Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Short Story - Hongo the Shroom


“Usually several members of a family eat the mushrooms together: it is not uncommon for a father, mother, children, uncles, and aunts to all participate in these transformations of the mind that elevate consciousness onto a higher plane.”

“Some ancient sources suggest that the Maya language names of fungi used for the underworld.”

“To participate in the evening you must be clean, this means refraining from drinking alcohol and having sex at least four days before and four days after the evening.. It is believed that the sacred mushrooms inflict severe punishment on those who break this rule.”


In 2005, I backpacked around the Yucatan Peninsula. I had arranged to be there on November 1st and 2nd to witness, and hopefully participate in, the Day of the Dead celebrations.

I had thought it ideal to take in the celebrations in a place like Oaxaca, the mountain town with perennial spring. I shared my plan with other backpackers and, in accordance with backpacker tradition worldwide, I was soon getting tips about the most authentic, unusual ways to celebrate the event. Everybody seemed to be saying that Mexico's smaller towns were the place to be on Day of The Dead. And if I wanted a truly spiritual experience, there was no place quite as ideally suited to it as San Jose Del Pacifico.

San Jose is located one hour from Oaxaca city and 2,200 meters above sea level. It has a population of about fifteen people, all of whom are apparently shamans and guardians of the mystical Teonanacatl mushroom... according to the Goa hippies, at any rate! (What, you didn't guess that the most authentic experience was going to involve taking drugs? What kind of backpacker are you??)

I had heard about this place in the mountains, where you could get mushrooms of the magical variety.  I was blasé as the Goa hippies in Zipolite, people my own age, told me about the legends that San Jose del Pacifico had supplied mushrooms to shamans for centuries gone by. I was inured to stories of ancient mystical significance by then; they seemed to be associated with every inch of Mexican soil that was touched by American feet. And this latest, awe-inspiring legend all but put me to sleep.

 "Yada yada yada,"  I said impatiently. "How much do they cost?"

The locals stared blankly at me. "What you can pay," they said enigmatically. "Sometimes they even give them to you for free."

They had me at 'free'.

To get there, I left from a small city at the foot of the mountain range and then climbed over 2000 meters along a road so thin and winding that I nearly puked, and the bus nearly went off of a cliff every time it rounded a bend.  (It probably didn’t help that the driver was reading a newspaper and letting a 7-year old steer the bus for him). Winding up the mountains, the entire, desolate expanse of peaks seemed empty.  This mountain felt like a god that had been trod on. I chalked up the unsettling feeling that I had up to sleep-deprivation.

The people we passed on the roads going there looked strained, even the kids had lines on their faces as if they'd been born in a state of perpetual tension, oblivious to anything but the struggle to get by on that angry mountain.  The houses felt temporary too, like they were just biding their time until were made to leave.  Pine-like trees climbed up in the mist, guarding those unseen, God’s flesh mushrooms.  By ingesting them, one would supposedly be imbued with the plant's spirit and its perspective.

After missing the town (having somewhat foolishly blinked as we were passing through it) and then hitching my way a mile back to town in a passing collectivo, I trudged down to the main road, tentatively searching for a cheap room.  Sauntering past the local bar, which was the only feature on the high street, one or two scarred faces stared back out of a room with chintzy red interior.  Here was old Mexico, where women don’t enter the saloons.



It was around sunset on October 31st, the night before Day of the Dead.  Indigenous Mexicans seem to believe that the spirit world is freed from its usual constraints on November 1st and 2nd. On those nights, the dead arise to the Earth and seek out their friends and relatives. After all that time underground, they quite naturally want to party.

To prepare for the reunion, Mexican families spend the night decking out the local cemeteries with brightly coloured sand paintings, loud music and dancing candle lights. In retrospect, taking magic mushrooms was probably not the best idea on a night when the dead are meant to be wandering the earth without constraint. The mushrooms I was about to buy were desired by shamans because it is believed that they enable the user to see the underworld, spirits of the dead and damned. Not that this ever stops me.

The town of San Jose Del Pacifico consisted of a few wooden-planked houses perched on a very high mountain ridge. There were two restaurants on the main road. The wind was wild, beating vegetation and forcing people to creep low to the ground. I'm sure it was all very charming in the spring but during this time of year, it was a fiercely elemental place to be. The rough, angular terrain itself seemed to reject anything but the most desperate inhabitants.

I met an old lady who had a room for rent.  She led me up a winding rock path to a tiny cabin perched on the highest ridge in town. It featured a splendid view of the San Jose del Pacifico mountain range curving away to the left, peaks breaking the surface of a flat, frothing expanse some 500 meters below our feet that I assumed was water, but then vertiginously realized was actually a layer of clouds. I braced myself against the cabin as if this would somehow stabilize me. Not that the gravitational pull of the valley beneath was about to drag me off the path... but that’s how it felt.

The cabin - shed, really - was a bare room with tiled floors, stone walls and a fold-out bed.  The owner was an old lady who looked like someone's grandma. She listened and nodded sympathetically when I told her my request in dodgy Spanish: Where can I find magic mushrooms? She held up one finger and wandered off. She brought them back about three hours later – like very Mexican-style room service, that delivered anything you asked for, albeit the next day.

When she came back with a jar of what looked like honey, I thought, bless, she misunderstood me and brought back some preserves. I prepared to tell her that I didn't need any honey but as she put the jar in my hand, I saw some strange grey stalks floating in it.

"Hongo," she clarified, nodding and shaking the jar.  They circled around in the murk like insects  in sap, waiting to become amber.

I paid her 100 pesos and stuttered thanks. Then, just to be sure I hadn't been ripped off, I tried a pair of mushrooms out and watched the sun finish setting. The views were spectacular but at least part of their beauty was probably due the adrenaline rush I got from realizing that one false step would send me hurtling into that pink bank of clouds.

I stepped back into the cabin and went to bed.  Buried under 3 wool blankets, wind shaking the whole cabin, I very nearly slept.

The next morning, I went outside. Three children with weary, dead eyes were savagely kicking a ball  around in the street like it was the head of someone they hated (probably a tourist).  They didn’t stare at me – in fact, they disregarded me utterly, even when my heavy backpack overbalanced and I fell on the ground.  Despite being all of 10 feet away, the kids pretended like I didn’t exist.  It was weird. Never had I been in a small town, here or anywhere else, that kids didn't stare at the stranger passing through, especially when she'd just made an arse of herself in public. 

The unsettling feeling that I had about the place got stronger.  I decided I was leaving... today.

In the bright morning sun, I  went to the café that doubled as a bus station (and now trebled as a souvenir shop, too).   Noisy diesel trucks rolled by on the gravel road outside.  Schoolchildren bearing identical square black backpacks, wearing white little socks with black shoes, walked past.  Morning altered my dark befuddled mind and  I wanted to order a coffee as I waited for the bus – which was due at 7:30 a.m. - but getting the waiter's attention seemed to be such a complex process, I finally gave up.

In the café cum souvenir shop cum bus station’s lobby, where I was now sitting on the floor, an old man was setting up a table full of souvenirs. He had that same odd, evasive weariness about him that refuted conversation, that everyone here seemed to have. He was selling these small, knitted toys hanging off of keychains.  Maybe it was the harsh light of day, the cold night, the unfriendly children or the floor, but I suddenly yearned for something warm and cuddly to hold onto... like those toys. 

I straightened up and walked over to the stand, stared at the toys and tried to make up my mind which one to buy.  They came in three basic designs: a man wearing a sombrero, a flower, and a magic mushroom covered in fairy spots. And over in the corner, occupying his own bizarre little niche, there was a fourth design: Hongo the 'Shroom.  He was a weird hybrid of the magic mushroom and sombrero man, with a humanoid face and a chubby, armless, legless torso that may have been a stalk (or it might just have been a legless, armless torso... anything seemed possible, in this place).

Hongo immediately hypnotized me with his oddness and his black, penetrating eyes. His oblong nose and ambiguous grin seemed to sneer knowingly. He was truly one of a kind. I had to have him.

Quanto cuesta?” I asked the man.  He shrugged and wandered off.  I was tempted to just grab the little sombrero 'shroom and shove him in my pocket, but I waited for the man to come back.  He disappeared. Eventually, a harried-looking woman with black hair straggling out of her bun came up some stairs and took his place behind the stand.  I asked her the same question and she said “Ocho pesos.”  She seemed like she was more in the mood to do business, so I tried to hurry up and make up my mind which one to buy. 

My eyes kept coming to the mushroom man over and over again.  He seemed persistent, his black bead eyes holding mine.  There was emotional complexity that shouldn’t have fit so easily into his 2-inch wide, knitted face. 

He had this ambiguous, sneering smile that seemed to subtly reflect the way that I felt right now: sleep deprived, jaded, a little bit sinister.  The same way I always do after taking mushrooms... the same state that everyone in town seemed to be in, by default. Yep, he would serve as a good reminder of San Jose del Pacifico, alright.  Funnily enough, I don’t remember consciously deciding to buy the little mushroom man, though. One minute I was thinking about it and the next, he was hanging from my zipper. Like he'd always been there.

Some time later, the Nausea Express rolled up, and I boarded it and headed for Oaxaca city.


Since I’m a believer in signs…

...there were other signs.  The night I returned to Oaxaca, I shared the rest of honey mushrooms with a girl who’d been looking for some way to trip.  It was nightfall on Day of the Dead now, so we walked for ages to a beautiful cemetery, and she kept staring intently at the Santa Muerte sand paintings drawn around the tombs, waiting for the drugs to kick in.  They never did, for her. At the end of the night she threw herself into bed at our hostel, snapping that, “I shouldn’t have done them, I wasted my time thinking I was going to get high.” Ranting at me as though I’d deliberately taken the hallucinatory power of the 'shrooms away.

What about me? I wondered silently, but kept my mouth shut.  I didn't want to keep her up and waste more of her time, but what about the day and a half I had spent trekking up that $&%^ing mountain to get the %^&^%ing 'shrooms on that %^&ing cliff? Did she think that had been a nonstop party, or what?

We didn’t talk again after that.

The rest of the two-month journey was a bit of a haze. I contracted dengue fever from a painful red bite I got, while I slept in a hamaka in the jungles near Tikal.  At the Mayan ruins, there was a temple that I couldn’t stop staring at: the temple of the Jaguar. It jutted out of the jungle floor like a triangular spike. I went into a bit of a trance wandering round the structure and somehow lost my protective quartz crystal pendant (my one and only nod to New Age-ness).

I found it again about 15 minutes later, glimmering in the grass, just off of a beaten path I hadn't taken, between some trees. After I stooped down to collect it I straightened up, took a step forward, and found myself eye to eye with a vast, gleaming spider’s web. The huge yellow and black banded creature at its centre was as passive in the breeze as a flower... the kind that likes to clamp shut on its prey.  It seemed to be waiting for me to take that final step into its embrace.

I stepped back and hurried away.

The mushroom toy (whom I'd christened Hongo, after the Mexican word for 'mushroom') seemed to channel a dark side of Mexican nature that I hadn’t been aware of before.  Had the honey mushrooms opened it up to me? The negative energies in me resonated with the landscape in a new and disturbing way.

I just felt certain there was no way back, no return; I was being devoured by this country – and, as I noted in my diary, "devour" was exactly what the old deities tended to do, when they were denied their proper respect. Crazy thoughts... must have been the dengue fever talking.

The rest of my backpacking adventure exemplified everything about solitary travel that can wear you down; every weakness of body and mind.  How being spread too thin can smear energies to the point where you become an aimless mess, reeling from one 'must-see' attraction to another like you'll find whatever's missing in you, there.  I wasn’t centred anymore, but had to keep on moving. The part of me that kept on pulling forward was the same part that I saw reflected in Hongo's sneaky little face, each time I looked at him. He dangled from my zipper like a kind of amulet. For what? Against what? I didn't know. But clasping him in my hand made every situation, however weird, seem suddenly familiar and right.

Normally when I’m ill or weary it passes, but this fever that I picked up in Tikal felt perpetual, like it had its claws in my joints. I felt like I was carrying double the weight in my pack at all times.  I was carrying the essence of negativity, unknown to me, impossible to pin down except in the sneer of a stranger's face or the rumble of thunder through the trees. Something had found an outlet into the world...and it seemed to have found it in me.


It was winter by now, anyway, so I couldn’t wait to get away from San Cristobel de las Casas, where I'd somehow wound up after Tikal. It was raining and mist-drenched outside, and I spent all my time in unheated, tile-ridden hostels. Shaking with dengue fever, never less than 3 wool blankets on me at any one time, I soon lost my sense of humour about the fact that my trip to Mexico was turning into a permanent vacation, for the sole reason I was too ill to leave.

Finally, I got a plane back to Canada... just barely! The coach was late, I legged it through the biggest airport in the known universe and narrowly made it onto the plane, where I was greeted by glowering sunburnt faces, all of them hating me with a passion for the delay. As I sank into my seat I knew the journey was over.  It was that point that every traveller eventually reaches, where the trip cancels you instead of the other way around.

Back in Canada, I slowly recovered.  I moved into a new flat.  But every night I had terrible dark dreams in which I relived those dreary last weeks in Mexico.  Where everything was grey, decrepit, eroded by rain and mud, the greenery sliding down the side of that mountain in slow motion, nothing but hongo feet clutching at the flanks; stalks locked in subterranean webs against the descent.

When I thought about Mexico consciously, I reminisced about the day when I’d bought Hongo the mushroom man. I didn't know why - maybe it was because everything in my life had been better, up until that point. That was the moment when my own descent had began, and it had been as relentless and weighty as anything clinging to life on that unforgiving mountainside.

I’d been full of resentment for Mexico when I'd bought that toy.  Maybe I’d picked up an entity who'd felt the same way about the place; that had just wanted to leave. Perhaps it had gravitated toward Hongo the 'Shroom because his was the shape that most resembled its own. In the absence of any hand-carved idols to inhabit, maybe my crappy, creepy roadside toy had to suffice as a vessel. Maybe the Oaxacan mushroom god had hitched a ride home with me!  And if it had, clearly it wasn't enjoying the ride one bit.

(Clearly, the dengue fever was still affecting my brain).

Finally one night, I went into the closet where I'd slung all my Mexican baggage and dragged everything that was in there, out into the light.  There were bags inside of empty bags.  And there was the little mushroom man, still hanging off the zipper of my backpack where I'd left him. Hongo the 'Shroom. His black little eyes caught the light coming from the window and peppered me with it in a way that seemed strangely active. Strangely alive.

The moment I lowered my gaze to his skewed, ambivalent smile, I felt certain: he was the source of all the strange dreams I'd been having.  I also knew that anybody who I told this to would think I was utterly insane.  Well, I wouldn’t have to tell them, would I?  I just had to sort things out with Hongo so he would stop giving me those nightmares. But how?

I did some research online - read a travel blog in which the author recalled encountering darkness in San Jose Del Pacifico.  He’d seen it, too. In ancient times, this was the place where shamans had come to get their God’s ‘flesh'... truth steeped in violence. Insights ripped from the planet one bite at a time.

Online I found pictures of the god of the underworld speaking to disciples through the mushroom.  This was a god who served no masters.  There were legends in which heroes were rendered helpless by the mushroom and had to call down a guide to lead them out through the underworld.

I'd had no such guide in Mexico - couldn't afford one, being a backpacker and all.

And finally, I read the legend that mixing alcohol with mushrooms incurred divine wrath.  That hadn't been the case in the marshes of Hackney but, maybe there, in the deities’ realm, different rules applied. We'd drunk like fish on the Day of the Dead, trying to get a buzz on. Had we crossed a line that we hadn't seen?

Then I came across a photo that froze me on the spot. It was of an ancient carving of a sacred God’s Flesh mushroom, the sombrereto, and it looked exactly like -guess who? -  Hongo the bloody 'Shroom. Not a man, not a mushroom, but both.

That confirmed it for me. Hongo wasn't just a keychain, he was a vessel, a direct line to some ancient psychedelic plane. Regardless of whether the craftsman had made him for fun or for profit, regardless of whether I’d bought him out of yearning or guilt, the fact remained: something, somehow had vested this toy with supernatural powers.  A gateway between two worlds. And he'd been expecting reverence, some kind of thanks, and he hadn't received it, yet. To make things worse, I’d consumed the mushrooms that were linked to him - eaten his God’s Flesh - without proper respect.


My imagination ran wild. Shamans.  Fairy circles.  Mushrooms as vehicles for divine knowledge. Even the fact that mushrooms are neither plant nor animal - all suggesting that they are elemental, somehow beyond human comprehension. A vehicle for spirits that,  by definition, do not belong in a wholly man-made world, let alone on the 10th floor of a concrete block of flats. So, not only was Hongo the 'Shroom carrying an indigenous spirit but that spirit was now both neglected and displaced.  Stuck to a zipper in a closet. Oh the humanity!

Perhaps, through my dreams, Hongo was returning to his ex-haunt in some musty mountain mushroom patch - which was probably destroyed now, by over-picking for tourists. He probably felt bitter, traumatized, displaced.  Well, whatever else he was, he was my problem now.

Even if I didn’t totally buy my own far-fetched theory (which, to recap, was that my keychain was possessed) I could easily believe that Hongo had become a repository for my own negative energies.  Ever since I’d bought him, I’d felt resentment for what was probably just a wholly random run of bad luck.  Maybe in Hongo, I’d unwittingly created an effigy to my own negative thinking.

Shouldn't effigies be destroyed? That was what I'd always heard. But oddly, it didn’t occur to me to throw Hongo out.  No, this little woolly 'shroom seemed to represent everything I’d been through in Mexico – every negative experience that I hadn't found the words for.  I had earned it, earned the right to remember with my blood sweat and tears.  I resolved to make my keychain souvenir-worthy once more.

After giving some thought to it (and consulting the oracle of the internet), I decided the best way to do this was to bury Hongo in a bowl of salt and leave him on my windowsill in the full moon light.  Let the divine light and body of the earth cleanse him and... yada, yada, yada. He never really seemed peaceful though, not even then.

I went to bed.

Then I was awake.  I could hear someone moving in the flat above me.  They were making a slow, muffled stomping sound: thud-thud-thud. It persistently built in volume, distorting my dreams. I managed to sleep through it for about 40 minutes but eventually it got too loud to ignore and I woke up.  Just as I opened my eyes, though, the sound vanished.  Must have been a part of the dream, I thought, and went back to sleep.

But within about 10 minutes of entering the REM stage again, the slow, steady thudding noise had returned, louder than before.  It was growing incrementally with each thud, until it overwhelmed my dream’s soundtrack.  Breaking into my sleep like a sound from the surroundings would.

I ignored it for as long as possible but was finally prodded awake, groggy and irritable. Just as I opened my eyes, though, the sound entirely stopped.  Bloody neighbours! I thought. I figured they must have been doing some late night furnishing.  I wondered if they’d stopped whatever they had been doing, now.  I hoped so, since it had to be about 2:00 a.m.  I got up to refill my water glass, then got into bed and waited to drift off.

I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I remember, I was being dragged out of my sleep again: this time, by a harsher, rhythmic banging sound.  As I came to, I could still hear the crack-crack-crack coming from above. It sounded as if someone up there was whacking a metal pole against their floor.

They’re really taking the piss I thought. But as soon my eyes opened, whoever was making the banging sound fell silent. Again. This time, I struggled into a sitting position, determined to wait for the sound to restart so I could track it to its source.  Whoever was making that noise was going to get a piece of my mind. But the entire world had suddenly gone quiet.  There wasn’t a dog barking in the yards below; not a car passing on the street; not even the lift was moving in the shaft next to my flat.  I got up and paced for a bit while brewing a cup of camomile tea.  Then I got back into bed, fell asleep before I could finish the drink.

I was too anxious to fall into a very deep sleep but, eventually, my thoughts started to turn more surreal and dream-like.  Just as I started to slip into the giddy warmth of deeper sleep, the metallic clanging sound started up. AGAIN.  This time, it sounded like somebody was going at the concrete floor above with a slow motion jackhammer, trying to rip into it - and into me.

It’s not real I told myself. It's just a part of the dream.   Nobody in this place could possibly be doing anything that loud at this hour. All the neighbours would have been up in arms, yelling at him, calling the police.  Even if somebody were carrying out some sort of bizarre revenge attack for my late night turntable sessions, they wouldn’t be wasting their own sleep to do it at 4:00 a.m.

Ignore it and it’ll go away… But instead, the clanging grew in intensity until it was almost painful to hear. It felt like someone was actually hitting me in the head.  Each bang reached into my mind and vandalized it, through the insulation of my dreams. It grabbed me, shook me, startled me awake.  I awoke with the certainty that something must be happening, something violent and destructive, in my flat.

Without opening my eyes this time, I woke up. I lay still and waited for the clanging aftershocks to stop reverberating around my head… but even I could tell that they were only in my head. There was no trace of the sound or its source here, in the waking world. None at all.

I cracked my eyes open and peered around, half afraid that I’d find the furniture in my flat rearranged, turned upside down as if by a poltergeist. But the flat was as tidy and as silent as it had been the last time I’d seen it.  Was I going mad?  Probably, but that was nothing new.

There were no clangs, bangs, thuds, sirens, burglars etc., to be heard or seen, anywhere.  There definitely weren’t even any roosters, spiders or geckos.  I wasn’t in dreamland and I definitely wasn’t back in Mexico.  The world outside was smothered under mantles of sleep and snow, tucked up in winter's bed having sweet little dreams.  Every living thing that is, except for me.

I stayed in bed but realized I was actually quite scared of going back to sleep, now.  This untraceable sound seemed to be stalking me maliciously, like it was a conscious thing. It was just a tad unnerving.  Maybe this place is haunted, I thought.

So I got up again and went to the kitchen.  I skipped the water, bypassed the camomile and poured myself a large shot of vodka instead.  As I turned to look out the window, a white object on the sill caught my eye.  It was the bowl of salt that I’d submerged Hongo in, a few hours earlier. I'd somehow managed to forget it.  The rim of Hongo's sombrero was poking through the surface of the salt like a drowning man’s hand breaking water.

And maybe because it was late, I was so freaked out and my thinking was so tangential, but I thought that somehow, Hongo was silently calling out to me - demanding to be freed from that bowl of salt. I reminded myself that I only needed to leave him there for a few more hours to cleanse him, spiritually (until sunrise, according to the internet's instructions) but I had a strange feeling I wouldn't be able to sleep for as long as it took to do that. (Able... or allowed?)

Maybe Hongo didn't want to be cleansed. If there was negativity in him, maybe it couldn’t be removed.  Maybe the negativity was all that he had... all that he was. Maybe that energy was now being threatened by my attempts to purify it away.

It made sense, albeit in a tangential way.  After all, Hongo was the only real anomaly in this flat (apart from yours truly!).  He was the only malevolent thing in here, the only out of place thing that totally jarred with the mood and the decor, both of which were fairly beige... vanilla... and, you know, dull.  He was the only thing that stood out, even whilst submerged and almost unseen in his bowl of salt.

Was that sound I'd heard the sound of him knocking? Was he demanding to be let out?  It was the sort of surreal leap of logic that you can only make at 4:00 o’clock in the morning (with a vodka in your hand) but it seemed like the answer was unequivocally YES.  Hongo had to go.

I picked up the bowl... left the flat... stomped across the hall to the rubbish chute and threw the bowl, plus all of its contents, down into the dark. It was probably where he had wanted to go all along.  Call me paranoid if you want, but I was never woken up by that knocking sound again.

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