Kokush inhaled the smoke from his pipe and forced the intoxicating tobacco deep into his lungs. Still, no clear visions penetrated the fog, only a feeling of dread he could not explain or expel from his mind.
The Asháninka men, bodies painted and seated on woven mats around their revered shaman, passed a hollowed-out gourd filled with thick, bitter liquid. Each man sipped the hallucinogenic drug made from a native vine and handed the bowl to the next, until the syrup was gone.
A low beat from the two-headed monkey-skin drum grew louder as a melancholy mantra emanated from the group, drowning out the deafening hum of the nighttime insects. The men rose and continued to chant and sing as they began the ancestral dance used to encourage the spirits and wise supernatural beings to communicate with Kokush. The women joined in, the ground vibrating in response to the rhythmic stomping of their feet, while the children watched from under the raised-floor houses encircling the communal area.
Flames blazed in the center of the ceremonial grounds, casting an unnatural glow over the dancers and eerie shadows skittered through the trees. A sweet smoke from the wood and herbs burning on the fire filled their nostrils, coaxing the participants into a trance-like state of mind. Moving with a graceful ease made possible by the intoxicating effect of the vine and tobacco, they waited for their ancestors to speak.
As the shaman often did, Kokush slipped silently from the circle, giving his people the illusion he had vanished and joined the spirit world. He had been taught the art of disappearing by his grandfather, which wasn’t difficult once his audience succumbed to the drugs and got caught up in the ceremonial fervor, and the thick smoke created a hazy curtain to conceal his movements.
He usually used the tactic to reinforce to the villagers that he possessed special powers and was worthy of being their spiritual leader. Tonight, he needed time to organize his thoughts and try to decide what to do. He didn’t want to frighten his people, but he was certain something evil would soon descend upon them. Unsure of what or when, how could he warn them? His gut told him they should flee, but he didn’t know how soon or how far they needed to run…
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