An excerpt from the book, Spirit Land, the Peyote Diaries of Charles Langley


To better enable him to follow his new path as assistant to the powerful Navajo Indian medicine man Blue Horse, Charles Langley has destroyed all the possessions of his past life, and now owns only two sets of clothes, some photographs of his children, and his grandfather’s watch. In this excerpt, he takes part in an all-night peyote medicine ceremony, being held to quiet a ghost haunting a Navajo family. But the ceremony raises some unquiet ghosts from Langley’s own past, including that of his grandfather, a soldier in the First World War.

The staff had been around twice, I’m sure of that, and I’d taken some peyote medicine, although I didn’t think I’d taken much, when the tepee began to change. I don’t mean change shape, although it was, and growing taller and narrower; I mean it was changing its position vis-a-vis the rest of the universe. No longer was it fixed between earth and sky, or rooted to our planet, or even floating in space somewhere between the stars and galaxies. Instead, the tepee had become a universe of its own, containing all there was, is, or ever will be, while outside there was nothing; absolutely nothing. We were traveling through the void. Voyagers within the universal tepee, journeying through the emptiness of nothingness, towards a new birth and creation.

I looked up at the smoke-blackened tepee poles, to where they disappeared through the top of the smoke-blackened canvas, and spread out like fingers reaching for the sky, the stars and everything; and realized this was impossible, as there was nothing outside. The night did not exist, for it had not yet been created. The poles, if they existed beyond the top of the canvas, beyond the flickering light of the fire, protruded into nothingness. Into an all-encompassing uncreated, unbeing; and I wondered if I would be able to slide out along one of the poles, out to a vastation that lay beyond: somewhere, in the nowhere of nothing.

Smoke from the fire in the center of the tepee surrounded me and I was coughing and choking and making a lot of noise. It took a while to realize this smoke was not wood smoke but battle smoke; and the noise was not me coughing and choking, but the sound of combat. Then, through the smoke, I saw my grandfather walking towards me wearing his old-fashioned British Army uniform from World War I. He was carrying an old-fashioned bolt-action rifle with an old-fashioned bayonet with a 17-inch blade, and he was covered in blood from his wounds. Despite his wounds, he walked steadily on through the mud towards the German trenches in France. The mud was red like Navajo mud, red and slick and sticky. But unlike Navajo mud, this mud was stained red from the blood of tens of thousands of dead and dying young soldiers.

“Granddad!” I shouted, as he walked by me looking neither to left nor right, and my voice was the voice of the child I’d been when I last saw him. “Granddad! Granddad!” But he took no notice and continued to walk steadily forward. “Granddad! I’ve got your watch. I still have it. I’ve kept it safe for you!” At this he turned his head, and for a moment looked at me and smiled. Then he turned once more to the front and, walking on, disappeared into the smoke.

I sat for a long time, not thinking of anything much as our tepee universe continued its journey through the void until, after what seemed an age, I became aware that a subtle change was taking place. Outside, the first faint light of dawn was breaking in the east. The void was being filled, a birth had taken place; and the dawn came up as it had on the first morning, on the first day of creation.

Later, when the meeting was over and we were having breakfast, I asked Blue Horse about my visions — if visions they were; for I am never sure if what I experience with the medicine is not, in fact, reality. A different reality, even a separate reality, but a reality nonetheless. I told him what I had seen and, in particular, I asked him about my grandfather.

He thought for a while before asking, “Why did your grandfather smile at you?”

I was shocked by his question. “Why would a grandfather not smile at his grandson?” I wanted to know.

“He had no grandchildren,” Blue Horse pointed out. “He was 17, 18 years old, maybe. Why would he smile at a grandson he didn’t have?”

I was flummoxed. I had no idea. It had never occurred to me. I wished I hadn’t asked. Was Blue Horse suggesting it was all a fantasy? A dream? A baseless imagining? Something that couldn’t have happened, that could have had no reality because of the obvious flaw he’d pointed out? Even while I considered all this, Blue Horse plowed relentlessly on. “Why did he give you his watch when he died?” he demanded.

“He wasn’t a rich man, not well off at all,” I told him. “He never owned a car or even learned to drive. I suppose it was the only thing he had to give me.” Blue Horse shook his head. “No. It was to make the prophecy come true.”

“What prophecy?” I asked.

“He saw you on the battlefield, and when you tell him who you are he smiled; he knew if he had a grandson he was gonna survive! But to make it all work he gotta give you his watch when he dies, because he hears you tell him, ‘I’ve got your watch. I keep it safe for you.’ If you don’t have his watch, how you gonna keep it safe for him? And if what he heard when he saw you wasn’t true, maybe he’s not gonna survive the battle.”

With the fatigue of a night without sleep, it took time for all this to sink in. If the tepee really had become a universe of its own, where maybe things did happen differently, with different times, different outcomes, different everything; perhaps I was right when I thought there was nothing outside the tepee but the void, and everything had still to be created: and when it was created, perhaps it was created differently.

“Sure,” said Blue Horse, when I asked him about this. “If you know about something that happens in the future, and you do something to make sure it don’t happen, then all that time you lived didn’t happen either, and you got to go back where you started. Your grandfather didn’t wanna go back to that battle and start all over again, so he give you his watch when he die to make sure everything work out as it should. Then everythin’ be alright.”

His whole attitude was one of forbearance: as if this was so obvious he could scarcely believe he had to vocalize it.

“You mean, if he hadn’t given me his watch, he might have had to go back to 1916 and maybe get killed, and then I would never have been born?” It was a staggering thought.

“That’s how it works,” said Blue Horse, who by now was far more interested in the coffee and donuts being served than he was in me.

“And I wouldn’t be here talking to you, and none of what I’ve lived through would ever have happened?”

“Not to you,” he replied.

Charles Langley
Charles Langley is the former news editor at the London Evening Standard, Europe's best-selling evening newspaper. Raised in England, he set out across the United States in 2003 to drive from Florida to California but wound up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. At a peyote medicine ceremony he met a shaman named Blue Horse. After earning a degree in anthropology at the University of New Mexico in 2007, he became Blue Horse's apprentice and began compiling an archive on the workings of Navajo traditional medicine. He is the author of Spirit Land, the Peyote Diaries of Charles Langley. Langley and his wife, nuclear physicist Andrea Palounek, live in New Mexico.

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