Jimson Weed
Because it is picked in the wild, and the seeds either eaten or brewed as a tea, it is difficult to monitor dosage, and potency will vary according to many factors, including the maturity of the seeds when picked and the manner in which it is prepared. It is extremely powerful and can induce a severely toxic reaction. In terms of the hallucinogenic experience, datura is a world apart from LSD or mescaline: recreational it is not. It will, if such language has any meaning, attempt to infiltrate the soul. For days after drinking the brew I felt infused by an extraordinarily combustible energy, tinged with an acute sense of the fragility of my habitual perceptions of reality. Specifically, I was made acutely aware of the existence, parallel to our own visible world, of a wondrous and terrifying otherworld in which we were unwitting participants. That this other world was as real as the one we normally inhabit was never in doubt while under the influence of the datura plant. I still retain the vivid impression that for one night and a part of the following day the veil between these worlds had been removed.

When the effects of the potion made themselves felt, all three of us began to behave strangely, but none more so than Antonio, who trailed his sleeping bag into the stream and attempted to lie down in it. Franco and I pulled him out and tried to dry him off, but Antonio would have none of it, returning repeatedly to the stream with his sleeping bag and lying in the water. His movements resembled those of a character in a fairy tale who has been put under a spell. Eventually someone made a fire and we managed to lure Antonio away from the stream; he now appeared entranced by the fire. I remember hoping he did not attempt the same trick with his sleeping bag. My memory of this passage is relatively clear, but in the following hours, as darkness fell, things become a little confused. I have to rely mainly on the account given to me afterwards by Hannah, the Israeli, who stayed by my side throughout the night as my self-appointed minder. According to her, after helping to rescue Antonio from a watery grave, I took myself across the stream and sat on the ground near a large bush, and began talking at it.

I kept up an animated conversation with the bush for several hours and appeared quite focused and unmuddled. Hannah could not understand much of what I was saying as I apparently spoke a mix of languages not within her repertoire. My own memory of the night is dominated by two figures in the bush. I have no idea who they were, and to this day continue to reflect on their nature. They were male, and were, like me, seated on the ground. Their faces resembled the mud masks worn by New Guinea shamans: long, white, almost featureless faces, rectangular in shape. They had no lips, only a shadowy gap from which their voices emanated, and similarly, black peepholes served as eyes. They sat cross-legged and were naked; their skin was daubed in the same thick white paint, or paste, as their faces. Often they spoke at the same time, and I seem to recall that they were saying different things, simultaneously, but that I was able to understand both with utmost clarity. I knew that they had come for me, but I was unwilling to let them take me. I knew, too, that I could not afford to respond with anything less than cool precision, that I must, above all, remain calm, indeed, that my life depended on it. The figures were not terrifying in any conventional sense, and they were not simple cardboard cut-outs but entirely three dimensional. If they had formally announced themselves as emissaries of death, I would not have been surprised.

Although I cannot remember the words, nor even the precise context of our talk, I do have the strong impression that I was arguing for my life: that everything, but everything, depended on the outcome of this challenge. It probably does not matter that I have no idea what we said; more important was that I came through it and the sensations I bore with me when I returned.

These were a compound of relief, intellectual exhaustion and a strangely vibrant awareness of my own spiritual (for want of a better word) potential, indeed of the endless potential for insights of a transcendental kind, once one had drawn aside the curtain separating our everyday existence and the other, normally invisible world that I discovered that night. I do remember feeling that, while they were messengers, envoys of some kind, from an unseen world, and potentially dangerous to me, they were by no means simply my enemies: they were, paradoxically, allied to me in some significant fashion. They might well, in psychological terms (to use an entirely different system of reference) be termed conflicting aspects of the psyche, but that does not really help, because by accepting any purely psychological explanation, by shifting to another paradigm, one that attempts to explain the events of my datura experience, I somehow lose sight of the thing in phenomenological terms -- in terms of lived experience. I only have recourse to the events as I recall them. Those events can be termed hallucinations, but that does not help me understand them: they were real enough at the time.

The following morning I walked up to the village of Stefania with Franco and Antonio, both of them extremely fragile, whereas I felt buoyant and infused with a clairvoyant energy. I remember looking at my reflection in the bathroom mirror of the café and being startled by the clear whiteness of my eyes, which seemed to corroborate the precision and acuity of my vision. I was seeing things with an exaggerated clarity, and most of what I saw conveyed an intensely luminous quality. We sat on the terrace of the café and drank orange juice. Dmitri, the farmer for whom I regularly worked, came by on his tractor. He told me he needed some help with his tomatoes, two or three hours work at most. Franco and Antonio protested as I leaped up to join Dmitri on his tractor, riding shotgun on the tyre-guard.

The tomatoes were already picked and waiting in boxes along the aisles of the greenhouse. My job was to load them onto a trolley and deliver them, four or five boxes at a time, to the roadside, where they would be piled high, ready for the market lorry that would take them to Athens that night.

It was already sweltering inside the greenhouse, since it was by now mid-morning. I was working alone. All I had to do was complete this task, and I would be able to return to the cafe and rejoin my friends, or else borrow Dmitri's motorbike and ride down to the nearest beach, a few miles away, for a swim.

I stripped down to shorts and trainers and began collecting boxes from the far end of the greenhouse, working gradually back towards the entrance. Although I had not slept the previous night, I was not tired; on the contrary I had a surplus of energy and careered back and forth along the muddy pathways with the trolley perilously overladen, six crates at a time. Dmitri was working outside, in the shade of a tree, calmly sorting the tomatoes. He had offered me a price for the job, rather than pay by the hour, so there was no reason to hang about. I was half way through the task when I noticed movement among plants further down the aisle on which I was working. It was a fleeting glimpse, nothing more, but on the next aisle I noticed it again, as I bent to lift a crate: a definite presence amongst the tomato plants. I stood straight and looked around, but continued with my work, piling the boxes onto the trolley, while keeping an eye on the plants furthest along the line. Then, like a character at a masked ball, one of the grotesque mud-men from the night before appeared at the end the row, peering at me down the line of tomato plants: the same oblong face, glaringly, painfully white in the dense humidity of the hothouse, the same dark slits for eyes, the sad black hole of a gob.

I dropped the crate I was carrying, tomatoes spilling onto the ground at my feet. The figure --- who was the size of a small adult --- retreated almost coyly, behind the row, and then re-appeared seconds later, a little closer to me, parting two tomato plants with its pale hands, and stared at me blankly. I was definitely alarmed, but was not going to take any nonsense. Let me clarify: it is possible to recognize the fact that one is hallucinating, but the capacity of the rational mind to distance itself from the object of one's hallucinatory gaze does not make it any easier to contend with. It is possible, in other words, to hallucinate and at the same time to know that one is hallucinating, if indeed, that was the case, for who can ever say, definitively and without reservation that a thing is real or not, when that reality is so configured as to confound or challenge our most basic and cherished presuppositions.

I spoke to it. It bent its oversized head to one side, like an attentive dog. I told it to go back to from whence it had come. It appeared to be listening, but made no response. I told it I had work to do, and unless it wanted to help me shift crates of tomatoes, make itself useful, it had best be on its way. I had to re-assert the ascendancy of the Real World. I was Captain Sensible: it was the Unearthly Pook. I was No-Nonsense Joe: it was the Phantom of the Hothouse. It turned its face full towards me and emitted a curious whistling sound, low and tremulous. I was reluctant to approach: I was unsure what power it had over me, even if it were unreal, even if it were some weird projection from the abyss of my unconscious mind. I raised my voice, told it that I had enough complications in my life without adding to them any kind of intercourse with imaginary beings. Its face remained turned towards me: it did not speak, but continued to make this strange quavering whistle, like wind through reeds. And for a long, expectant moment we remained like that, I and it, and as I calmed down, the creature gradually ceased to be a threatening presence, and instead I felt its impenetrable sadness, its terrible lack, and I knew it could not harm me, I could only harm myself.

Dmitri appeared at the entrance to the greenhouse, thirty paces away, and called out to me. He had heard me shouting, he said, and wondered what was going on. Was anything wrong? There he stood, in marked contrast to my ghostly interlocutor, a very real and rather chubby Greek, with curly black hair, blue shorts and a striped tee shirt. No, I called back, everything was fine, I had been reciting poetry, I told him, loudly, the kind of answer that he would have expected from me. He laughed, shook his head, and waddled out again. When I turned back to look at mud-man, there was no trace of him. I set off and searched up and down the rows of plants, but could not find him. Eventually, when Dmitri called out for more crates, I gave up looking.

--- From The Vagabond's Breakdown
Richard Gwyn
© Alcemi Books
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