PORTRAIT OF THE SHAMAN AS A YOUNG MAN
Michael Ortiz Hill
I was a bright eyed and bushy tailed young idiot, smart as a whip and spiritually adventurous to beat the band. By the time I was eighteen I’d been homeless a couple of years and I wanted nothing more than to get laid, become a rhinoceros and fly like Carlos Castañeda when he was a crow.
I’d picked up Castañeda’s first book in my sister Claires library before I dropped out of high school. I was entranced with his story of eating the yerba de diablo, datura and flying.
“Don Juan,” he asked, “was I really a crow?”
“Of course you were,” said the old man.
“I mean would my friends at UCLA see a crow?”
“That depends on your friends,” he replied sensibly.
My tenth grade self found Castañeda a wuss and my passionate arguments with his absense were muy macho. Muy superior.
“Carlos, baby – not everybody gets to know what it is to fly. Why are you so disturbed by this? Try a little gratitude, for God’s sake. What you meet Don Juan, become a crow and you imagine catching an airplane is the way to fly? ”
You petulant bastard you.
Some man of knowledge.
I read R. D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience the same season. Laing saw psychosis as a healing crisis and his madmen at Kingsley Hall in London were not to be interrupted wherever their psyches were taking them. One of the patients recounted how he became a rhinoceros and I found myself yearning for psychosis.
Now I would have been fine not being a crow. A hummingbird would do or even a dragonfly. And a rhinoceros is a fine beast but hell, beggars can’t be choosers. A muskrat, a platypus, a mole – whatever.
It’s just that being so perpetually human was such a narrow fate. If one has never seen through an animal’s eyes what could one possibly know about being alive?
Being homeless I’d spend my days gathering garbage to eat, hanging with friends and spending hours in a university library studying such as solanaceous plants – like belladonna, mandrake and datura – that were used cross culturally to fly. In the Middle Ages a salve was made of belladonna by European Wiccans who basted a broomstick which they’d rub between their labia and take off. Those were the days!
I’d partaken of datura a few times and when I was ready to spread my wings I hitched into the Mojave, gathered a few seed pods and holed up in my sister Felice’s house in Echo Park while she was at work. I figured I could be a sparrow for a few hours, check out the skyline downtown and be altogether human when she returned for supper.
This was my big moment so I chewed a sublethal handful of seeds, crossed my legs and sat stolid long hours trying to get in touch with my inner bird. Years later, reflecting on this lunatic moment as a nurse I figured the atropine in the seeds had slowed my heart rate to maybe forty. I kept falling over which distracted me from thinking I might be dying.
Eventually I could walk and was much surprised to find a fifteen foot bronze statue of Richard Nixon in my sister’s back yard. I’d never seen it before. Could it be a hallucination? I licked his knee. You know – reality testing. Tasted like bronze. I knocked on his crotch and it echoed hollow. I thought as much.
Dickless dick was as real as the man himself. That was clear but that day I was to sprout no feathers.
To become a rhinoceros or wallaby or whatnot I knew I had to drive myself mad and so I set about it in the most deliberate and disciplined way. Eventually I was quite successful but even then I was all-too-human. I’d imagined sauntering through Venice as a rhinoceros, but no such luck.
When I was twenty I’d left the street and become a father so, as St. Paul admonished, I “put away childish things” and conceded to being a human dad. I embraced the fate of rhinocerouslessness.
Fast forward twenty years. Now a grey bearded and an altogether mature grandfather. Grounded, it was apparently time for me to fly. I became a black eagle on behalf of the rhinocerous.
My first initiation into Bantu medicine in Zimbabwe culminated in Mandaza Kandemwa being possessed by spirit after spirit for several hours and these spirits ritually completed me. At one point he was taken by a decrepit, wounded sekiru (grandfather) spirit who gathered water herbs from the Zambezi River and rubbed them into my chest.
The black fish eagle (the Chapungu) was overhead. He often comes when we are involved in initiations. The rubbing of herbs into my raw skin was the placing of Chapungu into my body.
This day was profound and complex and perhaps out of (Castañeda-like) fear I took a little “anthropological” distance. It was evidently very real and I felt honored but what could it mean Chapungu the fiercest of warriors placed in my body in this way? But a holder of medicine must carry warrior spirits that protect patients that cannot protect themselves.
When I returned to Africa for my second initiation Mandaza and I began healing alongside one another. I was chatting leisurely with James; the two of us trying to find respite from the heat under the scant shadow of a tree.
James was a wealthy man with over three hundred head of cattle though he dressed in rags and was himself ragged. His eyes were grossly bloodshot and he was emaciated and lethargic. A Tonga tribesman from the Zambezi watershed in the far north of the country. James was called by a dream to be healed by Mandaza.
“Americans – they like rhinocerous, don’t they?”
I had no idea what he was talking about at first, but soon understood that he led American hunters into the bush to bag rhinos. “I want to kill one myself,” he said. “If I sell the horn I’ll have money to buy a minivan for my ranch hands.”
An icy fury came over me when I heard this. I believed I was in the presence of evil. “You must not kill a rhino,” I said quietly, unheard.
“You must heal this man,” I was told, and relayed to James, “the spirits are telling me that I am to join with the Mandaza with your healing.” I knew this was true though I cared for him not in the least. For the sake of the rhino I must participate in his healing.
I had never attempted healing someone for whom I felt contempt and I didn’t know if it was possible. I went into the water to pray. I prayed from a place of naked helplessness, knowing how useless I was without the spirits coming through me. I climbed out of the water in faith, no clue of how to proceed.
My friend Pio gave me a feather from Chapungu and said, “Listen close. He will tell you when to smoke it.” I sang a song to the Mother of Water then smoked some Chapungu feather. I had James lay on his back and led him into guided relaxation to become the Zambezi.
“In a moment,” I said, “you’ll hear the wings of Chapungu flying low over the water. Listen to the wings cutting the air. They will send flying the spirits that are making you sick.”
I lifted the ancestor’s staff over his prone body, sliced the air and took flight. I was the eagle flying over the Zambezi, his piercing eyes, spread talons, swift descent. Looking on James from above a fierce compassion took me that would not let up until he was divided from his disease.
Eventually I trembled into my human body and said, “You came to the right place. The spirits that are on you could well kill you and Mandaza is a powerful nganga.
“You are acting like an uninitiated boy. You carry a gun like a warrior but you don’t know what a gun is. It’s one thing to hunt for food, another to do so from greed. You are sick because you don’t know how to act properly. The ancestors often come back to us as animals, and the rhino is especially holy. To kill one is the same as killing your own grandfather. You must protect them. Your life depends on this.”
“I didn’t know,” James said, weeping. I could see he didn’t.
A week later Mandaza, his wife Simakuhle and I were returning home from the holy land of Matopos where he was initiating me. Driving through the night we had to stop when three white rhinos crossed the road. We gasped at their beauty. Mandaza had never seen one as they are almost extinct. He prayed and poured water as an offering while Simakuhle ululated.
I knew then James was healed. He met us at the gate of the house as if expecting us, looking vigorous, his eyes no longer lifeless, a bright smile on his face.
“How are you feeling, brother?” I asked.
“Very fit,” he said, thumping his chest.