Baltazar laughs, his laughter ringing as always halfway between a guffaw and a cackle. His eyes are almost imperceptibly crossed, as if drawn by the magnetic pull of his fine aquiline nose. His face is deeply ridged and brown but somehow ageless, his hair black and wiry and disheveled. His grin, wide and irresistible, subsides quickly.
I have known Baltazar for twenty years: in fact, he was the first Matsigenka native I ever met on my first trip to the Peruvian Amazon. But I had never spent much time with him, since I usually only stop off in his village for a few days on my way to more remote settlements in the headwaters. Still, no matter how short my stay, he always comes to visit me soon after my arrival. I often reciprocate by paying him a visit to bring him salt, flashlight batteries, and fresh coca leaves.
He usually insists on starting conversations in broken Spanish, as if to remind me that he still remembers the day when I was just learning to speak the Matsigenka language. He often reflects (with a remarkable, almost photographic memory) on my comings and goings, and reminisces about those who have died since my last visit. Sometimes I tell him about my research: whom have I interviewed, what plants they have taught me, what insights into folklore, myth, and shamanism I have gleaned. He responds, as always, with his pidgin Spanish, his aloof curiosity, his trademark cackle.
But today, as I pay him my habitual visit in the early afternoon, he asks me with an uncommon earnestness to sit beside him on a crisp cane mat. He sits alone and speaks to me in his native tongue.
“Do you remember that story you told me about the shaman whose soul was burned by the missionary’s flashlight?”
“Yes…” I hesitated, surprised at the unexpected question. Over the years I had heard about various incidents involving a certain American Protestant missionary who came to the village some forty years ago to convert the Matsigenka. The missionary was particularly worried about the villager’s faith in the local shaman: the man cured, the villagers said; he drank the powerful ayahuasca brew and entered trance; he sang, he shook a magical rattle made from bamboo leaves; he climbed a pole in the center of the ritual hut and ascended to an elevated platform; later, they would hear the mysterious sounds of footsteps on the roof thatch, then the sound of wings beating; the shaman, they said, had flown into the heavens, the ayahuasca had transported him to the spirit world. Some time later, they would hear the beating of wings, the rustling of footsteps on the thatch, the crash of the shaman falling back onto the slats of his platform. He would descend from the platform, from the very heavens, singing in an alien voice: he had switched places with his spirit twin. The séance was held in total darkness, lest the slightest glimmer or spark burn the shaman’s volatile, soaring soul.
The missionary did not like these pagan goings-on. He was determined to stamp them out. But he was cunning, and feigning curiosity about the shaman’s abilities, he obtained an invitation to observe a séance. He was duly informed about the ceremony’s procedures, most importantly the ban on artificial illumination. But the missionary snuck in a flashlight. As usual, the shaman drank the powerful brew, sang his songs, ascended the platform. The mysterious sounds of the shaman’s magical flight resounded from above. And in the darkness, someone told the missionary, “He’s gone! He has flown away into the sky.”
And then the missionary flicked the switch and brandished his flashlight like a flaming sword. He climbed up the pole and shone the blinding light down on the prone, groggy shaman.
“An impostor!,” the missionary pronounced, triumphant. “He has gone nowhere. He is fooling you all. He is a Devil-worshiper.”
And so, the story goes, the hapless shaman’s soul was burned by the missionary’s bright light at the height of his midnight trance. He lost his powers and gave up his shamanic practice for good.
Many weeks before, the incident had been on my mind and I had asked Baltazar whether he was familiar with it.
“Yes, yes, I know that story,” Baltazar answered. “In fact that man was my brother. He lost his powers. He left here and returned to his birthplace far away. He died long ago.”
I was surprised. “Your brother?”
“Yes, my brother,” said Baltzar, but he quickly changed the subject and seemed to lose interest.
But now, weeks later, Baltazar had suddenly brought it up again.
“The shaman who was burned by the missionary’s flashlight,” he continued, “you asked me about him last time you were here. I told you that was my brother.”
“Your brother,” I repeated, “Yes, your brother.”
“I lied.” He said with an inscrutable smile. “That was not my brother. That was me.”
I was dumbstruck.
“But whoever told it to you got the story wrong,” he continued. “They said the shaman lost his soul and never made ayahuasca again. I didn’t lose my soul. I still make ayahuasca. I’ll make it for you some time.”
A few days later, Baltazar came unexpectedly to my campsite just after dark and announced, “I have made ayahuasca, like I promised. Come drink ayahuasca with me. I can show you many things. Will you come?”
And so on a balmy moonless night I finally learned the truth about Baltazar: his bamboo rattle, beating like the wings of a bird to stoke the flames of trance; his songs, telling the history of his people and the ancient mysteries they guard; his spirit twin, singing in chorus with his own uncannily doubled voice; the sky itself bowed down before him, descending to earth time and time again at his bidding. His shaman-soul was never burnt or lost, just lying low. Wry, cackling Baltazar: the secret shaman all along.
--First published in We Are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples, edited by Joanne Eede, 130-31. London: Quadrille/Survival International, 2010. http://shop.survivalinternational.org/products/we-are-one