Originally published in Whole Earth Review #73, Winter 1991.
"Tell us what you have seen in the other world."
The warrior faced the chief and began. "Many times I have journeyed to distant lands, where the people do not speak as we speak, or live as we live. But this world was unlike any I have seen."
Outside the hut young Achuar hid, listening intently, occasionally daring to peek through a gap in the wall. One day he would be allowed to sit at the council of elders, but he could not wait until then. Something unusual was happening, something that could disturb the way of things.
"Their world is so strange that my memories evaporate like dreams." The warrior closed his eyes for a moment, then continued. "The light is bright and painful; the sound is harsh, confusing, loud like the thunder. There is no green life.
"The people have wondrous spirit tools which turn their thoughts into visions, their words into objects. They create unreal places and then live there. They do not live as humans."
Achuar tried to imagine the other world, but he could not. What he would give to go there and see for himself! Perhaps one day he could. He forced himself to breathe slowly, silently.
"Where is this other world?" asked one of the elders.
"I do not know the location," replied the warrior, "but it must be very far, beyond the water."
Achuar braved another glimpse through the gap. He had never seen such sadness in the chief's eyes.
The chief frowned, deepening the creases of his face. He spoke slowly. "The other world is here, where we now sit. The people have powerful magic and terrifying weapons. In time, they will destroy us and our world."
The others sat in silence, pondering the chief's words. Achuar's legs began to tremble, and his eyes clouded over. How could this be possible? He loved his world. Surely it would last forever.
"Is there nothing we can do?"
"We can hunt and fish and gather plants," said the chief. "We can celebrate life and honor death. We can laugh and find joy even within the sorrow of our lives. If we follow the ways that we have been taught, our spirit will live, and our world will be reborn."
The chief lowered his head and spoke softly, as if to himself. "But if we lose our way, our world may be lost forever."
The council was ending. As Achuar crept away from the hut, a dog saw him and began barking. Achuar ran and hid in the shadows at the edge of the forest. His heart was pounding. Had they seen him?
He followed a path into the woods. How could this other world be right here, all around him? It didn't make sense. He stopped and stared as hard as he could, but he could not see it.
Instead, he spotted some fresh paw prints a jaguar, apparently in no great hurry. Achuar found a suitable branch and made a spear. It was unlikely a jaguar would attack, but if it did he would kill it and make it his ally.
He followed the tracks, deeper into the jungle. Surely there was some way he could save his world. Perhaps if he went to the other world and talked to the people there, they would understand. Then his world would be safe, and the chief would thank him and teach him the secrets of the tribe. And he could marry Isha, the chief's youngest daughter, if he wanted to. He would have to give it some thought.
Achuar passed an abandoned hut in a small clearing. Sniffing the ground, he realized the jaguar must be very near. He walked further, stopping every so often to listen.
In the distance, a pya-pya took flight with a harsh alarm cry. Achuar strained to see and finally spotted the jaguar. He felt very fortunate.
Slowly he approached, walking almost silently. The jaguar was eating something, a plant, some kind of vine. The vision vine.
He could see ripples coursing through the jaguar's body as it coughed up what it had eaten. Then, as if realizing it was being watched, it turned and stared straight at the boy. Achuar froze, frightened for the first time. He held his spear tightly but knew it would be worthless.
They're as scared of you as you are of them, he told himself, but the jaguar did not look the least bit afraid. Achuar turned away, avoiding its gaze. When he looked back, the jaguar was gone.
Achuar reminded himself to breathe and congratulated himself on his bravery. I was not really afraid, or I would've run. Instead, the jaguar ran from me.
He waited for a long time, then walked slowly to the spot where the animal had been. He had never heard of jaguars eating the vision vine. Perhaps they ate it for the same reason that the chief and the other shamans did.
Achuar picked up a piece of the vine, examining the teeth marks. Maybe if I ate the vision vine, my vision would be sharp enough to see the other world. He knew that eating the plant without supervision was forbidden. But these were not ordinary times. The fate of his world was at stake. Maybe if he followed the ritual as closely as he could, it would be all right.
He gathered up several long pieces of the woody vine and returned to the abandoned hut. Out back, he found a clay cooking pot full of rainwater. He sat by a large boulder and used a rock to pound the vine into small shreds, as he had seen it done. Then he put the pieces into the pot and started a fire beneath it, adding a few chacruna leaves to brighten the visions.
While the pot boiled, he explored the area around the hut. There were many edible plants, but he refrained from eating, even though he was hungry. The ritual required eating the vine on an empty stomach, in a quiet place, at night. The sun was already starting to set. He knew the vine would enable him to see in the darkness.
Soon the brew was done. He took it off the fire and let it cool, hoping he had prepared the right amount. Too little and nothing would happen; too much and he could wind up unconscious on the jungle floor for a week. Or forever.
He'd heard that the vine tasted terrible. He braced himself and drank a large mouthful, straining it through his teeth. He tried to keep his intent pure and his courage strong, but the taste was even worse than he had imagined. He almost vomited. Not yet, he told himself. He spat out the fibrous particles and swallowed another mouthful, and another, until it was all gone.
Within minutes, he began trembling and perspiring. Perhaps I've drunk too much; maybe I'll die. He decided to remain calm and brave to the very end. He sang softly to relieve his fear and summon the visions.
Suddenly he realized he was being watched. He knew what it was and turned to face the jaguar, less than twenty paces away.
"You have eaten the vine of death," said the jaguar. "I am your death, whom you have summoned. Look into my eyes."
Achuar looked away. I am not afraid, he told himself. I am brave.
The jaguar roared with laughter. "You're shaking like a leaf, because you know I'm going to pounce on you and rip you with my claws and eat you alive. I will kill you and make you my ally!"
Achuar convulsed, simultaneously vomiting and defecating. The jaguar laughed uncontrollably, pounding the ground with his paw.
"I am not afraid," mimicked the jaguar, in a sing-song voice. "I am brave." The jaguar laughed again, a roar so loud that Achuar felt the earth shake.
"Well, maybe a little afraid," admitted Achuar. Now he realized that the jaguar had just been playing with him.
The cat laughed once more. "If I had wanted to eat you, we would not be having this conversation."
I have spoken with a jaguar. This was a very high honor, a good omen. He looked up and stared deep into the jaguar's eyes.
Reed took off the headset and looked around at the lab: tangled wires, stacks of circuit boards, computers with their covers removed. Reentry was always disconcerting, but never like this. The sign of a well-made reality. He noted a foul, metallic aftertaste in his mouth.
A commercial was blaring from the radio. Everything seemed harsh, ugly. He reached for a bottle of noise-killers.
"Interesting," said Derek.
Reed jumped slightly. He turned to face Derek, his boss middle-aged, balding, a little on the heavy side. "You were monitoring it?"
"Yeah. The jaguar was a nice touch; I'd never seen one up close."
"I just threw it in. Some guy on the net had the code for it, and I realized I could use it to lead the boy to the vine."
Derek frowned. "Oh, yeah, the vision vine. That's a problem."
Reed looked at him in disbelief. "It's a simulation; it's not an actual physical substance. And even if it were, it's nothing but brain juice. I dug up some old research on it." Reed selected an article and displayed it.
"Principal active ingredients: harmine, harmaline, various analogues." Derek scanned the article. "Harmaline... produced in vitro by incubation of serotonin in pineal tissue. Isolated 1923, originally named telepathine. Interesting. Any studies on it?"
"No, but there's lots of anecdotal evidence. All through the Amazon basin, the ayahuasca plant was used for remote viewing, diagnosis, and healing. If someone was sick, the vine would show them which plant would cure it. The thing is, there's nothing in it that's not already in the brain."
"So we've got our own built-in controlled substance factory, huh?" Derek laughed. "I'm not surprised. But here's the thing. We get enough flak as it is, even without poking around in brain chemistry. You know the realities are addictive, degenerative, a menace to society...."
"You forgot to mention, mindless pap for babysitting a bored populace."
"Look, I want you to forget about this one. We don't need the lawsuits. And there's no market for it anyway. People don't rent realities so they can have a pleasant evening vomiting all over themselves."
Reed shook his head. "You don't understand. The natives believed that all living things were interconnected, that there was a nature spirit that could speak to them, literally. Now that the natural world is gone, people are hungry for some way to reconnect with that spirit."
"Sorry, Reed, but people aren't buying that mystical nature crap any more. I'm cancelling the project." Derek started to leave, then turned back. "Listen, I don't want you going in there again and getting lost. You did a damn good job, maybe too good. Go in unmonitored a few more times and you won't remember whether you're dreaming the kid or he's dreaming you."
Derek left. Reed paced around the room, then smashed his fist on a lab bench. All that work for nothing.
He walked over to the system and checked to see that Derek had left for the day. He picked up the reality cartridge.
What if Derek is right? There is something different about this reality, something powerful about that vine, even in simulation. Still, I know my way around; I'm not going to get lost in some strange loop.
He inserted the reality into the system. I'll just go in for a few minutes, touch up some stuff. He put on the headset and started the program.
Reed walked down the trail, enjoying the rich, musty smell of the jungle. He tried to visualize where he was.
"Let's see an overhead view."
The system responded accordingly.
He pointed at the map. "Okay, how about a trail from here, cutting over to the lake. Yeah. And then it goes back up and reconverges with the main trail, right about here. Okay, good."
The map disappeared. Reed explored the new trail.
"And how about some more birds? Something colorful. They could feed in that fig tree over there."
A pair of scarlet macaws flew from one branch to another, displaying brilliant flashes of red, blue, and yellow.
Continuing down the trail, he almost stepped on a napping bushmaster about eight feet long, if uncoiled, and very deadly. Camouflaged to look like dead leaves.
"Jeez! I thought we got rid of these. What is this, spontaneous generation?"
The snake disappeared.
Reed looked up at the forest: trees, vines, orchids, flowers, life intertwined all around him. He inhaled deeply. The world used to be like this.
"Let's go into character." He felt the usual tingling sensation as the system downloaded his new identity.
Achuar sat up and rubbed his eyes.
What strange visions this vine produces! And the other world such a terrible place!
He wondered how long he had been lying there. He saw the jaguar in the distance; perhaps it had been watching over him the whole time.
Already the bizarre images were fading from his mind, but he knew what to do. He would sing the icaros, the magical songs he had heard in the other world. These would keep the pictures from disappearing.
As he sang the icaros, frightening images began to return. Tangled vines with no leaves. Shiny objects for which there were no words. The false jungle, with birds that appear and snakes that vanish. And the strange people. Achuar shuddered.
Who are they? he wondered. Most likely they are not people at all, but evil spirits, to live in such a dead place, with such powerful magic. They will never listen to our words. We must fight them and destroy them before they destroy our world.
Achuar decided to tell the chief he would know the meaning of these visions. The chief would be impressed by Achuar's bravery, and perhaps something that Achuar had seen would help save their world.
He made the long journey back to the village. The chief's daughter Isha was sitting in the courtyard; she pretended not to see him. As he approached the chief's hut, he pondered what to say.
Achuar flinched and turned around. The chief was standing there.
Achuar stuttered nervously. "I-I went to the other world, so they would not destroy us."
He paused, waiting for some sign of approval. The chief said nothing.
"It was horrible. Nothing made any sense. There was a whole forest, only everything was all wrong. It was scary, b-but I was very brave. And the jaguar talked to me and protected me."
Achuar was sure the chief would be impressed by this last item.
But the chief's face was saddened. "You have spied on a meeting of the council. You have broken the ritual of the vision vine. And you have suffered contagion from your contact with the other world. Your actions may result in the permanent destruction of our world and our way of life. You are banished from the tribe forever."
Achuar stood dazed, looking at the chief. Then he backed away, turned, and broke into a run.
Banished! If he did not leave immediately, he would be killed. He passed Isha. She again ignored him, but this time he saw she was crying. Other children began to taunt him, calling names and throwing rocks.
He fought back the tears as he took the trail to the abandoned hut. He could stay there for a while, but he knew eventually he would have to move further away.
But where? The surrounding villages would not accept an outcast from another tribe. He could live by himself in the forest, but his life would be sad and empty. He would die of loneliness.
If I'm going to die, let me die fighting the evil spirits. This is all their fault. I must return to their world and destroy it.
Achuar found the remains of the vision vine and prepared another bowl. He'd heard that each time you drank it, it tasted worse. This was hard to imagine, but he swallowed a mouthful and found it was true. Summoning his courage, he forced himself to drink the rest of the liquid.
Achuar walked down the trail, hoping to see the jaguar again. He came to a fork in the trail. I don't remember this path. I wonder where it leads.
He followed the new path and discovered it was a shortcut to the lake. Leaning out over the surface of the water, he looked at his reflection and saw he was naked.
The spirits in the other world were not naked. They will point at me and laugh.
Achuar began to cry.
Reed removed the headset. His mouth had that dreadful aftertaste again, and there were tears in his eyes.
Reed turned and saw Derek. He knew what was coming.
"I hate to do this. But you've wasted company time and money working on a product that could never be released. You've repeatedly violated safety regulations by designing realities from within, with no supervision...."
"And you've disobeyed a direct order to cease work on this project. I'm sorry, but we have to let you go."
Derek stood by as Reed sorted through years of job-related detritus, throwing most of it away and packing up the rest. Neither of them spoke. Reed managed to grab a copy of the reality before he left.
He went home and pondered his future. He had no job, no community, no sense of belonging. He looked around at the rectangular walls, the harsh lights. Everything seemed strange and unfamiliar. Not a single plant in the whole apartment.
He missed the other world, the world of trees and flowers, birds and frogs, monkeys and jaguars. Donning the headset, he took the reality he'd smuggled from work and inserted it into his player.
Reed walked down the trail to the lake, trying to figure out what to do next. He leaned out over the water and saw a reflection of Achuar. That's odd. The pictures must be switched. He made a note to fix it later. Looking at the image, he felt Achuar's sadness and wondered what the boy was thinking.
"Let's go into character." Warm electrical shivers rippled over the surface of his body during the transition.
Achuar looked out through his tears as the water turned into a lake of golden, liquid fire. Something floated toward him through the flames; it looked like the vision vine, twining around in spirals, swimming closer and closer.
Achuar blinked. Suddenly a giant anaconda wrapped itself around his legs and began pulling him into the water. He screamed and fought back violently, wrestling with the snake, hitting it, clawing at it, trying to pry it loose.
Nauseated by the serpent's foul stench, Achuar retched. He could feel the cold, clammy scales coiling tighter and tighter around his body, the great weight dragging him down.
He took one large, final breath of air before being pulled beneath the water. Darkness and silence closed in around him. He ceased to struggle. The surface of the lake grew calm.
Reed gasped for breath; he had gotten out just in time. Well-done death experiences sometimes proved fatal in real life, due to heart attacks and causes unknown.
This reality's too hard, he thought. There's no way out; the boy is just no match for an anaconda.
Reed sat at the edge of the lake, exhausted. But didn't the natives use ayahuasca to experience their own death and rebirth? And didn't they use it to transform themselves into animals?
"Go back into character." The tingling started at his ribs and became an oppressive tension in his chest.
The jaguar burst up through the surface of the lake, with the anaconda coiled tightly around its body. Reaching the shore, the jaguar ripped the serpent with its claws, again and again until the anaconda loosened its grip.
The jaguar roared with fury as the snake tensed again, even tighter. The two rolled over and over along the shore, locked in struggle, until the jaguar clamped its jaws around the anaconda and whipped its head against a rock.
The jaguar crawled out from within the coils and rested, panting. Out of the corner of its eye, it watched as the anaconda stirred and slithered closer once more. The jaguar snarled and pounced. Biting the snake by the tail, the jaguar whirled the huge serpent around and around and flung it across the lake.
The anaconda bit its own tail and rolled like a hoop over the surface of the water, which shimmered with a phosphorescent purple glow. The hoop became smaller and smaller as the snake swallowed its tail, its mid-section, and finally its own head, disappearing entirely.
Achuar stared at his hands. He could still feel the animal energy straining to emerge; he knew he would be able to call upon the jaguar's power from now on.
He stood by the edge of the lake and gazed at his reflection, but it seemed unfamiliar. That must be the man from the other world. Perhaps one day I will become a great shaman like him.
Moved by the image, he reached out and touched his index finger to that of the man beyond the water. The reflection began to waver, as ripples spread out across the lake. The two worlds are now one.
Watching the ripples, Achuar discovered he knew what the man was thinking. He could see Reed's thoughts as visual images, brightly colored, glowing on the surface of the water; he knew that Reed could do likewise. They began talking back and forth in pictures, slowly at first, but soon as fluently as if they'd always communicated in this way.
Achuar thanked Reed for the idea of becoming a jaguar. Examining Reed's thoughts, Achuar saw the blockages and swiftly rearranged the pictures into a more harmonious pattern.
That's it, thought Reed. His heart pounded rapidly as he suddenly understood what he had to do.
He would recreate the whole reality from scratch, at home on his own system, making it even more realistic. And then he would simply put it out on the net, as shareware. Whoever wanted it could download it, for free. With any luck, it would reawaken people's connection to the spirit of nature and generate new interest in the idea of making the earth green again.
If they like it, they can donate a shareware fee to create a nature reserve. Not just a zoo reality, but an actual outdoor forest, with real live plants and animals.
We can collect the DNA code archives for hundreds, maybe thousands of species, and recreate them in the flesh with classical genetic engineering. People won't be satisfied with interactive images of nature; they'll demand the return of the natural world.
Reed realized he was clenching his fists with excitement. Looking down at his hands, he noticed scales of snakeskin beneath his fingernails.
Achuar didn't understand all of Reed's thought pictures, but they gave him hope for his world for both their worlds, which were now one. Watching the ripples on the lake for a moment longer, he said farewell, then turned and took the path to the village.
As he passed the abandoned hut, he saw the jaguar watching him from the edge of the forest. The jaguar is my ally he must give me a song. Achuar listened carefully. On his way back to the village, he sang the jaguar's song and walked in the animal's tracks.
Isha was the first to see him when he returned. She glanced at him, caught herself and looked away, then turned back and smiled fully, radiantly. His heart filled with happiness to see her again.
A council of elders was in progress. Achuar entered the meeting room but was immediately seized by guards.
"He has been banished," said one of the elders. "Now he must be killed for his disobedience."
"Wait," commanded the chief. "I want to question him." He looked sternly at Achuar. "Why have you come back?"
Achuar stared at the guards until they released him. He addressed the council. "I have been once more to the other world, but my place is here, with my people. I request permission to rejoin the tribe."
"Why should we allow you to return?"
"I have seen the ways of the other world," said Achuar, "and I have shown their people our ways. The two worlds have become as one. Our spirit will live; our world will be reborn."
There was a murmur of reaction from the elders, but the chief demanded silence. He looked intently at Achuar and pondered. Finally he spoke. "You must prove your worthiness. Do you have an offering for the council?"
"Yes, an icaro I learned in the forest."
Achuar sang the song of the jaguar. The elders were startled by the animal's sudden appearance. They nodded, acknowledging Achuar's power.
But the chief was not impressed. "That icaro is of our world; I have heard the jaguar's song many times. You must show us the other world."
Achuar hesitated, then began to sing once more. At first, the elders looked at each other in confusion, not understanding the strange words. The warrior who had also been to the other world stood and joined Achuar in the singing of the icaro.
"...szop for thuh lay-dest ree-al-eh-dees, at ree-al-eh-dee fac-tor-ee."
A series of images flooded into Achuar's mind. He knew he had sung well, allowing the elders to see with clarity these glimpses of the other world.
The chief looked puzzled. "What is the meaning of these visions?"
Achuar started to explain all he had seen, but he realized his words would not be understood. He spoke simply. "The people in the other world are powerful shamans. They have great spirit tools which produce magical visions, but their visions are empty and dead. We must teach them the proper use of the spirit tools. In return, they must teach us how to survive as our world changes."
The chief stood and addressed Achuar. "You have seen many strange things. You have been brave in spite of fear, and your actions bring hope for the future of our world. But Achuar may not rejoin the tribe. The boy, Achuar, was banished forever. He is dead."
The chief paused. "If you wish to be reborn into the tribe, you must choose the name of a man."
Achuar thought for a moment.
"I wish to be called Reed."
See also: "Music and Consciousness," https://figshare.com/articles/Music_and_Consciousness/1506748 .
See also: "It's a Jungle in There: Sounds of the Tropical Rainforest in 3-D," http://www.museumofconceptualart.com/jungle/index.html.
Earl Vickers Museum of Conceptual Art