As a student of shamanism, I have often witnessed what many might consider improbable. I am often asked what brought me into that field. When I look back on my childhood, I am convinced that I was called unto my present path at the moment of my birth.
I was born into a family and part of a culture that still held onto superstitions and beliefs in supernatural phenomena. As I was growing up, I had to learn the difference between what was nothing more than lore and tradition and what was true and factual.
The Headless Man
I do not remember if I was yet in school that summer, when I looked out the window from my bed in the middle of the night and saw a headless man walking slowly toward the house. The moon must have been in fullness that night, making the hard ground appear almost white and everything else in varying shades of gray and black.
Out in the country, when the moon is full, it throws a soft white light on everything and provides adequate clarity for those who are used to it. In some instances, the light is sufficient so that one can even make out some colors.
Right then, I could almost make out the configurations of his arms in the obscurity of his silhouette, though he was holding them in front of him, within the confines of the shadow. And then, he waved or made some sort of gesture, and I quickly hid my face in the pillow and listened to my heart thumping.
I was not sure what to do. At that young age, I had already committed many blunders in action and word that had needed correcting or punishment by my parents or siblings. And in blunder, along with the lesson, one may get criticism, derision, ridicule, and/or laughter, so one learns to be cautious before doing or speaking.
A few minutes earlier, not yet asleep, I had rolled over and opened my eyes, and I had looked out the window, probably wanting to be out there. It was a different world at night, and I was always drawn to its mysteries. Now I raised my head and looked again.
It had not occurred to me at that point to speculate as to exactly what kind of threat a headless person might present. He had been about fifty yards away when I spotted him, and he was advancing unhurriedly. I had to decide if I should cry out and wake everybody up or keep quiet for fear of being wrong about what I was seeing.
That there might exist such a thing as a headless person walking around did not seem so far-fetched to me. I had heard many stories of the improbable and the supernatural. I was blessed with parents who both enjoyed a good story … they liked hearing them, and they liked telling them. And if the stories were not of the humorous type, they would most likely be of the supernatural.
For a long time, all we had of the outside world came to us through a little monophonic radio about the size of a shoebox. In the fifties, a program called ‘Apague la Luz y Escuche’ (Turn Out the Light and Listen) was being aired. It was at night, of course. It may have been on late Friday nights.
What I remember more clearly was the way the five of us would gather around that little radio and listen to those wonderful stories of mystery, suspense, and the occult. When the story was over, we would all sit back and express opinions and reactions. I did not realize it at the time, but what we were actually doing was sharing our feelings as a family.
Those interactions familiarized us with one another in such a way that what might seem to others as discussions of ridiculous notions, in our home, they were taken with keen interest and heedfulness.
When the program was no longer being aired, our parents told stories of their own. And more often than not, those stories were close to home and based on truth.
The Evil Eye
Whether or not they believe in it, just about every Mexican-American family I know has heard of el ojo or mal ojo (pronounced oh-hoh, it refers to the eye, the bad eye, or the evil eye). It is a sort of hex, most often inflicted unintentionally on infants, elderly people, or the infirm, due to absent-mindedness or forgetfulness. As a child, I found a similarity to it in ‘the whammy’ from the ‘Lil Abner’ comic strips. And, for me, the fact that it existed in a comic strip simply verified its existence in real life.
In a traditional Mexican-American community, if one meets a baby, or generally speaking, anyone of particular visual interest (one with a pretty or cute face, or a deformity, wound, or scar), one is expected to acknowledge the feature in a physical manner, that is to caress it or at least to touch it. It could be said to be an expression of acceptance. If it isn’t done, it is like starting a circle and not closing it. And that becomes an opening for a malady of some sort.
One might see someone caressing a child’s face as nothing more than open adoration. But for many Mexican-Americans, Mexicans, and Native Americans who remain in touch with their culture, it is a gesture that allays the resolution of the malady. The results of the hex can be any of numerous aches and pains, fever, nausea, weakness, and/or listlessness. In the very vulnerable, it can be fatal.
It is, of course, conceivable that a person might want to invoke the hex so as to hurt someone intentionally, and they might feign forgetfulness or absent-mindedness in the matter of that courtesy. Suspicions can be raised and distrust generated in ways that can lead to hurtful and injurious conflicts. And whatever disasters might follow could well be seen as a continuation or an extension of the curse.
Certain people are born with the ability to remove the malady or heal the person afflicted. The process of healing is a ritualistic procedure that involves the use of an egg, an old shoe, or some other object as a vehicle of transition for the malady. I had an aunt with such a gift.
Stories of the Night
In the Midst of the Ritual
Now if this is all starting to sound like so much superstition or improbability, please consider the rest of this disclosure. My mother was often called on to assist in la curación del mal ojo (the curing of the evil eye), and she would bring me along because I was not yet in school. So I was there when my tía Odelia (my aunt) worked her magic. She was not a curandera, which is an actual healer, nor was she considered a witch by any means. She addressed her orations to God, and whatever happened was of His will. She was merely a medium who had accepted a gift.
With the eyes of a child, I would watch her engross herself in a flurry of movement and oration, while repeatedly passing the vehicular object over the afflicted body. It was actually a thing of beauty to see, like a dance or a performance of some sort.
The egg would be broken afterward and would usually reveal the insides as cooked. But at other times, we would find it in a state of rot. Or we might find a hatchling within, dead or dying, and often disfigured.
If a shoe was used, it would come out of the usage smoking or steaming, and would be dropped on the floor and allowed to cool. It would either turn to a dry crumbly state or become moist and slimy. Whatever was used had to be destroyed by burning as soon as possible.
My tía Odelia had another gift. She could make the clouds separate if it was threatening to rain. Those who worked in the fields could not afford days off due to rain, so they would often call on her to help them out.
And I learned early on that invocations and expulsions pursued in God’s name were not to be bought or sold.
The Legend of the Aztec Treasure
Many of the stories I heard had to do with ghosts and apparitions. And in most stories about apparitions, there is usually a prospect of hidden treasure. Where hidden treasure causes apparitions, there are usually some risks or consequences involved.
For those people who are not familiar with the legend about the lost Aztec treasure, it goes like this. Just before the fall of their empire to the Spanish, it is believed that the Aztecs sent a company of men with most of the Aztec wealth back to their place of origin, a somewhat mythical place called Aztlán. Since it has never been recovered, this treasure could be anywhere in the mountains or desert, perhaps in some undiscovered cave, in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, or Utah, or even as far as Nevada or Northern California.
In some tellings of the legend, the men commit suicide, and their ghosts remain and watch over the treasure. In other beliefs, such a treasure, already steeped in a history of blood, enslavement, and suffering, and now hoarded in secrecy … that, in and of itself, carries the ethereal essence from which a spiritual energy can converge as a vindictive force.
In the Mexican version of the legend, there are accounts of men who have wandered into a cave and gazed upon a mind-staggering hoard of golden and bejeweled artifacts. And while they stare, a voice in the hollow of the chamber is heard to say, “All or nothing.”
I have heard this story in Spanish only, and the voice was depicted to be in Spanish, addressing itself to Spanish-speaking men. But I would expect that a spirit that watches over such a treasure would convey its message in direct mental contact, so one would discern it in their own language.
It has been presumed by many that if one was to attempt to walk away with whatever they could carry, they would not be allowed to leave. And those who have walked away with nothing, hoping to return with the means to carry everything away, were unable to find the location again.
Dispersal of Clouds and Myth
My father related an incident in which he was riding his horse one night, when he was attacked by an unseen assailant. As well as he could tell, someone knocked him off the horse and beat him as with fists and kicking. But he couldn’t see anyone.
Often, when I heard him tell this story in a group, I would also hear the rebuttal that he had been out drinking. He was riding back to the ranch after a night of inebriation, fell off his horse, and made up the story.
The horse ran off and found its way home, the ranch where my father worked and lived. A couple of men went out to look for my father and found him severely beaten up. It was countered by the skeptics that he had probably been beaten up in town, which would explain why he had fallen off his horse.
In the morning, my father got up to go to work, expecting to have a long hard day of it, and he and those who had seen him the night before were mystified to see no bruises of any kind on him.
It was always pointed out in the ensuing conversations that it was in that vicinity where two men had been caught once, who were suspected of having stolen a quantity of gold sometime earlier. The ones who caught them tried to beat confessions out of them and killed them in the process. And the gold was never found.
In my mother’s childhood environment, there was a customary pile of rubbish out back and away from the house, where all garbage and trash were thrown. It had to be set afire on a regular basis to cleanse it and to discourage the scavengers. Such fires had to be watched because there was shrubbery all around, and in South Texas, it can get very dry.
One day, my mother and her brother had the duty of lighting the fire and watching it until it was deemed safe. Being children, this involved a great deal of chasing each other around the flames and submitting to that particular enchantment found only in a large blaze.
They were very much enthralled in some activity which had them looking away from the fire when they heard an animal snort nearby. They turned to see an enormous ram forming itself from the smoke and hovering over the fire. They both made eye contact with the creature and were met with a dismissive condescending glare.
It took on a very realistic appearance, and in the last instance of its formation, its horns turned to silver. But then it turned quickly and galloped off … they could hear its hooves. It expanded in size and dissipated into the sky, like the smoke from the fire.
In incidents such as this, children did not like to relate such occurrences to their parents, although most parents, I dare say, probably would have considered the opportunity of finding something of value. But from the children’s perspective, it would have meant having to confess that they were not fully focused on their job.
In fact, some children came to believe that God was watching them when their parents were not around, and such manifestations were His way of making them aware of it.
My First Apparition
Sightings, manifestations, and apparitions were common for us. One might say they were part of our way of life. We came to apprehensively expect things to come out of dark places or to appear around any corner. For a time, I believed that it was nothing more than an attribute of the culture, myth, and superstition left over from simpler and darker times, perhaps bequeathed by the less intelligent upon the more simple-minded. But then, there were the moments of personal experience.
The year before the incident of the headless man, on a cool autumn day, my siblings and I were out in the backyard showing our mother how to play freeze-tag. I ran inside for something, and on my way out, I happened to glance at a bench in the corner of the room. And I stopped dead in my tracks, because I saw something duck behind the bench.
I was sure of what I had seen. It had turned and made eye contact with me just before it disappeared. And as I stood there, frozen in place and staring full of wonder, it peeked at me and then stepped out openly.
It was a little man, six or seven inches tall. He was cartoonish in a way, with an over-sized head and enormous eyes that seemed to take up much of his face. His feet also were big but did not appear to be a hindrance in his movement. He was not altogether dressed in green, but he was wearing a green Derby-style hat. (I will not venture to say what this was, but at the age of five or six, I had not yet heard of leprechauns, nor were leprechauns a part of our mythology.)
The little entity smiled amicably at me, also in a cartoonish way, his eyes bright and sprightly. Then he rocked from one foot to another a couple of times, and he winked, waved goodbye, and disappeared behind the bench again.
I continued to stand there, stranded in that narrow space between what is known and what has just been seen. I hoped for another look, for a token of some sort, the all-important affirmation, but it never came. I heard the laughter outside, the laughter of play and unrestraint, and I ran and lost myself in the game.
I have always thought that if I ever saw that little man again, we would be special friends. Now it was a summer night, about a year later, and there was nothing friendly in what I was looking at out there, getting ever closer to the house.
The Primal Utterance
And now, it was no longer a matter of ‘wait and see.' I wanted to yell. The headless man was about twenty yards away from the house, and I was sure he knew that I was watching him. But I was so frozen up with fear now that I couldn’t even bring up the air to make any kind of sound.
He had stopped in the middle of the clearing, which was just an extension of our front yard. It was all hard ground that took on a milky-gray patina under the full moon. Here and there was the sparkle of a pebble that would not be findable in the daylight.
I had to search myself, to determine exactly why I couldn’t scream, so that I could overcome that hindrance and warn everybody. I realized that I had been breathing shallow, trying to keep quiet and still, and a lump had formed in my throat, a tense muscle or a pocket of air.
I made the effort to take in a deep breath. I felt my body move, and I could sense him looking at me. But he had no head and no eyes! I relaxed my throat and swallowed, and now I was ready to yell.
In the moment it took for that gasp to come out, I saw that dark figure unfold in a most impossible way. It repeated the gesture with its arm, it emitted some primal utterance, and a strange part of its body jutted out from its side.
And now, covered in the sweat of innocent timidity, I clearly saw that what I had been watching all the while was a horse. There were three or four horses that were allowed to roam freely on the property. Usually, they stuck together and rarely came near the house. This one had apparently gotten separated from the others and was probably looking for them.
It had followed the road, and had been walking leisurely. It had approached the house with its head held low, and its silhouette had appeared as a headless man in the moonlight.
The swishing of its tail had looked like an arm waving, and its primal utterance had only been the familiar snort that horses often make.
My eyes still wide, I had barely managed to stop myself in the middle of my own primal utterance. I lay on my back and closed my eyes regretfully, my heart still pounding, my chest heaving, and tears running down my cheeks. In a few minutes, I would relax and probably giggle myself to sleep.
I heard my mother’s voice, “¿Que pasa, hijo, estás bien?” (What is it, son, are you alright?)
“Sí, mamá. Fue un sueño, nada más.” (“Yes, mother, it was just a dream, nothing more.”)
r. nuñez, 7/2011