Dylan Brennan

A Cactus/The Aleph

Dylan Brennan

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What's it taste like? A snozzcumber. A what? Inca doves are loud and screech and chirp all night in the trees of Matehuala. Well, they used to anyway. Matehuala—a town that had not yet become famous for drug deaths and strange fashion trends on YouTube. Local lads wearing boots with excessively elongated, upcurled tips when dancing, imagine Rumpelstiltskin as a cowboy and you get the idea. No buses until sunup. We knocked on the door of one hotel and the woman shouted the price from the rooftop. We mustn't have been willing to pay because we spent the night on park benches in the zócalo, something that would be ill-advised now and was ill-advised back then. The only place that seemed open was an all-night pizzeria that seemed to facilitate the delivery of young girls to and from local punters. Not a pizza in sight. Just the incessant hopping and chittering of the grey inca doves and the coming and going of fat sweaty taxi drivers with their delicately-wrapped and perfumed girls. We didn't sleep. When the birds stopped their noise the sweepers began theirs, sweeping their dry branch brushes through the streets and up to the zócalo. The entire town bruised papaya-flesh pink from the scratching of the branches and the early light. Time to head back to the station where we should've spent the night. Four tickets to Real de Catorce bought, we got on board and began our ascent past hamlets inhabited by more goats than people and large Canadian copper mines.

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Anyway, there's a proper way to do this. You can find a shaman that will sell you the stuff and take care of you. Here, read this. A magazine article. An American journalist's experience at a Huichol ceremony. I'd never heard of the Huichol. I'd only been in the country about two weeks and everything was strange and new and many times a day I would stop what I was doing and continue a desperate attempt to re-learn the familiar, asking colleagues to name things for me when they laughed at the Castilian lisp I'd perfected at Trinity. Peach? Durazno not melocotón. I was working as a teacher of English in Monterrey.Of course, Monterrey felt like what it was. A buffer zone between the colonial heartland and the vast wastes of Texas. The journalist had written about a near-fatal chest stabbing and how the Huichol object to non-Huichols abusing the peyote for their own amusement. The Huichol are from Nayarit on the Pacific coast but make an annual pilgrimage across country to Real de Catorce and believe that the belly button of the world is located in a canyon on the outskirts of Monterrey. Cañon de la Huasteca in Santa Catarina. She provided anecdotal evidence that suggested that eating the holy cactus could induce a nightmarish fever causing unwitting frat boys to claw at their eyes and yank out their hair. They could be seen the following morning, shoeless, dusty and cold—begging for help. Peyote, she wrote, was a sacrament. A means of communing with dead relatives. A way to talk to people you'd never met despite their blood flooding your capillaries on a daily basis. I knew then that I'd have to try it.

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The arrival at Real de Catorce (maybe named for fourteen royal soldiers that were murdered by rebels in a time that nobody remembers) was, and still is, through a single-lane tunnel that once featured in an ad for Heineken. El túnel Ogarrio. The smugglers get stopped by soldiers and, after being allowed through, slap the Heineken logo stickers back on the barrels. Strolling through the town we noticed an abundance of photographs of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. A film had been filmed there. What was it called? The Mexican. Any good? It brought money. The mines are being reopened. Profits to Ontario. That tunnel had brought us back in time to a semi-abandoned mining town that once was important and large. Now, it's home to European capitalists, washed hippies serving pasta and pear tartlets. Matthew McConaughey cycles off-road in the high altitude to stay in shape. Or so I've been told. Then there are the short-term visitors, looking for peyote. To the older generations, the ones that have lived there forever, everyone's a nuisance. I knew I was too. A passing glimpse of the local museum, a ramshackle assortment of things only the dead can identify, things that were made from metal. We found a cheap room in the San Francisco guesthouse. Cold running water and an abundance of blankets. It was early morning and we had the full day to explore that small town of ghosts and immigrants. But I had to sleep. At least for a while.  I awoke to clanging noises outside on the street. It was September 15th, that night the whole town would be celebrating Independence Day, my first. We weren't the only out-of-towners in Real de Catorce, the streets moaned with the sound of excitable rich youths down from the cities of the north, getting ready for a night of beer, fireworks and pills. I closed my eyes.  

After snoozing fitfully and eating some gorditas swimming in spicy oil, we paid a local boy (whose name I mistakenly thought to be a shortened form of Huitzilopochtli) for a guided horse ride to the sacred mountain. A few dried up flowers, ashes, trinkets and tied dirty fabrics. Still some smoke. The remnants of Huichol ritual. A magic that was hidden from us. The view from that mountain has stayed with me and I will not describe it. We shouldn't have been there, we made our way back. We walked round the town, an hour is enough to see it all. The aforementioned museum of obsolete implements, the empty palenque, the church of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the placita with its bandstand, and the bar; we spent most time in the bar. We drank beer and played pool. I didn't ask for the toilet as I saw that the locals had tied one of the swing-doors to the corner wall and pissed there upon a healthy looking potted-shrub. One of the girls asked for the key to the bathroom. The key was huge and opened what I was told to be the cleanest jacks in Mexico, never been used. A sharp metallic tinkle. Later we strolled to the church, La Virgen de la Purísima Concepción, the walls of which were full of ex-votos, little pictures that both describe and give thanks for miracles. I was robbed on the way home and beaten to a pulp. I was sure I would die but I prayed to San Francis and he saved me. Thank you Blessed Virgin of the Purest Conception for making me get pregnant. God is great and so are the Rayados, thank you Jesus for winning us the cup. A long plaited snake of hair tied at the bottom by a stained cream ribbon pinned to the wall. We went back to the guesthouse, buying more beer on the way.

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A while later, through an elaborate set of circumstances that you would not find overly interesting, we found ourselves on an off-road truck ride to the abandoned train-stop town of Estación Catorce near Wadley. An old lady sold us some buttons of peyote from her shelf and wished us well. Some local girls asked me my name and I told them and they blew me kisses as we pulled away. Back in town as the sun went down I ate the buttons and knew the taste of the snozzcumber. Bitter and sour juices mingling with dried dirt and warm beer. Vile to the point of hilarity. More beer to drown the taste. I was drunk and wandered off alone into the night past the hippy girls swinging those twin flames above their heads, past the old pig-tailed women heating the corn dough on their comales, past the Swiss café and the smell of pecans and warm milk, past the tooled-up fighting cocks and their loaded owners, past the chilled mountains of tofu and coloured beans in the veggie restaurant, past the posh kids laughing like maniacs in the face of a bonfire, past a moving statue of a female virgin, past the purple, red and yellow beads of a jaguar's face, past the moon and far from its sight, past a waterless fountain near the church, past my grandfather who I'd never met, past the dilated nostrils of huddled horses and the vapour from their opened mouths, past Garay street and up the hill to the side of the tunnel, past the deserted ruins of a village built to spy upon another, past my grandmother who died when I lived in Bologna and couldn't afford the flight to her funeral, past a small mound of stones gathered together for a purpose, past Killakee House and the skeleton of a murdered dwarf underneath the kitchen floorboards, past the animals of the desert that ran mute about me, past the old lady with the buttons on the shelf, past girls that asked me my name but couldn't understand my reply, past cold pieces of rusty metal, past a coin with a harp on one side and an eyeless salmon on the other, past a familiar face that looked into my soul before disintegrating into a kaleidoscopic mess at the slightest hint of a slackening in the ocular muscles, past the Casa del Diablo in San Luis Tehuiloyocan, past the Hell-Fire Club and the cloven hooves, past myself in the bandstand years later in a moment of abject humiliation, past the tied ribbons and burnt offerings, past those smiling posters of Philip Cairns, past graven images and steaming barrels of unsweetened hibiscus infusions, into a cold room with a ceiling of stars and awoke to a knock on the window and the feel of a human hand in my own.

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The next morning we left at first light. A girl named Elvira followed us, stared at us and eventually introduced herself. She invited us to into the back of a pick-up that took us down to Matehuala. I was wearing an orange linen shirt and my nose was sunburnt. I felt weightless and happy.I stared down into the cactus-spiked valley below. A wind on my face like deep-fried ice cream,miraculously warm and fresh.


Dylan Brennan


Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan www.dylanbrennan.org


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