Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Ritual - A Story for Haiti Donations

I have been devastated by what I've seen in the aftermath of the earthquakes in Haiti, especially when I see the suffering of children my grandaughter's age.  When I saw the post on Twitter for a call for stories to benefiti Haiti from Crossed Genres online magazine, I knew I had to participate. Below is The Ritual, Chapter Two, of my soon to be released novel, Shaman Circus. It is a chapter of fear and the hope of rebirth, the interconnection of all humanity, no matter how varied our backgrounds and cultures.This chapter has never been published anywhere else.
Shaman Circus is a book about a group of fringe people who take an unusual route to aid in the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans.

If you like this or any other of the works authors have posted on Crossed Genres, please click on one of the Crossed Genres links to donate to one of the charities (Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Rainbow World Fund) you think most worthwhile at the Crossed Genres website. If you can't make a decision on a charity I would suggest Doctors Without Borders, since my daughter's in the nursing field.

The Ritual

When they took the blindfolds off, Alex Hampton saw the sun had already set. A full moon illuminated a narrow dirt road bordered by lush plants and low trees jostling each other for head space. A heady mix of fragrances mingled in his nostrils… jasmine, mimosa, chamomile, bringing back memories of summers in South Carolina. But the heat here was more oppressive. Already he was breathing heavier than normal. Rivulets of sweat ran down his back. There was a hush, as if the landscape held one finger to its vibrant lips and whispered… sssshhh. Secrets were harbored in the folds of light and underbelly of vegetation reclaiming its turf. Aromas and sounds fused with humid droplets to kiss the skin as if open-mouthed, taking possession… a gentle reminder: here no one is in total possession of their own psyche.

As an anthropologist, this was not an unknown feeling, but he was still uncomfortable, out of control. “Where’s Lily?” Alex scanned the landscape. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw Laney a few feet ahead, but no one else was within close proximity. Further up, Alex heard voices. He looked for Lily, but even in the moonlight, figures were indistinct.

People walked in twos or threes, speaking quietly. Occasionally he’d catch snatches of conversation spoken in a variety of languages. The content eluded him.

“Where is she?” Alex looked at Laney, surprised how comfortable the tall black professor was in the rural surroundings, as if this was his milieu not the lecture halls back at Whitten University. Already Laney was different from the person he trusted. Alex envied Laney as he emanated a charisma and energy unlike his calm demeanor on campus.

Alex spun around. He’d asked for this opportunity, but now he was afraid. No one back home knew where he and Lily were. Anything could happen here.

“It’s okay.” Laney took hold of Alex’s elbow as if he’d read his mind. “Lily’s with the women. We’re on their turf now. Let’s respect their customs. Relax. You‘ll be reunited soon, but in the meantime there’s much to witness.”

Even though Alex wasn’t convinced, he allowed Laney to lead him down the path until they reached a warehouse. As they waited in a line of people, Alex peered over the heads of those in front of him, but couldn’t see inside the door. Younger black men, impatient, jumped up on a loading dock to avoid the line. The odd mix of the atmosphere was unlike any Alex had encountered, an odd paradox. At times he experienced the same rush he felt standing in the crush of a ticket line for a band who inspired him, that tribal thrill which runs through music fans, makes them antsy and on the verge of loosing control. And at other time Alex felt the odd hush similar to the experience in the entrance of a great cathedral, museum or antiquity…outrageous, unbridled excitement coupled with reverence – the Dionysian versus the Christian, the sacred and profane coursing through a dimly lit crowd.

Once they entered the dark vaulted room, the attendees were assaulted by the thick smell of oil and machinery. He felt himself pushed along by the crowd. It made him even more uneasy, like at a huge arena where one wrong move could erupt into a panic with people being trampled. As the wound downstairs, the air grew close and dry. Not what he’d expect underground. The lighting, even from bare bulbs was so sparse; he held onto the walls to feel for each step.

They descended three levels before reaching a small plateau and he was led into a long narrow room. Huge burlap bags bulging at the seams lined the walls. Odd antiquated machinery guarded the room in rows of tired angry sentinels offset by the aroma of coffee or raw cocoa beans. Medellin, Colombia, Haiti. People sat on stacked burlap bags or the floor. Many stood, while others, mostly younger men, talked with each other and acknowledged those they knew.

A fire flickered in a pit centered in the room, the flames licking and spiraling over tiles emblazoned with cryptic symbols. The mood was charged with anticipation as a crowd watched a young man in a white dress shirt feed the fire. He looked totally out of place in this sultry underground den preparing for a rare and private ceremony and surprised Alex when he spoke in English accent. “If you will all find a place to be comfortable, we will begin in a moment,” the Englishman said as he threw powders on the fire. Bright colors flared leaving hazy spirals of smoke. Alex recoiled as pungent smells filled his nostrils, forcing him to breathe in through his mouth.

He looked around for Lily. He couldn’t see her or see any other women in the room. This was not what he expected; he’d imagined an open field, old mystics and women, not a room full of young men, many of whom could be thugs. Spasms twisted his gut as smells in the room overpowered him: smoke, sweat and whatever commodities were held in the sacks, along with a roasted scent, of meat, of flesh.

A door, previously hidden in a solid stone wall opened and a group of people walked in, conversing as if at a party, some in native costumes. Alex spotted Lily among them, chatting with Laney. Lily didn’t look around or seek out Alex. He felt invisible.

What the hell was going on? His paranoia grew. Was she hypnotized or just pissed he’d brought her here? He looked around, fist-clenching panic constricting his chest. It snaked up his esophagus and gave a vindictive squeeze to his windpipe. He wanted to grab her and bolt. What had happened to him? At one time this was his milieu: odd adventures, new discoveries, access to the secret weird rituals of off- the-wall cultures. Had Lily done this to him? Or had he done it to himself, locking himself up in a classroom, forgetting what it was like in the field? He’d imagined feeling like an addict taken off methadone and tasting heroin again. Instead he was acting like a child afraid to take the first puff on a Camel.

Somewhere off in the dark end of the room drums interrupted his self-doubts. In measured slow steps, a second man entered the circle gathered around the fire. Onlookers stepped aside and allowed a path, as though they knew he who was. He unceremoniously walked over to the fire, paying no heed to the people on either side or those gathered three or four deep around the perimeter., He stood for a long time looking into the flames. Alex disconcerted, looked to Laney for affirmation. The figure at the fire was nothing like what Alex had expected from Laney’s paper and descriptions. The man, acting as if he were alone, ignoring all those who’d traveled here, looked more like a college student in a first year play or a SNL guest doing a bad Halloween take-off. Young, wearing an old beat up top hat along with a long leather coat, the sleeves torn off, symbols, drawings and graffiti drawn all over the coat, flaunted his rebelliousness. Nothing in his dress or demeanor offered the reverence Alex had expected. Long dreads fell rampantly from beneath the hat, a row of knotted cords, matted rope with a life of their own. Around his neck was a string of bones. The wooden stick he carried, festooned with red ribbons and bones, shook in odd jerky motions. At the end, a small voodoo doll danced and jerked from its jute noose. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old. At first it seemed like a joke, like a farce. Alex was disappointed and more afraid than before, sweating from the jostling of people in close quarters. Alex stepped from one foot to the other, looking towards the exit, trying to control an unsettling nervous agitation, especially regarding Lily.

But when the mood of the crowd shifted, swelling, filling the room in a tsunami of anticipation, as it would rush forward and engulf the man if he didn’t act, he replied in chant, long drawn out symbols of unrecognizable words, powerfully expressed, the raw emotion painful to Alex. The crowd let out a communal release of breath, as if they’d been holding it all along, joined as one being, one related organism waiting just for this moment.

In response, a duet between one man and all those gathered. His posture changed. His stature appeared to grow as he unleashed one of the most distinctive voices Alex had ever heard, operatic, racked with emotion, with an odd undertone, like a bruised whisper, as dark brown as a cello’s lowest string vibrating in sympathy.

The whole room quieted. The voice soared over the room, a dark cloud of menace. Catalyst or cataclysm? It was hypnotic, not in the generic metaphoric way, but irresistible and hypnotic, like the first sight of the ocean after a long absence through a gap in the rocks or the novice glimpse of a woman’s naked body. At first, Alex hardly listened to the words but instead was drawn into the cadence of what was part song, part poem, part dirge, part chant. Never had Alex been so moved by a voice. Not at the hundreds of concerts he’d attended. Chris Cornell, not even Goeff Tate could match it.

Alex wondered if it was the acoustics of the underground room. He knew Celtic priests often searched for particular stone structures for their ceremonies. The placement of the dolmen and upright stones naturally amplified the human voice so as to lend it more power.

Alex hadn’t eaten or drunk anything that could have been drugged, yet he had the distinct feeling he was in an altered state, overwhelmed by a split-brain mentality which happens only in highly charged situations, experiencing and observing at the same time.

His editorial mind raced, cataloging every nuance of the event, while his conscious mind, caught up in the trance the shaman’s voice induced, was mesmerized.

Mass hypnosis, he wondered. He’d known he’d experienced it at concerts… at Ministry thanks to their strobe lights, at Metallica, thanks to the energy of the audience. But he didn’t connect with this audience. These were not his people.

Instead, he felt alone, singled out even. He realized he was no longer afraid of what was around him, but of what he would find inside.

Things passed through his mind in flashes of illumination: his fear of change, his possessiveness of Lily, his inability to show his true self to the grimace of the public eye.

The chanting pulled him back to the fire. The man, who looked part voudoo shaman, part rock singer, danced around the fire, shaking the stick. Sometimes he chanted, sometimes he was silent. When he stopped and stared into the flames, his arm falling to his side, the red ribbons of the staff splayed out on the stone floor like rivulets of blood. Those observing sucked in their collective breath, watching the man as he entered a trance, oblivious to anyone else in the room. Waiting. Once again they waited.

At one point, he raised his head, dropped it back until the hat fell off. He released a deep-gutted scream so primitive, so universally despairing the hair on the back of Alex’s neck stood up. Chill bumps broke out on his arms, even in the sweltering heat. The scream went on for longer than it seemed anyone could breathe as it echoed off the walls in a wail exhorting the depths of all human suffering.

Alex felt a scream of his own bubble up in his throat like bile, like a curse. He fought to keep it down. His hands shook with the effort and he let himself drop until he landed on burlap sacks, grateful for the comfort of something solid, tangible beneath his butt and hands. He needed something to hold onto so he wouldn’t be swept away in that scream. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

He saw others in the room were also overcome. Some had even sunk to the floor and sat with their heads bowed. He could not see Lily. How had it affected her? Never in their time together did he need to hold her hand or look into her eyes as much as he did this moment. Was she affected as much as he was?

The scream stopped; the following silence brutal. The shaman, for now Alex truly believed him to be a shaman, shuffled around, turning and twirling, like a dancer of some Native American tribe, humming quietly to himself, a lullaby to soothe a bruised soul, a hymn to quiet a frightened child. As he twirled, the ribbons swept up from the floor and spiraled in the air until they seemed part demonic, flaunting their color, and part ethereal in flight and dance. Aerials. The ribbons performed aerials… and then the voice lifted and floated with them. Not the powerful sonorous voice of the earlier shaman, but now a lilting sing-song voice, light and airy and somehow innocent; as if the scream could exorcise the shadow and a rebirth was taking place.


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