(Journey to Ixtlan)
I had become so involved in writing that I had not noticed that it was getting dark. The sun had already disappeared over the horizon. The sky was cloudy and the twilight was imminent.
Don Juan stood up and gave furtive glances towards the south.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We must walk south until the spirit of the water hole shows itself.”
We walked for perhaps half an hour. The terrain changed abruptly and we came to a barren area. There was a large round hill where the chaparral had burnt. It looked like a bald head. We walked towards it. I thought that don Juan was going to climb the mild slope, but he stopped instead and remained in a very attentive position. His body seemed to have tensed as a single unit and shivered for an instant. Then he relaxed again and stood limply. I could not figure out how his body could remain erect while his muscles were so relaxed.
At that moment a very strong gust of wind jolted me. Don Juan’s body turned in the direction of the wind, towards the west. He did not use his muscles to turn, or at least he did not use them the way I would use mine to turn. Don Juan’s body seemed rather to have been pulled from the outside. It was as if someone else had arranged his body to face a new direction. I kept on staring at him. He looked at me from the corner of his eye. The expression on his face was one of determination, purpose. All of his being was attentive, and I stared at him in wonder. I had never been in any situation that called for such a strange concentration.
Suddenly his body shivered as though he had been splashed by a sudden shower of cold water. He had another jolt and then he started to walk as if nothing had happened.
I followed him. We flanked the naked hills on the east side until we were at the middle part of it; he stopped there, turning to face the west.
From where we stood, the top of the hill was not so round and smooth as it had seemed to be from the distance. There was a cave, or a hole, near the top. I looked at it fixedly because don Juan was doing the same. Another strong gust of wind sent a chill up my spine. Don Juan turned towards the south and scanned the area with his eyes.
“There!” he said in a whisper and pointed to an object on the ground.
I strained my eyes to see. There was something on the ground, perhaps twenty feet away. It was light brown and as I looked at it, it shivered. I focused all my attention on it. The object was almost round and seemed to be curled; in fact, it looked like a curled-up dog.
“What is it?” I whispered to don Juan.
“I don’t know,” he whispered back as he peered at the object. “What does it look like to you?”
I told him that it seemed to be a dog.
“Too large for a dog,” he said matter-of-factly.
I took a couple of steps towards it, but don Juan stopped me gently. I stared at it again. It was definitely some animal that was either asleep or dead. I could almost see its head; its ears protruded like the ears of a wolf. By then I was definitely sure that it was a curled-up animal. I thought that it could have been a brown calf. I whispered that to don Juan. He answered that it was too compact to be a calf, besides its ears were pointed.
The animal shivered again and then I noticed that it was alive. I could actually see that it was breathing, yet it did not seem to breathe rhythmically. The breaths that it took were more like irregular shivers. I had a sudden realization at that moment.
“It’s an animal that is dying,” I whispered to don Juan.
“You’re right,” he whispered back. “But what kind of an animal?”
I could not make out its specific features. Don Juan took a couple of cautious steps towards it.
I followed him. It was quite dark by then and we had to take two more steps in order to keep the animal in view.
“Watch out,” don Juan whispered in my ear. “If it is a dying animal it may leap on us with its last strength.”
The animal, whatever it was, seemed to be on its last legs; its breathing was irregular, its body shook spasmodically, but it did not change its curled-up position. At a given moment, however, a tremendous spasm actually lifted the animal off the ground. I heard an inhuman shriek and the animal stretched its legs; its claws were more than frightening, they were nauseating. The animal tumbled on its side after stretching its legs and then rolled on its back.
I heard a formidable growl and don Juan’s voice shouting,
“Run for your life!”
And that was exactly what I did. I scrambled towards the top of the hill with unbelievable speed and agility. When I was halfway to the top I looked back and saw don Juan standing in the same place. He signaled me to come down. I ran down the hill.
“What happened?” I asked, completely out of breath.
“I think the animal is dead,” he said.
We advanced cautiously towards the animal. It was sprawled on its back. As I came closer to it I nearly yelled with fright. I realized that it was not quite dead yet. Its body was still trembling. Its legs, which were sticking up in the air, shook wildly. The animal was definitely in its last gasps.
I walked in front of don Juan. A new jolt moved the animal’s body and I could see its head. I turned to don Juan, horrified. Judging by its body the animal was obviously a mammal, yet it had a beak, like a bird.
I stared at it in complete and absolute horror. My mind refused to believe it. I was dumbfounded. I could not even articulate a word. Never in my whole existence had I witnessed anything of that nature. Something inconceivable was there in front of my very eyes. I wanted don Juan to explain that incredible animal but I could only mumble to him. He was staring at me.
I glanced at him and glanced at the animal, and then something in me arranged the world and I knew at once what the animal was. I walked over to it and picked it up. It was a large branch of a bush. It had been burnt, and possibly the wind had blown some burnt debris which got caught in the dry branch and thus gave the appearance of a large bulging round animal. The colour of the burnt debris made it look light brown in contrast with the green vegetation.
I laughed at my idiocy and excitedly explained to don Juan that the wind blowing through it had made it look like a live animal. I thought he would be pleased with the way I had resolved the mystery, but he turned around and began walking to the top of the hill. I followed him. He crawled inside the depression that looked like a cave. It was not a hole but a shallow dent in the sandstone.
Don Juan took some small branches and used them to scoop up the dirt that had accumulated in the bottom of the depression.
“We have to get rid of the ticks,” he said.
He signaled me to sit down and told me to make myself comfortable because we were going to spend the night there.
I began to talk about the branch, but he hushed me up.
“What you’ve done is no triumph,” he said. “You’ve wasted a beautiful power, a power that blew life into that dry twig.”
He said that a real triumph would have been for me to let go and follow the power until the world had ceased to exist. He did not seem to be angry with me or disappointed with my performance. He repeatedly stated that this was only the beginning, that it took time to handle power. He patted me on the shoulder and joked that earlier that day I was the person who knew what was real and what was not.
I felt embarrassed. I began to apologize for my tendency of always being so sure of my ways.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.” That branch was a real animal and it was alive at the moment the power touched it. Since what kept it alive was power, the trick was, like in dreaming, to sustain the sight of it. See what I mean?”
I wanted to ask something else, but he hushed me up and said that I should remain completely silent but awake all night and that he alone was going to talk for a while.
He said that the spirit, which knew his voice, might become subdued with the sound of it and leave us alone. He explained that the idea of making oneself accessible to power had serious overtones. Power was a devastating force that could easily lead to one’s death and had to be treated with great care. Becoming available to power had to be done systematically, but always with great caution.
It involved making one’s presence obvious by a contained display of loud talk or any other type of noisy activity, and then it was mandatory to observe a prolonged and total silence. A controlled outburst and a controlled quietness were the mark of a warrior. He said that properly I should have sustained the sight of the live monster for a while longer. In a controlled fashion, without losing my mind or becoming deranged with excitation or fear, I should have striven to “stop the world”. He pointed out that after I had run up the hill for dear life I was in a perfect state for “stopping the world”. Combined in that state were fear, awe, power and death; he said that such a state would be pretty hard to repeat.
I whispered in his ear, “What do you mean by “stopping the world”?”
He gave me a ferocious look before he answered that it was a technique practiced by those who were hunting for power, a technique by virtue of which the world as we know it was made to collapse.