Of Love and Other Demons


  He had started afternoon prayers on the eighth day of his fast, when he was informed that the Bishop was waiting for him in the drawing room to receive the Viceroy. The visit was unplanned, even by the Viceroy. The inopportune idea had occurred to him during his first excursion through the city. He was obliged to contemplate the rooftops from the flowering terrace while urgent messages were sent to nearby functionaries and some order was imposed on the drawing room.

  The Bishop received the Viceroy with six clerics from his own general staff. He sat Cayetano Delaura on his right and introduced him with no title other than his complete name. Before beginning the conversation, the Viceroy examined with commiserating eyes the peeling walls, the torn curtains, the cheap local furnishings, the clerics dripping with perspiration in their indigent habits. The Bishop said with injured pride, 'We are the sons of Joseph the Carpenter.' The Viceroy made a gesture of comprehension and launched into an account of his first week's impressions. He spoke of his illusory plans to increase trade with the English Antilles once the wounds of war had been healed, of the benefits of official intervention in education, of promoting arts and letters and bringing these colonial outposts into harmony with the rest of the world.

  'These are times of renovation,' he said.

  Once again the Bishop had confirmed the facile nature of secular power. He extended a trembling finger toward Delaura, not looking at him, and said to the Viceroy, 'Father Cayetano is the person here who keeps abreast of those innovations.'

  The Viceroy followed the Bishop's finger and saw a remote expression and startled eyes that looked at him without blinking. His interest was real when he asked Delaura, 'Have you read Leibniz?'

  'I have, Excellency,' said Delaura, and specified: 'In the course of my duties.'

  By the end of the visit, it became evident that the Viceroy's greatest interest was the case of Sierva Maria. For its own sake, he explained, and for the peace of mind of the Abbess, whose suffering had moved him to pity.

  'We still lack definitive proof, but the acta of the convent tell us that the poor creature is possessed by the demon,' said the Bishop. 'The Abbess knows this better than we do.'

  'She thinks you have fallen into a snare of Satan,' said the Viceroy.

  'Not we alone, but all of Spain,' said the Bishop. 'We have crossed the ocean sea to impose the law of Christ, and we have done so with Masses and processions and festivals for patron saints, but not in the souls of men.'

  He spoke of Yucatan, where they had constructed sumptuous cathedrals to hide the pagan pyramids, not realizing that the natives came to Mass because their sanctuaries still lived beneath the silver altars. He spoke of the chaotic mixing of blood that had gone on since the conquest: Spanish blood with Indian blood, and both of these with blacks of every sort, even Mandingo Muslims, and he asked himself whether such miscegenation had a place in the Kingdom of God. Despite his obstructed breathing and his old-man's cough, he ended without conceding a pause to the Viceroy, 'What can all this be but snares of the Enemy?'

  The Viceroy showed his distress.

  'The disenchantment of Your Grace is of the utmost gravity,' he said.

  'Do not view it in that light, Your Excellency,' the Bishop said in the most courteous manner. 'I am only attempting to clarify the strength of faith we require so that these peoples may be worthy of our sacrifice.'

  The Viceroy returned to his original subject.

  'To my best understanding, the misgivings of the Abbess are practical in nature,' he said. 'She thinks that perhaps other convents would be better suited to so difficult a case.'

  'Well, Your Excellency should know that we chose Santa Clara without a moment's hesitation because of the fortitude, the competence and the authority of Josefa Miranda,' said the Bishop. 'And God knows we are not mistaken.'

  'I will take the liberty of telling her so,' said the Viceroy.

  'She knows it all too well,' said the Bishop. 'What concerns me is why she does not dare to believe it.'

  As he spoke he felt the passing aura of an imminent attack of asthma and he hastened to conclude the visit. He said he had received a formal memorandum of complaints from the Abbess, which he promised to resolve with the most fervent pastoral love as soon as his ill health allowed. The Viceroy thanked him and ended the visit with a personal courtesy. He too suffered from an obstinate asthma, and he offered his physicians to the Bishop. This did not seem fitting to the prelate.

  'Everything that pertains to me is in the hands of God,' he said. 'I have reached the age at which the Virgin died.'

  In contrast to their greetings, their leave-taking was slow and ceremonious. Three of the clerics, Delaura among them, accompanied the Viceroy in silence along the lugubrious corridors to the main entrance. The viceregal guard kept the beggars at bay with a wall of crossed halberds. Before climbing into his carriage, the Viceroy turned to Delaura, pointed at him with an unappealable finger, and said, 'Do not allow me to forget you.'

  His words were so unexpected and enigmatic that Delaura could do no more than bow in response.

  The Viceroy drove to the convent to tell the Abbess the outcome of his visit. Some hours later, as he was about to leave, he refused to pardon Martina Laborde, despite the repeated pleas of the Vicereine, because he thought it would set a bad precedent for the many people incarcerated for lesser crimes whom he had found in other prisons.

  The Bishop had closed his eyes, leaning forward in an effort to calm his whistling breath, until Delaura returned. His assistants had withdrawn on tiptoe, and the drawing room was in shadow. When the Bishop looked around, he saw vacant chairs lined against the wall and no one but Cayetano in the room. In a very low voice he asked, 'Have we ever seen so good a man?'

  Delaura responded with an ambiguous gesture. The Bishop struggled into an upright position and then leaned against the arm of the chair until he could control his breathing. He wanted no supper. Delaura brought a candle to light the way to his bedroom.

  'We have not behaved well with the Viceroy,' said the Bishop.

  'Was there any reason to?' asked Delaura. 'One does not knock on a bishop's door unannounced.'

  The Bishop did not agree, and told him so with great vigor. 'My door is the door of the Church, and he conducted himself like an old-fashioned Christian,' he said. 'The impertinence was mine, because of the illness in my chest, and I must do something to make amends.' By the time he reached his bedroom door, he had changed his tone and the topic, and he said good night to Delaura with a familiar pat on the shoulder.

  'Pray for me this night,' he said. 'I fear it will be a long one.'

  He did, in fact, feel as if he were dying of the asthma attack he had foreseen during the Viceroy's visit. Since an emetic of tartar and other extreme palliatives gave him no relief, he had to undergo an emergency bleeding. By dawn he had recovered his indomitability.

  Cayetano, sleepless in the nearby library, was not aware of any of this. He had just begun morning prayers when he was informed that the Bishop was waiting for him in his bedroom. The Bishop sat in bed, having a cup of chocolate with bread and cheese, and breathing like a new bellows, his spirit exalted. One glance was enough for Cayetano to know that he had reached his decisions.

  It was true. Despite the request from the Abbess, Sierva Maria would remain at Santa Clara, and Father Cayetano Delaura, with the full confidence of the Bishop, would continue to be in charge of her case. She would no longer be kept under a prison regime and henceforth was to share in the general benefits accorded the residents of the convent. The Bishop was grateful for the acta, but their lack of rigor interfered with the clarity of the process, and therefore the exorcist was to proceed according to his own judgment. He finished by ordering Delaura to visit the Marquis on his behalf, with authority to resolve whatever might be needed until the Bishop had both the opportunity and the health to grant him an audience.

  'There will be no further instructions,' were his closing words. 'May God bless you.'

&nbs
p; Cayetano raced to the convent, his heart pounding, but did not find Sierva Maria in her cell. She was in the formal reception room, covered in precious gems and with her hair spilling down to her feet, posing with the exquisite dignity of a black woman for a celebrated portrait painter from the Viceroy's entourage. The intelligence with which she obeyed the artist was as admirable as her beauty. Cayetano fell into ecstasy. Sitting in the shadows and seeing her without being seen, he had more than enough time to erase any doubt from his heart.

  At the hour of Nones the portrait was finished. The painter scrutinized it at a distance, gave it two or three final brushstrokes and, before signing it, asked Sierva Maria to look at the picture. It was a perfect likeness of her as she stood on a cloud surrounded by a court of submissive demons. She contemplated the canvas for some time and recognized herself in the splendor of her years. At last she said, 'It's like a mirror.'

  'Even the demons?' asked the painter.

  'That's just how they look,' she said.

  The sitting was over, and Cayetano accompanied Sierva Maria to the cell. He had never seen her take a step, and her walk had the same ease and grace as her dancing. He had never seen her in any clothes but an inmate's cassock, and the regal gown gave her a maturity and elegance that revealed how much of a woman she had already become. They had never walked side by side, and he was charmed by the candor of their being together.

  The cell was changed, thanks to the persuasive talents of the Viceroy and Vicereine, who on their farewell visit had convinced the Abbess that the Bishop's reasoning was sound. The mattress was new, there were linen sheets and down pillows, and the articles needed for daily grooming and bathing had been provided. The light of the sea poured in through the unlatticed window and sparkled on the fresh whitewash of the walls. Now that Sierva Maria's meals were the same as those served in the cloister, it was no longer necessary to bring her anything from the outside, but Delaura always arranged to smuggle in delicacies from the arcades.

  She wanted to share her food, and Delaura accepted one of the little cakes that upheld the prestige of the Clarissans. As they ate, she remarked in passing: 'I've seen snow.'

  Cayetano was not alarmed. There were tales of a viceroy long before who wanted to bring snow from the Pyrenees to show to the natives, for he did not know we had it right next to the sea, in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Perhaps, with his innovative arts, Don Rodrigo de Buen Lozano had accomplished the feat.

  'No,' said the girl. 'It was in a dream.'

  She told him about it: she was sitting in front of a window where heavy snow was falling, while one by one she ate the grapes from a cluster she held in her lap. Delaura felt a brush of dread. Trembling at the imminence of a final answer, he dared to ask: 'How did it end?'

  'I'm afraid to tell you,' said Sierva Maria.

  He did not need to hear more. He closed his eyes and prayed for her. When he finished, he was a changed man.

  'Don't worry,' he said. 'I promise you will soon be free and happy through the grace of the Holy Spirit.'

  Bernarda had not known until then that Sierva Maria was in the convent. She found out almost by accident one night when she saw Dulce Olivia sweeping and straightening the house and thought she was one of her hallucinations. In search of some rational explanation, she inspected the house room by room and in the process realized she had not seen Sierva Maria for some time. Caridad del Cobre told her the little she knew: 'The Senor Marquis told us she was going very far away and we wouldn't see her again.' A light was burning in her husband's bedroom, and Bernarda walked in without knocking.

  He lay awake in the hammock, surrounded by smoke from the cow dung burning over a slow fire to drive away mosquitoes. He saw the strange woman transfigured by her silk robe, and he too thought he was seeing an apparition, for she looked pale and faded and seemed to come from a great distance. Bernarda asked about Sierva Maria.

  'She has not been with us for days,' he said.

  She understood this in the worst possible sense and had to sit down on the closest chair to catch her breath.

  'You mean that Abrenuncio did what had to be done,' she said.

  The Marquis crossed himself.

  'God forbid!'

  He told her the truth. He was careful to explain that he had not informed her at the time because, in accordance with her wishes, he wanted to treat her as if she had died. Bernarda listened, not blinking, with more attention than she had granted him in the twelve years of their unfortunate life in common.

  'I knew it would cost me my life,' said the Marquis, 'but in exchange for hers.'

  Bernarda sighed. 'You mean that now our shame is public knowledge.' She saw the glimmer of a tear on her husband's eyelids, and a tremor rose from her belly. This time it was not death but the ineluctable certainty of what was bound to happen sooner or later. She was not mistaken. The Marquis used his remaining strength to get out of the hammock, fell on his knees in front of her and burst into the harsh weeping of a useless old man. Bernarda capitulated because of the fire of male tears sliding across her lap through the silk. Despite her hatred for Sierva Maria, she confessed her relief at knowing she was alive.

  'I've always understood everything except death,' she said.

  Once again she locked herself in her room with honey and cacao, and when she emerged two weeks later she was a walking corpse. The Marquis had been aware of travel preparations since early that morning and paid no attention to them. Before the sun grew hot, he saw Bernarda ride through the large courtyard gate on the back of a gentle mule, followed by another carrying the baggage. She had often left in this way, without mule drivers or slaves, without saying goodbye to anyone or giving reasons for anything. But the Marquis knew that this time she was leaving and would not return, because along with her usual trunk she was taking the two urns full of pure gold that she had kept buried for years under her bed.

  Sprawled in his hammock, the Marquis again felt the terror that his slaves would attack him with knives and he forbade them to enter the house even during the day. And so when Cayetano Delaura came to see him by order of the Bishop, he had to push open the door and walk in uninvited, since no one responded to his loud knocking. The mastiffs were in a frenzy in their cages, but he pressed ahead. In the orchard, wearing his Saracen djellaba and Toledan cap, the Marquis was taking his siesta in the hammock, his entire body covered by orange blossoms. Delaura observed him without waking him, and it was as if he were seeing Sierva Maria grown old, and broken by solitude. The Marquis woke and did not recognize him at first because of the patch over his eye. Delaura raised his hand, his fingers extended in a sign of peace.

  'God keep you, Senor Marquis,' he said. 'How are you?'

  'Here,' said the Marquis. 'Rotting away.'

  With a languid hand he brushed aside the cobwebs of his siesta and sat up in the hammock. Cayetano apologized for entering without being invited. The Marquis explained that no one bothered to answer the door because they had lost the habit of receiving visitors. Delaura spoke in a solemn tone. 'His Grace the Bishop, who is very preoccupied and suffering from asthma, has sent me as his representative.' Once the initial formalities were over, he sat beside the hammock and went straight to the matter that burned inside him.

  'I wish to inform you that the spiritual health of your daughter has been entrusted to me,' he said.

  The Marquis thanked him and wanted to know how she was.

  'She is well,' said Delaura, 'but I want to help her be better.'

  He explained the significance and methodology of exorcism. He spoke of the power given by Jesus to his disciples to expel unclean spirits from bodies and to heal sickness and disease. He recounted the Gospel parable of Legion and the 2,000 swine inhabited by demons. The fundamental task, however, was to establish whether Sierva Maria was in reality possessed. He did not believe so, but he required the assistance of the Marquis to dispel any doubt. First of all, he said, he wanted to learn what his daughter was like before she entered the
convent.

  'I do not know,' said the Marquis. 'I feel as if the more I know her the less I know her.'

  He was tormented by guilt for having abandoned her to her fate in the courtyard of the slaves. To this he attributed her silences, which could last for months, her explosions of irrational violence, the astuteness with which she outwitted her mother when the girl put the same bell that had been hung around her wrist on the cats. The greatest obstacle to knowing her was her habit of lying for pleasure.

  'Like the blacks,' said Delaura.

  'The blacks lie to us but not to each other,' said the Marquis.

  In her bedroom, Delaura could distinguish at a glance between the grandmother's profusion of possessions and the new objects that belonged to Sierva Maria: the lifelike dolls, the wind-up ballerinas, the music boxes. On the bed, just as the Marquis had packed it, lay the little valise he had brought to the convent. The theorbo, covered with dust, had been flung into a corner. The Marquis explained that it was an Italian instrument fallen into disuse and he exaggerated the girl's ability to play it. In his distraction he began to tune the lute, and then not only played it from memory but sang the song he had sung with Sierva Maria.

  It was a revelatory moment. The music told Delaura what the Marquis had not been able to say about his daughter. And the father was so moved he could not finish the song. He sighed.

  'You cannot imagine how well the hat suited her.'

  Delaura was infected by his emotion.

  'I can see you love her very much,' he said.

  'You cannot imagine how much,' said the Marquis. 'I would give my soul to see her.'

  Once again Delaura felt that the Holy Spirit did not omit the slightest detail.

  'Nothing could be easier,' he said, 'if we can prove she is not possessed.'

  'Speak to Abrenuncio,' said the Marquis. 'He has said from the beginning that Sierva is healthy, but only he can explain it.'

  Delaura saw his dilemma. Abrenuncio could be providential, but talking to him might have undesirable implications. The Marquis seemed to read his mind.

 
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