Of Love and Other Demons
The pavilion was a still water in the small hours of the morning. Certain that the guard slept elsewhere, Cayetano's only concern was Martina Laborde, snoring behind a half-closed door. Until that moment the tension of the adventure had held him aloft, but when he found himself outside the cell, the padlock hanging open in the ring, his heart went mad. He pushed the door with his fingertips, stopped living as the hinges creaked and saw Sierva Maria asleep in the light of the Sanctuary Lamp. She opened her eyes, but it took her a moment to recognize him in the burlap tunic worn by those who nursed lepers. He showed her his bloodied fingernails.
'I climbed the wall,' he said in a whisper.
Sierva Maria's expression did not change.
'What for?' she asked.
'To see you,' he said.
Dazed by the trembling of his hands and the cracks in his voice, he did not know what else to say.
'Go away,' said Sierva Maria.
He shook his head several times for fear his voice would fail him. 'Go away,' she repeated. 'Or I'll scream.' By now he was so close he could feel her virgin breath.
'Even if they kill me I will not go,' he said. Then all at once he felt as if he had passed beyond his terror, and he added in a firm voice: 'And so if you are going to scream, you can start now.'
She bit her lip. Cayetano sat on the bed and gave her a detailed account of his punishment but did not tell her the reasons for it. She understood more than he was capable of saying. She looked at him without fear and asked why he did not have the patch over his eye.
'I don't need it anymore,' he said, encouraged. 'Now when I close my eyes I see hair like a river of gold.'
He left after two hours, happy because Sierva Maria agreed to his returning if he brought her favorite pastries from the arcades. He came so early the following night that the convent was still awake, and she had lit the lamp in order to finish some embroidery for Martina. On the third night, he brought wicks and oil to keep the lamp burning. On the fourth night, a Saturday, he spent several hours helping her kill the lice that were proliferating again in the cell. When her hair was clean and combed, he felt the icy sweat of temptation once more. He lay down next to Sierva Maria, his breathing harsh and uneven and found her limpid eyes a hand's breadth from his own. They both became confused. He, praying in fear, did not look away. She dared to speak.
'How old are you?'
'I turned thirty-six in March,' he said.
She scrutinized him.
'You're an old man,' she said with a touch of derision. She stared at the lines on his forehead and added with all the pitilessness of her years, 'A wrinkled old man.' He took it with good humor. Sierva Maria asked why he had a lock of white hair.
'It is a birthmark,' he said.
'Artificial,' she said.
'Natural,' he said. 'My mother had it too.'
He had not stopped looking into her eyes, and she showed no signs of faltering. He gave a deep sigh and recited, 'O sweet treasures, discovered to my sorrow.'
She did not understand.
'It is a verse by the grandfather of my great-great-grandmother,' he explained. 'He wrote three eclogues, two elegies, five songs and forty sonnets. Most of them for a Portuguese lady of very ordinary charms who was never his, first because he was married, and then because she married another man and died before he did.'
'Was he a priest too?'
'A soldier,' he said.
Something stirred in the heart of Sierva Maria, for she wanted to hear the verse again. He repeated it, and this time he continued, in an intense, well-articulated voice, until he had recited the last of the forty sonnets by the cavalier of amours and arms Don Garcilaso de la Vega, killed in his prime by a stone hurled in battle.
When he had finished, Cayetano took Sierva Maria's hand and placed it over his heart. She felt the internal clamor of his suffering.
'I am always in this state,' he said.
And without giving his panic an opportunity, he unburdened himself of the dark truth that did not permit him to live. He confessed that every moment was filled with thoughts of her, that everything he ate and drank tasted of her, that she was his life, always and everywhere, as only God had the right and power to be, and that the supreme joy of his heart would be to die with her. He continued to speak without looking at her, with the same fluidity and passion as when he recited poetry, until it seemed to him that Sierva Maria was sleeping. But she was awake, her eyes, like those of a startled deer, fixed on him. She almost did not dare to ask.
'And now nothing,' he said. 'It is enough for me that you know.'
He could not go on. Weeping in silence, he slipped his arm beneath her head to serve as a pillow, and she curled up at his side. And so they remained, not sleeping, not talking, until the roosters began to crow and he had to hurry to arrive in time for five-o'clock Mass. Before he left, Sierva Maria gave him the beautiful necklace of Oddua: eighteen inches of mother-of-pearl and coral beads.
Panic had been replaced by the yearning in his heart. Delaura knew no peace, he carried out his tasks in a haphazard way, he floated until the joyous hour when he escaped the hospital to see Sierva Maria. He would reach the cell gasping for breath, soaked by the perpetual rains, and she would wait for him with so much longing that only his smile allowed her to breathe again. One night she took the initiative with the verses she had learned after hearing them so often. 'When I stand and contemplate my fate and see the path along which you have led me,' she recited. And asked with a certain slyness, 'What's the rest of it?'
'I reach my end, for artless I surrendered to one who is my undoing and my end,' he said.
She repeated the lines with the same tenderness, and so they continued until the end of the book, omitting verses, corrupting and twisting the sonnets to suit themselves, toying with them with the skill of masters. They fell asleep exhausted. At five the warder brought in breakfast, to the uproarious crowing of the roosters, and they awoke in alarm. Life stopped for them. The guard placed the food on the table, made a routine inspection with her lantern, and left without seeing Cayetano in the bed.
'Lucifer is quite a villain,' he mocked when he could breathe again. 'He has made me invisible too.'
Sierva Maria had to use all her cunning to keep the guard from coming back into the cell during the day. Late that night, after an entire day of play, they felt as if they had always been in love. Cayetano, half in jest and half in earnest, dared to loosen the laces of Sierva Maria's bodice. She protected her bosom with both hands, and a bolt of fury appeared in her eyes and a flash of red burned on her forehead. Cayetano grasped her hands with his thumb and index finger, as if they were in flames, and moved them away from her chest. She tried to resist, and he exerted a force that was tender but resolute.
'Say it with me,' he told her: 'Into your hands at last I have come vanquished.'
She obeyed. 'Where I know that I must die,' he continued, as he opened her bodice with icy fingers. And she repeated the lines almost in a whisper, trembling with fear: 'So that in myself alone it might be proven how deep the sword bites into conquered flesh.' Then he kissed her on the mouth for the first time. Sierva Maria's body shivered in a lament, emitted a tenuous ocean breeze, and abandoned itself to its fate. He passed his fingertips over her skin almost without touching her, and experienced for the first time the miracle of feeling himself in another body. An inner voice told him how far he had been from the devil in his sleepless nights of Latin and Greek, his ecstasies of faith, the barren wastelands of his chastity, while she had lived with all the powers of untrammeled love in the hovels of the slaves. He allowed her to guide him, feeling his way in the darkness, but at the last moment he repented and in a moral cataclysm fell into the abyss. He lay on his back with his eyes closed. Sierva Maria was frightened by his silence, his stillness of death, and she touched him with her finger.
'What is it?' she asked.
'Let me be now,' he murmured. 'I am praying.'
In the respites of passion they exchanged excessive proofs of their love. He said he would be capable of anything for her sake. With childish cruelty, Sierva Maria asked him to eat a cockroach. He caught one before she could stop him, and ate it live. In other senseless challenges he asked if she would cut off her braid for his sake, and she said yes but warned him, as a joke or in all seriousness, that if she did he would have to marry her to fulfill the terms of the promise. He brought a kitchen knife to the cell and said: 'We will see if it is true.' She turned so that he could cut it off at the root. She urged him on: 'I dare you.' He did not dare. Days later she asked if he would allow his throat to be slit like a goat's. He answered with a firm yes. She took out the knife and prepared to test him. He started in terror, feeling the final shudder. 'Not you,' he said. 'Not you.' She, overcome with laughter, wanted to know why, and he told her the truth, 'Because you really would do it.'
In the still waters of their passion they also began to experience the tedium of everyday love. She kept the cell clean and neat for the moment he arrived with all the naturalness of a husband returning home. Cayetano taught her to read and write and initiated her into the cults of poetry and devotion to the Holy Spirit, anticipating the happy day when they would be free and married.
At dawn on the twenty-seventh of April, Sierva Maria was just falling asleep after Cayetano had left the cell, when with no warning they came to begin the exorcism. It was the ritual of a prisoner condemned to death. They dragged her to the trough, wet her down with buckets of water, tore off her necklaces, and dressed her in the brutal shift worn by heretics. A gardener nun cut off her hair at the nape of the neck with four bites of her pruning shears and threw it into the fire burning in the courtyard. The barber nun clipped the ends to a half-inch, the length worn by Clarissans under the veil, and tossed them into the fire as she cut them. Sierva Maria saw the golden conflagration and heard the crackle of virgin wood and smelled the acrid odor of burned horn and did not move a muscle of her stony face. Then they put her in a straitjacket and draped her in funereal trappings, and two slaves carried her to the chapel on a military stretcher.
The Bishop had convoked the Ecclesiastical Council, composed of distinguished prebendaries, and they selected four of their number to assist him in the proceedings concerning Sierva Maria. In a final act of affirmation, the Bishop overcame his wretched ill health. He ordered the ceremony to be held not in the cathedral, as on other memorable occasions, but in the chapel of the Convent of Santa Clara, and he himself assumed responsibility for performing the exorcism.
The Clarissans, with the Abbess at their head, had been in the chancel since the small hours of the morning, and there they sang Matins to an organ accompaniment, moved by the solemnity of the day that was dawning. This was followed by the entrance of the prelates of the Ecclesiastical Council, the provosts of three orders and the principals of the Holy Office. Aside from these last-mentioned officials, no civil authority was or would be present.
The last to enter was the Bishop in his ceremonial vestments, borne on a platform by four slaves and surrounded by an aura of inconsolable affliction. He sat facing the high altar, next to the marble catafalque used for important funerals, in a swivel armchair that made it easier for him to move his body. At the stroke of six the two slaves carried in Sierva Maria, lying on the stretcher in the straitjacket and still muffled in purple cloth.
The heat became intolerable during the singing of the Mass. The bass notes of the organ rumbled in the coffered ceiling and left almost no openings for the bland voices of the Clarissans, invisible behind the lattices of the chancel. The two half-naked slaves who had brought in Sierva Maria's stretcher stood guard next to it. At the end of the Mass they uncovered her and left her lying like a dead princess on the marble catafalque. The Bishop's slaves moved his armchair next to her and left them alone in the large space in front of the high altar.
What followed produced unendurable tension and absolute silence, and seemed the prelude to some celestial prodigy. An acolyte placed the basin of holy water within reach of the Bishop. He seized the hyssop as if it were a battle hammer, leaned over Sierva Maria, and sprinkled the length of her body with holy water as he intoned a prayer. Then he uttered the conjuration that made the foundations of the chapel shudder.
'Whoever you may be,' he shouted, 'I command you in the name of Christ, Lord God of all that is visible and invisible, of all that is, was, and will be, to abandon this body redeemed by baptism, and return to darkness.'
Sierva Maria, beside herself with terror, shouted too. The Bishop raised his voice to silence her, but she shouted even louder. The Bishop took a deep breath and opened his mouth again to continue the exorcism, but the air died inside his chest and he could not expel it. He fell face forward, gasping like a fish on land, and the ceremony ended in an immense uproar.
That night Cayetano found Sierva Maria shivering with fever inside the straitjacket. What incensed him most was the mockery of her cropped head. 'God in Heaven,' he murmured with silent rage as he freed her from her bonds. 'How can you permit this crime?' As soon as she was free, Sierva Maria threw herself on his neck, and they embraced while she wept. He allowed her to give vent to her feelings. Then he raised her face and said, 'No more tears.' And coupled this with Garcilaso: 'Those I have wept for your sake are enough.'
Sierva Maria recounted her terrible experience in the chapel. She told him about the deafening choirs that sounded like war, about the demented shouts of the Bishop, about his burning breath, about his beautiful green eyes ablaze with passion.
'He was like the devil,' she said.
Cayetano tried to calm her. He assured her that despite his titanic corpulence, his bellowing voice, his martial methods, the Bishop was a good and wise man. And so Sierva Maria's fear was understandable, but she was in no danger.
'What I want is to die,' she said.
'You feel enraged and defeated, and so do I because I cannot help you,' he said. 'But God will reward us on the day of resurrection.'
He took off the necklace of Oddua that Sierva Maria had given him and put it around her neck to replace all the others. They lay down side by side on the bed and shared their rancor, while the world grew quiet until the only sound was the gnawing of termites in the coffered ceiling. Her fever subsided. Cayetano spoke in the darkness.
'The Apocalypse prophesies a day that will never dawn,' he said. 'Would to God it were today.'
Sierva Maria had been sleeping for about an hour after Cayetano left, when a new noise woke her. Standing before her, accompanied by the Abbess, was an old priest of imposing stature, with dark skin weathered by salt air, coarse bushy hair, heavy eyebrows, rough hands, and eyes that invited confidence. Sierva Maria was still half asleep when the priest said in Yoruban, 'I have brought your necklaces.'
He took them from his pocket, just as the superior of the convent had returned them to him in response to his demands. As he hung them around Sierva Maria's neck, he named and defined each one in African languages: the red and white of the love and blood of Chango, the red and black of the life and death of Eleggua, the seven aqua and pale blue beads of Yemaya. He moved with subtle tact from Yoruban to Congolese and from Congolese to Mandingo, and she followed suit with grace and fluency. If at the end he changed to Castilian, it was only out of consideration for the Abbess, who could not believe that Sierva Maria was capable of so much sweetness.
He was Father Tomas de Aquino de Narvaez, a former prosecutor of the Holy Office in Seville and now parish priest in the slave district, whom the Bishop, h
Sierva Maria recognized him at once as an archangel of salvation, and she was not mistaken. In her presence he took apart the arguments in the acta and proved to the Abbess that none of them was conclusive. He informed her that the demons of America were the same as those of Europe but that summoning them and controlling them were different. He explained the four common rules for recognizing demonic possession and helped her see how easy it was for the demon to manipulate these so that the opposite would be believed. He took his leave of Sierva Maria with an affectionate pinch of her cheek.
'Sleep well,' he said. 'I have dealt with worse enemies.'
The Abbess was so well disposed that she invited him to have a cup of the celebrated aromatic chocolate of the Clarissans, with the anisette biscuits and confectionary miracles reserved for the elect. As they ate and drank in her private refectory, he imparted his instructions for the measures that were to be taken next. The Abbess was happy to comply.