And then a voice began to speak. “Hello,” it said.
There was no one I could see, just a voice, but not one I recognized.
“Hello,” it said again.
“Who are you?” I asked, hoping it was just a voice I was inventing.
“You know who I am,” it said plainly.
I did. I sensed it was the spirit of ayahuasca. I know that seems crazy, and it seemed crazy to me as well, but I also knew it was true and I began to get terrified. I believed in the spirit of things, and I knew the power of ayahuasca, but I’d never imagined anything like that disembodied voice. It wasn’t just a spirit or a vision or anything like talking with Clare or even my mother. This was like being in the presence of something unfathomable.
I opened my eyes, hoping it would go away if I ignored it. It didn’t. It was just waiting me out. “What do you want?” I asked finally.
“You’re the one who called me,” it said. “You’re the one who keeps calling me.” “I don’t mean to. I just used ayahuasca to get ready for the trip, and to travel and see things…”
The voice said that wasn’t true. It said I called because I needed things and I was getting what I needed; my immense sorrow, my confrontation with my desires and fears. The voice said that this was a time for cleansing, for emptying out, not for proving I could visit friends on ayahuasca.
What it said was true, and my initial fear of its presence began to subside. But then it asked me if I would let it enter. It was such a strange request that I was taken aback. The ayahuasca was already inside me, I said. The voice said no, that wasn’t what it meant.
Suddenly I saw a snake wrapping itself around my head. I saw my head open and a side view of my brain, as if it had been cut in two and I was looking into it. It looked like the inside of a bee colony, all tunnels. Dozens of snakes appeared and began sliding into the tubes of my brain. At first it felt wonderful, like immense power and motion was sliding into me but then I wasn’t sure that I should let them. I thought that maybe I was being fooled, that Julio had warned us that while some of the spirits we might meet were good, others were evil and I was afraid that this might be an evil one. What if it wasn’t ayahuasca, or if it was, what if it was some awful and dark part of it?
I asked the voice what the snakes meant, why they had to enter me, but I didn’t get an answer. Part of me thought it was a kind of test, but another part of me thought it was a kind of trick, and that if the snakes were allowed to disappear in my brain I would never get them out. I don’t know what I thought that would mean but it was terrifying. Whatever it was, I knew it wasn’t the right thing, that I shouldn’t let those snakes into my brain. I began to pull them out by their tails. They were strong and hard to dislodge and the longer I fought the more I was sure that if it really had been the voice of ayahuasca speaking with me it wouldn’t have asked me to let it enter in such a terrifying way. I felt like I was fighting for my life, that if I lost I would be enslaved forever.
The moment I got the last of them out I was no longer sure I’d made the right choice. It was like the vision of the Matses I’d had earlier. The minute they put me down, I felt I might have missed something extraordinary. I asked the voice why it hadn’t just talked with me, why everything seemed to be a test designed to make me fight it.
It answered that it had already given me so many gifts that I should have some faith and trust. It said I shouldn’t ask for so much without giving anything in return. The voice didn’t sound angry or disappointed, it just said those things then disappeared, and I knew my visions were done.
I opened my eyes and stood weakly. The ground was glistening and wet. It had rained at some point but now I stared at a sky full of falling stars and tried to absorb the lessons I’d been given. After a few minutes I stepped off the porch and joined Larry. I wanted to tell him everything I’d seen and heard but was afraid that if I did the voice might come back and I didn’t want that to happen. Instead we walked to the river quietly. He told me that he too had experienced the lesson of letting go, though neither of us talked about it in depth.
When we returned to the house both Moises and Antenor were asleep but Julio was waiting up for us. “Una noche fuerte,” he said. “Bastante espiritos.” A strong night, filled with spirits.
He asked us to sit, then sang a song for each of us. While he did, he washed us down with mapacho smoke, then rubbed the camalonga on our hair and torsos. “To see the spirits don’t cling to you,” he explained. He’d never done that before and it felt intimate and generous. I wondered whether he sensed or saw something of the nature of the experience that night which made him think it was necessary. He didn’t say. I remembered the incident with the machete and almost laughed. He’d seen everything. His cleansing was good. The moment he began to blow smoke on us my fears disappeared.
When Julio was finished, he said good night and went to bed. I stayed on the porch for a long time, trying to figure what I’d seen and heard. I thought of what Moises had told me when I first began studying with him: Ayahuasca gives you what you need, not what you want.
I finally gave up thinking and just stared at the sky. I felt alive and liberated. I wanted to embrace the night and the trees and everything in the jungle. Probably an hour or two passed before I grew tired, got into my hammock and went to sleep.
In the morning we bathed in the river, thanked both Julio and Sophia with some presents, then set off for Herrera to start our hike. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d forgotten to ask Julio about the voice and the snakes, and by then it was too late to return.