Messages Within the Earth, or That Which Is
I’ve been punished repeatedly for my sins. I can’t help but wonder what great things transpired in life to allow me a few rewards. The ranch, rolling back on all sides with exotic greenery, the staircase trail leading up to it, then beyond: I really expected Mother Goose to round a corner in a minute, smiling fat ducks and pigs waddling after her. The creatures of the night before were on the hillside. Creatures? They were messengers of the gods; magnificent and sure-footed! They were four of the most beautiful Appaloosa horses I’d ever seen. They must have stood a good sixteen hands tall; every one of them, with long, tapering necks, shapely heads and powerful legs. The muscles quivered and bunched nervously around their spotted hind quarters. Somehow I hadn’t expected Appaloosa this far south into Central America. I asked Victor about them. After a halting conversation with the Senor in a mixture of Zapotecan and Spanish, he explained to me, “the Appaloosa were first introduced here many, many years ago by invading Spanish troops. During the fierce battles with the bands of roving pirates and bandits that preyed along this road, the Spanish were driven back, but their horses remained.”
The Senor was enormously proud of his horses. When he whistled, the largest of them trotted up to him, quivering a greeting. He gave it a handful of corn, then ran his hand down its graceful neck, across the back and twitching flanks. In the close up examination, I saw no evidence that a saddle or bit had ever been used on the animal. I held my hand out experimentally to see if the horse would sniff it. He didn’t. His ears flattened, his eyes rolled back and he lifted his front legs. I jumped, startled more by the sheer size of him with his front legs pawing at the sky, than any fear of overt hostility. The Senor chuckled. “He’s not tame. The horses are wild. We don’t ride them. We only take care of them. They have been here for generations and generations. We are their guardians.”
Seeing that I understood the boundaries it had set, the horse settled down. I didn’t mind that I couldn’t touch him, stroke him, feed him a treat from my hand. It was enough that he allowed me to be so close. It was enough to sit on a fence rail in the warming sun, watching these animals go about their daily lives, protected from thieves and predators. Where the fence disappeared into the trees, I saw occasional flickers of silver and gray mottled coloring; the shyer animals in the pack; the wilder ones that disappeared like ghosts into the brush at approaching sounds. Maybe they were ghosts. I struggled with my entire concept of Appaloosa history, a horse that had been introduced to American culture by the Nez Perce. Somehow, the entire linage seemed more watered down, weaker, smaller than these magnificent, wild creatures. I doubt I’ll ever see again a horse so beautiful, so structurally perfect as these animals that defied another piece of what we have come to believe is history.
Around late morning, while I was still sitting on the fence, contemplating an animal that by all the terms of geographic history shouldn’t be here, the Senor finished his early chores, brought around a bucket, sat on it, and contemplated me. He picked up a coconut shell and set it on his head, his fist under his chin while he studied my every feature. After a few minutes, I asked Victor what he was doing.
“He’s being a scientist,” Victor informed me. The Senor rapidly spoke some words in his mixed language, his fingers circling the coconut bowl on his head, tapping his knee a few minutes, then writing notes with an invisible pen and notebook. “He says, several years ago some scientists came through here. They spent a long time looking at our ranch, the road, the horses; the way you are doing now. One of the scientists was bald. He was always writing things on paper and asking questions. He wanted to take the road all the way to Veracruz, but we explained it wasn’t possible. The same bandits and thieves lurk along the road as they did then, waiting for the unsuspecting. Not even with a guide is a stranger safe. Now that the Senor has been studied, he wishes to study you.”
I laughed until I nearly fell off the fence. The Senor laughed too, then shook my hand in both of his. This time, the greeting was warm and sincere instead of formal. “He says people spend too much time wondering about the past,” Victor told me, “instead of what simply is. What is doesn’t care what you make of the past. You can’t change it. You can’t erase it because even the stones will tell on you. In many ways, you are different. You are a strange color, you speak a different language. You scribble on paper and ask questions about horses. But in other ways, you are the same. You see with the same eyes. The foods we eat are agreeable with your tastes. Our pleasure is your pleasure. You laugh with us. This is what is and all that’s important.”
That afternoon the young girls came to visit. They giggled and whispered behind their hands, then shyly pulled from their aprons, packages wrapped with banana leaves. Victor unwrapped one. Inside the moist, broad leaves, was a small collection of psilocybin mushrooms. I had seen what we called “cow mushrooms” in Mendocino; pale brownish things with weak stems. These weren’t anything like them at all. Their tops were steeply pointed, their stalks thick, their colors ranging from blushing pink, through icy blue and lavender. Victor said they were the strongest mushrooms in the world. People came from everywhere to try them. He cited the Doors, the Rolling Stones and the Who among the celebrities that had spent an evening in Huautla to try them. But they hadn’t walked the stairway. They hadn’t come here.
“Show the girls what you have for trade,” Victor told me. I reached inside my back pack and pulled out a collection of make-up, eyebrow pencils, lipsticks, mascara, shadows and blush I had picked up at bargain prices while I was in the U.S. The girls screamed with delight and immediately began opening their packages, anxious to be the first to pick through the merchandise. When nearly all the make-up was gone, one fifteen year old girl walked up to me and warbled in timid Spanish, “my grandmother says she noticed you’re not wearing make-up, yet you’re selling it. She wants you to tell my cousins and me why you don’t wear make-up.”
“It’s really not good for you,” I admitted. “The make-up clogs your skin pores. The mascara dries your eye lashes. Lipstick bleeds the color from your lips. I think now and then is probably okay, but it’s not good to wear it all the time.”
She went back to tell her grandmother what I’d said, then returned with the most incredible clump of mushrooms of all; a crowd of pointed caps, all linked together, blushing violently under every color of the rainbow. “My grandmother said that for telling the truth, you deserve a reward.”
We had already eaten a few of the more common variety ones. The reward sat in the middle of the pile, an upright cathedral among the scattered remnants. “It looks like a small city,” he said. It did. A city somewhere in our dreams, in a reality we have not yet found. He broke off a piece and gave it to me to eat.
I made a face. “It’s bitter.”
“No,” he laughed. “It’s sweet.”
It was sweet. The moment he said it, the mushroom was as sweet as tasting a mango. While I savored this new experience, the Senor began talking again. Oddly enough, it seemed I could almost understand him without a translator. “There is a legend about these mushrooms,” said Victor, in case my heightened senses had not absorbed all the nuances of the Senor’s words. “The legend is that when Christ walked through the Americas and arrived here, his feet were bleeding. He was full of pain and sorrow. Each step he took, drops of blood seeped into the ground. The blood mingled with the earth and the first mushrooms sprang up in his memory.”
His last words seemed far away. I was far more aware of a strange tingling in my flesh than in my immediate surroundings. I looked down at my arm. I had been sitting casually on a pad on the ground, with my hand buried in the grass. As I gazed, the flesh began deteriorating from my arm, sloughing off and falling away, revealing the veins and arteries that collapsed into the earth, leaving the stark, white bone. As my eye traveled over the skeletal fingers, they too disappeared, leaving nothing more than the mounded imprint of a hand in the grass.
I gasped. “Are you okay, chiquita?” Asked Victor. I nodded. This is how it is. This is what we are. We are made of earth and bones. We rise up in flesh for a little while, then return; grass and dust and liquid flows beneath the earth’s murmuring surface.
I didn’t feel frightened. It seemed natural. It seemed right. A chicken scratched the ground near me. It was no longer just a chicken. It was a precious energy flow, a life form rising triumphant over the inanimate objects, the grounded, the stationary. It glowed with its own aura. Bone and flesh reconstructed, radiant life; deep within sun warmed earth, squirming microscopic organisms, each touched by their own bright sheen. Beautifully connected, beautifully rising up to fall again. Life! It breathes of its own, apart and separate from the shell that harbors it.
This is how it is to feel like the gods; not the power to create planets, to spin a Universe around, but this amazing energy flowing from you, this harmony of light and color dancing, spinning, so much in love with its own existence, so happy to grow and flourish. This is what is. This is what continues.
What continues also is death. I heard it out on the horizon, ominous and brutal. I heard it marching to soldiers and guns, through machines and bombs. I heard its explosions, felt the deep cracks it made in the continuance, the cries of pain. I saw the earth open, trembling, anguished. I saw it bleed.
Suddenly, I bolted from my meditations. An uncontrollable urge seized me to run. I needed to get away, to hide. I didn’t get very far when Victor called out, “where are you going?”
“It’s the end of the world!” I answered.
“So? Where will you hide?”
I paused and looked around. I was close to the well that I still expected Jill, at any minute now, to come tumbling after. The ranch continued placidly within what is, although I continued to hear the sounds of destruction in a now fading, distant reality. The earth had shivered. It had splintered. Perhaps a thousand earths had died in the moment, but this one still existed.
The days around the ranch settled into a placid rhythm of meals and walks, long conversations, flickering lamp light in the night. When the afternoon rains came, we settled back drowsily on the sheltered porch, listening to its clatter on the roof. On the evening of the last day we were to spend at the ranch, we sighed. We were both reluctant to leave our piece of paradise on the stairway to heaven, but we were out of merchandise we could afford to trade and money we could afford to spend. “The last time I was here, they made me leave,” admitted Victor. “They got worried about me. I had quit eating, combing my hair, bathing. I was running around…” He jabbed me, “telling everyone the world would end.”
I laughed, still a little self-conscious about my recent episode. “How long were you here?”
“Three months,” he said casually.
Three months! Three months of eating magic mushrooms; Christ’s blood. Three months of visions within a land completely separated from the modern world; no wires streaking in electricity, no automobiles, no machinery choking on diesel fumes, no tinny home spun music crackling from a box. I looked at my brown-eyed man, whose face recorded both tears and joy. I had first become attracted to him when I had seen within those windows of the soul, the deep, abiding love for the mountains, their long stretch, their awesome freedom. I had wondered how a man from Guadalajara, who knew intimately the streets of Mexico City, could have the vision of the mountains implanted so firmly within his gaze. Now I knew. We had arrived wet, hungry and tired. We left comfortable, fed and filled with laughter. We had reached the moment of what is.