The Teachings Of Fernet Branca

the teachings of fernet branca

I sought enlightenment, and in a way I found it.
Or did it find me?

I sought enlightenment in the hills behind the Casa de la Madre Dolorosa, and in a way I found it. Or rather, it found me.

It was not an easy path that I took. On one side, the unfriendly embrace of the saguaro; on the other, the grasping hands of the agave. The sun was merciless, its rays cracking the ground into ragged terracotta plates.

The air was dry and still, its only motion evident in the haze rippling about the blue-grey peaks of the distant Picos de Putas. There were no animals, no birds, not even any insects to be seen, so great was the desolation.

My isolation pressed down upon me, surrounded me, suffocated me. I found myself lost without any hope of finding the way home, wandering like a madman, raving at the sky and the earth.

It was as noon approached that I realised the desert would kill me: and yet it would do so with the kindness of the new truth of my insignificance. I resolved to make my final bed here, beneath the saguaro, perhaps one day to be discovered by another seeker after enlightenment.

It was here that Fernet Branca found me.

“Water,” I begged him, through cracked lips.

“You ask for water,” he said. “But will water quench your thirst?”

“Yes,” I croaked, but even as I spoke he emptied his canteen upon the ground.

I knew then that this was the man I had journeyed so far to find.


Once, it is said, Fernet Branca came upon a woman sat upon the doorstep of her house.

“What are you doing?” he asked the woman.

“I am mashing sweet potatoes to make food for my family,” she replied.

“Are you?” replied Fernet Branca. “Or are the potatoes mashing you?”

“No, I am mashing them,” said the woman. “Potatoes cannot mash people.”

“Is that so?” said Fernet Branca.

“Yes,” said the woman.

“No,” said Fernet Branca.

“Yes,” said the woman.

“No,” said Fernet Branca.

But the woman had gone inside.

“No,” said Fernet Branca once more.

Such was the wisdom of Fernet Branca.


“When you walk into the desert, the desert also walks into you,” said Fernet Branca, as I lay in my sickbed at the Casa de la Madre some days later.

I nodded. It was true enough: the desert had left itself in my kidneys, my guts, even my skin.

“And when you walk out of the desert, the desert walks away from you,” said Fernet Branca.

I nodded, although this time the deep truth of his statement eluded me. Perhaps I was not yet ready to understand. “Is that a bad thing, Fernet Branca?” I asked.

“Is the wind ‘bad’? Is the eagle? Is the desert rose that blossoms in the sand?” he replied.

To this, I had no reply.


Once, it is said, Fernet Branca set out to build a house.

First he built the walls.

Then he built the roof.

Then he invited the village to a fiesta to celebrate his new house.

“Please come in,” he said to the villagers.

The villagers said: “But Fernet Branca, you have built no doors, or windows.”

“Haven’t I?” asked Fernet Branca. “Look more closely.”

The villagers did. “Fernet Branca, we cannot see any doors or windows,” they said.

“Can’t you?” asked Fernet Branca. “Look more closely.”

The villagers did. “Fernet Branca, there are no doors or windows,” they said.

“Aren’t there?” asked Fernet Branca. “Look more closely.”

But the villagers had gone.

And with that, Fernet Branca declared that the fiesta had come to its end.

Such was the wisdom of Fernet Branca.


I cannot say that Fernet Branca was my friend, any more than I can say that the sun or moon was my friend. But I did see him almost every day as he walked around the village, and sometimes I would join him as he walked. I liked to think that he enjoyed my company, although he gave little sign.

“El hombre loco,” the villagers would mutter affectionately as he passed by.

“They say that I am crazy,” said Fernet Branca. “But is it I who is crazy, or is it them?”

“Who can say,” I said.

“Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view,” he said.

I wrote this down in my notebook. “Perhaps it is less a matter of perspective than of size,” I suggested. “Perhaps sometimes the truths you offer are too large for people to readily understand.”

“Size matters not,” said Fernet Branca. “Judge me by my size, do you?”

To this, I had no reply.


Once, it is said, Fernet Branca announced he was going to catch a fish.

He walked out into the desert, and he lay down in the dirt, and he slept for eight hours.

Then he returned to the village.

“I have caught a wonderful fish,” he said.

“We cannot see any fish,” said the villagers.

“I did not catch the fish in the desert today,” said Fernet Branca. “I will catch it when I go out into the desert tomorrow.”

“But there are no fish in the desert for you to catch,” said the villagers.

“Aren’t there?” asked Fernet Branca. “Come, eat with me.”

But the villagers had gone.

“Then I will enjoy it by myself,” said Fernet Branca, “with the vegetables I gathered from my boat.”

Such was the wisdom of Fernet Branca.


As similarly-minded travellers came to stay at the Casa de la Madre Dolorosa, word spread of Fernet Branca and his wisdom. As Fernet Branca’s first acolyte, I greeted these seekers after truth, tried as best I could to show them the way, to open their minds.

Still, there were some who did not understand, whose ears were deaf to the truths of Fernet Branca. At first, I was worried that their disrespect might offend Fernet Branca, but as I was to learn, I need not have been concerned.

One evening, we were seated around the fire that we built every weekend.

“Is it warm by the fire?”  asked Fernet Branca. “Or is it cold?”

There was an appreciative murmur.

One of the novitiates seemed confused. He stood up, the light from the fire flickering over his face.

“Fernet Branca, I think you are full of shit!” he exclaimed.

“Ah,” said Fernet Branca. “But is it I who is full of shit, or is it –”

“No,” interrupted his accuser, “I am quite sure that it is you that is full of shit.”

For a moment, Fernet Branca said nothing. Then he threw his head back and laughed.

“A ha ha ha ha ha!” laughed Fernet Branca. “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

And we all laughed too.

Such was the wisdom of Fernet Branca.  ##

5 thoughts on “The Teachings Of Fernet Branca

  1. Tee hee. I enjoyed the nod to Yoda too, and I like the Mexican stylee. I’m very glad Fernet Branca isn’t my guru – I’d be one hungry, thirsty stroppy acolyte! The ending made me laugh out loud.

  2. Thanks, all.

    I literally dreamt up this story while in bed with the ‘flu, and was startled to discover, once I was back on my feet (or at least, back in front of my computer) that Fernet Branca is actually a particular brand of amaro, an Italian herbal liqueur. Obviously I must have picked that up somewhere and it subsequently percolated to the front of my fever-raddled brain, but it wasn’t a deliberate homage.

    It should be pretty obvious that the venerable sage in my story doesn’t have anything to do with the drink – although they are both a bit startling at first and only begin to make sense after you’ve drunk heavily of them – but just in case any lawyers are reading: the venerable sage in my story doesn’t have anything to do with the drink.

    I’ve hated overtly inspirational literature (actually, I hate most overtly inspirational things) since encountering Carlos Casteneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan many years ago. Even as an impressionable pre-teen, I thought Castaneda’s book was, um, bollocks, and I’ve never felt the need to revisit that opinion. I prefer books that catalyse the imagination – science books, mythology books, hell, just good books – to those that force-feed the mind with lukewarm, pre-chewed pap.

    But the grandaddy of all inspirational writers is, of course, Kahlil Gibran. I’ve never read any Gibran, but by another coincidence, I found this excellent article in my feedreader the morning after I wrote this story. Lines like this:

    If you look closely, though, you will see that much of the time he is saying something specific; namely, that everything is everything else. Freedom is slavery; waking is dreaming; belief is doubt; joy is pain; death is life.

    make it sound like Gibran’s narrator in The Prophet (and for that matter Gibran himself) is far more like Fernet Branca than I imagined.

    That’s Fernet Branca the venerable sage in my story, of course. The one who doesn’t have anything to do with the drink.

  3. Ha ha ha ha ha! The worst novel in this irritating style that I’ve had the misfortune to come across was “The Celestine Prophecy: An Adventure” by James Redfield. So earnestly recommended: so shit! In Gibran’s The Prophet – from what I remember – the people are begging the wisdom before he leaves them: I like the way Fernet Branca just dishes it out!

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