, in the spine of the feather, hear it in the sharp insistence of the rattle. The top of her head was as thin as the veil, and her heart was strong and full. I am the bearer of medicine, she chanted, over and over again, praying to the water, to the earth, the air, the light. “I wish he were dead,” she said in her belly, and the words were smooth as a breath rising to her lips.
“I wish he would die,” she said out loud.
As the words left her lips and reached her ears, a great chasm opened in her chest, her stomach heaved mightily, and vomit spewed out of her mouth, onto her altar, into the air, staining the drum, putting out the candle, soaking the cloth, reaching as far as the giant pine tree and dripping down its trunk. Ginny retched and groaned; more bile, more vomit, all the food she had ever eaten in her life, all the liquid she had ever put in now raining out of her body in a spasm of unholy bitterness that seared her throat and smeared her face. Crouched over her altar, dripping into it like some ghastly gargoyle, she saw his face smiling down at her and, in the midst of bringing up her insides, was filled with immense longing for that face. Loud, raving, throat tearing sobs shook her body as she rolled into the ground, her arms reaching for the tops of the trees, for the clouds, for his face, his arms, desire filling her every empty crevice so that the vomiting and weeping felt like one huge, heaving orgasm that left her without air, rolled up in a ball, shivering, soaked.
She had forgotten all about dinner, and he came out looking for her. “What are you doing out here?” he asked, taking in the scattered cloth and stones and candle, drum, the horrible smell. “Are you all right?”
Ginny sat up and began to collect the stones, vomit and all, into their blue bag. “I’m ok,” she said. “I’m leaving in the morning.”
“What do you mean? Where are you going?”
“I’m leaving you, Derek,” she said. “I have a friend – a young woman I met a year ago. I’m going to stay with her for a bit until I find my feet. I have some money put away and I’m taking some of yours. I need to leave you. I’m going tomorrow.”
She got to her feet and stumbled into the house. There would be no dinner tonight, and she would sleep on the couch. But first, she had to wash the vomit from her body. Ginny took off all her clothes and stepped into the shower.