Hornkastle said to the dapper young Israeli, “When they eat the mushroom, do they think they see God?”
“Far more than that. The mushroom is their god. When they eat it, they become one with Him: they become Him. It is the pure agapé,” Ben-Horin said, “the true Christian feast.”
Ben-Horin’s voice, light but firm, crisp and clipped, had a dizzying musical quality. A pounding began in Hornkastle’s forehead. Being with the Israeli made Hornkastle—a big man, some years older, nearly forty—feel thick and clumsy and slow. And what Ben-Horin was telling him about these Arab tribal rites stirred in him some mysterious hunger, some incomprehensible longing, that baffled and astounded him. He felt woozy. He suspected he might have had too much to drink. He looked up and across, out the big window of the hotel cocktail lounge. Off there to the west Jerusalem was awesome in the late afternoon sunlight. The domes of the two great mosques, one gold and one silver, glittered like globules of molten metal. Hornkastle closed his eyes and put his drink to his lips and said, “Take me to these people.”
“Gently, gently. What they do is very illegal in Israel. And they are Arabs, besides—Christian Arabs, who live between worlds here, who are very cautious people at all times.”
“I want to go to them.”
“And eat their mushroom? And become one with their god?”
Hornkastle said hoarsely, “To study them. To understand them. You know this is my field.”
“You want to eat the mushroom,” said Ben-Horin.
Hornkastle shrugged. “Maybe.” To swallow God, to be possessed by Him, to entangle one’s identity with Him—why not? Why not? “How long before I can go to them?” he asked.
“Who knows? A week? Two? Everything here is conditional. The politics, the inflation rate, the weather, even—one takes everything into account. I promise you you’ll see them. Until Easter everything is crazy here—pilgrims, tourists, wandering ecstatics—it gets a little like Benares, almost. After Easter, all right? Can you stay that long?”
Hornkastle considered. He was on sabbatical. He had virtually fled Los Angeles, escaping from the wreckage of his life there. It didn’t matter when he went back, or if he ever did. But he was gripped with impatience. He said, “I’ll stay as long as possible. But please—soon—”
“We must wait for the right moment,” said Ben-Horin firmly. “Come, now. My wife is eager to meet you.”
They went out into the surprisingly chilly April air. With a lurch and a roar Ben-Horin’s tiny orange Datsun took off, down the hill, around the compact medieval splendor of the walled Old City and through New Jerusalem. Ben-Horin was an outrageous driver, screeching through the streets like a racer in the Grand Prix, honking ferociously at his fellow motorists as if they were all retired Nazis. The Israelis must be the most belligerent drivers in the world, Hornkastle thought. Even a cool cosmopolitan type like Ben-Horin, professor of botany, connoisseur of rare fungi, turned into a lunatic behind the wheel. But that was all right. Life had been a roller-coaster ride for Hornkastle for a couple of years now. One more round of loop-the-loop wasn’t going to bother him much. Not after three stiff jobs of arrack on the rocks. Not here. Not now.
Ben-Horin lived in a gray-and-blue high-rise, spectacularly situated on a hilltop near the university. It looked stunning from a distance, but once inside Hornkastle noticed that the stucco was cracking, the lobby tiles were starting to fall out, the elevator made disturbing groaning sounds. The Israeli ushered him into a tiny immaculate apartment. “My wife, Geula,” said Ben-Horin with a brusque little wave. “Thomas Hornkastle of the University of California, Los Angeles.”
She was a surprise—a big woman, inch or two taller than Ben-Horin, probably twenty pounds heavier, with a ripe, if not overripe, look to her. It was hard to imagine these two as man and wife, for Ben-Horin was dry and precise and contained and she was full of vitality, young and pretty, in a way, and overflowing with life. Her eyes were dark and glossy and it seemed to Hornkastle that she was looking at him with outright interest. Probably a figment of the arrack, he decided.
He needed no more drinks, but he had never been good at refusing them, and soon she had a martini-like thing in his hand, something made with Dutch gin and too much vermouth. The conversation was quick, animated, impersonal. Perhaps that was the style here. Ben-Horin and his wife were both well informed about world affairs, though everything seemed to circle back to analyses of the impact of this event or that on Israel’s own situation. Possibly, Hornkastle thought, if you live in a very small country that has been surrounded by fanatical enemies for its entire life, you get fixated on local issues. He had been startled, at the international symposium where he had met Ben-Horin last December, to hear an Israeli historian expounding on the Vietnam war in terms of Israel and Syria. “If your government tells you to defend an outpost,” he had said, “you go and defend it. You don’t argue with your government about the morality of the thing!” With that sort of outlook even the rainfall in Uganda could become a significant domestic political issue.
Somehow he finished his martini and one after that, and then there was wine with dinner, a dry white wine from the Galilee. Hornkastle always drank a little too heavily, especially when he was traveling, but in the last few turbulent years it had started to be a problem, and the way the Ben-Horins kept him topped off could get troublesome. He knew he was on the edge of becoming sloppy and worked hard at staying together. After a time he was just nodding and smiling while they talked, but suddenly—it was late, and now everyone was drinking a corrosive Israeli brandy—she wanted to know about his field of study. He did his best, but his voice sounded slurred even to him. Professor of experimental psychology, he said, here to investigate rumors of archaic cultist practices among the Arabs just south of Jerusalem. “Oh, the mushroom,” she said. “You have tried it in California, perhaps?”
“In a minor way. In the course of my research.”
“Everyone in California takes drugs all the time. Yes?”
Hornkastle smiled blearily. “Not these days. Not as much as is commonly believed.”
“The mushroom here, the Amanita muscaria,” she said, “is very strong, maybe because it is holy and this is the Holy Land. Stronger than what is in California, I believe. No wonder they call it a god. You want to try it?”
Hazily he imagined she was offering him some right now, and he looked at her in horror and amazement. But Ben-Horin laughed and said, “He is not sure. I will take him to Kidron and he can conduct his own investigation.”
“It is very strong,” she said again. “You must be careful.”
“I will be careful,” Hornkastle said solemnly, although the promise sounded hollow to him, for he had been careful so long, careful to a fault, pathologically careful, and now in Israel he felt strangely reckless and terrified of his own potential recklessness. “My interest is scholarly,” he said, but it came out skhollally, and as he struggled desperately and unsuccessfully to get the word right, Ben-Horin tactfully rescued him with an apology for having an early class the next day. When they said good night Geula Ben-Horin took his hand and, Hornkastle was certain, held it just a moment too long.
In the morning he felt surprisingly fine, almost jaunty, and at midday he set out for the Old City on foot. Entering it, he looked about in wonder. Before him lay the Via Dolorosa, Christ’s route to the Crucifixion, and to all sides spread a tangle of alleys, arcades, stairs, tunnels, passageways and bazaars. Hornkastle had been in plenty of ancient cities, but there was something about this one that put it beyond all others. He could touch a paving stone and think, King David walked here or the Emperor Titus or Saladin, and this was where Jesus had staggered to Golgotha under the weight of his own cross.
So, then: up one winding street and down another, getting himself joyously lost—Monastery of the Flagellation, Western Wall, Dome of the Rock, Street of the Chain, a random walk, poking his nose into the souks where old hawk-faced men sold sheepskin rugs, pungent spices out of burlap bags, prayer-beads, shawls, hideous blue ceramic things, camel statuettes, unplucked chickens, sides of lamb, brass pots, hookahs, religious artifacts of every sort and, for all Hornkastle knew, merchandise far more sinister than any of that. In a noisy fly-specked market he bought some falafel and a carbonated beverage, and a little farther on, still hungry, he stopped at a place selling charcoal-grilled kebabs. The fascination of the place was like a drug. These timeless faces, men in worn serge suits who wore flowing Bedouin headdresses, young women darting from doorway to doorway, grubby children, dogs blithely licking at spilled God-knows-what in the gutters, old peasant women with refrigerators or television sets strapped to their backs, cries and odors, the periodic amplified songs of the muezzins calling the faithful to the mosques, picturesque squalor everywhere, why, it was like a movie, like time-travel even, except that it was actually happening to him: he was here and now in Old Jerusalem, capital of the world. It was exhilarating and a little intoxicating. And there was that extra little thrill, that frisson, of knowing—if he could believe Ben-Horin’s story—that the ancient religion still flourished somewhat hereabouts, that there still were those who ate of the sacred mushroom that had been the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil, the manna of the Israelites, the hallucinogenic phallic fungus that made one like unto a god. Perhaps that boy with glittering eyes in the dark doorway, that old man leaning against the cobbled wall, that powerful fellow in the tinsmiths’ stall—secret mystics, devouring God in rites as old as Sumer, undergoing joyous metamorphoses of the spirit, ecstasies. From the Greek ekstasis, the flight of the soul from the body. “You must come to Israel,” Ben-Horin had told him last winter at that meeting in Monaco after Hornkastle had read his paper on Siberian mushroom intoxication. “The most surprising things still exist among us, a dozen kilometers from the tourist hotels, and scarcely anyone knows about them, and those that do pretend that nothing is going on.”
At 2:00 p.m. Hornkastle emerged from the maze of the Old City at the Damascus Gate. Ben-Horin was already there. “A punctual man,” the Israeli said, turning a quick grin on and off. “You feel all right today? Good. Come with me.” He led Hornkastle back into the heart of the city. Near the Via Dolorosa he said, “Walk slowly and glance to your left. See the man at the falafel stand? He is one. A user of tigla’.”
“The word is Aramaic. The mushroom. A reference to its phallic shape. Are you hungry?”
They approached the falafel stand. The man behind the counter, presiding over basins of bubbling oil, was an Arab, about thirty, with a lean triangular face, wide jutting cheekbones tapering down toward a sharp narrow chin. Hornkastle stared at him flagrantly, peering as though he were a shaman, an oracle, a holy man. Questions boiled and raged in his mind, and he felt once again that urgent hunger, that need to surrender himself and be engulfed by a larger force.
Ben-Florin said something curt and harsh in Arabic, and the falafel seller scooped several of the golden chick-pea balls out of the hot oil, stuffing them into envelopes of pita bread. As he handed one across to Hornkastle, his eyes—dark, faintly hyperthyroid, bloodshot—met the American’s and locked on them for a long moment, and Hornkastle flinched and looked down as he took the sandwich. Ben-Horin paid. When they walked away, Hornkastle said, “Does he know you?”
“Of course. But I could hardly speak to him here.”
“Because he’s an Arab and you’re a Jew?”
“Don’t be absurd. We’re both Israeli citizens. It is because I am a professor at Hebrew University and he’s a falafel seller and this is the Old City, where I am an intruder. There are class lines here that neither he nor I should cross. Don’t believe all you hear about what an egalitarian country this is.”
“Why did you take me to him?”
“To show you,” said Ben-Horin, “that there are tigla’ folk right in the midst of the city. And to show him that you have my sponsorship, for they trust me, after a fashion, and now they are likely to trust you. This must all be done very, very slowly. Come now, my car is near the bus station.”
With his usual terrifying intensity Ben-Horin circled the northeast corner of the Old City and headed south out Jericho Road toward the Kidron Valley. Quickly they left the urban area behind and entered a rough, scrubby terrain, rocky and parched. Like a tour guide Ben-Horin offered a rapid commentary. “Over there, Mount Zion, Tomb of David. There, Valley of Hinnom, where in ancient times were the high places where Baal and Moloch were worshipped. Still are, perhaps, but if it’s going on, they keep very quiet about it. And here—” dry ravines, stony fields—” Kidron. You follow the valley to its end and you are in the Dead Sea.” Hornkastle saw shepherds, a camel or two, stone huts. Ben-Horin turned off on an easterly road, poorly maintained. It was amazing how quickly the land became desert once you were a short way down from cool, hilly Jerusalem. The Israeli pointed ahead toward a scruffy village—a few dozen crude buildings clumped around a couple of tin-roofed stores, one emblazoned with a giant red COCA-COLA sign. “This is the place. We will not stop today, but I will drive slowly through.”
The town was dusty, ramshackle, drab. Outside COCA-COLA sat a few old men in jeans, battered pea-jackets and Arab headdresses. A couple of sullen boys glowered at the car. Hornkastle heard a radio playing—was that an old Presley number wailing across the wasteland? He said, “How in God’s name did you ever get them to open up to you?”
“A long, slow process.”
“What was your secret?”
Ben-Horin smiled smugly. “Science. The Arabs had begun to exhaust their traditional fungus sources. I told them other places to look. My price was entree into their rites. I pledge you, it took a long time.”
“You’ve had the mushroom yourself?”
“Several times. To show my good faith. I didn’t enjoy it.”
“Too heavy for you?”
“Heavy? Heavy?” Ben-Horin seemed puzzled by the idiom. Then he said, “The physiological effects were fascinating—the intensifying of colors and textures, the sense of the earth as a breathing organism, the effect of having music turn into flavors and shapes, all the synesthesias, the familiar psychedelic circus. But also very, very powerful, more than I had experienced elsewhere. I began to feel that there truly was a God and He was touching my consciousness. I am willing to perceive the sound of a flute as something with mottled wings, but I am not willing at the age of thirty-one to begin generating a belief in supernatural deities. And when I began to lose sight of the boundaries between God and Ben-Horin, when I began to think of myself as perhaps partaking of the nature of Jesus—” Ben-Horin shook his head. “For me this is no pastime to pursue. Let those who want to be gods, saviors, divine martyrs, whatever, eat their fill of the mushroom. I am content to study its worshipers.”