This is an excerpt from the novel, Carne de Dios by the Mexican poet, novelist, and journalist Homero Aridjis. The novel’s central character is María Sabina, the famous Mazatec priestess of the Teonanácatl, or hallucinogenic mushrooms. In the novel, Sabina's veladas (mushroom eating ceremonies) in the remote Mexican town of Huatla de Jiménez serve as a focal point around which a motley crew of anthropologists, mycologists, businessmen, rock stars, poets, beats, and seekers, both real and fictional, orbit. Celebrities such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, Juan Rulfo, and Che Guevara all make appearances in Aridjis’s narrative as he traces the connections between Sabina and the faces and forces changing the world at the time (1957) while illuminating the life of one of Mexico’s greatest unsung poets and cultural figures.
I. Shaman of Hallucinations
María Sabina was no stranger to thresholds, she saw invisible creatures, the sacred mushrooms spoke through her—with her voice.
Barefoot, thin, and short, this Señora Without Stain was ignorant of her age, though not of her years of visions and of death. Born in Huautla de Jiménez, she didn’t know how to read or write, or how to speak Spanish. She had lived her life in this town in the mountains, working the land to feed herself and her children.
Her clothing was simple: an ankle-length petticoat and a huipil of white muslin decorated with ribbons of color and embroidered with yellow birds and pink flowers. When she left the house she wrapped herself in a rebozo, hand-woven on a back-strap loom, wide enough to hold a nursing infant or to carry mushrooms gathered under a new moon.
On Sundays, between nine and eleven in the morning, she went down to the market with corn, beans, and coffee to sell. These were the most bustling hours for the people of Huautla. A people who, according to the myths of their ancestors, the first to speak Mazatec, were descended from certain trees in the Ampadad forest—whose name means, “Place where the people are born.”
On the wide commercial street, full of makeshift cloth stalls where market women and healers sold baskets, comales, clay pitchers and pots, vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, armadillo shells to hold seeds when sowing, and parasols to keep off the sun, María Sabina stood out with her slight stature, her hair parted down the middle, and her braids trailing down her back. Equally striking were her thick eyebrows, her sharp cheekbones, her toothless mouth, her earrings and necklaces of blue and red beads, and her habit of smoking fat cigarettes, drinking moonshine, and emphasizing her words and expressions with her fingers and hands. The market was also a place where people haggled over magic bundles made by sorcerers. These contained an egg, seven scraps of brown paper, seven macaw feathers, grains of cacao and little pieces of resin, all wrapped in cornhusks or a banana leaf. According to books, the neighborhoods of Huautla have supernatural origins, they sprang from the ancient peaks, from the ragged hills, from the springs of rushing water, and from the trees—like the neighborhood of Mixteco, which had grown out of ‘the tree that rises.’
Heading towards her house on Mount Fortín, María walked with equal agility over the level streets, the steep ones, the dirt paths, the sunny and the shaded. She walked without hurrying, even though everything, above and below, within and outside of her, to the right and left in the great hills, whether luminous or clouded, was full of mystery and gloom.
She lived surrounded by the dead, those who still walked the streets, and the deceased who she saw in dreams and spoke to through the mushrooms. At times she saw another María Sabina coming to meet her like a mirror image, insubstantial as the shadow under her feet. If some of the Mazatec sorcerers tended to have an animal spirit, or nahual, then she had her mushrooms, her Saint Children.
Her life, which transpired between green-blue mountains the color of still emeralds, was besieged by her own poverty and the violence of others. A violence so swift and murderous that even the musical bands there, largely composed of wind instruments, reminded her of her slaughtered husbands.
“Where does the sun rise?” the teacher, M. Herlinda, asked her students seated in hollowed logs and little chairs in the classroom.
“In the east.”
“And where does it set?”
“The sun goes to sleep in Huautla” they answered.
Her current house, which she built herself, had adobe walls, a corrugated tin roof over wooden walls, and a thatched-grass ceiling, a remnant from a former house that had been burned down by someone unknown. It had two doors, one in the front and one in the back, and two levels, because of the incline of the land.
The furniture was simple: benches of hollowed out trunks and small chairs to sit on, a wooden table at which to eat and palm-fiber mats on the floor to sleep on. The kitchen was basic: A clay stove propped up on three stones over the tamped down earth, pots and cazuelas, a metate and a comal for tortillas, the masa dough formed by hand by her daughter Apolonia; cups and plates of clay and enameled metal.
Before moving into her new home, Maria Sabina had buried cacao and coffee beans, eggs, chickens, and rooster feet in the stove. She had cooked a stew of white mushrooms with hen meat; similar to the one she liked to serve to the foreign mycologists who visited her and to her local friends who came to her house to play her salterio. The instrument had called to her since the day when, during a velada, the Saint Children had asked her “Do you own an salterio?” “No, I don’t,” “Buy one.” Even though afterward she had to sell it for money, it had been almost like a child to her.
Seated on the front step to her shack, Maria Sabina observed the town at her feet: the main street, the alleyways spilling through the ravines, the plots of corn and beans that she farmed with her own hoe and a curved machete. With longing she stared at the Mountain of Adoration, waiting for the arrival of the Sacred Man, that radiant figure that she had seen one night descending from the mountains on a white horse. Not far from her dwelling was the Field of the Frightened Child, a cornfield where a lightning bolt had struck a cliff and a child had seen a goblin running off towards Mount Rabón. The oak next to her house with its twisted branches and drooping boughs was part of her family. It had just barely been saved from woodcutters who still managed to damage its roots. On its trunk, two eyes as amber-colored as one of the Saint Children were carved. According to her, the oak was the pride of all the supernatural forces because only God could make a tree so beautiful.
María Sabina spoke to her oak: “Old friend, now that people are beginning to die, who will remember when you were young and lightning almost pulled you out by the roots? Most of my life has gone and my house has been left empty, but you have accompanied me through the years with your eloquent silence. When I have touched your trunk I have heard your breathing and your voice. Sometimes I feel that we speak the same language and the same absence. Through your branches, your ground, and your sky, I have seen the world and I have seen myself.”
When she spoke to people her voice was so inaudible it seemed as if she was trying to listen to herself. When heading into town sometimes she descended the stairs so lightly that her feet barely grazed the stones. Her gaunt face was set against the gusts of wind and her lips clenched to keep them from tearing the cigarette from her mouth.
“Goodbye María Sabina” the teacher Miss Herlinda, surrounded by children dressed in muslin, called from the second floor of the school building as she saw her coming down the main street. And María Sabina, her face a fist of silence, raised her head for a moment, and then continued on her way towards Mount Fortín.
In the Mazatec the word “book” doesn’t exist, although in its litanies, as in the ancient painted codices, the images showed a world where everything spoke, everything had occurred, and every future was a memory; a world that spoke through itself, narrating snippets of history and episodes of the supernatural lives of the masters of the hills. To understand the images you had to ingest the mushrooms, Psilocybe caerulescens, the “Landslide” Mushroom, the San Isidros and the little birds, her family, her protectors, her friends, those who the ancient Teochichimecas praised for their virtues.
“I am not a healer, I don’t cure using strange herbs, I cure with language, nothing more,” she asserted. Then in the velada dancing and clapping she sang:
Our holy woman
Our woman of light
Our spirit woman
Our spirit woman
II. The Saint Children
María Sabina didn’t know her own age. It was not certified by official documents, nor calendars, nor by the memories of others uncertain of their own dates. One day was like another for her (apart from births, deaths and natural disasters). The names of the months were interchangeable, once past just something to forget. The passed years were approximations, the future years ciphers for unremembering.
She and her sister María Ana suffered hunger and deprivation when they were girls, sleeping in their clothes on a dirt floor on cold thin mats. Her parents, very poor, lived in a shack with walls of mud over reeds, roofed with sugarcane leaves. Their father had bequeathed them misery. So their mother took them to live with her parents who were so poor that they made the girls raise silk worms and work in the fields.
“I’ve suffered from poverty. My hands are toughened by rough work. My feet are calloused. I’ve never worn shoes. Walking on muddy and stony roads has hardened my feet,” she later disclosed. Her poverty was inherited. Her ancestors had passed it on to her, and she would pass it on to her children. Deprivation and injustice were her companions from childhood through youth and adulthood, and they had hardened her.
“I arrived at old age destitute. I had no money to cure myself. I earned a little in my store selling, huipiles, aguardiente and coffee,” she would say. “I am a member of the class exploited by the National Corruption Party. I suffered from poverty, but not misery, because I was never miserable.
“My sister and I minded chickens and goats on the mountainsides so that sparrow hawks and foxes didn’t eat them. One day when we were sitting under a tree I found, just within reach of my hand, the mushrooms that grew in pastures, ravines, and dead trees. The ones our grandparents called Little Things, Little Angels, and Saint Children. We were hungry, so my sister and I put them in our mouths and chewed them. Their flavor was bitter; they tasted of roots and earth. We felt dizzy, a little drunk, and we began to cry. The mushrooms spoke to us and we heard their voice, a sweet voice that came from another world. I felt that everything around me was God.
“My grandfather and my mother, seeing we were on mushrooms, lifted us up, and singing, laughing, and crying they carried us in their arms. They didn’t scold us because they knew that we were happy to have eaten the Flesh of the Gods.
“From then on whenever we felt hungry and cold we ate them. We heard voices. We had visions. Later I found out that they granted wisdom and cured illness and that our people had been taking them for a long time because they held power. They were the blood of the Christ.
“One day when I was fourteen, my mother, without consulting me, gathered my clothing and gave me to a twenty year old man, Serapio Martínez, who sold red and black thread for embroidering huipiles. ‘You no longer are mine, you belong to this young man who will be your husband. Go with him, take good care of him, you’re a young lady now. This is how it is.’ she said.
“He didn’t drink aguardiente often but he was a womanizer. One day he left to be a soldier and returned after eight months with some sluts who came to live in the house. He died of the wind sickness which he contracted in the Tierra Caliente. He left me three children: Aurelio, Viviana and Apolonia.
“Widowed, to support myself I grew corn and beans, I planted coffee trees. I brought pots from Teotitlán to sell on Sundays in the market. Because I had pains in my stomach and hips, I turned to the Saint Children.
“Twelve years I lived alone, until I married Marcial Carrera, a healer and a drunk who made spells out of turkey eggs and macaw feathers. I had six children with him. All of them, except Aurora, died of sickness or were murdered. Then he became involved with a married woman, so her sons beat him and hacked him with machetes and left him to bleed out on the road.
“During this time I began to realize that though María Ana and I were sisters, we were not the same. That even though we were both taking the mushrooms, having the same visions, and speaking through the Saint Children, they did not reveal the same secrets to us: the secrets hidden in the Great Book they only showed to me.”
Like a memory of what was going to happen, one morning when they were both on the mountainside, María Sabina saw María Ana fall to the ground lying there like a black rock. María Ana was so sick the healer was unable to help her with medicinal herbs and magical rites. Unwilling to let her die, María Sabina returned to the Teonanácatl, the mushrooms named by ancient Mexicans, Flesh of the Gods. She turned to them not as a healer but rather as The Woman Who Knows. The mushrooms would give her wisdom, and the Wisdom was The Language. The Language resided in The Book and The Principal Beings gave the book through the power of the Saint Children. With their help, she cured her sister. In a ceremony she ate more than thirty pairs of Landslide Mushrooms and to her sister she gave three pairs gathered under the new moon. Encircled by candles of pure beeswax, Madonna Lilies, and gladiolas, she burned copal in a brazier and perfumed the Saint Children. She appealed to them: “I will take your blood. I will take your heart. My conscience is pure, it is clean like yours. Give me the truth. Come to me Saint Peter and Saint Paul.” She extinguished the candles, because darkness was a good backdrop for visions.
The Book vanished. And Chicón Nindó appeared mounted on a white horse: the master of the mountains, the one who charms the spirits and heals the sick, he to whom the healers offer coins and cacao grains. He approached her shack. From inside, she saw him through the walls, because her eyes could see through them, and she went outside to meet him. Under his white sombrero his face was like a shadow, his being covered by a transparent aura. Chicón Nindó left in the direction of his dwelling on Nindo Tocoxho, the Mountain of Adoration. He had come because she had called him. She was his neighbor, she lived on Mount Fortín.
When the sun rose, Maria Sabina touched her body, the ground, and the walls to assure herself that she had returned to the world of the living. The Principal Beings had disappeared. María Ana was asleep. María Sabina knew that while she was dancing the Saint Children had been working on her body. Without realizing it, she saw she had pulled down parts of the mud and reed walls. María Sabina said, “The Language makes the dying return to life. The sick recover their health when they hear the words taught by the Saint Children. There is no mortal who can teach this Language, the perfect word, the Language of God… The spirit is what gets sick …The healers don’t know that the visions of the Saint Children reveal the origin of the malady.”
From deep within her sister, blood and water flowed, curing her. Woken from the trance, María Sabina noticed that the hens and goats that had wandered out of sight on the mountainside had returned, and that María Ana, raising herself from the ground, was walking by her side, whole. And so she sang:
I am the medicine woman
I am the prostrate woman
I am the language woman
I am the woman who swims the sacred
III. The Book of the Principal Beings
“I learned their Language from no one,” María Sabina swore to me. “The old one, Teonanácatl, the Flesh of the Gods, as it was known to the ancients, revealed the secret to me in a trance. Then once inside of my body, speaking, the Saint Children took me to visit the world that has passed, where everything was seen and everything was dissolving.
“The Saint Children, transformed into Principal Beings, placed on my table an open book that grew and grew until it was the size of a person.
“This book of resplendent whiteness had signs, letters, animal shapes, drawings of peyote, magic mushrooms, and mandrakes on its pages. It was The Book of the Principal Beings.
“I could see it, but I couldn’t touch it: I stroked it with my hands, but I couldn’t feel it. Its endpapers at the beginning and the end both hid and revealed a world beyond our own, a world close but far; visible, but invisible; it explained that God is alive, but he is dead, that the spirits and the saints are everywhere and nowhere; that the world is always speaking to us, that every single thing has its own language, transmitted through an inscrutable silence.
“It is said in The Book of the Principal Beings that the sacred mushrooms express themselves in a way that we can understand, without being able to understand everything; that when we make a trip they accompany us, though in reality at the outset, during and at the end of the journey they leave us all alone.
“One of the Principal Beings told me: ‘Maria this is The Book of Wisdom, The Book of Language. Everything that is written here is yours.’
“‘I accept it’, I said. ‘I am a midwife, but that is not my profession; I am a daughter of God and I was chosen to be the priestess of the mushrooms. I am the one who speaks with Him and with Benito Juarez; beginning in my mother’s belly, I am the wise woman, I am the woman of the winds, the water, the pathways. I am known in the sky, I am the doctor woman.’
“‘Beyond the pages closed and open among the tombstones within me, beyond the words awake and sleeping within and outside of my self, beyond the fugitive feelings flowing like air, like waters both foreign and my own, The Book goes on,’ said a Principal Being who was there but not there, who was outside and within their body, who being present there was elsewhere, because to have a sense of what was close and far away, one only had to see his eyes opening and closing.
“Who are the Principal Beings?” she asked herself. “They could well be the masters of the hills, the winds, the rivers, of the caves and the springs. They could well be our ancestors and our descendants, the beings that live visible and invisible on Earth, that are how we were or want to be.” She said, smoking a cigar, sitting on her mat. Until she rose and put the book on the table that served as an altar, encircled by wax candles, lilies, and gladiolas, and for a few moments she remained silent. Then she burned copal in a brazier, perfuming the mushrooms that she had laid out on a banana leaf used as a plate. She brought them to her mouth and chewed them. Eyelids heavy, she clapped her hands, a wedding band glowing on one finger. The words dragged as if it was the mushrooms speaking:
Mh, Mh, Mh, Mh,
I come with everything
I bring my thirteen sparrowhawks
I know how to drink and I know how to smoke,
In the form the malignant want,
I will fight,
only we who walk on this road
know how the world really is.
Language is wise,
The Book does not lie,
santo, santo santo,
I am the spiritwoman.
excerpts from Carne de Dios ©ALFAGUARA, 2015, Spanish translation © Chloe Garcia Roberts, 2019