(The Universal Spiderweb by Armando Torres)
Revising my notes, I found some annotations in which Carlos talked about La Catalina. He maintained that sorcerers are in a constant state of war, especially with sorcerers of other clans, saying, “Don Juan used his enemy, the witch Catalina, to help me learn the secrets of sorcery.”
I had my doubts about how real the battle he described in his book could have been; he must have read my thoughts, or maybe my face showed some subtle expression of incredulity because, looking directly into my eyes, he reaffirmed that the confrontation that his teacher exposed him to was very real, and that “the old fucker” almost got him killed. He added that don Juan had a true fight with that woman, and that they both attacked each other.
At that time I didn’t know what to make of that information; to think that a sorcerer as remarkable as don Juan was envolved in petty fights was something that seemed inconceivable. So I was not very sure that I understood very well the implications of what he told me. It wasn’t until long after knowing the abuelos that those talks started to make some sense to me.
In the beginning, it felt as if my life was a puzzle, with dispersed fragments of information everywhere. I saw it that way because, little by little, the pieces were added and the concepts were getting clearer. The matter of the war
between the sorcerers is an example of that.
At night, after the daily tasks were finished, it was our habit to gather next to the fire to chat, either inside in the kitchen, or in the vicinity of the bonfire behind the house. I have verified that, in general, modern people don’t speak any longer; they barely share their experiences. Nowadays, although a family reside in the same house, they’re apart. They all sit as if hypnotized in front of the television, and the only things they offer are trivial comments. Or worse yet, when each one is alone before their screens, even though they still live together, they’re almost strangers to each other. I wish modern man would turn off the television and be together again in true companionship around the fire.
In those meetings, we sang, recited poems and spoke about almost any topic. Any event was reason for comments because it helped us to remember something interesting that they, or some distant ancestor, had experienced. In fact, it could be said that the stories told by the light of the flames are the cultural repertoire of our line.
The chats were always informal, without turn-taking or niceties; everything happened in the most natural way; whoever wanted to could comment on something or tell some story, although in general, it always had to do with the topic that we were dealing with.
It was in one of those meetings when for the first time I heard them mention the war of the sorcerers. With the passing of time, I noticed that occasionally they referred to the topic, but, always as an allusion or comment within the context of some other topic. However, those brief commentaries were enough to arouse my curiosity; I was itching with the desire to ask, but a good upbringing prevents us from interrupting in the course of a conversation, so I kept postponing the investigation of that topic until some more favorable moment at another time; but then something else would come up, and I would always end up deviating my attention; for some reason, the right opportunity to ask never appeared. So for a long time, I relegated that topic to the field of metaphors.
When I finally tried to ask doña Silvia, she opened her eyes wide and put her index finger on her lips, and with that, she insinuated to me that we don’t talk about that subject. I accepted it without questioning, but of course that fanned the flames of my curiosity even more.
At that time, I supposed that, as I was not completely familiarized with their customs and local expressions, it was all right to link their concepts and expressions to those that I was already familiar with in my dealings with Carlos. So that matter remained in my mind as mere background noise, without really knowing what to think about it.
From time to time I heard them mention something about the war of the sorcerers, or, as they called it, simply “the War.” In my ponderings, I believed that maybe they were referring to the path of the warrior, but little by little, I pieced together the evidence and realized that they were referring to a real war in which there were dead and wounded.
On several occasions, I had requested to don Melchor that he clear up the matter, but he avoided giving me a direct answer. He only shook the head and laughed in a strange way, as if he was hiding something. That encouraged me to keep investigating; I expected that some day I would find him in a good enough mood to tell me what it was all about. But in spite of my insistence, the only comment that I was able to get out of him was that I should pay attention to the stories that were told, and that in this way, I could find the answers for myself. He was right in saying that because by hearing them, I could form an idea of what had really happened. When a good opportunity was presented, I confronted don Melchor with a direct question: “And why are they at war?”
“Because that’s what the situation is,” he said, at the same time inviting me with a sign to sit down on some nearby rocks.
“This war has already lasted for centuries; at this point, nobody even remembers or cares how it began. The issue is so old that it has become a tradition.”
Seeing my expression of scepticism, he continued: “But don’t let yourself be deceived because that doesn’t make it any less real.”
Mentioning his benefactor, the healer Jonás Xinan’catl, he said that the war was useful to keep them sharp; it helped them stay awake: “Knowing that we’re at war and that at any moment we can be attacked helps us to stay attentive.”
To another question I asked, he answered that the last battle which had caused some deaths was already a “long” time ago. “I think it was more than ten years ago,” he said with a strange smile on his lips.
On another occasion, he himself told me that he had survived a confrontation with the “Cripple,” the leader of the enemy group. He said that they had arranged a combat among the participants of both groups, using nothing more than the macuahuitl, a prehispanic weapon par excellence that consists of a stick with sharp tips of obsidian tied along the length of it, so that if you give someone a blow with it, it could very well hurt the enemy; but they say that the first blow is rarely mortal.
In his words: “However, during the fight, one of them drew his machete and killed one of our partners. As a result, the others responded by grabbing their own machetes, and they finished off two of them, and several more were sent to the hospital with serious wounds. I myself received a wound in my left shoulder.”
He opened his shirt and showed me a scar of about twenty centimeters on his muscular torso.
“But, having received that, I returned the favor with interest, and that’s the reason why they call him the “Cripple.” Thanks to me, that son of a bitch walks with a limp,” he said with a broad smile.
“Now that you walk with us,” he continued, “you’re also at war with them; they already savored your blood that time when they beat you and left you on the verge of death, so take care because this is for real.”
When seeing my bewildered, even incredulous, expression, he said, “What? Don’t tell me you thought that being a warrior was only an intellectual exercise? If you did, you’re already screwed! This is for real here: either you kill or you die.”
His warnings shook me; they brought out a kind of fear that I had never known before. I became more apprehensive and much more attentive to what transpired in my surroundings, but somehow I still refused to believe that there was any real danger; however, with time I gathered enough proof that I was indeed being watched from afar by “hidden eyes.”
The first time that I was really aware of what was happening was when I had to go alone to the market in town on an errand. It was the middle of the afternoon, but the sky was heavy with big, dark storm clouds and it seemed like it was almost night. Once there, I could feel the aggressive looks of a group of peasants who were drinking pulque in a place on the other side of the street.
I didn’t pay them too much attention; I went about my errands, and then I went out to the street. It was then that I noticed that they were following me. I watched as two of them separated from the group with the clear intention of cutting across my path up ahead, and I remembered the stories that I had heard, and I was filled with panic. I felt a knot in my stomach; I was sure that they wanted to kill me. My heart was pounding. Nevertheless, I kept walking as if nothing was happening; but when I turned the corner, I started running as fast as I could, and entered a narrow alley that led back to the main street. I knew that those who were chasing me were right behind me, but at the same time, I was aware that I was about to encounter the other two who had separated from the group. I didn’t know what to do when suddenly, I had a peculiar sensation that’s hard to describe, seeing-hearing, as the aggressors approached, and even before they got to the alley, in an almost instinctive way, my body remembered the instructions that I had received. So I sheltered myself by a stone gate, crouched down as if defecating, put my elbows on my knees, and raised my fists, and in this way I covered my face with my arms. The men passed by without even looking at me. I saw how the two groups gathered ahead not very far away, and I heard how they expressed their bewilderment at having lost me. They talked for a moment and then they left.
That was how I lost them, but from that day on, I never again walked carelessly as I used to do before. It’s incredible how the body reacts when faced with the threat of death; suddenly everything gains meaning.
I kept participating in and fulfilling my tasks; however, only after I was fully accepted among the warriors was the matter completely revealed to me. They included me in their “strolls,” in which we went armed to, as they said, “stalk the prey,” meaning that we would go out to spy on the rival group.
Fortunately, nothing else of any seriousness has happened. The last scuffle we had occured a while ago; it happened at a religious party in a town in the south of Mexico, where we ran into some members of the rival group, and we plunged into a fight that became a free-for-all. Although it resulted in some injuries, there were no deaths.
That day, as it happened, we went for a walk in the square of that traditional town nestled in the mountains, when suddenly we met with Miss Lola and her friends, who were apprentices of the Cripple. When she saw us, she tried to use witchcraft against us, but one of our female warriors took a bar of iron from a sales tent and broke her skull. Later, I found out that the wound required more than twenty stitches. The rest of us made do with some punches and black eyes.
After that, on their part there were several attempts against us, but we were always able to defeat them, although we sometimes paid a steep price. So the war goes on, and we all always live in a state of tense calm. In fact, I already forget what it’s like to live any other way. After all these years living with the healers, we learned that for a sorcerer, the normal state is to be alert the whole time. By accepting the fact that we’re at war, we’re able to destroy the worst of all enemies: the ego that prevents us from seeing with clarity the messages of the spirit.
Dealing with external enemies is one thing, but coexisting with a group of apprentices is a challenge for all the participants. Confrontations among the various elements are unavoidable. Sometimes real fights break out that end up leaving people injured, in multiple senses. In the end, however, the nagual and the goal of the freedom always end up prevailing.
It was the abuelos who encouraged the apprentices in such behavior when they created the game of “attack the idiot.” It was a kind mischief that consisted of bothering, even physically assaulting, any group member who got distracted or was out of synch. They would whack him with a stick of throw a bucket of cold water on him, or any other act of cruelty that occurred to them.
In the beginning, I considered that practice as an intrusion into my personal space, but with time, I had to admit that the use of that strategy created the appropriate atmosphere to help each other stay alert, with the extra advantage that it helps to polish the roughness of the ego.
One can compare these attacks among comrades to the friendly fights between felines that keep them in form. It’s very true that sometimes we learn only from blows, but that’s due to the resistance of the ego, and, as our teacher always said, “That’s nothing in comparison with what waits for us out there!”
“Only when we get a glimpse of the infinite do we realize that all human matters are irrelevant. If the ego can’t deal with mundane matters, it’s certain that it won’t be able to confront the terrifying unknown that’s waiting for us.”
For that reason, the only thing that really counts in the warrior’s life is impeccability, and there’s nothing better than being constantly under the threat of death to achieve it.
I remember how shocked I was the first time I found out that the abuelos of both groups had plotted amongst themselves to “help the new ones”. The “help” usually implied some horrible fight or something worse. That was exactly what happened to me the day they attacked me. At that time, I believed that my meeting with those hoodlums up in the hills was just a coincidence, but today I know that it was a trap prepared by them to hook me.
So, in a certain way, with our confrontations, we give continuity to the tradition of the ritual “flower wars” that we inherited from our ancestors; however, there’s no room for error because, even when there’s an accord between the combatants, the danger is real, and one faces death at each turn of the road. In my case, if it was not for the care I received from my teacher, I’m sure that I wouldn’t have survived.
I had already heard stories that in the world of the nagual, one can only enter if he’s already dead. In the beginning I took this as something symbolic, but from what I’ve witnessed and from the stories I’ve heard, it’s certainly the case, since each one of the warriors I know has similar stories such as that of Margarito, who’s one of my comrades. For him the entrance into the world of the nagual meant a real death.
After having been pushed off the side of a cliff, he was taken to a hospital with serious wounds, and from there he was taken directly to the corpse depository because there was no longer anything that could be done for him. In the morgue, the doctor signed his death certificate.
According to custom, the relatives hurried to arrange his funeral, but they said that during the funeral a strange old man arrived. He approached the body and he whispered some words to it, then he left without saying a word. They say that the deceased suddenly sat up in the coffin and began to speak, giving everybody a mortal fright, and that that day, he left with the nagual, never to return.
As for another of my partners, they brought him bleeding to see the abuelos after he received a knife wound in the chest. He only survived thanks to the care of the healers. And one other was brought in with an illness that had him more dead than alive. The abuelos were very strict with him; they said that if he didn’t follow their instructions to the letter, he would die. So each one of us has our own stories; what will never change is the fact that we’re all dying from the moment we arrive. Since I joined them, I’ve seen many come and go; some say that they’re interested in the knowledge of the healers, but soon reality sets in.
For a while, doña Silvia was even offering herbology classes on the weekends; however, in the end, we saw that everybody had other commitments. Some had to tend to their business, others to their families, their lovers, or their bad habits, so that nobody had time for the spirit. Now I understand why sorcerers say that they only accept those who are already dead. This is real: the truth is that only those who in one way or another have already died to the world remain in the fight.
On one occasion, don Melchor said, “Only those who are already dead can follow the path of sorcery.” Then he clarified: “Of course I don’t mean being physically dead; but it does mean dying in a very definitive way because then you’ve lost the human form.”
The task of losing the human form was, for me, a concept difficult to digest, especially with the tremendous attachment I had to the ego. For me that was a gradual process; I barely noticed it. One day, however, I perceived that when something happened that previously would have upset me, I didn’t care about it any more. Then something else happened, and I realized that I had stopped feeling like I had felt before; I was still me, but with such detachment that I barely even recognized myself.
I could understand then the lessons I had received about keeping our emotions under control; as doña Silvia used to say, “You must control your emotions, never allow them to control you. If you control your emotions, you’ll control your life. There’s a lot of confusion between paying attention to our intuitions and making decisions based on emotion. Sometimes not knowing how to recognize the difference can lead a person to disaster.”
Once she said, “Gaining control of your emotions is of great importance. Keep your objectives clear and stop surrendering to your bad habits.”
“Is it that simple?” I asked, trying to get more information out of her.
“For sure!” she said emphatically, and she clarified that by my vices, she was referring to my exaggerated reactions to everything that happened to me. She compared my emotions to a wind that shifted me from one side to another.
Learning how to control myself was something very difficult for me; in a way I resented having to stop doing things as I had always done, since for me that way of being was what I considered to be “myself”; but later, I could see that my personality was only a description that I had learned; it was not the real “myself” that I’d believed it to be. Rather it was as if I lived in a theater, always playing a role that was not truly mine.
By reining in my emotions, I understood that, even though I could feel them, I had them under control, and if I wanted, nobody would ever know what I was feeling.