THE SECOND RING OF POWER
The Little Sisters
Dona Soledad seemed to be explaining something to the four women who surrounded her. She moved her arms in dramatic gestures and held her head in her hands. It was obvious she was telling them about me. I drove up the driveway to where I had been parked before. I intended to wait for them there. I deliberated whether to remain in the car or to sit casually on the left fender. I opted to stand by the car door, ready to jump in and drive away if something like the events of the previous day were going to be repeated.
I was very tired. I had not slept a wink for over twenty-four hours. My plan was to disclose to the young women as much as I could about the incident with dona Soledad, so they could take the necessary steps to aid her, and then I would leave. Their presence had brought about a definite change. Everything seemed to be charged with new vigor and energy. I felt the change when I saw dona Soledad surrounded by them.
Dona Soledad's revelation that they were don Juan's apprentices had given them such a tantalizing appeal that I could hardly wait to meet them. I wondered if they were like dona Soledad. She had said that they were like myself and that we were going in the same direction. That could be easily interpreted in a positive sense. I wanted to believe that more than anything else.
Don Juan used to call them "las hermanitas," the little sisters, a most befitting name at least for the two I had met, Lidia and Rosa, two wispy, pixie-like, charming young women. I figured that they must have been in their early twenties when I had first met them, although Pablito and Nestor always refused to talk about their ages. The other two, Josefina and Elena, were a total mystery to me. I used to hear their names being mentioned from time to time, always in some unfavorable context. I had deduced from passing remarks made by don Juan that they were somehow freakish, one was crazy and the other obese; thus they were kept in isolation. Once I bumped into Josefina as I walked into the house with don Juan. He introduced me to her, but she covered her face and ran away before I had time to greet her. Another time I caught Elena washing clothes. She was enormous. I thought that she must be suffering from a glandular disorder. I said hello to her but she did not turn around. I never saw her face.
After the buildup that dona Soledad had given them with her disclosure, I felt driven to talk with the mysterious "hermanitas," and at the same time I was almost afraid of them.
I casually looked down the driveway, bracing myself to meet all of them at once. The driveway was deserted. There was no one approaching, and only a minute before they had been no more than thirty yards from the house. I climbed up on the roof of the car to look. There was no one coming, not even the dog. I panicked. I slid down and was about to jump in the car and drive away when I heard someone say, "Hey, look who's here."
I quickly turned around to face two girls who had just stepped out of the house. I deduced that all of them must have run ahead of me and entered the house through the back door. I sighed with relief.
The two young girls came toward me. I had to admit to myself that I had never really noticed them before. They were beautiful, dark and extremely lean, but without being skinny. Their long black hair was braided. They wore plain skirts, blue denim jackets and low-heeled, soft-soled brown shoes. They were barelegged and their legs were shapely and muscular. They must have been about five feet three or five feet four inches. They seemed to be very physical; they moved with great prowess. One of them was Lidia, the other was Rosa.
I greeted them, and then in unison they initiated a handshake. They flanked me. They looked healthy and vigorous. I asked them to help me get the packages out of the trunk. As we were carrying them into the house, I heard a deep growl, so deep and near that it seemed more like a lion's roar.
"What was that?" I asked Lidia.
"Don't you know?" she asked with a tone of disbelief.
"It must be the dog," Rosa said as they ran into the house, practically dragging me with them.
We placed the packages on the table and sat on two benches. Both girls were facing me. I told them that dona Soledad was very ill and that I was about to take her to the hospital in the city, since I did not know what else to do to help her.
As I spoke I realized that I was treading on dangerous ground. I had no way of assessing how much information I should divulge to them about the true nature of my bout with dona Soledad. I began to look for clues. I thought that if I watched carefully, their voices or the expression on their faces would betray how much they knew. But they remained silent and let me do all the talking. I began to doubt that I should volunteer any information at all. In my effort to figure out what to do and not blunder, I ended up talking nonsense. Lidia cut me off. In a dry tone she said that I should not concern myself with dona Soledad's health because they had already taken steps to help her. That statement forced me to ask her if she knew what dona Soledad's trouble was.
"You've taken her soul," she said accusingly.
My first reaction was to defend myself. I began to talk vehemently but ended up contradicting myself. They stared at me. I was making no sense at all. I tried again to say the same thing in a different way. My fatigue was so intense that I could hardly organize my thoughts. Finally I gave up.
"Where are Pablito and Nestor?" I asked after a long pause.
"They'll be here shortly," Lidia said briskly.
"Were you with them?" I asked.
"No! " she exclaimed, and stared at me.
"We never go together," Rosa explained. "Those bums are different from us."
Lidia made an imperative gesture with her foot to shut her up. She seemed to be the one who gave the orders. Catching the movement of her feet brought to my awareness a most peculiar facet of my relationship with don Juan. In the countless times that we had roamed together, he had succeeded in teaching me, without really trying, a system of covert communication through some coded movements of the feet. I watched Lidia give Rosa the sign for horrible, a sign given when anything that happens to be in sight of the signers is unpleasant or dangerous. In this case me. I laughed. I remembered that don Juan had given me that sign when I first met don Genaro.
I pretended not to be aware of what was going on in order to find out if I could decode all their signs.
Rosa made the sign that she wanted to step on me. Lidia answered with an imperative sign for no.
According to don Juan, Lidia was very talented. As far as he was concerned she was more sensitive and alert than Pablito and Nestor and myself. I had always been incapable of making friends with her. She was aloof, and very cutting. She had enormous, black, shifty eyes that never looked straight at anyone, high cheekbones and a chiseled nose, which was a bit flat and broad at the bridge. I remembered her having red, sore eyelids and everyone taunting her on account of that. The redness of her eyelids had disappeared but she continued to rub her eyes and blink a great deal. During my years of association with don Juan and don Genaro I had seen Lidia the most, and yet we had probably never exchanged more than a dozen words with each other. Pablito regarded her as a most dangerous being. I always thought she was just extremely shy.
Rosa, on the other hand, was very boisterous. I thought she was the youngest. Her eyes were very frank and shiny. She was never shifty, but very bad-tempered. I had talked with Rosa more than anyone else. She was friendly, very bold and very funny.
"Where are the others?" I asked Rosa. "Aren't they going to come out?"
"They will be out shortly," Lidia answered.
I could tell from their expressions that friendliness was not what they had in mind. Judging from their foot messages they were as dangerous as dona Soledad, and yet as I sat there looking at them it occurred to me that they were gorgeously beautiful. I had the warmest feelings for them. In fact, the more they stared into my eyes the more intense that feeling became. At one moment it was sheer passion that I felt for them. They were so alluring that I could have sat there for hours just looking at them, but a sobering thought made me stand up. I was not going to repeat my bungling of the night before. I decided that the best defense was to put my cards on the table. In a firm tone I told them that don Juan had set up some sort of trial for me using dona Soledad, or vice versa. Chances were that he had also set them up in the same fashion, and we were going to be pitted against one another in some sort of battle that could result in injury to some of us. I appealed to their sense of warriorship. If they were the truthful heirs of don Juan, they had to be impeccable with me, reveal their designs and not behave like ordinary, greedy human beings.
I turned to Rosa and asked her the reason for wishing to step on me. She was taken aback for an instant and then she became angry. Her eyes flared with rage; her small mouth contracted.
Lidia, in a very coherent manner, said that I had nothing to fear from them, and that Rosa was angry with me because I had hurt dona Soledad. Her feelings were purely a personal reaction.
I said then that it was time I left. I stood up. Lidia made a gesture to stop me. She seemed scared or deeply concerned. She began to protest, when a noise coming from outside the door distracted me. The two girls jumped to my side. Something heavy was leaning or pushing against the door. I noticed then that the girls had secured it with the heavy iron bar. I had a feeling of disgust. The whole affair was going to be repeated again and I was sick and tired of it all.
The girls glanced at each other, then looked at me and then looked at each other again.
I heard the whining and heavy breathing of a large animal outside the house. It might have been the dog. Exhaustion blinded me at that point. I rushed to the door, removed the heavy iron bar and started to open it. Lidia threw herself against the door and shut it again.
"The Nagual was right," she said, out of breath. "You think and think. You're dumber than I thought."
She pulled me back to the table. I rehearsed, in my mind, the best way to tell them, once and for all, that I had had enough. Rosa sat next to me, touching me; I could feel her leg nervously rubbing against mine. Lidia was standing facing me, looking at me fixedly. Her burning black eyes seemed to be saying something I could not understand.
I began to speak but I did not finish. I had a sudden and most profound awareness. My body was aware of a greenish light, a fluorescence outside the house. I did not see or hear anything. I was simply aware of the light as if I were suddenly falling asleep and my thoughts were turning into images that were superimposed on the world of everyday life. The light was moving at a great speed. I could sense it with my stomach. I followed it, or rather I focused my attention on it for an instant as it moved around. A great clarity of mind ensued from focusing my attention on the light. I knew then that in that house, in the presence of those people, it was wrong and dangerous to behave as an innocent bystander.
"Aren't you afraid?" Rosa asked, pointing to the door.
Her voice disrupted my concentration.
I admitted that whatever was there was scaring me at a very deep level, enough to make me die of fright. I wanted to say more, but right then I had a surge of wrath and I wanted to see and talk with dona Soledad. I did not trust her. I went directly to her room. She was not there. I began to call her, bellowing her name. The house had one more room. I pushed the door open and rushed inside. There was no one in there. My anger increased in the same proportion as my fear.
I went out the back door and walked around to the front. Not even the dog was in sight. I banged on the front door furiously. Lidia opened it. I entered. I yelled at her to tell me where everybody was. She lowered her eyes and did not answer. She wanted to close the door but I would not let her. She quickly walked away and went into the other room.
I sat down again at the table. Rosa had not moved. She seemed to be frozen on the spot.
"We are the same," she said suddenly. "The Nagual told us that."
"Tell me, then, what was prowling around the house?" I asked.
"The ally," she said.
"Where is it now?"
"It is still here. It won't go. The moment you're weak it'll squash you. But we're not the ones who can tell you anything."
"Who can tell me, then?"
"La Gorda!" Rosa exclaimed, opening her eyes as wide as she could. "She's the one. She knows everything."
Rosa asked me if she could close the door, just to be on the safe side. Without waiting for an answer she inched her way to the door and slammed it shut.
"There is nothing we can do except wait until everyone is here," she said.
Lidia came back into the room with a package, an object wrapped up in a piece of dark yellow cloth. She seemed very relaxed. I noticed that she had a most commandeering touch. Somehow she imparted her mood to Rosa and myself.
"Do you know what I have here?" she asked me.
I did not have the vaguest idea. She began to unwrap it in a very deliberate manner, taking her time. Then she stopped and looked at me. She seemed to vacillate. She grinned as if she were too shy to show what was in the bundle.
"This package was left by the Nagual for you," she muttered, "but I think we'd better wait for la Gorda."
I insisted that she unwrap it. She gave me a ferocious look and took the package out of the room without saying another word.
I enjoyed Lidia's game. She had performed something quite in line with don Juan's teachings. She had given me a demonstration of how to get the best use out of an average situation. By bringing the package to me and pretending that she was going to open it, after disclosing that don Juan had left it for me, she had indeed created a mystery that was almost unbearable. She knew that I had to stay if I wanted to find out the contents of that package. I could think of a number of things that might be in that bundle. Perhaps it was the pipe don Juan used when handling psychotropic mushrooms. He had intimated that the pipe would be given to me for safekeeping. Or it might have been his knife, or his leather pouch, or even his sorcery power objects. On the other hand, it might have been merely a ploy on Lidia's part; don Juan was too sophisticated, too abstract to leave me an heirloom.
I told Rosa that I was dead on my feet and weak from hunger. My idea was to drive to the city, rest for a couple of days and then come back to see Pablito and Nestor. I said that by then I might even get to meet the other two girls.
Lidia returned then and Rosa told her of my intention to leave.
"The Nagual gave us orders to attend to you as if you were himself," Lidia said. "We are all the Nagual himself, but you are even more so, for some reason that no one understands."
Both of them talked to me at once and guaranteed in various ways that no one was going to attempt anything against me as dona Soledad had. Both of them had such a fierce look of honesty in their eyes that my body was overwhelmed. I trusted them.
"You must stay until la Gorda comes back," Lidia said.
"The Nagual said that you should sleep in his bed," Rosa added.
I began to pace the floor in the throes of a weird dilemma. On the one hand, I wanted to stay and rest; I felt physically at ease and happy in their presence, something I had not felt the day before with dona Soledad. My reasonable side, on the other hand, had not relaxed at all. At that level, I was as frightened as I had been all along. I had had moments of blind despair and had taken bold actions, but after the momentum of those actions had ceased, I had felt as vulnerable as ever.
I engaged in some soul-searching analysis as I paced the room almost frantically. The two girls remained quiet, looking at me anxiously. Then all of a sudden the riddle was solved; I knew that something in me was just pretending to be afraid. I had become accustomed to reacting that way in don Juan's presence. Throughout the years of our association I had relied heavily on him to furnish me with convenient pacifiers for my fright. My dependency on him had given me solace and security. But it was no longer tenable. Don Juan was gone. His apprentices did not have his patience, or his sophistication, or his sheer command. With them my need to seek solace was plain stupidity.
The girls led me to the other room. The window faced the southeast, and so did the bed, which was a thick mat, like a mattress. A two-foot-long, bulky piece of maguey stalk had been carved so that the porous tissue served as a pillow, or a neckrest. In the middle part of it there was a gentle dip. The surface of the maguey was very smooth. It appeared to have been hand rubbed. I tried the bed and the pillow. The comfort and bodily satisfaction I experienced were unusual. Lying on don Juan's bed I felt secure and fulfilled. An unequaled peace swept through my body. I had had a similar feeling once before when don Juan had made a bed for me on top of a hill in the desert in northern Mexico. I fell asleep.
I woke up in the early evening. Lidia and Rosa were nearly on top of me, sound asleep. I stayed motionless for one or two seconds, then both of them woke up at once.
Lidia yawned and said that they had had to sleep next to me in order to protect me and make me rest. I was famished. Lidia sent Rosa to the kitchen to make us some food. In the meantime she lit all the lanterns in the house. When the food was ready we sat down at the table. I felt as if I had known them or been with them all my life. We ate in silence.
When Rosa was clearing the table I asked Lidia if all of them slept in the Nagual's bed; it was the only other bed in the house besides dona Soledad's. Lidia said, in a matter-offact tone, that they had moved out of that house years before to a place of their own in the same vicinity, and that Pablito had also moved when they did and lived with Nestor and Benigno.
"But what's happened to you people? I thought that you were all together," I said.
"Not anymore," Lidia replied. "Since the Nagual left we have had separate tasks. The Nagual joined us and the Nagual took us apart."
"And where's the Nagual now?" I asked in the most casual tone I could affect.
Both of them looked at me and then glanced at each other.
"Oh, we don't know," Lidia said. "He and Genaro left."
She seemed to be telling the truth, but I insisted once more that they tell me what they knew.
"We really don't know anything," Lidia snapped at me, obviously flustered by my questions. "They moved to another area. You have to ask that question of la Gorda. She has something to tell you. She knew yesterday that you had come and we rushed all night to get here. We were afraid that you were dead. The Nagual told us that you are the only one we should help and trust. He said that you are himself."
She covered her face and giggled and then added as an afterthought, "But that's hard to believe."
"We don't know you," Rosa said. "That's the trouble. The four of us feel the same way. We were afraid that you were dead and then when we saw you, we got mad at you for not being dead. Soledad is like our mother; maybe more than that."
They exchanged conspiratorial looks with each other. I immediately interpreted that as a sign of trouble. They were up to no good. Lidia noticed my sudden distrust, which must have been written all over my face. She reacted with a series of assertions about their desire to help me. I really had no reason to doubt their sincerity. If they had wanted to hurt me they could have done so while I was asleep. She sounded so earnest that I felt petty. I decided to distribute the gifts I had brought for them. I told them that there were unimportant trinkets in the packages and that they could choose any one they liked. Lidia said that they would prefer it if I assigned the gifts myself. In a very polite tone she added that they would be grateful if I would also cure Soledad.
"What do you think I should do to cure her?" I asked her after a long silence.
"Use your double," she said in a matter-of-fact tone.
I carefully went over the fact that dona Soledad had nearly assassinated me and that I had survived by the grace of something in me, which was neither my skill nor my knowledge. As far as I was concerned that undefined something that seemed to have delivered a blow to her was real, but unreachable. In short, I could not help dona Soledad any more than I could walk to the moon.
They listened to me attentively and remained quiet but agitated.
"Where is dona Soledad now?" I asked Lidia.
"She's with la Gorda," she said in a despondent tone. "La Gorda took her away and is trying to cure her, but we really don't know where they are. That's the truth."
"And where's Josefina?"
"She went to get the Witness. He is the only one who can cure Soledad. Rosa thinks that you know more than the Witness, but since you're angry with Soledad, you want her dead. We don't blame you."
I assured them that I was not angry with her, and above all I did not want her dead.
"Cure her, then!" Rosa said in an angry, high-pitched voice. "The Witness has told us that you always know what to do, and the Witness can't be wrong."
"And who in the devil is the Witness?"
"Nestor is the Witness," Lidia said as if she were reluctant to voice his name. "You know that. You have to."
I remembered that during our last meeting don Genaro had called Nestor the Witness. I thought at the time that the name was a joke or a ploy that don Genaro was using to ease the gripping tension and the anguish of those last moments together.
"That was no joke," Lidia said in a firm tone. "Genaro and the Nagual followed a different path with the Witness. They took him along with them everywhere they went. And I mean everywhere! The Witness has witnessed all there is to witness."
Obviously there was a tremendous misunderstanding between us. I labored to explain that I was practically a stranger to them. Don Juan had kept me away from everyone, including Pablito and Nestor. Outside of the casual hellos and goodbyes that all of them had exchanged with me over the years, we had never actually talked. I knew all of them mainly through the descriptions that don Juan had given me. Although I had once met Josefina I could not remember what she looked like, and all I had ever seen of la Gorda was her gigantic behind. I said to them that I had not even known, until the day before, that the four of them were don Juan's apprentices, and that Benigno was part of the group as well.
They exchanged a coy look with each other. Rosa moved her lips to say something but Lidia gave her a command with her feet. I felt that after my long and soulful explanation they should not still sneak messages to each other. My nerves were so taut that their covert foot movements were just the thing to send me into a rage. I yelled at them at the top of my lungs and banged on the table with my right hand. Rosa stood up with unbelievable speed, and I suppose as a response to her sudden movement, my body, by itself, without the notice of my reason, moved a step back, just in time to avoid by inches a blow from a massive stick or some heavy object that Rosa was wielding in her left hand. It came down on the table with a thunderous noise.
I heard again, as I had heard the night before while dona Soledad was choking me, a most peculiar and mysterious sound, a dry sound like a pipe breaking, right behind my windpipe at the base of my neck. My ears popped, and with the speed of lightning my left arm came down on top of Rosa's stick and crushed it. I saw the whole scene myself, as if I had been watching a movie.
Rosa screamed and I realized then that I had leaned forward with all my weight and had struck the back of her hand with my left fist. I was appalled. Whatever was happening to me was not real. It was a nightmare. Rosa kept on screaming. Lidia took her into don Juan's room. I heard her yells of pain for a few moments longer and then they stopped. I sat down at the table. My thoughts were disassociated and incoherent.
The peculiar sound at the base of my neck was something I had become keenly aware of. Don Juan had described it as the sound one makes at the moment of changing speed. I had the faint recollection of having experienced it in his company. Although I had become aware of it the previous night, I had not fully acknowledged it until it happened with Rosa. I realized then that the sound had created a special sensation of heat on the roof of my mouth and inside my ears. The force and dryness of the sound made me think of the peal of a large, cracked bell.
Lidia returned awhile later. She seemed more calm and collected. She even smiled. I asked her to please help me unravel that riddle and tell me what had happened. After a long vacillation she told me that when I had yelled and banged on the table Rosa got excited and nervous, and believing I was going to hurt them, she had tried to strike me with her "dream hand." I had dodged her blow and hit her on the back of her hand, the same way I had struck dona Soledad. Lidia said that Rosa's hand would be useless unless I found a way to help her.
Rosa walked into the room then. Her arm was wrapped with a piece of cloth. She looked at me. Her eyes were like those of a child. My feelings were at the height of turmoil. Some part of me felt ugly and guilty. But again another part remained unruffled. Had it not been for that part I would not have survived either dona Soledad's attack or Rosa's devastating blow.
After a long silence I told them that it was very petty of me to be annoyed by their foot messages, but that there was no comparison between yelling or banging on the table and what Rosa had done. In view of the fact that I had no familiarity with their practices, she could have severed my arm with her blow.
I demanded, in a very intimidating tone, to see her hand. She reluctantly unwrapped it. It was swollen and red. There was no doubt left in my mind that these people were carrying out some sort of test that don Juan had set up for me. By confronting them I was being hurled into a realm which was impossible to reach or accept in rational terms. He had said time and time again that my rationality comprised only a very small part of what he had called the totality of oneself. Under the impact of the unfamiliar and the altogether real danger of my physical annihilation, my body had had to make use of its hidden resources, or die. The trick seemed to be in the truthful acceptance of the possibility that such resources exist and can be reached. The years of training had been but the steps to arrive to that acceptance. Truthful to his premise of no compromise, don Juan had aimed at a total victory or a total defeat for me. If the training had failed to put me in contact with my hidden resources, the test would have made it evident, in which case there would have been very little I could have done. Don Juan had said to dona Soledad that I would have killed myself. Being such a profound connoisseur of human nature, he was probably right.
It was time to adopt a new course of action. Lidia had said that I could help Rosa and dona Soledad with the same force that had caused them injury; the problem, therefore, was to get the right sequence of feelings, or thoughts, or whatever, that led my body to unleash that force. I took Rosa's hand and rubbed it. I willed it to be cured. I had only the best feelings for her. I caressed her hand and hugged her for a long time. I rubbed her head and she fell asleep on my shoulder but there was no change in the redness or the swelling.
Lidia watched me without saying a word. She smiled at me. I wanted to tell her that I was a fiasco as a healer. Her eyes seemed to catch my mood and they held it until it froze.
Rosa wanted to sleep. She was either dead tired or ill. I did not want to find out which. I picked her up in my arms; she was lighter than I would have imagined. I took her to don Juan's bed and gently placed her on it. Lidia covered her. The room was very dark. I looked out of the window and saw a cloudless sky filled with stars. Up to that moment I had been oblivious to the fact that we were at a very high altitude.
As I looked at the sky, I felt a surge of optimism. Somehow the stars looked festive to me. The southeast was indeed a lovely direction to face.
I had a sudden urge that I felt obliged to satisfy. I wanted to see how different the view of the sky was from dona Soledad's window, which faced the north. I took Lidia by the hand with the intention of leading her there, but a ticklish sensation on top of my head stopped me. It went like a ripple down my back to my waist, and from there it went to the pit of my stomach. I sat down on the mat. I made an effort to think about my feelings. It seemed that at the very moment I had felt the tickling on my head my thoughts had diminished in strength and number. I tried, but I could not involve myself in the usual mental process that I call thinking.
My mental deliberations made me oblivious to Lidia. She had knelt on the floor, facing me. I became aware that her enormous eyes were scrutinizing me from a few inches away. I automatically took her hand again and walked to dona Soledad's room. As we reached the door I felt her whole body stiffening. I had to pull her. I was about to cross the threshold when I caught sight of the bulky, dark mass of a human body huddled against the wall opposite the door. The sight was so unexpected that I gasped and let go of Lidia's hand. It was dona Soledad. She was resting her head against the wall. I turned to Lidia. She had recoiled a couple of steps. I wanted to whisper that dona Soledad had returned, but there were no sounds to my words although I was sure I had vocalized them. I would have tried to talk again had it not been that I had an urge to act. It was as if words took too much time and I had very little of it. I stepped into the room and walked over to dona Soledad. She appeared to be in great pain. I squatted by her side, and rather than asking her anything, I lifted her face to look at her. I saw something on her forehead; it looked like the plaster of leaves that she had made for herself. It was dark, viscous to the touch. I felt the imperative need to peel it off her forehead. In a very bold fashion I grabbed her head, tilled it back and yanked the plaster off. It was like peeling off rubber. She did not move or complain about pain. Underneath the plaster there was a yellowishgreen blotch. It moved, as if it were alive or imbued with energy. I looked at it for a moment, unable to do anything. I poked it with my finger and it stuck to it like glue. I did not panic as I ordinarily would have; I rather liked the stuff. I stirred it with the tips of my fingers and all of it came off her forehead. I stood up. The gooey substance felt warm. It was like a sticky paste for an instant and then it dried up between my fingers and on the palm of my hand. I then felt another jolt of apprehension and ran to don Juan's room. I grabbed Rosa's arm and wiped the same fluorescent, yellowish-green stuff from her hand that I had wiped from dona Soledad's forehead.
My heart was pounding so hard that I could hardly stand on my feet. I wanted to lie down, but something in me pushed me to the window and made me jog on the spot.
I cannot recall how long I jogged there. Suddenly I felt that someone was wiping my neck and shoulders. I became aware then that I was practically nude, perspiring profusely. Lidia had a cloth around my shoulders and was wiping the sweat off my face. My normal thought processes came back to me all at once. I looked around the room. Rosa was sound asleep. I ran to dona Soledad's room. I expected to find her also asleep, but there was no one there. Lidia had trailed behind me. I told her what had happened. She rushed to Rosa and woke her up while I put on my clothes. Rosa did not want to wake up. Lidia grabbed her injured hand and squeezed it. In one single, springing movement Rosa stood up and was fully awake.
They began to rush around the house turning off the lanterns. They seemed to be getting ready to run away. I wanted to ask them why they were in such a hurry, when I realized that I had dressed in a great hurry myself. We were rushing together; not only that, but they seemed to be waiting for direct commands from me.
We ran out of the house carrying all the packages I had brought. Lidia had advised me not to leave any of them behind; I had not yet assigned them and they still belonged to me. I threw them in the back seat of the car while the two girls crammed into the front. I started the car and backed up slowly, finding my way in the darkness.
Once we were on the road I was brought face to face with the most pressing issue. Both of them said in unison that I was the leader; their actions were dependent on my decisions. I was the Nagual. We could not just run out of the house and drive away aimlessly. I had to guide them. But the truth was that I had no idea where to go or what to do. I turned casually to look at them. The headlights cast a glare inside the car and their eyes were like mirrors that reflected it. I remembered that don Juan's eyes did the same; they seemed to reflect more light than the eyes of an average person.
I knew that the two girls were aware of my impasse. Rather than making a joke about it in order to cover up my incapacity, I bluntly put the responsibility of a solution in their laps. I said that I lacked practice as the Nagual and would appreciate it if they would oblige me with a suggestion or a hint as to where we should go. They seemed disgusted with me. They clicked their tongues and shook their heads. I mentally shuffled through various courses of action, none of which was feasible, such as driving them to town, or taking them to Nestor's house, or even taking them to Mexico City.
I stopped the car. I was driving toward town. I wanted more than anything else in the world to have a heart-to-heart talk with the girls. I opened my mouth to begin, but they turned away from me, faced each other and put their arms around each other's shoulders. That appeared to be an indication that they had locked themselves in and were not listening tome.
My frustration was enormous. What I craved for at that moment was don Juan's mastery over any situation at hand, his intellectual companionship, his humor. Instead I was in the company of two nincompoops.
I caught a gesture of dejection in Lidia's face and that stopped my avalanche of self-pity. I became overtly aware, for the first time, that there was no end to our mutual disappointment. Obviously they too were accustomed, although in a different manner, to the mastery of don Juan. For them the shift from the Nagual himself to me must have been disastrous.
I sat for a long while with the motor running. Then all at once I again had a bodily shiver that started on the top of my head as a ticklish sensation and I knew then what had happened when I had entered dona Soledad's room awhile before. I had not seen her in an ordinary sense. What I had thought was dona Soledad huddled against the wall was in fact the memory of her leaving her body the instant after I had hit her. I also knew that when I touched that gooey, phosphorescent substance I had cured her, and that it was some sort of energy I had left in her head and in Rosa's hand with my blows.
A vision of a particular ravine went through my mind. I became convinced that dona Soledad and la Gorda were there. My knowledge was not a mere conjecture, it was rather a truth that needed no further corroboration. La Gorda had taken dona Soledad to the bottom of that particular ravine and was at that precise moment attempting to cure her. I wanted to tell her that it was wrong to treat the swelling in dona Soledad's forehead and that there was no longer a need for them to stay there.
I described my vision to the girls. Both of them told me, the way don Juan used to tell me, not to indulge. With him, however, that reaction was more congruous. I had never really minded his criticisms or scorn, but the two girls were in a different league. I felt insulted.
"I'll take you home," I said. "Where do you live?"
Lidia turned to me and in a most furious tone said that both of them were my wards and that I had to deliver them to safety, since at the request of the Nagual they had relinquished their freedom to act in order to help me.
I had a fit of anger at that point. I wanted to slap the two girls, but then I felt the curious shiver running through my body once more. It started again as a tickling on top of my head which went down my back until it reached my umbilical region, and then I knew where they lived. The ticklishness was like a shield, a soft, warm sheet of film. I could sense it physically, covering the area between my pubis and the edge of my rib cage. My wrath disappeared and was replaced by a strange sobriety, an aloofness, and at the same time a desire to laugh. I knew then of something transcendental. Under the impact of dona Soledad and the little sisters' actions, my body had suspended judgment; I had, in don Juan's terms, stopped the world. I had amalgamated two disassociated sensations. The ticklishness on the very top of my head and the dry cracking sound at the base of my neck: between them lay the means to that suspension of judgment.
As I sat in my car with those two girls, on the side of a deserted mountain road, I knew for a fact that for the first time I had had a complete awareness of stopping the world. That feeling brought to my mind the memory of another, similar, first-time bodily awareness I had had years before. It had to do with the ticklishness on top of the head. Don Juan said that sorcerers had to cultivate such a sensation and he described it at great length. According to him, it was a sort of itching, which was neither pleasurable nor painful, and which occurred on the very top of one's head. In order to make me aware of it, on an intellectual level, he described and analyzed its features and then, on the practical side, he attempted to guide me in developing the necessary bodily awareness and memory of this feeling by making me run under branches or rocks that protruded on a horizontal plane a few inches above my height.
For years I tried to follow what he was pointing out to me, but on the one hand I was incapable of understanding what he meant by his description, and on the other hand I was incapable of providing my body with the adequate memory by following his pragmatic steps. Never did I feel anything on top of my head as I ran underneath the branches or rocks he had selected for his demonstrations. But one day my body by itself discovered the sensation while I was driving a high panel truck into a three-story parking structure. I entered the gate of the structure at the same speed I usually did in my small, two-door sedan; the result was that from the high seat of the truck I perceived the transverse cement beam of the roof coming at my head. I could not stop the truck in time and the feeling I got was that the cement beam was scalping me. I had never driven a motor vehicle which was as high as that truck, thus I was incapable of making the necessary perceptual adjustments. The space between the roof of the truck and the roof of the parking structure seemed nonexistent for me. I felt the beam with my scalp.
That day I drove for hours inside the structure, giving my body a chance to store the memory of that ticklish sensation.
I faced the two girls and wanted to tell them that I had just found out where they lived. I desisted. There was no way of describing to them that the ticklish sensation had made me remember a casual remark that don Juan had once made as we passed a house on our way to Pablito's place. He had pointed out an unusual feature in the surroundings and said that that house was an ideal place for quietness but was not a place to rest. I drove them there.
Their house was rather big. It was also an adobe structure with a tile roof like dona Soledad's. It had one long room in the front, a roofed, open-air kitchen in back of the house, a huge patio next to the kitchen and an area for chickens beyond the patio. The most important part of their house, however, was a closed room with two doors, one opening to the front room and the other to the back. Lidia said that they had built it themselves. I wanted to see it, but both of them said that it was not the appropriate time because Josefina and la Gorda were not present to show me the parts of the room that belonged to them.
In the corner of the front room there was a sizable, built-in brick platform. It was about eighteen inches high and had been constructed like a bed with one end against the wall. Lidia put some thick straw mats on its flat top and urged me to lie down and sleep while they watched over me.
Rosa had lit a lantern and hung it on a nail above the bed. There was enough light to write. I explained to them that writing eased my tension and asked if it bothered them.
"Why do you have to ask?" Lidia retorted. "Just do it!"
In the vein of a perfunctory explanation I told them that I had always done some things, such as taking notes, which were strange even to don Juan and don Genaro and would perforce be strange to them.
"We all do strange things," Lidia said dryly.
I sat down on the bed under the lantern, with my back against the wall. They lay down next to me, one on each side. Rosa covered herself with a blanket and went to sleep as if all she needed to do was to lie down. Lidia said that then was the appropriate time and place for us to talk, although she would prefer that I turn off the light because it made her sleepy.
Our conversation in the darkness centered around the whereabouts of the other two girls. She said that she could not even imagine where la Gorda was, but that Josefina was undoubtedly in the mountains, still looking for Nestor, even though it was dark. She explained that Josefina was the most capable one to take care of herself in eventualities such as being in a deserted place in the dark. That was the reason why la Gorda had selected her to run that errand.
I mentioned that in listening to them talk about la Gorda I had formed the opinion that she was the boss. Lidia replied that la Gorda was indeed in charge, and that the Nagual himself had put her in command. She added that even if he had not done so, la Gorda would have taken over, sooner or later, because she was the best.
I was compelled at that point to light the lantern in order to write. Lidia complained that the light made it impossible to stay awake, but I prevailed.
"What makes la Gorda the best?" I asked.
"She has more personal power," she said. "She knows everything. Besides, the Nagual taught her how to control people."
"Do you envy la Gorda for being the best?"
"I used to, but not now."
"Why did you change?"
"I finally accepted my fate, as the Nagual told me."
"And what is your fate?"
"My fate. . . my fate is to be the breeze. To be a dreamer. My fate is to be a warrior."
"Do Rosa or Josefina envy la Gorda?"
"No, they don't. All of us have accepted our fates. The Nagual said that power comes only after we accept our fate without recriminations. I used to complain a lot and feel terrible because I liked the Nagual. I thought I was a woman. But he showed me that I was not. He showed me that I was a warrior. My life had ended before I met him. This body that you see here is new. The same thing happened to all of us. Perhaps you were not like us, but to us the Nagual was a new life.
"When he told us that he was going to leave, because he had to do other things, we thought we would die. But look at us now. We're alive, and do you know why? Because the Nagual showed us that we were himself. He's here with us. He'll always be here. We are his body and his spirit."
"Do all four of you feel the same way?"
"We are not four. We are one. That is our fate. We have to carry each other. And you are the same. All of us are the same. Even Soledad is the same, although she goes in a different direction."
"And Pablito, Nestor and Benigno? Where do they fit?"
"We don't know. We don't like them. Especially Pablito. He's a coward. He has not accepted his fate and wants to wriggle out of it. He even wants to chuck his chances as a sorcerer and live an ordinary life. That'll be great for Soledad. But the Nagual gave us orders to help him. We arc getting tired of helping him, though. Maybe one of these days la Gorda will push him out of the way forever."
"Can she do that?"
"Can she do that! Of course she can. She's got more of the Nagual than the rest of us. Perhaps even more than you."
"Why do you think the Nagual never told me that you were his apprentices?"
"Because you're empty."
"Did he say that I was empty?"
"Everyone knows you're empty. It is written on your body."
"How can you tell that?"
"There is a hole in the middle."
"In the middle of my body? Where?"
She very gently touched a spot on the right side of my stomach. She drew a circle with her finger as if she were following the edges of an invisible hole four or five inches in diameter.
"Are you empty yourself, Lidia?"
"Are you kidding? I am complete. Can't you see?"
Her answers to my questions were taking a turn that I had not expected. I did not want to antagonize her with my ignorance. I shook my head affirmatively.
"Why do you think I have a hole here that makes me empty?" I asked after deliberating what the most innocent question would be.
She did not answer. She turned her back to me and complained that the light of the lantern bothered her eyes. I insisted on a response. She faced me defiantly.
"I don't want to talk to you anymore," she said. "You are stupid. Not even Pablito is that stupid and he's the worst."
I did not want to end up in another blind alley by pretending that I knew what she was talking about, so I asked her again what caused my emptiness. I coaxed her to talk, giving her ample assurances that don Juan had never explained that topic to me. He had said time and time again that I was empty and I understood him the way any Western man would understand that statement. I thought he meant that I was somehow void of determination, will, purpose or even intelligence. He had never spoken to me about a hole in my body.
"There is a hole there on the right side," she said matter-offactly. "A hole that a woman made when she emptied you."
"Would you know who the woman is?"
"Only you can tell that. The Nagual said that men, most of the time, cannot tell who had emptied them. Women are more fortunate; they know for a fact who emptied them."
"Are your sisters empty, like me?"
"Don't be stupid. How can they be empty?"
"Dona Soledad said that she was empty. Does she look like me?"
"No. The hole in her stomach was enormous. It was on both sides, which meant that a man and a woman emptied her."
"What did dona Soledad do with a man and a woman?"
"She gave her completeness to them."
I vacillated for a moment before asking the next question. I wanted to assess all the implications of her statement.
"La Gorda was even worse than Soledad," Lidia went on. "Two women emptied her. The hole in her stomach was like a cavern. But now she has closed it. She is complete again."
"Tell me about those two women."
"I just can't tell you anything more," she said in a most imperative tone. "Only la Gorda can speak to you about this matter. Wait until she comes."
"Why only la Gorda?"
"Because she knows everything."
"Is she the only one who knows everything?"
"The Witness knows as much, maybe even more, but he is Genaro himself and that makes him very difficult to handle. We don't like him."
"Why don't you like him?"
"Those three bums are awful. They are crazy like Genaro. Well, they are Genaro himself. They are always fighting us because they were afraid of the Nagual and now they are taking their revenge on us. That's what la Gorda says anyway."
"And what makes la Gorda say that?"
"The Nagual told her things he didn't tell the rest of us. She sees. The Nagual said that you also see. Josefina, Rosa and I don't see, and yet all five of us are the same. We are the same."
The phrase "we are the same," which dona Soledad had used the night before, brought on an avalanche of thoughts and fears. I put my writing pad away. I looked around. I was in a strange world lying in a strange bed in between two young women I did not know. And yet I felt at ease there. My body experienced abandon and indifference. I trusted them.
"Are you going to sleep here?" I asked.
"How about your own room?"
"We can't leave you alone. We feel the same way you do; you are a stranger, except that we are bound to help you. La Gorda said that no matter how stupid you are, we have to look after you. She said we have to sleep in the same bed with you as if you were the Nagual himself."
Lidia turned off the lantern. I remained sitting with my back against the wall. I closed my eyes to think and I fell asleep instantly.
Lidia, Rosa and I had been sitting on a flat area just outside the front door for nearly two hours, since eight o'clock in the morning. I had tried to steer them into a conversation but they had refused to talk. They seemed to be very relaxed, almost asleep. Their mood of abandonment was not contagious, however. Sitting there in that forced silence had put me into a mood of my own. Their house sat on top of a small hill; the front door faced the east. From where I sat I could see almost the entire narrow valley that ran from east to west. I could not see the town but I could see the green areas of cultivated fields on the floor of the valley. On the other side and flanking the valley in every direction, there were gigantic, round, eroded hills. There were no high mountains in the vicinity of the valley, only those enormous, eroded, round hills, the sight of which created in me the most intense feeling of oppression. I had the sensation that those hills were about to transport me to another time.
Lidia spoke to me all of a sudden and her voice disrupted my reverie. She pulled my sleeve.
"Here comes Josefina," she said.
I looked at the winding trail that led from the valley to the house. I saw a woman walking slowly up the trail, perhaps fifty yards away. I noticed immediately the remarkable difference in age between Lidia and Rosa and the approaching woman. I looked at her again. I would never have thought Josefina to be that old. Judging by her slow gait and the posture of her body, she seemed to be a woman in her midfifties. She was thin, wore a long, dark skirt and was carrying a load of firewood on her back. She had a bundle tied around her waist; it looked as though she had a bundled-up child riding on her left hip. She seemed to be breast-feeding it as she walked. Her steps were almost feeble. She could barely make the last steep slope before reaching the house. When she finally stood in front of us, a few yards away, she was panting so heavily that I attempted to help her sit down. She made a gesture that seemed to say that she was all right.
I heard Lidia and Rosa giggling. I did not look at them because my total attention had been taken by assault. The woman in front of me was absolutely the most disgusting, foul creature I had ever seen. She untied the bundle of firewood and dropped it on the floor with a loud clatter. I jumped involuntarily, due in part to the loud noise and in part to the fact that the woman nearly fell on my lap, pulled by the weight of the wood.
She looked at me for an instant and then lowered her eyes, seemingly embarrassed by her clumsiness. She straightened her back and sighed with apparent relief. Obviously, the load had been too great for her old body.
As she stretched her arms, her hair fell partially loose. She was wearing a soiled headband tied over her forehead. Her hair was long and graying and seemed dirty and matted. I could see the white hairs against the dark brown of the headband. She smiled at me and sort of nodded her head. All her teeth seemed to be missing; I could see the black hole of her toothless mouth. She covered her face with her hand and laughed. She took off her sandals and walked into the house without giving me time to say anything. Rosa followed her.
I was dumbfounded. Dona Soledad had implied that Josefina was the same age as Lidia and Rosa. I turned to Lidia. She was peering at me.
"I had no idea she was that old," I said.
"Yes, she's pretty old," she said in a matter-of-fact tone.
"Does she have a child?" I asked.
"Yes, and she takes him everywhere. She never leaves him with us. She's afraid we are going to eat him."
"Is it a boy?"
"How old is he?"
"She's had him for some time. But I don't know his age. We thought that she shouldn't have a child at her age. But she didn't pay any attention to us."
"Whose child is he?"
"Josefina's, of course."
"I mean, who's the father?"
"The Nagual, who else?"
I thought that that development was quite extravagant and very unnerving.
"I suppose anything is possible in the Nagual's world," I said.
I meant it more as a thought to myself than a statement made to Lidia.
"You bet," she said, and laughed.
The oppressiveness of those eroded hills became unbearable. There was something truly abhorrent about that area, and Josefina had been the final blow. On top of having an ugly, old, smelly body and no teeth, she also seemed to have some sort of facial paralysis. The muscles on the left side of her face appeared to be injured, a condition which created a most unpleasant distortion of her left eye and the left side of her mouth. My oppressive mood plummeted to one of sheer anguish. For an instant I toyed with the idea, so familiar by then, of running to my car and driving away.
I complained to Lidia that I did not feel well. She laughed and said that Josefina had no doubt scared me.
"She has that effect on people," she said. "Everybody hates her guts. She's uglier than a cockroach."
"I remember seeing her once," I said, "but she was young."
"Things change," Lidia said philosophically, "one way or another. Look at Soledad. What a change, eh? And you yourself have changed. You look more massive than I remember you. You are looking more and more like the Nagual."
I wanted to say that the change in Josefina was abhorrent but I was afraid that she might overhear me.
I looked at the eroded hills across the valley. I felt like fleeing from them.
"The Nagual gave us this house," she said, "but it is not a house for rest. We had another house before that was truly beautiful. This is a place to steam up. Those mountains over there will drive you nuts."
Her boldness in reading my feelings gave me a respite. I did not know what to say.
"We are all naturally lazy," she went on. "We don't like to strain ourselves. The Nagual knew that, so he must have figured that this place would drive us up the walls."
She stood up abruptly and said that she wanted something to eat. We went to the kitchen, a semienclosed area with only two walls. At the open end, to the right of the door, there was an earthen stove; at the other end, where the two walls met, there was a large dining area with a long table and three benches. The floor was paved with smooth river rocks. The flat roof was about ten feet high and was resting on the two walls and on thick supporting beams on the open sides.
Lidia poured me a bowl of beans and meat from a pot which cooked on a very low fire. She heated up some tortillas over the fire. Rosa came in and sat down next to me and asked Lidia to serve her some food.
I became immersed in watching Lidia use a ladle to scoop the beans and meat. She seemed to have an eye for the exact amount. She must have been aware that I was admiring her maneuvers. She took two or three beans from Rosa's bowl and returned them to the pot.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Josefina coming into the kitchen. I did not look at her, though. She sat facing me across the table. I had a squeamish feeling in my stomach. I felt that I could not eat with that woman looking at me. To ease my tension I joked with Lidia that there were still two extra beans in Rosa's bowl that she had overlooked. She scooped up two beans with the ladle with a precision that made me gasp. I laughed nervously, knowing that once Lidia sat down I would have to move my eyes from the stove and acknowledge the presence of Josefina.
I finally and reluctantly had to look across the table at Josefina. There was a dead silence. I stared at her incredulously. My mouth fell open. I heard the loud laughter of Lidia and Rosa. It took an endless moment for me to put my thoughts and feelings in some sort of order. Whoever was facing me was not the Josefina I had seen just awhile ago, but a very pretty girl. She did not have Indian features as Lidia and Rosa did. She seemed to be more Latin than Indian. She had a light olive complexion, a very small mouth and a finely chiseled nose, small white teeth and short, black, curly hair. She had a dimple on the left side of her face, which gave a definite cockiness to her smile.
She was the girl I had met briefly years ago. She held my scrutiny. Her eyes were friendly. I became possessed by degrees with some uncontrollable nervousness. I ended up desperately clowning about my genuine bewilderment.
They laughed like children. After their laughter had subsided I wanted to know what was the point of Josefina's histrionic display.
"She's practicing the art of stalking," Lidia said. "The Nagual taught us to baffle people so they wouldn't notice us. Josefina is very pretty and if she walks alone at night, no one will bother her if she is ugly and smelly, but if she goes out as she really is, well, you yourself can tell what would happen."
Josefina nodded affirmatively and then contorted her face into the ugliest grimace possible.
"She can hold that face all day," Lidia said.
I contended that if I lived around that area I would certainly notice Josefina in her disguise more readily than if she did not have one.
"That disguise was just for you," Lidia said, and all three of them laughed. "And look how it baffled you. You noticed her child even more than you noticed her."
Lidia went into their room and brought out a package of rags that looked like a bundled-up child and threw it on the table in front of me. I laughed uproariously with them.
"Do all of you have particular disguises?" I asked.
"No. Only Josefina. No one around here knows her as she really is," Lidia replied.
Josefina nodded and smiled but she remained silent. I liked her tremendously. There was something so very innocent and sweet about her.
"Say something, Josefina," I said, grabbing her by her forearms.
She looked at me bewildered, and recoiled. I thought that I had gotten carried away by my elation and perhaps grabbed her too hard. I let her go. She sat up straight. She contorted her small mouth and thin lips and produced a most grotesque outburst of grunts and shrieks.
Her whole face suddenly changed. A series of ugly, involuntary spasms marred her tranquil expression of a moment before.
I looked at her, horrified. Lidia pulled me by the sleeve.
"Why do you have to scare her, stupid?" she whispered. "Don't you know that she became mute and can't talk at all?"
Josefina obviously understood her and seemed bent on protesting. She clenched her fist at Lidia and let out another outburst of extremely loud and horrifying shrieks, and then choked and coughed. Rosa began to rub her back. Lidia tried to do the same but Josefina nearly hit her in the face.
Lidia sat down next to me and made a gesture of impotence. She shrugged her shoulders.
"She's that way," Lidia whispered to me.
Josefina turned to her. Her face was contorted in a most ugly grimace of anger. She opened her mouth and bellowed at the top of her voice some more frightening, guttural sounds.
Lidia slid off the bench and in a most unobtrusive manner left the kitchen area.
Rosa held Josefina by the arm. Josefina seemed to be the epitome of fury. She moved her mouth and contorted her face. In a matter of minutes she had lost all the beauty and innocence that had enchanted me. I did not know what to do. I tried to apologize but Josefina's inhuman sounds drowned out my words. Finally Rosa took her into the house.
Lidia returned and sat across the table from me.
"Something went wrong up here," she said, touching her head.
"When did it happen?" I asked.
"A long time ago. The Nagual must have done something to her, because all of a sudden she lost her speech."
Lidia seemed sad. I had the impression that her sadness showed against her desire. I even felt tempted to tell her not to struggle so hard to hide her emotions.
"How does Josefina communicate with you people?" I asked. "Does she write?"
"Come on, don't be silly. She doesn't write. She's not you. She uses her hands and feet to tell us what she wants."
Josefina and Rosa came back to the kitchen. They stood by my side. I thought that Josefina was again the picture of innocence and candor. Her beatific expression did not give the slightest inkling of the fact that she could become so ugly, so fast. Looking at her I had the sudden realization that her fabulous ability for gestures undoubtedly was intimately linked to her aphasia. I reasoned that only a person who had lost her capacity to verbalize could be so versed in mimicry.
Rosa said to me that Josefina had confided that she wished she could talk, because she liked me very much.
"Until you came she was happy the way she was," Lidia said in a harsh voice.
Josefina shook her head affirmatively, corroborating Lidia's statement, and went into a mild outburst of sounds.
"I wish la Gorda was here," Rosa said. "Lidia always gets Josefina angry."
"I don't mean to!" Lidia protested.
Josefina smiled at her and extended her arm to touch her. It seemed as if she were attempting to apologize. Lidia brushed her hand away.
"Why, you mute imbecile," she muttered.
Josefina did not get angry. She looked away. There was so much sadness in her eyes that I did not want to look at her. I felt compelled to intercede.
"She thinks she's the only woman in the world who has problems," Lidia snapped at me. "The Nagual told us to drive her hard and without mercy until she no longer feels sorry for herself."
Rosa looked at me and reaffirmed Lidia's claim with a nod of her head.
Lidia turned to Rosa and ordered her to leave Josefina's side. Rosa moved away complyingly and sat on the bench next to me.
"The Nagual said that one of these days she will talk again," Lidia said to me.
"Hey!" Rosa said, pulling my sleeve. "Maybe you're the one who'll make her talk."
"Yes! " Lidia exclaimed as if she had had the same thought. "Maybe that's why we had to wait for you."
"It's so clear!" Rosa added with the expression of having had a true revelation.
Both of them jumped to their feet and embraced Josefina.
"You're going to talk again!" Rosa exclaimed as she shook Josefina by the shoulders.
Josefina opened her eyes and rolled them. She started making faint, muffled sighs, as if she were sobbing, and ended up running back and forth, crying like an animal. Her excitation was so great that she seemed to have locked her jaws open. I honestly thought that she was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Lidia and Rosa ran to her side and helped her close her mouth. But they did not try to calm her down.
"You're going to talk again! You're going to talk again!" they shouted.
Josefina sobbed and howled in a manner that sent chills down my spine.
I was absolutely confounded. I tried to talk sense to them. I appealed to their reason, but then I realized that they had very little of it, by my standards. I paced back and forth in front of them, trying to figure out what to do.
"You are going to help her, aren't you?" Lidia demanded.
"Please, sir, please," Rosa pleaded with me.
I told them that they were crazy, that I could not possibly know what to do. And yet, as I talked I noticed that there was a funny feeling of optimism and certainty in the back of my mind. I wanted to discard it at first, but it took hold of me. Once before I had had a similar feeling in relation to a dear friend of mine who was mortally ill. I thought I could make her well and actually leave the hospital where she lay dying. I even consulted don Juan about it.
"Sure. You can cure her and make her walk out of that death trap," he said.
"How?" I asked him.
"It's a very simple procedure," he said. "All you have to do is remind her that she's an incurable patient. Since she's a terminal case she has power. She has nothing to lose anymore. She's lost everything already. When one has nothing to lose, one becomes courageous. We are timid only when there is something we can still cling to."
"But is it enough just to remind her of that?"
"No. That will give her the boost she needs. Then she has to push the disease away with her left hand. She must push her arm out in front of her with her hand clenched as if she were holding a knob. She must push on and on as she says out, out, out. Tell her that, since she has nothing else to do, she must dedicate every second of her remaining life to performing that movement. I assure you that she can get up and walk away, if she wants to."
"It sounds so simple," I said.
Don Juan chuckled.
"It seems simple," he said, "but it isn't. In order to do this your friend needs an impeccable spirit."
He looked at me for a long time. He seemed to be measuring the concern and sadness I felt for my friend.
"Of course," he added, "if your friend had an impeccable spirit she wouldn't be there in the first place."
I told my friend what don Juan had said. But she was already too weak even to attempt to move her arm.
In Josefina's case my rationale for my secret confidence was the fact that she was a warrior with an impeccable spirit. Would it be possible, I silently asked myself, to apply the same hand movement to her?
I told Josefina that her incapacity to speak was due to some sort of blockage.
"Yes, yes, it's a blockage," Lidia and Rosa repeated after me.
I explained to Josefina the arm movement and told her that she had to push that blockage by moving her arm in that fashion.
Josefina's eyes were transfixed. She seemed to be in a trance. She moved her mouth, making barely audible sounds. She tried moving her arm, but her excitation was so intense that she flung her arm without any coordination. I tried to redirect her movements, but she appeared to be so thoroughly befuddled that she could not even hear what I was saying. Her eyes went out of focus and I knew she was going to faint. Rosa apparently realized what was happening; she jumped away and grabbed a cup of water and sprinkled it over Josefina's face. Josefina's eyes rolled back, showing the whites of her eyes. She blinked repeatedly until she could focus her eyes again. She moved her mouth, but she made no sound.
"Touch her throat!" Rosa yelled at me.
"No! No!" Lidia shouted back. "Touch her head. It's in her head, you dummy! "
She grabbed my hand and I reluctantly let her place it on Josefina's head.
Josefina shivered, and little by little she let out a series of faint sounds. Somehow they seemed to me more melodious than the inhuman sounds she made before.
Rosa also must have noticed the difference.
"Did you hear that? Did you hear that?" she asked me in a whisper.
But whatever the difference might have been, Josefina let out another series of sounds more grotesque than ever. When she quieted down, she sobbed for a moment and then entered into another state of euphoria. Lidia and Rosa finally quieted her. She plunked down on the bench, apparently exhausted. She could barely lift her eyelids to look at me. She smiled meekly.
"I am so very, very sorry," I said and held her hand.
Her whole body vibrated. She lowered her head and began to weep again. I felt a surge of ultimate empathy for her. At that moment I would have given my life to help her.
She sobbed uncontrollably as she tried to speak to me. Lidia and Rosa appeared to be so caught up in her drama that they were making the same gestures with their mouths.
"For heaven's sake, do something!" Rosa exclaimed in a pleading voice.
I experienced an unbearable anxiety. Josefina stood up and embraced me, or rather clung to me in a frenzy and pushed me away from the table. At that instant Lidia and Rosa, with astounding agility, speed and control, grabbed me by the shoulders with both hands and at the same time hooked the heels of my feet with their feet. The weight of Josefina's body and her embrace, plus the speed of Lidia's and Rosa's maneuver, rendered me helpless. They all moved at once, and before I knew what was happening, they had laid me on the floor with Josefina on top of me. I felt her heart pounding. She held on to me with great force; the sound of her heart reverberated in my ears. I felt it pounding in my own chest. I tried to push her away but she held on fast. Rosa and Lidia had me pinned down on the floor with their weight on my arms and legs. Rosa cackled insanely and began nibbling on my side. Her small, sharp teeth chattered as her jaws snapped open and shut with nervous spasms.
All at once I had a monstrous sensation of pain, physical revulsion and terror. I lost my breath. My eyes could not focus. I knew that I was passing out. I heard then the dry, cracking sound of a pipe breaking at the base of my neck and felt the ticklish sensation on top of my head, running like a shiver through my entire body. The next thing I knew I was looking at them from the other side of the kitchen. The three girls were staring at me while they lay on the floor.
"What are you people doing?" I heard someone say in a loud, harsh, commanding voice.
I then had an inconceivable feeling. I felt Josefina let go of me and stand up. I was lying on the floor, and yet I was also standing a distance away from them, looking at a woman I had never seen before. She was by the door. She walked toward me and stopped six or seven feet away. She stared at me for a moment. I knew immediately that she was la Gorda. She demanded to know what was going on.
"We were just playing a little joke on him," Josefina said clearing her throat. "I was pretending to be mute."
The three girls huddled up close together and began to laugh. La Gorda remained impassive, looking at me.
They had tricked me! I found my stupidity and gullibility so outrageous that I had a fit of hysterical laughter, which was almost out of control. My body shivered.
I knew that Josefina had not just been playing, as she had claimed. The three of them had meant business. I had actually felt Josefina's body as a force that, in fact, was getting inside my own body. Rosa's nibbling on my side, which undoubtedly was a ruse to distract my attention, coincided with the sensation I had had that Josefina's heart was pounding inside my chest.
I heard la Gorda urging me to calm down.
I had a nervous flutter in my midsection and then a quiet, calm anger swept over me. I loathed them. I had had enough of them. I would have picked up my jacket and writing pad and walked out of the house had it not been that I was not quite myself yet. I was somewhat dizzy and my senses were definitely out of line. I had had the sensation that when I had first looked at the girls from across the kitchen, I was actually viewing them from a position above my eye level, from a place close to the ceiling. But something even more disconcerting was that I had actually perceived that the ticklish sensation on top of my head was what scooped me from Josefina's embrace. It was not as if something came out from the top of my head; something actually did come out from the top of my head.
A few years before, don Juan and don Genaro had manoeuvred my perception and I had had an impossible double sensation: I felt that don Juan had fallen on top of me and pinned me to the ground, while at the same time I felt I was still standing up. I was actually in both places at once. In sorcerers' terms I could say that my body had stored the memory of that double perception and seemed to have repeated it. There were, however, two new things that had been added to my bodily memory this time. One was that the ticklish sensation I had become so aware of during the course of my confrontations with those women was the vehicle to arriving at that double perception; and the other was that the sound at the base of my neck let loose something in me that was capable of coming out of the top of my head.
After a minute or two I definitely felt that I was coming down from near the ceiling until I was standing on the floor. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to seeing at my normal eye level.
As I looked at the four women I felt naked and vulnerable. I then had an instant of disassociation, or lack of perceptual continuity. It was as if I had shut my eyes, and some force suddenly had made me twirl a couple of times. When I opened my eyes the girls were staring at me with their mouths open. But somehow I was myself again.