The thin green smell of the boiling cactus is strong within the hut. Its moisture coats the walls and ceiling. Its smell mixes with the clean aroma of the bamboo walls, the long-dried and toasted scent of the cogon grass roof and the earthy odor of the rich dirt floor.

The dark hut feels ready.

As I sit, surrounded by the humidity of the boiling vapors, other people begin to enter. While no one had spoken to me, I knew they would be coming. They’d seen me go into the jungle days earlier. My frail body had slowly pushed through the underbrush. Then, I found what I needed for this occasion. I had gathered the cactus that has been boiling for hours. Everybody had smelled that cactus; they knew what was about to happen.

All around my hut are tall, once modern, apartment blocks. They rise 9 floors into the sky around my hut. They are concrete objects; their floors stacked lifelessly onto the earth below. Somehow, they seem insignificant next to my tiny home.

We used to live in a valley alongside a powerful river. I was only an 8-year-old boy when men in strange clothes began to come to our valley. They said it was the perfect place to build a dam. They wanted us to move. Some objected. Many were excited, though. My parents were excited. After all, the men in strange clothes were generous. They offered to let us farm new land they had cut out of the jungle. They offered to share the technology necessary to make it flourish.

They offered to let us live in modern apartments.

I remember when one of the young men in strange clothes walked us through one of the apartments. I remember the adults watching in amazement as water and light came with the touch of a hand. I remember the women delighting in the ability to wash clothes and bake foods without needing to spend hours by the river or hours carefully stoking a cooking fire.

But most of all, I remember the look on the face of that particular young man in strange clothes. For all his pretending to be generous, the fact was that he was disgusted by us. He condescended to us. He saw us as savages to be lifted up by his offerings.

If the elders and the adults saw that same face, they chose to look past it.

As the men in strange clothes walked us through the ‘financial analysis’ of our annual crops and the value of our new land and apartments, they argued that the bargain was a good one. They were being so generous because the dam would create tremendous amounts of ‘electricity’, the thing that enabled modern apartments like the ones we were being offered to function.

The land would be put to a far higher use.

The elders and the adults accepted their bargain. The men in strange clothes were being generous. We would come out ahead.

With that, we left our river valley.

As an eight-year-old, I stayed in the modern apartment for exactly one day. Even as a child, I felt revulsion when I touched the faucets or the switches or the machines. I remember my feet feeling dirtied by the floors that had no dirt and my body feeling discomfited by the comfort of my modern bed.

I left in the middle of the night.

I couldn’t go back to our river valley; it was being flooded by the filling of the dam. I couldn’t go anywhere. All around the buildings, the jungle was thick and the concrete apartment blocks were hours from any city. They were just a collection of buildings in… nowhere. They had a clearing of their own, though. They had a courtyard. So that is where I went.

As a young boy I began to gather bamboo and cogon grass from the forest. I cut the bamboo with wooden tools and drove stakes through it with the trunk of a heavier tree and fitted it all together and tied the pieces in place with strands of tough cogon grass. I created the structure of the hut that I live in today.

Over days and weeks, I gathered cogon grass and wove it into sections that I layered onto the roof of my small home like oversized shingles.

As I worked, the others watched from the windows of their modern apartments. They all knew what I was doing and how I was doing it. But no one really understood why. None joined me.

Over the course of a month, I built my home alone. I built a home separate from all humanity; but surrounded by hundreds of my people.

Eighty years have passed since we left the valley of our ancestors. I am the only survivor of those who left. Now, their children and grandchildren come to me. Some of them are muscled and menacing. Others seem wasted away, halfway to a premature death.

I look them over.

“Are you the council?” I ask.

There are fifteen of them. Our population has exploded into the thousands. The young men before me – and they are all men – nod.

“Yes,” one of them says. He towers over the rest. “We are the council.”

“And what is your question?”

“Should we take what is ours?” the leader asks. “Should we capture the power plant?”

I knew the question would be asked long before he came to me. I have felt it bubbling up through our people over the course of years. But the asking is a part of the ritual.

I nod and then with shaking hands, I remove the boiling cactus from the flame.

As it begins to cool, I begin to sing. The song seems totally lacking in rhythm. It is haunting and in a language so ancient even I do not understand it. Some in the group close their eyes and listen. But none know the words. None have heard it before. It is the song of the oracle and even I have heard it only once. When I was maybe five years-old, the great shaman of our village had brought me into his hut. As the council watched, I heard and then sang the song I now sing. Then I joined that ancient shaman in the drinking of the cactus tea. He said I would, in time, become my people’s oracle.

Now, that time has arrived.

As the council watches, I wrap my hands in bamboo leaves and lift the still hot earthenware pot. I tip it up to my lips and I take a sip, just a sip, of the potent cactus waters.

Then I close my eyes.

I feel the tea flow down into my body. Moments later I feel it beginning to transform me. I find myself suddenly aware of negative energies that had been flowing through me. I feel darkness and doubt and fear and sadness evaporate from above me – like water disappearing from a leaf in the sun. I feel joy and confidence and light rush in to take their place.

When I open my eyes, I am shocked by what I see.

When I had drunk of the cactus as a child, I had been an oracle. When I opened my eyes, I had seen not physical people, but a glowing collection of life and energy and power. I understood: this was the council. They were filled with the energies of the world, and they were great indeed.

But there are no great energies standing before me today. Instead, there are only gray shadows and shoots of some evil force running through them.

I look at them, but I cannot understand.

Surely, I am not seeing their reality.

Then I sense something else. I glance upwards and far above me, far above the hut, I see the dancing of spirits in the heavens. Even they seem diminished. I feel myself rising towards them. I feel myself wanting to ask them: “Why?”

I want to ask them “Why are you so weak?”

But I do not know if the spirits can answer me.

They are only servants of the one Most High.

As I rise, I look down towards the concrete blocks, but I see nothing. There is only darkness surrounded by the dimness of the jungle itself.

I rise further and then I feel myself amongst the spirits. But I do not stop there. I rise above them. Then I see something more glorious than anything I have seen before. There is a radiance there, a power I can hardly comprehend. I shut my eyes, trying to lock out its immensity. But it will not be denied. Spasms of geometric patterns explode across my vision. I glance at them, overwhelmed by their power.

I open my eyes, facing the radiance once again.

With that, I know I must be standing before an Aspect of the One Most High.

I look down again, into the dimness of the spirits and darkness of the world below. I find myself speaking, in the ancient tongue of the oracle song.

“Why” I ask, “have the spirits abandoned us?”

The Aspect does not answer me. Instead, I find myself suddenly within it. I feel myself being pulled back in time. As I watch, the world around me blooms with energy and life. The Aspect of blessing and goodness and joy filling it. I find myself coming down to our old village, the village in the midst of the valley. The people glow with energy.

I begin to travel forward, through the seasons. I see the river rise and the people pray to the One Most High for land. And they fill themselves with the spirit of the land. I see the river fall and I see the people pray for abundance. And they fill themselves with the spirit of abundance.

And I see the heat of the summer sun and I see the people pray for the river’s return.

And the spirit of the river fills them.

I see them living in the midst of the forces of the world. Of wind and river and land and life and death – all coming together in that valley and its people. They fill themselves with the spirits of the world and the spirits of the world rejoice in their seasons of victory.

The land and the river and the air and seasons had been a part of the people.

But then, there is a change. The people move and the valley begins to fill with the now still waters of the river. The spirit of the river celebrates its victory. Until, in an instant, it realizes it has been trapped.

The people move to the spiritless concrete towers. They chose to move. In so doing, they tore the spirits away from themselves. The spirits grew angry. The people kept their rituals, but they had been emptied. What meaning was there in a prayer for a rising river when they irrigated their crops from a river that was trapped? What meaning was in a prayer for land when the land was never threatened? What was in a prayer for fertility in a world where they fertilized the soil?

The people sensed their loss. They tried to hold on to the rituals, but the spirits would not return. Everything was emptiness. They could not even connect to their apartments and the land they farmed. They owned neither. They lived there by the grace of the government; and the government had no spirit. Mankind had tamed the spirits and the spirits had vanished.

The people were empty. But they could not remain so. A dark energy came over them. It filled the vacuum the land and the river and the wind had left. It filled that vacuum with destruction and waste. It filled it with alcohol and drugs and endless wasted time before the televisions and video consoles the people now had. It filled the vacuum with crime, a vain effort by the spiritless to fill the emptiness of themselves with themselves.

The world around them began to crumble.

I saw the land they farmed. It was weak. It had little life force, and it was not empowered by the people. They just worked it, enslaving it and giving it no proper care.

I saw decades fly by as the meager land slowly began to fail. The fertilizers and irrigation could only accomplish so much given the weak nutrients of the jungle. What little life the land itself had had, was gone. And then, it could give no life.

The darkness became stronger within the people.

I find myself back within myself in my hut.

Standing before me are darkness and evil.

I look up towards the great light of the Aspect, but it is already receding, hidden by the weak spirits of the world.

Then, I understand.

I close my eyes again and feel the power of the cactus leave me.

When I open them, I am back in the hut seeing the physical reality but knowing the spiritual one.

The people around me are empty shells. They are facing poverty and they are overwhelmed by social ills. They want a solution. They want to claim the hydroelectric dam. They want to claim it as their heritage and right.

They imagine it will give them what they need.

They want to fight.

The young men before me respect the traditions. They came to me because of it. But I know now that they can never understand what they had and what was lost.

They can never understand what it meant to be their own masters.

They can never understand what it meant to be at one with the land – growing towards it as it grew towards them.

I know they will not listen to me. They will not even hear my words. The respect they pay me and my words is respect for tradition, nothing more.

When I speak, I know I speak to emptiness.

“You will fight,” I say, “You will win. But all you will gain is the production of the plant. All you will gain is the payments from the government. You will get nothing that you truly need.”

The leader of the council just looks at me, hearing of victory and disregarding my warnings.

“Then,” I continue, “a few months later, the army will come. The army will slaughter you.”

The leader of the council smiles and says, “Then we will destroy the plant, and revenge the loss of our heritage.”

I say nothing to him. I just sit there in my eighty-six-year-old body.

I know that when the slaughter comes, nothing will be lost.

No matter their conquests, the men before me will remain nothing more than the empty shells of the men their parents and grandparents had once been.

Our people will vanish.

But nothing will be lost. 

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