Driftwords – The Gift

April 7th, 2008

I was only meant to be in the audience. But when my host offered to waive two onerous obligations if I would volunteer, I capitulated. In single file a dozen of us wound our way from the rough-hewn benches in the outdoor theater to the stage, which glowed from commingled fire and electric light. The proceedings were mostly hidden from view; all I could see distinctly were the backs of the people in line ahead of me as we inched, one by one, from the left side of the stage to the right. Finally, it was my turn. To my left stood the minister – his book in hand, his eyes and hands sculpting new depths and resonance into his words. To my right the audience watched and waited, breath bated, backs straight, tension and excitement blending to create a homogenous, nearly opaque cloud of expectation. In front of me stood the woman; the one who made it happen.

I was suspicious; I’d watched others climb to the stage, where they listened to the woman’s incantations, then fell to the floor, writhing, while the minister pronounced the meaning of it all. I didn’t believe. Or rather, I believed it had some explanation other than the divine. In spite of my reluctance to take the stage, I was excited to see this charade from the inside, to discover the clever trick that made the performances perpetually convincing. The man in front of me regained consciousness, picked himself slowly, and with great confusion off the floor, and left the stage. I shuffled into the spotlight and took his place.

No sooner had I stabilized my stance than the woman in front of me began articulating deep, guttural sounds that didn’t come from any language I could identify. I had a split second to notice that she looked slightly bored, and then the floor started heaving. Up and down, like I was on a giant trampoline – only I wasn’t jumping. I struggled to keep my balance, bending my knees and throwing my arms out to the sides. From the corner of my eye I saw the audience lean forward collectively and gasp; they were rapt, getting exactly what they wanted.

I had to close my eyes or risk vertigo. As dark descended, my body swept from vertical to horizontal, and started spinning in a circle, my head the fulcrum, my feet sweeping through space. Everything was black; I felt the presence of arms and legs but had no other proof of their existence. A wild wind blew about my ears, the sound ferocious, though only the faintest traces touched my skin. Frantically, I tried to recreate the reality that had so recently disappeared. I pictured myself on stage, the object of attention for hundreds of eyes, all hungry for a miracle. Spinning, spinning; I struggled to keep my arms at my sides while whirling through space; I’d been wearing a skirt – was the wild wind present on stage too?

At last the spinning slowed; over the sound of the gale, I heard the woman’s voice chanting again. My body righted itself slowly; my feet scrabbled for, and found purchase, on the floor and I was finally able to open my eyes. She finished chanting, still unmoved. One more disbeliever, one more irrefutable demonstration. The minister cried hallelujah with tears in his eyes and voice. I wondered what my body had done in my absence. Had I fallen to the floor and writhed? Did the wind toss and tear my clothing? Was the crashing sound all in my head or had the audience heard it too? Confusion battled with curiosity and shame as I stumbled off the end of the stage. The next person in line shuffled to take my place, and the woman’s voice dipped into otherworldly registers.

I shuffled through the comforting anonymity of the darkness to reclaim my seat on the wooden bench, thoughts spinning. There had been nothing of the spiritual in what I’d just experienced; no voice of the deity, no sense of omnipresence. It had felt, rather, like a brief, intense, mind-altering high that had blocked all other sensory experience. Is that how they were making this work? I scrutinized my memory for clues, wishing I could remember the woman blowing a fine powder into the air just before she began her incantations. But I couldn’t. Perhaps certain words, certain sounds, are capable of triggering a hallucinogenic state in the listener. How long have people known? To what ends, beyond religion and entertainment, has such knowledge been used?

Entry Filed under: Driftwords