N exercise 2.14 – a sacred space
Braids of jungle vines, their thorns expertly shorn, are looped across the walls at the low ceiling of the room. In the flickering electric light from a single fluorescent tube, the loops cast distorted ellipsoidal shadows over the faces of the murmuring congregants. The tube gives off a clinical blue-white light, buzzing and popping like a bug-catcher.
On the hardpack dirt floor, covered with a thinning, woven mat of dried reeds, sit the congregants, in various degrees of full lotus. Even the oldest among them, a prune-faced, balding woman clutching a polished seashell, sits cross-legged. Every one of them is speaking, under their breath, at their own pace. The syllables are indecipherable – communion with spirits is far from a settled science, unlike astrology or palm-reading – but the animating emotions beneath are undeniable. Some people bounce in their seats, fingers tapping knees, while others are consumed with a sorrow so intense their cheeks bear rutted scars, channels cut in flesh where the tears run. Others still are motionless, their pupils still behind their eyelids, their parched lips barely trembling as they speak to whomever they hope is listening.
At the centre of the far wall is an object on an altar, comprised of eight pieces of driftwood, braided vines, and a few triangular shards of what looks like coal, or what could, in some more exotic clime, pass for obsidian. The driftwood is arranged in a complex shape – some pieces have been steamed to form arcs – and the triangles of coal are carefully arrayed around it. The braided vines are draped over the structure as though to keep it safe from the elements. The small room is cold as last night’s fire and the few insects that stray in are more interested in the congregants than they are the object on the altar. When one of the buzzing beasts settles on skin for a sip of blood, the people don’t react – seem hardly to notice at all. Later, they’ll be covered in rose-red bites, but for now, they are lost in ecstasy.