ENTERING THE GHOST RIVER
Michael Ortiz Hill
Some say we come out of the dream and return to it, or that the path through the dream is the same path along which we walk the sacred through a tortured era. The truest words in this book are, "I want to break your heart." But they are only true because the book itself is a cry from the heart and invocation of beauty.
It was beauty that called me to Africa so many years ago–coming radiant and indecipherable in the form of elephants. I dreamt sitting in the grass alongside a huge river next to a small altar with bright yellow flowers and an African man in skins, dancing. Beyond him in a field, elephants, chalky white, much larger than life, dignified in bearing and majestic in beauty. I awoke puzzled. I knew nothing of Africa, had no curiosity whatsoever about African traditions. And elephants, so awesome in the dream were, in my waking life, objects of a very distant affection, which is to say, quite irrelevant. And so I did what one does–placed the dream on the shelf among other exotic artifacts passed to me through the dreamtime. Nonetheless, nine years later, I arrived at the doorway of Augustine Kandemwa. The evening we met, Augustine began initiating me into the way of the ancestors, the midzimu who meet at the crossroads of animal, human and spirit.
I can smile now on the white man’s delusion that persisted unseen until near the end of my first initiation in spite of all evidence to the contrary that I was in control of the story I was living. I did not know what Augustine meant when he’d say, "People cannot initiate other people. It is the spirits that do initiation" until the fated evening that the elephant spirits arrived.
We were driving through the night just south of the Zambezi–Mosiyatunya, "Where the Stones Thunder" –Big Falls. Three elephants crossed the road, chalky white in the headlights. My "exotic artifact" fell from the shelf into my hands. It was suddenly clear that we were approaching the circumstances of my dream, that neither he nor I were in control, that the initiation ahead was both unpredictable and benevolent.
The following afternoon, Augustine and I walked along the Zambezi to a place a dream led him to that he regarded as holy. Together, we made an altar of grass and bright orange flowers that grew along the trail for the elephants.
I tell this story as a small praise song to the elephant–to Mandlovu–that great mind that moves within the vibrational field where the craft of kinship is realized. The logic of Mandlovu is kincraft - in this case across the boundaries of race, colonial and neo-colonial violence, and in deep alliance with the animal other. Augustine and I made an altar to elephant; by day’s end we called each other ‘mapatya’–twin brother.
Not a small part of the ritual elegance of this book is that stories are arranged as if each carries a quality of intelligence made fully lucid as they are heard within the vibration field created by the other stories–no doubt inclusive of the stories the reader carries as well. I spy in this arrangement the lazy circles of elephants independent and related to each other as they browse the veldt. The invitation is to climb into the text and offer your own story within which the possibility of kinship is invoked. Yes, that the heart be broken. Yes, that the cry from Mandlovu’s heart be heard. And yes, that we might gather here in the eye of the storm with our original kin to hold council while "civilization," rogue, maddened, lives by war and the destruction of the natural world.
Here is both a cornucopia of stories as well as an esoteric text on the nature of story: the story within the story folded into fate, fate into the illumination of possibility. Follow the circles of these stories, for the oldest story is here limning the edges of the telling. The oldest story is improvised fresh from indigenous mind and the circular telling is a way of ritual invocation. The place we sit now is the cave at Siloswane. The animals, shamans, the women gathering herbs, the ecstasy of the dance painted on the walls by the Bushman and through them hundred of thousands of years of those who tended the fire and told stories. This is the way culture is created. There has never been another way. This is the way culture can be recreated. A narrative thread in the book is cast from Siloswane to Sinai. Not quite the path of progress from the "primitive" to the "civilized," but four friends carrying prayers for peace from a sacred cave in south central Africa to a holy mountain in the Muslim world.
Islam, like all monotheistic traditions, has an understanding of the incomprehensible Presence of God as revealed to humans, limited as we are and so often blind. In Catholicism, the saints mediate; for Jews the angels are messengers. In Islam, the ninety-nine names of God connect the Nameless One to the named. Is it always the case that one must be shattered before one concedes to the one called Ar-Rafeeq, the hand of God, so gentle. Or Al-Kareem, God the kind? Of course, the rites of shattering belong to initiation and we were all shattered when the World Trade Center collapsed. On the evening of September 16th, we flew north towards Cairo: Augustine with his dreads tucked under a black Snoop Doggy Dog knit cap gazing over the clouds ecstatic alongside Simakuhle: Their first flight. Little Michael hungry at the breast. Deena and I raw, vulnerable, easily angered. Were we out of our minds? The bitter volley of recrimination and self-recrimination. With more confusion than bravado and no clear picture of how exactly the decision was made, we were on our way to the Muslim world on what seemed like the cusp of a world war. I didn’t sleep that night–facing the specter of a meaningless death born of a choice made by four confused people.
In African medicine when one walks into the village of one’s enemy, one pays close attention to the spirit one meets at the threshold. "Deena, is that you?" said Mohammed as we arrived in Santa Katerina at the foot of Sinai. He recognized us from our trip five years previous and was just looking at the small album of photos we’d sent his family. His father had died recently and when he saw the World Trade Center collapse on TV, he was afraid that maybe we were dead also. As keeper of the threshold, Mohammed opened the door, conscripting his cousin to lead the camel to walk us up the back trail to the top of the mountain.
Long before the reign of conquest, long before the natives were Christianized or Islamicized, long before the encampment of Moses and his refugees fresh from enslavement, Mt. Sinai was the sacred mountain of Sin, the moon god, son of the Queen of Heaven, Inanna. From the Great Mother, Tiamat, he received the tablets of the Law. "In the 12th century BCE the Babylonian heaven was ruled by a trinity consisting of Shamans, Sin and Ishtar, represented by the sun, moon and stars" writes Barbara Walker. I dare say, it was this Sinai that we climbed, the moon dark and the stars bright beyond telling. It was here that Augustine saw Moses as a Bedouin, a keeper of goats not unlike his people, the Shona — the goats running in the distance — the holiness of stone — it was here the peacemaker without name came upon us in the night. I suppose one could imagine high drama–the thin trail of tranquility buffeted on both sides by the fires of apocalypse. After all, the faith shared by George Bush and radical Islam is redemption through apocalypse–the final drama in which the world is purged of Evil and a new world order, by the grace of God, descends. One could also imagine the Law burnt into the heart, lightning to stone: that drama. That violence. Nothing of the sort happened.
What happened that night was true for its gentleness–Ar- Raqeem. The desire for the cosmic vision left at the foot of the mountain.
At this point I understand the vision best through my father’s language: Buddhism. The Buddha of the future, it is said, is Maitreya. But Maitreya is not a person, but the quality of friendship that is, in fact, an aspect of enlightened mind. The Law (the dharma) is realized and fulfilled in the activity of friendship in all of its many levels. Kairos, the inbreaking of Maitreya, the future breaking as it must into the present moment. Spirit descends, friendship is inspirited and the spirit of friendship reveals the Law: Thou Shalt Not Make Enemies Any More. Live by this.
My arm around Simakuhle or on little Michael’s back wrapped in a towel and tied to his mother. Ahead of us Deena and Augustine hand in hand, steadying one another on the dark trail. Sometimes visible, sometimes nearly transparent. Often only the starlight visible. Maitreya. Ar-Raqeem. The Nameless Peacemaker. After hours of walking the sky goes dark cobalt blue to lighter and lighter still. We arrive at the top of the mountain with the pinkening before sunrise. Now here we are at Sinai. Now, we hold Council.