Another Pilgrim’s Progress—Part 1
by j.r. horton
‘tis the season of the Christians. It’s also the season of Hannuka for the Jews, the Feast of Fitr for the Moslems, Midwinter Solstice for various religions, and Kwanzaa for blacks and some others. I’m a Christian apologist, and sceptic, so I’m going to talk about my faith, the contradictions of Christian orthodoxy, and describe my personal conversion experience when Jesus Christ spoke to me personally, and told me who he was.
when i was sixteen or seventeen and at an Episcopalian Sunday service, we were reciting the Nicene Creed. When the unison reached the part where it says, On the third day he rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven…
i thought, i don’t believe that! the idea that a man, even Christ, could die, be dead for three days, then be resurrected was so implausible that i decided i could no longer be a believer and ergo not a Christian. that decision would lead me down many painful, and sometimes exhilarating, roads in search of a replacement for the faith of my childhood.
over the years, i studied odd Christian sects like Gnosticism, as well as Judaism, Buddhism and, when that last failed, dove into the world of altered states of mind popular in the 60s. That was revelatory and gave me insights—and a fearless platform, for later experiences in the Native Church of America and the hallucinogenic rites of the Ashanika who live in the deep jungles of Peru. by definition, there is no logical way to describe the experience of altered states but, by way of a possible description: try to imagine your body becoming music. Here is a long excerpt from my novel Murder in Mixteca that may serve as a help to understanding the experience of another reality that parallels the quotidian, where absolutely anything is possible, and is as real as the one we are chained to in the name of reality.
“In Berkeley, Pete Villareal reached in the pouch of his hooded sweatshirt, took out a plastic bag and dropped it onto the desk of the watch commander.
“There it is. I finally scored one.”
“The Gate to Heaven.”
“Looks more like The Gate to the Dog Run to me.”
“That’s because it’s been dried.”
“OK, so a dried dog turd. What are you trying to tell me?”
“This is a mushroom that was developed here in Berkeley, supposedly from spores that were over two thousand years old. It’s supposed to be the ‘shroom that the royalty of the Inca and Nazca people used as a way to visit the gods.”
“This is the one they’re feeding the soul tourists here and down south?”
“The same one. It’s real powerful stuff. The ones who have freaked on this have freaked in a real big way, apparently. Full blown psychotic episodes, flashbacks...”
“Who’s peddling this shit, anyway? Where did you find it?”
“A guy named Baret Froehlich. He’s a typical campus freak genius—forty-one years old, has two Masters of Science degrees, one Master of Arts degree, works up at Lawrence Berkeley Labs as a computer whiz while he is working on his Ph.D. in paleomicology. You know the type.”
The Captain grimaced, “Yeah. Has an IQ of 190, lives with a goat and four dogs in a redwood shingle-sided tree house he designed and built himself and also did the two hundred stained glass windows. He has two women, one in her forties who’s a potter and weaver and another in her twenties, a grad student who is doing them both—another groovy little household in the hills.”
“Nah. This one apparently hates women. And men too.”
“So the goat’s the lucky one. Tell me the rest of the story.”
“They guy has a lab somewhere in Oakland and he gets his money from a foundation in Florida. He apparently developed the ‘shroom by resurrecting the DNA from the dust of the old ones, then welding them to the cells of some new ones... Hell, don’t expect me to explain all that biological stuff. At any rate, he’s come up with a winner on the Nob Hill/Marin County dope scene.” He pointed at the object in the bag. “Guess how much.”
“Lots more. Guess again.”
“Five hundred bucks.”
Villareal rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “You got no imagination. I’m surprised you didn’t start at five bucks.”
“I was going to, but I changed my mind.”
“Shit, Cap.” Pete picked the bag up, stared at the black object and said, “Two thousand dollars.”
The commander grabbed the bag. “Gimme that!” He turned it over and looked at the other side. “Still looks like a dog turd to me. What the fuck makes this thing worth that kinda money?”
“Two things. People I SF and the Silicon Valley money who think two grand is chump change, for one. Plus...this turd will put you in a place you can’t even imagine. Even the freakouts say it was the most important thing that ever happened to them.”
“Going to Heaven.”
“So, now what?”
“I’m going to find the lab so we can bust it, for one. Unless I’m nuts, this beauty is going to find its way to the streets and we’ll have kids flying out of dorm windows like bats out of Carlsbad Caverns. i want to stop it.”
“Me too. I remember those days too. i helped pick up a couple of ‘em when i was a patrolman. One walked out onto the freeway and musta been hit forty times before it was over. What a mess.”
Villareal reached down and picked up the mushroom. The Captain reached out and snatched it back. “I gotta show this to the guys. Two thousand bucks!” He stood up. “I’ll get an evidence locker going for this case. It’ll be in there.”
“OK. But don’t even handle it. If it’s as powerful as they say it is, you could go on a trip just from the spores on your hands, as old and straight as you are.”
The man smiled and waved him away. “Go write your report.”
“I’m not done yet. I have one more visit to make.” Pete walked down the hall and down the stairs to the front door of the police station. He crossed the street and got into his car, a Porsche Speedster. He started the engine and let it rough-idle for a moment. He turned on the wipers to clear the condensation from the windshield. Then he reached under his sweatshirt and into the pocket of the shirt underneath. He took out another plastic bag and held it up to the lights of the passing cars. Inside was another, smaller, mottled black and orange mushroom.
Pete drove down Shattuck to Channing and turned left, driving slowly past People’s Park, then to frat row and right to Dwight Way. He then turned left at the abandoned school for the deaf, drove up the hill past the student housing apartments, turned left and then drove down the steep drive to the old neo-colonial Smythe House, which had been divided into two large apartments. Once upstairs, he went to the fridge and poured himself a glass of apple juice.
He crossed the large front room, his feet making comfortable slaps on the old hardwood flooring he had spent days refinishing. He opened the big french doors and went out on the verandah, sat down in his chair and looked out over the city.
The lights of San Francisco, across the bay, punctured the night and limned the dark sky above it with a pale green aureole. The orange lights of the bay bridge were draped across the dark, invisible waters between the two cities, suturing them together.
Pete sat down and put the glass of apple juice on the table. He had decided on the way from his score to the police station that he was going to keep the second mushroom. And he was going to eat it.
All his training had taught him that this was a line which he was not to cross. If smoking a little dope meant building a case then it was within the boundaries of good police procedure, for California anyway. But keeping a controlled substance for personal consumption was crossing a line which could not be stepped back over if he were caught. He’d never had the problems that so many of his brothers on the force had when it came to sampling the cocaine and money that turned up by the bushel basket at some of the busts. He’d been tempted not one whit. But, for some reason, this night, it was different.
Pete sipped the last of the apple juice, put down the glass and stood He walked to the low wall of the verandah and looked out at the cities’ lights again.
The old feelings came flooding back on him. The camaraderie, the clandestine meetings, the feeling of power and the possibility of changing the world, the secrets in the night.
The night, ah the night. Sweet with the scent of the big tulip tree downhill, in the middle of the steep yard. And all the other night blooming flowers that made it all so sweet. Sweet. Soft.
Pete stepped up onto the low wall of the verandah and looked down. The light on the wall next to the apartment door downstairs dropped a delicious cone of custardy light down onto a pair of woman’s running shoes, the laces drooping in a nice languorous pile between the shoes. Luminescent blue and white shoes.
His own shoes were white and luminous too. And the scene below was taking place between the toes of those shoes.
He wondered if Courtney was home. The girl who owned the shoes. She lived downstairs with her boyfriend. Sweet Courtney with the perfect bottom.
He stepped out onto the night. There was a faint crack as his weight came down, but just the faintest little crack. He took another step and looked between his legs. Yup, the light was on in her room. She’d be studying.
He looked out over the steep, sloping yard then over to the apartment buildings next door to the left. The kids’ swings were hanging stiff and bright, chains glinting with the dampness from the night air, seats hanging from the chains in nice little crescents. Like smiles.
To the right, the prayer flags at the Nepal House were vibrant, their folds and drapes seeming to breathe in and out. Alive.
A few strides more and stood directly above the tulip tree with its huge fleshy flowers. Somewhere in the dark below there was jasmine, too. The scent was much stronger when you stood over the tree, the smell rising in a pillar of delicious smell. Nice.
He looked out at the city across the bay. He could see Coit and the Transamerica building. Everything right where it was supposed to be. Pulsing. The bay and city breathing too. Alive too.
It occurred to him that he was doing the impossible but, at the same time, anything seemed possible. This was the feeling that he had wanted, this was the reason he’d known he was going to eat the mushroom the minute he’d gotten into his car at Oz’s.
When he was young everything had seemed possible and he’d never been afraid. He’d felt...immortal. All the doubt, the fear and the other stuff had come later.
Villareal strode out over the hill, toward the apartment building across the street. Some students were having a little party on a fourth floor balcony, eating from huge pizzas and drinking beer. The Grateful Dead were singing, playing, singing, playing. He walked by. A young woman put a slice of pizza in her mouth and looked out into the night. Her face froze, her eyes widened. Pete smiled at her.
The next building was more apartments. Someone playing the piano, someone cooking...curry. Yeah, curry and fish, probably rice of some kind. Exchange students.
Someone ironing shirts, the smell of hot starch.
A guy lying on the roof on a sleeping bag, smoking a joint and looking at the stars. He didn’t even see Pete, though he walked by no more than thirty feet above the guy’s face. Probably too stoned. Or maybe he saw and it made perfect sense, a man walking by on the night.
Hey, this is pretty neat, he thought. What a perspective. What a great way to see the world that you see every day, but in a completely new way.
The next building was dark. A university building, probably. And then the church and above the church a horse and rider.
The cop was not afraid. This was what he had come to meet. He’d known someone was waiting for him when he’d first stepped off the verandah and onto the night.
The horse was white, had huge, expressive eyes and was unafraid. Just like Pete. There was a great deal of love in the horse’s eyes and he was trying to communicate with Pete—something. Yes. Stop there, the horse was thinking.
The rider nudged the horse with his heels and the horse started toward Pete, prancing in the air above the intersection in front of the church. His hooves made a very soft “chuff’, “chuff”, as though he were putting his beautiful feet down in dust, or sand maybe.
The horse stopped and Pete looked at the rider’s foot, his eyes drawn by the silver-mounted tapadero and the silver piping that ran up the man’s pants.
The man’s hands were strong, the reins running through large fingers. The fingers twitched the reins and the horse made one prancing step forward and turned sideways.
Pete looked up and saw that the man was looking down, at the street below. Pete looked down also. An oriental man was standing at the corner, looking up. His face mouth was open. He dropped the sack he was carrying and Chinese food cartons tumbled to the pavement. He froze in place, not moving. Just looking up with his mouth open and his eyes large behind the thick eyeglasses.
He looked up and the rider looked up at the same time. The wide brim of the big sombrero, midnight blue with flashing rosettes of silver thread, rose until Pete could see under the sombrero. And under the brim of the hat, in the blackness under the hat was a fingernail moon. A thin crescent moon that resembled a lopsided smile.
There were also stars. And the stars meant something. Something that stirred him deeply, way down in his heart’s blood.
Pete stood there for a moment and then moved his eyes away from the night face and looked at the horse. But the horse turned his head, spun slowly and began to walk away with a pasofino gait that was so beautiful that Pete found himself crying. Tears running down his face.
He wiped his face and turned around. He walked toward his distant house, which he could see directly across from him. It was beautiful. White with red tiles. Warm windows.
Walking at a good pace, he was at the house in a few moments and stepped onto the wall of the verandah. The stucco cracked and this time the crack was loud.
He stepped down onto the verandah, walked to the kitchen and ran a glass of water. He drank it and it was sweet. Sweet mountain water.
The man washed his face. The water flashed and glittered, fell from his hands in waves of light and sound, swished down the bowl and fell into the drain with tinkling sounds that made him laugh aloud. He flicked water out into the room and it arced and bounced then ran around the floor and out under the door.
He went to the verandah and looked out into the night. The city was there still. And it was beautiful. Still breathing. Alive. So alive.”
This is getting to be too long to digest at one sitting. More later.