"The Brujería?" the Patagonian natives will scoff. "That's just a story to scare children."

Some story. The squeamish may stop reading now.

The Sect of the Brujería, according to British author Bruce Chatwin, in his fascinating first book In Patagonia, exists solely for "the purpose of hurting ordinary people."

The location of its headquarters is unknown to this day, but there were two branches of its Central Committee in the 1970's--one in Buenos Aires and the other in Santiago de Chile.

There are numerous regional committees spread throughout the provinces in "the uttermost part of the earth," but like so many secret organizations throughout history, knowledge of the true workings at the top does not travel downward through the rank and file.

On the island of Chiloé, off the west coast of Chile and north of Puerto Aisén, the Committee is known as The Council of the Cave. The cave is subterranean, and any visitor suffers temporary amnesia. If he reads and writes, he "loses his hands and the ability to write."

A novitiate of the sect endures a six year course of indoctrination. Upon completion of this "basic training," the candidate, in an ordeal of faithfulness, must submerge himself for forty days and forty nights under a waterfall of the Thraiquén River, in order to wash off any lingering effects of his Christian baptism. He eats toast, and not much of it.

The candidate must catch a skull without fumbling, thrown from the crown of a tricorn hat. In order to demonstrate that he has destroyed all trace of sentiment, he must kill his best friend.

He must sign a document with blood drawn from his own veins, and once that is done, things get really interesting:

"He must disinter," writes Chatwin, "a recently buried male Christian corpse and flay the skin from the breast. Once this is cured and dried, he sews it into a 'thieves' waistcoat'. The human grease remaining in the skin gives off a soft phosphorescence, which lights the member's nocturnal expeditions."

(Not exactly "Pirates of the Caribbean" so far, eh?)

"Full Members have the power to steal private property; to change themselves into other animals; to influence thoughts and dreams; to open doors; to drive men mad; to change the course of rivers; and to spread disease, especially some new virus that will not respond to medical treatment." (Chatwin himself succumbed to AIDS in 1989.)

In some cases the Member scars his victim lightly and allows him to buy his life back by supplying the Council of the Cave with a quantity of his own blood (to be delivered in a conch shell.)

The Sect uses the Challanco, some sort of crystal stone through which the Central Committee surveys the most minute details of a member's life, thus assuring commitment to the sect. The device has been described variously as a glass bowl and as a large circular mirror which emits and receives penetrating rays. The Challanco is known as The Book of the Map and is thought to contain within itself a true and indecipherable copy of the dogma of the Sect itself, a sort of Rosetta Stone of Patagonian Black Magic.

Though only men can become members, the Sect does use women to carry urgent messages. Such a woman is known as the Voladora. Usually, a senior member of the group selects the most beautiful girl in his family and forces her to play the role. She is, therefore, ruined for any eventual return to "normal" life.

The Voladora endures a similar forty-day bath, after which she is required to meet her instructor in a clearing in the forest. All she can see is a "shining copper dish." The instructor gives orders but never appears.

"He tells her to strip and stand on tiptoe with her arms in the air. A draught of some bitter liquid makes her vomit her intestines.

"'Into the dish!' he barks. 'Into the dish!'

"Once freed of her insides, she is light enough to grow the wings of a bird and fly over human settlements shrieking hysterically. At dawn, she returns to the dish, redigests her intestines and recovers her human form."

The Sect owns its own ship, the Caleuche, which can sail into the wind, thus defying physics. She can also submerge like a submarine. She is painted bone white, and is lit with countless colored lights upon her spars. Intoxicating music issues from her decks, and it is thought that she carries cargo for rich merchants who are all members of the Sect. The Caleuche has an enormous appetite for sailors, kidnapping them at will up and down the Chonos Archipelago. Often demented sailors are found, roaming the beaches singing the blasphemous songs of the Central Committee.

And, saving the best for last, we come to the Singular Creature of the Sect, the Invunche or Guardian of the Cave.

The Invunche is nothing less than a Frankenstein of the New World, a human being perverted into a monster through a special scientific process. As Chatwin tells us:

"When the Sect needs a new Invunche, the Council of the Cave orders a Member to steal a boy child from six months to a year old. The Deformer, a permanent resident of the Cave, starts work at once.

"He disjoints the arms and legs and the hands and the feet. Then begins the delicate task of altering the position of the head. Day after day, and for hours at a stretch, he twists the head with a tourniquet until it has rotated through an angle of 180 degrees, that is, until the child can look straight down the line of its own vertebrae.

"There remains one last operation, for which another specialist is needed. At full moon, the child is laid on a workbench, lashed down with its head covered in a bag. The specialist cuts a deep incision under the right shoulder blade. Into the hole he inserts the right arm and sews up the wound with thread taken from the neck of a ewe. When it has healed the Invunche is complete.

"During the process, the child is fed on human milk. After weaning, the diet is changed to young human flesh, followed by that of the adult male. When these are unobtainable, cat milk, kid and billy-goat are taken as substitutes. Once installed as Guardian of the Cave, the Invunche is naked and sprouts long bristly hair. It never acquires human speech, yet, over the years, it does develop a working knowledge of the Committee's procedure and can instruct novices with harsh and guttural cries."

And there you have it, the sort of knowledge a little-of-which is not only dangerous but deadly.

Since Time Immemorial, the people of Patagonia have warred upon the Central Committee. When asked by Chatwin, no one could recall the memory of a time in which it did not exist.

Many suggest that the Sect predates the Birth of Man himself. It is equally plausible that Man became Man through dint of fierce opposition to the Sect.

The Challanco is itself the Evil Eye, is it not? And it is only a very small stretch of the imagination before the term Central Committee becomes synonymous with Beast.

--In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin, Summit Books, 1977.