Prickly Pear

Prickly Pear

The Escape

The Escape - inspired by Naufragios de Alvar Núñez Cabeza de VacaI awoke abruptly to the sound of a strange man’s voice. The cold chill of the desert night crept deep into my spines. The sun had set hours ago, and through the murk of the madrugada[1] I could just make out a group of unknown figures heading my way.

“¡Rápido![2] We must move quickly! The Indians are not far behind! We cannot let them catch us again!”

The leader of this group spoke with a coarse voice and an unfamiliar, completely alien accent as he addressed them. When he approached me, the light of the full moon shone down on him, illuminating his unshaven face. He had dark, wild eyes and a beard that matched its unruly length only in dishevelment. The clothes that hung from his slim body seemed extravagant, yet they were ripped and dirty. The look of desperation on his face attested to a life of extreme hardship. As much as their presence startled me, I also felt sorry for them. As the group ran past me, one of the men cried out in pain.

“¡Ay!,”[3] one of the men cried out. He began to hop on one foot, lifting the other up towards him and cradling his leg.

“¡Silencio!,”[4] another man said to him. Then, seeing his pained expression, he asked what had caused him to shout like that.

“My foot,” he winced. “I must’ve stepped on something.”

The group stopped dead in their tracks at this and their leader, seemingly searching the horizon, eventually spotted my presence.

“¡Maldita sea![5] Have caution, men. This area is well populated by the prickly pear. Watch your step. You may find your foot impaled if you don’t.”

“The prickly pear?,” one of the other men inquired.

“Yes, it is a species of cactus,” replied the leader. Then, perhaps to demonstrate why it was him that was in charge, rather than the other men, he quoted its scientific name... The men seemed impressed, and so he continued to exhibit his knowledge.

“You see those round, reddish-coloured objects at the top of the cactus pad?,” he said, pointing right at me. “They are the tunas[6]. There are different kinds, and the Indians often eat them.”

“Fruit!?,” one of the men exclaimed, hurrying in my direction. I winced as he extended his hand to grab one of my precious fruit, but the leader suddenly turned and slapped it away.

“¡Ay, Álvar, please! We haven’t eaten for days,” said the man. “I am so hungry and if I don’t eat soon, I won’t be able to go on.”

“¡Señor Dorantes, cállese![7] We will eat, but first I must warn you that the tuna fruit is adorned with sharp spines. If you do not remove them, it will…” He trailed off in search of the appropriate words: “It will cause you great discomfort.”

“Ay!, that hurt,” I thought to myself as the man reached out and stole one of my fruits. Reaching into his belt, he grabbed a knife and began to scrape it clean. The spines that protect my fruit work well on most birds, but they were no match for these humans and their tools.

“Here you are,” he said, handing the fruit to his companion. “Beware of the seeds, but make sure you drink the juice. We have a long journey ahead and I do not know when we will next find water.” I was surprised by how much this man, who seemed completely different to the other humans I had seen before, knew so much about me.

The other men in the group hurried towards me and took more fruit. They seemed desperately hungry, so I did not mind sharing my fruit with them. They did not care to show any appreciation for the sustenance I had given to them. They acted as if they were entitled to take whatever they please.

“Make sure to collect some of the pads too. I have seen the Indians use them for treating wounds”.

Once they had robbed me of anything they deemed useful, they left me without a single tuna fruit and continued on their way without a word of thanks.

[1] Early morning
[2] Hurry up
[3] Ouch!
[4] Be quiet!
[5] Damn it!
[6] Prickly pears
[7] Mr Dorantes, shut up!

“There are many kinds of prickly pears, some very good ones, although to me they all tasted alike. Hunger never left me time to select or even stop to think about which ones were better.”

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (2002 [1542]), Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition

OpuntiaOpuntia spp.

Family: Cactaceae.
Commonly known as: Prickly Pear.
Native to: The Americas.
Main properties: Culinary dishes, beverage, treatment of wounds and inflammation.
Appears in: Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (2002 [1542]).


Savannah PearceSavannah Pearce

Studies: English Literature, Spanish and Latin American Studies.
Commonly known as: Savannah.
Birthplace: Edinburgh.
Interested in: Curanderismo [Mexican/Mexican American folk healing system] and the ways in which plants can be used to heal people. Also, kinship across species is something that really interests me.
Favourite plant: Sunflowers, because they remind me of summer and warmer weather. They also provide seeds and oil that can be consumed.