The Vine of Life

Share on

:: 2017 FALL TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::

Parrots with blue cheeks, harmonicas, suited gentlemen, fiddleheads, fantastic lights, tapir bones, gasoline, bacaba palms, corn tortillas, mapacho, hurt, peque-peque engines, ayahuasca & the Amazon.


*Fiction.

A man went brooding into the jungle. He stood as tall as a doorway and bumped his wide shoulders passing through them. He relished the wantonness of life, its uncertainties and shadows. He went in search of Mother Ayahuasca, the vine of life, to perturb the giddy demons painting smiles onto famines and hordes of locust. He liked lima beans cooked with butter and drove a small car that no one would be likely to steal.

In Peru, the jungle is vast and swallows its people, leaving it to the West and the East to give them names. But he had a name, Juniper, June for short. Random tattoos on his upper arms, a simple eye on his right palm, which he used to frighten his daughter and those of rigid faith.

His adventure began in Newark, New Jersey, thence to Iquitos, Peru, and up the Mighty River past Francisco de Orellana to places without names, without shadows. The river was deep, wide and brown, with an infinite stomach for gringos and unlucky natives. In the thirty-foot canoe with a peque-peque engine, he ate catfish roasted over coals, with always ample rice. He was silent, the man guiding the boat buzzing like a bee in the Spanish of Iquitos and occasionally Yagua.


He was a small man with a barrel chest and that solid belly that resists heavy blows.


For four days the boat plied the Mighty River, a smell of green, brown and gasoline. Long trails of steam played with the towering canopy. They passed small islands in the river and spider monkeys chattering, stopping once to gather fresh water from a rushing stream fed by the daily rains. The man named June was hot by day and shivered by night, his blank mind anticipating the secrets of the vine, seeking power, protection and teaching.

Precisely at midnight, and with a lone rooster crowing in the distance, the moon full and dreadful, there was the light of a single candle on a crude pier made of poles. The driver muttered as if afraid and steered the boat toward the muddy shore, bumping the gnarled pier. With only a small pack containing a flashlight, a poncho and a few corn tortillas, the man named June stepped onto the pier, which floated on large water-soaked logs. He wondered if the boatman would stay, but determined for now to find the jungle father known as Don Aguirre.

He entered the dark tangle of trees, the moon’s glow halted by towering Brazil nut trees and bacaba palms. The path was narrow and slick, and he wished for a machete. Ascending, he soon came to a clearing where collected were the bones of tapirs mixed with the bones of humans. On he walked, his sweat mingling with the tepid chill. He remembered the small book of forty pages, the map within, and watched for a sign and soon found it: a circular ruin of stones charred by fire.

For three days he waited, eating fiddleheads and the fruit of the pacay, which resembled a large green bean. On the night of the third day, Don Aguirre came, barefoot, dressed in white. He was a small man with a barrel chest and that solid belly that resists heavy blows. With him was an old woman bent with age, wearing a T-shirt and a skirt of motley cloth. Twisted into a bundle about her shoulders were the ingredients, the patched steel pot, a glass and sticks of wood from a sacred almond tree.


He went in search of Mother Ayahuasca, the vine of life, to perturb the giddy demons painting smiles onto famines and hordes of locust.


In broken Spanish they spoke and the man named June sat and leaned against a large stone, watching the sturdy woman craft a small fire and place within the pot the vine of life, chacruna, leaves of the deadly toè and a handful of powerful mapacho. The moon again was full but its light weak among the ruins. Unseen, parrots with blue cheeks whistled and popped, warning of the fall of darkness.

To prepare for the ceremony, the man named June disrobed and bathed in water floating with the petals of flowers of which he did not know the names. For a month now he had shunned oil, salt, sugar, spices, coffee and tea. The memory of recent events flooded over him. His daughter had been hurt by a man and a man was dead. Nothing would ever be the same. To the sound of a cymbal brushed with a palm frond, the man drank an elixir of Piñon Colorado, followed by three wooden cups of stale water. Seven times he vomited and Don Aguirre smiled.

The old woman tended the bubbling pot, stirring it with a carved stick in the likeness of an anaconda. She had unrolled a grass mat and placed around it stones of green that caught the faint moon. Upon this the man sat, waiting.


To the sound of a cymbal brushed with a palm frond, the man drank an elixir of Piñon Colorado, followed by three wooden cups of stale water. Seven times he vomited and Don Aguirre smiled.


Don Aguirre pulled from his pocket an old harmonica and with hardly any sound blew long slow notes that reminded the man of a steamboat from far away. Soon it was time, and from a bottle filled with palm liquor, Don Aguirre drank and sprayed the man’s head. Wiping the moisture from his eyes, the man called June felt strong and craved his lesson to come. The old woman brought the pot from the fire and filled a small glass halfway, handing it to Don Aguirre, who placed it on a small stone to cool. And Don Aguirre began to sing the first icaro of healing, of inner sight and of peace.

Perhaps a minute passed, perhaps an hour, and Don Aguirre’s voice went silent. He motioned for the man to come, and he did, kneeling before the shaman. Don Aguirre took the glass filled with bitter and black. He lit a hand-rolled mapacho and blew smoke three times into the glass. “Sé fuerte,” he said. Be strong.

The man called June took the glass with both hands and in a single move gulped the foul liquid, tasting like sour wine and dirt. His stomach rebelled, but he persisted and returned to his mat, lying on his back amid the ruins, the ancient fire. A great peace enveloped him and he imagined his daughter, his wife now passed. For half an hour the peace lingered like dew and then came fantastic lights. There was a large cartoon house, and there was flame in the basement. The fire rushed up the stairs with the face of a minor demon and consumed each floor but yet the house remained, blue, red, yellow. Don Aguirre sang. The old woman shook a handful of reeds.


The fire rushed up the stairs with the face of a minor demon and consumed each floor but yet the house remained, blue, red, yellow.


The man called June stood at the top of an amphitheater, looking down, down, beyond the rows of suited gentlemen. In the center was a small man dressed in garb of yore with large hands crafting a human being bit by bit. His long arm reached and took a brain and then a kidney and then bones. The man called June knew what was about to happen and trembled as his heart was plucked, like thread being pulled from his chest, and placed into the forming man. Don Aguirre sang. The old woman shook a handful of reeds.

All that was lacking was a soul and some blood and there appeared a young lamb. Through a slit in the belly yet unclosed, the lamb entered, and the man’s eyes opened, and after a moment he began to speak. He spoke of a labyrinth, of the nature of time and of a recipe familiar to the man named June. The creation stood and walked and June followed as if tethered like a balloon. For seven days and seven nights through clouds, lava, cotton and a vast plain littered with machines, the journey continued. When the journey was complete, June opened his eyes to bright sunlight. Don Aguirre and the old woman were gone.

He felt the scar on his chest and thought of his daughter. That surely she would have the answer, that surely she would know.


Russell Helms has had stories in Sand, Litro, Drunken Boat, Bewildering Stories and other journals. He holds a lectureship in English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His novels are with Sij Books.

Lead image: Nad Hemnani

Share on

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published.