Of Love and Other Demons
'I have no interest in whether or not things go well for that unhappy creature,' she said. 'What I do beg of God is that she leave this convent at once.'
The priest promised he would make every effort to have that be a matter of days, or hours, God willing. Both were content when they said goodbye in the locutory, and neither could imagine they would never see each other again.
But that is what happened. Father Aquino, as his parishioners called him, set off on foot for his church, since for some time he had prayed very little and made amends to God by reviving the martyrdom of his nostalgia every day. He lingered at the arcades, overwhelmed by the hawking of peddlers who sold everything imaginable, and waited for the sun to go down before crossing the bog of the port. He bought the cheapest pastries and a partial ticket in the lottery of the poor, with the incorrigible hope of winning so that he could restore his dilapidated temple. He spent half an hour talking to the black matrons who sat on the ground like monumental idols beside handmade trinkets displayed on jute mats. At about five he crossed the Getsemani drawbridge, where they had just hung the carcass of a large, sinister dog so that everyone would know it had died of rabies. The air carried the scent of roses, and the sky was the most diaphanous in the world.
The slave district, at the very edge of the salt marsh, was staggering in its misery. People lived alongside turkey buzzards and pigs in mud huts with roofs of palm, and children drank from the swamp in the streets. But with its intense colors and radiant voices it was the liveliest district, and even more so at twilight, when the residents carried chairs into the middle of the street to enjoy the cool air. The priest distributed the pastries among the children of the marsh, and kept three for his supper.
The temple was a mud-and-cane shack with a roof of bitter palm and a wooden cross on its ridge. It had rough plank benches, a single altar with a single saint, and a wooden pulpit where Father Aquino preached on Sundays in African languages. The parish house was an extension of the church behind the altar, where the priest lived in austere conditions in one room that held a cot and a crude chair. In the rear were a small, rocky courtyard and an arbor with clusters of blighted grapes, and a fence of thornbushes that separated the courtyard from the marsh. The only drinking water was in a concrete cistern in one corner of the yard.
An old sacristan and an orphan girl of fourteen, both converted Mandingos, assisted him in the church and in the house, but were not needed after the Rosary. Before he closed the door, the priest ate the three pastries with a glass of water, and then, with his habitual formula in Castilian, he took his leave of the neighbors sitting in the street: 'May God grant all of you a blessed good night.'
At four in the morning, the sacristan, who lived a block away from the church, began to ring the bell for Mass. Before five o'clock, in view of the fact that the priest was late, the sacristan looked for him in his room. He was not there or in the courtyard. He continued looking in the vicinity of the church, for the priest sometimes visited nearby courtyards very early in the day to talk to the neighbors. He told the few parishioners who came to the church that there would be no Mass because the priest was nowhere to be found. At eight o'clock, with the sun already hot, the servant girl went to the cistern for water, and there was Father Aquino, floating on his back and wearing the breeches he kept on when he slept. It was a sad, widely mourned death, and a mystery that was never solved, which the Abbess proclaimed as definitive proof of demonic animosity toward her convent.
The news did not reach the cell of Sierva Maria, who waited for Father Aquino with innocent hopefulness. She could not explain to Cayetano who he was, but she did convey her gratitude for the return of the necklaces and his promise to rescue her. Until that moment it had seemed to both of them that love was enough to make them happy. In her disenchantment with Father Aquino, it was Sierva Maria who realized that their freedom depended only on themselves. Late one night, after long hours of kisses, she pleaded with Delaura not to go. He did not think she was serious, and said goodbye with one more kiss. She leaped from the bed and stretched her arms across the door.
'Either you stay or I'm going with you.'
She had once told Cayetano that she would like to take refuge with him in San Basilio de Palenque, a settlement of fugitive slaves twelve leagues from here, where she was sure to be received like a queen. It seemed a providential idea to Cayetano, but he did not connect it to their escape. He put his trust instead in legal formalities. In the Marquis's recovering his daughter with undeniable proof she was not possessed and in his obtaining the Bishop's pardon and permission to join a lay community where the marriage of a priest or nun would be so common it would shock no one. And so when Sierva Maria forced him to choose between staying and taking her with him, he tried once again to distract her. She clung to his neck and threatened to scream. Day was dawning. A frightened Delaura managed to break away with a shove and fled just as they were beginning to sing Matins.
Sierva Maria's reaction was ferocious. She scratched the warder's face at the most trivial provocation, locked herself in with the crossbar and threatened to burn the cell and herself inside it if they did not let her go. The warder, in a rage because of her bloodied face, shouted, 'Just you dare, you beast of Beelzebub.'
Sierva Maria's only reply was to set fire to the mattress with the Sanctuary Lamp. The intervention of Martina and her soothing ways prevented a tragedy. In any event, in her daily report the warder requested that the girl be transferred to a more secure cell in the cloistered pavilion.
Sierva Maria's urgency heightened Cayetano's own longing to find an immediate solution other than flight. On two occasions he attempted to see the Marquis, and both times he was stopped by the mastiffs, out of their cages and roaming free in the house with no master. The truth was that the Marquis would never live there again. Conquered by his interminable fears, he had tried to seek refuge in the shelter of Dulce Olivia, but she did not open her door to him. Ever since the onset of his solitary grief, he had called on her by every means at his disposal and had received nothing but mocking responses on little paper birds. Then, without warning, she appeared, unsummoned and unannounced. She had swept and cleaned the kitchen, in a shambles through lack of use, and on the stove a pot bubbled over a cheerful flame. She was dressed for Sunday in organza flounces, and brightened by the latest cosmetics and ointments, and the only sign of her madness was a hat with an enormous brim trimmed in fabric fish and birds. 'I thank you for coming,' said the Marquis. 'I was feeling very lonely.' And he concluded with a lament, 'I have lost Sierva.'
'It's your fault,' she said in an offhand way. 'You did everything you could to lose her.'
Their supper was a stew in the local style, with three kinds of meat and the best of the vegetable garden. Dulce Olivia served it as if she were the mistress of the house, her manners well suited to her costume. The fierce dogs followed her everywhere, panting and winding themselves around her legs, and she beguiled them with the murmurings of a bride. She sat across the table from the Marquis, just as they might have been when they were young and not afraid of love, and they ate in silence without looking at each other, dripping with perspiration and eating their soup with an old married couple's lack of interest. After the first course Dulce Olivia paused to sigh and became aware of her age.
'This is how we could have been,' she said.
The Marquis found her bravado contagious. He looked at her: she was fat and old, two teeth were missing, and her eyes were withered. This is how they could have been, perhaps, if he had found the courage to oppose his father.
'When you are like this you seem to be in your right mind,' he said.
'I always have been,' she said. 'It was you who never saw me as I really was.'
'I picked you out of the crowd when you were all young and beautiful and it was difficult to choose the best,' he said.
'I picked myself out for you,' she said. 'Not you. You were always what you are now: a miserable devil.'
The brewing argument excited Dulce Olivia. 'It's as much mine as yours,' she said. 'As the girl is mine, even though a bitch whelped her.' And not giving him time to reply, she concluded, 'And worst of all are the evil hands you've left her in.'
'She is in the hands of God,' he said.
Dulce Olivia shrieked in fury.
'She is in the hands of the Bishop's son, who has made her into his pregnant whore.'
'If you bit your tongue you would poison yourself,' shouted the Marquis, appalled.
'Sagunta exaggerates but she doesn't lie,' said Dulce Olivia. 'And don't try to humiliate me, because I'm the only one you have left to powder your face when you die.'
It was the invariable finale. Her tears began to fall into her plate like drops of soup. The dogs were asleep but the tension of the quarrel woke them, and they raised their watchful heads and growled deep in their throats. The Marquis felt as if he did not have enough air.
'You see,' he said in a fury, 'this is how we would have been.'
She stood without finishing her meal. She cleared the table, washed the dishes and casseroles with sordid fury, and as she washed each one she smashed it against the basin. He let her cry until she threw the pieces of crockery, like an avalanche of hail, into the trash bin. She left without saying goodbye. The Marquis never knew, and no one else ever knew, just when Dulce Olivia had stopped being herself and become no more than a nocturnal apparition in the house.
The fiction that Cayetano Delaura was the Bishop's son had replaced the older rumor that they had been lovers ever since Salamanca. Dulce Olivia's version, confirmed and distorted by Sagunta, said in effect that Sierva Maria, sequestered in the convent to satiate the satanic appetites of Cayetano Delaura, had conceived a child with two heads. Their saturnalias, Sagunta said, had contaminated the entire community of Clarissans.
The Marquis never recovered. Stumbling through the quagmire of the past, he searched for a refuge against his terror and found only the image of Bernarda, ennobled by his solitude. He tried to conjure it away by recalling the things he hated most about her: her fetid gases, her ill-tempered remarks, her bunions as sharp as a rooster's claws, and the more he tried to vilify her the more idealized his recollections became. Defeated by nostalgia, he sent exploratory messages to the sugar plantation at Mahates, where he supposed she had gone when she left the house, and she was there. He sent word that she should forget her anger and come home, so they might at least each have someone to die with. When he received no reply, he went to see her.
He had to find his way back along the streams of memory. The estate that had been the best in the vice-regency was reduced to nothing. It was impossible to distinguish the road from the undergrowth. All that remained of the mill was rubble, machinery eaten away by rust, the skeletons of the last two oxen still yoked to the wheel. The pool of sighs in the shade of the calabash trees was the only thing that seemed alive. Before he could see the house through the burned brambles of the canebrakes, the Marquis smelled the scent of Bernarda's soaps, which had become her natural odor, and he realized how much he longed to be with her. And there she was, sitting in a rocking chair on the front veranda and eating cacao, her unmoving eyes fixed on the horizon. She wore a tunic of rose-colored cotton, and her hair was still damp from a recent bath in the pool of sighs.
The Marquis greeted her before climbing the three stairs to the gallery, 'Good afternoon.' Bernarda replied without looking at him, as if it were no one's greeting. The Marquis went up to the veranda, and from there he looked out over the brambles and searched the entire horizon in a single, uninterrupted glance. For as far as he could see, there was nothing but wild brush and the calabash trees at the pool. 'Where are all the people?' he asked. Bernarda, like her father, answered a second time without looking at him. 'They all left,' she said. 'There's not a living soul for a hundred leagues around.'
He went inside to find a chair. The house was in ruins, and plants with small purple flowers were breaking through the bricks of the floor. In the dining room he saw the old table, the same chairs devoured by termites, the clock that had been stopped at the same hour for longer than anyone could remember, all of it in an air filled with invisible dust that he could feel with each breath. The Marquis carried out one of the chairs, sat down next to Bernarda, and said in a very quiet voice, 'I have come for you.'
Bernarda's expression did not change, but she nodded her head in almost imperceptible affirmation. He described his life: the solitary house, the slaves crouching behind the hedges with their knives at the ready, the interminable nights.
'That is not living,' he said.
'It never was,' she said.
'Perhaps it could be,' he said.
'You wouldn't say that to me if you really knew how much I hate you,' she said.
'I have always thought I hated you too,' he said, 'and now it seems I am not so certain.'
Then Bernarda opened her heart so that he could see what was there in the light of day. She told him how her father had sent her to him, using the pretext of herrings and pickles, how they had deceived him with the old ruse of reading his palm, how they had decided she would violate him when he played the innocent, and how they had planned the cold, certain move of conceiving Sierva Maria and trapping him for life. The only thing he had to thank her for was that she did not have the heart to take the final step planned with her father, which was to pour laudanum in his soup so they would not have to suffer his presence.
'I put the noose around my own neck,' she said. 'But I'm not sorry. It was too much to expect that on top of everything else I'd have to love that poor premature creature, or you, when you've been the cause of my misfortunes.'
But the final step in her degradation had been the loss of Judas Iscariote. Searching for him in other men, she had given herself over to unrestrained fornication with the slaves on the plantation, something she had always thought repugnant before daring it for the first time. She chose them in crews and dispatched them one by one on the paths between the canebrakes until the fermented honey and the cacao tablets shattered her beauty, and she became swollen and ugly, and they did not have the courage to take on so much body. Then she began to pay. At first with trinkets for the younger ones, according to their looks and size, and in the end with pure gold for anyone she could find. By the time she discovered that they were fleeing in droves to San Basilio de Palenque to escape her insatiable craving, it was too late.
'Then I learned that I would have been capable of hacking them to pieces with a machete,' she said, not shedding a tear. 'And not only them but you and the girl, and my skinflint of a father, and everyone else who turned my life to shit. But I was no longer in any condition to kill anybody.'
They sat in silence, watching night fall over the brambles. A flock of distant animals could be heard on the horizon, and a woman's inconsolable voice calling them by name, one by one, until it was dark. The Marquis sighed.
'I see now that I have nothing to thank you for.'
He stood without haste, put the chair back in its place, and left the way he had come, not saying goodbye and not carrying a light. All that remained of him - a skeleton eaten away by turkey buzzards - was found two summers later on a path leading nowhere.
Martina Laborde had spent that entire morning embroidering in order to complete a piece that had taken longer than expected. She had her midday meal in Sierva Maria's cell, and then went to her own cell for a siesta. In the afternoon, as she was finishing the last stitches, she spoke to the girl with unusual sadness.
'If you ever leave this prison, or if I leave first, always remember me,' she said. 'It will be my only glory.'
Sierva Maria did not understand until the following day, when she was awakened by the warder shouting that Martina was not in her cell. They searched every corner of the convent and could not find a trace of her except for a note, written in her flowery hand, which Sierva Maria discovered under her pillow: I will pray
She was still overwhelmed by surprise when the Abbess came in with the vicar and other reverend sisters of her infantry, and a squad of guards armed with muskets. She stretched out a choleric hand to strike Sierva Maria and shouted: 'You are an accomplice and you will be punished.'
The girl raised her free hand with a determination that stopped the Abbess in her tracks.
'I saw them leave,' she said.
The Abbess was stunned.
'She was not alone?'
'There were six of them,' said Sierva Maria.
It did not seem possible, and even less so that they could leave by the terrace, whose only point of egress was the fortified courtyard. 'They had bat's wings,' said Sierva Maria, flapping her arms. 'They spread them on the terrace, and then they carried her away, flying, flying, to the other side of the ocean.' The captain of the patrol crossed himself in fear and fell to his knees.
'Hail Mary Most Pure,' he said.
'Conceived without sin,' they all said in a chorus.
It was a perfect escape, planned by Martina in absolute secrecy and down to the smallest detail, ever since she had discovered that Cayetano was spending his nights in the convent. The only thing she did not foresee, or did not care about, was the need to close the sewer entrance from the inside to avoid arousing suspicion. Those who investigated the escape found the tunnel open, explored it, learned the truth, and sealed both ends without delay. Sierva Maria was forced to move to a locked cell in the pavilion of those interred in life. That night, beneath a splendid moon, Cayetano tore his hands trying to break through the seal on the tunnel.
Driven by a demented force, he ran to find the Marquis. He pushed open the main door without knocking and entered the deserted house, whose interior light was the same as the light in the street, for the brilliant moon made the whitewashed walls seem transparent. Clean and neat, the furnishings in place, flowers in the urns: everything was perfect in the abandoned house. The groan of the hinges aroused the mastiffs, but Dulce Olivia silenced them with a martial command. Cayetano saw her in the green shadows of the courtyard, beautiful, phosphorescent, wearing the tunic of a marquise, her hair adorned by fresh camellias with a frenzied scent, and he raised his hand to form a cross with his index finger and thumb.