In Praise of the Little Ones
Michael Ortiz Hill
The medicine tradition that I was initiated into in
Zimbabwe – the ngoma of the water spirits – says that the ancestors call
one to be a medicine man by sacred illness. Mandaza Kandemwa saw in me
the classical symptoms of water spirit disease: powerful dreams and
visions, an empathy that incapacitates, a life rich in tragedy. The only
cure for this affliction is to be initiated as a practitioner of tribal
The spirits that afflict becomes allies in healing others.
The prayer is simple: thank you God for visiting upon me this illness.
Teach me how to listen for the spirit of illness is in its own right a
My life has been shaped -- physically and spiritually -- by the little
ones. How can I but sing their praises?
The ancient Chinese spoke of ji’, "the smallest possible thing," almost
invisible, which is "the precise place where turn and change happens" as
Stephen Karcher puts it.
In Africa I call the little ones njuzu, the water spirits who are the
agents of healing and transformation.
I'll speak chronologically though the little ones don't really live in
the time that we big boned mammals share. They do share with us being
born, living and dying – the tender vulnerability of being mortal - but
they seem to descend from timelessness.
My first meeting of the little ones was in every respect fated. My
mother's womb was a broth of mercury as was her mouth. Mercurys’ deft
hands shaped my fetal brain and spine as it was developing. I was
mercurial long before my birth and almost 50 year after my nervous
system torqued towards multiple sclerosis, who I call the Guest. I’ve
apprenticed with the Guest to learn about healing these last four years.
Praise be to Mercury, the friendliest of the gods. Fleetfooted,
stealthy, clever beyond telling. By the time I was diagnosed with a
toxic level of mercury I had a long ritual alliance with Mercury – the
one the Yoruba call Eshu Elegba.
My healing proceeded from familiarity.
Elemental mercury is a methylated -- transformed to its most lethal form
-- by bacteria in the mouth and in the river beds of California. Those
rude alchemists, the 49ers, rendered California mercurial -- using
mercury to process gold. Now
mercury amalgams in the teeth of the dead cremated and sent skyward mix
with the forty eight tons from coal burning power plants.
The water we drink.
The air we breathe.
The food we eat and the teeth we eat with. Mercury is the god of
connections and yes, I gestated with him.
I am connected to a poisoned planet in her duress through Mercury.
At-one-ment with a poisoned planet in her duress has been mediated by
the bacteria that delivered him to the pith of my karma.
My second initiation by the little ones was a colony of staphylococcus
in the basin at my navel when I was a week old and the big guns were
pulled out -- sulfa drugs – to which we found I was allergic.
I recieved the last rites.
Hoc est corpus meum.
This is my body.
In Tibetan Buddhism it is said we choose the circumstances of our birth.
What was I thinking floating about in the bardo that I would choose to
be born into an intimate knowledge of torture?
It took a few decades from that my infantile initiation to find my way
out of the horror and terror of being embodied. And it's been only
recently that I have found my way out of the consequences of the
mercurial womb. This is the way of the little ones. Their work is deep
and thorough and requires a complete transformation of the self. “Time”
as we dimwitted humans understand it, is quite irrelevant.
But -- back to the "ordinary time" of my non-ordinary adolescence.
Homage to Sarcoptes scabiei that lowely arthropod that saved my life.
I thought I was at the bottom when I got scabies. I've been homeless for
two years, had snapped with psychosis, fell in love and moved with dear
Peggy to an apartment in the Haight. There was no decent garbage to eat
in San Francisco so I ate at St. Anthony's dining hall with the
derelicts and junkies and whores and "so it comes to this and wasn't it
a long way down" sings Leonard Cohen.
A long way indeed but longer still with scabies
Unlike its cousin, the dinosaur lobster, scabies is a mere mite,
pregnant with little mitelets. She crawls under the skin to lay her eggs
which hatch into nymphs, mature into adults and are dead a month later,
I a sarcophagi of these dead little ones.
The mercy of them was twofold. They saved me from AIDS. My efforts to
whore myself were greatly unsuccessful. Who wants to screw a pretty boy
covered with open sores who cant stop itching?
Altogether not sexy.
AIDS, unnamed then in 1975, was percolating in the bath houses of San
The second blessing of these children of God is that they delivered me
to the bottom from which I've since constructed a vibrant life.
There are things one cannot know and until one has been undone.
And then there is the sweet water spirit schistasoma, affectionately
known as bilharzia.
Bilharzia is a snail parasite that inhabits fresh water in Zimbabwe. I
was in fact, in an ecstatic water spirit ritual in Mashvingo when they
slid under my skin and laid eggs in the lattice of my central nervous
system. So began initiation proper into the way of sacred illness which
is fundamental to my training as medicine man.
I was with my wife Deena Metzger and she was doing a ritual on behalf of
Mandaza Kandemwa with whom I was I was apprenticing. I felt a certain
"white boys smartass" spirit rising up in me, very much wanting to offer
advice because I'm the expert am I not? I did have the good sense to
give them over to the intelligence of what they were in and climbed into
a pool of water to pray.
I was, in the water, “displaced from myself” – which is to say the three
(me, myself and I) momentarily died. I could see what Mandaza had long
impressed upon me – that rituals such as Deena and he were in are not
performed by people at all.
“We are their arm and their hands,” says Mandaza.
I stepped through a door that afternoon and in a week I was numb from
down: peripheral neuropathy.
When I returned to America a neurologist told me I was likely
undiagnosable and so I remained for a few years until I stopped having
reliable use of my legs. It was then I was diagnosed with multiple
And so praise be again to the little ones -- the millions of generations
of bacteria that allowed a mercury to have his way with me, the
bilharzias which softened my neurosystem and – voila’ – the Guest
arriving with such panache!
And so it is my body as zoo for the invisibles. Not difficult to
remember the rigors of their ministrations but what I most remember is
They have completed a labor that I could not have done, what is undoable
by any act of will. They have, perhaps, rounded off my apprenticeship.