Down the Monkey Hole
Credit: Wade Davis / Getty Images

I was on my knees in the dirt, possessed by a kind of religious Tourette's syndrome. "I accept!" I muttered. "I accept! I accept!" What I apparently meant to accept was the ineffable and the intolerable, the heartbreaking and hilarious responsibility of simultaneously starring in, directing, and watching a surrealist romantic horror comedy about a poor son of a bitch who loves his life and worships his wife but is trapped in a dark crazy jungle on his knees at the mercy of an ancient Peruvian vine goddess…

"Thank you! Thank you!"

…who oughtn't even to exist. But I could say, with the frisky spirits zooming around my head like windup airplanes of gossamer and bullshit: I don't need faith; I have fucking experience. I wasn't in church; there was a church in me. And I would've loved to vomit it out – and had been trying to, oh, very, very earnestly for at least two hours – but I just couldn't get rid of that last little bit, the aftertaste of puked ayahuasca, vine of the dead. Nausea tacked me to the ground.

"I accept! I accept!" I said.

As I acquiesced it shifted once again, something gigantic, shaggy, so earthy as to seem otherworldly. It was the medicine itself, and I could still hear the shaman, a few paces away on the ceremonial platform, singing its praises in a lilting dirge: "Gentle ayahuasca; tranquila ayahuasca; buena medicina ayahuasca." When my companions and I drank the brew, maybe three hours before – our second ceremony in three days – we'd gambled on getting that "gentle ayahuasca," the "buena medicina ayahuasca." For some reason this time I'd gotten el susto ayahuasca, throttling ayahuasca, the huge constricting snake goddess ayahuasca.

I licked my dried lips and felt my tongue prickle with sparks of electricity. That was very distressing. Was I overheating at the electrolytic level, starting to short out? All that held me together, as a coherent narrative prattler, was an exhausting tautology. I kept saying in my head, I know! I know! Which was incredibly stupid. I was what I knew. But I didn't know anything. I no longer even knew what the word meant.

It was time for the business at hand, which was Family. I was working my way backward, involuntarily. By fits and starts. In images. Snapshots. Holographs. Spooky voices. Visceral reactions. Symbols. Tokens. Venerable cars and appliances. Everything seemed to be heading back to Tallulah Falls, Georgia, and my philandering paternal grandpa who'd worked for the power company at the dam. Crazy Pat Joe. I know! I know!

But…oh God, no! The medicine was coming on strong again. I'd swallowed a buffalo! I felt a mounting excitement akin to terror, as if something were massaging my amygdala while banging a bass drum inside my chest. Another wave of nausea convulsed me. There was nothing left in me, but I strained forward, throat closed, eyeballs bulging, unable to breathe, finally sputtering, gasping, spitting. Oh God, oh fuck! I began to pant for air, breathing like a bird, shallow, rapid breaths, and never enough oxygen. On the verge of fainting, I gaped my jaws wide and drew in a long, howling inhalation like a death rattle.

"I accept!" I hissed between clenched teeth.