(A Separate Reality by Carlos Castaneda)
We were talking about Oaxaca. I told don Juan that once I had arrived in the city on a day when the market was open, a day when scores of Indians from all over the area flock to town to sell food and all kinds of trinkets.
I mentioned that I was particularly interested in a man who was selling medicinal plants. He carried a wooden kit in which he kept a number of small jars with dry, shredded plants, and he stood in the middle of the street holding one jar, yelling a very peculiar singsong.
“I bring here,” he would say, “for fleas, flies, mosquitoes, and lice.
Also for pigs, horses, goats, and cows.
I have here for all the maladies of man.
The mumps, the measles, rheumatism, and gout
I bring here for the heart, the liver, the stomach, and the loin.
Come near, ladies and gentlemen.
I bring here for fleas, flies, mosquitoes, and lice.”
I had listened to him for a long time. His format consisted of enumerating a long list of man’s diseases for which he claimed to have a cure; the device he used to give rhythm to his singsong was to pause after naming a set of four.
Don Juan said that he also used to sell herbs in the market in Oaxaca when he was young. He said he still remembered his selling pitch and he yelled it for me. He said that he and his friend Vicente used to make concoctions.
“Those concoctions were really good,” don Juan said. “My friend Vicente used to make great extracts of plants.”
I told don Juan that once during one of my trips to Mexico I had met his friend Vicente. Don Juan seemed to be surprised and wanted to know more about it.
I was driving through Durango at that time and remembered that don Juan had once told me I should pay a visit to his friend, who lived there. I looked for him and found him, and talked to him for a while. Before I left he gave me a sack with some plants and a series of instructions for replanting one of them.
I stopped on my way to the town of Aguas Calientes. I made sure there were no people around. For at least ten minutes I had been watching the road and surrounding areas. There had not been any houses in sight, nor cattle grazing alongside the road. I stopped on the top of a small hill; from there I could see the road ahead and behind me. It was deserted in both directions as far into the distance as I could see. I waited for a few minutes to orient myself and to remember don Vicente’s instructions. I took one of the plants, walked into a field of cacti on the east side of the road, and planted it as don Vicente had instructed me. I had with me a bottle of mineral water with which I intended to sprinkle the plant. I tried to open it by hitting the cap with the small iron bar I had used as a digging stick, but the bottle exploded and a glass sliver nicked my upper lip and made it bleed.
I walked back to my car to get another bottle of mineral water. As I was getting it out of my trunk a man driving a VW station wagon stopped and asked me if I needed help. I said that everything was all right and he drove away. I returned to water the plant and then I started back toward my car. When I was perhaps a hundred feet away I heard some voices. I hurried down a slope onto the highway and found three Mexicans at the car, two men and one woman. One of the men was sitting on the front bumper. He was perhaps in his late thirties, of medium height, with black curly hair. He was carrying a bundle on his back and was wearing old slacks and a worn-out pinkish shirt. His shoes were untied and perhaps too big for his feet; they seemed to be loose and uncomfortable. He was sweating profusely.
The other man was standing about twenty feet away from the car. He was small-boned and shorter than the other man, and his hair was straight and combed backwards. He carried a smaller bundle and was older, perhaps in his late forties. His clothes were in better condition. He had on a dark blue jacket, light blue slacks, and black shoes. He was not perspiring at all and seemed aloof, uninterested.
The woman appeared to be also in her forties. She was fat and had a very dark complexion. She wore black Capris, a white sweater, and black, pointed shoes. She did not carry a bundle, but was holding a portable transistor radio. She seemed to be very tired and her face was covered with beads of perspiration.
When I approached them the younger man and the woman accosted me. They wanted a ride. I told them I did not have any space in my car. I showed them that the back seat was loaded to capacity and there was really no room left. The man suggested that if I drove slow they could go perched on the back bumper, or lying across the front fender. I thought the idea was preposterous. Yet there was such an urgency in their plea that I felt very sad and ill at ease. I gave them some money for their bus fare.
The younger man took the bills and thanked me, but the older man turned his back disdainfully.
“I want transportation,” he said. “I’m not interested in money.”
Then he turned to me. “Can’t you give us some food or water?” he asked.
I really had nothing to give them. They stood there looking at me for a moment and then they began to walk away.
I got into my car and tried to start the motor. The heat was very intense and the motor seemed to be flooded. The younger man stopped when he heard the starter grinding and came back and stood behind my car ready to push it. I felt a tremendous apprehension. I was actually panting desperately. The motor finally ignited and I zoomed away.
After I had finished relating this, don Juan remained pensive for a long while.
“Why haven’t you told me this before?” he said without looking at me.
I did not know what to say. I shrugged my shoulders and told him that I never thought it was important.
“It’s damn important!” he said. “Vicente is a first-rate sorcerer. He gave you something to plant because he had his reasons; and if you encountered three people who seemed to have popped out of nowhere right after you had planted it, there was a reason for that too; but only a fool like you would disregard the incident and think it wasn’t important.”
He wanted to know exactly what had taken place when I paid don Vicente the visit.
I told him that I was driving across town and passed by the market; I got the idea then of looking for don Vicente. I walked into the market and went to the section for medicinal herbs. There were three stands in a row but they were run by three fat women. I walked to the end of the aisle and found another stand around the corner.
There I saw a thin, small-boned, white-haired man. He was at that moment selling a birdcage to a woman.
I waited around until he was by himself and then I asked him if he knew Vicente Medrano. He looked at me without answering.
“What do you want with that Vicente Medrano?” he finally said.
I told him I had come to pay him a visit on behalf of his friend, and gave him don Juan’s name. The old man looked at me for an instant and then he said he was Vicente Medrano and was at my service. He asked me to sit down. He seemed to be pleased, very relaxed, and genuinely friendly. I told him about my friendship with don Juan, I felt that there was an immediate bond of sympathy between us. He told me he had known don Juan since they were in their twenties. Don Vicente had only words of praise for don Juan. Toward the end of our conversation he said in a vibrant tone: “Juan is a true man of knowledge. I myself have dwelled only briefly with plant powers. I was always interested in their curative properties; I have even collected botany books, which I sold only recently.”
He remained silent for a moment; he rubbed his chin a couple of times. He seemed to be searching for a proper word.
“You may say that I am only a man of lyric knowledge,” he said. “I’m not like Juan, my Indian brother.”
Don Vicente was silent again for another moment. His eyes were glassy and were staring at the floor by my left side.
Then he turned to me and said almost in a whisper, “Oh, how high soars my Indian brother!”
Don Vicente got up. It seemed that our conversation was finished.
If anyone else had made a statement about an Indian brother I would have taken it for a cheap cliché. Don Vicente’s tone, however, was so sincere and his eyes were so clear that he enraptured me with the image of his Indian brother soaring so high. And I believed he meant what he had said.
“Lyric knowledge, my eye!” don Juan exclaimed after I had recounted the whole story. “Vicente is a brujo. Why did you go to see him?”
I reminded him that he himself had asked me to visit don Vicente,
“That’s absurd!” he exclaimed dramatically. “I said to you, some day, when you know how to see, you should pay a visit to my friend Vicente; that’s what I said. Apparently you were not listening.”
I argued that I could find no harm in having met don Vicente, that I was charmed by his manners and his kindness.
Don Juan shook his head from side to side and in a half-kidding tone expressed his bewilderment at what he called my “baffling good luck,” He said that my visiting don Vicente was like walking into a lion’s den armed with a twig. Don Juan seemed to be agitated, yet I could not see any reason for his concern. Don Vicente was a beautiful man. He seemed so frail; his strangely haunting eyes made him look almost ethereal. I asked don Juan how a beautiful person like that could be dangerous.
“You’re a damn fool,” he said and looked stern for a moment “He won’t cause you any harm by himself. But knowledge is power, and once a man embarks on the road of knowledge he’s no longer liable for what may happen to those who come in contact with him. You should have paid him a visit when you knew enough to defend yourself; not from him, but from the power he has harnessed, which, by the way, is not his or anybody else’s. Upon hearing that you were my friend, Vicente assumed that you knew how to protect yourself and then made you a gift. He apparently liked you and must have made you a great gift, and you chucked it. What a pity!”
I had been pestering don Juan all day to tell me about don Vicente’s gift. I had pointed out to him in various ways that he had to consider our differences; I said that what was self-explanatory for him might be totally incomprehensible for me.
“How many plants did he give you?” he finally asked,
I said four, but I actually could not remember. Then don Juan wanted to know exactly what had taken place after I left don Vicente and before I stopped on the side of the road. But I could not remember either.
“The number of plants is important and so is the order of events,” he said. “How can I tell you what his gift was if you don’t remember what happened?”
I struggled unsuccessfully to visualize the sequence of events.
“If you would remember everything that happened,” he said, “I could at least tell you how you chucked your gift.”
Don Juan seemed to be very disturbed. He urged me impatiently to recollect, but my memory was almost a total blank.
“What do you think I did wrong, don Juan?” I said, just to continue the conversation.
“But I followed don Vicente’s instructions to the letter.”
“So what? Don’t you understand that to follow his instructions was meaningless?”
“Because those instructions were designed for someone who could see, not for an idiot who got out with his life just by sheer luck. You went to see Vicente without preparation. He liked you and gave you a gift. And that gift could easily have cost you your life.”
“But why did he give me something so serious? If he’s a sorcerer he should’ve known that I don’t know anything.”
“No, he couldn’t have seen that. You look as though you know, but you don’t know much really.”
I said I was sincerely convinced that I had never misrepresented myself, at least not deliberately.
“I didn’t mean that,” he said. “If you were putting on airs Vicente could’ve seen through you. This is something worse than putting on airs. When I see you, you look to me as if you know a great deal, and yet I myself know that you don’t.”
“What do I seem to know, don Juan?”
“Secrets of power, of course; a brujo’s knowledge. So when Vicente saw you he made you a gift and you acted toward it the way a dog acts toward food when his belly is full. A dog pisses on food when he doesn’t want to eat any more, so other dogs won’t eat it. You did that on the gift. Now we’ll never know what really took place. You have lost a great deal. What a waste!”
He was quiet for some time; then he shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
“It’s useless to complain,” he said, “and yet it’s so difficult not to. Gifts of power happen so rarely in one’s life; they are unique and precious. Take me, for instance; nobody has ever made me such a gift. There are few people, to my knowledge, who ever had one. To waste something so unique is a shame.”
“I see what you mean, don Juan,” I said. “Is there anything I can do now to salvage the gift?”
He laughed and repeated several times, “To salvage the gift.”
“That sounds nice,” he said. “I like that. Yet there isn’t anything one can do to salvage your gift.”
Don Juan spent nearly all his time today showing me how to assemble trapping devices for small animals. We had been cutting and cleaning branches nearly all morning. There were many questions in my mind. I had to talk to him while we worked, but he had made a joke and said that of the two of us only I could move my hands and my mouth at the same time. We finally sat down to rest and I blurted out a question.
“What’s it like to see, don Juan?”
“You have to learn to see in order to know that. I can’t tell you.”
“Is it a secret I shouldn’t know?”
“No. It’s just that I can’t describe it.”
“It wouldn’t make sense to you.”
“Try me, don Juan. Maybe it’ll make sense to me.”
“No. You must do it yourself. Once you learn, you can see every single thing in the world in a different way.”
“Then, don Juan, you don’t see the world in the usual way any more.”
“I see both ways. When I want to look at the world I see it the way you do. Then when I want to see it I look at it the way I know and I perceive it in a different way.”
“Do things look consistently the same every time you see them?”
“Things don’t change. You change your way of looking, that’s all”
“I mean, don Juan, that if you see, for instance, the same tree, does it remain the same every time you see it?”
“No. It changes and yet it’s the same.”
“But if the same tree changes every time you see it, your seeing may be a mere illusion.”
He laughed and did not answer for some time, but seemed to be thinking. Finally he said, “Whenever you look at things you don’t see them. You just look at them, I suppose, to make sure that something is there. Since you’re not concerned with seeing, things look very much the same every time you look at them. When you learn to see, on the other hand, a thing is never the same every time you see it, and yet it is the same. I told you, for instance, that a man is like an egg. Every time I see the same man I see an egg, yet it is not the same egg.”
“But you won’t be able to recognize anything, since nothing is the same; so what’s the advantage of learning to see?”
“You can tell things apart. You can see them for what they really are.”
“Don’t I see things as they really are?”
“No. Your eyes have learned only to look. Take, for example, the three people you encountered, the three Mexicans. You have described them in detail, and even told me what clothes they wore. And that only proved to me that you didn’t see them at all. If you were capable of seeing you would have known on the spot that they were not people.”
“They were not people? What were they?”
“They were not people, that’s all.”
“But that’s impossible. They were just like you and me.”
“No, they were not. I’m sure of it.” I asked him if they were ghosts, spirits, or the souls of dead people. His reply was that he did not know what ghosts, spirits, and souls were.
I translated for him the Webster’s New World Dictionary definition of the word ghosts: “The supposed
disembodied spirit of a dead person, conceived of as appearing to the living as a pale, shadowy apparition.” And then the definition of spirit: “A supernatural being, especially one thought of… as a ghost, or as inhabiting a certain region, being of a certain (good or evil) character.”
He said they could perhaps be called spirits, although the definition I had read was not quite adequate to describe them.
“Are they guardians of some sort?” I asked.
“No. They don’t guard anything.”
“Are they overseers? Are they watching over us?”
“They are forces, neither good nor bad, just forces that a brujo learns to harness.”
“Are they the allies, don Juan?”
“Yes, they are the allies of a man of knowledge.”
This was the first time in eight years of our association that don Juan had come close to defining an “ally.” I must have asked him to do so dozens of times. He usually disregarded my question, saying that I knew what an ally was and that it was stupid to voice what I already knew. Don Juan’s direct statement about the nature of an ally was a novelty and I was compelled to probe him.
“You told me the allies were in the plants,” I said, “in the jimson weed and in the mushrooms.”
“I’ve never told you that,” he said with great conviction. “You always jump to your own conclusions.”
“But I wrote it down in my notes, don Juan.”
“You may write whatever you want, but don’t tell me I said that.”
I reminded him that he had at first told me his benefactor’s ally was the jimson weed and his own ally was the little smoke; and that he had later clarified it by saying that the ally was contained in each plant.
“No. That’s not correct,” he said, frowning. “My ally is the little smoke, but that doesn’t mean that my ally is in the smoking mixture, or in the mushrooms, or in my pipe. They all have to be put together to get me to the ally, and that ally I call little smoke for reasons of my own.”
Don Juan said that the three people I had seen, whom he called “those who are not people”—los que no son gente—were in reality don Vicente’s allies.
I reminded him that he had established that the difference between an ally and Mescalito was that an ally could not be seen, while one could easily see Mescalito.
We involved ourselves in a long discussion then. He said that he had established the idea that an ally could not be seen because an ally adopted any form. When I pointed out that he had once also said that Mescalito adopted any form, don Juan dropped the whole conversation, saying that the “seeing” to which he was referring was not like ordinary “looking at things” and that my confusion stemmed from my insistence on talking.
Hours later don Juan himself started back again on the topic of the allies. I had felt he was somehow annoyed by my questions so I had not pressed him any further. He was showing me then how to make a trap for rabbits; I had to hold a long stick and bend it as far as possible so he could tie a string around the ends. The stick was fairly thin but still demanded considerable strength to bend. My head and arms were shivering with the exertion and I was nearly exhausted when he finally tied the string.
We sat down and began to talk. He said it was obvious to him that I could not comprehend anything unless I talked about it, and that he did not mind my questions and was going to tell me about the allies.
“The ally is not in the smoke,” he said. “The smoke takes you to where the ally is, and when you become one with the ally you don’t ever have to smoke again. From then on you can summon your ally at will and make him do anything you want.”
“The allies are neither good nor evil, but are put to use by the sorcerers for whatever purpose they see fit. I like the little smoke as an ally because it doesn’t demand much of me. It’s constant and fair.”
“How does an ally look to you, don Juan? Those three people I saw, for instance, who looked like ordinary people to me; how would they look to you?”
“They would look like ordinary people.”
“Then how can you tell them apart from real people?”
“Real people look like luminous eggs when you see them. Non-people always look like people. That’s what I meant when I said you cannot see an ally. The allies take different forms. They look like dogs, coyotes, birds, even tumbleweeds, or anything else. The only difference is that when you see them they look just like what they’re pretending to be. Everything has its own way of being when you see. Just like men look like eggs, other things look like something else, but the allies can be seen only in the form they are portraying. That form is good enough to fool the eyes, our eyes, that is. A dog is never fooled, neither is a crow.”
“Why would they want to fool us?”
“I think we are all clowns. We fool ourselves. The allies just take the outward appearance of whatever is around and then we take them for what they are not. It is not their fault that we have taught our eyes only to look at things.”
“I’m not clear about their function, don Juan. What do allies do in the world?”
“This is like asking me what we men do in the world. I really don’t know. We are here, that’s all. And the allies are here like us; and maybe they have been here before us.”
“What do you mean before us, don Juan?”
“We men have not always been here.”
“Do you mean here in this country or here in the world?”
We involved ourselves in another long argument at this point Don Juan said that for him there was only the world, the place where he put his feet. I asked him how he knew that we had not always been in the world.
“Very simple,” he said. “We men know very little about the world. A coyote knows much more than we do. A coyote is hardly ever fooled by the world’s appearance.”
“How come we can catch them and kill them?” I asked. “If they are not fooled by appearances how come they die so easily?”
Don Juan stared at me until I became embarrassed.
“We may trap or poison or shoot a coyote,” he said. “Any way we do it a coyote is an easy prey for us because he is not familiar with man’s machinations. If the coyote survived, however, you could rest assured that we’d never catch up with him again. A good hunter knows that and never sets his trap twice on the same spot, because if a coyote dies in a trap, every coyote can see his death, which lingers on, and thus they will avoid the trap or even the general area where it was set. We, on the other hand, never see death, which lingers on the spot where one of our fellow men has died; we may suspect it, but we never see it.”
“Can a coyote see an ally?”
“How does an ally look to a coyote?”
“I would have to be a coyote to know that. I can tell you, however, that to a crow it looks like a pointed hat. Round and wide at the bottom, ending in a long point. Some of them shine, but the majority are dull and appear to be very heavy. They resemble a dripping piece of cloth. They are foreboding shapes.”
“How do they look to you when you see them, don Juan?”
“I’ve told you already; they look like whatever they’re pretending to be. They take any shape or size that suits them. They could be shaped like a pebble or a mountain.”
“Do they talk, or laugh, or make any noise?”
“In the company of men they behave like men. In the company of animals they behave like animals. Animals are usually afraid of them; however, if they are accustomed to seeing the allies, they leave them alone. We ourselves do something similar. We have scores of allies among us, but we don’t bother them. Since our eyes can only look at things, we don’t notice them.”
“Do you mean that some of the people I see in the street are not really people?” I asked, truly bewildered by his statement.
“Some of them are not,” he said emphatically.
His statement seemed preposterous to me, yet I could not seriously conceive of don Juan’s making such a remark purely for effect I told him it sounded like a science-fiction tale about beings from another planet. He said he did not care how it sounded, but some people in the streets were not people.
“Why must you think that every person in a moving crowd is a human being?” he asked with an air of utmost seriousness.
I really could not explain why, except that I was habituated to believe that as an act of sheer faith on my part.
He went on to say how much he liked to watch busy places with a lot of people, and how he would sometimes see a crowd of men who looked like eggs, and among the mass of egg-like creatures he would spot one who looked just like a person.
“It’s very enjoyable to do that,” he said, laughing, “or at least it’s enjoyable for me. I like to sit in parks and bus depots and watch. Sometimes I can spot an ally right away; at other times I can see only real people. Once I saw two allies sitting in a bus, side by side. That’s the only time in my life I have seen two together.”
“Did it have a special significance for you to see two of them?”
“Certainly. Anything they do is significant. From their actions a brujo can sometimes draw his power. Even if a brujo does not have an ally of his own, as long as he knows how to see, he can handle power by watching the acts of the allies. My benefactor taught me to do that, and for years before I had my own ally I watched for allies among crowds of people and every time I saw one it taught me something. You found three together. What a magnificent lesson you wasted.”
He did not say anything else until we finished assembling the rabbit trap. Then he turned to me and said suddenly, as if he had just remembered it, that another important thing about the allies was that if one found two of them they were always two of the same kind. The two allies he saw were two men, he said; and since I had seen two men and one woman he concluded that my experience was even more unusual.
I asked if the allies portray children; if the children could be of the same or of different sex; if the allies portrayed people of different races; if they could portray a family composed of a man, a woman, and a child; and finally I asked him if he had ever seen an ally driving a car or a bus.
Don Juan did not answer at all. He smiled and let me do the talking. When he heard my last question he burst out laughing and said that I was being careless with my questions, that it would have been more appropriate to ask if he had ever seen an ally driving a motor vehicle.
“You don’t want to forget the motorcycles, do you?” he said with a mischievous glint in his eye.
I thought his making fun of my question was funny and lighthearted and I laughed with him.
Then he explained that the allies could not take the lead or act upon anything directly; they could, however, act upon man in an indirect way. Don Juan said that coming in contact with an ally was dangerous because the ally was capable of bringing out the worst in a person. The apprenticeship was long and arduous, he said, because one had to reduce to a minimum all that was unnecessary in one’s life, in order to withstand the impact of such an encounter. Don Juan said that his benefactor, when he first came in contact with an ally, was driven to burn himself and was scarred as if a mountain lion had mauled him. In his own case, he said, an ally pushed him into a pile of burning wood, and he burned himself a little on the knee and shoulder blade, but the scars disappeared in time, when he became one with the ally.