Tuesday, n April 1961
I arrived at don Juan's house in the early morning on Sunday, April 9.
'Good morning, don Juan,' I said. 'Am I glad to see you!'
He looked at me and broke into a soft laughter. He had walked to my car as I was parking it and held the door open while I gathered some packages of food that I had brought for him.
We walked to the house and sat down by the door.
This was the first time I had been really aware of what I was doing there. For three months I had actually looked forward to going back to the 'field'. It was as if a time bomb set within myself had exploded and suddenly I had remembered something transcendental to me. I had remembered that once in my life I had been very patient and very efficient.
Before don Juan could say anything I asked him the question that had been pressing hard in my mind. For three months I had been obsessed with the memory of the albino falcon. How did he know about it when I myself had forgotten?
He laughed but did not answer. I pleaded with him to tell me.
'It was nothing,' he said with his usual conviction. 'Anyone could tell that you're strange. You're just numb, that's all.'
I felt that he was again getting me off guard and pushing me into a corner in which I did not care to be.
'Is it possible to see our death?' I asked, trying to remain within the topic.
'Sure,' he said, laughing.' It is here with us.'
'How do you know that?'
'I'm an old man; with age one learns all kinds of things.'
'I know lots of old people, but they have never learned this. How come you did?'
'Well, let's say that I know all kinds of things because I don't have a personal history, and because I don't feel more important than anything else, and because my death is sitting with me right here.'
He extended his left arm and moved his fingers as if he were actually petting something.
I laughed. I knew where he was leading me. The old devil was going to clobber me again, probably with my self-importance, but I did not mind this time. The memory that once I had had a superb patience had filled me with a strange, quiet euphoria that had dispelled most of my feelings of nervousness and intolerance towards don Juan; what I felt instead was a sensation of wonder about his acts.
'Who are you, really?' I asked.
He seemed surprised. He opened his eyes to an enormous size and blinked like a bird, closing his eyelids as if they were a shutter. They came down and went up again and his eyes remained in focus. His manoeuvre startled me and I recoiled, and he laughed with childlike abandon.
'For you I am Juan Matus, and I am at your service,' he said with exaggerated politeness.
I then asked my other burning question: 'What did you do to me the first day we met?'
I was referring to the look he had given me.
'Me? Nothing,' he replied with a tone of innocence.
I described to him the way I had felt when he had looked at me and how incongruous it had been for me to be tongue-tied by it.
He laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks. I again felt a surge of animosity towards him. I thought that I was being so serious and thoughtful and he was being so 'Indian' in his coarse ways.
He apparently detected my mood and stopped laughing all of a sudden.
After a long hesitation I told him that his laughter had annoyed me because I was seriously trying to understand what had happened to me.
'There is nothing to understand,' he replied, undisturbed.
I reviewed for him the sequence of unusual events that had taken place since I had met him, starting with the mysterious look he had given me, to remembering the albino falcon and seeing on the boulder the shadow he had said was my death.
'Why are you doing all this to me?' I asked.
There was no belligerence in my question. I was only curious as to why it was me in particular.
'You asked me to tell you what I know about plants,' he said.
I noticed a tinge of sarcasm in his voice. He sounded as if he were humouring me.
'But what you have told me so far has nothing to do with plants,' I protested.
His reply was that it took time to learn about them.
My feeling was that it was useless to argue with him. I realized then the total idiocy of the easy and absurd resolutions I had made. While I was at home I had promised myself that I was never going to lose my temper or feel annoyed with don Juan. In the actual situation, however, the minute he rebuffed me I had another attack of peevishness. I felt there was no way for me to interact with him and that angered me.
'Think of your death now,' don Juan said suddenly. 'It is at arm's length. It may tap you any moment, so really you have no time for crappy thoughts and moods. None of us have time for that.
'Do you want to know what I did to you the first day we met? I saw you, and I saw that you thought you were lying to me. But you weren't, not really.'
I told him that his explanation confused me even more. He replied that that was the reason he did not want to explain his acts, and that explanations were not necessary.
He said that the only thing that counted was action, acting instead of talking.
'What was wrong with you when I saw you, and what is wrong with you now, is that you don't like to take responsibility for what you do,' he said slowly, as if to give me time to understand what he was saying. 'When you were telling me all those doings in the bus depot you were aware that they were lies. Why were you lying?'
I explained that my objective had been to find a 'key informant' for my work.
Don Juan smiled and began humming a Mexican tune.
'When a man decides to do something he must go all the way,' he said, 'but he must take responsibility for what he does. No matter what he does, he must know first why he is doing it, and then he must proceed with his actions without having doubts or remorse about them.'
He examined me. I did not know what to say. Finally I ventured an opinion, almost as a protest.
'That's an impossibility!' I said.
He asked me why, and I said that perhaps ideally that was what everybody thought they should do. In practice, however, there was no way to avoid doubts and remorse.
'Of course there is a way,' he replied with conviction.
'Look at me,' he said. ' I have no doubts or remorse. Everything I do is my decision and my responsibility. The simplest thing I do, to take you for a walk in the desert, for instance, may very well mean my death. Death is stalking me. Therefore, I have no room for doubts or remorse. If I have to die as a result of taking you for a walk, then I must die.
'You, on the other hand, feel that you are immortal, and the decisions of an immortal man can be cancelled or regretted or doubted. In a world where death is the hunter, my friend, there is no time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions.'
I argued, in sincerity, that in my opinion that was an unreal world, because it was arbitrarily made by taking an idealized form of behaviour and saying that that was the way to proceed.
I told him the story of my father, who used to give me endless lectures about the wonders of a healthy mind in a healthy body, and how young men should temper their bodies with hardships and with feats of athletic competition. He was a young man; when I was eight years old he was only twenty-seven. During the summertime, as a rule, he would come from the city, where he taught school, to spend at least a month with me at my grandparents' farm, where I lived. It was a hellish month for me. I told don Juan one instance of my father's behaviour that I thought would apply to the situation at hand.
Almost immediately upon arriving at the farm my father would insist on taking a long walk with me at his side, so we could talk things over, and while we were talking he would make plans for us to go swimming, every day at six A.M. At night he would set the alarm for five-thirty to have plenty of time, because at six sharp we had to be in the water. And when the alarm would go off in the morning, he would jump out of bed, put on his glasses, go to the window and look out.
I had even memorized the ensuing monologue.
'Uhm ... A bit cloudy today. Listen, I'm going to lie down again for just five minutes. O.K.? No more than five! I'm just going to stretch my muscles and fully wake up.'
He would invariably fall asleep again until ten, sometimes until noon.
I told don Juan that what annoyed me was his refusal to give up his obviously phoney resolutions. He would repeat this ritual every morning until I would finally hurt his feelings by refusing to set the alarm clock.
'They were not phony resolutions,' don Juan said, obviously taking sides with my father.' He just didn't know how to get out of bed, that's all'
'At any rate,' I said, 'I'm always leery of unreal resolutions.'
'What would be a resolution that is real then?' don Juan asked with a coy smile.
'If my father would have said to himself that he could not go swimming at six in the morning but perhaps at three in the afternoon.'
'Your resolutions injure the spirit,' don Juan said with an air of great seriousness.
I thought I even detected a note of sadness in his tone. We were quiet for a long time. My peevishness had vanished. I thought of my father.
'He didn't want to swim at three in the afternoon. Don't you see?' don Juan said.
His words made me jump.
I told him that my father was weak, and so was his world of ideal acts that he never performed. I was almost shouting.
Don Juan did not say a word. He shook his head slowly in a rhythmical way. I felt terribly sad. Thinking of my father always gave me a consuming feeling.
'You think you were stronger, don't you?' he asked in a casual tone.
I said I did, and I began to tell him all the emotional turmoil that my father had put me through, but he interrupted me.
'Was he mean to you?' he asked.
'Was he petty with you?"
'Did he do all he could for you?'
'Then what was wrong with him?'
Again I began to shout that he was weak, but I caught myself and lowered my voice. I felt a bit ludicrous being cross-examined by don Juan.
'What are you doing all this for?" I said. 'We were supposed to be talking about plants.'
I felt more annoyed and despondent than ever. I told him that he had no business or the remotest qualifications to pass judgement on my behaviour, and he exploded into a belly laugh.
'When you get angry you always feel righteous, don't you?' he said and blinked like a bird.
He was right. I had the tendency to feel justified at being angry.
'Let's not talk about my father,' I said, feigning a happy mood. 'Let's talk about plants.'
'No, let's talk about your father,' he insisted. 'That is the place to begin today. If you think that you were so much stronger than he, why didn't you go swimming at six in the morning in his place?'
I told him that I could not believe he was seriously asking me that. I had always thought that swimming at six in the morning was my father's business and not mine.
'It was also your business from the moment you accepted his idea," don Juan snapped at me.
I said that I had never accepted it, that I had always known my father was not truthful to himself. Don Juan asked me matter-of-factly why I had not voiced my opinions at the time.
'You don't tell your father things like that,' I said as a weak explanation.
'That was not done in my house, that's all.'
'You have done worse things in your house,' he declared like a judge from the bench. 'The only thing you never did was to shine your spirit.'
There was such a devastating force in his words that they echoed in my mind. He brought all my defences down. I could not argue with him. I took refuge in writing my notes,
I tried a last feeble explanation and said that all my life I had encountered people of my father's kind, who had, like my father, hooked me somehow into their schemes, and as a rule I had always been left dangling.
'You are complaining,' he said softly. 'You have been complaining all your life because you don't assume responsibility for your decisions. If you would have assumed responsibility for your father's idea of swimming at six in the morning, you would have swum, by yourself if necessary, or you would have told him to go to hell the first time he opened his mouth after you knew his devices. But you didn't say anything. Therefore, you were as weak as your father.
'To assume the responsibility of one's decisions means that one is ready to die for them."
'Wait, wait!' I said. 'You are twisting this around.'
He did not let me finish. I was going to tell him that I had used my father only as an example of an unrealistic way of acting, and that nobody in his right mind would be willing to die for such an idiotic thing.
'It doesn't matter what the decision is,' he said. 'Nothing could be more or less serious than anything else. Don't you see? In a world where death is the hunter there are no small or big decisions. There are only decisions that we make in the face of our inevitable death.'
I could not say anything. Perhaps an hour went by. Don Juan was perfectly motionless on his mat although he was not sleeping.
'Why do you tell me all this, don Juan?' I asked. 'Why are you doing this to me?"
'You came to me,' he said. 'No, that was not the case, you were brought to me. And I have had a gesture with you."
'I beg your pardon?'
'You could have had a gesture with your father by swimming for him, but you didn't, perhaps because you were too young. I have lived longer than you. I have nothing pending. There is no hurry in my life, therefore I can properly have a gesture with you.'
In the afternoon we went for a hike. I easily kept his pace and marvelled again at his stupendous physical prowess. He walked so nimbly and with such sure steps that next to him I was like a child. We went in an easterly direction. I noticed then that he did not like to talk while he walked. If I spoke to him he would stop walking in order to answer me.
After a couple of hours we came to a hill; he sat down and signalled me to sit by him. He announced in a mock-dramatic tone that he was going to tell me a story.
He said that once upon a time there was a young man, a destitute Indian who lived among the white men in a city. He had no home, no relatives, no friends. He had come into the city to find his fortune and had found only misery and pain. From time to time he made a few cents working like a mule, barely enough for a morsel; otherwise he had to beg or steal food. Don Juan said that one day the young man went to the market place. He walked up and down the street in a haze, his eyes wild upon seeing all the good things that were gathered there. He was so frantic that he did not see where he was walking, and ended up tripping over some baskets and falling on top of an old man.
The old man was carrying four enormous gourds and had just sat down to rest and eat. Don Juan smiled knowingly and said that the old man found it quite strange that the young man had stumbled on him. He was not angry at being disturbed but amazed at why this particular young man had fallen on top of him. The young man, on the other hand, was angry and told him to get out of his way. He was not concerned at all about the ultimate reason for their meeting. He had not noticed that their paths had actually crossed.
Don Juan mimicked the motions of someone going after something that was rolling over. He said that the old man's gourds had turned over and were rolling down the street. When the young man saw the gourds he thought he had found his food for the day.
He helped the old man up and insisted on helping him carry the heavy gourds. The old man told him that he was on his way to his home in the mountains and the young man insisted on going with him, at least part of the way.
The old man took the road to the mountains and as they walked he gave the young man part of the food he had bought at the market. The young man ate to his heart's content and when he was quite satisfied he began to notice how heavy the gourds were and clutched them tightly.
Don Juan opened his eyes and smiled with a devilish grin and said that the young man asked, 'What do you carry in these gourds?" The old man did not answer but told him that he was going to show him a companion or friend who could alleviate his sorrows and give him advice and wisdom about the ways of the world.
Don Juan made a majestic gesture with both hands and said that the old man summoned the most beautiful deer that the young man had ever seen. The deer was so tame that it came to him and walked around him. It glittered and shone. The young man was spellbound and knew right away that it was a 'spirit deer'. The old man told him then that if he wished to have that friend and its wisdom all he had to do was to let go of the gourds.
Don Juan's grin portrayed ambition; he said that the young man's petty desires were pricked upon hearing such a request. Don Juan's eyes became small and devilish as he voiced the young man's question: 'What do you have in these four enormous gourds?'
Don Juan said that the old man very serenely replied that he was carrying food: 'pinole' and water. He stopped narrating the story and walked around in a circle a couple of times. I did not know what he was doing. But apparently it was part of the story. The circle seemed to portray the deliberations of the young man.
Don Juan said that, of course, the young man had not believed a word. He calculated that if the old man, who was obviously a wizard, was willing to give a 'spirit deer' for his gourds, then the gourds must have been filled with power beyond belief.
Don Juan contorted his face again into a devilish grin and said that the young man declared that he wanted to have the gourds. There was a long pause that seemed to mark the end of the story. Don Juan remained quiet, yet I was sure he wanted me to ask about it, and I did.
'What happened to the young man?'
'He took the gourds,' he replied with a smile of satisfaction.
There was another long pause. I laughed. I thought that this had been a real 'Indian story'.
Don Juan's eyes were shining as he smiled at me. There was an air of innocence about him. He began to laugh in soft spurts and asked me, 'Don't you want to know about the gourds?'
'Of course I want to know. I thought that was the end of the story.'
'Oh no,' he said with a mischievous light in his eyes. 'The young man took his gourds and ran away to an isolated place and opened them.'
'What did he find?' I asked.
Don Juan glanced at me and I had the feeling he was aware , of my mental gymnastics. He shook his head and chuckled.
'Well,' I urged him. 'Were the gourds empty?"
'There was only food and water inside the gourds,' he said. 'And the young man, in a fit of anger, smashed them against the rocks.'
I said that his reaction was only natural - anyone in his position would have done the same.
Don Juan's reply was that the young man was a fool who did not know what he was looking for. He did not know what ' power' was, so he could not tell whether or not he had found it. He had not taken responsibility for his decision, therefore he was angered by his blunder. He expected to gain something and got nothing instead. Don Juan speculated that if I were the young man and if I had followed my inclinations I would have ended up angry and remorseful, and would, no doubt, have spent the rest of my life feeling sorry for myself for what I had lost.
Then he explained the behaviour of the old man. He had cleverly fed the young man so as to give him the ' daring of a satisfied stomach', thus the young man upon finding only food in the gourds smashed them in a fit of anger.
'Had he been aware of his decision and assumed responsibility for it,' don Juan said, 'he would have taken the food and would've been more than satisfied with it. And perhaps he might even have realized that that food was power too.'