The Alternative Prologue

"With what would you begin? Into what do you enter?" - José

August 30, 2004. I begin this tale on a wrong turn in Mexico City. Veracruz' capital, Xalapa, and all of the cities to its south or east were accessible from Mexico City's eastern bus station, where I'd arrived via taxi, but it did not offer routes to the state's northern points such as Papantla or Poza Rica, as I would discover.

I suppose that I had come to prove a point: that witchcraft is a subjective affair, its faculties always open to discussion.

Another taxicab drove me through the dense urban thicket from the east station to the north one. A bus bound for the gulf town of Tuxpan, Veracruz departed at one thirty. Because I had arrived just beforehand, I hoped my two suitcases were loaded on time.

I credit Wicca. I had discovered it in 1997, a time when all I was receiving were rejection letters: short story submissions, biochemistry graduate programs, and a high-school crush. All of my former structures and expectations were collapsing upon my ego, yielding to cosmic chaos and its unbearable perception--my life was going to shit. Dreams were intensifying. And the Ancients seemed to be pulling me back to Mexico, where I had just visited several archaeological sites, including the great temple at Chich'én Itzá and the pyramids at Teotihuacan. It all began to happen ... since I acquired a knapped obsidian knife at a workshop outside the pyramids. Nature had a power of its own, it was sacred, and it was not to be trifled. Something had to explain this!

Dotted with the occasional rows of maguey plants whose succulent leaves curved outward so heavily that they folded under the weight, the esplanade of the dry highlands northeast of Mexico City rose to the low, rounded hills contouring the horizon. The paved highway extended out to it in an almost straight line. An isolated tor sharply jutted from the earth at one end and smoothly waved back into it at the other.

On the internet word was spreading about a religion that holds such precepts. It celebrated the divine feminine in the Goddess, and, moreover, it was flexible enough to accommodate nature-based religions worldwide. Including Mexican? Many Wiccans were embracing the institution of "witchcraft" as they reclaimed it from its vilification under European witch-hunts, motivated by the condemnation of pre-Christian rites as devil-worship. So went the legend of the "Burning Times."

The bus's northeast path ascended into the narrow roads that wound tightly around the steepening edges of the Sierra Oriental mountain ranges which for centuries separated the Huasteca lowlands from Central Mexico. Ancient parabolic mountains blended into each other to form a barrier of impenetrably forested slopes. Beyond the thick of pine and oak, rivers coursed from the lucid Necaxa reservoir at the slopes' bottom. These mountains have been the homes for some of the most isolated indigenous societies in Mexican history, including the Sierra Nahuat, Otomí, Totonac, and the aptly-named Tepehua or 'Mountain Owner' tribes.

Perhaps there was some truth in all this. Perhaps the image of the evil witch in Mexico was only a phantom, the unfortunate consequence of five hundred years of Spanish domination over all indigenous institutions, including its religious ones. It could have been that the abilities I seemed to be developing, as I will relate in this tale, were not evil, save before those lacking the openness to accept it as anything other than their devil's intervention.

Before European contact the Aztecs had tried to conquer the Huaxtec Maya civilization for whom the Huasteca region was named, but its topographical inaccessibility and a tenacious Huaxtec army prevented complete victory. By the late fifteenth century Aztec peoples did eventually settle into the region's southern portion. My plan was to elucidate the supernatural world of their Huasteca descendants.

Much of what the original peoples knew was lost upon the Conquest, and much of what remained became demonized. These questions inspired my graduate career. If such powers were really accessible, they would force us in the modern world to radically reevaluate our psychic relation to the natural world and to each other--and our responsibility to each in turn. Toward what ends, I did not know. What I did know was that no justice remained in relegating these abilities to the playground of "superstition," the self-delusions of puerile primitives. After five hundred years of colonialist suppression, indigenous Mexican knowledge deserved more dignity than this. Indigenous Mexicans deserved better than this. I had come to prove a point.

As the bus descended into the southern fringe of the Huasteca, the sun dissolved behind the perennial haze that capped the northern Sierra range. It approached the coastal city of Tuxpan. All I knew of this port city was that it was the provenience for a Huaxtec rain god sculpture on display in the Xalapa Anthropology Museum and that by sunset I should transfer buses here to reach San Sebastián, a one-motel town south of the Tantoyuca county seat.

I was 29, and it was only in the previous year that I had had my first sex. I knew how to speak some Huasteca Nahuatl, but not as a fluent expert. I certainly intended to improve my fluency during the field season ... and perhaps gain some perspective.

This second bus was of two-star quality, and not one star because it still had all of its seats intact. An open window near my seat drew in a chilly wind. Condensed humidity seeped through faults in the ceiling and dripped upon my laptop, which I had ordered only three weeks prior. The restroom was either locked or jammed, and whatever must have died in there, based on its aroma, could not be removed.

It would not be my first time in the Huasteca. I had already visited the Nahua village of Altepetl for a week in July of 2003 and for another week in January. How well would my hosts remember me? Whom would I meet? What would I learn? Could I survive for so long by myself outside of the United States?

The bus had apparently arrived into "San Sébas! San Sébas!" Had it? Where were the town lights aside from the small bulb illuminating the bus transfer entrance? What or who was out there in the dark? I reconsidered dismounting here if I could not ensure the presence of a motel, so I paid for the remaining route to Tantoyuca, where lodging and visibility were more certain.

After half a day of travel, I picked up my luggage and arrived at the motel by ten thirty. The light from a hanging bulb was absorbed into the motel room's forest green walls, as was much of the August swelter. Toilets with hinged seats could be found among the luxury hotels in the Huasteca, but not at this motel toward the city's outskirts, where the ambiance sounded of light highway traffic, faint Mexican pop, and humming cricket song. For eleven dollars my room provided a meager shower, a flushing toilet, and a queen-sized bed. It sufficed.

Midnight came. Within my curtained motel room I faced north, or at least my closest to it, to perform my devotion to the gods of the new day's Aztec sign. Immediately after the devotion I found a power socket toward the top of one of the walls. I could find power here in the Huasteca--if I would know where to look. But for now I was just relieved to finally rest. That the laptop still functioned after its recent exposure let me sleep well for this first night.