The low mound of the sweat lodge is virtually invisible beneath layers of snow. A light powdering of new fallen crystals obscures the footpath leading from the edge of the pasture where several cars, including Manny’s Mustang, wait like tethered stallions for their riders.
Keeping to the slight indentation of the trail. I crunch my way over the frozen pasture toward the edge of an evergreen wood. Beyond the trees, I can just make out the muffled sound of male voices, already quieted in anticipation of the “Inipi” sweat lodge ritual.
Passing the last stand of pines, I encounter Andy, a native American with whom I’ve shared this ceremony before. He is a slender willow of a man, with lines of age and poverty etched deeply on his brow. Dressed simply in a workshirt and bluejeans, he reminds me of one of my Mexican farmworkers. Once, these continents were theirs. It is always reassuring to me to see these descendants of the first Americans living peacefully among us.
“Hey, Art,” he says. “Manny said you might be sweatin’ with us today. It’s good to see you.”
“You too. What’re you doing, man?”
“I’m gathering wood for the fire. If you want to, you can collect some dry twigs. I’ll go back and split a few more logs,” he says.
“Sure. Where’s Manny?”
“He’s gettin’ stones for the smoke pit. I think he went down to the dry stream bed to find some smooth round ones.”
I arrive at the lodge hugging a bundle of kindling. Five other guys are here, taking turns splitting logs. Andy handles the introductions. Jason and Casey, two young brothers of mixed ancestory reach for my hand almost in unison. Larry Black, a strapping Dutchman who owns this land, and his son, Paul, home from college with a preppie friend in tow seem an unlikely trio for a Native American ritual. But, on second thought, my Italian roots aren’t disqualifying me. After a few rounds with the long ax, an ecumenical spirit is evident among us.
There ensues some quiet talk focused on the tasks at hand. When Manny arrives with a burlap sack filled with rocks, the others become silent.
In his element, Manny is always inspiring. But in the modern world, he is a strange man in a stranger land. Out here though, leading a prayer to the Four Corners of the World, he assumes the stature of a spiritual leader. At times, amid the hustle of city life, he can appear lethargic. In relation to the natural world however, his methodical, laconic manner is seen as meditative, reverent. Unlike most men, Manny is at peace with himself.
This sweat lodge is his cathedral. Sixteen willow branches representing the mysteries of creation are bent, formed, and woven into a rounded mound. Layers of hide and tarps cover the branches and are held in place by rammed earth and rocks. With its snow cover it’s a little igloo.
After honoring the Four Directions, we shed our clothes and approach on hands and knees, then enter the hand-formed hillock. The single entrance flap closes shut behind us and we are enveloped by darkness and silence. Immediately, Manny begins by tending the central pit containing heated stones. He splashes water on the stones, decides they are not hot enough, then asks me to go outside into the freezing air and fetch three more from the fire.
Upon my return, a tobacco pipe is passed among the participants, a few of whom are wearing small packets of tobacco rolled up with prayers. The little bags are strung like beads on a rosary and worn around the neck.
Manny chants words in his native tongue while applying herbs and splashing water upon the steaming rocks. Billowing clouds of roiling steam fill the chamber. The sweat begins to flow out of us. In a few more moments we are drenched by the salty outpouring of our bodies and by the moist and pungent atmosphere rising up from the crackling stones.
The prayers and songs relate to the “Grandfather Spirit,” represented by all-encompassing smoke. Each member of our spiritual huddle invokes his own guiding ancestral spirit and tells of a personal quest for vision and understanding.
When my turn comes, I relate the strong correspondences I feel between the steam-filled corridors of the mushroom farm, my own “Grandfather’s Smoke”--the intense heat of the cook-out--and the sweat lodge and it’s Guardian Spirit.
I ask for power to strengthen the connection between myself and the spirits of my departed mentors, Keith and Francesco, the young and the old, the ancient ancestor and the radiant child, between the earth and the sky, the past, the present, and the yet to come, my dreams and my destiny, what’s within and what’s beyond.
Finally, I ask for power to acknowledge, comprehend, and serve the women in my life, to honor the crucial place of the female principle--represented in this ceremony by the role of the firekeeper.
Then, unconsciously it seems, I slump over onto Andy’s shoulder. We are packed so tightly together we are actually propping one another up, bracing against the terrible onslaught of the heat. The air is so thick I can barely catch a breath. I do so, deeply. It takes all my strength. I hear Manny’s instructions to breathe rapidly and to take little shallow breaths.
After a few moments, I’m sitting bolt upright. My cramped legs pain me, then numb out. I feel a gust of wind threaten to take a flap of hide from the canopy above us along with it. As it lifts in the wind, the lodge bucks. Shafts of light penetrate the darkness. Manny motions for Jason and Casey to scramble out and repair the roof. On their way out, Manny asks them to fetch more stones.
“He wants it hotter in here!” whispers Andy. His bloodshot eyes reveal his utter amazement at Manny’s steadfast pursuit of the extraordinary requirements of this ceremony.
After a few moments, Casey, the younger of the brothers, lifts the flap from the other side.
“Hey, man. I can’t take it. I’m gonna stay out here,” he says.
I remember that. And I remember hearing him crawling around on the roof, trying to cover up a tear in the last tarp that was holding its own against the onslaught of the wind.
The shafts of sunlight that slashed through our steam-bathed sanctuary felt like ice. I thought my senses were mixed up. I could feel the light and see the pummeling, scraping sounds above me. Each time the darkness returned, I was plunged into a brilliant void.
I sensed a voice emanating from the sputtering stone pit. It was the voice of my grandfather telling me of his arduous journey to America. I saw and felt the cargo hold of a vast ship sway with the rolling sea. I could taste the salt spray and hear the voices of my forebears, calling out for tarps to cover their threadbare suits.
I fell into a dark vortex. Voices were incessant, droning. I heard the mixed-up sounds of Keith and Francesco: Keith saying, “I’ve always been happy,” Francesco speaking Italian, saying “Life is terrible but funny,” both of them saying “... the circles... the circles...”
Mimi’s voice, her cries, Dawn’s voice, her sighs, Sheila’s sharp tones, Kay’s coolness, my mother and Keith’s mother, Maria; my grandmother, my sons, Hamlet’s howl, crickets, cicadas: all sounds surrounding me. Then silence.
I saw Keith emerge from his brilliant casket. I heard him as he pointed toward the blazing cadmium star. I saw the sun rise from the smoking pit....
After two hours at perhaps one-hundred and twenty degrees, it is all over. We emerge drenched and naked, as if reborn, into the frigid wind of winter. The extreme physicality of this ritual has reinforced my sense of continuity with the past, my ancestors, my human companions, the earth, the universe. Ultimately, “Inipi” is a ritual of intensity, flesh and blood, and connectedness.
As I say my goodbyes, Manny takes me aside and looks me in the eye. His voice is clear and calm.
“Be careful, man. The dead are everywhere,” he says. “Just make sure you are the hunter and not the prey.”
The trip home was a blur. I was awed by the sense of the miraculous I had experienced in the sweat lodge, but also caught up short by Manny’s words. The pursuer or the pursued, which am I?
I collapsed on the couch and was blessed with hours and hours of sweet dreamless sleep.
The next day, Mimi calls while I’m in the shower. I grab the phone with a soapy hand.
“I tried calling you yesterday and today,” she says. “Did you get my messages?”
“Um, I didn’t check my machine since I got back. I’ve been sound asleep. I did a sweat with Manny.”
“I got worried, because... well, because I love you, Art. That’s all.”
“I love you too, baby. What’s been happening?”
“I sent a PM to Dawn,” she says. “She was on as ‘Sun ID.’”
“That’s bizarre, Mimi. What did you two talk about?”
“Well, she was in a bisexual chat room.” she says. “I figured I’d tell her I was a bi-female, just so we’d have something in common.”
“Besides me, you mean?”
“That’s one way to put it, I guess.”
“So...,” I ask. “How was it?”
“Are you angry with me, Art?”
“No. It’s just that... This is getting more convoluted and confusing by the minute, is all, Mimi.”
“It’s just that she is so much a part of my life already. I thought I’d like to have some kind of relationship with her.”
“How long were you thinking about this,” I ask, “before you actually did it?”
“I thought about it as soon as we found out her screen name. I put her on my buddy list. Last night she was online for hours and I just PM’d her without thinking about what I’d do if she answered back.”
“And did she answer?”
“Yes, right away. The room was really boring. So she was willing to talk for awhile.”
“And it just got... um, kind of... sexy.”
“Fuck, Mimi! I mean, we’re out of touch for two days and you’re having cybersex with my fucking girlfriend!”
“She’s not your girlfriend anymore, Art.”
“Right. That’s right. And you’re still married. So I guess you’re not my girlfriend either. Is that what you’re saying?”
“For Christ’s sake, Art. I’m so naive. I thought you’d be interested... even amused. I’m sorry I brought it up to you at all.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Thanks for fucking sharing, Mimi.”
“Art... I said I was sorry. I’m going to hang up now, alright?”
“I’m sorry too,” I say, just before the phone goes dead.
I threw the portable phone across the room, at one of Dawn’s paintings--the one where a naked Black slave is tied up and kneeling in the center of the Berkshire Mall.
The phone made a big dent, right in the center of the painting, then bounced back and cracked the tip of an ivory elephant tusk before sliding to a stop on the rug. I walked over and kicked it, took a long drink from a gallon of wine and crawled back into bed. I couldn’t get the thought of Dawn and Mimi getting it on out of my head. When I think of it now it doesn’t sound so bad--actually pretty hot. Not at that moment though. It just seemed like another indication that my life was getting way out of control. I sat up, set the alarm for an hour before my evening class and drank myself into a stupor, and finally, back to sleep....
“Art, it’s Keith, man. Wake up.”
“I can’t Keith. If I wake up the dream will end.” “Right,” he says. “I mean, just get up and move around.”
This is a strange one. I know I’m drifting, back and forth, between states of awareness. I can just sense my bedroom--the low gray morning sunlight shuttered out behind layers of blinds and fabric, the soft scrape of the quilt brushing up against my ear, Hamlet breathing at the foot of the bed. I also know I’m drifting through a greenish mist.
“Wait, Keith. I don’t have it yet.” I’m hearing these thoughts as mine, responding to what I’m hearing.
“We’re at the farm, in Gettysburg, Art. Just look around. No one else is home. We can talk here.”
Yes. I can just make it out. Through the green atmosphere... it’s a cornfield. I’m standing in a cornfield that tops off at about six feet. I feel rough leaves brushing against my arms. I hear the buzz of crickets. I can feel the sun against my neck. The dry sienna dirt at my feet is dust piled up against the upward thrust of thousands of stalks. It must be late August. Flies from the nearby pasture dart about. A little white cornworm, struggles through a silky yellow cob top.
“I’m here, Keith. What now?” My thought-words are slow--single-file. I’m waiting for a response.
“I’m in the barn... up in the hayloft,” he says. I hear his words as soft whispers.
My thoughts are moving now, more purposefully: “This isn’t so easy, man. I’m drifting and it’s hard to get through. I’m coming. Just wait up, OK?”
The intentionality of my movement engenders confidence. I feel more able to navigate through this particular dreamworld. The sky is, cloudless, blue. I like it.
I pass the black-and-white spotted Holsteins. They’ve smashed the green pasture into a muddy brown mess. Flies are everywhere. I move quickly around back, up the little grassy mound to the barn. I notice the Hex signs I expect to be there are instead... radiant UFOs! Keith has painted a pair of little day-glow aliens, climbing down ladder-like beams that start from within the ships and end up forming the perimeter of a circular halo. Beneath the ships, there are wavy lines below a straight line, like water running under a bridge. The designs are tightly rounded. They retain the familiar appearance of the symbols painted on barns all over the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside.
I move the big blood-red barn door with a single smooth motion, fairly effortlessly. My dream body feels quite normal. I have a moment of complete lucidity. I’m completely aware of the dream nature of my experience, yet I am startled at how thoroughly substantial it appears.
Once inside however, it’s clear things will not be as anticipated. The atmosphere here is acrid, laden with ammonia, intense, hot. I am in a steamy cookout room at the mushroom farm. I extend my arm. It disappears before I can envision my hand. I can’t see three feet in front of me.
The rest is pure thinking. It’s as if a conversation is occurring inside my head. The energy of physical experience is transferred to conscious thought. I’m almost paralyzed here, taking little shallow breaths, nearly choking, but my mind is clear. I hear the words I will later record in my dreambook.
“Art,” he says. “This is it, man. You are difficult... very hard to get through to. There’s so much crap and nonsense in your head. This is taking much longer than it needs to, Art. Getting through to you has been hell, man... yeah, hell exactly.”
“I know, Keith.” The words, thoughts really, are instantaneous between us.
“So why do you think I had to come to the mushroom farm? ‘Cause you were stuck there, dreaming about that place for years. You connected your grandfather to all of this, because your dreams were stuck at the farm but it’s not the same thing. Your grandfather isn’t here, man. He’s not in this place, stuck here, like I am. He’s gone, man... free... out of here. He was clear about his living and his dying. You dreamed all the time about that farm though, Art. So I came there to reach you. Understand?”
“I know, Keith. I know it.”
“So, listen, man... it’s a lot easier getting through to other living people. You make everything so hard. What’s the point? I’m using other ways. You will receive the messages. You can take them however you want. You can struggle with it every step of the way or you can just open yourself up to it, man. It’s up to you.”
It went on like that. It seemed endless. I have pages and pages of notes. It was less a conversation than it was hearing a disembodied voice inside of my head--a thousand thoughts, linked up like a miles-long freight train. I stood in that place long enough to understand, to hear him. I did not see him.
When the alarm rang. I sat up and jotted down a few notes. But I felt as if I had a complete memory of the dream, which amounted to a continuous string of insights--ideas, rather than images.
That evening, after class, the words I had written were enough to spur my recollection. I’d been going over and over the messages I dreamed. I typed for a few hours and acheived a new interpretation of what’s been happening to me.
If Keith is actually informing my dreams, I am beginning to discern the meaning of his messages. If I am just dreaming this all up from within myself, I am still making connections I’ve never made before among the strands of my being which, until now, have been unfocused.
I can see why dreams would be problematic, especially mine. They have been. It has taken years of work to clear them up enough to get to this point.
Maybe that’s why Keith would use cyberspace. If that’s, in fact, what’s going on, it would make sense. It’s a clear channel, free of the weight of history, changing, growing daily, evolving, moving at the speed of light, a perfect medium for the mind... and maybe even for the soul.
With my ruminations shelved for the moment, along with my notebook and pen, I sign on to American Line.
Dawn is online, as usual, signed on as “Sun ID.”
Private Message From: LoveTOOL To: Sun ID
LoveTOOL: Hi Sunnie, how’s it hangin?
Sun ID: Very funny, LT.
LoveTOOL: Wanna private room?
Sun ID: Sure, name it.
LoveTOOL: How about... “sunrise”...?
Sun ID: Be there in a sec’
Online Host: You are in... “sunrise”.
LoveTOOL: Sunnie? I’m here...
Sun ID: Hi...let’s see...What am I wearin’, right?
LoveTOOL: funny, I was just gonna ask you that...
Sun ID: LT...?
Sun ID: are you lookin’ for a sex partner?
LoveTOOL: not really, Sunnie.
Sun ID: well, what then?
LoveTOOL: maybe lookin’ for a friend Sun ID: a profile would help, hon’
Sun ID: I’ll be here...
Member Profile For: LoveTOOL
Member Name: Bart
Marital Status: S
Birthday: one a year
Hobbies: gettin’ to know you
LoveTOOL: Hi... I’m back.... just got a profile >> Sun ID is no longer signed on <<
Shit! E-Mail Message From: Art Long To: Sun ID Dear Dawn, Oh, the hell with it. I know if you would have wanted to get in touch with
me, you would have done so.
Dawn, will you at least tell me--Have your dreams of Keith been continuing?
Mine have. I believe more every day that supernatural events are occuring to
me, or through me... and that Keith is directing them from... somewhere.
If you won’t consider a personal response, would you be willing to pass on
anything regarding Keith that may be relevant to my work to his sister, Kay?
You can reach her via American Line. Her screen name is “KHaring2”.
Sun ID: nice... brb
LoveTOOL: I’m here... 4 U
Sun ID: ok... Bart... that’s a start!
LoveTOOL: yeah, we’re both in PA!
Sun ID: well, what part of PA?
Sun ID: hey, me too!
Sun ID: what have we got to lose?
LoveTOOL: peace of mind
Sun ID: been there...
LoveTOOL: and now...?
Sun ID: and now I’m beyond all that
LoveTOOL: beyond peace of mind?
Sun ID: more like... mind in pieces
LoveTOOL: sorry to hear that
Sun ID: yeah well... how do you think I feel?
LoveTOOL: How do you feel, Dawn?
What do you know that you’re not saying?
LoveTOOL: I know your name...
I’d like to know you better, that’s all...
Sun ID: Look, Bart... or whoever you are...
LoveTOOL: My name is... Art, Dawn.
Sun ID: What’s your real name...the Italian one?
LoveTOOL: ... Tullio... OK?
Sun ID: son-of-a-bitch!
LoveTOOL: that’s all you can say?
What did I do? And why?
I could have strung it out for days, weeks, played it close to the vest. But no. Now what?
I am really sorry. I have wanted to talk with you since the moment, more than two years ago, when I discovered the notes you left me. Two years without a word from you, Dawn. I have wanted so much to just...
>> Sun ID is no longer signed on <<
E-Mail Message From: Art Long To: Sun ID
Oh, the hell with it. I know if you would have wanted to get in touch with me, you would have done so.
Dawn, will you at least tell me--Have your dreams of Keith been continuing? Mine have. I believe more every day that supernatural events are occuring to me, or through me... and that Keith is directing them from... somewhere.
If you won’t consider a personal response, would you be willing to pass on anything regarding Keith that may be relevant to my work to his sister, Kay? You can reach her via American Line. Her screen name is “KHaring2”.
I wish you the best always, Dawn.
to be continued....
Nothing Dies, Chapter 14
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Nothing Dies - Chapter 14
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