Wry Society: The sweat lodge

Peace and purification prove hard to come by in a superheated hut crammed with hairy men in Colorado

Image: phildisley.com

It smelt of moose, Fred thought, looking up at the hazel struts covered in skins. Moose and body odour. The label of his shorts was digging scratchily into his lower back, and there was so much discomfort in his hips from sitting cross-legged that he couldn’t decide what was causing the ticklish rivulet of sweat running down his flank – this or the heat. It wasn’t doing his asthma any good. It probably wasn’t moose, he reflected. Surely they don’t live in Colorado. The skins must just be deer. Or bison? He reached instinctively for the phone that wasn’t there – forbidden – to check Wikipedia, and sighed inwardly.

He attempted to clear his mind. His therapist had told him that the three-day retreat would be good for him. “Clear his blockages.” Given how much he was paying to sleep on a pallet, eat buckwheat porridge, forage for plants that tasted of stinging nettles and trap rabbits, it bloody better. The diet was certainly doing nothing to clear his blockages.

No. Clear. Be in the moment.

Someone threw a tin cup of water onto the rocks and it turned to steam with a hiss. “Ummmammmamma,” said Arctic Hare, the ceremony’s leader, eyes closed and hands on knees, though Fred, clearly not in the moment, idly wondered if you were allowed to call him leader. Arctic Hare rolled his head, the top of which brushed a dreamcatcher and caused it to wobble. He opened his eyes and looked around the fire at the others with a searching expression, eyes like flint.

They were all in awe of Arctic Hare, whose life was the polar opposite of their soft urban one. He exuded hard-won spiritual wisdom. The Cherokee ancestry; the years spent riding the railroads and living off the land; the iron-grey hair and immaculate white teeth; the scars on his knuckles; the women he hinted at before looking away sadly. “I’m a nomad. That is my nature. It is my calling to help my brothers on the path.”

“It’s time,” he said. The others – most of them in deerskin kilts or thongs; Fred, humiliatingly, in his nylon swimming shorts – stirred with excitement. After three days of suffering, they were to receive their spirit names. Jeff looked particularly thrilled. In the sharing session he had read a poem about his hate for his ex-wife and his grief at never seeing his kids and then Arctic Hare had made them all hug him – despite the horrid hair on his shoulders – and Jeff had broken down completely and started howling. At dinner he had described it as the most significant moment of his life. Fred had shared the completely fictitious fact that his dad had never said he loved him because he couldn’t think of anything else.

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The naming began. Each man had Arctic Hare’s intense attention as he communed with the spirits to choose the name that best captured his essence. “Silver Coyote.” “Hiding Eagle.” “Running Deer.” Each man was named and each wept, and the others chanted and affirmed his new self. Then Arctic Hare looked into Fred’s eyes.

“I call you…” Fred tensed. He was in the moment. Tears came to his eyes. He felt no asthma. No scratchy label. No scepticism. He felt suddenly human, stripped to his essence. A bare, mortal thing, lost and disconnected. And now he was to be given a name that expressed his inner being: reconnected, completed, reborn.

“I call you,” Arctic Hare repeated, “Brown Tortoise.” The spell broke.

“Brown Tortoise! Brown Tortoise!” the men chanted with dreadful joy, and he felt very many sweaty hands on his shoulders and head. “Couldn’t you just have gone for “Unappealing Tapeworm” and been done with it? Fred thought but did not say.

No, he saved the saying for the farewell ceremony the next day. Everyone was using their new names. “Running Deer.” Hug. “Arctic Hare.” Hug. “Silver Coyote.” Hug. “Arctic Hare.” Hug. “Brown Tortoise.” Hug. “Dennis.”

Arctic Hare stopped. “What?”

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“Dennis,” repeated Fred smiling. “Dennis Quimble, isn’t it? Ever heard of Google image search? Yeah, I smuggled a phone in my spongebag: sue me. Cherokee my ass. Railroad my other ass. You do this six weeks a year and the rest of the time you’re a dentist from Minnesota with a wife and three fat kids. Right?” The others stared. “The race isn’t always to the swift, Dennis.” And a sense of great inward peace came over Brown Tortoise.

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