Of Love and Other Demons


  While the slave women resurrected the bedroom, the Marquis went about imposing his will on the house. He drove away the slaves dozing in the shade of the arcades, and threatened beatings and slaves' prison for any who ever again relieved themselves in the corners or gambled in the rooms that had been closed off. These were not new decrees. They had been followed with far greater rigor when Bernarda gave the orders and Dominga de Adviento carried them out, and the Marquis took public delight in his historic declaration: 'In my house I do not say, I obey.' But when Bernarda succumbed to the quick-sands of cacao, and Dominga de Adviento died, the slaves slipped back into the house with great stealth, first the women with their children to help in small tasks, and then the men without work, searching out the coolness of the corridors. Terrified by the specter of ruin, Bernarda ordered them to earn their keep by begging in the streets. In one of her crises she decided to free them all except for two or three house servants, but the Marquis opposed the idea with an illogical argument: 'If they are going to die of hunger, it is better for them to die here and not among strangers.'

  He did not adhere to these easy formulas when Sierva Maria was bitten by the dog. He granted certain powers to the slave who seemed to have the greatest authority and be the most trustworthy and gave him instructions so harsh they shocked even Bernarda. Just after dark, when the house was in order for the first time since the death of Dominga de Adviento, he found Sierva Maria in the slave shack along with half a dozen young black women who were sleeping in hammocks criss-crossed at different levels. He woke them all to announce the rules of the new regime.

  'From this day forward the girl lives in the house,' he said. 'And let it be known here and throughout the kingdom: she has only one family, and that family is white.'

  The girl resisted when he tried to carry her in his arms to the bedroom, and he had to make her understand that a masculine order governed the world. Once they were in her grandmother's room, he replaced her slave's burlap chemise with a nightdress but could not make her say a word. Bernarda watched them from the door: the Marquis sitting on the bed and struggling with the buttons on the nightgown, which would not pass through the new buttonholes, and the girl standing in front of him and regarding him with an impassive expression. Bernarda could not restrain herself.

  'Why don't you two get married?' she mocked. And since the Marquis ignored her, she added, 'Not a bad little business: You could breed American-born marquises with chicken feet and sell them to the circus.'

  Something had changed in her as well. Despite the ferocity of her laughter, her face seemed less bitter, and at the bottom of her faithlessness lay a sediment of compassion that the Marquis did not see. As soon as he heard her leave, he said to the girl, 'She is a sow.'

  He thought he detected a spark of interest. 'Do you know what a sow is?' he asked, eager for a reply. Sierva Maria did not grant him one. She allowed herself to be laid down on the bed, she allowed her head to be settled on the feather pillows, she allowed herself to be covered to the knees by the fine linen sheet fragrant with the scent of the cedar chest, and she did not bestow upon him the charity of a single glance. He felt a tremor of conscience. 'Do you pray before you sleep?'

  The girl did not even look at him. Accustomed to a hammock, she curled into the fetal position and fell asleep without saying good night. The Marquis closed the mosquito netting with the greatest care so that the bats would not drain her blood as she slept. It was almost ten, and the chorus of madwomen was intolerable in the house redeemed by the expulsion of the slaves.

  The Marquis set loose the mastiffs, and they raced to the grandmother's bedroom and sniffed at the cracks in the doors, panting and yelping. The Marquis scratched their heads with his fingertips and calmed them with the good news: 'It is Sierva, she will be living with us from now on.'

  His sleep was brief and restless because the madwomen sang until two. The first thing he did when he woke with the roosters was to go to the girl's room, but she was not there. He found her in the shack with the slave women. The one sleeping closest to her woke with a start.

  'She came by herself, Senor,' she said before he could ask the question. 'I didn't even know.'

  The Marquis knew it was true. He asked which of them had been with Sierva Maria when the dog bit her. The only mulatta, whose name was Caridad del Cobre, identified herself, trembling with fear. The Marquis reassured her.

  'Take charge of her as if you were Dominga de Adviento,' he said.

  He explained her duties. He warned her not to let the girl out of her sight for an instant and to treat her with affection and understanding but not to pamper her. Most important of all, she was not to cross the thornbush fence he would place between the slave-yard and the rest of the house. In the morning when she awoke and at night before she went to sleep she was to give him a full report without his having to ask for it.

  'Be careful what you do and how you do it,' he concluded. 'You will be the only one responsible for seeing that these orders of mine are carried out.'

  At seven in the morning, after returning the dogs to their cages, the Marquis went to Abrenuncio's house. The doctor came to the door in person, for he had no slaves or servants. The Marquis himself uttered the reproach he believed he deserved.

  'This is no hour for a visit,' he said.

  The doctor, grateful for the horse he had just received, opened his heart. He led him through the courtyard to a shed, all that remained of an old smithy except a ruined forge. The handsome two-year-old sorrel, far from familiar surroundings, seemed restless. Abrenuncio soothed the animal with pats on the cheek while he whispered empty promises in Latin into its ear.

  The Marquis told him that the dead horse had been buried in the former garden of the Amor de Dios Hospital, which had been consecrated as a cemetery for the wealthy during the cholera plague. Abrenuncio thanked him for his excessive kindness. As they spoke, he noticed that his visitor stood at a certain distance. The Marquis confessed that he had never had the courage to ride.

  'Horses frighten me as much as chickens do,' he said.

  'That is too bad, because lack of communication with horses has impeded human progress,' said Abrenuncio. 'If we ever broke down the barriers, we could produce the centaur.'

  The interior of the house, illuminated by two windows open to the great sea, was arranged with the excessive fastidiousness of a confirmed bachelor. The atmosphere was permeated with a fragrance of balms, which encouraged belief in the efficacy of medicine. There was a neat and ordered desk and a glass case containing porcelain flasks labeled in Latin. The curative harp, covered by golden dust, was relegated to a corner. Most notable were the books, many of them in Latin, with ornate spines. They were behind glass doors and on open shelves, or arranged with great care on the floor, and the physician walked the narrow paper canyons with the ease of a rhinoceros among the roses. The Marquis was amazed at the number of volumes.

  'All knowledge must be in this room,' he said.

  'Books are worthless,' Abrenuncio said with good humor. 'Life has helped me cure the diseases that other doctors cause with their medicines.'

  He removed a sleeping cat from the large armchair, which was his, so that the Marquis could sit down. He served him a herbal brew that he prepared on his alchemist's burner and spoke about his medical experiences, until he realized that the Marquis had lost interest. It was true: in a sudden movement he had stood and turned his back, looking through the window at the ill-tempered sea. At last, with his back still turned, he found the courage to begin.

  'Doctor,' he murmured.

  Abrenuncio had not expected him to speak.

  'Hmm?'

  'Protected by medical confidentiality, and only for your information, I confess that what they say is true,' said the Marquis in a solemn tone. 'The rabid dog also bit my daughter.'

  He looked at the doctor and saw a soul at peace.

  'I know,' said the doctor. 'And I suppose that is why you have come here so early.'

&n
bsp; 'It is,' said the Marquis. And he repeated the question he had already asked about the rabies victim in the hospital: 'What can we do?'

  Instead of his brutal response of the previous day, Abrenuncio asked to see Sierva Maria. That was what the Marquis had come to request. And so they were in agreement, and the carriage was waiting for them at the door.

  When they reached the house the Marquis found Bernarda seated at her dressing table, arranging her hair for no one, with the coquetry of those distant years when they made love for the last time, and which he had erased from memory. The room was saturated with the springtime fragrance of her soaps. She saw her husband in the mirror and said without acerbity, 'Who are we to go around giving away horses as presents?'

  The Marquis evaded the question. He picked up her everyday tunic from the unmade bed, threw it over Bernarda and with no compassion ordered, 'Get dressed, the doctor is here.'

  'God help me,' she said.

  'Not for you, although you are in dire need of one,' he said. 'He has come to see the girl.'

  'It won't do her any good,' Bernarda said. 'She'll either die or she won't: there's no other possibility.' But curiosity got the better of her. 'Who is he?'

  'Abrenuncio,' said the Marquis.

  Bernarda was appalled. She preferred to die just as she was, alone and naked, rather than to place her honor in, the hands of a grasping Jew. He had been her parents' doctor, and they had repudiated him because he divulged the condition of his patients in order to glorify his diagnoses. The Marquis confronted her.

  'Although you do not wish it, and although I wish it even less, you are her mother,' he said. 'On the basis of that sacred right, I ask you to consent to the examination.'

  'As far as I'm concerned, you can all do whatever you want,' said Bernarda. 'I'm a dead woman.'

  Contrary to expectations, the girl submitted without fuss to a meticulous exploration of her body, displaying the same curiosity she might have shown toward a wind-up toy.

  'Doctors see with their hands,' Abrenuncio told her.

  Amused, the girl smiled at him for the first time.

  The signs of her good health were plain to see, for despite her forlorn air she had a well-proportioned body covered by an almost invisible golden down and showing the first buds of an auspicious flowering. Her teeth were perfect, her eyes clear-sighted, her feet calm, her hands adroit, and each strand of hair was the prelude to a long life. She answered his subtle questions with good humor and a great deal of authority, and one would have had to know her very well to realize that none of her replies was true. She tensed only when the physician discovered the tiny scar on her ankle. Abrenuncio demonstrated his astuteness: 'Did you fall?'

  The girl nodded without blinking: 'From the swing.'

  The doctor began to speak to himself in Latin. The Marquis interrupted: 'Say it in Spanish.'

  I am not talking to you,' said Abrenuncio. 'I think in Low Latin.'

  Sierva Maria was delighted by Abrenuncio's wiles until he put his ear to her chest. Her heart pounded in alarm, and her skin released a livid, icy dew that had a faint onion odor. When he was finished, the doctor gave her an affectionate pat on the cheek.

  'You are very brave,' he said.

  When he was alone with the Marquis, he told him that the girl knew the dog was rabid. The Marquis did not understand.

  'She told you many falsehoods,' he said, 'but that was not one of them.'

  'She did not tell me, Senor,' said the doctor. 'Her heart did: it was like a little caged frog.'

  The Marquis lingered over the inventory of his daughter's other surprising lies, not with displeasure but with a certain paternal pride. 'Perhaps she will be a poet,' he said. Abrenuncio did not agree that lying was an attribute of the arts.

  'The more transparent the writing, the more visible the poetry,' he said.

  The only thing he could not interpret was the smell of onions in the girl's perspiration. Since he knew of no connection between any odor and the disease of rabies, he rejected it as a symptom of anything. Caridad del Cobre later revealed to the Marquis that Sierva Maria had given herself over in secret to the lore of the slaves, who had her chew a paste of manaju and placed her naked in the onion cellar to counteract the evil spell of the dog.

  Abrenuncio did not sweeten the slightest detail of rabies. 'The first attack is more serious and rapid the deeper the bite and the closer it is to the brain,' he said. He recalled the case of one of his patients who died after five years, although there was some possibility he had contracted a subsequent infection that had gone unnoticed. Rapid scarring meant nothing: after an indeterminate time the scar could become inflamed, open again and suppurate. The agony was so awful that death itself was preferable. The only legal thing one could do then was turn to the Amor de Dios Hospital, where they had Senegalese trained to control heretics and raging maniacs. Otherwise the Marquis himself would have to assume the dreadful burden of keeping the girl chained to her bed until she died.

  'In the long history of humankind,' he concluded, 'no hydrophobe has lived to tell the tale.'

  The Marquis decided there was no cross, no matter how heavy, that he was not prepared to carry. The girl would die at home. The doctor rewarded him with a look that seemed more pitying than respectful.

  'One could expect no less nobility on your part, Senor,' he said. 'And I do not doubt that your soul will have the strength to endure.'

  Again he insisted that the prognosis was not alarming. The wound was far from the area of greatest risk, and no one recalled any bleeding. The most probable outcome was that Sierva Maria would not contract rabies.

  'And in the meantime?' asked the Marquis.

  'In the meantime,' said Abrenuncio, 'play music for her, fill the house with flowers, have the birds sing, take her to the ocean to see the sunsets, give her everything that can make her happy.' He took his leave with a wave of his hat and the obligatory sentence in Latin. But this time he translated it in honor of the Marquis: 'No medicine cures what happiness cannot.'

  Two

  No one ever knew how the Marquis had reached a state of such neglect or why he maintained so unharmonious a marriage when his life had been disposed to a peaceful widowerhood. He could have been whatever he wanted to be, given the extraordinary power of his father, the first Marquis, a Knight of the Order of Santiago, a pitiless slave trader and a heartless slave driver, whose king spared him no honors or sinecures and punished none of his crimes.

  Ygnacio, his only heir, gave no indications of being anything. He grew up showing undeniable signs of mental retardation, was illiterate until he reached his majority and loved no one. He experienced the first symptom of life at the age of twenty, when he courted and was prepared to marry one of the Divina Pastora inmates whose songs and shouts had been the lullabies of his childhood. Her name was Dulce Olivia. The only child in a family of saddlers to kings, she had been obliged to learn the art of saddle-making so that a tradition almost two centuries old would not die out with her. So unusual an incursion into a man's trade was the explanation given for her losing her reason, and in so drastic a way that teaching her not to eat her own filth was a formidable task. Except for this, it would have been an excellent match for an American-born marquis of limited intelligence.

  Dulce Olivia had sharp wits and a strong character and it was not easy to detect her madness. From the first time he saw her, young Ygnacio could pick her out in the noisy crowd of inmates on the terrace, and that very day they communicated by signs. An expert in the art of paper-folding, she sent him messages in little paper birds. He learned to read and write in order to correspond with her, and this was the beginning of a legitimate passion that no one was willing to understand. The first Marquis was scandalized and ordered his son to make a public denial.

  'Not only is it true,' Ygnacio replied, 'but I have her permission to ask for her hand.' And in response to the argument that she was crazy, he countered with one of his own: 'Crazy people are not crazy if one accep
ts their reasoning.'

  His father banished him to his country estates with the authority of lord and master, which he did not deign to exercise. It was a living death. Ygnacio was terrified of all animals except chickens. But on the estates he observed a live chicken at close quarters, imagined it grown to the size of a cow and realized it was a monster much more fearsome than any other on land or sea. He would break into an icy sweat in the darkness and wake at dawn unable to breathe because of the phantasmal silence of the pastures. More than any other danger, the unblinking hunting mastiff that guarded his bedroom unnerved him. He said it himself: 'I live in fear of being alive.' In exile he acquired his lugubrious appearance, cautious manner, contemplative nature, languid behavior, slow speech and a mystic vocation that seemed to condemn him to a cloistered cell.

  At the end of his first year of exile he was awakened by a noise like rivers in flood: the animals on the estate had abandoned their beds and were crossing the fields in absolute silence beneath the full moon. Without making a sound they trampled everything in their path as they moved straight across pastures and canebrakes, torrential streams and flooded marshlands. At their head were the herds of cattle and the work-and saddle-horses, followed by pigs, sheep and barnyard fowl, in a sinister line that disappeared into the night. Even birds of flight, including the pigeons, were leaving. Only the hunting mastiff remained at his post outside the master's bedroom. This marked the beginning of the almost human friendship the Marquis maintained with that dog and with the many mastiffs who succeeded him in the house.

  Beside himself with terror on the deserted estate, Ygnacio the Younger renounced his love and submitted to his father's plans. But his father, not satisfied with the sacrifice of love, required in a clause in his will that his son marry the heir of a Spanish grandee. This was how he was joined, in a sumptuous wedding, to Dona Olalla de Mendoza, a very beautiful woman of great and varied talents, whose virginity he kept intact so as not to confer on her even the grace of having a child. For the rest, he continued the life of what he had always been since the day of his birth: a useless bachelor.

 
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