The Shaman's Gift by Lee Fishman Genre: Ecological Thriller, Women's Fiction
Leaving everything behind, Carrie Mullen, a young scientist, travels to the Central American country of Belize to study with Don Rodrigo, one of the last Mayan healers still practicing the old ways. At his side, Carrie learns the secret healing powers of plants, but when her aging mentor’s health starts to fail, she must move on. As her finances dwindle, she meets an expat tech millionaire who promises a chance to use what she’s learned. When he offers laboratory space to do research, she signs on.With the help of Don Rodrigo, Ronnie, an ex-soldier with PTSD, finds relief in an ancient ayahuasca tea ceremony as Carrie sets up a therapeutic haven. But instead of using her talents to benefit others, Carrie finds herself caught in a web of conflicting and dubious schemes.
As the jungle’s shadows deepened, heat lightning flickered across the sky. The only participants at the tea ceremony would be Ronnie, Mel and me. Not a large gathering. Julio suggested we add one more participant. Perhaps, Gabrielle, Mel’s girlfriend?
Mel shook his head. “Just the three of us will be fine,” he said
Once the sun had set, we gathered in the gazebo. Julio placed us in a circle around the shelter. We were ready, and a ball of excitement filled my core. I was happy to see Don᷉a Luisa, the short, brown-skinned woman standing quietly next to my teacher. Her dark eyes looked out kindly from a face weathered by years of living.
As the moon rose, we watched Don Rodrigo roll the dry leaves of tobacco into a sphere. Before placing them in a pipe made from the root of the Ceiba tree, he sprinkled crushed herbs on top. When all was ready, be brought flame to the pipe bowl. The tobacco ritual was the first step in a cleansing that would continue through the night. As Don Rodrigo stood before Mel, a smell of tobacco mixed with the aromatic herbs hovered above us, drifting into the night air. Mel squirmed in his seat like a kid. Unfazed, Don Rodrigo brushed Mel’s eyes closed before exhaling the pungent mixture over his head, and shoulders. He went to Ronnie next, and as the billows of smoke wafted above him, the ex-soldier relaxed with a sigh. I was next. Breathing in deeply, the tobacco tickled my nose.
Don Rodrigo and Julio stepped outside to the open fire where the tea, made from plant essence, bubbled. The two men took turns stirring the vat of liquid. When it was ready, Don Rodrigo scooped out a dipper-full of the brew. Pouring the liquid from the dipper into a mug, he transferred the steaming brew from mug to dipper and back again, waiting for the beverage to cool. When all was ready, he divided the tea into small cups, one for each of us to drink.
Mel went first, gulping until the cup was empty. “Lentamente, go slow, go slow,” Don Rodrigo said. “Not so much.”
Ronnie did the same. When it was my turn, I sipped at the bitter mixture. Don Rodrigo stood beside me, waiting until I drained all the liquid in the cup.
In the dim candlelight, Julio took the center of the space and began a chant. Our eyes were alert and questioning, waiting for what would come next. As I listened, the words seemed to come from a distance, growing fainter and fainter. After some minutes, Ronnie sat up, a startled look on his face. Suddenly, he ran out into the night. On his return a few minutes later, his expression was difficult to read.
It was Mel’s turn next. He bolted, running out into the darkness. We heard sounds of gagging in the warm jungle air. I was not surprised when my stomach began to churn, and soon I was lurching out into the night. Supporting myself against a tree, an internal spasm sent the contents of my stomach pitching onto the ground. More internal tremors followed. Once my stomach was empty, I allowed myself a few moments rest before I staggered back into the communal space. Once the purge was over, it was time to rest. Each of us had prepared pallets to make ourselves comfortable. Now we sought refuge in the cushions waiting for us.
As Julio turned in a circle, he called on each of the nine benevolent spirits by name. When the wind picked up it was as though they were heeding the call. Don᷉a Luisa began her song, repeating the phrases over and over, the sounds sweet and soothing, like a lullaby. Though the words were unknown to me, I seemed to grasp their meaning.
The night sounds of the jungle grew faint as Julio lowered the netting. We closed our eyes. The inward journey had begun. Like a leaf fluttering slowly to the ground, I drifted into a trance.
My thoughts turned to Don Rodrigo and his gift. I reached for it in my pocket. As I held it in my hand, the small stone fetish grew warm, seeming to vibrate. I heard a buzzing, as though a rattle was being shaken somewhere close by. As I shook my head to clear the sound, I fell into a space between sleep and wakefulness.
Strangely, I felt neither fear nor surprise as I saw myself at the edge of a lake, climbing on the back of a giant green toad. As the toad broke the water’s surface, we plunged together, through murky water, touching bottom. At that point, a reed drifted past. I grasped it and held it to my chest. Slowly the toad turned, swimming upward, breaking the surface of the water, then gliding to shore. I stepped onto dry land, but before the creature returned to its watery home, I felt a sense of trust pass between us. There were no words. The time passed slowly by.
It seemed hours, minutes, years were all one. I woke at dawn, stiff, cold and exhausted. Lifting my head from the pillow I sought out my fellow participants. Mel was still asleep while Ronnie sat silently, tears streaming down his face. Don Rodrigo slept soundly. Next to him, Don᷉a Luisa rested her head on his shoulder. I heard running water and saw Julio in the outdoor shower, his face turned upward to the water. When he felt me watching, he shook the water from his hair, letting his dark eyes rest on my face as he smiled. My face grew warm and the tug at my heart surprised me.
Lee Fishman arrived in Philadelphia as a college student, fell in love with city living and stayed. Even after traveling to Italy, Greece, France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, England, Belize, Guatemala, Columbia and other beautiful countries she still can't think of anywhere else she'd rather live. OK, maybe Paris.
Fascinated by ancient civilizations, Lee dreamed of being an archaeologist. As a student, she spent time at digs and worked in a lab piecing together pottery shards from the ancient ruins at Tikal. Many trips to Central America, rekindled her fascination with the Maya culture and inspired her to write The Shaman's Gift.
One of the best things about writing my new book, The Shaman’s Gift
Much of the final re-write and editing for The Shaman’s Gift took place during the long, difficult days of our national lockdown in 2020. But as I wrote and re-wrote pages and paragraphs, something amazing began to happen. I felt as though I were being transported away from the claustrophobic situations, we were all experiencing to colorful jungles filled with life and the village gardens of Belize. It was as though I saw the gleaming red wings of the macaw, smelled the blooming bougainvillea and hungered for the mouth-watering fragrance of tamales cooking over an open fire. In those moments, my characters came alive and my spirit along with them. I literally escaped to Belize. Once the writing was completed, I was sorry to leave that world behind, not sure if I was ready to return to reality.
If your book were to become a film, who would you choose to play the lead?
Readers have told me that they could see my new book, The Shaman’s Gift, as the basis for a film. Written in a very visual style, the pages are chock full of sensory input. Carrie, the main character, is an adventurous young new age healer who uses her wits to survive. Leaving a comfortable existence behind, she works to create a new life for herself in Belize.
I see Carrie as a tall, auburn haired, hazel-eyed twenty-something. She is nimble, adventurous and brave, but also quick-witted and caring. Her role requires a special actor to make the character come alive. That’s why I would choose Emma Watson, well-known for her role of Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series and many other popular films. A fearless actor, she has humor, bravery and wit, like Carrie, she’s not afraid to put herself on the line. Case in point, when she made a promotional appearance on a Dutch TV for one pf the Harry Potter films, the interview ended with her joining the Dutch illusion act Magic Unlimited, who sawed her in half.
If you could spend time with a character from your book, The Shaman’s Gift, who would it be?
By the time I’d finished writing The Shaman’s Gift, I have to admit to a pretty heavy crush on Julio. He’s a tall, slender twenty-something with dark, shiny hair whose sense of humor and growing confidence in his own abilities evolves as the story moves forward. We first see Julio making an appearance as a minor character, unloading suitcases and a worn guitar from his battered sedan. We quickly learn that he's in need of a job and a place to stay. Over time, we see him transition from Carrie’s part-time driver and lab assistant to becoming a major player in the story. After directing his first ayahuasca tea-ceremony, Julio moves forward, entering a period of growth. He shifts from an earlier role as a reluctant apprentice to his uncle, the shaman, Don Rodrigo to a point where we can easily see him taking on the mantle of a full-fledged healer. And Carrie’s full partner on many levels, as well.
I’d love to spend the day with Julio, maybe, sipping a pina colada and sitting under a palm on one of the beautiful beaches of Belize. He’s got a fun, playful sense of humor and a relaxed, easy-going personality. And he’s easy on the eyes. Although he missed out on any chance for higher education, he has an intuitive knowledge of how things work in the world around him.
Do your characters seem to hijack the story?
Although I have tried many times to follow a plot outline as I write fiction, it feels limiting and I often fail miserably. I guess I am what is referred to in the fiction game as a “pantser”. By that I mean that I am literally plotting my story by the seat of my pants as it moves forward. I have to admit that I love to let my characters find their own way and the wilder it gets, the better I like it.
To make that easier, I have a technique that I often use when I am stumped by a character’s direction. Before closing my eyes to sleep at night, I ask my unconscious mind a question or two. I might ask, “What will Mel Powers do next?” More often than you might expect, I wake up with an answer. Usually, the direction might take shape as a fleeting image that forms briefly just as I am waking up, most importantly, before I open my eyes. At those times, I try to have pen and paper nearby in order to capture those brief and ephemeral thoughts before they fade. This technique really worked with my most outrageous character, Mel, the rogue tech millionaire living off-the-grid in the jungles of Belize
Something quirky and unusual about yourself
I’ve always counted on my intuition to guide me and it’s never let me down. Some years ago, I decided to expand the boundaries of that intuitive experience through a study of the tarot deck. As I learned more about the cards and how to read them, I became aware of opening up to new levels of perception. As an experiment, I decided to test my skills, reading cards at school fairs, flea markets and sweet sixteen parties. I loved connecting with people as they sat down to explore the images of the cards. I found that the more I read, the more confident I became as clients reacted positively to the messages the cards conveyed. Intrigued to know more, I learned palm-reading and then, one night, when a client asked for a past life reading, I was happy to comply.
Having experienced hypnotic regression sessions of my own and having received several past life readings from a psychic friend, I was ready to connect with the energy of the person before me. First, I established a framework for us by reading her tarot cards. Soon I was ready to forge a closer link to her energy.
When I asked her to place her hands, palm down, on my upturned palms, the energy flow produced a mini-trance for both of us. Slowly, I began to envision scenes from the past that I described. As a story slowly began to emerge, I found that I could interpret what I was seeing. Once we emerged from the experience, my client expressed feeling a link to what I had told her.
My first past life reading was not my last. With each one I began to feel more confident in what I was seeing. I am a firm believer that we all live many lives as we continue our quest for knowledge. That’s why in my second book, Mediums Guild, I was able to draw on all of these experiences as I wrote the story of Margo, a single mom, real estate agent and part-time psychic who uses her intuitive abilities to solve a mystery behind the disappearance of a young couple.
How would you choose your avatar or spirit animal?
I had already chosen my spirit animal before I began writing The Shaman’s Gift. Strangely, it’s a toad. Before you scrunch up your nose at the thought of this lowly creature, let me tell you of its powers. Unlike humans and most other mammals, the toad can exist in more than one environment. On land it breathes the air and it can exist in water a well.
Indigenous people revere the toad for its strengths. It symbolizes the ability to live in two different worlds. And of course, this is something a writer must do, as well. I first came to recognize a connection to the toad at a sweat lodge ceremony. Part of that ceremony involved the leader chanting and shaking a rattle. As the rattling sound often induces a mild trance, I closed my eyes, and used my breathing to connect to another state of consciousness. Waiting for what would come next, I saw myself standing at the edge of a lake. Suddenly a large toad emerged from the water. As I climbed onto its back, I felt no fear. Together we dove back into the water. We only touched bottom long enough for me to grasp a reed in my hand before we returned to the surface. As I stepped onto dry land, I silently thanked the toad and watched as it disappeared below the surface. Later I learned that the toad is a symbol of self-reliance and a protector of native customs. As I wrote The Shaman’s Gift, I transferred my connection with my spirit animal to my main character, Carrie. In fact, in a reflection of the book’s title, the shaman gives Carrie is a small jade amulet in the shape of a toad.
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