Âàðâàðñêèå òåêñòû: Ñarlos Castaneda. The Second Ring of Power

1 The Transformation of Dona Soledad

I had a sudden premonition that Pablito and Nestor were not home. My certainty was so profound that I stopped my car.

I was at the place where the asphalt came to an abrupt end, and I wanted to reconsider whether or not to continue that day the long and difficult drive on the steep, coarse gravel road to their hometown in the mountains of central Mexico.

I rolled down the window of my car. It was rather windy and cold. I got out to stretch my legs. The tension of driving for hours had stiffened my back and neck. I walked to the edge of the paved road. The ground was wet from an early shower. Rain was still falling heavily on the slopes of the mountains to the south, a short distance from where I was.

But right in front of me, toward the east and also toward the north, the sky was clear. At certain points on the winding road I had been able to see the bluish peaks of the sierras shining in the sunlight a great distance away.

After a moment's deliberation I decided to turn back and go to the city because I had had a most peculiar feeling that I was going to find don Juan in the market. After all, I had always done just that, found him in the marketplace, since the beginning of my association with him. As a rule, if I did not find him in Sonora I would drive to central Mexico and go to the market of that particular city, and sooner or later don Juan would show up. The longest I had ever waited for him was two days. I was so habituated to meeting him in that manner that I had the most absolute certainty that I would find him again, as always.

I waited in the market all afternoon. I walked up and down the aisles pretending to be looking for something to buy. Then I waited around the park. At dusk I knew that he was not coming. I had then the clear sensation that he had been there but had left. I sat down on a park bench where I used to sit with him and tried to analyze my feelings. Upon arriving in the city I was elated with the sure knowledge that don Juan was there in the streets. What I felt was more than the memory of having found him there countless times before; my body knew that he was looking for me. But then, as I sat on the bench I had another kind of strange certainty. I knew that he was not there anymore. He had left and I had missed him.

After a while I discarded my speculations. I thought that I was beginning to be affected by the place. I was starting to get irrational; that had always happened to me in the past after a few days in that area.

I went to my hotel room to rest for a few hours and then I went out again to roam the streets. I did not have the same expectation of finding don Juan that I had had in the afternoon. I gave up. I went back to my hotel in order to get a good night's sleep.

Before I headed for the mountains in the morning, I drove up and down the main streets in my car, but somehow I knew that I was wasting my time. Don Juan was not there.

It took me all morning to drive to the little town where Pablito and Nestor lived. I arrived around noon. Don Juan had taught me never to drive directly into the town so as not to arouse the curiosity of onlookers. Every time I had been there I had always driven off the road, just before reaching the town, onto a flat field where youngsters usually played soccer. The dirt was well packed all the way to a walking trail which was wide enough for a car and which passed by Pablito's and Nestor's houses in the foothills south of town.

As soon as I got to the edge of the field I found that the walking trail had been turned into a gravel road.

I deliberated whether to go to Nestor's house or Pablito's.

The feeling that they were not there still persisted. I opted to go to Pablito's; I reasoned that Nestor lived alone, while Pablito lived with his mother and his four sisters. If he was not there the women could help me find him. As I got closer to his house I noticed that the path leading from the road up to the house had been widened. It looked as if the ground was hard, and since there was enough space for my car, I drove almost to the front door. A new porch with a tile roof had been added to the adobe house. There were no dogs barking but I saw an enormous one sitting calmly behind a fenced area, alertly observing me. A flock of chickens that had been feeding in front of the house scattered around, cackling. I turned the motor off and stretched my arms over my head.

My body was stiff.

The house seemed deserted. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps Pablito and his family had moved away and someone else was living there. Suddenly the front door opened with a bang and Pablito's mother stepped out as if someone had pushed her. She stared at me absentmindedly for an instant. As I got out of my car she seemed to recognize me. A graceful shiver ran through her body and she ran toward me.

I thought that she must have been napping and that the noise of the car had woken her, and when she came out to see what was going on she did not know at first who I was. The incongruous sight of the old woman running toward me made me smile. When she got closer I had a moment of doubt. Somehow she moved so nimbly that she did not seem like Pablito's mother at all.

“My goodness what a surprise!” she exclaimed.

“Dona Soledad?” I asked, incredulously.

“Don't you recognize me?” she replied, laughing.

I made some stupid comments about her surprising agility.

“Why do you always see me as a helpless old woman?” she asked, looking at me with an air of mock challenge.

She bluntly accused me of having nicknamed her “Mrs.

Pyramid.” I remembered that I had once said to Nestor that her shape reminded me of a pyramid. She had a very broad and massive behind and a small pointed head. The long dresses that she usually wore added to the effect.

“Look at me,” she said. “Do I still look like a pyramid?”

She was smiling but her eyes made me feel uncomfortable.

I attempted to defend myself by making a joke but she cut me off and coaxed me to admit that I was responsible for the nickname. I assured her that I had never intended it as such and that anyway, at that moment she was so lean that her shape was the furthest thing from a pyramid.

“What's happened to you, dona Soledad?” I asked. “You're transformed.”

“You said it,” she replied briskly. “I've been transformed! ”

I meant it figuratively. However, upon closer examination I had to admit that there was no room for a metaphor. She was truly a changed person. I suddenly had a dry, metallic taste in my mouth. I was afraid.

She placed her fists on her hips and stood with her legs slightly apart, facing me. She was wearing a light green, gathered skirt and a whitish blouse. Her skirt was shorter than those she used to wear. I could not see her hair; she had it tied with a thick band, a turban-like piece of cloth. She was barefoot and she rhythmically tapped her big feet on the ground as she smiled with the candor of a young girl. I had never seen anyone exude as much strength as she did. I noticed a strange gleam in her eyes, a disturbing gleam but not a frightening one. I thought that perhaps I had never really examined her appearance carefully. Among other things I felt guilty for having glossed over many people during my years with don Juan. The force of his personality had rendered everyone else pale and unimportant.

I told her that I had never imagined that she could have such a stupendous vitality, that my carelessness was to blame for not really knowing her, and that no doubt I would have to meet everyone else all over again.

She came closer to me. She smiled and put her right hand on the back of my left arm, grabbing it gently.

“That's for sure,” she whispered in my ear.

Her smile froze and her eyes became glazed. She was so close to me that I felt her breasts rubbing my left shoulder.

My discomfort increased as I tried to convince myself that there was no reason for alarm. I repeated to myself over and over that I really had never known Pablito's mother, and that in spite of her odd behavior she was probably being her normal self. But some frightened part of me knew that those were only bracing thoughts with no substance at all, because no matter how much I may have glossed over her person, not only did I remember her very well but I had known her very well. She represented to me the archetype of a mother; I thought her to be in her late fifties or even older. Her weak muscles moved her bulky weight with extreme difficulty. Her hair had a lot of gray in it. She was, as I remembered her, a sad, somber woman with kind, handsome features, a dedicated, suffering mother, always in the kitchen, always tired. I also remembered her to be a very gentle and unselfish woman, and a very timid one, timid to the point of being thoroughly subservient to anyone who happened to be around. That was the picture I had of her, reinforced throughout years of casual contact. That day something was terribly different. The woman I was confronting did not at all fit the image I had of Pablito's mother, and yet she was the same person, leaner and stronger, looking twenty years younger, than the last time I had seen her. I felt a shiver in my body.

She moved a couple of steps in front of me and faced me.

“Let me look at you,” she said. “The Nagual told us that you're a devil.”

I remembered then that all of them, Pablito, his mother, his sisters and Nestor, had always seemed unwilling to voice don Juan's name and called him “the Nagual,” a usage which I myself adopted when talking with them.

She daringly put her hands on my shoulders, something she had never done before. My body tensed. I really did not know what to say. There was a long pause that allowed me to take stock of myself. Her appearance and behavior had frightened me to the point that I had forgotten to ask about Pablito and Nestor.

“Tell me, where is Pablito?” I asked her with a sudden wave of apprehension.

“Oh, he's gone to the mountains,” she responded in a noncommittal tone and moved away from me.

“And where is Nestor?”

She rolled her eyes as if to show her indifference.

“They are together in the mountains,” she said in the same tone.

I felt genuinely relieved and told her that I had known without the shadow of a doubt that they were all right.

She glanced at me and smiled. A wave of happiness and ebullience came upon me and I embraced her. She boldly returned the embrace and held me; that act was so outlandish that it took my breath away. Her body was rigid. I sensed an extraordinary strength in her. My heart began to pound. I gently tried to push her away as I asked her if Nestor was still seeing don Genaro and don Juan. During our farewell meeting don Juan had expressed doubts that Nestor was ready to finish his apprenticeship.

“Genaro has left forever,” she said letting go of me.

She fretted nervously with the edge of her blouse.

“How about don Juan?”

“The Nagual is gone too,” she said, puckering her lips.

“Where did they go?”

“You mean you don't know?”

I told her that both of them had said good-bye to me two years before, and that all I knew was that they were leaving at that time. I had not really dared to speculate where they had gone. They had never told me their whereabouts in the past, and I had come to accept the fact that if they wanted to disappear from my life all they had to do was to refuse to see me.

“They're not around, that's for sure,” she said, frowning, “And they won't be coming back, that's also for sure.”

Her voice was extremely unemotional. I began to feel annoyed with her. I wanted to leave.

“But you're here,” she said, changing her frown into a smile. “You must wait for Pablito and Nestor. They've been dying to see you.”

She held my arm firmly and pulled me away from my car.

Compared to the way she had been in the past, her boldness was astounding.

“But first, let me show you my friend,” she said and forcibly led me to the side of the house.

There was a fenced area, like a small corral. A huge male dog was there. The first thing that attracted my attention was his healthy, lustrous, yellowish-brown fur. He did not seem to be a mean dog. He was not chained and the fence was not high enough to hold him. The dog remained impassive as we got closer to him, not even wagging his tail. Dona Soledad pointed to a good-sized cage in the back. A coyote was curled up inside.

“That's my friend,” she said. “The dog is not. He belongs to my girls.”

The dog looked at me and yawned. I liked him. I had a nonsensical feeling of kinship with him.

“Come, let's go into the house,” she said, pulling me by the arm.

I hesitated. Some part of me was utterly alarmed and wanted to get out of there quickly, and yet another part of me would not have left for the world.

“You're not afraid of me, are you?” she asked in an accusing tone.

“I most certainly am!” I exclaimed.

She giggled, and in a most comforting tone she declared that she was a clumsy, primitive woman who was very awkward with words, and that she hardly knew how to treat people. She looked straight into my eyes and said that don Juan had commissioned her to help me, because he worried about me.

“He told us that you're not serious and go around causing a lot of trouble to innocent people,” she said.

Up to that point her assertions had been coherent to me, but I could not conceive don Juan saying those things about me.

We went inside the house. I wanted to sit down on the bench, where Pablito and I usually sat. She stopped me.

“This is not the place for you and me,” she said. “Let's go to my room.”

“I'd rather sit here,” I said firmly. “I know this spot and I feel comfortable on it.”

She clicked her lips in disapproval. She acted like a disappointed child. She contracted her upper lip until it looked like the flat beak of a duck.

“There is something terribly wrong here,” I said. “I think I am going to leave if you don't tell me what's going on.”

She became very flustered and argued that her trouble was not knowing how to talk to me. I confronted her with her unmistakable transformation and demanded that she tell me what had happened. I had to know how such a change had come about.

“If I tell you, will you stay?” she asked in a child's voice.

“I'll have to.”

“In that case I'll tell you everything. But it has to be in my room.”

I had a moment of panic. I made a supreme effort to calm myself and we walked into her room. She lived in the back, where Pablito had built a bedroom for her. I had once been in the room while it was being built and also after it was finished, just before she moved in. The room looked as empty as I had seen it before, except that there was a bed in the very center of it and two unobtrusive chests of drawers by the door.

The whitewash of the walls had faded into a very soothing yellowish white. The wood of the ceiling had also weathered.

Looking at the smooth, clean walls I had the impression they were scrubbed daily with a sponge. The room looked more like a monastic cell, very frugal and ascetic. There were no ornaments of any sort. The windows had thick, removable wood panels reinforced with an iron bar. There were no chairs or anything to sit on.

Dona Soledad took my writing pad away from me, held it to her bosom and then sat down on her bed, which was made up of two thick mattresses with no box springs. She indicated that I should sit down next to her.

“You and I are the same,” she said as she handed me my notebook.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You and I are the same,” she repeated without looking at me.

I could not figure out what she meant. She stared at me, as if waiting for a response.

“Just what is that supposed to mean, dona Soledad?” I asked.

My question seemed to baffle her. Obviously she expected me to know what she meant. She laughed at first, but then, when I insisted that I did not understand, she got angry. She sat up straight and accused me of being dishonest with her.

Her eyes flared with rage; her mouth contracted in a very ugly gesture of wrath that made her look extremely old.

I honestly was at a loss and felt that no matter what I said it would be wrong. She also seemed to be in the same predicament. Her mouth moved to say something but her lips only quivered. At last she muttered that it was not impeccable to act the way I did at such a serious moment. She turned her back to me.

“Look at me, dona Soledad!” I said forcefully. “I'm not mystifying you in any sense. You must know something that I know nothing about.”

“You talk too much,” she snapped angrily. “The Nagual told me never to let you talk. You twist everything.”

She jumped to her feet and stomped on the floor, like a spoiled child. I became aware at that moment that the room had a different floor. I remembered it to be a dirt floor, made from the dark soil of the area. The new floor was reddish pink.

I momentarily put off a confrontation with her and walked around the room. I could not imagine how I could have missed noticing the floor when I first entered. It was magnificent. At first I thought that it was red clay that had been laid like cement, when it was soft and moist, but then I saw that there were no cracks in it. Clay would have dried, curled up, cracked, and clumps would have formed. I bent down and gently ran my fingers over it. It was as hard as bricks. The clay had been fired. I became aware then that the floor was made of very large flat slabs of clay put together over a bed of soft clay that served as a matrix. The slabs made a most intricate and fascinating design, but a thoroughly unobtrusive one, unless one paid deliberate attention to it. The skill with which the slabs had been placed in position indicated to me a very well-conceived plan. I wanted to know how such big slabs had been fired without being warped. I turned around to ask dona Soledad. I quickly desisted. She would not have known what I was talking about. I paced over the floor again. The clay was a bit rough, almost like sandstone. It made a perfect slide-proof surface.

“Did Pablito put down this floor?” I asked.

She did not answer.

“It's a superb piece of work,” I said. “You should be very proud of him.”

I had no doubt that Pablito had done it. No one else could have had the imagination and the capacity to conceive of it. I figured that he must have made it during the time I had been away. But on second thought I realized that I had never entered dona Soledad's room since it had been built, six or seven years before.

“Pablito! Pablito! Bah!” she exclaimed in an angry, raspy voice. “What makes you think he's the only one who can make things?”

We exchanged a long, sustained look, and all of a sudden I knew that it was she who had made the floor, and that don Juan had put her up to it.

We stood quietly, looking at each other for some time. I felt it would have been thoroughly superfluous to ask if I was correct.

“I made it myself,” she finally said in a dry tone. “The Nagual told me how.”

Her statements made me feel euphoric. I practically lifted her up in an embrace. I twirled her around. All I could think to do was to bombard her with questions. I wanted to know how she had made the slabs, what the designs represented, where she got the clay. But she did not share my exhilaration.

She remained quiet and impassive, looking at me askance from time to time.

I paced on the floor again. The bed had been placed at the very epicenter of some converging lines. The clay slabs had been cut in sharp angles to create converging motifs that seemed to radiate out from under the bed.

“I have no words to tell you how impressed I am,” I said.

“Words! Who needs words?” she said cuttingly.

I had a flash of insight. My reason had been betraying me.

There was only one possible way of explaining her magnificent metamorphosis; don Juan must have made her his apprentice. How else could an old woman like dona Soledad turn into such a weird, powerful being? That should have been obvious to me from the moment I laid eyes on her, but my set of expectations about her had not included that possibility.

I deduced that whatever don Juan had done to her must have taken place during the two years I had not seen her, although two years seemed hardly any time at all for such a superb alteration.

“I think I know now what happened to you,” I said in a casual and cheerful tone. “Something has cleared up in my mind right now.”

“Oh, is that so?” she said, thoroughly uninterested.

“The Nagual is teaching you to be a sorceress, isn't that true?”

She glared at me defiantly. I felt that I had said the worst possible thing. There was an expression of true contempt on her face. She was not going to tell me anything.

“What a bastard you are!” she exclaimed suddenly, shaking with rage.

I thought that her anger was unjustified. I sat down on one end of the bed while she nervously tapped on the floor with her heel. Then she sat down on the other end, without looking at me.

“What exactly do you want me to do?” I asked in a firm and intimidating tone.

“I told you already! “ she said in a yell. “You and I are the same.”

I asked her to explain her meaning and not to assume for one instant that I knew anything. Those statements angered her even more. She stood up abruptly and dropped her skirt to the ground.

“This is what I mean!” she yelled, caressing her pubic area.

My mouth opened involuntarily. I became aware that I was staring at her like an idiot.

“You and I are one here!” she said.

I was dumbfounded. Dona Soledad, the old Indian woman, mother of my friend Pablito, was actually half-naked a few feet away from me, showing me her genitals. I stared at her, incapable of formulating any thoughts. The only thing I knew was that her body was not the body of an old woman. She had beautifully muscular thighs, dark and hairless. The bone structure of her hips was broad, but there was no fat on them.

She must have noticed my scrutiny and flung herself on the bed.

“You know what to do,” she said, pointing to her pubis.

“We are one here.”

She uncovered her robust breasts.

“Dona Soledad, I implore you!” I exclaimed. “What's come over you? You're Pablito's mother.”

“No, I'm not! “ she snapped. “I'm no one's mother.”

She sat up and looked at me with fierce eyes.

“I am just like you, a piece of the Nagual,” she said. “We're made to mix.”

She opened her legs and I jumped away.

“Wait a minute, dona Soledad,” I said. “Let's talk for i while.”

I had a moment of wild fear, and a sudden crazy thought occurred to me. Would it be possible, I asked myself, that don Juan was hiding somewhere around there laughing his head off?

“Don Juan!” I bellowed.

My yell was so loud and profound that dona Soledad jumped off her bed and covered herself hurriedly with her skirt. I saw her putting it on as I bellowed again.

“Don Juan!”

I ran through the house bellowing don Juan's name until my throat was sore. Dona Soledad, in the meantime, had run outside the house and was standing by my car, looking puzzled at me.

I walked over to her and asked her if don Juan had told her to do all that. She nodded affirmatively. I asked if he was around. She said no.

“Tell me everything,” I said.

She told me that she was merely following don Juan's orders. He had commanded her to change her being into a warrior's in order to help me. She declared that she had been waiting for years to fulfill that promise.

“I'm very strong now,” she said softly. “Just for you. But you disliked me in my room, didn't you?”

I found myself explaining that I did not dislike her, that what counted were my feelings for Pablito; then I realized that I did not have the vaguest idea of what I was saying.

Dona Soledad seemed to understand my embarrassing position and said that our mishap had to be forgotten.

“You must be famished,” she said vivaciously. “I'll make you some food.”

“There's a lot that you haven't explained to me,” I said. “I'll be frank with you, I wouldn't stay here for anything in the world. You frighten me.”

“You are obligated to accept my hospitality, if it is only for a cup of coffee,” she said unruffled. “Come, let's forget what happened.”

She made a gesture of going into the house. At that moment I heard a deep growl. The dog was standing, looking at us, as if he understood what was being said.

Dona Soledad fixed a most frightening gaze on me. Then she softened it and smiled.

“Don't let my eyes bother you,” she said. “The truth is that I am old. Lately I've been getting dizzy. I think I need glasses.”

She broke into a laugh and clowned, looking through cupped fingers as if they were glasses.

“An old Indian woman with glasses! That'll be a laugh,” she said giggling.

I made up my mind then to be rude and get out of there, without any explanation. But before I drove away I wanted to leave some things for Pablito and his sisters. I opened the trunk of the car to get the gifts I had brought for them. I leaned way into it to reach first for the two packages that were lodged against the wall of the back seat, behind the spare tire. I got hold of one and was about to grab the other when I felt a soft, furry hand on the nape of my neck. I shrieked involuntarily and hit my head on the open lid. I turned to look. The pressure of the furry hand did not let me turn completely, but I was able to catch a fleeting glimpse of a silvery arm or paw hovering over my neck. I wriggled in panic and pushed myself away from the trunk and fell down on my seat with the package still in my hand. My whole body shook, the muscles of my legs contracted and I found myself leaping up and running away.

“I didn't mean to frighten you,” dona Soledad said apologetically, as I watched her from ten feet away.

She showed me the palms of her hands in a gesture of surrender, as if assuring me that what I had felt was not her hand.

“What did you do to me?” I asked, trying to sound calm and detached.

She seemed to be either thoroughly embarrassed or baffled.

She muttered something and shook her head as though she could not say it, or did not know what I was talking about.

“Come on, dona Soledad,” I said, coming closer to her, “don't play tricks on me.”

She seemed about to weep. I wanted to comfort her, but some part of me resisted. After a moment's pause I told her what I had felt and seen.

“That's just terrible!” She said in a shrieking voice.

In a very childlike gesture she covered her face with her right forearm. I thought she was crying. I came over to her and tried to put my arm around her shoulders. I could not bring myself to do it.

“Come now, dona Soledad,” I said, “let's forget all this and let me give you these packages before I leave.”

I stepped in front of her to face her. I could see her black, shining eyes and part of her face behind her arm. She was not crying. She was smiling.

I jumped back. Her smile terrified me. Both of us stood motionless for a long time. She kept her face covered but I could see her eyes watching me.

As I stood there almost paralyzed with fear I felt utterly despondent. I had fallen into a bottomless pit. Dona Soledad was a witch. My body knew it, and yet I could not really believe it. What I wanted to believe was that dona Soledad had gone mad and was being kept in the house instead of an asylum.

I did not dare move or take my eyes away from her. We must have stayed in that position for five or six minutes. She had kept her arm raised and yet motionless. She was standing at the rear of the car, almost leaning against the left fender.

The lid of the trunk was still open. I thought of making a dash for the right door. The keys were in the ignition.

I relaxed a bit in order to gain the momentum to run. She seemed to notice my change of position immediately. Her arm moved down, revealing her whole face. Her teeth were clenched. Her eyes were fixed on mine. They looked hard and mean. Suddenly she lurched toward me. She stomped with her right foot, like a fencer, and reached out with clawed hands to grab me by my waist as she let out the most chilling shriek.

My body jumped back out of her reach. I ran for the car, but with inconceivable agility she rolled to my feet and made me trip over her. I fell facedown and she grabbed me by the left foot. I contracted my right leg, and I would have kicked her in the face with the sole of my shoe had she not let go of me and rolled back. I jumped to my feet and tried to open the door of the car. It was locked. I threw myself over the hood to reach the other side but somehow dona Soledad got there before I did. I tried to roll back over the hood, but midway I felt a sharp pain in my right calf. She had grabbed me by the leg. I could not kick her with my left foot; she had pinned down both of my legs against the hood. She pulled me toward her and I fell on top of her. We wrestled on the ground. Her strength was magnificent and her shrieks were terrifying. I could hardly move under the gigantic pressure of her body.

It was not a matter of weight but rather tension, and she had it.

Suddenly I heard a growl and the enormous dog jumped on her back and shoved her away from me. I stood up. I wanted to get into the car, but the woman and the dog were fighting by the door. The only retreat was to go inside the house. I made it in one or two seconds. I did not turn to look at them but rushed inside and closed the door behind me, securing it with the iron bar that was behind it. I ran to the back and did the same with the other door.

From inside I could hear the furious growling of the dog and the woman's inhuman shrieks. Then suddenly the dog's barking and growling turned into whining and howling as if he were in pain, or as if something were frightening him. I felt a jolt in the pit of my stomach. My ears began to buzz. I realized that I was trapped inside the house. I had a fit of sheer terror. I was revolted at my stupidity in running into the house.

The woman's attack had confused me so intensely that I had lost all sense of strategy and had behaved as if I were running away from an ordinary opponent who could be shut out by simply closing a door. I heard someone come to the door and lean against it, trying to force it open. Then there were loud knocks and banging on it.

“Open the door,” dona Soledad said in a hard voice. “That goddamned dog has mauled me.”

I deliberated whether or not to let her in. What came to my mind was the memory of a confrontation I had had years before with a sorceress, who had, according to don Juan, adopted his shape in order to fool me and deliver a deadly blow. Obviously dona Soledad was not as I had known her, but I had reasons to doubt that she was a sorceress. The time element played a decisive role in my conviction. Pablito, Nestor and I had been involved with don Juan and don Genaro for years and we were not sorcerers at all; how could dona Soledad be one? No matter how much she had changed she could not improvise something that would take a lifetime to accomplish.

“Why did you attack me?” I asked, speaking loudly so as to be heard through the thick door.

She answered that the Nagual had told her not to let me go.

I asked her why.

She did not answer; instead she banged on the door furiously and I banged back even harder. We went on hitting the door for a few minutes. She stopped and started begging me to open it. I had a surge of nervous energy. I knew that if I opened the door I might have a chance to flee. I moved the iron bar from the door. She staggered in. Her blouse was torn.

The band that held her hair had fallen off and her long hair was all over her face.

“Look what that son of a bitch dog did to me!” she yelled.

“Look! Look!”

I took a deep breath. She seemed to be somewhat dazed. She sat down on a bench and began to take off her tattered blouse.

I seized that moment to run out of the house and make a dash for the car. With a speed that was born only out of fear, I got inside, shut the door, automatically turned on the motor and put the car in reverse. I stepped on the gas and turned my head to look back through the rear window. As I turned I felt a hot breath on my face; I heard a horrendous growl and saw in a flash the demoniacal eyes of the dog. He was standing on the back seat. I saw his horrible teeth almost in my eyes. I ducked my head. His teeth grabbed my hair. I must have curled my whole body on the seat, and in doing so I let my foot off the clutch. The jerk of the car made the beast lose his balance. I opened the door and scrambled out. The head of the dog jutted out through the door. I heard his enormous teeth click as his jaws closed tight, missing my heels by a few inches. The car began to roll back and I made another dash for the house.

I stopped before I had reached the door.

Dona Soledad was standing there. She had tied her hair up again. She had thrown a shawl over her shoulders. She stared at me for a moment and then began to laugh, very softly at first as if her wounds hurt her, and then loudly. She pointed a finger at me and held her stomach as she convulsed with laughter. She bent over and stretched, seemingly to catch her breath. She was naked above the waist. I could see her breasts, shaking with the convulsions of her laughter.

I felt that all was lost. I looked back toward the car. It had come to a stop after rolling four or five feet; the door had closed again, sealing the dog inside. I could see and hear the enormous beast biting the back of the front seat and pawing the windows.

A most peculiar decision faced me at that moment. I did not know who scared me the most, dona Soledad or the dog. After a moment's thought I decided that the dog was just a stupid beast.

I ran back to the car and climbed up on the roof. The noise enraged the dog. I heard him ripping the upholstery. Lying on the roof I managed to open the driver's door. My idea was to open both doors and then slide from the roof into the car, through one of them, after the dog had gone out the other one.

I leaned over to open the right door. I had forgotten that it was locked. At that moment the dog's head came out through the opened door. I had an attack of blind panic at the idea that the dog was going to jump out of the car and onto the roof.

In less than a second I had leaped to the ground and found myself standing at the door of the house.

Dona Soledad was bracing herself in the doorway. Laughter came out of her in spurts that seemed almost painful.

The dog had remained inside the car, still frothing with rage. Apparently he was too large and could not squeeze his bulky frame over the front seat. I went to the car and gently closed the door again. I began to look for a stick long enough to release the safety lock on the right-hand door.

I searched in the area in front of the house. There was not a single piece of wood lying around. Dona Soledad, in the meantime, had gone inside. I assessed my situation. I had no other alternative but to ask her help. With great trepidation, I crossed the threshold, looking in every direction in case she might have been hiding behind the door, waiting for me.

“Dona Soledad!” I yelled out.

“What the hell do you want?” she yelled back from her room.

“Would you please go out and get your dog out of my car?” I said.

“Are you kidding?” she replied. “That's not my dog. I've told you already, he belongs to my girls.”

“Where are your girls?” I asked.

“They are in the mountains,” she replied.

She came out of her room and faced me.

“Do you want to see what that goddamned dog did to me?” she asked in a dry tone. “Look!”

She unwrapped her shawl and showed me her naked back.

I found no visible tooth marks on her back; there were only a few long, superficial scratches she might have gotten by rubbing against the hard ground. For all that matter, she could have scratched herself when she attacked me.

“You have nothing there,” I said.

“Come and look in the light,” she said and went over by the door.

She insisted that I look carefully for the gashes of the dog's teeth. I felt stupid. I had a heavy sensation around my eyes, especially on my brow. I went outside instead. The dog had not moved and began to bark as soon as I came out the door.

I cursed myself. There was no one to blame but me. I had walked into that trap like a fool. I resolved right then to walk to town. But my wallet, my papers, everything I had was in my briefcase on the floor of the car, right under the dog's feet.

I had an attack of despair. It was useless to walk to town. I did not have enough money in my pockets even to buy a cup of coffee. Besides, I did not know a soul in town. I had no other alternative but to get the dog out of the car.

“What kind of food does that dog eat?” I yelled from the door.

“Why don't you try your leg?” dona Soledad yelled back from her room, and cackled.

I looked for some cooked food in the house. The pots were empty. There was nothing else for me to do but to confront her again. My despair had turned into rage. I stormed into her room ready for a fight to the death. She was lying on her bed, covered with her shawl.

“Please forgive me for having done all those things to you,” she said bluntly, looking at the ceiling.

Her boldness stopped my rage.

“You must understand my position,” she went on. “I couldn't let you go.”

She laughed softly, and in a clear, calm and very pleasing voice said that she was guilty of being greedy and clumsy, that she had nearly succeeded in scaring me away with her antics, but that the situation had suddenly changed. She paused and sat up in her bed, covering her breasts with her shawl, then added that a strange confidence had descended into her body.

She looked up at the ceiling and moved her arms in a weird, rhythmical flow, like a windmill.

“There is no way for you to leave now,” she said.

She scrutinized me without laughing. My internal rage had subsided but my despair was more acute than ever. I honestly knew that in matters of sheer strength I was no match for her or the dog.

She said that our appointment had been set up years in advance, and that neither of us had enough power to hurry it, or break it.

“Don't knock yourself out trying to leave,” she said.

“That's as useless as my trying to keep you here. Something besides your will will release you from here, and something besides my will will keep you here.”

Somehow her confidence had not only mellowed her, but had given her a great command over words. Her statements were compelling and crystal clear. Don Juan had always said that I was a trusting soul when it came to words. As she talked I found myself thinking that she was not really as threatening as I thought. She no longer projected the feeling of having a chip on her shoulder. My reason was almost at ease but another part of me was not. All the muscles of my body were like tense wires, and yet I had to admit to myself that although she scared me out of my wits I found her most appealing. She watched me.

“I'll show you how useless it is to try to leave,” she said, jumping out of bed. “I'm going to help you. What do you need?”

She observed me with a gleam in her eyes. Her small white teeth gave her smile a devilish touch. Her chubby face was strangely smooth and fairly free of wrinkles. Two deep lines running from the sides of her nose to the corners of her mouth gave her face the appearance of maturity, but not age. In standing up from the bed she casually let her shawl fall straight down, uncovering her full breasts. She did not bother to cover herself. Instead she swelled up her chest and lifted her breasts.

“Oh, you've noticed, eh?” she said, and rocked her body from side to side as if pleased with herself. “I always keep my hair tied behind my head. The Nagual told me to do so. The pull makes my face younger.”

I had been sure that she was going to talk about her breasts.

Her shift was a surprise to me.

“I don't mean that the pull on my hair is going to make me look younger,” she went on with a charming smile. “The pull on my hair makes me younger.”

“How is that possible?” I asked.

She answered me with a question. She wanted to know if I had correctly understood don Juan when he said that anything was possible if one wants it with unbending intent.

I was after a more precise explanation. I wanted to know what else she did besides tying her hair, in order to look so young.

She said that she lay in her bed and emptied herself of any thoughts and feelings and then let the lines of her floor pull her wrinkles away. I pressed her for more details: any feelings, sensations, perceptions that she had experienced while lying on her bed. She insisted that she felt nothing, that she did not know how the lines in her floor worked, and that she only knew not to let her thoughts interfere.

She placed her hands on my chest and shoved me very gently. It seemed to be a gesture to show that she had had enough of my questions. We walked outside, through the back door. I told her that I needed a long stick. She went directly to a pile of firewood, but there were no long sticks. I asked her if she could get me a couple of nails in order to join together two pieces of firewood. We looked unsuccessfully all over the house for nails. As a final resort I had to dislodge the longest stick I could find in the chicken coop that Pablito had built in the back. The stick, although it was a bit flimsy, seemed suited for my purpose.

Dona Soledad had not smiled or joked during our search.

She seemed to be utterly absorbed in her task of helping me.

Her concentration was so intense that I had the feeling she was wishing me to succeed.

I walked to my car, armed with the long stick and a shorter one from the pile of firewood. Dona Soledad stood by the front door.

I began to tease the dog with the short stick in my right hand and at the same time I tried to release the safety lock with the long one in my other hand. The dog nearly bit my right hand and made me drop the short stick. The rage and power of the enormous beast were so immense that I nearly lost the long one too. The dog was about to bite it in two when dona Soledad came to my aid; pounding on the back window she drew the dog's attention and he let go of it.

Encouraged by her distracting maneuver I dove, headfirst, and slid across the length of the front seat and managed to release the safety lock. I tried to pull back immediately, but the dog charged toward me with all his might and actually thrust his massive shoulders and front paws over the front seat, before I had time to back out. I felt his paws on my shoulder. I cringed. I knew that he was going to maul me. The dog lowered his head to go in for the kill, but instead of biting me he hit the steering wheel. I scurried out and in one move climbed over the hood and onto the roof. I had goose bumps all over my body.

I opened the right-hand door. I asked dona Soledad to hand me the long stick and with it I pushed the lever to release the backrest from its straight position. I conceived that if I teased the dog he would ram it forward, allowing himself room to get out of the car. But he did not move. He bit furiously on the stick instead.

At that moment dona Soledad jumped onto the roof and lay next to me. She wanted to help me tease the dog. I told her that she could not stay on the roof because when the dog came out I was going to get in the car and drive away. I thanked her for her help and said that she should go back in the house.

She shrugged her shoulders, jumped down and went back to the door. I pushed down the release again and with my cap I teased the dog. I snapped it around his eyes, in front of his muzzle. The dog's fury was beyond anything I had seen but he would not leave the seat. Finally his massive jaws jerked the stick out of my grip. I climbed down to retrieve it from underneath the car. Suddenly I heard dona Soledad screaming.

“Watch out! He's getting out! ”

I glanced up at the car. The dog was squeezing himself over the seat. He had gotten his hind paws caught in the steering wheel; except for that, he was almost out.

I dashed to the house and got inside just in time to avoid being run down by that animal. His momentum was so powerful that he rammed against the door.

As she secured the door with its iron bar dona Soledad said in a cackling voice, “I told you it was useless.”

She cleared her throat and turned to look at me.

“Can you tie the dog with a rope?” I asked.

I was sure that she would give me a meaningless answer, but to my amazement she said that we should try everything, even luring the dog into the house and trapping him there.

Her idea appealed to me. I carefully opened the front door.

The dog was no longer there. I ventured out a bit more. There was no sight of him. My hope was that the dog had gone back to his corral. I was going to wait another instant before I made a dash for my car, when I heard a deep growl and saw the massive head of the beast inside my car. He had crawled back onto the front seat.

Dona Soledad was right; it was useless to try. A wave of sadness enveloped me. Somehow I knew my end was near. In a fit of sheer desperation I told dona Soledad that I was going to get a knife from the kitchen and kill the dog, or be killed by him, and I would have done that had it not been that there was not a single metal object in the entire house.

“Didn't the Nagual teach you to accept your fate?” dona Soledad asked as she trailed behind me. “That one out there is no ordinary dog. That dog has power. He is a warrior. He will do what he has to do. Even kill you.”

I had a moment of uncontrollable frustration and grabbed her by the shoulders and growled. She did not seem surprised or affected by my sudden outburst. She turned her back to me and dropped her shawl to the floor. Her back was very strong and beautiful. I had an irrepressible urge to hit her, but I ran my hand across her shoulders instead. Her skin was soft and smooth. Her arms and shoulders were muscular without being big. She seemed to have a minimal layer of fat that rounded off her muscles and gave her upper body the appearance of smoothness, and yet when I pushed on any part of it with the tips of my fingers I could feel the hardness of unseen muscles below the smooth surface. I did not want to look at her breasts.

She walked to a roofed, open area in back of the house that served as a kitchen. I followed her. She sat down on a bench and calmly washed her feet in a pail. While she was putting on her sandals, I went with great trepidation into a new outhouse that had been built in the back. She was standing by the door when I came out.

“You like to talk,” she said casually, leading me into her room. “There is no hurry. Now we can talk forever.”

She picked up my writing pad from the top of her chest of drawers, where she must have placed it herself, and handed it to me with exaggerated care. Then she pulled up her bedspread and folded it neatly and put it on top of the same chest of drawers. I noticed then that the two chests were the color of the walls, yellowish white, and the bed without the spread was pinkish red, more or less the color of the floor. The bedspread, on the other hand, was dark brown, like the wood of the ceiling and the wood panels of the windows.

“Let's talk,” she said, sitting comfortably on the bed after taking off her sandals.

She placed her knees against her naked breasts. She looked like a young girl. Her aggressive and commandeering manner had subdued and changed into charm. At that moment she was the antithesis of what she had been earlier. I had to laugh at the way she was urging me to write. She reminded me of don Juan.

“Now we have time,” she said. “The wind has changed.

Didn't you notice it?”

I had. She said that the new direction of the wind was her own beneficial direction and thus the wind had turned into her helper.

“What do you know about the wind, dona Soledad?” I asked as I calmly sat down on the foot of her bed.

“Only what the Nagual taught me,” she said. “Each one of us, women that is, has a peculiar direction, a particular wind.

Men don't. I am the north wind; when it blows I am different.

The Nagual said that a warrior can use her particular wind for whatever she wants. I used it to trim my body and remake it.

Look at me! I am the north wind. Feel me when I come through the window.”

There was a strong wind blowing through the window, which was strategically placed to face the north.

“Why do you think men don't have a wind?” I asked.

She thought for a moment and then replied that the Nagual had never mentioned why.

“You wanted to know who made this floor,” she said, wrapping her blanket around her shoulders. “I made it myself.

It took me four years to put it down. Now this floor is like myself.”

As she spoke I noticed that the converging lines in the floor were oriented to originate from the north. The room, however, was not perfectly aligned with the cardinal points; thus her bed was at odd angles with the walls and so were the lines in the clay slabs.

“Why did you make the floor red, dona Soledad?”

“That's my color. I am red, like red dirt. I got the red clay in the mountains around here. The Nagual told me where to look and he also helped me carry it, and so did everyone else.

They all helped me.”

“How did you fire the clay?”

“The Nagual made me dig a pit. We filled it with firewood and then stacked up the clay slabs with flat pieces of rock in between them. I closed the pit with a lid of dirt and wire and set the wood on fire. It burned for days.”

“How did you keep the slabs from warping?”

“I didn't. The wind did that, the north wind that blew while the fire was on. The Nagual showed me how to dig the pit so it would face the north and the north wind. He also made me leave four holes for the north wind to blow into the pit. Then he made me leave one hole in the center of the lid to let the smoke out. The wind made the wood burn for days; after the pit was cold again I opened it and began to polish and even out the slabs. It took me over a year to make enough slabs to finish my floor.”

“How did you figure out the design?”

“The wind taught me that. When I made my floor the Nagual had already taught me not to resist the wind. He had showed me how to give in to my wind and let it guide me. It took him a long time to do that, years and years. I was a very difficult, silly old woman at first; he told me that himself and he was right. But I learned very fast. Perhaps because I'm old and no longer have anything to lose. In the beginning, what made it even more difficult for me was the fear I had. The mere presence of the Nagual made me stutter and faint. The Nagual had the same effect on everyone else. It was his fate to be so fearsome.”

She stopped talking and stared at me.

“The Nagual is not human,” she said.

“What makes you say that?”

“The Nagual is a devil from who knows what time.”

Her statements chilled me. I felt my heart pounding. She certainly could not have found a better audience. I was intrigued to no end. I begged her to explain what she meant by that.

“His touch changed people,” she said. “You know that. He changed your body. In your case, you didn't even know that he was doing that. But he got into your old body. He put something in it. He did the same with me. He left something in me and that something took over. Only a devil can do that.

Now I am the north wind and I fear nothing, and no one. But before he changed me I was a weak, ugly old woman who would faint at the mere mention of his name. Pablito, of course, was no help to me because he feared the Nagual more than death itself.

“One day the Nagual and Genaro came to the house when I was alone. I heard them by the door, like prowling jaguars. I crossed myself; to me they were two demons, but I came out to see what I could do for them. They were hungry and I gladly fixed food for them. I had some thick bowls made out of gourd and I gave each man a bowl of soup. The Nagual didn't seem to appreciate the food; he didn't want to eat food prepared by such a weak woman and pretended to be clumsy and knocked the bowl off the table with a sweep of his arm.

But the bowl, instead of turning over and spilling all over the floor, slid with the force of the Nagual's blow and fell on my foot, without spilling a drop. The bowl actually landed on my foot and stayed there until I bent over and picked it up. I set it up on the table in front of him and told him that even though I was a weak woman and had always feared him, my food had good feelings.

“From that very moment the Nagual changed toward me.

The fact that the bowl of soup fell on my foot and didn't spill proved to him that power had pointed me out to him. I didn't know that at the time and I thought that he changed toward me because he felt ashamed of having refused my food. I thought nothing of his change. I still was petrified and couldn't even look him in the eye. But he began to take more and more notice of me. He even brought me gifts: a shawl, a dress, a comb and other things. That made me feel terrible. I was ashamed because I thought that he was a man looking for a woman. The Nagual had young girls, what would he want with an old woman like me? At first I didn't want to wear or even consider looking at his gifts, but Pablito prevailed on me and I began to wear them. I also began to be even more afraid of him and didn't want to be alone with him. I knew that he was a devilish man. I knew what he had done to his woman.”

I felt compelled to interrupt her. I told her that I had never known of a woman in don Juan's life.

“You know who I mean,” she said.

“Believe me, dona Soledad, I don't.”

“Don't give me that. You know that I'm talking about la Gorda.”

The only “la Gorda” I knew of was Pablito's sister, an enormously fat girl nicknamed Gorda, Fatso. I had had the feeling, although no one ever talked about it, that she was not really dona Soledad's daughter. I did not want to press her for any more information. I suddenly remembered that the fat girl had disappeared from the house and nobody could or dared to tell me what had happened to her.

“One day I was alone in the front of the house,” dona Soledad went on. “I was combing my hair in the sun with the comb that the Nagual had given me; I didn't realize that he had arrived and was standing behind me. All of a sudden I felt his hands grabbing me by the chin. I heard him say very softly that I shouldn't move because my neck might break. He twisted my head to the left. Not all the way but a bit. I became very frightened and screamed and tried to wriggle out of his grip, but he held my head firmly for a long, long time.

“When he let go of my chin, I fainted. I don't remember what happened then. When I woke up I was lying on the ground, right here where I'm sitting now. The Nagual was gone. I was so ashamed that I didn't want to see anyone, especially la Gorda. For a long time I even thought that the Nagual had never twisted my neck and I had had a nightmare.”

She stopped. I waited for an explanation of what had happened. She seemed distracted, pensive perhaps.

“What exactly happened, dona Soledad?” I asked, incapable of containing myself. “Did he do something to you?”

“Yes. He twisted my neck in order to change the direction of my eyes,” she said and laughed loudly at my look of surprise.

“I mean, did he... ?”

“Yes. He changed my direction,” she went on, oblivious to my probes. “He did that to you and to all the others.”

“That's true. He did that to me. But why do you think he did that?”

“He had to. That is the most important thing to do.”

She was referring to a peculiar act that don Juan had deemed absolutely necessary. I had never talked about it with anyone. In fact, I had almost forgotten about it. At the beginning of my apprenticeship, he once built two small fires in the mountains of northern Mexico. They were perhaps twenty feet apart. He made me stand another twenty feet away from them, holding my body, especially my head, in a most relaxed and natural position. He then made me face one fire, and coming from behind me, he twisted my neck to the left, and aligned my eyes, but not my shoulders, with the other fire. He held my head in that position for hours, until the fire was extinguished. The new direction was the southeast, or rather he had aligned the second fire in a southeasterly direction. I had understood the whole affair as one of don Juan's inscrutable peculiarities, one of his nonsensical rites.

“The Nagual said that all of us throughout our lives develop one direction to look,” she went on. “That becomes the direction of the eyes of the spirit. Through the years that direction becomes overused, and weak and unpleasant, and since we are bound to that particular direction we become weak and unpleasant ourselves. The day the Nagual twisted my neck and held it until I fainted out of fear, he gave me a new direction.”

“What direction did he give you?”

“Why do you ask that?” she said with unnecessary force.

“Do you think that perhaps the Nagual gave me a different direction?”

“I can tell you the direction that he gave me,” I said.

“Never mind,” she snapped. “He told me that himself.”

She seemed agitated. She changed position and lay on her stomach. My back hurt from writing. I asked her if I could sit on her floor and use the bed as a table. She stood up and handed me the folded bedspread to use as a cushion.

“What else did the Nagual do to you?” I asked.

“After changing my direction the Nagual really began to talk to me about power,” she said, lying down again. “He mentioned things in a casual way at first, because he didn't know exactly what to do with me. One day he took me for a short walking trip in the sierras. Then another day he took me on a bus to his homeland in the desert. Little by little I became accustomed to going away with him.”

“Did he ever give you power plants?”

“He gave me Mescalito, once when we were in the desert.

But since I was an empty woman Mescalito refused me. I had a horrid encounter with him. It was then that the Nagual knew that he ought to acquaint me with the wind instead.

That was, of course, after he got an omen. He had said, over and over that day, that although he was a sorcerer that had learned to see, if he didn't get an omen he had no way of knowing which way to go. He had already waited for days for a certain indication about me. But power didn't want to give it. In desperation, I suppose, he introduced me to his guaje, and I saw Mescalito.”

I interrupted her. Her use of the word “guaje,” gourd, was confusing to me. Examined in the context of what she was telling me, the word had no meaning. I thought that perhaps she was speaking metaphorically, or that gourd was a euphemism.

“What is a guaje, dona Soledad?”

There was a look of surprise in her eyes. She paused before answering.

“Mescalito is the Nagual's guaje,” she finally said.

Her answer was even more confusing. I felt mortified by the fact that she really seemed concerned with making sense to me. When I asked her to explain further, she insisted that I knew everything myself. That was don Juan's favorite stratagem to foil my probes. I said to her that don Juan had told me that Mescalito was a deity, or force contained in the peyote buttons. To say that Mescalito was his gourd made absolutely no sense.

“The Nagual can acquaint you with anything through his gourd,” she said after a pause. “That is the key to his power.

Anyone can give you peyote, but only a sorcerer, through his gourd, can acquaint you with Mescalito.”

She stopped talking and fixed her eyes on me. Her look was ferocious.

“Why do you have to make me repeat what you already know?” she asked in an angry tone.

I was completely taken aback by her sudden shift. A moment before she had been almost sweet.

“Never mind my changes of mood,” she said, smiling again.

“I'm the north wind. I'm very impatient. All my life I never dared to speak my mind. Now I fear no one. I say what I feel.

To meet with me you have to be strong.”

She slid closer to me on her stomach.

“Well, the Nagual acquainted me with the Mescalito that came out of his gourd,” she went on. “But he couldn't guess what would happen to me. He expected something like your own meeting or Eligio's meeting with Mescalito. In both cases he was at a loss and let his gourd decide what to do next. In both cases his gourd helped him. With me it was different; Mescalito told him never to bring me around. The Nagual and I left that place in a great hurry. We went north instead of coming home. We took a bus to go to Mexicali, but we got out in the middle of the desert. It was very late. The sun was setting behind the mountains. The Nagual wanted to cross the road and go south on foot. We were waiting for some speeding cars to go by, when suddenly he tapped my shoulder and pointed toward the road ahead of us. I saw a spiral of dust. A gust of wind was raising dust on the side of the road. We watched it move toward us. The Nagual ran across the road and the wind enveloped me. It actually made me spin very gently and then it vanished. That was the omen the Nagual was waiting for. From then on we went to the mountains or the desert for the purpose of seeking the wind. The wind didn't like me at first, because I was my old self. So the Nagual endeavored to change me. He first made me build this room and this floor. Then he made me wear new clothes and sleep on a mattress instead of a straw mat. He made me wear shoes, and have drawers full of clothes. He forced me to walk hundreds of miles and taught me to be quiet. I learned very fast.

He also made me do strange things for no reason at all.

“One day, while we were in the mountains of his homeland, I listened to the wind for the first time. It came directly to my womb. I was lying on top of a flat rock and the wind twirled around me. I had already seen it that day whirling around the bushes, but this time it came over me and stopped. It felt like a bird that had landed on my stomach. The Nagual had made me take off all my clothes; I was stark naked but I was not cold because the wind was warming me up.”

“Were you afraid, dona Soledad?”

“Afraid? I was petrified. The wind was alive; it licked me from my head to my toes. And then it got inside my whole body. I was like a balloon, and the wind came out of my ears and my mouth and other parts I don't want to mention. I thought I was going to die, and I would've run away had it not been that the Nagual held me to the rock. He spoke to me in my ear and calmed me down. I lay quietly and let the wind do whatever it wanted with me. It was then that it told me what to do.”

“What to do with what?”

“With my life, my things, my room, my feelings. It was not clear at first. I thought it was me thinking. The Nagual said that all of us do that. When we are quiet, though, we realize that it is something else telling us things.”

“Did you hear a voice?”

“No. The wind moves inside the body of a woman. The Nagual says that that is so because women have wombs. Once it's inside the womb the wind simply picks you up and tells you to do things. The more quiet and relaxed the woman is the better the results. You may say that all of a sudden the woman finds herself doing things that she had no idea how to do.

“From that day on the wind came to me all the time. It spoke to me in my womb and told me everything I wanted to know. The Nagual saw from the beginning that I was the north wind. Other winds never spoke to me like that, although I had learned to distinguish them.”

“How many kinds of winds are there?”

“There are four winds, like there are four directions. That's, of course, for sorcerers and for whatever sorcerers do. Four is a power number for them. The first wind is the breeze, the morning. It brings hope and brightness; it is the herald of the day. It comes and goes and gets into everything. Sometimes it is mild and unnoticeable; other times it is nagging and bothersome.

“Another wind is the hard wind, either hot or cold or both.

A midday wind. Blasting full of energy but also full of blindness. It breaks through doors and brings down walls. A sorcerer must be terribly strong to tackle the hard wind.

“Then there is the cold wind of the afternoon. Sad and trying. A wind that would never leave you in peace. It will chill you and make you cry. The Nagual said that there is such depth to it, though, that it is more than worthwhile to seek it.

“And at last there is the hot wind. It warms and protects and envelops everything. It is a night wind for sorcerers. Its power goes together with the darkness.

“Those are the four winds. They are also associated with the four directions. The breeze is the east. The cold wind is the west. The hot one is the south. The hard wind is the north.

“The four winds also have personalities. The breeze is gay and sleek and shifty. The cold wind is moody and melancholy and always pensive. The hot wind is happy and abandoned and bouncy. The hard wind is energetic and commandeering and impatient.

“The Nagual told me that the four winds are women. That is why female warriors seek them. Winds and women are alike. That is also the reason why women are better than men.

I would say that women learn faster if they cling to their specific wind.”

“How can a woman know what her specific wind is?”

“If the woman quiets down and is not talking to herself, her wind will pick her up, just like that.”

She made a gesture of grabbing.

“Does she have to lie naked?”

“That helps. Especially if she is shy. I was a fat old woman.

I had never taken off my clothes in my life. I slept in them and when I took a bath I always had my slip on. For me to show my fat body to the wind was like dying. The Nagual knew that and played it for all it was worth. He knew of the friendship of women and the wind, but he introduced me to Mescalito because he was baffled by me.

“After turning my head that first terrible day, the Nagual found himself with me on his hands. He told me that he had no idea what to do with me. But one thing was for sure, he didn't want a fat old woman snooping around his world. The Nagual said that he felt about me the way he felt about you.

Baffled. Both of us shouldn't be here. You're not an Indian and I'm an old cow. We are both useless if you come right down to it. And look at us. Something must have happened.

“A woman, of course, is much more supple than a man. A woman changes very easily with the power of a sorcerer. Especially with the power of a sorcerer like the Nagual. A male apprentice, according to the Nagual, is extremely difficult. For example, you yourself haven't changed as much as la Gorda, and she started her apprenticeship way after you did. A woman is softer and more gentle, and above all a woman is like a gourd; she receives. But somehow a man commands more power. The Nagual never agreed with that, though. He believed that women are unequaled, tops. He also believed that I felt men were better only because I am an empty woman. He must be right. I have been empty for so long that I can't remember what it feels like to be complete. The Nagual said that if I ever become complete I will change my feelings about it. But if he was right his Gorda would have done as well as Eligio, and as you know, she hasn't.”

I could not follow the flow of her narrative because of her unstated assumption that I knew what she was referring to. In this case I had no idea what Eligio or la Gorda had done.

“In what way was la Gorda different from Eligio?” I asked.

She looked at me for a moment as if measuring something in me. Then she sat up with her knees against her chest.

“The Nagual told me everything,” she said briskly. “The Nagual had no secrets from me. Eligio was the best; that's why he is not in the world now. He didn't return. In fact he was so good that he didn't have to jump from a precipice when his apprenticeship was over. He was like Genaro; one day while he was working in the field something came to him and took him away. He knew how to let go.”

I felt like asking her if I had really jumped into the abyss. I deliberated for a moment before going ahead with my question. After all I had come to see Pablito and Nestor to clarify that point. Any information I could get on the topic from anyone involved in don Juan's world was indeed a bonus tome.

She laughed at my question, as I had anticipated.

“You mean you don't know what you yourself did?” she asked.

“It's too farfetched to be real,” I said.

“That is the Nagual's world for sure. Not a thing in it is real. He himself told me not to believe anything. But still the male apprentices have to jump. Unless they are truly magnificent, like Eligio.

“The Nagual took us, me and la Gorda, to that mountain and made us look down to the bottom of it. There he showed us the kind of flying Nagual he was. But only la Gorda could follow him. She also wanted to jump into the abyss. The Nagual told her that that was useless. He said female warriors have to do things more painful and more difficult than that.

He also told us that the jump was only for the four of you.

And that is what happened, the four of you jumped.”

She had said that the four of us had jumped, but I only knew of Pablito and myself having done that. In light of her statements I figured that don Juan and don Genaro must have followed us. That did not seem odd to me; it was rather pleasing and touching.

“What are you talking about?” she asked after I had voiced my thoughts. “I meant you and the three apprentices of Genaro. You, Pablito and Nestor jumped on the same day.”

“Who is the other apprentice of don Genaro? I know only Pablito and Nestor?”

“You mean that you didn't know that Benigno was Genaro's apprentice?”

“No, I didn't.”

“He was Genaro's oldest apprentice. He jumped before you did and he jumped by himself.”

Benigno was one of five Indian youths I had once found while roaming in the Sonoran Desert with don Juan. They were in search of power objects. Don Juan told me that all of them were apprentices of sorcery. I struck up a peculiar friendship with Benigno in the few times I had seen him after that day. He was from southern Mexico. I liked him very much. For some unknown reason he seemed to delight himself by creating a tantalizing mystery about his personal life. I could never find out who he was or what he did. Every time I talked to him he baffled me with the disarming candor with which he evaded my probes. Once don Juan volunteered some information about Benigno and said that he was very fortunate in having found a teacher and a benefactor. I took don Juan's statements as a casual remark that meant nothing. Dona Soledad had clarified a ten-year-old mystery for me.

“Why do you think don Juan never told me anything about Benigno?”

“Who knows? He must've had a reason. The Nagual never did anything thoughtlessly.”

I had to prop my aching back against her bed before resuming writing.

“Whatever happened to Benigno?”

“He's doing fine. He's perhaps better off than anyone else.

You'll see him. He's with Pablito and Nestor. Right now they're inseparable. Genaro's brand is on them. The same thing happened to the girls; they're inseparable because the Nagual's brand is on them.”

I had to interrupt her again and ask her to explain what girls she was talking about.

“My girls,” she said.

“Your daughters? I mean Pablito's sisters?”

“They are not Pablito's sisters. They are the Nagual's apprentices.”

Her disclosure shocked me. Ever since I had met Pablito, years before, I had been led to believe that the four girls who lived in his house were his sisters. Don Juan himself had told me so. I had a sudden relapse of the feeling of despair I had experienced all afternoon. Dona Soledad was not to be trusted; she was engineering something. I was sure that don Juan could not under any conditions have misled me so grossly.

Dona Soledad examined me with overt curiosity.

“The wind just told me that you don't believe what I'm telling you,” she said, and laughed.

“The wind is right,” I said dryly.

“The girls that you've seen over the years are the Nagual's.

They were his apprentices. Now that the Nagual is gone they are the Nagual himself. But they are also my girls. Mine!”

“You mean that you're not Pablito's mother and they arc really your daughters?”

“I mean that they are mine. The Nagual gave them to me for safekeeping. You are always wrong because you rely on words to explain everything. Since I am Pablito's mother and you heard that they were my girls, you figured out that they must be brother and sisters. The girls are my true babies.

Pablito, although he's the child that came out of my womb, is my mortal enemy.”

My reaction to her statements was a mixture of revulsion and anger. I thought that she was not only an aberrated woman, but a dangerous one. Somehow, part of me had known that since the moment I had arrived.

She watched me for a long time. To avoid looking at her I sat down on the bedspread again.

“The Nagual warned me about your weirdness,” she said suddenly, “but I couldn't understand what he meant. Now I know. He told me to be careful and not to anger you because you're violent. I'm sorry I was not as careful as I should've been. He also said that as long as you can write you could go to hell itself and not even feel it. I haven't bothered you about that. Then he told me that you're suspicious because words entangle you. I haven't bothered you there, either. I've been talking my head off, trying not to entangle you.”

There was a silent accusation in her tone. I felt somehow embarrassed at being annoyed with her.

“What you're telling me is very hard to believe,” I said.

“Either you or don Juan has lied to me terribly.”

“Neither of us has lied. You understand only what you want to. The Nagual said that that is a condition of your emptiness.

“The girls are the Nagual's children, just like you and Eligio are his children. He made six children, four women and two men. Genaro made three men. There are nine altogether. One of them, Eligio, already made it, so now it is up to the eight of you to try.”

“Where did Eligio go?”

“He went to join the Nagual and Genaro.”

“And where did the Nagual and Genaro go?”

“You know where they went. You're just kidding me, aren't you?”

“But that's the point, dona Soledad. I'm not kidding you.”

“Then I will tell you. I can't deny you anything. The Nagual and Genaro went back to the same place they came from, to the other world. When their time was up they simply stepped out into the darkness out there, and since they did not want to come back, the darkness of the night swallowed them up”

I felt it was useless to probe her any further. I was ready to change the subject, but she spoke first.

“You caught a glimpse of the other world when you jumped,” she went on. “But maybe the jump has confused you. Too bad. There is nothing that anyone can do about it.

It is your fate to be a man. Women are better than men in that sense. They don't have to jump into an abyss. Women have their own ways. They have their own abyss. Women menstruate. The Nagual told me that that was the door for them.

During their period they become something else. I know that that was the time when he taught my girls. It was too late for me; I'm too old so I really don't know what that door looks like. But the Nagual insisted that the girls pay attention to everything that happens to them during that time. He would take them during those days into the mountains and stay with them there until they would see the crack between the worlds.

“The Nagual, since he had no qualms or fear about doing anything, pushed them without mercy so they could find out for themselves that there is a crack in women, a crack that they disguise very well. During their period, no matter how well-made the disguise is, it falls away and women are bare.

The Nagual pushed my girls until they were half-dead to open that crack. They did it. He made them do it, but it took them years.”

“How did they become apprentices?”

“Lidia was his first apprentice. He found her one morning when he had stopped at a disheveled hut in the mountains. The Nagual told me that there was no one in sight and yet there had been omens calling him to that house since early morning.

The breeze had bothered him terribly. He said that he couldn't even open his eyes every time he tried to walk away from that area. So when he found the house he knew that something was there. He looked under a pile of straw and twigs and found a girl. She was very ill. She could hardly talk, but still she told him that she didn't need anyone to help her.

She was going to keep on sleeping there and if she didn't wake up anymore no one would lose a thing. The Nagual liked her spirit and talked to her in her language. He told her that he was going to cure her and take care of her until she was strong again. She refused. She was an Indian who had known only hardships and pain. She told the Nagual that she had already taken all the medicine that her parents had given her and nothing helped.

“The more she talked the more the Nagual understood that the omen had pointed her out to him in a most peculiar way.

The omen was more like a command.

“The Nagual picked the girl up and put her on his shoulders, like a child, and brought her to Genaro's place. Genaro made medicine for her. She couldn't open her eyes anymore. The lids were stuck together. They were swollen and had a yellowish crud on them. They were festering. The Nagual tended her until she was well. He hired me to look after her and cook her meals. I helped her to get well with my food.

She is my first baby. When she was well, and that took nearly a year, the Nagual wanted to return her to her parents, but the girl refused to go and went with him instead.

“A short time after he had found Lidia, while she was still sick and in my care, the Nagual found you. You were brought to him by a man he had never seen before in his life. The Nagual saw that the man's death was hovering above his head, and he found it very odd that the man would point you out to him at such a time. You made the Nagual laugh and right away the Nagual set a test for you. He didn't take you, he told you to come and find him. He has tested you ever since like he has tested no one else. He said that that was your path.

“For three years he had only two apprentices, Lidia and you. Then one day while he was visiting his friend Vicente, a curer from the north, some people brought in a crazy girl, a girl who did nothing else but cry. The people took the Nagual for Vicente and placed the girl in his hands. The Nagual told me that the girl ran to him and clung to him as if she knew him. The Nagual told her parents that they had to leave her with him. They were worried about the cost but the Nagual assured them that it would be free. I suppose that the girl was such a pain in the ass to them that they didn't mind getting rid of her.

“The Nagual brought her to me. That was hell! She was truly crazy. That was Josefina. It took the Nagual years to cure her. But even to this day she's crazier than a bat. She was, of course, crazy about the Nagual and there was a terrible fight between Lidia and Josefina. They hated each other. But I liked them both. But the Nagual, when he saw that they couldn't get along, became very firm with them. As you know the Nagual can't get mad at anyone. So he scared them half to death. One day Lidia got mad and left. She had decided to find herself a young husband. On the road she found a tiny chicken. It had just been hatched and was lost in the middle of the road. Lidia picked it up, and since she was in a deserted area with no houses around, she figured that the chicken belonged to no one. She put it inside her blouse, in between her breasts to keep it warm. Lidia told me that she ran and in doing so the little chicken began to move to her side. She tried to bring him back to the front but she couldn't catch him. The chicken ran very fast around her sides and her back, inside her blouse. The chicken's feet tickled her at first and then they drove her crazy. When she realized that she couldn't get him out, she came back to me, screaming out of her mind, and told me to get the damn thing out of her blouse. I undressed her but that was to no avail. There was no chicken at all, and yet she still felt its feet on her skin going around and around.

“The Nagual came over then and told her that only when she let go of her old self would the chicken stop running. Lidia was crazy for three days and three nights. The Nagual told me to tie her up. I fed her and cleaned her and gave her water. On the fourth day she became very peaceful and calm. I untied her and she put on her clothes and when she was dressed again, as she had been the day she ran away, the little chicken came out. She took him in her hand and petted and thanked him and returned him to the place where she had found him. I walked with her part of the way.

“From that time on Lidia never bothered anyone. She accepted her fate. The Nagual is her fate; without him she would have been dead. So what was the point of trying to refuse or mold things which can only be accepted?

“Josefina went off next. She was already afraid of what happened to Lidia but she soon forgot about it. One Sunday afternoon, when she was coming back to the house, a dry leaf got stuck in the threads of her shawl. Her shawl was loosely woven. She tried to pick out the small leaf, but she was afraid of ruining her shawl. So when she came into the house she immediately tried to loosen it, but there was no way, it was stuck. Josefina, in a fit of anger, clutched the shawl and the leaf and crumbled it inside her hand. She figured that small pieces would be easier to pick out. I heard a maddening scream and Josefina fell to the ground. I ran to her and found that she couldn't open her hand. The leaf had cut her hand to shreds as if it were pieces of a razor blade. Lidia and I helped her and nursed her for seven days. Josefina was more stubborn than anyone else. She nearly died. At the end she managed to open her hand, but only after she had in her own mind resolved to drop her old ways. She still gets pains in her body from time to time, especially in her hand, due to the ugly disposition that still returns to her. The Nagual told both of them that they shouldn't count on their victory because it's a lifetime struggle that each of us wages against our old selves.

“Lidia and Josefina never fought again. I don't think they like each other, but they certainly get along. I love those two the most. They have been with me all these years. I know that they love me too.”

“What about the other two girls? Where do they fit?”

“A year later Elena came; she is la Gorda. She was by far in the worst condition you could imagine. She weighed two hundred and twenty pounds. She was a desperate woman. Pablito had given her shelter in his shop. She did laundry and ironing to support herself. The Nagual came one night to get Pablito and found the fat girl working while a circle of moths flew over her head. He said that the moths had made a perfect circle for him to watch. He saw that the woman was near the end of her life, yet the moths must have had all the confidence in the world, in order for them to give him such an omen. The Nagual acted fast and took her with him.

“She did fine for a while, but the bad habits that she had learned were too deep and she couldn't give them up. So one day the Nagual sent for the wind to help her. It was a matter of helping her or finishing her off. The wind began to blow on her until it drove her out of the house; she was alone that day and no one saw what was happening. The wind pushed her over hills and into ravines until she fell into a ditch, a hole in the ground like a grave. The wind kept her there for days.

When the Nagual finally found her she had managed to stop the wind, but she was too weak to walk.”

“How did the girls manage to stop whatever was acting upon them?”

“Well, in the first place what was acting upon them was the gourd that the Nagual carried tied to his belt.”

“And what is in the gourd?”

“The allies that the Nagual carries with him. He said that the ally is funneled through his gourd. Don't ask me any more because I know nothing more about the ally. All I can tell you is that the Nagual commands two allies and makes them help him. In the case of my girls the ally backed down when they were ready to change. For them, of course, it was a case of either change or death. But that's the case with all of us, one way or another. And la Gorda changed more than anyone else.

She was empty, in fact more empty than I, but she worked her spirit until she became power itself. I don't like her. I'm afraid of her. She knows me. She gets inside me and my feelings and that bothers me. But no one can do anything to her because she never lets her guard down. She doesn't hate me, but she thinks I am an evil woman. She may be right. I think that she knows me too well, and I'm not as impeccable as I want to be; but the Nagual told me not to worry about my feelings toward her. She is like Eligio; the world no longer touches her.”

“What did the Nagual do to her that was so special?”

“He taught her things he never taught anyone else. He never pampered her or anything like that. He trusted her. She knows everything about everybody. The Nagual also told me everything except things about her. Maybe that's why I don't like her. The Nagual told her to be my jailer. Wherever I go I find her. She knows whatever I do. Right now, for instance, I wouldn't be surprised if she shows up.”

“Do you think she would?”

“I doubt it. Tonight, the wind is with me.”

“What is she supposed to do? Does she have a special task?”

“I've told you enough about her. I'm afraid that if I keep on talking about her she will notice me from wherever she is, and I don't want that to happen.”

“Tell me, then, about the others.”

“Some years after he found la Gorda, the Nagual found Eligio. He told me that he had gone with you to his homeland.

Eligio came to see you because he was curious about you. The Nagual didn't notice him. He had known him since he was a kid. But one morning, as the Nagual walked to the house where you were waiting for him, he bumped into Eligio on the road. They walked together for a short distance and then a dried piece of cholla got stuck on the tip of Eligio's left shoe.

He tried to kick it loose but its thorns were like nails; they had gone deep into the sole of the shoe. The Nagual said that Eligio pointed up to the sky with his finger and shook his foot and the cholla came off like a bullet and went up into the air. Eligio thought it was a big joke and laughed, but the Nagual knew that he had power, although Eligio himself didn't even suspect it. That is why, with no trouble at all, he became the perfect, impeccable warrior.

“It was my good fortune that I got to know him. The Nagual thought that both of us were alike in one thing. Once we hook onto something we don't let go of it. The good fortune of knowing Eligio was a fortune that I shared with no one else, not even with la Gorda. She met Eligio but didn't really get to know him, just like yourself. The Nagual knew from the beginning that Eligio was exceptional and he isolated him. He knew that you and the girls were on one side of the coin and Eligio was by himself on the other side. The Nagual and Genaro were indeed very fortunate to have found him.

“I first met him when the Nagual brought him over to my house. Eligio didn't get along with my girls. They hated him and feared him too. But he was thoroughly indifferent. The world didn't touch him. The Nagual didn't want you, in particular, to have much to do with Eligio. The Nagual said that you are the kind of sorcerer one should stay away from. He said that your touch doesn't soothe, it spoils instead. He told me that your spirit takes prisoners. He was somehow revolted by you and at the same time he liked you. He said that you were crazier than Josefina when he found you and that you still are.”

It was an unsettling feeling to hear someone else telling me what don Juan thought of me. At first I tried to disregard what dona Soledad was saying, but then I felt utterly stupid and out of place trying to protect my ego.

“He bothered with you,” she went on, “because he was commanded by power to do so. And he, being the impeccable warrior he was, yielded to his master and gladly did what power told him to do with you.”

There was a pause. I was aching to ask her more about don Juan's feelings about me. I asked her to tell me about her other girl instead.

“A month after he found Eligio, the Nagual found Rosa,” she said. “Rosa was the last one. Once he found her he knew that his number was complete.”

“How did he find her?”

“He had gone to see Benigno in his homeland. He was approaching the house when Rosa came out from the thick bushes on the side of the road, chasing a pig that had gotten loose and was running away. The pig ran too fast for Rosa.

She bumped into the Nagual and couldn't catch up with the pig. She then turned against the Nagual and began to yell at him. He made a gesture to grab her and she was ready to fight him. She insulted him and dared him to lay a hand on her.

The Nagual liked her spirit immediately but there was no omen. The Nagual said that he waited a moment before walking away, and then the pig came running back and stood beside him. That was the omen. Rosa put a rope around the pig.

The Nagual asked her point-blank if she was happy in her job. She said no. She was a live-in servant. The Nagual asked her if she would go with him and she said that if it was what she thought it was for, the answer was no. The Nagual said it was for work and she wanted to know how much he would pay. He gave her a figure and then she asked what kind of work it was. The Nagual said that it was to work with him in the tobacco fields of Veracruz. She told him then that she had been testing him; if he would have said he wanted her to work as a maid, she would have known that he was a liar, because he looked like someone who had never had a home in his life.

The Nagual was delighted with her and told her that if she wanted to get out of the trap she was in she should come to Benigno's house before noon. He also told her that he would wait no longer than twelve; if she came she had to be prepared for a difficult life and plenty of work. She asked him how far was the place of the tobacco fields. The Nagual said three days' ride in a bus. Rosa said that if it was that far she would certainly be ready to go as soon as she got the pig back in his pen. And she did just that. She came here and everyone liked her. She was never mean or bothersome; the Nagual didn't have to force her or trick her into anything. She doesn't like me at all, and yet she takes care of me better than anyone else.

I trust her, and yet I don't like her at all, and when I leave I will miss her the most. Can you beat that?”

I saw a flicker of sadness in her eyes. I could not sustain my distrust. She wiped her eyes with a casual movement of her hand.

There was a natural break in the conversation at that point.

It was getting dark by then and writing was very difficult; besides I had to go to the bathroom. She insisted that I use the outhouse before she did as the Nagual himself would have done.

Afterward she brought two round tubs the size of a child's bathtub, filled them half-full with warm water and added some green leaves after mashing them thoroughly with her hands.

She told me in an authoritative tone to wash myself in one of the tubs while she did the same in the other. The water had an almost perfumed smell. It caused a ticklish sensation. It felt like a mild menthol on my face and arms.

We went back to her room. She put my writing gear, which I had left on her bed, on top of one of her chests of drawers.

The windows were open and there was still light. It must have been close to seven.

Dona Soledad lay on her back. She was smiling at me. I thought that she was the picture of warmth. But at the same time and in spite of her smile, her eyes gave out a feeling of ruthlessness and unbending force.

I asked her how long she had been with don Juan as his woman or apprentice. She made fun of my cautiousness in labeling her. Her answer was seven years. She reminded me then that I had not seen her for five. I had been convinced up to that point that I had seen her two years before. I tried to remember the last time, but I could not.

She told me to lie down next to her. I knelt on the bed, by her side. In a very soft voice she asked me if I was afraid. I said no, which was the truth. There in her room, at that moment, I was being confronted by an old response of mine, which had manifested itself countless times, a mixture of curiosity and suicidal indifference.

Almost in a whisper she said that she had to be impeccable with me and tell me that our meeting was crucial for both of us. She said that the Nagual had given her direct and detailed orders of what to do. As she talked I could not help laughing at her tremendous effort to sound like don Juan. I listened to her statements and could predict what she would say next.

Suddenly she sat up. Her face was a few inches from mine.

I could see her white teeth shining in the semidarkness of the room. She put her arms around me in an embrace and pulled me on top of her.

My mind was very clear, and yet something was leading me deeper and deeper into a sort of morass. I was experiencing myself as something I had no conception of. Suddenly I knew that I had, somehow, been feeling her feelings all along. She was the strange one. She had mesmerized me with words.

She was a cold, old woman. And her designs were not those of youth and vigor, in spite of her vitality and strength. I knew then that don Juan had not turned her head in the same direction as mine. That thought would have been ridiculous in any other context; nonetheless, at that moment I took it as a true insight. A feeling of alarm swept through my body. I wanted to get out of her bed. But there seemed to be an extraordinary force around me that kept me fixed, incapable of moving away. I was paralyzed.

She must have felt my realization. All of a sudden she pulled the band that tied her hair and in one swift movement she wrapped it around my neck. I felt the tension of the band on my skin, but somehow it did not seem real.

Don Juan had always said to me that our great enemy is the fact that we never believe what is happening to us. At the moment dona Soledad was wrapping the cloth like a noose around my throat, I knew what he meant. But even after I had had that intellectual reflection, my body did not react. I remained flaccid, almost indifferent to what seemed to be my death.

I felt the exertion of her arms and shoulders as she tightened the band around my neck. She was choking me with great force and expertise. I began to gasp. Her eyes stared at me with a maddening glare. I knew then that she intended to kill me.

Don Juan had said that when we finally realize what is going on it is usually too late to turn back. He contended that it is always the intellect that fools us, because it receives the message first, but rather than giving it credence and acting on it immediately, it dallies with it instead.

I heard then, or perhaps I felt, a snapping sound at the base of my neck, right behind my windpipe. I knew that she had cracked my neck. My ears buzzed and then they tingled. I experienced an exceptional clarity of hearing. I thought that I must be dying. I loathed my incapacity to do anything to defend myself. I could not even move a muscle to kick her. I was unable to breathe anymore. My body shivered, and suddenly I stood up and was free, out of her deadly grip. I looked down on the bed. I seemed to be looking down from the ceiling. I saw my body, motionless and limp on top of hers.

I saw horror in her eyes. I wanted her to let go of the noose. I had a fit of wrath for having been so stupid and hit her smack on the forehead with my fist. She shrieked and held her head and then passed out, but before she did I caught a fleeting glimpse of a phantasmagoric scene. I saw dona Soledad being hurled out of the bed by the force of my blow. I saw her running toward the wall and huddling up against it like a frightened child.

The next impression I had was of having a terrible difficulty in breathing. My neck hurt. My throat seemed to have dried up so intensely that I could not swallow. It took me a long time to gather enough strength to get up. I then examined dona Soledad. She was lying unconscious on the bed. She had an enormous red lump on her forehead. I got some water and splashed it on her face, the way don Juan had always done with me. When she regained consciousness I made her walk, holding her by the armpits. She was soaked in perspiration. I applied towels with cold water on her forehead. She threw up, and I was almost sure she had a brain concussion. She was shivering. I tried to pile clothes and blankets over her for warmth but she took off all her clothes and turned her body to face the wind. She asked me to leave her alone and said that if the wind changed direction, it would be a sign that she was going to get well. She held my hand in a sort of brief handshake and told me that it was fate that had pitted us against each other.

“I think one of us was supposed to die tonight,” she said.

“Don't be silly. You're not finished yet,” I said and really meant it.

Something made me feel confident that she was all right. I went outside, picked up a stick and walked to my car. The dog growled. He was still curled up on the seat. I told him to get out. He meekly jumped out. There was something different about him. I saw his enormous shape trotting away in the semidarkness. He went to his corral.

I was free. I sat in the car for a moment to deliberate. No, I was not free. Something was pulling me back into the house.

I had unfinished business there. I was no longer afraid of dona Soledad. In fact, an extraordinary indifference had taken possession of me. I felt that she had given me, deliberately or unconsciously, a supremely important lesson. Under the horrendous pressure of her attempt to kill me, I had actually acted upon her from a level that would have been inconceivable under normal circumstances. I had nearly been strangled; something in that confounded room of hers had rendered me helpless and yet I had extricated myself. I could not imagine what had happened. Perhaps it was as don Juan had always maintained, that all of us have an extra potential, something which is there but rarely gets to be used. I had actually hit dona Soledad from a phantom position.

I took my flashlight from the car, went back into the house, lit all the kerosene lanterns I could find and sat down at the table in the front room to write. Working relaxed me.

Toward dawn dona Soledad stumbled out of her room. She could hardly keep her balance. She was completely naked.

She became ill and collapsed by the door. I gave her some water and tried to cover her with a blanket. She refused it. I became concerned with the possibility of her losing body heat.

She muttered that she had to be naked if she expected the wind to cure her. She made a plaster of mashed leaves, applied it to her forehead and fixed it in place with her turban. She wrapped a blanket around her body and came to the table where I was writing and sat down facing me. Her eyes were red. She looked truly sick.

“There is something I must tell you,” she said in a weak voice. “The Nagual set me up to wait for you; I had to wait even if it took twenty years. He gave me instructions on how to entice you and steal your power. He knew that sooner or later you had to come to see Pablito and Nestor, so he told me to use that opportunity to bewitch you and take everything you have. The Nagual said that if I lived an impeccable life my power would bring you here when there would be no one else in the house. My power did that. Today you came when everybody was gone. My impeccable life had helped me. All that was left for me to do was to take your power and then kill you.”

“But why would you want to do such a horrible thing?”

“Because I need your power for my own journey. The Nagual had to set it up that way. You had to be the one; after all, I really don't know you. You mean nothing to me. So why shouldn't I take something I need so desperately from someone who doesn't count at all? Those were the Nagual's very words.”

“Why would the Nagual want to hurt me? You yourself said that he worried about me.”

“What I've done to you tonight has nothing to do with what he feels for you or myself. This is only between the two of us. There have been no witnesses to what took place today between the two of us, because both of us are part of the Nagual himself. But you in particular have received and kept something of him that I don't have, something that I need desperately, the special power that he gave you. The Nagual said that he had given something to each of his six children. I can't reach Eligio. I can't take it from my girls, so that leaves you as my prey. I made the power the Nagual gave me grow, and in growing it changed my body. You made your power grow too. I wanted that power from you and for that I had to kill you. The Nagual said that even if you didn't die, you would fall under my spell and become my prisoner for life if I wanted it so. Either way, your power was going to be mine.”

“But how could my death benefit you?”

“Not your death but your power. I did it because I need a boost; without it I will have a hellish time on my journey. I don't have enough guts. That's why I dislike la Gorda. She's young and has plenty of guts. I'm old and have second thoughts and doubts. If you want to know the truth, the real struggle is between Pablito and myself. He is my mortal enemy, not you. The Nagual said that your power could make my journey easier and help me get what I need.”

“How on earth can Pablito be your enemy?”

“When the Nagual changed me, he knew what would eventually happen. First of all, he set me up so my eyes would face the north, and although you and my girls are the same, I am the opposite of you people. I go in a different direction.

Pablito, Nestor and Benigno are with you; the direction of their eyes is the same as yours. All of you will go together toward Yucatan.

“Pablito is my enemy not because his eyes were set in the opposite direction, but because he is my son. This is what I had to tell you, even though you don't know what I am talking about. I have to enter into the other world. Where the Nagual is now. Where Genaro and Eligio are now. Even if I have to destroy Pablito to do that.”

“What are you saying, dona Soledad? You're crazy! “

“No, I am not. There is nothing more important for us living beings than to enter into that world. I will tell you that for me that is true. To get to that world I live the way the Nagual taught me. Without the hope of that world I am nothing, nothing. I was a fat old cow. Now that hope gives me a guide, a direction, and even if I can't take your power, I still have my purpose.”

She rested her head on the table, using her arms as a pillow.

The force of her statements had numbed me. I had not understood what exactly she had meant, but I could almost empathize with her plea, although it was the strangest thing I had yet heard from her that night. Her purpose was a warrior's purpose, in don Juan's style and terminology. I never knew, however, that one had to destroy people in order to fulfill it.

She lifted up her head and looked at me with half-closed eyelids.

“At the beginning everything worked fine for me today,” she said. “I was a bit scared when you drove up. I had waited years for that moment. The Nagual told me that you like women. He said you are an easy prey for them, so I played you for a quick finish. I figured that you would go for it. The Nagual had taught me how I should grab you at the moment when you are the weakest. I was leading you to that moment with my body. But you became suspicious. I was too clumsy.

I had taken you to my room, as the Nagual told me to do, so the lines of my floor would entrap you and make you helpless.

But you fooled my floor by liking it and by watching its lines intently. It had no power as long as your eyes were on its lines.

Your body knew what to do. Then you scared my floor, yelling the way you did. Sudden noises like that are deadly, especially the voice of a sorcerer. The power of my floor died out like a flame. I knew it, but you didn't.

“You were about to leave then so I had to stop you. The Nagual had shown me how to use my hand to grab you. I tried to do that, but my power was low. My floor was scared. Your eyes had numbed its lines. No one else has ever laid eyes on them. So I failed in my attempt to grab your neck. You got out of my grip before I had time to squeeze you. I knew then that you were slipping away and I tried one final attack. I used the key the Nagual said would affect you the most, fright. I frightened you with my shrieks and that gave me enough power to subdue you. I thought I had you, but my stupid dog got excited. He's stupid and knocked me off of you when I had you almost under my spell. As I see it now, perhaps my dog was not so stupid after all. Maybe he noticed your double and charged against it but knocked me over instead.”

“You said he wasn't your dog.”

“I lied. He was my trump card. The Nagual taught me that I should always have a trump card, an unsuspected trick.

Somehow, I knew that I might need my dog. When I took you to see my friend, it was really him; the coyote is my girls' friend. I wanted my dog to sniff you. When you ran into the house I had to be rough with him. I pushed him inside your car, making him yell with pain. He's too big and could hardly fit over the seat. I told him right then to maul you to shreds. I knew that if you had been badly bitten by my dog you would have been helpless and I could have finished you off without any trouble. You escaped again, but you couldn't leave the house. I knew then that I had to be patient and wait for the darkness. Then the wind changed direction and I was sure of my success.

“The Nagual had told me that he knew without a doubt that you would like me as a woman. It was a matter of waiting for the right moment. The Nagual said that you would kill yourself once you realized I had stolen your power. But in case I failed to steal it, or in case you didn't kill yourself, or in case I didn't want to keep you alive as my prisoner, I should then use my headband to choke you to death. He even showed me the place where I had to throw your carcass: a bottomless pit, a crack in the mountains, not too far from here, where goats always disappear. The Nagual never mentioned your awesome side, though. I've told you that one of us was supposed to die tonight. I didn't know it was going to be me. The Nagual gave me the feeling that I would win. How cruel of him not to tell me everything about you.”

“Think of me, dona Soledad. I knew even less than you did.”

“It's not the same. The Nagual prepared me for years for this. I knew every detail. You were in my bag. The Nagual even showed me the leaves I should always keep fresh and handy to make you numb. I put them in the tub as if they were for fragrance. You didn't notice that I used another kind of leaf for my tub. You fell for everything I had prepared for you. And yet your awesome side won in the end.”

“What do you mean my awesome side?”

“The one that hit me and will kill me tonight. Your horrendous double that came out to finish me. I will never forget it and if I live, which I doubt, I will never be the same.”

“Did it look like me?”

“It was you, of course, but not as you look now. I can't really say what it looked like. When I want to think about it I get dizzy.”

I told her about my fleeting perception that she had left her body with the impact of my blow. I intended to prod her with the account. It seemed to me that the reason behind the whole event had been to force us to draw from sources that are ordinarily barred to us. I had positively given her a dreadful blow; I had caused profound damage to her body, and yet I could not have done it myself. I did feel I had hit her with my left fist, the enormous red lump on her forehead attested to that, yet I had no swelling in my knuckles or the slightest pain or discomfort in them. A blow of that magnitude could even have broken my hand.

Upon hearing my description of how I had seen her huddling against the wall, she became thoroughly desperate. I asked her if she had had any inkling of what I had seen, such as a sensation of leaving her body, or a fleeting perception of the room.

“I know now that I am doomed,” she said. “Very few survive a touch of the double. If my soul has left already I won't survive. I'll get weaker and weaker until I die.”

Her eyes had a wild glare. She raised herself and seemed to be on the verge of striking me, but she slumped back.

“You've taken my soul,” she said. “You must have it in your pouch now. Why did you have to tell me, though?”

I swore to her that I had had no intentions of hurting her, that I had acted in whatever form only in self-defense and therefore I bore no malice toward her.

“If you don't have my soul in your pouch, it's even worse,” she said. “It must be roaming aimlessly around. I will never get it back, then.”

Dona Soledad seemed to be void of energy. Her voice became weaker. I wanted her to go and lie down. She refused to leave the table.

“The Nagual said that if I failed completely I should then give you his message,” she said. “He told me to tell you that he had replaced your body a long time ago. You are himself now.”

“What did he mean by that?”

“He's a sorcerer. He entered into your old body and replaced its luminosity. Now you shine like the Nagual himself.

You're not your father's son anymore. You are the Nagual himself.”

Dona Soledad stood up. She was groggy. She appeared to want to say something else but had trouble vocalizing. She walked to her room. I helped her to the door; she did not want me to enter. She dropped the blanket that covered her and lay down on her bed. She asked in a very soft voice if I would go to a hill a short distance away and watch from there to see if the wind was coming. She added in a most casual manner that I should take her dog with me. Somehow her request did not sound right. I said that I would climb up on the roof and look from there. She turned her back to me and said that the least I could do for her was to take her dog to the hill so that he could lure the wind. I became very irritated with her. Her room in the darkness gave out a most eerie feeling. I went into the kitchen and got two lanterns and brought them back with me. At the sight of the light she screamed hysterically.

I let out a yell myself but for a different reason. When the light hit the room I saw the floor curled up, like a cocoon, around her bed. My perception was so fleeting that the next instant I could have sworn that the shadow of the wire protective masks of the lanterns had created that ghastly scene.

My phantom perception made me furious. I shook her by the shoulders. She wept like a child and promised not to try any more of her tricks. I placed the lanterns on the chest of drawers and she fell asleep instantly.

By midmorning the wind had changed. I felt a strong gust coming through the north window. Around noon dona Soledad came out again. She seemed a bit wobbly. The redness in her eyes had disappeared and the swelling of her forehead had diminished; there was hardly any visible lump.

I felt that it was time for me to leave. I told her that although I had written down the message that she had given me from don Juan, it did not clarify anything.

“You're not your father's son anymore. You are now the Nagual himself,” she said.

There was something truly incongruous about me. A few hours before I had been helpless and dona Soledad had actually tried to kill me; but at that moment, when she was speaking to me, I had forgotten the horror of that event. And yet, there was another part of me that could spend days mulling over meaningless confrontations with people concerning my personality or my work. That part seemed to be the real me, the me that I had known all my life. The me, however, who had gone through a bout with death that night, and then forgotten about it, was not real. It was me and yet it was not. In the light of such incongruities don Juan's claims seemed to be less farfetched, but still unacceptable.

Dona Soledad seemed absentminded. She smiled peacefully.

“Oh, they are here!” she said suddenly. “How fortunate for me. My girls are here. Now they'll take care of me.”

She seemed to have had a turn for the worse. She looked as strong as ever, but her behavior was more disassociated. My fears mounted. I did not know whether to leave her there or take her to a hospital in the city, several hundred miles away.

All of a sudden she jumped up like a little child and ran out the front door and down the driveway toward the main road.

Her dog ran after her. I hurriedly got in my car in order to catch up with her. I had to drive down the path in reverse since there was no space to turn around. As I approached the road I saw through the back window that dona Soledad was surrounded by four young women.



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