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In the wake of the 2016 American election, several changes occurred in the country. One of the more highly publicized and celebrated of these developments was California’s legalization of marijuana for recreational use. While the objective impact has thus far been quite subtle, a small number of people who live in the San Francisco Bay Area have credited it as being responsible for the rise of a curious urban legend. The details of this story often shift depending who is offering it (or when it is being told), but one element remains unchanged throughout each telling.
They call it “Heaven’s Herb.”
You may have already heard this tale. If you haven’t, it’s simple enough to follow: A grower from Mendocino County had supposedly been trying to breed a new strain of cannabis, and had inadvertently unlocked a dormant piece of genetic code. Accounts vary on how this occurred – some claim that it was a freak mutation, while others offer laughable descriptions of dark magic – but in any case, the end result was allegedly a fragile-yet-fast-growing plant, said to foster a state of blissful euphoria in anyone who consumed it. This effect was claimed to be so profound that people would quite literally forget their troubles, emerging from their intoxication with a new, often completely serene outlook on life.
Of course, no such narrative would be complete without an unlikely twist toward the macabre, and this one is no different. It was eventually revealed – although by whom, nobody ever seems to know – that the sickly nature of this botanical anomaly was such that it required fresh blood for nourishment. Seeing the growing demand, its creator took to slaughtering immigrants and drifters, using their still-warm corpses as wellsprings for the crop. (The question of why this farmer immediately resorted to human sacrifices has not been answered, and tends to draw irritated glares from storytellers.) It took the disappearance of a wealthy college student before law enforcement got involved, after which the plot was exposed, the murderer was jailed, and the remnants of the harvest were burned… although rumors still persist that a few seeds survived, having mysteriously vanished during the investigation.
Very little about the story stands up to any sort of scrutiny, and yet it always seems to arise during those moments when smoke-induced paranoia levels are at their highest. I have personally heard versions in which ground-up bones were used as fertilizer, and one particularly embellished rendition included a decapitated head being employed as a makeshift flowerpot. The reactions people have to each retelling are entirely predictable, too, usually ranging from affected fear and sarcastic eye-rolls to exaggerated amusement that’s meant to disguise genuine unease. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I encountered a response which at all surprised me, and the speaker’s single sentence was the catalyst for what would become an utterly horrifying ordeal:
“Heaven’s Herb isn’t weed.”
I had been spending the evening at my friend Robert’s house, drinking away the tension of a simultaneously stressful and monotonously dull work week. There were five of us seated in the living room that night, those being myself, Robert, his roommate Andre, our mutual friend Jeff, and a young woman named Ann. Ann was something of a stranger to us at the time, having recently met Robert via some dating site or another… and although the utter lack of chemistry between them had stopped any thoughts of romance in their tracks, she had enjoyed the group’s company enough to continue attending our get-togethers. It was she who had offered the statement in question, after the presence and subsequent lighting of a glass pipe had prompted yet another recital of the urban legend.
Jeff, who had been offering the tale, stopped as soon as he was interrupted. “What do you mean?”
“Heaven’s Herb isn’t weed,” Ann said again. “It’s a real thing, but it’s not marijuana.”
“Whoa, whoa, wait… hang on.” Andre rose from his relaxed position on the couch, focusing his eyes on the girl. “What do you mean, ‘it’s a real thing?’ It’s not a real thing.”
“It’s rare,” Ann replied, “but it’s real. My ex-boyfriend’s brother tried it once.”
Muted scoffs and knowing smirks were tossed around the room, with each of us muttering variations of the same thought. Modern myths are often prefaced by a person claiming to have a personal connection to them, albeit via some link which can neither be challenged nor confirmed. Although none of us knew Ann particularly well, she had already developed a reputation for being a witty prankster of sorts, and we all assumed that she was adding her own twist to the tale.
“Alright, let’s hear it, then!” Robert said. “What’s it like? Does it really erase your memory?”
Ann shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. It’s supposed to be like ketamine, I guess. It’s a disassociative high.” The blank looks on our faces must have said more than our words, because she sighed and continued. “Okay, have you guys ever tried salvia?”
“I have.” Jeff held up his hand, looking rather like an overgrown elementary school student. “It was alright. I kind of lost track of… everything.” He shrugged and grinned, prompting barely stifled giggles from the rest of us.
“Yeah, well, it’s supposed to be like that. Almost… almost an out-of-body experience, except that your body is the whole world.” Several seconds passed in silence as Ann seemed to consider her next thought. “I could probably get us some, if you wanted.”
“What?” asked Andre. “Salvia? Ketamine?”
“Sure, sure,” Robert replied. “We’ll all meet up in El Dorado and smoke it in the Fountain of Youth.”
Jeff held up his hand again. “Uh, the Fountain of Youth was supposed to be in Florida.”
“Bimini,” corrected Andre. “Florida has too many old people.”
Laughter filled the air, and when it finally died down, Ann spoke again. “Really, though,” she said, “I still have his number. If you want to try Heaven’s Herb, just give me a few days.”
That was the point when we started to consider the possibility that Ann wasn’t joking. For me, at least, the prospect of the plant being real was simultaneously frightening and alluring. The various chemicals addling my mind may have been partially responsible, and the young woman’s beauty (which was quite profound) almost certainly played a role in this perspective, but the more I thought about it, the more I caught myself hoping that the offer was a legitimate one. I’ve never been one to experiment with too many substances, but the chance to try something with such a fantastic reputation was oddly enticing.
It turned out that I wasn’t alone in my opinion, either: One by one, my friends all voiced their interest, with Andre offering the caveat that he was still skeptical. Ann promised to let us know when she had acquired some of the mysterious herb, and the conversation turned to different topics shortly thereafter.
Several days would pass before I thought about any of that again, and when I was finally reminded of it, a new detail came to light: Robert told me (via text message) that Ann had made good on her word, and had secured a source of Heaven’s Herb. If we wanted to try some, however, we would have to do so in the presence of the person who cultivated it, as the preparation was reportedly too complex and the window for use too brief for an amateur to attempt. I was less than thrilled by the plan, but echoes of the anticipation I’d felt during our previous time together coaxed me into agreeing.
Directions were provided to a place on the outskirts of a town called Kenwood, located about an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Jeff and I drove together – with Robert, Andre, and Ann traveling in a second car – and we arrived just as the sun was starting to set. The location was one of the eeriest I had ever seen: Chest-level wooden poles dotted an overgrown field surrounded by trees, and although my rational side knew that I was looking out over the remnants of a vineyard, I would have easily believed a person who told me that it was a long-abandoned cemetery. A large, circular hut stood at the end of a short dirt road, with the only sign of life being a rusty pickup truck parked near its front door.
“So, this is creepy,” Robert said, stepping out of his vehicle. Ann and Andre followed him, and the five of us peered around. “Are we sure this is the right place?”
As if in answer, the hut’s door opened. A harsh yellow glow shone out from behind a tall silhouette, which began to stalk toward us with slow, measured steps. Someone behind me – I didn’t turn to see who – quickly stumbled backward, putting Robert’s car between them and the approaching figure. Eventually, as the light of dusk filled in the contours of his face, the shadow was revealed to be an olive-skinned man with an unkempt beard. I could feel him appraising each of our group as he drew closer, and when finally spoke, it was to the newest member.
“You Ann?” the man asked. “You Erik’s friend?” His voice was colored by an accent that I didn’t immediately recognize, but which I assumed to be Mediterranean in origin.
Ann nodded. “You’re Yannis?”
For a few tense moments, there was no reply. “You said four.”
“Four plus me,” Ann answered. “We have the money.” She reached into her purse and produced a short stack of bills. I’d been told nothing about what I needed to pay, so I assumed that I would be expected to reimburse the young woman later. In truth, the thought was a welcome return to normalcy, as I had been growing more uncomfortable with the situation by the second.
The man – Yannis – took another step forward, practically snatching the cash from Ann. He counted through it with practiced motions, then visibly relaxed.
“Okay. Come inside.”
Without waiting for any of us to respond, our host turned and strutted back toward his dwelling, pausing at the door to allow my friends and me to enter before him. The interior was strangely decorated, but not unwelcoming: A half-dozen enormous cushions formed a ring around a low table at the center of the single room, the walls of which were lined by plastic-covered planters. Each box had a bright lamp shining into it – the source of the light that I’d seen – and narrow, spindly leaves were just barely visible through the dew that clung to the transparent sheets. The aroma of moist soil reached my nostrils, as did the earthy stench of compost, but I dismissed them as Yannis gestured for us to sit down. He did not join us, instead walking over to a miniature refrigerator near the one section of wall not occupied by his farm.
“You want drinks?” he asked. “No caffeine.” When nobody answered, he just shrugged and returned to the group, then lowered himself onto the one cushion that had been left vacant. “Okay. You know the story?”
Andre let loose a derisive snort. “About watering the marijuana with blood? Yeah, we know it.”
“Not that bullshit,” Yannis replied. His face contorted into an expression of distaste. “This is not marijuana. This is amrita.”
At the mention of the word, Robert seemed to perk up. “What, like, ambrosia? The food of the gods?”
“Yes!” For the first time since our arrival, our host smiled. “Your friend is smart. The gods would feast on ambrosia, and be given eternal life. Just a myth, but with some truth inside. You drink a tea made from amrita, you feel like a new person. All your aches? Gone. Your sadness? Gone.”
“Sounds like Percocet,” muttered Andre. “I didn’t come all this way for some prescription painkillers.”
If Yannis heard the grievance, he ignored it. “Bees would make honey from the flower of amrita. Ambrosia. Ancient Greeks would make mead from the honey. Nectar.”
“Isn’t…” Jeff began, only to cut himself off. Yannis turned to stare at him. “Sorry, I just thought mead was a Norse thing.”
“Mead came before wine in Greece,” the man replied. “Honey can heal and cleanse. Amrita honey can do more. The tea, it does most of all. Once you drink, you are different; you are cured.”
There is scientific evidence for many of the claims made about various narcotics. Marijuana is said to slow the growth of cancer, for instance, and psilocybin (the active chemical in hallucinogenic mushrooms) has shown promise in fighting depression. Even so, the idea that a tincture made from a mystical leaf could somehow offset every ailment struck me as being absurd. I began to suspect that Andre was right; that we were about to imbibe a beverage which mimicked a refined opiate.
Ann shifted on her cushion. “So, how is this going to work? You make the tea, then we all drink it?”
“No.” Yannis’s single, flat syllable called my attention back to him. “I will not drink. You will be asleep. I will wait for you to wake.”
“Hey, no, hang on!” Andre moved as though readying himself to stand. “We’re not going to pass out while you hang around and… whatever!”
“Calm down,” Jeff murmured.
“What, you’re okay with this?” The young man folded his arms. “How do we even know what’s in this stuff? If we’re drinking, he’s drinking.”
Yannis shook his head. “Amrita requires a chaperone.”
“Yeah?” Defiant though he sounded, there was a tremor of fear in Andre’s voice. “Well, maybe I’ll be the chaperone, then, if it’s so damned important.”
Robert shot a glare across at his roommate. “You’re being a dick, dude.”
“No, you know what? Screw this!” Andre pulled himself to his feet. “This is sketchy as hell. Let’s get out of here.” He waited for a moment, but none of us moved to join him. “Fine. Have fun getting robbed. I’m taking a Lyft back.”
Nobody answered, and following a pointed slam of the hut’s door, our number was one fewer.
“Sorry about him,” said Robert. “He didn’t mean…”
Yannis held up a dismissive hand. “Just as well. Resisting amrita can be dangerous. You must be willing to let it take you.” He stood up then, and moved across to one of the nearby planters. A faint scent filled the air as the plastic was pulled aside, its sharpness reminding me of basil… although the leaves that Yannis retrieved bore no resemblance to the herb: They were very long and equally as thin, with slightly serrated edges and a waxy sheen to their surface. Although a verdant green at first glance, hints of violet – subtle enough that they might almost have been a trick of the light – were visible beneath the surface.
The cuttings were placed on the table, and were soon joined by a hot plate, a frying pan, a wooden board, and a scalpel. Four ceramic mugs were added to the collection next, each of them having been filled from an electric kettle. Yannis spoke in low tones as he made his preparations, and we all watched with interest as his hypnotic voice filled the silence.
“The origin of amrita has been lost to time. It appears in many legends. Homer wrote of it as being made into wine with the color of a rose. The Rigveda mentions it as soma.” Yannis placed the frying pan atop the hot plate, the dial of which he turned to the highest setting. “It was grown by the Greeks, Indians, and Egyptians. Never in great quantities. Never more than was needed.” He took the scalpel between his thumb and forefinger, and after laying out the leaves on the wooden board, made a single, perfectly straight incision down the center of each one. The bitter scent grew in strength, making my eyes water and the skin of my face start to tingle. “Seeds traveled with healers and prophets. They were brought to the Israelites. They were brought to the Druids. They arrived in South America with the Olmecs. Every culture has tasted ambrosia. Few remember it, but legends of its power remain.”
As the air started to warp and dance above the frying pan, Yannis slid the leaves onto its surface. Their color began to fade almost immediately, shifting from green to brown. “The gods were said to have ichor in their veins, created and nourished by amrita. Drinking the nectar would change mortals inside. Some achieved enlightenment. Others found a connection with each other. In all cases, the ecstasy was unmatched.” The leaves continued to change in hue, becoming a deep, ruby red. At the same time, beads of crimson sap began to bubble up from the cuts, leading me to wonder if they had been the source of the blood mentioned in the Heaven’s Herb legend. “Now, you will know it.”
With fast, deliberate motions, Yannis plucked the leaves from the frying pan, depositing one into each of the mugs. Tendrils of pink swirled out into the water, grasping like ghostly fingers at something unseen. For a moment, I imagined hearing whispers, beckoning me from almost beyond the reach of my perception.
Ann wasted no time in downing the concoction, and the rest of us quickly followed suit. The water’s heat threatened to scald my throat as I swallowed, and it masked any flavor that might have been present. A mild wave of nausea came over me, but passed as soon as I noticed it. Beyond that, I felt nothing out of the ordinary.
After a few minutes, Jeff peered down at the remnants of his drink. “Are you getting anything yet?”
“Nope,” answered Robert. He glanced over at Yannis. “How long is it supposed to take?”
The man spread his palms and shrugged. “It will happen when you are ready. Relax.”
Whether as the result of impatience, anticipation, or the fear of what might be ahead, I felt myself growing anxious. I shifted on my cushion, adjusting my legs from one position to another and back again, my motions prompted by nervousness rather than any search for comfort. The others seemed more bored than restless, and I realized that my behavior must have been unnerving. I forced myself to keep still, and I leaned forward to put my mug down before I dropped it.
In that moment, something was different.
Although it was right in front of me – and although I could see my myself reaching out – the table was impossibly far away. Even as I watched, everything around me grew both larger and more distant, though the endless changes seemed like they had always been. Images and echoes came from seconds in the past, then minutes, with each one lengthening and blending into a single enduring eternity. I was a drop of water in an infinite ocean. The clatter of ceramic on wood reached my ears, only to be drowned in a deep, booming pulse that I could feel throughout my entire body. My enormous hands turned in front of me, their presence little more than two shapes on the horizon… and as I struggled to understand, I fell backward into darkness.
The world was gone.
There have been two occasions during my life when I have been unconscious. The first occurred when I was a child, after a bite from a brown recluse spider resulted in my needing surgery. The second came over a decade later, when I got my wisdom teeth removed. During each instance, I was completely unaware… and yet an almost unnoticeable sense of existing still remained. I persisted without being present, somehow knowing that an ascent from the unfathomable depths would let me once again inhabit both my body and my mind. There was a threshold at the surface – one which stimulants had kept me from crossing while I was awake, and which the anesthesia kept me from approaching during my periods of oblivion – on which the smallest of ripples made it known that I was still alive.
That same sensation came to me during the eons while I was under the amrita’s spell.
When I finally woke, something was different yet again.
My next memory is of staring up at the at the hut’s ceiling, and slowly realizing that my eyes had been open for long enough to make them feel dry. I was vaguely aware that I had been seeing, but that the sight simply hadn’t registered. Remembering how to move my limbs took a strange amount of effort, but when I finally pushed myself upright, it was like emerging into a kaleidoscope of simultaneously soothing and inspiring color and sound. Details I had previously taken for granted (or simply overlooked) stood out as being just as obvious and important as the ones that demanded my attention: I could hear the quiet thrum of Yannis’s refrigerator behind the relaxed moan that escaped Ann’s lips as she stretched and smiled; I noticed the flecks of grey in Robert’s blue irises as quickly as I saw that he was watching me; the smell of my own sweat mixed with the heady, earthen scents in the room; the air felt warm and welcoming, and I could even detect the texture of the fabric that made up my clothes.
“You want drinks?” I turned to see our host grinning as though silently laughing at a joke, and I felt my own face mimicking his. “Caffeine is okay now.”
“This is amazing!” Jeff whispered. “I feel… I’m here! I’m here!”
Yannis nodded. “Amrita brings you life. More than that, it brings you eternal life. Now you are awake. You will stay awake until new problems cloud your mind.” He looked from Ann to Robert and then to Jeff. “You are new. You are new. You are new.” At last, his gaze fell on me. “You resisted. Probably still feel good, but not best.” He smiled and shrugged. “Maybe next time. You want drinks?”
This time, we all readily accepted the offer. We were handed cans of off-brand cola, cold to the touch and slick with condensation. The hiss and snap of the tabs being opened was followed by the twin fragrances of sugary syrup and acrid carbonation, and the once-familiar sensation of the bubbles crackling on my tongue was like a wholly new experience. My throat burned slightly as I swallowed – a lingering result, I thought, of the tea’s intense heat – but even that felt oddly enjoyable in a way. I registered the muted pain easily enough, yet regarded it as being more intriguing than uncomfortable. It was only as I tilted my head back to drain the rest of my beverage that an unpleasant cramp formed in my neck, and my wince drew a knowing look of sympathy from Yannis.
“You see? You resisted.”
“What does that mean?” asked Robert. “‘Resisted?’” Rather than sounding like a challenge, the question came out as being guided by genuine interest.
Yannis shrugged again. “Some people hold on. They do not let amrita take them all the way. Sometimes they move a little. One man, he tried to go for a run!” A single snort of laughter punctuated the sentence. “Rare, but amrita requires a chaperone.”
The conversation continued awhile longer, covering subjects that would have been incredibly dull on any other evening. It was Jeff who finally thought to ask how long we had been asleep, and he reacted with amused confusion when Yannis checked the time on his smartphone. (We all had mobile devices, of course, but none of us had thought to look at them until then.) Our slumber had lasted just under an hour, despite seeming to have taken an entire lifetime. The total lack of any recollection from that span once again made me think of the urban legend, and of the memory-erasing properties Heaven’s Herb was reputed to possess. Having tried it for myself, I understood the truth behind the tale: Amrita didn’t expunge one’s experiences, nor even lessen their impact; it merely made them feel almost like they had happened to somebody else. It was like being spiritually and emotionally cleaned, allowing one to examine and embrace everything as though for the first time.
Unfortunately, some inner part of my mind had remained untouched by the renewal, and the stiffness in my neck was a reminder of that. I didn’t know how Yannis had been able to tell that I’d fought the effects of the drug, but his statement had every appearance of being correct. While my friends delighted in their carefree contentment, my own felt incomplete. I was the happiest and most relaxed that I could ever remember being, but it still seemed to pale when compared to the pleasure I saw in the faces surrounding me. I resolved to stay and talk with our host, and hopefully understand what had happened.
Night had well and truly fallen when we made our way outside. It seemed that Andre had been true to his threat about leaving us, because he was nowhere to be seen. Attempts at calling him – both with voices and cellphones – went unanswered, leading Ann to joke that the young man would be nourishing the next crop of amrita. In truth, we all knew him to be temperamental, and we expected him to refuse contact until his ire had cooled. Robert said his farewells to me, and after confirming that he would be able to safely drive, he ushered the other two into his car and departed for San Francisco.
I had scarcely opened my mouth when Yannis began to speak. “I know what you want to ask. Why did amrita not take you?” I nodded, and the man continued. “Who can say? Maybe fear. Maybe doubt. Maybe too-strong coffee at work.” A smile pulled at the corners of his lips, but did not reach his eyes. “Maybe you just were not ready. You feel good, though?” I nodded again, and Yannis’s smile expanded. “Good! Stay some time before you leave. Look at the stars. Easier to see them here than in the city.” With that, he left, retreating from view and closing the door behind him.
The sky was certainly more brilliant than I could recall seeing before, though I was unsure if the location or the effect of the herb was responsible. I wandered in slow steps, admiring the heavens and drawing my own constellations between the sparkling motes. My aimless path took me into the deserted vineyard, where I paused to inhale the perfume of grass and decaying wood. I might have stayed there longer, but a flicker in my peripheral vision pulled my focus back to the hut, drawing my attention to a crack between two sections of its wall. A narrow beam of light was being cast outward… and growing in that illuminated space, I saw the delicate shapes of slender, shiny leaves.
I had yet to see them whole or unobscured, but the features of amrita were unmistakable.
Given how extensive and developed his indoor farm had been, I doubted if Yannis knew that a sprout had escaped it. Even so, I crept forward as quietly as I could, hardly daring to breathe as I drew closer. A piquant aroma called to me as I brought my knees to the ground, likely more a memory than something I could actually smell. I had only intended to look – to verify what I had found – but my hands moved on their own, plunging into the dirt beneath the plant and pulling it up from the earth.
My pace was hurried as I walked to my car, though I measured each stride to keep from being audible. I kept my prize steady in one palm as I pulled out my keys, then secured myself in the driver’s seat before finally exhaling. Traces of soil fell from between my fingers, and for the first time, I considered how best to transport the fragile treasure. A vacant cup-holder might have worked as a temporary container for the sprig, but I worried that safely extracting it later would be a challenge. Finally, seeing no other option, I removed one shoe and deposited my charge within it, then held it between my legs for the entire drive home.
A journey of about seventy-five minutes brought me back to my apartment in Concord, a town located in the eastern section of the Bay Area. (Although I worked in the city, rent prices have long been so exorbitant that anyone who wished to live without roommates was forced to find housing elsewhere.) I sat for a few minutes after my car’s engine had rattled to a halt, contemplating what I had just done. Other than a star-shaped scrap of gold foil, I had never stolen anything in my life… and even that exception had occurred when I was in kindergarten. The theft of the amrita had come so easily to me, though, like it had been second-nature to simply take what I wanted and damn anything else. Rationally, I knew that I should feel ashamed, yet no guilt haunted my conscience, nor any remorse; I felt only satisfaction at having escaped without being caught. I reasoned that since Yannis had likely been unaware of the plant, I hadn’t really done any wrong, but that explanation felt like a lie.
Still, I slept soundly that night, having gently placed the herb and its soil into an empty soup can.
The following Saturday brought profound meaning to the term “the dawn of a new day.” I awoke with the sunrise, feeling alert and rejuvenated. The tightness in my neck remained, but beyond that trivial detail, every fiber of my being was eager to leap up and explore all that the world had to offer. Although I held no intentions of using it, I checked on the amrita as soon as I left my bedroom, and I was pleased to see that it looked healthier than it had the previous evening. More impressive still was that it seemed to have grown, which I took as a cue to purchase a real flowerpot. There were traces of dirt left in my shoe as I readied myself to leave the house, and I laughed aloud at the sensation of my heel grinding against the grains.
It was as I arrived at the local hardware store that I began to notice how truly far-reaching the change in me had been. Passersby walked and spoke as they always had, yet I saw them more as strangers than as individuals whom I didn’t know. Every person carried lines of fatigue and frustration on their faces; stains of worry and mistrust that dimmed their eyes and weighed invisibly on their backs. I stared with innocent confusion as hostilities were traded beneath a veneer of courtesy, even failing to feel more than curiosity when glares were thrown in my direction. Certain instincts prevailed, though, and an almost-unnoticed urge coaxed me into hurrying through my errand, lest my altered state draw undue attention. I relied almost entirely on the force of habit as I acquired both a small planter and some potting soil, then floundered through an interaction with the cashier before quickly returning to the safety of my apartment.
Once I was again alone, I felt the first pangs of doubt about my newfound tranquility. Pleasant though it was to drift through existence without the burdens of regret or apprehension, my happiness was undermined by the idea that I had been separated from the rest of humanity. An impulse to dismiss my discomfort pushed on my mind as I transferred the amrita to its new container, but that apathy stayed just out of reach. Worse still, I could think of only three other entities who might sympathize with my plight, and contact from two of them had been uncharacteristically lacking since we had parted ways. In the past, Jeff had always made a point of confirming by text message that his traveling friends had arrived at their destinations, and Robert was notorious for posting amusing images and news articles to his various social media accounts… yet both of them had been silent.
This muted anxiety grew as I dialed each of their telephone numbers, and was amplified again when neither call was answered. I tried to think of other avenues I might attempt, but keeping hold of that motivating fear became a maddening battle between concern for their safety and a seductive compulsion to simply sit back and appreciate something beautiful. It came as a mild shock when I realized that I could also reach out to Andre, whom I had somehow forgotten until then. His place as Robert’s roommate afforded him abilities that I couldn’t match from afar, and his own wellbeing – while strangely less important to me – was still in question.
The line did not even ring before I heard the young man’s voicemail message.
Panic set in at last, cutting through my languor and pumping adrenaline through my veins. I seized the emotion, afraid that it wouldn’t last, and forced myself to follow it. The next minute found me once again in my car, bound for the highway that would take me over the Bay Bridge. Traffic was light, but I nonetheless worried that my angst would abate before I could reach Robert’s house. I gripped the steering wheel as though it was the only thing keeping me from drifting off into insanity, and I breathed in fast, hissing bursts through my clenched teeth. The steady hum of the road threatened to ease my nervousness, leading me to fight the auditory incursion with the same weapon I had used in the past.
The mistake proved to be a fatal one. Where habitual behavior had been my lifeline before, this time it was my undoing: A careless gesture called the vehicle’s stereo to life, and the sudden swell of music brought literal tears of joy to my eyes. My urgency vanished, blown away by the sense of rapturous glee that replaced it. The song was familiar; one to which I could have easily hummed along, and yet it carried me to a height that no melody had ever approached. Shades of green and yellow radiated from passing hillsides, seeming to mix with the notes in a perfect symphony of sensory extravagance. I was nearly whole again, nearly free from the torment I had allowed to take me. All that remained was a quiet longing to be near those who could understand my delight.
I drove onward.
There was no answer when I knocked on Robert’s door, but I soon discovered that it wasn’t locked. After stepping inside and removing my shoes, I made my way to the living room. All three of my companions were there, looking as rested and revitalized as I felt. Ann and Robert were seated on the couch, while Jeff reclined in a cushioned chair.
“Hey, it’s great to see you!” said Jeff. “I feel amazing!”
Ann’s smile lit up the room as she offered her agreement. “Me, too! Everything is so real!”
“Have you eaten anything yet?” asked Robert. I realized that I hadn’t. “Oh, man! You won’t believe it. There are actually flavors to stuff!”
“I like the smells,” Ann purred. “They’re all so different. They’re all unique.” Jeff inhaled deeply, having apparently been encouraged by the young woman’s words, and I felt myself emulating him. The scents of chocolate and floral air-freshener flitted beneath a light layer of dust, their combined bouquet sending a shiver of pleasure down my spine. I sank down onto the couch next to Ann, close enough that I could feel both the warmth of her body and the fine hairs on her arm. Though I can’t recall how it happened, I became aware that my lips were touching hers. She laughed as she kissed me, filling my mouth with hot air that tasted like peaches. Our tongues touched against each other while the conversation went on around us, with Jeff and Robert continuing in their descriptions of all that they had experienced.
It should have felt like a homecoming, but it was lacking. The idea that I was merely pretending mocked me from an unseen corner of my psyche, keeping me from ascending to the apex that I knew was possible. Try though I did to ignore that unwelcome restraint, it infected me, and my arousal declined until it was entirely supplanted by a much more mundane pressure in my bladder. I climbed to my feet and made my way to the restroom, where – after relieving myself – I stood and stared into the mirror. No thrill of elation came with the sight, nor any transcendent vision; it was only my reflection, marked by the same lines and creases that I had seen on the faces of strangers.
Frustration plagued me, and self-loathing, and they were joined by jealousy when I returned to the living room: Ann and Robert were locked in passionate embrace, their mouths and their hips thrusting together while Jeff looked on with an expression of approval. I had been gone no longer than a handful of minutes, and yet I had been so easily forgotten. Rage and anguish flashed through me, almost more quickly than I could process, and I was ultimately left with nothing but the same emptiness that had kept me from the bond I had sought. I had been abandoned.
The sentiment started to fade almost as soon as I recognized it, but its passing left me in control again. I fled from the scene, ran past the exit, and pounded on the closed door to Andre’s room. Though my senses were still the sharpest they had been, I could hear no response; not even a rustle of movement. A crack in the paint begged me to notice it, but I shoved the distraction from my mind. The knob refused to turn in my grasp. My shouts went unanswered. Laughter reached me from elsewhere in the house, and I wondered what merriment I was missing. I kicked at the door once, and again, and again… and the wraithlike cobwebs clinging to a nearby window swayed in a slow and calming pageant, lulling me back into stillness.
Ann had removed most of her clothing by the time that I rejoined the gathering. I could count the freckles that dotted the young woman’s chest. The entanglement between her and Robert had halted, but vespers of resentment still incensed me. I asked myself – not for the first time, I realized, but perhaps for the first time with these words – what absence within me was responsible for my segregation. I felt the same revelry, and I was conscious of all that they were, and yet an errant piece had never fallen into place. I was no more connected here than I had been to the people on the street, and this state of half-being had cast me as an interloper amidst everyone I might encounter.
I do not fully recall driving home. Sensations overwhelmed me, and I indulged myself in them, all the while hoping that some epiphany might make me complete. It never came, and as I neared my front door, I could think only of Yannis’s casual comment: “You resisted. Probably still feel good, but not best. Maybe next time.” Those words continued to resonate as the day passed and the sun set, and by nightfall, I had come to the one conclusion I had been avoiding.
Only one solution was available to me, and it was nestled in the pot I had purchased that morning.
Deciding to use the amrita on my own was more difficult than I had imagined it would be. The preparations would be easy enough to mimic, but the warning that its consumption required a chaperone gave me pause. It was only after I had sat for a time in the darkness, staring directly at the plant, that I began to feel more confident. There were whispers speaking to me – perhaps just the blood rushing in my ears, but maybe the sound of the herb growing – that offered the encouragement I needed. I set my kettle to boiling, then selected a leaf that looked to be about the same size and shape as those with which my friends and I had been presented. The sharp aroma filled my apartment as I sliced the cutting down its middle, and I watched with the beginnings of awe as its color shifted from green to red on my skillet. When the ruby beads seeped up to the surface, I pulled the leaf from the heat and deposited it into a waiting mug. The tendrils of pink explored the steaming water, and after steeling myself for the burn that I knew was coming, I downed the tincture in a single swallow.
My bed was not as soft as Yannis’s cushions, but it was enough.
The world stretched out in front of me.
I surrendered to the darkness.
There is an effect, present only in dreams, that can alter what a person thinks has occurred. It mirrors the sensation of remembrance, but attaches itself to new images and feelings. This phenomenon can skew the progress of time and rearrange events, or even influence the unwary into drawing connections between unrelated concepts. The opening of a book might lead to the closing of a door, and this will make perfect sense, even (or especially) if the dreamer had first closed the same door on their own. Someone half-asleep but dreaming might trick themselves into following a given thread of thought, only to look back and find that they are lost in a tapestry of nonsense. Nightmares in particular bring a menacing element to this experience, as they snare their victims in an inescapable weave. Attempts to break free only tighten the bonds, and the terror persists even in waking.
I did not dream while being held by the amrita, but I remained trapped nonetheless.
My first thought upon coming back to the world was that my throat hurt. The rawness registered as though from miles away, muted by a sense of relaxed whimsy, but it was still noticeable enough to give me doubts about whether I had truly managed to let go. Appropriately, those doubts themselves hinted that I had again resisted. An unpleasant tingling in my hand pulled me still further into the realm of apprehension, and I discovered that I had fallen onto the floor. Blinking felt difficult, and despite there being little to see in the dim light, my vision seemed blurry and uneven. My stomach churned as I pushed myself upright, bringing the taste of bile to my tongue.
This was not the relaxed emergence that I had wanted, though the previous sense of simultaneous reverence and contentment had returned. I held my arms out, stretching, but stopped when my fingers encountered an unexpected object next to me. Somehow, I discovered, my mug had been knocked to the carpet. Its presence struck me as delightfully peculiar, given that I had left it in the kitchen. I nearly stumbled over other items as I stood and walked from my bedroom, and when I finally turned on my living room light, I burst out into uncontrollable laughter at what I saw.
My entire apartment was in shambles, with not a single one of my possessions having been left untouched. Furniture had been toppled, clothes had been thrown about, and the contents of drawers and cabinets had been strewn in every direction. Only one corner seemed to have escaped whatever force had done this, as I noted when I saw that the amrita was still upright and intact. It maintained its place on the inner windowsill, a sentinel looking out over the carnage. My mood remained pleasant and jovial, but even that inner warmth could not mask the insistent alarm in my mind as I stepped gingerly over obstacles toward the plant. The shadows it cast seemed to have grown still longer, even though a brief look at my cellphone – which had thankfully remained in my pocket – confirmed that only an hour had passed. I had little time to contemplate that detail, however, as my attention was quickly drawn to the shallow scratches which had been made in the wall beneath the window.
A still-capped ballpoint pen lie on the carpet, flecks of white paint clinging to its ends. I let loose a childlike giggle as I imagined the scenario implied by that, picturing someone so desperate to leave a message that they had forgotten the necessity of exposing the ink. The writing was indecipherable; little more than rough gouges in an arrangement of haphazard lines. Twice, then, the author had failed, and their frantic thoughts were all but lost as a result. Perhaps, I mused, an intent analysis could divine some sort of meaning… but the chaotic patterns in the disorder behind me were much more enthralling, even when viewed in the reflection of the blackness behind the window.
I cannot honestly say that I was in denial. As I well knew, it was all but certain that I had been responsible for both the disarray and the markings on the wall. That conclusion slipped from my mental grasp each time it occurred to me, though, always being replaced by either a new distraction or a wandering tangent, with even my few attempts at focusing doing little more than pushing the idea away. There was a blind spot in my memory, and it served as a deterrent against any inquiry about what might have taken place while I was allegedly unconscious. The uneasiness remained, as did an intangible question about the herb’s true nature, but both remained out of examinable reach.
It soon occurred to me that I had still yet to eat, though the prospect of reveling in an exploration of flavors was far more compelling than any physical hunger which might have prompted the thought. While sitting amidst the smashed plates and misplaced cookery that covered my kitchen floor, I gorged myself on everything from handfuls of freezer-burned sorbet to dry noodles, stopping only when the tightening ache beneath my sternum eclipsed the pleasure of my indiscriminate feasting. My bed was cold when I finally returned to it, though the coolness was a welcome respite from the heat I had not noticed I was feeling until crawling between the sheets.
Sleep came easily.
That my job performance suffered should come as no surprise. While there are doubtlessly places where wide-eyed stares and absentmindedness are considered appealing traits in an employee, they lend themselves poorly to an environment of fast-paced deadlines and insistent coworkers. Monday passed without much incident, but I knew that my strange behavior had drawn attention. I did what I could to avoid my fellow employees, though it was not self-preservation that motivated me: Each glimpse I got of a passing face sent horrible images through my mind’s eye, tormenting me with visions of grime-filled crags surrounding disapproving scowls. These were not people, I felt, but caricatures of depravity and decrepitude; stains upon a tapestry that would have been welcoming without them. By two days later, I had been summoned to a superior’s office, then sent home with instructions to either return the following week with a clear head or not return at all.
In truth, I was relieved, as my existence had become little more than a sleepwalk through a barrage of hypnotizing senses followed by a hasty trip back to water the amrita. I occasionally wondered how Robert, Jeff, and Ann were faring in their own lives, but my attempts at contacting them went perpetually unanswered. The ever-present longing for a connection only grew in those moments, amplified as much by the absence of communication as by the prospect that I would still be unwashed in their eyes. I questioned whether they would view me as I had those around me – as an impure visage of ignorance and antipathy – or if that apparent rancor would even be evident to them. More frustrating still was that I lacked an excuse to pay another unannounced visit to Robert’s house, fearful as I was that the desire on its own would separate me further from my friends.
The solitude itself eventually presented an option, and with it came a second thought: I could make the journey with the herb in tow, under the guise of presenting it as a gift. My desire to share would no doubt be welcome, and it would grant me passage into the lives of those who had left me. I would be their watcher as they once again partook… and I would see firsthand what occurred while they slept. Though I might not find the reconciliation I so desired, at least my misgivings about the herb (and its effect on me) would be quieted, if only in part.
As it had been before, Robert’s door was unlocked. The three had changed their clothes and their positions in the living room, but beyond that, there was no sign that any time had passed since I was last in attendance: Ann lie sprawled out on the couch, her head resting on Robert’s lap, while Jeff sat on the floor, using the armchair more as a backrest than for its intended purpose. Once again, they greeted me with warm recognition and apparent glee, seeming to not even notice the plant that I carried. I placed it on the coffee table, then resolved to make no mention of it until someone else had.
Evening approached and passed with maddening languidness. A cycle of sorts began to make itself evident, in which I was first beguiled into relaxing (and indeed, into forgetting my goals and my worries), then harshly snatched back into a state of clarity by the pounding in my chest each time the conversation lulled. This sequence repeated a dozen times or more, causing me to waver between peace and near-panic with every instance. It was Jeff who finally disrupted the rhythm, when he offered what may have been intended as a joke.
“Okay, so, like,” he began, stifling chuckles of anticipation, “what even is that?” The others looked first to the young man’s outstretched finger, then followed the direction of his gesture to the amrita.
“It’s… a plant!” replied Robert. Laughter filled the room, escaping even my lips.
Jeff leaned forward, furrowing his eyebrows in a show of exaggerated scrutiny. “Yeah, but what is it doing?”
More merriment followed, and I was swept up in it. My plan had been all but erased from my mind, suppressed by the gaiety that made all else irrelevant. Had it not been for our heightened senses, the moment may have been lost, but Ann’s next words restored my agency.
“It smells familiar,” she said. Robert shifted as the young woman rose to a sitting position. “Almost like the other night.”
Jeff’s eyes widened at hearing this. “Hey! Hey, yeah! Yeah, it’s Heaven’s Herb!” He turned to face me with a grin. “You brought Heaven’s Herb!”
“We should make some of that tea!” Robert continued. I could feel my face growing pale and my ears burning, a sensation I had only previously encountered after having been caught in a lie. “We could do it right here!”
“Nah,” answered Jeff. A sickeningly cold sensation hit me as the single syllable reached my ears. “Nah, we should do it in the kitchen. There’s a stove in there!”
Once again, the others giggled and snorted with amusement, but I was brought only the relief of an undiscovered traitor. Preparations were made quickly after that, with the four of us leaving our places and walking down the hall. I noticed that the door to Andre’s room was still closed, and I briefly wondered what had befallen him, but the thought left my mind as the carpet beneath my feet gave way to linoleum. Although we had spoken nothing of it, I could detect that the decision had somehow been made for me to prepare the tincture. It was easy enough to assume that the responsibility fell on the amrita’s guardian, but I saw it as still more evidence of my distance from the others.
My hands moved nearly of their own accord as I boiled the water, heated a skillet, and arranged a collection of three mugs on the counter. The steak knife I used to cleave through the leaves was clumsy and dull, but adequate enough for making each slit after I forced myself to concentrate. I felt the first pangs of doubt as the spicy scent filled my lungs and the crimson pearls began to appear, yet those same manifestations strengthened my resolve: The point of no return had been passed, and answers would soon be presented to me.
“Wait, why are we in here?” Robert suddenly asked from behind me.
“Heaven’s Herb!” came Ann’s response.
“Right, but why are we in here? We should lie down on the couch or whatever.”
Murmurs of agreement were offered, and I was left alone with my endeavor. For some reason, it struck me as darkly absurd that they had all walked from one side of the house to the other, only to make the same trip in reverse mere minutes later. It was a mundane and innocuous event on its surface, yet it seemed to mirror my own actions over the past week: Not only had I driven back and forth from Robert’s house and vacillated between tranquility and torment, but the rest of my activities had also been governed by similar routines. Had my existence always been a series of recursive loops, I wondered, or had it adopted that quality after the night in Yannis’s hut? Were my friends trapped in similar coils, or had their aimlessness freed them?
Pink clouds filled the steaming water, and I carried the mugs back to where my companions were seated. Another stab of alarm leapt into my chest when it seemed like their purpose there had been supplanted by a continuance of conversation, but the unwieldy weight in my hands was all the reminder that was necessary. With enthusiastic smiles, the three took their beverages, then downed them all in unison as I stood by and observed. The pulse of my heartbeat quickened as they settled back… and a moment later, I was the only one left awake.
The telltale sighs of deep, relaxed breathing became audible. I stared intently at each pair of closed eyes, looking for signs of the movement that would indicate a dream. Seconds crawled by with no such evidence becoming visible, leading me to fear that I would learn nothing and remain disconnected. Just as the last embers of my hope were threatening to extinguish themselves, however, they were reignited by the sight of Ann slowly turning her head. I rushed to her side and leaned as close as I could without touching her, searching once more for anything that might provide answers.
Her eyes opened.
There is no word for the sound that ripped itself free of the young woman’s throat. It was at once a howl of absolute terror and a shriek of utter agony, as unmistakable and yet indescribable as the tortured expression that deformed her face. I stumbled backward, panicking, and felt my fingers clutching my ears as Jeff and Robert began to scream, too. Their backs arched, their limbs convulsed, and their raw, primal wailing went on for what seemed like an impossible length of time, continuing even after I was roughly grabbed from behind and dragged out of the room.
I did not struggle. My legs backpedaled just enough to keep me upright, but the nightmarish cacophony dominated my senses. I could hear it even after a door was slammed behind me, and its echoes remained in my skull until a brutal slap – the second one to hit me, I realized – brought Andre’s presence into focus.
“What the hell did you do?!” he demanded. I looked around, not answering, and saw that I was seated on the young man’s bed. “Are you working with that creep? Is that it? Answer me!” Another blow stung my cheek, and my vision blurred with tears. The screaming seemed to have stopped, but it was still all too fresh in my mind.
I held up a hand, wordlessly begging for a reprieve.
Andre glared down at me, and for the first time, I noticed how disheveled his appearance was. Several days’ worth of blond stubble shaded his chin and his neck, and his normally pristine hair was a mess of oily and sweat-soaked tangles. A repulsive smell emanated from somewhere nearby, with the dark stains on my captor’s shirt being the likely source. He was illuminated only by a bare bulb from a desk lamp, which cast curious shadows, like…
“Stay here!” the young man barked. “Don’t go drifting off!” I blinked twice and shook my head, trying to keep myself in control. For the first time, tones of sympathy and concern softened Andre’s glower. “Look, just hang on.” He opened a drawer in his nightstand, pulling forth a large pocketknife. “This won’t feel good, but it will help.”
A sharp pain flashed up my arm, and a line of blood followed the blade. I grimaced, pulling against Andre’s grip on my wrist, realizing in the same instant that he had taken hold of me. Unpleasant though it was, the wound had its intended effect: I was spurred into lucidity more quickly than if I had been drenched with icy water. Unlike the duller discomforts I had so easily dismissed before, this one refused to be relegated to the realm of other sensations.
Andre nodded, apparently satisfied with my reaction. “Good. I’m going to give this to you, alright?” He closed the pocketknife and held it out to me. “If you start to… you know, go away… cut yourself again. Can I trust you to do that?”
I offered a nod of my own, then took the tool and held it tightly in my palm.
“Okay. I want answers now.”
Not for the first time in recent memory, I found myself struggling to explain my perspective. After all, how could Andre hope to comprehend what I had been through? He had never seen the filthy scowls of passing strangers, nor felt the surreal seduction of a previously unnoticed texture against his skin. What surrogate did he have for the isolation invoked by an incomplete transformation; for the innocent wonder of the amrita’s enchantment?
The uncertainty must have been evident of my face, because Andre spoke again before I could. “I think I understand. I know you don’t believe me, but seriously… I get it.” He glanced over his shoulder at the closed door behind him. “We need to get out of here. Someone might have called the cops. You can tell me everything in the car. You drove here, right?”
In response, I simply gave Andre my keys.
Our escape from the house was immediate, interrupted only when I darted back to the kitchen to retrieve the amrita. Andre protested at first, but relented when he realized that its presence might cause trouble if discovered. We hurried up the street to where I had parked, and I dropped into the passenger seat as Andre took the wheel. The vehicle’s forward motion called to mind images of a flowing river, and another red lined joined the first on my arm as we drove away.
“So, I guess it didn’t work on you?” Andre asked. “The Heaven’s Herb, I mean.” He glanced at the pot between my legs before turning his attention back to the road. “I should have guessed. Those three have been together practically nonstop since they got back from Kenwood.” His words made perfect sense, but his meter was faltering and disjointed. There was a kind of unhinged hysteria hiding just beneath the surface. “It’s been horrible. They sit there, you know? Talking… but it’s like they aren’t really there. I couldn’t even leave my room. I kept remembering the… the screaming.”
Vivid recollections flashed through my brain, and I shuddered involuntarily.
Andre clenched his jaw and spoke through his teeth. “I heard it after I left. Inside the hut. I just started running. I had to schedule another Lyft. I thought about calling someone, but I didn’t know what would happen to you.” He adjusted his grip on the steering wheel, guiding us toward some unknown destination. “I couldn’t think about anything else for days. That’s when I started doing research. I think you’re an asura now.” I didn’t recognize the word, as Andre surmised after looking in my direction. “It means ‘barbarian.’ Well, it means a lot of things. ‘Barbarian’ is one of them, though. I found some conspiracy forum that talked about Heaven’s Herb, and someone said that people who don’t… change, I guess… start getting all weird. Like you.”
I could scarcely deny the accusation. That same dreadful longing threatened to overwhelm me again, and for the third time in as many minutes, I gouged a thin streak into my arm.
“Careful with that,” Andre said. “We can’t go to the hospital. Everyone who does gets locked away. They say it’s a government plot – the forum people, I mean – but it sounds like patients get diagnosed with dementia or something.” We took another turn, and I finally recognized the route to the highway. “That’s if the stories are even true. A lot of them sound made-up. One of them mentioned a cure, though.”
That caught my attention. If there was a way to be free of this madness, I wanted it… and yet, the prospect of losing the otherworldly euphoria was almost too sad to consider.
I pressed my thumbnail into the slashes on my arm.
“The problem is,” continued Andre, “nobody can agree on what the hell it is. Some people say it’s a different plant, other people say it’s just a different way of preparing it. I know how we can find out, though.”
He did not need to elaborate; I knew where we were going.
Andre kept talking throughout the entire drive to the abandoned vineyard, perhaps making up for his self-imposed seclusion. Wild theories dominated his monologue, ranging from borderline insane to disconcertingly plausible. I fixated on all of them, combining the adrenaline they prompted with the stinging ache in my arm to keep my head clear. When at last we arrived to the dirt road in front of Yanni’s hut, the car slowed to a halt and we climbed out into the night.
“Why did you bring that with you?” It was only after Andre had spoken that I realized I was holding the amrita. “He probably won’t be happy when he finds out you stole it. That’s how you got it, right? You stole it?” Once again, I couldn’t deny the indictment. “Here, look, leave it underneath the truck. If we need it to make the cure, we’ll grab it on the way out.”
Something very odd occurred to me then. As I begrudgingly followed Andre’s advice, I noticed our surroundings as though they had been invisible to me since our arrival. The rusty pickup truck was too large to miss, and yet somehow I had until that moment. Even the hut itself – set before the graveyard of rotting wooden poles – had been little more than a backdrop, and our walk from the car might as well have taken place in a dream. I thought to blame the darkness for my lack of perception, but I knew that my preoccupation with the plant had been the more likely culprit. When I rose from depositing the herb in its hiding place, I saw that Andre had retrieved a shovel from the truck’s bed.
“You know,” he said, “just in case.”
We did not bother knocking. The door swung outward as soon as Andre pulled on its handle, and he stormed into the hut with an air of confidence. Yannis was seated on one of his cushions, staring at something on a laptop computer.
“Hey!” the man shouted. He jumped to his feet, balling his hands into fists. “What are you doing?!” In truth, my own thoughts were similar to his. This sudden assault was far from the most effective means of beginning a dialogue… but the damage had been done.
“We just want to talk!” Andre yelled back. “Just talk!”
“That is my shovel!”
Though I was watching him from behind, I could tell that Andre’s gaze didn’t waver. “We just walk to talk!” he said again. “Tell us about the cure!”
A look of confusion crossed Yannis’s bearded face. “What are you saying? Get out! I have a gun!” He took a step backward, apparently in the direction of the refrigerator near the back of the hut’s interior, but tripped on the cushion where he had been sitting. Andre seized his chance as the man fell, rushing forward and brandishing the shovel like a spear.
“Tell us about the cure!” Andre repeated. His voice cracked, and I could see his arms quivering. I stepped forward, moving around so that I could make eye contact with Yannis.
“Please!” the man said, looking up at me. “He is crazy!”
Andre pressed the tip of the shovel against Yannis’s throat. “No, I’m not! You’re a liar! You sent that girl to tell us about Heaven’s Herb!”
“You know what girl!”
Yannis squirmed beneath Andre’s onslaught, reaching up to knock the shovel away. He rolled to one side and scrabbled on the floor, but was stopped by a savage strike to the back of his head. The man curled into a ball and yowled in pain, reaching up to cover where his skull had been hit.
“Stop!” he cried. “Stop, please! You say you want to talk! You are here to kill me!”
“Don’t try that again!” Andre replied. He looked over his shoulder at me. “Go see if he really has a gun.”
I searched the area where Yannis had been heading, and sure enough, a black shape was visible behind the refrigerator. It felt unexpectedly light as I picked it up, and I discovered that while it looked real enough, the pistol was of the variety that fired plastic pellets.
Andre laughed aloud. “Oh, you have a gun, do you? What, were you going to annoy us to death?”
“Please,” Yannis moaned. “Please, you do not… my daughter.”
“What are you talking about?”
Yannis pulled one hand away from his head and made a slow, calming gesture. He rolled over, revealing a face that was streaked with tears. “There is a cure, but I cannot give it to you. My daughter, she is asura.”
That time, I recognized the word.
“What, a barbarian?” Andre asked.
“No, not barbarian. Slave.” Yannis sat up, and Andre kept the shovel held ready to swing. “I did not lie. I spoke of amrita. I did not say there are two parts. The drink will make you new. The fruit will make you whole.” He shook his head and winced. “It is very rare. Rarer than amrita alone. It must be cultivated.”
Andre took a step forward and snarled. “How?”
How odd, I thought, that my own persistence did not match his own.
“You drink amrita,” said Yannis, “you find peace. You expel all anger. You expel all darkness. Some resist. They keep a piece of their soul.”
“This is bullshit.”
“It is the truth!” The man thumped a hand on his chest. “The soul holds our evil! It holds our pain! We are born without souls. We cultivate them as we grow. Like amrita. Amrita makes you new by releasing your soul. It feeds upon this darkness, like other plants on air. Enough darkness, and amrita will flower. Enough evil, it will bear fruit. This is all around us, in this room.” He gestured at the planters that lined the room. “I do not cultivate amrita for money. My daughter is asura.”
“You said that already,” Andre replied. “What does it mean? Is my friend asura?” He jerked his head at me.
“I do not know. I swear it!” Yannis held up his arm as Andre made a motion as if to swing the shovel. “Some who keep a piece of their soul go on. They feel good, then normal. Some become asura; become slaves. They are drawn to amrita. They are…” He paused, apparently searching for the right word. “They always search for something they cannot find. Always alone. Driven to madness. My daughter is asura. I cultivate amrita to bring her back.”
A moment passed in silence. “What about the others?” asked Andre. “They changed all the way.”
“Deva,” answered Yannis. “They will stay at peace until cultivating new souls. They are like children. Innocent, without guilt. This is eternal life. Eternal youth. Amrita tea does this.”
“What…” Andre faltered as he began to speak. “What happens if they drink more of it?”
“They will die.” Cold dread washed over me as Yannis continued. I could see Andre’s grip tightening on the shovel’s handle. “If amrita cannot purge a soul, it purges life. Asura can drink again and again with no effect. Sometimes they do things. They write poetry. They destroy. Anything to release their sadness. This is why amrita requires a chaperone. Deva have no sadness to release.”
Andre stood, perfectly still, for several seconds.
Then he turned to face me.
“You killed them.” The words came out as flat, dull tones. “Do you get that? You killed them.” He stared into my eyes, visibly seething with anguish and rage. “What, are you deaf?! Say something!”
I could only stare back.
“Your friend cannot speak.” Yannis stood up behind Andre. “Asura are without voices.”
The statement seemed ludicrous… and yet, as I thought back on the days since first imbibing the amrita, I could recall nothing that I had spoken aloud. Moreover, I had indeed been searching, and the scratches I had left on my wall could very well have been an attempt at letting my unconscious mind run free. Destruction had certainly come easily enough – I caught myself happily smiling at the image of my ransacked apartment – and it was true that I had been inexorably drawn to the amrita.
These inner epiphanies were interrupted when Andre howled with unbridled fury, bringing his weapon up over his head. I should have cowered or flinched, but my limbs didn’t move. Perhaps I knew that nothing would befall me, because before he could swing, Yannis wrenched the shovel from Andre’s hands and slammed it down with a sickening crack.
Andre fell to the floor. His arms and legs jerked as Yannis brought the shovel down again and again, the sound of metal on bone giving way to wet crunches. Horror and revulsion gripped me as I watched, but as so many such feelings had before, they disappeared into a blur of fascinating sensations. The young man eventually stopped twitching, and Yannis wiped spatters of blood from his forehead.
“Come,” he said. “We will bury him in the vineyard.”
We took turns digging, creating a hole that was as deep as it was long. I had never dug a grave before – not even for a deceased pet – and I found the experience to be remarkably soothing. My previous disquiet had all but entirely vanished, and the tingle of sweat touching the cuts on my arm was almost pleasant. I felt neither remorse nor fear, though I did remind myself of Andre’s deranged behavior since pulling me from the chorus of deathly wails. I could not think of him as human, really: He had merely been another corrupted creature.
When our task was finished, Yannis pushed Andre’s body into the pit, then turned to me with a sad smile.
“Do you pray?” he asked.
I stepped forward, and the man opened his arms to embrace me.
In response, I reached out – having prepared for this moment – and plunged Andre’s pocketknife into Yannis’s throat, just beneath the filthy lines on his face. A fast, hard motion severed one artery or another, and the man gurgled as he lurched backward. He reached for me, clawing at the air, through which black jets of fluid spurted out into the starlight and landed invisibly on the grass. Those geysers suddenly stopped coming as the man toppled over, and the grave welcomed its second occupant.
I buried two bodies that night. Replacing the upturned grass was like assembling a puzzle, and the first rain would wash away any lingering blood. I knew that the hut was too isolated for anyone to visit by accident, and was far enough from neighbors that the frequent screams would draw no attention. Still, my work was far from finished: The corpses of my friends would one day be discovered, and the call logs on their cellphones might be traced to me. Yannis had spoken of a daughter, too, which suggested that he might have other family who would miss him.
More compelling even than those details, though, was the violet bud I had noticed while hiding my plant beneath the pickup truck. It was small, but as I had learned, it was a sign that my salvation was within reach.
For that reason, I will stay here, offering the scalding tea to any who ask for it. I will cultivate the herb, providing it that immaterial nourishment which brings forth its bounty. Even if there were another choice, I doubt if I would take it.
There isn’t, though, of course. This is how it was always going to be.
After all, and as you well know… amrita requires a chaperone.
Credit: Peter O’Shamseign