A Battle to the Death with la Catalina; The trickery of the nagual Juan Matus

(A Separate Reality)

September 28, 1969

There was something eerie about don Juan’s house. For a moment I thought he was hiding somewhere around the place to scare me. I called out to him and then gathered enough nerve to walk inside. Don Juan was not there.

I put the two bags of groceries I had brought on a pile of firewood and sat down to wait for him, as I had done dozens of times before. But for the first time in my years of associating with don Juan I was afraid to stay alone in his house. I felt a presence, as if someone invisible was there with me. I remembered then that years before I had had the same vague feeling that something unknown was prowling around me when I was alone. I jumped to my feet and ran out of the house.

I had come to see don Juan to tell him that the cumulative effect of the task of “seeing” was taking its toll on me. I had begun to feel uneasy; vaguely apprehensive without any overt reason; tired without being fatigued.

Then my reaction at being alone in don Juan’s house brought back the total memory of how my fear had built up in the past.

The fear traced back to years before, when don Juan had forced the very strange confrontation between a sorceress, a woman he called “la Catalina,” and me. It began on November 23, 1961, when I found him in his house with a dislocated ankle. He explained that he had an enemy, a sorceress who could turn into a blackbird and who had attempted to kill him.

“As soon as I can walk I’m going to show you who the woman is,” don Juan said. “You must know who she is.”

“Why does she want to kill you?”

He shrugged his shoulders impatiently and refused to say anything else.

I came back to see him ten days later and found him perfectly well. He rotated his ankle to demonstrate to me mat it was fine and attributed his prompt recovery to the nature of the cast he himself had made.

“It’s good you’re here,” he said. “Today I’m going to take you on a little journey.”

He then directed me to drive to a desolate area. We stopped there; don Juan stretched his legs and made himself comfortable on the seat, as if he were going to take a nap. He told me to relax and remain very quiet; he said we had to be as inconspicuous as possible until nightfall because the late afternoon was a very dangerous time for the business we were pursuing.

“What kind of business are we pursuing?” I asked.

“We are here to stake out la Catalina,” he said.

When it was fairly dark we slid out of the car and walked very slowly and noiselessly into the desert chaparral.

From the place where we stopped I could distinguish the black silhouette of the hills on both sides. We were in a flat, fairly wide canyon. Don Juan gave me detailed instructions on how to stay merged with the chaparral and taught me a way to sit “in vigil,” as he called it. He told me to tuck my right leg under my left thigh and keep my left leg in a squat position. He explained that the tucked leg was used as a spring in order to stand up with great speed, if it were necessary. He then told me to sit facing the west, because that was the direction of the woman’s house. He sat next to me, to my right, and told me in a whisper to keep my eyes focused on the ground, searching, or rather, waiting, for a sort of wind wave that would make a ripple in the bushes. Whenever the ripple touched the bushes on which I had focused my gaze, I was supposed to look up and see the sorceress in all her “magnificent evil splendor.” Don Juan actually used those words.

When I asked him to explain what he meant, he said that if I detected a ripple I simply had to look up and see for myself, because “a sorcerer in flight” was such a unique sight that it defied explanations.

There was a fairly steady wind and I thought I detected a ripple in the bushes many times. I looked up each time, prepared to have a transcendental experience, but I did not see anything. Every time the wind blew the bushes don Juan would kick the ground vigorously, whirling around, moving his arms as if they were whips. The strength of his movements was extraordinary.

After a few failures to see the sorceress “in flight” I was sure I was not going to witness any transcendental event, yet don Juan’s display of “power” was so exquisite that I did not mind spending the night there.

At daybreak don Juan sat down by me. He seemed to be totally exhausted. He could hardly move. He lay down on his back and mumbled that he had failed to “pierce the woman.” I was very intrigued by that statement; he repeated it several times and each time his tone became more downhearted, more desperate. I began to experience an unusual anxiety. I found it very easy to project my feelings into don Juan’s mood.

Don Juan did not mention anything about the incident or the woman for several months. I thought he had either forgotten or resolved the whole affair. One day, however, I found him in a very agitated mood, and in a manner that was completely incongruous with his natural calmness he hold me that the “blackbird” had stood in front of him the night before, almost touching him, and that he had not even awakened. The woman’s artfulness was so great that he had not felt her presence at all. He said his good fortune was to wake up in the nick of time to stage a horrendous fight for his life. Don Juan’s tone of voice was moving, almost pathetic. I felt an overwhelming surge of compassion and concern.

In a somber and dramatic tone he reaffirmed that he had no way to stop her and that the next time she came near him was going to be his last day on earth. I became despondent and was nearly in tears. Don Juan seemed to notice my profound concern and laughed, I thought, bravely. He patted me on the back and said that I should not worry, that he was not altogether lost yet, because he had one last card, a trump card.

“A warrior lives strategically,” he said, smiling. “A warrior never carries loads he cannot handle.”

Don Juan’s smile had the power to dispel the ominous clouds of doom. I suddenly felt elated and we both laughed. He patted my head.

“You know, of all the things on this earth, you are my last card,” he said abruptly, looking straight into my eyes.”

What?”

“You are my trump card in my fight against that witch.”

I did not understand what he meant and he explained that the woman did not know me and that if I played my hand as he would direct me, I had a better than good chance to “pierce her.”

“What do you mean by pierce her’?”

“You cannot kill her but you must pierce her like a balloon. If you do that she’ll leave me alone. But don’t think about it now. I’ll tell you what to do when the time comes.”

Months went by. I had forgotten the incident and was caught by surprise when I arrived at his house one day; don Juan came out running and did not let me get out of my car.

“You must leave immediately,” he whispered with appalling urgency. “Listen carefully. Buy a shotgun, or get one in any way you can; don’t bring me your own gun, do you understand? Get any gun, except your own, and bring it here right away.”

“Why do you want a shotgun?”

“Go now!”

I returned with a shotgun. I had not had enough money to buy one but a friend of mine had given me his old gun. Don Juan did not look at it; he explained, laughing, that he had been abrupt with me because the blackbird was on the roof of the house and he did not want her to see me.

“Finding the blackbird on the roof gave me the idea that you could bring a gun and pierce her with it,” don Juan said emphatically. “I don’t want anything to happen to you, so I suggested that you buy the gun or that you get one in any other way. You see, you have to destroy the gun after completing the task.”

“What kind of task are you talking about?”

“You must attempt to pierce the woman with your shotgun.”

He made me clean the gun by rubbing it with the fresh leaves and stems of a peculiarly scented plant. He himself rubbed two shells and placed them inside the barrels. Then he said I was to hide in front of his house and wait until the blackbird landed on the roof and then, after taking careful aim, I was supposed to let go with both barrels. The effect of the surprise, more than the pellets, would pierce the woman, and if I were powerful and determined I could force her to leave him alone. Thus my aim had to be impeccable and so did my determination to pierce her.

“You must scream at the moment you shoot,” he said. “It must be a potent and piercing yell.”

He then piled bundles of bamboo and fire sticks about ten feet away from the ramada of his house. He made me lean against the piles. The position was quite comfortable. I was sort of half-seated; my back was well propped and I had a good view of the roof.

He said it was too early for the witch to be out, and that we had until dusk to do all the preparations; he would then pretend he was locking himself inside the house, in order to attract her and elicit another attack on his person. He told me to relax and find a comfortable position that I could shoot from without moving. He made me aim at the roof a couple of times and concluded that the act of lifting the gun to my shoulder and taking aim was too slow and cumbersome. He then built a prop for the gun. He made two deep holes with a pointed iron bar, planted two forked sticks in them, and tied a long pole in between the forks. The structure gave me a shooting support and allowed me to keep the gun aimed at the roof.

Don Juan looked at the sky and said it was time for him to go into the house. He got up and calmly went inside, giving me the final admonition that my endeavor was not a joke and that I had to hit the bird with the firstshot. After don Juan left I had a few more minutes of twilight and then it became quite dark. It seemed as if darkness had been waiting until I was alone and suddenly it descended on me. I tried to focus my eyes on the roof, which was silhouetted against the sky; for a while there was enough light on the horizon so the line of the roof was still visible, but then the sky became black and I could hardly see the house. I kept my eyes focused on the roof for hours without noticing anything at all. I saw a couple of owls flying by toward the north; the span of their wings was quite remarkable and they could not be mistaken for blackbirds. At a given moment, however, I distinctly noticed the black shape of a small bird landing on the roof. It was definitely a bird! My heart began pounding hard; I felt a buzzing in my ears. I aimed in the dark and pulled both triggers. There was quite a loud explosion. I felt a strong recoil of the gun butt on my shoulder and at the same time I heard a most piercing and horrendous human shriek. It was loud and eerie and seemed to have come from the roof. I had a moment of total confusion. I then remembered that don Juan had admonished me to yell as I shot and I had forgotten to do so. I was thinking of reloading my gun when don Juan opened the door and came out running. He had his kerosene lantern with him. He appeared to be quite nervous.

“I think you got her,” he said. “We must find the dead bird now.”

He brought a ladder and made me climb up and look on the ramada, but I could not find anything there. He climbed up and looked himself for a while, with equally negative results.

“Perhaps you have blasted the bird to bits,” don Juan said, “in which case we must find at least a feather.”

We began looking around the ramada first and then around the house. We looked with the light of the lantern until morning. Then we started looking again all over the area we had covered during the night. Around 11:00 A.M. don Juan called off our search. He sat down dejected, smiled sheepishly at me, and said that I had failed to stop his enemy and that now, more than ever before, his life was not worth a hoot because the woman was doubtlessly irked, itching to take revenge.

“You’re safe, though,” don Juan said reassuringly. “‘The woman doesn’t know you.”

As I was walking to my car to return home, I asked him if I had to destroy the shotgun. He said the gun had done nothing and I should give it back to its owner. I noticed a profound look of despair in don Juan’s eyes. I felt so moved by it that I was about to weep.

“What can I do to help you?” I asked,

“There’s nothing you can do,” don Juan said.

We remained silent for a moment. I wanted to leave right away, I felt an oppressive anguish. I was ill at ease.

“Would you really try to help me?” don Juan asked in a childlike tone.

I told him again that my total person was at his disposal, that my affection for him was so profound I would undertake any kind of action to help him. Don Juan smiled and asked again if I really meant that, and I vehemently reaffirmed my desire to help him.

“If you really mean it,” he said, “I may have one more chance.”

He seemed to be delighted. He smiled broadly and clapped his hands several times, the way he always does when he wants to express a feeling of pleasure. This change of mood was so remarkable that it also involved me.

I suddenly felt that the oppressive mood, the anguish, had been vanquished and life was inexplicably exciting again. Don Juan sat down and I did likewise. He looked at me for a long moment and then proceeded to tell me in a very calm and deliberate manner that I was in fact the only person who could help him at that moment, and thus he was going to ask me to do something very dangerous and very special.

He paused for a moment as if he wanted a reaffirmation on my part, and I again reiterated my firm desire to do anything for him.

“I’m going to give you a weapon to pierce her,” he said.

He took a long object from his pouch and handed it to me. I took it and then examined it. I almost dropped it.

“It is a wild boar,” he went on, “You must pierce her with it.”

The object I was holding was a dry foreleg of a wild boar. The skin was ugly and the bristles were revolting to the touch. The hoof was intact and its two halves were spread out, as if the leg were stretched. It was an awful looking thing. It made me feel almost sick to my stomach. He quickly took it back.

“You must ram the wild boar right into her navel,” don Juan said.

“What?” I said in a feeble voice.

“You must hold the wild boar in your left hand and stab her with it. She is a sorceress and the wild boar will enter her belly and no one in this world, except another sorcerer, will see it stuck in there. This is not an ordinary battle but an affair of sorcerers. The danger you will run is that if you fail to pierce her she might strike you dead on the spot, or her companions and relatives will shoot you or knife you. You may, on the other hand, get out without a scratch.

“If you succeed she will have a hellish time with the wild boar in her body and she will leave me alone.”

An oppressive anguish enveloped me again. I had a profound affection for don Juan. I admired him. At the time of this startling request, I had already learned to regard his way of life and his knowledge as a paramount accomplishment. How could anyone let a man like that die? And yet how could anyone deliberately risk his life?

I became so immersed in my deliberations I did not notice that don Juan had stood up and was standing by me until he patted me on the shoulder. I looked up; he was smiling benevolently.

“Whenever you feel that you really want to help me, you should return,” he said, “but not until then. If you come back I know what we will have to do. Go now! If you don’t want to return I’ll understand that too.”

I automatically stood up, got into my car, and drove away. Don Juan had actually let me off the hook. I could have left and never returned, but somehow the thought of being free to leave did not soothe me. I drove a while longer and then impulsively turned around and drove back to don Juan’s house.

He was still sitting underneath his ramada and did not seem surprised to see me.

“Sit down,” he said. “The clouds in the west are beautiful. It will be dark shortly. Sit quietly and let the twilight fill you. Do whatever you want now, but when I tell you, look straight at those shiny clouds and ask the twilight to give you power and calmness.”

I sat facing the western clouds for a couple of hours. Don Juan went into the house and stayed inside. When it was getting dark he returned.

“The twilight has come,” he said. “Stand up! Don’t close your eyes, but look straight at the clouds; put your arms up with your hands open and your fingers extended and trot in place.”

I followed his instructions; I lifted my arms over my head and began trotting. Don Juan came to my side and corrected my movements. He placed the leg of the wild boar against the palm of my left hand and made me hold it with my thumb. He then pulled my arms down until they pointed to the orange and dark gray clouds over the horizon, toward the west. He extended my fingers like fans and told me not to curl them over the palms of my hands. It was of crucial importance that I keep my fingers spread because if I closed them I would not be asking the twilight for power and calm, but would be menacing it. He also corrected my trotting. He said it should be peaceful and uniform, as if I were actually running toward the twilight with my extended arms.

I could not fall asleep during that night. It was as if, instead of calming me, the twilight had agitated me into a frenzy.

“I still have so many things pending in my life,” I said. “So many things unresolved.”

Don Juan chuckled softly.

“Nothing is pending in the world,” he said. “Nothing is finished, yet nothing is unresolved. Go to sleep.”

Don Juan’s words were strangely soothing.

Around ten o’clock the next morning, don Juan gave me something to eat and then we were on our way. He whispered that we were going to approach the woman around noon, or before noon if possible. He said that the ideal time would have been the early hours of the day, because a witch is always less powerful or less aware in the morning, but she would never leave the protection of her house at those hours. I did not ask any questions. He directed me to the highway and at a certain point he told me to stop and park on the side of the road. He said we had to wait there.

I looked at my watch; it was five minutes to eleven. I yawned repeatedly. I was actually sleepy; my mind wandered around aimlessly.

Suddenly don Juan straightened up and nudged me. I jumped up in my seat.

“There she is!” he said.

I saw a woman walking toward the highway on the edge of a cultivated field. She was carrying a basket looped in her right arm. It was not until then that I noticed we were parked near a crossroads. There were two narrow trails which ran parallel to both sides of the highway and another wider and more trafficked trail that ran perpendicular to the highway; obviously people who used that trail had to walk across the paved road.

When the woman was still on the dirt road don Juan told me to get out of the car.

“Do it now,” he said firmly.

I obeyed him. The woman was almost on the highway. I ran and overtook her. I was so close to her that I felt her clothes on my face. I took the wild boar hoof from under my shirt and thrust it at her. I did not feel any resistance to the blunt object I had in my hand. I saw a fleeting shadow in front of me, like a drape; my head turned to my right and I saw the woman standing fifty feet away on the opposite side of the road. She was a fairly young, dark woman with a strong, stocky body. She was smiling at me. Her teeth were white and big and her smile was placid. She had closed her eyes halfway, as if to protect them from the wind. She was still holding her basket, looped over her right arm.

I then had a moment of unique confusion. I turned around to look at don Juan. He was making frantic gestures to call me back. I ran back. There were three or four men coming in a hurry toward me. I got into the car and sped away in the opposite direction.

I tried to ask don Juan what had happened but I could not talk; my ears were bursting with an overwhelming pressure; I felt that I was choking. He seemed to be pleased and began to laugh. It was as if my failure did not concern him. I had my hands so tight around the steering wheel that I could not move them; they were frozen; my arms were rigid and so were my legs. In fact I could not take my foot off the gas pedal.

Don Juan patted me on the back and told me to relax. Little by little the pressure in my ears diminished.

“What happened back there?” I finally asked.

He giggled like a child without answering. Then he asked me if I had noticed the way the woman got out of the way. He praised her excellent speed. Don Juan’s talk seemed so incongruous that I could not really follow him. He praised the woman! He said her power was impeccable and she was a relentless enemy.

I asked don Juan if he did not mind my failure. I was truly surprised and annoyed at his change of mood. He seemed to be actually glad.

He told me to stop. I parked alongside the road. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked piercingly into my eyes.

“Whatever I have done to you today was a trick,” he said bluntly. “The rule is that a man of knowledge has to trap his apprentice. Today I have trapped you and I have tricked you into learning.”

I was dumfounded. I could not arrange my thoughts. Don Juan explained that the whole involvement with the woman was a trap; that she had never been a threat to him; and that his job was to put me in touch with her, under specific conditions of abandon and power I had experienced when I tried to pierce her. He commended my resolution and called it an act of power which demonstrated to the woman that I was capable of great exertion.

Don Juan said that even though I was not aware of it, all I did was to show off in front of her.

“You could never touch her,” he said, “but you showed your claws to her. She knows now that you’re not afraid. You have challenged her. I used her to trick you because she’s powerful and relentless and never forgets.

Men are usually too busy to be relentless enemies.”

I felt a terrible anger. I told him that one should not play with a person’s innermost feelings and loyalties.

Don Juan laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks, and I hated him. I had an overwhelming desire to punch him and leave; there was, however, such a strange rhythm in his laughter that it kept me almost paralyzed.

“Don’t be so angry,” don Juan said soothingly.

Then he said that his acts had never been a farce, that he also had thrown his life away a long time before when his own benefactor tricked him, just as he had tricked me. Don Juan said that his benefactor was a cruel man who did not think about him the way he, don Juan, thought about me. He added very sternly that the woman had tested her strength against him and had really tried to kill him.

“Now she knows that I was playing with her,” he said, laughing, “and she’ll hate you for it. She can’t do anything to me, but she will take it out on you. She doesn’t know yet how much power you have, so she will come to test you, little by little. Now you have no choice but to learn in order to defend yourself, or you will fall prey to that lady. She is no trick.”

Don Juan reminded me of the way she had flown away.

“Don’t be angry,” he said. “It was not an ordinary trick. It was the rule.”