Of Love and Other Demons
Despite so many dreadful portents, no one - white, black, or Indian - even gave a thought to rabies or any other disease that was slow to incubate until the first irreparable symptoms made their appearance. Bernarda Cabrera proceeded according to the same criterion. She thought that the gossip of slaves traveled faster and farther than the inventions of Christians and that even a simple dog bite might damage the family's honor. She was so certain of her reasoning that she did not mention the matter to her husband or think about it again until the following Sunday, when the maid went to the market alone and saw the carcass of a dog that had been hung from an almond tree to let everyone know it had died of rabies. One glance was all she needed to recognize the blaze on the forehead and the ash-gray coat of the dog that had bitten Sierva Maria. But Bernarda was not concerned when she heard the news. There was no reason to be: the wound was dry and not even a trace of the abrasions remained.
December had begun with foul weather but soon recovered its amethyst afternoons and nights of antic breezes. Christmas was more joyous than in other years because of the good news from Spain. But the city was not what it had once been. The principal slave market had been moved to Havana, and the miners and ranchers in these kingdoms of Terra Firma preferred to buy contraband labor at lower prices in the English Antilles. And so there were two cities: one busy and crowded for the six months the galleons remained in port, and the other that drowsed for the rest of the year as it waited for them to return.
Nothing more was known about those who had been bitten until the beginning of January, when a vagabond Indian woman called Sagunta knocked on the Marquis's door at the sacred hour of siesta. She was very old and she walked barefoot in the full sun, leaning on a staff of carreto wood and wrapped from head to toe in a white sheet. She was notorious for being a mender of maiden-heads and an abortionist, although this was balanced by her admirable reputation for knowing Indian secrets that could heal the incurable.
The Marquis stood in the entranceway and received her with great reluctance, and it took him some time to understand what she wanted, for she was a woman who favored slow and intricate circumlocutions. She made so many twists and turns in order to say anything that the Marquis lost patience.
'Whatever it is, just tell me with no more Latinizing,' he said.
'We are threatened by a plague of rabies,' said Sagunta, 'and I am the only one who has the keys of Saint Hubert, protector of hunters and healer of the rabid.'
'I see no reason for a plague,' said the Marquis. 'As far as I know, no comets or eclipses have been forecast, and our sins are not great enough for God to be concerned with us.'
Sagunta informed him that there would be a total eclipse of the sun in March and gave him a complete account of all those bitten on the first Sunday in December. Two had disappeared, no doubt spirited away by their people to try to cure them with magic, and a third had died of rabies by the second week. A fourth victim, not bitten but only spattered by the dog's spittle, lay dying in the Amor de Dios Hospital. The chief constable had ordered a hundred stray dogs poisoned so far this month. In another week not one would be left alive on the streets.
'Be that as it may, I do not know what any of this has to do with me,' said the Marquis. 'Least of all at so irregular an hour.'
'Your daughter was the first to be bitten,' said Sagunta.
The Marquis responded with great conviction, 'If that were true, I would have been the first to know.'
He believed the girl was well, and it did not seem possible that something so serious could have happened to her without his knowledge. And therefore he considered the visit concluded and went back to finish his siesta.
That afternoon, however, he looked for Sierva Maria in the servants' courtyards. She was helping to skin rabbits, and her face was painted black, her feet were bare and her head was wrapped in the red turban used by slave women. He asked her if she had been bitten by a dog, and the answer was a categorical no. But that night Bernarda confirmed it was true. The Marquis was bewildered and asked, 'Then why does Sierva deny it?'
'Because she wouldn't tell the truth even by mistake,' said Bernarda.
'Then it is necessary to take action,' said the Marquis, 'because the dog had rabies.'
'No,' said Bernarda, 'the dog must have died because it bit her. This happened in December, and the little hussy is like a rose.'
They both continued to be mindful of the growing rumors regarding the seriousness of the plague and against their own wishes were forced to speak again about questions of common interest as they had in the days when they hated each other less. For him the matter was clear. He always believed he loved his daughter, but the fear of rabies obliged the Marquis to admit to himself that this was a lie for the sake of convenience. Bernarda, on the other hand, did not even ask herself the question, for she knew very well she did not love the girl and the girl did not love her, and both things seemed fitting. A good part of the hatred each of them felt for Sierva Maria was caused by the other's qualities in her. Nevertheless, to preserve her honor, Bernarda was prepared to play out the farce of shedding tears and mourning like a grief-stricken mother, on the condition that the girl's death have a seemly cause.
'It doesn't matter what,' she specified, 'as long as it's not a dog's disease.'
At that moment, as if in a blinding flash from heaven, the Marquis understood the meaning of his life.
'The girl is not going to die,' he said with determination. 'But if she must die, it shall be of whatever God wills.'
On Tuesday he went to the Amor de Dios Hospital, on San Lazaro Hill, to see the rabies victim Sagunta had mentioned to him. He was not aware that his carriage, with its mortuary crepe, would be viewed as yet another symptom of incubating disaster, because for many years he had not left his house except on great occasions, and for many more years there had been no occasions greater than calamitous ones.
The city lay submerged in its centuries-long torpor, but there was no lack of observers to glimpse the gaunt face and elusive eyes of the tentative nobleman in mourning taffetas as his carriage left the walled district and drove through the countryside to San Lazaro Hill. At the hospital, the lepers lying on the brick floors saw him walk in with his dead man's gait, and they barred his way to beg for alms. In the pavilion that housed raving lunatics he found the rabies victim tied to a pillar.
He was an old mulatto with a beard and hair like cotton. By now half his body was paralyzed, but the disease had endowed the other half with so much strength that he had to be tied to keep him from smashing himself to pieces against the walls. His story left no doubt: he had been attacked by the same ash-colored dog with the white blaze that had bitten Sierva Maria. In fact, only the animal's spittle had touched him, but that was on a chronic ulcer on his calf, not healthy skin. This detail was not enough to reassure the Marquis, who left the hospital horrified by the sight of the dying man and with no glimmer of hope for Sierva Maria.
As he was returning to the city along the cornice of the hill, he saw a man of imposing appearance sitting on a stone in the road next to a dead horse. The Marquis told the driver to stop, and only when the man stood did he recognize the licenciate Abrenuncio de Sa Pereira Cao, the most notable and controversial physician in the city. Identical to the King of Clubs, he wore a broad-brimmed hat for the sun, riding boots and the black cloak favored by educated libertines. His greeting to the Marquis was not at all usual.
'Benedictus qui venit in nomine veritatis,' he said.
His horse had not survived the descent of the same slope it had ascended at a trot, and its heart had burst. Neptuno, the Marquis's coachman, attempted to remove the saddle from the animal. The owner stopped him.
'What use do I have for a saddle if I have no one to saddle,' he said. 'Leave it to rot along with him.'
The coachman had to help the doctor into the carriage because of his puerile corpulence, and the Marquis paid him the honor of having him sit on his right. Abrenuncio was thinking about his horse.
'It is as if I had lost half my body,' he sighed.
'Nothing is easier to resolve than the death of a horse,' said the Marquis.
Abrenuncio became more animated. 'This one was different,' he said. 'If I had the means, I would have him buried in holy ground.' He looked at the Marquis to see his reaction, and concluded, 'He turned 100 in October.'
'No horse lives that long,' said the Marquis.
'I can prove it,' said the doctor.
On Tuesdays he offered his services at the Amor de Dios Hospital, treating the lepers who suffered from other diseases. He had been an outstanding student of the physician Juan Mendez Nieto, another Portuguese Jew who had emigrated to the Caribbean because of the persecution in Spain, and had inherited his evil reputation for necromancy and a loose tongue; but no one cast doubt on his learning. His disputes with other physicians, who would not forgive his incredible successes or uncommon methods, were constant and bloody. He had invented a pill to be taken once a year, which enhanced one's health and lengthened one's life but caused such mental derangement for the first three days that no one but the doctor had dared to swallow it. At one time he had been in the habit of playing the harp at the bedside of his patients in order to sedate them with certain music composed for the purpose. He did not practice surgery, which he always considered an inferior art fit only for charlatans and barbers, and his terrifying specialty was predicting the day and hour his patients would die. Both his good name and his bad, however, were based on the same circumstance: it was said, and no one ever disproved it, that he had resurrected a dead man.
Despite his long experience, Abrenuncio felt pity for the rabies victim. 'The human body is not made to endure all the years that one may live,' he said. The Marquis did not miss a word of his exhaustive and colorful discourse, and spoke only when the doctor had nothing more to say.
'What can be done for that poor man?' he asked.
'Kill him,' said Abrenuncio.
The Marquis looked at him, appalled.
'At least that is what we would do if we were good Christians,' the impassive doctor continued. 'And never fear, Senor: there are more good Christians than one supposes.'
He was, in reality, referring to the poor Christians of every color, in the slums and in the countryside, who had the courage to poison the food of their rabid kin in order to spare them a ghastly death. At the end of the previous century an entire family had consumed poisoned soup because none of them had the heart to poison only a five-year-old boy.
'People believe that we physicians do not know that such things occur,' Abrenuncio concluded. 'That is not true, but we lack the moral authority to endorse them. What we do instead is what you have just seen. We commend the dying to Saint Hubert and tie them to a pillar in order to prolong and intensify their suffering.'
'Is there no other recourse?' asked the Marquis.
'After the initial outbreak of rabies, none at all,' said the doctor. He mentioned frivolous treatises that considered it a curable disease responsive to various prescriptions: liverwort, cinnabar, musk, silver mercury, anagallis flore purpureo. 'All rubbish,' he said. 'The fact is that some people contract rabies and others do not, and it is easy to say that if they did not, it was because of the medicines.' He looked into the eyes of the Marquis to be certain he was still awake, and concluded, 'Why are you so interested?'
'Out of pity,' the Marquis lied.
Through the window he contemplated the sea grown drowsy in the ennui of four o'clock and realized with a heavy heart that the swallows had returned. There was still no breeze. A group of children threw stones at a pelican gone astray on a muddy beach, and the Marquis followed the bird in its fugitive flight until it vanished among the brilliant domes of the fortified city.
The carriage entered the walled precincts at the inland Media Luna gate, and Abrenuncio guided the coachman through the bustling district of the artisans to his house. It was no easy task. Neptuno was more than seventy years old, and indecisive and shortsighted as well, and he was accustomed to having the horse move on its own through streets it knew better than he did. When at last they reached the house, Abrenuncio said goodbye at the door with a sentence from Horace.
'I am afraid I do not know Latin,' the Marquis apologized. 'There is no reason you should!' said Abrenuncio. And he said it in Latin of course.
The Marquis was so impressed that his first act when he returned home was the most unusual of his life. He ordered Neptuno to collect the dead horse on San Lazaro Hill and bury it in holy ground, and early the next day to send Abrenuncio the best horse in his stable.
After the ephemeral relief of antimony purges, Bernarda took as many as three consolatory enemas a day to extinguish the blaze in her belly or sank into as many as six hot baths with perfumed soaps to soothe her nerves. By this time there was nothing left of the person she had been when she married, a woman who devised commercial ventures and put them into effect with the assurance of a soothsayer, so great was her success, until the ill-fated afternoon she met Judas Iscariote and was swept away by misfortune.
She saw him for the first time inside a bullfighting corral erected at a fair, wrangling a fierce bull with his bare hands, almost naked, and unprotected. He was so handsome and bold she could not forget him. Days later she saw him again, dancing the cumbe at a carnival that she attended wearing a mask and disguised as a beggar and surrounded by her slave women dressed as marquises with necklaces and bracelets and earrings of gold and precious stones. Judas was in the center of a circle of onlookers, dancing with any woman who would pay him, and the authorities had to impose order to control the frantic yearning of his claimants. Bernarda asked him how much he cost. Judas replied as he danced: 'Half a real.'
Bernarda took off her mask.
'What I'm asking is how much you cost for the rest of your life,' she said.
Judas saw that with her mask removed she was not the beggar she had seemed. He let go of his partner and walked toward Bernarda with all the airs of a cabin boy to tell her his price.
'Five hundred gold pesos,' he said.
She measured him with the eye of a wary appraiser. He was enormous, with seal-colored skin, a rippling torso, narrow hips, graceful legs and beautiful hands that belied his position in life. Bernarda estimated, 'You're two meters tall.'
'And three centimeters,' he said.
Bernarda had him lower his head so that she could examine his teeth and she found the ammoniac breath of his armpits unsettling. He had all his teeth, and they were healthy and straight.
'Your master must be crazy if he thinks anyone's going to buy you for the price of a horse,' said Bernarda.
'I'm a free man and I'm selling myself,' he replied. And ended with a certain tone: 'Senora.'
'Marquise,' she said.
He made a courtier's bow that left her breathless, and she bought him for half of what he had aspired to. 'Just for the pleasure of seeing him,' as she said. In return she respected both his condition as a free man and the time he spent wrangling his circus bull. She moved him into a room near her own, which had once belonged to the head groom, and from the first night, naked and with her door unbolted, she waited for him, confident he would come without being invited. But she had to wait two weeks, and did not sleep in peace because of the fire in her body.
The truth was that as soon as he learned who she was and saw the interior of the house, he re-established his slave's reserve. But when Bernarda had stopped waiting for him and slept in a nightgown and bolted the door, he came in through the window. The air in her room, rarefied by the ammoniac odor of his sweat, woke her. She heard the heavy breathing of a minotaur searching for her in the darkness, she felt the sultry heat of his body on top of her, his hands of prey grasping the neck of her nightgown and ripping it down the middle while his husky voice intoned in her ear, 'Whore, whore.' From that night on, Bernarda knew there was nothing else she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
She was mad about him. At night th
'Don't just stand there like a corpse,' Bernarda shouted. 'Either get out or get down here with us.'
Dominga de Adviento left with a slam of the door that sounded to Bernarda like a slap in the face. That night she summoned her and threatened the most atrocious punishments if she said anything about what she had seen. 'Don't worry, white lady,' said the slave. 'You can forbid whatever you like, and I'll obey.' And she concluded, 'The trouble is you can't forbid what I think.'
If the Marquis did know anything, he was very good at pretending not to. After all, Sierva Maria was the only thing he still had in common with his wife, and he thought of Sierva Maria not as his daughter but as hers alone. And Bernarda did not think of the girl at all. She had put her so far out of her mind that when she returned from one of her extended stays at the sugar plantation, Bernarda mistook her for someone else because she had grown and changed so much. She called for her, examined her, questioned her about her life, but could not get her to say a single word.
'You're just like your father,' she said. 'A freak.'
Their attitudes had not changed on the day the Marquis returned from the Amor de Dios Hospital and announced to Bernarda his resolve to take up the reins of the household with a warlike hand. There was something frenetic in his urgency that left Bernarda speechless.
His first action was to return to the girl the bedroom that had belonged to her grandmother the Marquise, and that had been hers until Bernarda sent her to sleep with the slaves. Beneath the dust its former splendor remained intact: the imperial bed that the servants thought was gold because of the brilliance of its copper; the mosquito netting made of bridal tulle, the rich hangings of passementerie, the alabaster washstand and numerous bottles of perfumes and cosmetics lined in martial order on the dressing table; the portable chamber pot, the porcelain spittoon and vomitory, the entire illusory world that the old woman crippled by rheumatism had dreamed for the daughter she never had and the granddaughter she never saw.