JOURNEY TO IXTLAN -- THE LESSONS OF DON JUAN
Chapter 17: A WORTHY OPPONENT
Tuesday, December 11, 1962
My traps were perfect; the setting was correct; I saw rabbits, squirrels and other rodents, quail, and birds, but I could not catch anything at all during the whole day.
Don Juan had told me, as we left his house in the early morning, that I had to wait that day for a "gift of power," an exceptional animal that might be lured into my traps and whose flesh I could dry for "power food."
Don Juan seemed to be in a pensive mood. He did not make a single suggestion or comment. Near the end of the day he finally made a statement.
"Someone is interfering with your hunting," he said.
"Who?" I asked, truly surprised.
He looked at me and smiled and shook his head in a gesture of disbelief.
"You act as if you didn't know who," he said. "And you've known who all day.
I was going to protest but I saw no point in it. I knew he was going to say "la Catalina," and if that was the kind of knowledge he was talking about, then he was right, I did know who.
"We either go home now," he continued, "or we wait until dark and use the twilight to catch her."
He appeared to be waiting for my decision. I wanted to leave. I began to gather some thin rope that I was using but before I could voice my wish he stopped me with a direct command.
"Sit down," he said. "It would be a simpler and more sober decision to just leave now, but this is a peculiar case and I think we must stay. This show is just for you."
"What do you mean?"
"Someone is interfering with you, in particular, so that makes it your show. I know who and you also know who."
"You scare me," I said.
"Not me," he replied, laughing. "That woman, who is out there prowling, is scaring you."
He paused as if he were waiting for the effect of his words to show on me. I had to admit that I was terrified.
Over a month before, I had had a horrendous confrontation with a sorceress called "la Catalina." I had faced her at the risk of my life because don Juan had convinced me that she was after his life and that he was incapable of fending off her onslaughts. After I had come in contact with her, don Juan disclosed to me that she had never really been of any danger to him, and that the whole affair had been a trick, not in the sense of a malicious prank but in the sense of a trap to ensnare me.
His method was so unethical to me that I became furious with him.
Upon hearing my angry outburst don Juan had begun to sing some Mexican tunes. He imitated popular crooners and his renditions were so comical that I had ended up laughing like a child. He entertained me for hours. I never knew he had such a repertoire of idiotic songs.
"Let me tell you something," he had finally said on that occasion. "If we wouldn't be tricked, we would never learn. The same thing happened to me, and it'll happen to anyone. The art of a benefactor is to take us to the brink. A benefactor can only point the way and trick. I tricked you before. You remember the way I recaptured your hunter's spirit, don't you? You yourself told me that hunting made you forget about plants. You were willing to do a lot of things in order to be a hunter, things you wouldn't have done in order to learn about plants. Now you must do a lot more in order to survive."
He stared at me and broke into a fit of laughter.
"This is all crazy," I said. "We are rational beings."
"You're rational," he retorted. "I am not."
"Of course you are," I insisted. "You are one of the most rational men I have ever met."
"All right!" he exclaimed. "Let us not argue. I am rational, so what?"
I involved him in the argument of why it was necessary for two rational beings to proceed in such an insane way, as we had proceeded with the lady witch.
"You're rational, all right," he said fiercely. "And that means you believe that you know a lot about the world, but do you? Do you really? You have only seen the acts of people. Your experiences are limited only to what people have done to you or to others. You know nothing about this mysterious unknown world."
He signaled me to follow him to my car and we drove to the small Mexican town nearby.
I did not ask what we were going to do. He made me park my car by a restaurant and then we walked around the bus depot and the general store. Don Juan walked on my right side, leading me. Suddenly I became aware that someone else was walking side by side with me to my left, but before I had time to turn to look, don Juan made a fast and sudden movement; he leaned forward, as if he were picking something from the ground, and then grabbed me by the armpit when I nearly stumbled over him. He dragged me to my car and did not let go of my arm even to allow me to unlock the door. I fumbled with the keys for a moment. He shoved me gently into the car and then got in himself.
"Drive slowly and stop in front of the store," he said.
When I had stopped, don Juan signaled me with a nod of his head to look. "La Catalina" was standing at the place where don Juan had grabbed me. I recoiled involuntarily. The woman took a couple of steps towards the car and stood there defiantly. I scrutinized her carefully and concluded that she was a beautiful woman. She was very dark and had a plump body but she seemed to be strong and muscular. She had a round full face with high cheekbones and two long braids of jet black hair. What surprised me the most was her youth. She was at the most in her early thirties.
"Let her come closer if she wants," don Juan whispered.
She took three or four steps towards my car and stopped perhaps ten feet away. We looked at each other. At that moment I felt there was nothing threatening about her. I smiled and waved at her. She giggled as if she were a shy little girl and covered her mouth. Somehow I felt delighted. I turned to don Juan to comment on her appearance and behavior, and he scared me half to death with a yell.
"Don't turn your back to that woman, damn it!" he said in a forceful voice.
I quickly turned to look at the woman. She had taken another couple of steps towards my car and was standing barely five feet away from my door. She was smiling; her teeth were big and white and very clean. There was something eerie about her smile, however. It was not friendly; it was a contained grin; only her mouth smiled. Her eyes were black and cold and were staring at me fixedly.
I experienced a chill all over my body. Don Juan began to laugh in a rhythmical cackle; after a moment's wait the woman slowly backed away and disappeared among people.
We drove away and don Juan speculated that if I did not tighten up my life and learn, she was going to step on me as one steps on a defenseless bug.
"She is the worthy opponent I told you I had found for you," he said.
Don Juan said that we had to wait for an omen before we knew what to do with the woman who was interfering with my hunting.
"If we see or hear a crow, we'll know for sure that we can wait, and we'll also know where to wait," he added.
He slowly turned around in a complete circle, scanning all the surroundings.
"This is not the place to wait," he said in a whisper.
We began to walk towards the east. It was already fairly dark. Suddenly two crows flew out from behind some tall bushes and disappeared behind a hill. Don Juan said that the hill was our destination.
Once we arrived there he circled it and chose a place facing the southeast at the bottom of the hill. He cleaned the dry twigs and leaves and other debris from a circular spot five or six feet in diameter. I attempted to help him, but he refused me with a strong movement of his hand. He put his finger over his lips and made a gesture of silence. When he had finished he pulled me to the center of the circle, made me face the south away from the hill, and whispered in my ear that I had to imitate his movements. He began a sort of dance, making a rhythmical thump with his right foot; it consisted of seven even beats spaced by a cluster of three fast thumps.
I tried to adapt myself to his rhythm and after a few clumsy attempts I was more or less capable of reproducing the same thumping.
"What's this for?" I whispered in his ear.
He told me, also in a whisper, that I was thumping like a rabbit and that sooner or later the prowler would be attracted by the noise and would show up to see what was going on.
Once I had copied the rhythm, don Juan ceased to thump himself but had me continue, marking the pace with a movement of his hand.
From time to time he would listen attentively, with his head slightly tilted to the right, seemingly to pick out noises in the chaparral. At one point he signaled me to stop and he remained in a most alert position; it was as if he were ready to spring up and jump on an unknown and unseen assailant.
Then he motioned me to continue the thumping and after a while he stopped me again. Every time I stopped he listened with such a concentration that every fiber in his body seemed to be tense to the point of bursting.
Suddenly he jumped to my side and whispered in my ear that the twilight was at its full power.
I looked around. The chaparral was a dark mass, and so were the hills and the rocks. The sky was dark blue and I could not see the clouds any more. The whole world seemed to be a uniform mass of dark silhouettes which did not have any visible boundaries.
I heard the eerie distant cry of an animal, a coyote or perhaps a night bird. It happened so suddenly that I did not pay attention to it. But don Juan's body jerked a bit. I felt its vibration as he stood next to me.
"Here we go," he whispered. "Thump again and be ready. She's here."
I began to thump furiously and don Juan put his foot over mine and signaled me frantically to relax and thump rhythmically.
"Don't scare her away," he whispered in my ear. "Calm down and don't lose your marbles."
He again began to mark the pace of my thumping, and after the second time he made me stop I heard the same cry again. This time it seemed to be the cry of a bird which was flying over the hill.
Don Juan made me thump once more and just when I stopped I heard a peculiar rustling sound to my left. It was the sound a heavy animal would make while moving about in the dry underbrush. The thought of a bear crossed my mind, but then I realized that there were no bears in the desert. I grabbed on to don Juan's arm and he smiled at me and put his finger to his mouth in a gesture of silence. I stared into the darkness towards my left, but he signaled me not to. He repeatedly pointed directly above me and then he made me turn around slowly and silently until I was facing the dark mass of the hill. Don Juan kept his finger leveled at a certain point on the hill. I kept my eyes glued to the spot and suddenly, as if in a nightmare, a dark shadow leaped at me. I shrieked and fell down to the ground on my back. For a moment the dark silhouette was superimposed against the dark blue sky and then it sailed through the air and landed beyond us, in the bushes. I heard the sound of a heavy body crashing into the shrubs and then an eerie outcry.
Don Juan helped me up and guided me in the darkness to the place where I had left my traps. He made me gather and disassemble them and then he scattered the pieces away in all directions. He performed all this without saying a single word. We did not speak at all on our way back to his house.
"What do you want me to say?" don Juan asked after I had urged him repeatedly to explain the events I had witnessed a few hours before.
"What was it?" I asked.
"You know damn well who it was," he said. "Don't water it down with 'what was it?' It is who it was that is important."
I had worked out an explanation that seemed to suit me. The figure I had seen looked very much like a kite that someone had let out over the hill while someone else, behind us, had pulled it to the ground, thus the effect of a dark silhouette sailing through the air perhaps fifteen or twenty yards.
He listened attentively to my explanation and then laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks.
"Quit beating around the bush," he said. "Get to the point. Wasn't it a woman?"
I had to admit that when I fell down and looked up I saw the dark silhouette of a woman with a long skirt leaping over me in a very slow motion; then something seemed to have pulled the dark silhouette and it flew over me with great speed and crashed into the bushes. In fact, that movement was what had given me the idea of a kite.
Don Juan refused to discuss the incident any further.
The next day he left to fulfill some mysterious errand and I went to visit some Yaqui friends in another community.
Wednesday, December 12,1962
As soon as I arrived at the Yaqui community, the Mexican storekeeper told me that he had rented a record player and twenty records from an outfit in Ciudad Obregon for the "fiesta" he was planning to give that night in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He had already told everybody that he had made all the necessary arrangements through Julio, the traveling salesman who came to the Yaqui settlement twice a month to collect installments on a layaway plan for cheap articles of clothing which he had succeeded in selling to some Yaqui Indians.
Julio brought the record player early in the afternoon and hooked it to the dynamo that provided electricity for the store. He made sure that it worked; then he turned up the volume to its maximum, reminded the storekeeper not to touch any knobs, and began to sort the twenty records.
"I know how many scratches each of them has,'" Julio said to the storekeeper.
"Tell that to my daughter," the storekeeper replied.
"You're responsible, not your daughter."
"Just the same, she's the only one who'll be changing the records."
Julio insisted that it did not make any difference to him whether she or someone else was going to actually handle the record player as long as the storekeeper paid for any records that were damaged. The storekeeper began to argue with Julio. Julio's face became red. He turned from time to time to the large group of Yaqui Indians congregated in front of the store and made signs of despair or frustration by moving his hands or contorting his face in a grimace. Seemingly as a final resort, he demanded a cash deposit. That precipitated another long argument about what constituted a damaged record. Julio stated with authority that any broken record had to be paid for in full, as if it were new. The storekeeper became angrier and began to pull out his extension cords. He seemed bent upon unhooking the record player and canceling the party. He made it clear to his clients congregated in front of the store that he had tried his best to come to terms with Julio. For a moment it seemed that the party was going to fail before it had started.
Blas, the old Yaqui Indian in whose house I was staying, made some derogatory comments in a loud voice about the Yaquis' sad state of affairs that they could not even celebrate their most revered religious festivity, the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
I wanted to intervene and offer my help, but Blas stopped me. He said that if I were to make the cash deposit, the storekeeper himself would smash the records.
"He's worse than anybody," he said. "Let him pay the deposit. He bleeds us, so why shouldn't he pay?"
After a long discussion in which, strangely enough, everyone present was in favor of Julio, the storekeeper hit upon terms which were mutually agreeable. He did not pay a cash deposit but accepted responsibility for the records and the record player.
Julio's motorcycle left a trail of dust as he headed for some of the more remote houses in the locality. Blas said that he was trying to get to his customers before they came to the store and spent all their money buying booze. As he was saying this a group of Indians emerged from behind the store. Blas looked at them and began to laugh and so did everyone else there.
Blas told me that those Indians were Julio's customers and had been hiding behind the store waiting for him to leave.
The party began early. The storekeeper's daughter put a record on the turntable and brought the arm down; there was a terrible loud screech and a high-pitched buzz ,and then came a blasting sound of a trumpet and some guitars. "
The party consisted of playing the records at full volume. There were four young Mexican men who danced with the storekeeper's two daughters and three other young Mexican women. The Yaquis did not dance; they watched with apparent delight every movement the dancers made. They seemed to be enjoying themselves just watching and gulping down cheap tequila.
I bought individual drinks for everybody I knew. I wanted to avoid any feelings of resentment. I circulated among the numerous Indians and talked to them and then offered them drinks. My pattern of behavior worked until they realized I was not drinking at all. That seemed to annoy everyone at once. It was as if collectively they had discovered that I did not belong there. The Indians became very gruff and gave me sly looks.
The Mexicans, who were as drunk as the Indians, also realized at the same time that I had not danced; and that appeared to offend them even more. They became very aggressive. One of them forcibly took me by the arm and dragged me closer to the record player; another served me a full cup of tequila and wanted me to drink it all in one gulp and prove that I was a "macho."
I tried to stall them and laughed idiotically as if I were actually enjoying the situation. I said that I would like to dance first and then drink. One of the young men called out the name of a song. The girl in charge of the record player began to search in the pile of records. She seemed to be a little tipsy, although none of the women had openly been drinking, and had trouble fitting a record on the turntable. A young man said that the record she had selected was not a twist; she fumbled with the pile, trying to find the suitable one, and everybody closed in around her and left me. That gave me time to run behind the store, away from the lighted area, and out of sight.
I stood about thirty yards away in the darkness of some bushes trying to decide what to do. I was tired. I felt it was time to get in my car and go back home. I began to walk to Blas's house, where my car was parked. I figured that if I drove slowly no one would notice that I was leaving.
The people in charge of the record player were apparently still looking for the record--all I could hear was the high-pitched buzzing of the loudspeaker--but then came the blasting sound of a twist. I laughed out loud, thinking that they had probably turned to where I had been and found out that I had disappeared.
I saw some dark silhouettes of people walking in the opposite direction, going towards the store. We passed each other and they mumbled, "Buenas noches.'" I recognized them and spoke to them. I told them that it was a great party.
Before I came to a sharp bend in the road I encountered two other people, whom I did not recognize, but I greeted them anyway. The blasting sound of the record player was almost as loud there on the road as it was in front of the store. It was a dark starless night, but the glare from the store lights allowed me to have a fairly good visual perception of my surroundings. Blas's house was very near and I accelerated my pace. I noticed then the dark shape of a person, sitting or perhaps squatting to my left, at the bend of the road. I thought for an instant that it might have been one of the people from the party who had left before I had. The person seemed to be defecating on the side of the road. That seemed odd. People in the community went into the thick bushes to perform their bodily functions. I thought that whoever it was in front of me must have been drunk.
I came to the bend and said, "Buenas noches." The person answered me with an eerie, gruff, inhuman howl. The hair on my body literally stood on end. For a second I was paralyzed. Then I began to walk fast. I took a quick glance. I saw that the dark silhouette had stood up halfway; it was a woman. She was stooped over, leaning forward; she walked in that position for a few yards and then she hopped. I began to run, while the woman hopped like a bird by my side, keeping up with my speed. By the time I arrived at Blas's house she was cut-ting in front of me and we had almost touched.
I leaped across a small dry ditch in front of the house and crashed through the flimsy door.
Blas was already in the house and seemed unconcerned with my story.
"They pulled a good one on you," he said reassuringly. "The Indians take delight in teasing foreigners."
My experience had been so unnerving that the next day I drove to don Juan's house instead of going home as I had planned to do.
Don Juan returned in the late afternoon. I did not give him time to say anything but blurted out the whole story, including Blas's commentary. Don Juan's face became somber. Perhaps it was only my imagination, but I thought he was worried.
"Don't put so much stock in what Blas told you," he said in a serious tone. "He knows nothing of the struggles between sorcerers.
"You should have known that it was something serious the moment you noticed that the shadow was to your left. You shouldn't have run either."
"What was I supposed to do? Stand there?"
"Right. When a warrior encounters his opponent and the opponent is not an ordinary human being, he must make his stand. That is the only thing that makes him invulnerable. "
"What are you saying, don Juan?"
"I'm saying that you have had your third encounter with your worthy opponent. She's following you around, waiting for a moment of weakness on your part. She almost bagged you this time."
I felt a surge of anxiety and accused him of putting me in unnecessary danger. I complained that the game he was playing with me was cruel.
"It would be cruel if this would have happened to an average man," he said. "But the instant one begins to live like a warrior, one is no longer ordinary. Besides, I didn't find you a worthy opponent because I want to play with you, or tease you, or annoy you. A worthy opponent might spur you on; under the influence of an opponent like 'la Catalina' you may have to make use of everything I have taught you. You don't have any other alternative."
We were quiet for a while. His words had aroused a tremendous apprehension in me.
He then wanted me to imitate as close as possible the cry I had heard after I had said "Buenas noches."
I attempted to reproduce the sound and came up with some weird howling that scared me. Don Juan must have found my rendition funny; he laughed almost uncontrollably.
Afterwards he asked me to reconstruct the total sequence; the distance I ran, the distance the woman was from me at the time I encountered her, the distance she was from me at the time I reached the house, and the place where she had begun hopping.
"No fat Indian woman could hop that way," he said after assessing all those variables. "They could not even run that far."
He made me hop. I could not cover more than four feet each time, and if I were correct in my perception, the woman had hopped at least ten feet with each leap.
"Of course, you know that from now on you must be on the lookout," he said in a tone of great urgency. "She will try to tap you on your left shoulder during a moment when you are unaware and weak."
"What should I do?" I asked.
"It is meaningless to complain," he said. "What's important from this point on is the strategy of your life."
I could not concentrate at all on what he was saying. I took notes automatically. After a long silence he asked if I had any pain behind my ears or in the nape of my neck. I said no, and he told me that if I had experienced an uncomfortable sensation in either of those two areas it would have meant that I had been clumsy and that "la Catalina" had injured me.
"Everything you did that night was clumsy," he said. First of all, you went to the party to kill time, as though there is any time to kill. That weakened you."
"You mean I shouldn't go to parties?"
"No, I don't mean that. You may go any place you wish, but if you do, you must assume the full responsibility for that act. A warrior lives his life strategically. He would attend a party or a reunion like that only if his strategy calls for it. That means, of course, that he would be in total control and would perform all the acts that he deems necessary."
He looked at me fixedly and smiled, then covered his face and chuckled softly.
"You are in a terrible bind," he said. "Your opponent is on your trail and for the first time in your life you cannot afford to act helter-skelter. This time you will have to learn a totally different doing, the doing of strategy. Think of it this way. If you survive the onslaughts of 'la Catalina' you will have to thank her someday for having forced you to change your doing."
"What a terrible way of putting it!" I exclaimed. "What if I don't survive?"
"A warrior never indulges in thoughts like that," he said. "When he has to act with his fellow men, a warrior follows the doing of strategy, and in that doing there are no victories or defeats. In that doing there are only actions."
I asked him what the doing of strategy entailed.
"It entails that one is not at the mercy of people," he replied. "At that party, for instance, you were a clown, not because it served your purposes to be a clown, but because you placed yourself at the mercy of those people. You never had any control and thus you had to run away from them."
"What should I have done?"
"Not go there at all, or else go there to perform a specific act.
"After horsing around with the Mexicans you were weak and 'la Catalina' used that opportunity. So she placed herself in the road to wait for you.
"Your body knew that something was out of place, though, and yet you spoke to her. That was terrible. You must not utter a single word to your opponent during one of those encounters. Then you turned your back to her. That was even worse. Then you ran away from her, and that was the worst thing you could have done! Apparently she is clumsy. A sorcerer that is worth his salt would have mowed you down right then, the instant you turned your back and ran away.
"So far your only defense is to stay put and do your dance."
"What dance are you talking about?" I asked.
He said that the "rabbit thumping" he had taught me was the first movement of the dance that a warrior groomed and enlarged throughout his life, and then executed in his last stand on earth.
I had a moment of strange sobriety and a series of thoughts occurred to me. On one level it was clear that what had taken place between me and "la Catalina" the first time I had confronted her was real. "La Catalina" was real, and I could not discard the possibility that she was actually following me. On the other level I could not understand how she was following me, and this gave rise to the faint suspicion that don Juan might be tricking me, and that he himself was somehow producing the weird effects I had witnessed.
Don Juan suddenly looked at the sky and told me that there was still time to go and check the sorceress. He reassured me that we were running very little danger, because we were only going to drive by her house.
"You must confirm her shape," don Juan said. "Then there won't be any doubts left in your mind, one way or the other."
My hands began to sweat profusely and I had to dry them repeatedly with a towel. We got in my car and don Juan directed me to the main highway and then to a wide unpaved road. I drove in the center of it; heavy trucks and tractors had carved deep trenches and my car was too low to go on either the left or the right side of the road. We went slowly amid a thick cloud of dust. The coarse gravel which was used to level the road had lumped with dirt during the rains, and chunks of dry mud rocks bounced against the metal underside of my car, making loud explosive sounds.
Don Juan told me to slow down as we were coming to a small bridge. There were four Indians sitting there and they waved at us. I was not sure whether or not I knew them. We passed the bridge and the road curved gently.
"That's the woman's house," don Juan whispered to me as he pointed with his eyes to a white house with a high bamboo fence all around it.
He told me to make a U-turn and stop in the middle of the road and wait to see if the woman became suspicious enough to show her face.
We stayed there perhaps ten minutes. I thought it was an interminable time. Don Juan did not say a word. He sat motionless, looking at the house.
"There she is," he said, and his body gave a sudden jump.
I saw the dark foreboding silhouette of a woman standing inside the house, looking through the open door. The room was dark and that only accentuated the darkness of the woman's silhouette.
After a few minutes the woman stepped out of the darkness of the room and stood in the doorway and watched us. We looked at her for a moment and then don Juan told me to drive on. I was speechless. I could have sworn that she was the woman I had seen hopping by the road in the darkness.
About half an hour later, when we had turned onto the paved highway, don Juan spoke to me.
"What do you say?" he asked. "Did you recognize the shape?"
I hesitated for a long time before answering. I was afraid of the commitment entailed in saying yes. I carefully worded my reply and said that I thought it had been too dark to be completely sure.
He laughed and tapped me gently on my head.
"She was the one, wasn't she?" he asked.
He did not give me time to reply. He put a finger to his mouth in a gesture of silence and whispered in my ear that it was meaningless to say anything, and that in order to survive "la Catalina's" onslaughts I had to make use of everything he had taught me.