Leaving everything behind, Carrie Mullen, a young scientist, travels to the Central American country of Belize to study with Don Rodrigo, one of the last Mayan healers still practicing the old ways. At his side, Carrie learns the secret healing powers of plants, but when her aging mentor’s health starts to fail, she must move on. As her finances dwindle, she meets an expat tech millionaire who promises a chance to use what she’s learned. When he offers laboratory space to do research, she signs on. With the help of Don Rodrigo, Ronnie, an ex-soldier with PTSD, finds relief in an ancient ayahuasca tea ceremony as Carrie sets up a therapeutic haven. But instead of using her talents to benefit others, Carrie finds herself caught in a web of conflicting and dubious schemes.
As the jungle’s shadows deepened, heat lightning flickered across the sky. The only participants at the tea ceremony would be Ronnie, Mel and me. Not a large gathering. Julio suggested we add one more participant. Perhaps, Gabrielle, Mel’s girlfriend?
Mel shook his head. “Just the three of us will be fine,” he said.
Once the sun had set, we gathered in the gazebo. Julio placed us in a circle around the shelter. We were ready, and a ball of excitement filled my core. I was happy to see Don᷉a Luisa, the short, brown-skinned woman standing quietly next to my teacher. Her dark eyes looked out kindly from a face weathered by years of living.
As the moon rose, we watched Don Rodrigo roll the dry leaves of tobacco into a sphere. Before placing them in a pipe made from the root of the Ceiba tree, he sprinkled crushed herbs on top. When all was ready, be brought flame to the pipe bowl. The tobacco ritual was the first step in a cleansing that would continue through the night. As Don Rodrigo stood before Mel, a smell of tobacco mixed with the aromatic herbs hovered above us, drifting into the night air. Mel squirmed in his seat like a kid. Unfazed, Don Rodrigo brushed Mel’s eyes closed before exhaling the pungent mixture over his head, and shoulders. He went to Ronnie next, and as the billows of smoke wafted above him, the ex-soldier relaxed with a sigh. I was next. Breathing in deeply, the tobacco tickled my nose.
Don Rodrigo and Julio stepped outside to the open fire where the tea, made from plant essence, bubbled. The two men took turns stirring the vat of liquid. When it was ready, Don Rodrigo scooped out a dipper-full of the brew. Pouring the liquid from the dipper into a mug, he transferred the steaming brew from mug to dipper and back again, waiting for the beverage to cool. When all was ready, he divided the tea into small cups, one for each of us to drink.
Mel went first, gulping until the cup was empty. “Lentamente, go slow, go slow,” Don Rodrigo said. “Not so much.”
Ronnie did the same. When it was my turn, I sipped at the bitter mixture. Don Rodrigo stood beside me, waiting until I drained all the liquid in the cup.
In the dim candlelight, Julio took the center of the space and began a chant. Our eyes were alert and questioning, waiting for what would come next. As I listened, the words seemed to come from a distance, growing fainter and fainter. After some minutes, Ronnie sat up, a startled look on his face.
Suddenly, he ran out into the night. On his return a few minutes later, his expression was difficult to read.
It was Mel’s turn next. He bolted, running out into the darkness. We heard sounds of gagging in the warm jungle air. I was not surprised when my stomach began to churn, and soon I was lurching out into the night. Supporting myself against a tree, an internal spasm sent the contents of my stomach pitching onto the ground. More internal tremors followed. Once my stomach was empty, I allowed myself a few moments rest before I staggered back into the communal space. Once the purge was over, it was time to rest. Each of us had prepared pallets to make ourselves comfortable. Now we sought refuge in the cushions waiting for us.
As Julio turned in a circle, he called on each of the nine benevolent spirits by name. When the wind picked up it was as though they were heeding the call. Don᷉a Luisa began her song, repeating the phrases over and over, the sounds sweet and soothing, like a lullaby. Though the words were unknown to me, I seemed to grasp their meaning.
The night sounds of the jungle grew faint as Julio lowered the netting. We closed our eyes. The inward journey had begun. Like a leaf fluttering slowly to the ground, I drifted into a trance.
My thoughts turned to Don Rodrigo and his gift. I reached for it in my pocket. As I held it in my hand, the small stone fetish grew warm, seeming to vibrate. I heard a buzzing, as though a rattle was being shaken somewhere close by. As I shook my head to clear the sound, I fell into a space between sleep and wakefulness.
Strangely, I felt neither fear nor surprise as I saw myself at the edge of a lake, climbing on the back of a giant green toad. As the toad broke the water’s surface, we plunged together, through murky water, touching bottom. At that point, a reed drifted past. I grasped it and held it to my chest. Slowly the toad turned, swimming upward, breaking the surface of the water, then gliding to shore. I stepped onto dry land, but before the creature returned to its watery home, I felt a sense of trust pass between us. There were no words. The time passed slowly by.
It seemed hours, minutes, years were all one. I woke at dawn, stiff, cold and exhausted. Lifting my head from the pillow I sought out my fellow participants. Mel was still asleep while Ronnie sat silently, tears streaming down his face. Don Rodrigo slept soundly. Next to him, Don᷉a Luisa rested her head on his shoulder. I heard running water and saw Julio in the outdoor shower, his face turned upward to the water. When he felt me watching, he shook the water from his hair, letting his dark eyes rest on my face as he smiled. My face grew warm and the tug at my heart surprised me.
Lee Fishman arrived in Philadelphia as a college student, fell in love with city living and stayed. Even after traveling to Italy, Greece, France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, England, Belize, Guatemala, Columbia and other beautiful countries she still can’t think of anywhere else she’d rather live. OK, maybe Paris.
Fascinated by ancient civilizations, Lee dreamed of being an archaeologist. As a student, she spent time at digs and worked in a lab piecing together pottery shards from the ancient ruins at Tikal. Many trips to Central America, rekindled her fascination with the Maya culture and inspired her to write The Shaman’s Gift.