Of Love and Other Demons


  'He is a great man,' the Marquis said.

  Delaura shook his head in a meaningful gesture.

  'I am familiar with the files of the Holy Office,' he said.

  'No sacrifice would be too great to have her back,' insisted the Marquis. And since Delaura did not react in any way, he concluded: 'I beg you, for the love of God.'

  Delaura, his heart breaking, said, 'I implore you not to make my suffering worse.'

  The Marquis did not persist. He picked up the valise on the bed and asked Delaura to take it to his daughter.

  'At least she will know that I am thinking of her,' he said.

  Delaura fled without saying goodbye. He put the valise under his cape, then wrapped himself in the cloak as protection against the driving rain. It took some time for him to realize that his inner voice was reciting verses of the song the Marquis had played on the theorbo. Lashed by the rain, he began to sing aloud and repeated it from memory to the end. In the district of the artisans he turned to the left at the hermitage, still singing, and knocked at Abrenuncio's door.

  After a long silence, he heard faltering steps and a voice only half awake.

  'Who is it!'

  'The law,' said Delaura.

  It was all he could think of to avoid shouting his own name. Abrenuncio opened the door, believing that representatives of the government were really there, and did not recognize him. 'I am the librarian for the diocese,' said Delaura. The physician stepped aside to allow him through the dark entrance and helped him remove his soaked cape. In his characteristic fashion, Abrenuncio asked in Latin, 'In what battle did you lose that eye?'

  Delaura recounted the mishap of the eclipse in classical Latin, telling him in detail about the persistence of the ailment despite the assurances of the Bishop's doctor that the patch was infallible. But Abrenuncio paid attention only to the purity of his language.

  'It is absolute perfection,' he said in astonishment. 'Where are you from?'

  'From Avila,' said Delaura.

  'Then it is even more praiseworthy,' said Abrenuncio.

  He had him take off his cassock and sandals, and set them to dry, and placed his own libertine's cape over Delaura's muddied breeches. Then he removed the patch and tossed it in the trash bin. 'The only thing wrong with that eye is that it sees more than it ought to,' he said. Delaura was fascinated by the quantity of books crammed into the room. Abrenuncio observed this and led him to his dispensary, where there were many more volumes, on shelves that reached to the ceiling.

  'By the Holy Spirit!' exclaimed Delaura. 'This is the library of Petrarch.'

  'With some 200 books more than he had,' said Abrenuncio.

  He allowed the visitor to browse at his pleasure. There were unique volumes that could have meant prison in Spain. Delaura recognized them, leafed through them with eagerness and replaced them on the shelves with regret in his soul. He found the eternal Fray Gerundio in a privileged position, along with a complete Voltaire in French and a translation into Latin of the Lettres philosophiques.

  'Voltaire in Latin is almost a heresy,' he said as a joke.

  Abrenuncio told him that it had been translated by a monk in Coimbra who permitted himself the luxury of making rare books for the solace of pilgrims. As Delaura looked through the volume, the physician asked whether he knew French.

  'I do not speak it, but I read it,' said Delaura in Latin. And he added with no false modesty, 'As well as Greek, English, Italian, Portuguese and a little German.'

  'I ask because of your remark about Voltaire,' said Abrenuncio. 'His is a perfect prose.'

  'And the one that wounds us most,' said Delaura. 'What a shame it was written by a Frenchman.'

  'You say that because you are a Spaniard,' said Abrenuncio.

  'At my age, and with so much mixing of bloodlines, I am no longer certain where I come from,' said Delaura. 'Or who I am.'

  'No one knows in these kingdoms,' said Abrenuncio. 'And I believe it will be centuries before they find out.'

  Delaura spoke but did not interrupt his perusal of the library. Then, without warning, as had happened so often in the past, he thought of the book confiscated by the rector of the seminary when he was twelve, and of the only episode he could recall, which he had repeated throughout his life to anyone who might help him identify it.

  'Do you remember the title?' asked Abrenuncio.

  'I never knew it,' said Delaura. 'And I would give anything to find out how the story ends.'

  Not saying a word, the physician placed before him a volume that he recognized as soon as he saw it. It was an old Sevillian edition of The Four Books of Amadis of Gaul. Delaura trembled as he inspected it, realizing he was on the verge of becoming unredeemable. At last he dared to say, 'Do you know that this is a forbidden book?'

  'Like the best novels of our time,' said Abrenuncio. 'And to replace them they now print nothing but treatises for learned men. What would the poor of our day read if they did not read novels of chivalry in secret?'

  'There are others,' Delaura said. 'One hundred copies of the first edition of Don Quijote were read here in the same year they were printed.'

  'Not read,' said Abrenuncio. 'They passed through customs on their way to other kingdoms.'

  Delaura did not pay attention to Abrenuncio because he had at last identified the precious edition of Amadis of Gaul.

  'Nine years ago this book disappeared from the hidden section of our library, and we were never able to trace it,' he said.

  'I can well imagine,' said Abrenuncio. 'But there are other reasons for considering this a historic edition: for more than a year it circulated from hand to hand among at least eleven people, and at least three of them died. I am certain they were victims of some unknown effluvium.'

  'My duty is to denounce you to the Holy Office,' said Delaura.

  Abrenuncio treated it as a joke: 'Have I let slip some heresy?'

  'I say this because you have in your possession a forbidden book that is not your property and you have not informed the authorities.'

  'This book and many others,' said Abrenuncio, indicating the crowded shelves with a wide circle of his finger. 'But if that were the reason, you would have come long ago, and I would not have opened the door.' He turned toward Delaura and concluded in good humor: 'On the other hand, I am glad you have come now and given me the pleasure of seeing you here.'

  'The Marquis, concerned for the fate of his daughter, suggested it,' said Delaura.

  Abrenuncio had Delaura sit on a chair facing him, and they both surrendered to the vice of conversation while an apocalyptic storm convulsed the sea. The physician gave an intelligent and erudite discourse on the history of rabies since the beginning of the human race, the devastation it had wrought with impunity, and the millenarian inability of medical science to stop it. He offered lamentable examples of how it had always been confused with demonic possession, as had certain forms of madness and other disturbances of the spirit. As for Sierva Maria, after so many weeks it did not seem probable that she would contract the disease. The only risk at present, Abrenuncio concluded, was that she, like so many others, would die of the cruelty of the exorcism.

  Delaura thought this last sentence an exaggeration worthy of medieval medicine, but he did not dispute it, for it favored his theological indications that the girl was not possessed. He said that Sierva Maria's three African languages, so different from Spanish and Portuguese, did not in any way have the satanic implications attributed to them in the convent. There were numerous statements regarding her notable physical strength, but none to the effect that it was supernatural. And no act of levitation or prophesying the future had been proved against her - two phenomena, in fact, that also served as secondary proofs of sainthood. Although Delaura had sought the support of distinguished members of his own order and even of other communities, none had dared challenge the acta of the convent or contradict popular credulity. He was aware as well that no one would be convinced by his opinion or Abrenuncio's, much l
ess both taken together.

  'It would be you and I against everyone else,' he said.

  'Which is why I was surprised that you came,' said Abrenuncio. 'I am no more than hunted prey in the game preserve of the Holy Office.'

  'The truth is I am not really sure why I have come,' said Delaura. 'Unless that child has been imposed on me by the Holy Spirit to test the strength of my faith.'

  Saying this was enough to free him from the knot of sighs that oppressed him. Abrenuncio looked into his eyes, into the depths of his soul, and realized he was on the verge of tears.

  'Do not torture yourself in vain,' he said in a soothing tone. 'Perhaps you have come only because you needed to talk about her.'

  Delaura felt naked. He stood, looked for the way to the door, and did not rush out only because he was half dressed. Abrenuncio helped him on with his damp clothing and at the same time attempted to detain him in order to continue their conversation. 'I could talk to you without stopping until the next century,' he said. He tried to keep him with a flask of transparent eye wash to cure the persistence of the eclipse on his retina. He called him back from the door to find the valise he had left somewhere in the house. But Delaura seemed trapped in mortal sorrow. He thanked Abrenuncio for the afternoon, the medical assistance, the eye wash, but all he conceded was the promise to return another day when he had more time.

  Delaura could not bear the urgency of his desire to see Sierva Maria. He was at the door and did not appear to notice that night had fallen. The sky had cleared but the sewers had flooded in the downpour, and Delaura took to the middle of the street in water up to his ankles. The gatekeeper at the convent tried to bar his way because it was almost curfew. He moved her aside.

  'By order of His Grace the Bishop.'

  Sierva Maria woke with a start and did not recognize him in the darkness. He did not know how to explain why he had come at so unusual an hour and he seized on the first pretext he could think of: 'Your father wants to see you.'

  The girl recognized the valise, and her face burned with fury.

  'But I don't want to see him,' she said.

  Disconcerted, he asked the reason.

  'Because I don't,' she said. 'I'd rather die.'

  Delaura tried to unfasten the strap around her healthy ankle, thinking that would please her.

  'Leave me alone,' she said. 'Don't touch me.'

  He ignored her, and the girl loosed a sudden storm of spittle in his face. He persevered and offered the other cheek. Sierva Maria continued to spit at him. Again he turned his cheek, intoxicated by the gust of forbidden pleasure rising from his loins. He closed his eyes and prayed with all his soul while she continued to spit at him, her ferocity increasing with his pleasure, until she realized that her rage was useless. Then Delaura witnessed the fearful spectacle of one truly possessed. Sierva Maria's hair coiled with a life of its own, like the serpents of Medusa, and green spittle and a string of obscenities in idolatrous languages poured from her mouth. Delaura brandished his crucifix, put it up to her face, and shouted in terror, 'Get thee hence, infernal beast, whoever thou art.'

  His shouts incited those of the girl, who was about to break the buckles on her straps. The frightened warder rushed in and tried to subdue her, but only Martina, with her celestial ways, succeeded. Delaura fled.

  The Bishop was disturbed that he had not come to read at supper. Delaura realized he was floating on a personal cloud where nothing in this world or the next mattered except the horrific image of Sierva Maria debased by the devil. He took refuge in the library but could not read. He prayed with exacerbated faith, sang the song of the theorbo, wept tears of burning oil that seared him deep inside. He opened Sierva Maria's valise and placed the articles on the table one by one. He came to know them, smelled them with his body's avid desire, loved them, spoke to them in obscene hexameters until he could tolerate no more. Then he bared his torso, took the iron scourge, which he had never dared to touch, from the drawer of the work table and began to flagellate himself with an insatiable hatred that would give him no peace until he had extirpated the last vestige of Sierva Maria from his heart. The Bishop, who had been waiting for him, found him writhing on the floor in a mire of blood and tears.

  'It is the demon, Father,' Delaura said. 'The most terrible one of all.'

  Five

  The Bishop called him to account in his office and listened without indulgence to his complete unadorned confession, conscious that he was presiding not over a sacrament but a judicial hearing. The only leniency he showed him was to keep the true nature of his sin a secret, yet with no public explanation he stripped him of his dignities and privileges and sent him to the Amor de Dios Hospital to nurse the lepers. Delaura begged for the consolation of saying five-o'clock Mass for them, and the Bishop granted his request. He kneeled with a sense of profound relief, and together they said an Our Father. The Bishop blessed him and helped him to his feet.

  'May God have mercy on you,' he said. And erased him from his heart.

  Even after Cayetano's punishment had begun, high dignitaries of the diocese interceded on his behalf, but the Bishop was intractable. He rejected the theory that exorcists become possessed by the very demons they wish to cast out. His final argument was that Delaura had not confined himself to facing the demons with the unappealable authority of Christ, but had committed the impertinence of discussing matters of faith with them. It was this, the Bishop said, that compromised his soul and brought him to the verge of heresy. More surprising, however, was that the Bishop had been so harsh with his confidant for a fault that deserved no more than a penance of green candles.

  Martina had taken charge of Sierva Maria with exemplary devotion. She was distraught at the rejection of her request for a pardon, but the girl did not realize it until one afternoon of embroidery on the terrace, when she looked up and saw her bathed in tears. Martina did not attempt to hide her despair. 'I would rather be dead than go on dying in this prison.'

  Her only hope, she said, was that Sierva Maria had dealings with demons. She wanted to know who they were, what they were like, how to negotiate with them. The girl named six, and Martina identified one as an African demon who had once troubled her parents' house. She was cheered by renewed optimism.

  'I'd like to talk to him,' she said. And she specified the message: 'In exchange for my soul.'

  Sierva Maria took delight in the deception. 'He can't speak,' she said. 'You just look into his face and know what he's saying.' With utmost seriousness she promised to inform her of his next visit so she could meet with him.

  Cayetano, for his part, had submitted with humility to the vile conditions at the hospital. The lepers, in a state of legal death, slept on dirt floors in palm hovels. Many could do no more than crawl. General treatment was administered on Tuesdays, which were exhausting. Cayetano imposed on himself the purifying sacrifice of washing the most disabled bodies in the troughs at the stables. This is what he was doing on the first Tuesday of the penance, his priestly dignity reduced to the coarse tunic worn by nurses, when Abrenuncio appeared on the sorrel the Marquis had presented to him.

  'How is that eye?' he asked.

  Cayetano gave him no opportunity to speak of his misfortune or pity his condition. He thanked him for the eye wash that had, in effect, erased the image of the eclipse from his retina.

  'You have nothing to thank me for,' said Abrenuncio. 'I gave you the best treatment we know for solar blindness: drops of rainwater.'

  He invited him for a visit. Delaura explained that he could not leave the hospital without permission. Abrenuncio attributed no importance to this. 'If you know the ills of these kingdoms, you must know that laws are not obeyed for more than three days,' he said. He placed his library at Cayetano's disposal so that he could continue his studies during his punishment. He listened with interest but with no illusions.

  'I leave you with this enigma,' Abrenuncio concluded as he spurred his horse. 'No god could have created a talent like yours to wast
e it scrubbing lepers.'

  On the following Tuesday, he brought him a gift of the volume of the Lettres philosophiques in Latin. Cayetano leafed through it, smelled its pages, calculated its value. The more he appreciated it the less he understood Abrenuncio.

  'I would like to know why you are so kind to me,' he said.

  'Because we atheists cannot live without clerics,' said Abrenuncio. 'Our patients entrust their bodies to us, but not their souls, and like the devil, we try to win them away from God.'

  'That does not go along with your beliefs,' said Cayetano.

  'Not even I know what those are.'

  'The Holy Office knows,' said Cayetano.

  Contrary to expectations, the barbed remark delighted Abrenuncio. 'Come to the house and we can discuss it at our leisure,' he said. 'I sleep no more than two hours a night, and only for brief periods, so anytime is fine.' He spurred his horse and rode away.

  Cayetano soon learned that the loss of great power is never partial. The same people who once had courted him because of his privileged position drew back as if he had leprosy. His friends in secular arts and letters moved aside to avoid a collision with the Holy Office. But it did not matter to him. He had no room in his heart for anything but Sierva Maria, and even so it was not large enough to hold her. He was convinced that no oceans or mountains, no laws of earth or heaven, no powers of hell could keep them apart.

  One night, in a stroke of audacious inspiration, he escaped from the hospital to find some way into the convent. There were four entrances: the main gate with the turnstile, another gate of the same size, which faced the sea, and two small service doors. The first two were impassable. From the beach it was easy for Cayetano to identify Sierva Maria's window in the prison pavilion because it was the only one no longer sealed. From the street he examined every centimeter of the building, searching in vain for a tiny breach that would allow him a foothold.

  He was about to give up, when he remembered the tunnel used to supply the convent during the Cessatio a Divinis. Tunnels under barracks or convents were typical of the period. No fewer than six were known in the city, and over the years more were discovered, all of them worthy of a romantic adventure novel. A leper who had been a gravedigger told Cayetano about the one he was looking for: an abandoned sewer that connected the convent to an adjacent plot of land where the cemetery of the first Clarissans had been located a century before. The opening was just under the prison pavilion and faced a high, rugged wall that seemed inaccessible. But Cayetano managed to climb it after many failed attempts, just as he believed he would accomplish everything through the power of prayer.

 
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