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Excerpt from "Black Smoke"

The Holy Terror

by Margaret De Wys


Carlos took his place behind the altar to rearrange his ritual paraphernalia: bottles of liquid medicines, aguardiente--150-proof cane alcohol for cleansing the spirit of a patient, which he had infused with agua de florida and herbs--quartz crystals, and a fan of leaves. He lifted a bottle filled with ayahuasca and began to sing in Shuar, invoking the spirits and asking that those in need be healed. Pouring la medicina from plastic Coke bottles, Carlos offered it to each person in a small, hard, seedpod cup. He moved among us, solemn and serene, handling the cup with precision and studied inflection.

“Drink it quickly,” said Carlos. Doubtful, tormented, I raised it to my lips. The liquid was as dark and viscous as molasses. Carlos’s stare was searing; he nodded, motioning for me to drink. I swallowed it all in one gulp. The taste was acrid and putrid at once, like the entire jungle rotting on my tongue. My mouth and throat revolted against it. But I sat quietly among the Shuar and the Quechua, conscious of the power and authority of the ritual, as Carlos drank his potion.

I waited for what seemed like an endless period for the medicine to take hold. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I expected!

Suddenly the stars zoomed down from the heavens, turning into electric particles in the air around me, inside me. I was in the spaces between them. I looked skyward and saw Carlos flying to the four corners above the group. I was in the sky, following him, and I understood that he was cordoning off the area for our protection.

Boom! Carlos was moving among us, spraying a liquid from his mouth. It was aguardiente. Its icy mist seared my face and shoulders. Some people screamed when he blasted them with it. I began to shake violently. Penetrating shadows paced. My sinuses vibrated and my skull shimmied. I felt I was on the razor’s edge where life meets death. It was thrilling and terribly real, the edge of the unknown.

Carlos, chanting, smacked me on the head with a fan of condor feathers and instructed me to sit in front of him. His chanting turned into a soft whistling sound that blew over me. He swept my body with the shiri-shiri, the sheath of leaves used by the shaman to cleanse and to call the helper spirits.

Carlos looked into me, through me, and began to pull something from my chest, right where my cancer was. I could feel the sickness being sucked out. He worked quickly and methodically, drawing a black smoke from my flesh, shooting it out into space where its particles vanished. When he shook a rattle over me a cold silver aura enveloped my body. He drove a forceful breath into the top of my skull. It rushed through me with a powerful surge. He hit me again with the aguardiente, and I shrieked.

As he passed the fan over me again he snapped his wrists as if to discharge the energy. I heard him whisper in my ear, “Look inside where you are hurt.”

Every cell in my body twinkled like starlight. The cells were alive and pulsing. They were beating the rhythm of the cosmos. Some were spontaneously regenerating, sending live signals to others beside them. Dark spots in my breast were black holes sucking energy into another sphere, one in which living things were doomed.

Carlos was pressing hard and swirling his fingertips deep into fleshy parts of me where the black smoke lay. I cried in pain. His touch was intimate and at the same time not so. The force he used was harsh and also practical. Many times his touch was physically painful as he tugged dark smoky ribbons from me, black ribbons of sickness. I watched as Carlos’s hand magnetized the black smoke. It spread like army ants in file and followed his motion away from my body.

Carlos was sucking on me again. Then he pulled away to spit a foul substance onto the ground. He growled as if he had something caught in his throat. He spat again, barked like a jaguar, and then whistled a long sound blast skyward.

I wanted to squeeze myself back into my former unknowingness, but that was impossible. A feeling of deep sadness came over me. I felt exposed in all my frailty and weakness.

Carlos sang over me and breathed into the crown of my head, sending a feeling of well-being through me, the sense that a curative energy was filling my body. I felt transparent but also concrete and powerful. Never before had I experienced anything so vivid and alive. My body befitted me, more so than I had known or appreciated. I was aware of the fullness of who I was, and it was an ecstatic feeling.

Ecstasy was a potent medicine, I thought. The power that passed through Carlos into me, what was it?
Union with creation? I hummed with an immense, joyous vitality. As dawn was breaking I found myself at peace, but I knew my life had been profoundly changed.

Before coming to
Ecuador it had seemed that even the potential for joy had been driven from me, never to return. I sat in the ceremonial longhouse reviewing the horrors I’d survived just to get to the point of feeling peace. Carlos believed his medicines could purify the body and release the subconscious contents that can cause illness. Was this what had happened to me?

Yes. I had released toxins from my body, and the emotional part of me had started flowing. Something seemed to have shifted on a cellular level. I believed Carlos had touched the roots of my disease, which I began to suspect were fear, repression, and the calcification of love and the life force within me. I didn’t know what was coming next, but at that moment I decided there was no turning back from it.

Margaret De Wys is a composer and sound installation artist whose musical works have premiered with dance groups and orchestras across the country and been performed at venues including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. Since her initial experience with ayahuasca, she has traveled extensively and worked closely with many traditional healers throughout the world. Currently working with João de Deus in Brazil, where they see more than 1,200 people a day, she also takes groups to the Amazon in Ecuador to work with Carlos, the shaman who healed her of breast cancer. The author of Ecstatic Healing, she lives in upstate New York.

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Black Smoke: Healing and Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon by Margaret De Wys © 2014 Inner Traditions. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com


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