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El Shaman

De puerta cerrada, huye el Diablo.
The devil flees from a closed door.
~ Mexican proverb

My ex-husband is a shaman now. He wears white cotton pants and gathers his supplicants together under the mango trees at his family hot springs in Veracruz, Los Milagros. He tells me about the temascal, or sweat lodge, that he built in the wake of his spiritual revelation.

While he explains his newest project, I drift back to the Pico I met 25 years ago. Among other things, he was the fastest waiter in town. They called him Pico “El Loco” because he liked to fight. Taller than most Mexicans, mean as a street dog, his two-color iris eyes turned seriously psychopathic if you crossed him. When he wasn’t a fighter, or a generous cuate to his dozen buddies, he was a lover. Fueled by cocaine and cognac, he was an all night kind of guy. He feasted on the smorgasbord of fair-haired foreigners in the San Miguel years. I was perhaps the main course. His energy was boundless, for business, drugs, and women, probably in that order. He was especially astute at revenge.

Now, years after I escaped with our two children to Florida, the two of us have achieved an uneasy peace. Ever since the Virgin de Guadalupe appeared to him in the temescal, he’s a reformed man. He’s telling me about his conversion in the kitchen of the house we once shared. It’s the house that I fought for, the moldering pink mansion, the narchitecture nightmare, high on a hill above San Miguel. That battle is (sort of) behind us now and we are trying to be cordial.

“And what did she say to you Pico?” I hear the incredulous note in my voice.

He hesitates, standing at the industrial stove his father gave us as a wedding present, spooning half an avocado into a hot tortilla. Is it possible that he looks a little sheepish?

“She tell me, doan be greedy.”

I’m sorry that it took ten years of lawyers and payoffs and a painful exodus with my children for the goddamned V of G to show up, but I nod and smile. I wonder out loud, “How do you become a shaman?”

I think of a report I once heard on NPR: shamans experience a reality quite apart from the rest of us. In other words, they are psychotic. This fits. The question hangs in the air, as Pico comes over and sits on top of the table next to the stove. He devours half his taco in one bite.

“I go to thirteen temascales in Veracruz, some in Oaxaca and Chiapas too. I see how they do it! I have many, many people come now, all kinds of people. Some of jour friends from Xalapa! Jou should come to Milagros, Sarita!”

I didn’t have friends in Xalapa, just acquaintances. It’s hard not to shudder at the memory of the three benighted years I spent there, the last years of our marriage. But I love the hot springs at Milagros. I listen to Pico enthuse about the temescal and giggle at the vision of him as a Mexican Elmer Gantry. I’ve got to see this. Maybe when I drive Lizzie there to see her papi, at Christmas?

On New Years’ Day, I find myself standing on the cleared dirt under the manila mango trees. I am wearing a bathing suit. I know this will soon feel confining and wretched, but there are twenty middle-class Mexicans comprising the group. We are all strangers, and they are modest. That is, we are mostly strangers, except for me and the tall shaman who is telling the gathered group about the traditions of los abuelos, the ancestors. I am truly interested in the power of the temascal, and doing my best not to reveal the inner guffaws and wicked irony I feel at the moment. I am determined to banish the twenty years of viewing Pico as many other things—lover, husband, father, goofball, betrayer, dolt, asshole, prick,  feudal lord—and warm to the idea of seeing him in this new role. He certainly could never be faulted for lack of imagination. I focus on the interpretation of a tarot card, The Sorcerer, whose meaning is “able to translate vision into reality.” This is a kinder way to view the shaman who is talking about spiritual traditions in Mexico in his sonorously persuasive voice. Our shaman leads us, on hands and knees, into the hut. The floor is dirt and the ceiling is very low, leaving just enough room for everyone to squeeze in. It’s warm, but it will soon get much, much warmer. As our eyes adjust to the dim light, Pico asks each of us to explain why we are here. The group talks of love, family, career, failure, illness, and the desire to be a better person. The ages range from 20 to 60. I am last to speak. I have been frantically thinking of what to say, and decide on, “I want to learn forgiveness.”

Pico, whose singing voice I mainly associate with drunken ay-yi-yis after a chorus of mariachis, leads everyone in song. Soon he’s joined by shy tenors and strong baritones, soulful and a bit off key, singing folk songs and traditional melodies. Although I feel like a demented Girl Scout, I can’t resist a sing-a-long. I don’t know some of the songs, but join in with De Colores, a Mexican children’s song I remember well enough to sing. The hut heats up. A deep voice resounds outside. Puedo pasar?

“Pasale, Hombre de Fuego!” responds Pico, his voice a command. This begins a ritual: the hut’s burlap door opens fifty-two times over the next endless hour. The Hombre de Fuego enters. He is a bent middle-aged man whose job is to heat up the glowing head-sized rocks in a roaring outdoor fire. He loads them on his shovel and brings them one by one to dump in the central pit under the banana-leafed roof of the hut. Twenty tourists, some of us dazed and sweaty, some glittery-eyed from heat and curiosity, watch as each stone is dropped. Pico dips a clay mug into an herbal tincture and pours the tea on the rocks, releasing fragrant rosemary and santamaria and hierba de perro in the clouds of steam. The heat has begun to sear my ears. I watch in the dim light, all of us silent now, concentrating on our spiritual intent. My wall of easy sarcasm has nearly fallen away. I am determined to withstand this heat. The shaman is no longer my greedy control freak former husband; he is our spiritual leader. True, I still choke a little on that concept, but at least at this moment, he’s doing a pretty good job. The capo de tutti capo, the one-time thug, armed with mellifluous voice and charisma, has found a new nirvana. An audience.

I sweat. I worry that my inner ears will be forever damaged. But I am determined not to gasp for breath, not to be the one who collapses. I hear a few moans, but they aren’t coming from me. We drink more tea—who cares if it’s laced with pathogens from a dubious water source, it’s nectar of the gods. Some time after the last of the rocks (one for each week of the year) releases its final emanations of heat, we crawl out to the cool fresh air of the mango grove. Our shaman instructs us to lie on our backs in the cool dirt, allowing our limbs to grow heavy and sink into the soil (Earth). We look up at the stars in the dark sky above the towering trees (Air). Then we return to the hut (Fire). Light-headed, purified, we crawl out after another, shorter, session in the hut. We douse ourselves from the blue plastic barrels of Water. Oh, the delight, the coolness, especially on a sweltering jungle night.

The hombre de fuego, now acting as waiter, hands us each lemongrass tea served in a beige melamine cup. I feel lighter, released, unaware of anything except the dirt floor of the jungle, the moist sky, the golden mangoes dangling like earrings from the dark green leaves of the trees.

Will this lightness of spirit last? Can I forgive? Maybe, if I can do a temescal every day. Maybe there’s a way to internalize this lovely post-temescal magnanimity. I’ve already been able to look at our shaman’s beautiful hands when he talked about los abuelos without dwelling on the memory of the way those hands felt, balled into a fist, crashing into the side of my head. I’m light years out of Pico’s range now, even here in the jungle, his territory, and knowing he’s nearby.


Sara Fasy lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.