Ghosts of the Indian Herb
April 15, 2011 1 Comment
If your savior dies, are you still saved? I found myself asking this question in this story inspired by true events.
I’m in love with a ghost.
Of course, Carmen wasn’t a ghost when we met. In fact, she was full of life like no other woman I’ve ever met. I mean, how many gorgeous Puerto Rican kickboxing physics teachers does one ever get to meet in this life?
I fell hard. I was going through a divorce and my life was falling apart. She changed everything.
It is five years later when I get her text message while sitting at the bar at Muu-Muus. It’s colon cancer, she says. Stage IV. I don’t even know what that means, so I turn to ask Crazy Joe of all people. He doesn’t know either, so I google it on my iPhone.
In half a second, the definition of Stage IV pops up like a telegram from hell. The cancer has metastasized. It’s terminal.
I drop my phone on the bar.
I take her to doctors, surgeons, oncologists. Chemo three times a week. Transfusions. Now a pain specialist. She’s down to 100 pounds. Nothing is working.
And then I meet this guy in Austin at a trade show. He recovered from brain cancer years ago. They said he was a goner. Then someone told him about the Indian Herb.
He writes the directions on back of a computer brochure. There are no signs, no house numbers, he says. And be sure to bring a picture of her. Part of the shaman’s magic has to do with visualization.
It’s a five-hour drive to the high desert and a shack above a dry river bed. The old woman sits in a rocking chair with a mortar and pestle in her lap. She is mixing something. As I walk up, she looks at me with the warm patience of the aged.
I hand her the photo of Carmen and she stops with her mixing to examine the picture. So young. So pretty, she says. Such a shame.
In the bowl is a black paste that seems to soak up the light. She takes a pinch and applies it to the photo with a playing card. She spreads it thin with the Queen of Hearts, no less.
I’m taken aback when she pulls out the matches and lights the photo. She stares intently, watching the paste burn with a blue flame on the surface of the glossy image.
I look closer. There’s something happening to the picture. I swear it’s moving, flickering like one of those old silent movies. Then, in a flash, the photo is gone.
She mixes the ashes with the Indian Herb and hands me the vial. It’s 90 degrees here in the sun, but the glass is somehow frosted and cold.
One more thing, she says. Very important. The Indian Herb absorbs through the skin. It requires a pure spirit, so never, ever use it with alcohol, understand?
When I get back to Portland, I learn that Carmen is in a coma. I’m too late.
That night she comes to me in my dream. She holds me, but she doesn’t speak. I tell her she has to let go of this world. I kiss her goodbye.
Just that moment, my son wakes me up, calling out from the bathroom. His nose is bleeding. I get him cleaned up and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Must have smeared blood on my face somehow. It looks like there’s lipstick on my cheek.
I’m wiping it off when the phone rings. 5:00 am. It’s her sister, Mercy. Carmen is gone.
At Mercy’s house, I sit in the kitchen and watch as the men from the funeral home wheel the stretcher towards the door. Logan calls out from the living room. Dad, the TV shut off.
The power in the house is out. It flicks back on the moment they close the door of the hearse.
Weeks later, it is 3:00 am when I stumble home. The nightly beers dull the pain, but I wake up the minute they wear off. I look in the mirror and see that I forgot to shave. My eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep. I don’t have dreams any more.
I see the Indian Herb is sitting on the counter. I pick it up and weigh it in my hand. Could this have done a miracle, I wonder? A cure for cancer? I unscrew the cap and take a whiff. A sulfur smell. I stick my finger in and look at the stuff in my hand. As it warms, the black goo turns clear.
I remember what the Indian Herb did to the photo of Carmen. Brought it to life. I reach to my reflection and touch the mirror. The Indian Herb spreads smoothly on the glass.
In a moment my reflected self starts to blur. I must be really drunk, I’m thinking. Then the image starts to change, deconstruct. My skin, my teeth, my bones are dissolving away. I look down at where my heart would be and it turns translucent. Inside is something very dark, tortured and writhing in pain. Something horrific that’s becoming clearer and more magnified each second.
I hear a voice from the mirror. This is your soul.
I crumple to the floor and cry out in the night. I let her down. I couldn’t save her. This cannot be undone.
It’s morning now and I’m sorting through the photos I picked up from Carmen’s house. There’s one of me sitting on the patio at Muus. That’s odd, I think. Where did she get that?
Then I look again. The front of the bar is painted red. But it’s always been green since I’ve going there.
I grab a deck of cards from the drawer and pick up the Indian Herb and spread it on the photo. I light a candle. Maybe that’s the trick. Wave it over the flame but don’t ignite.
Something in the image begins to come out. It is Carmen. She starts to come alive in the flickering motion I saw at that shack in the desert. She reaches down to touch my heart. Then she whispers in my ear, as she points to a beautiful Latina woman at the next table. I’m sure I’ve seen her before.
Then I notice there’s something different about me in the picture, too. I’m not sad any more. In fact, I see myself laughing as I move over to join the woman for a drink. Carmen bends down to kiss me on the cheek and she starts to fade away.
Just then, the photo catches fire. Wait. No! Come back, Carmen! I try to blow it out, but it’s gone to ashes.
I still use the Indian Herb sometimes. In fact, they painted the bar red a few weeks later and I decided to start spending more time on the patio. It’s been two years now and yes, I’ve gotten to know the woman that Carmen showed me pretty well now. I’ll let you know how that turns out.
So now, my audience, when I take this photo of you this morning, I’m curious to see what phantoms you might be carrying around. I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, the ghosts from your past have forgiven you a million times over, too.
There’s a darkness inside of all of us. Something we keep locked away, but that’s what gives it its power. To truly disarm that darkness, I think all you have to do is acknowledge it. Look at it and say, I see you. You are part of me.
So as I close this story, I have to say that yes, I’m in love with a ghost. I looked into the abyss and that love saved me long after she left this world.
And just to be spooky, I’m thinking I should tell you what I saw in the mirror that night, but be warned.
I promise it would scare the living shit out of you.