don Genaro

The third day, however, was different. The three of us worked together, and don Juan asked don Genaro to teach me how to select certain plants. We returned around noon and the two old men sat for hours in front of the house, in complete silence, as if they were in a state of trance. Yet they were not asleep. I walked around them a couple of times; don Juan followed my movements with his eyes, and so did don Genaro.

“You must talk to the plants before you pick them,” don Juan said. He dropped his words casually and repeated his statement three times, as if to catch my attention. Nobody had said a word until he spoke.

“In order to see the plants you must talk to them personally,” he went on. “You must get to know them individually; then the plants can tell you anything you care to know about them.”

It was late in the afternoon. Don Juan was sitting on a flat rock facing the western mountains; don Genaro was sitting by him on a straw mat with his face toward the north. Don Juan had told me, the first day we were there, that those were their “positions” and that I had to sit on the ground at any place opposite to both of them. He added that while we sat in those positions I had to keep my face toward the southeast and look at them only in brief glances.

“Yes, that’s the way it is with plants, isn’t it?” don Juan said and turned to don Genaro, who agreed with an affirmative gesture.

I told him that the reason I had not followed his instructions was because I felt a little stupid talking to plants.

“You fail to understand that a sorcerer is not joking,” he said severely. “When a sorcerer attempts to see, he attempts to gain power.”

Don Genaro was staring at me. I was taking notes and that seemed to baffle him. He smiled at me, shook his head, and said something to don Juan. Don Juan shrugged his shoulders. To see me writing must have been quite odd for don Genaro. Don Juan was, I suppose, habituated to my taking notes, and the fact that I wrote while he spoke was no longer odd to him; he could carry on talking without appearing to notice my acts. Don Genaro, however, kept on laughing, and I had to stop writing in order not to disrupt the mood of the conversation.

Don Juan affirmed again that a sorcerer’s acts were not to be taken as jokes because a sorcerer played with death at every turn of the way. Then he proceeded to relate to don Genaro the story of how one night I had looked at the lights of death following me during one of our trips. The story proved to be utterly funny; don Genaro rolled on the ground laughing.

Don Juan apologized to me and said that his friend was given to explosions of laughter. I glanced at don Genaro, who I thought was still rolling on the ground, and saw him performing a most unusual act. He was standing on his head without the aid of his arms or hands, and his legs were crossed as if he were sitting.

The sight was so incongruous that it made me jump. When I realized he was doing something almost impossible, from the point of view of body mechanics, he had gone back again to a normal sitting position. Don Juan, however, seemed to be cognizant of what was involved and celebrated don Genaro’s performance with roaring laughter.

Don Genaro seemed to have noticed my confusion; he clapped his hands a couple of times and rolled on the ground again; apparently he wanted me to watch him. What had at first appeared to be rolling on the ground was actually leaning over in a sitting position, and touching the ground with his head.

He seemingly attained his illogical posture by gaining momentum, leaning over several times, until the inertia carried his body to a vertical stand, so that for an instant he “sat on his head.”

When their laughter subsided don Juan continued talking; his tone was very severe. I shifted the position of my body in order to be at ease and give him all my attention. He did not smile at all, as he usually does, especially when I try to pay deliberate attention to what he is saying.

Don Genaro kept looking at me as if he were expecting me to start writing again, but I did not take notes any more. Don Juan’s words were a reprimand for not talking to the plants I had collected, as he had always told me to do. He said the plants I had killed could also have killed me; he said he was sure they would, sooner or later, make me get ill. He added that if I became ill as a result of hurting plants, I would, however, slough it off and believe I had only a touch of the flu.

The two of them had another moment of mirth, then don Juan became serious again and said that if I did not think of my death, my entire life would be only a personal chaos. He looked very stern.

“What else can a man have, except his life and his death?” he said to me.

At that point I felt it was indispensable to take notes and I began writing again. Don Genaro stared at me and smiled. Then he tilted his head back a little and opened his nostrils. He apparently had remarkable control over the muscles operating his nostrils, because they opened up to perhaps twice their normal size.

What was most comical about his clowning was not so much his gestures as his own reactions to them. After he enlarged his nostrils he tumbled down, laughing, and worked his body again into the same, strange, sitting-on-his-head, upside-down posture.

Don Juan laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks. I felt a bit embarrassed and laughed nervously.

“Genaro doesn’t like writing,” don Juan said as an explanation.

I put my notes away, but don Genaro assured me that it was all right to write, because he did not really mind it. I gathered my notes again and began writing. He repeated the same hilarious motions and both of them had the same reactions again.

Don Juan looked at me, still laughing, and said that his friend was portraying me; that my tendency was to open my nostrils whenever I wrote; and that don Genaro thought that trying to become a sorcerer by taking notes was as absurd as sitting on one’s head and thus he had made up the ludicrous posture of resting the weight of his sitting body on his head.

“Perhaps you don’t think it’s funny,” don Juan said, “but only Genaro can work his way up to sitting on his head, and only you can think of learning to be a sorcerer by writing your way up.”

They both had another explosion of laughter and don Genaro repeated his incredible movement.

I liked him. There was so much grace and directness in his acts.

“My apologies, don Genaro,” I said, pointing to the writing pad.

“It’s all right,” he said and chuckled again.

I could not write any more. They went on talking for a very long time about how plants could actually kill and how sorcerers used plants in that capacity. Both of them kept staring at me while they talked, as if they expected me to write.

“Carlos is like a horse that doesn’t like to be saddled,” don Juan said. “You have to be very slow with him. You scared him and now he won’t write.”

Don Genaro expanded his nostrils and said in a mocking plea, frowning and puckering his mouth.

“Come on, Carlitos, write! Write until your thumb falls off.”

Don Juan stood up, stretching his arms and arching his back. In spite of his advanced age his body seemed to be powerful and limber. He went to the bushes at the side of the house and I was left alone with don Genaro. He looked at me and I moved my eyes away because he made me feel embarrassed.

“Don’t tell me you’re not even going to look at me?” he said with a most hilarious intonation.

He opened his nostrils and made them quiver; then he stood up and repeated don Juan’s movements, arching his back and stretching his arms but with his body contorted into a most ludicrous position; it was truly an indescribable gesture that combined an exquisite sense of pantomime and a sense of the ridiculous. It enthralled me. It was a masterful caricature of don Juan.

Don Juan came back at that moment and caught the gesture and obviously the meaning also. He sat down chuckling.

“Which direction is the wind?” don Genaro asked casually.

Don Juan pointed to the west with a movement of his head.

“I’d better go where the wind blows,” don Genaro said with a serious expression.

He then turned and shook his finger at me.

“And don’t you pay any attention if you hear strange noises,” he said. “When Genaro shits the mountains tremble.”

He leaped into the bushes and a moment later I heard a very strange noise, a deep, unearthly rumble. I did not know what to make of it. I looked at don Juan for a clue but he was doubled over with laughter.



“A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with don Juan” – Carlos Castaneda