Of Love and Other Demons


  Dona Olalla de Mendoza brought him into the world. They attended High Mass, more to be seen than for reasons of faith, she in ruffled skirts and splendid shawls and the starched lace headdress of a white woman from Castille, with an entourage of slave women dressed in silk and covered in gold. Instead of the house slippers that even the most fastidious ladies wore to church she put on high boots of Cordoban leather decorated with pearls. Unlike other distinguished men who favored anachronistic wigs and emerald buttons, the Marquis wore cotton clothing and a soft biretta. His attendance at public events, however, was always a matter of obligation, because he never could conquer his horror of social life.

  Dona Olalla had been a student of Scarlatti Domenico in Segovia and had obtained with honors her certificate to teach music and singing in schools and convents. She arrived from Spain with the disassembled parts of a clavichord, which she put together herself, and various string instruments that she played and taught with great virtuosity. She formed an ensemble of novices who sanctified the afternoons in the house with new airs from Italy, France and Spain, and people said they were inspired by the lyricism of the Holy Spirit.

  The Marquis seemed unfit for music. It was said, in the French manner, that he had the hands of an artist and the ear of an artilleryman. But from the day the instruments were removed from their crates he was attracted by an Italian lute, the theorbo, because of the strangeness of its double neck, the size of its fingerboard, the number of its strings and the clarity of its voice. Dona Olalla resolved that he would play it as well as she did. They spent the mornings stumbling through exercises under the trees in the orchard, she with patience and love and he with the obstinacy of a stonecutter, until the repentant madrigal surrendered to them without regret.

  Music so improved their conjugal harmony that Dona Olalla dared to take the step that was missing. One stormy night, perhaps feigning a dread she did not feel, she went to the bedchamber of her virgin husband.

  'I am mistress of half this bed,' she declared, 'and I have come to claim it.'

  He stood firm. Convinced she could persuade him by reason or by force, so did she. But life did not give them time. One ninth of November, when they were playing a duet under the orange trees because the air was pure and the sky was high and cloudless, a sudden flash blinded them, a seismic detonation startled them, and Dona Olalla was struck down by lightning.

  The horrified city interpreted the tragedy as an explosion of divine wrath in response to some unconfessable sin. The Marquis ordered a queen's funeral, at which he made his first appearance in the black taffeta and waxen color he would wear forever after. When he returned from the cemetery, he was surprised by a storm of little paper birds falling like snow on the orange trees in the orchard. He caught one of them, unfolded it and read: that lightning bolt was mine.

  Before the nine days of mourning were over he had made a donation to the Church of the lands that sustained the grandeur of his inheritance: a cattle ranch in Mompox and another in Ayapel and 2,000 hectares in Mahates, just two leagues from here, with several herds of riding-and show-horses, a farm and the finest sugar plantation on the Caribbean coast. The legend of his wealth, however, was based on an immense, idle landholding, whose imaginary boundaries, lost in memory beyond the marshes of La Guaripa and the lowlands of La Pureza, extended all the way to the mangrove swamps of Uraba. The only thing he kept was the seignorial mansion with its slave courtyard reduced to a minimum and the sugar plantation at Mahates. He handed over the governance of the house to Dominga de Adviento. He maintained old Neptuno's rank as coachman, which had been granted him by the first Marquis, and put him in charge of the little that remained of the domestic stables.

  Alone for the first time in the gloomy mansion of his forebears, he did not sleep well in the darkness because of the congenital fear of American-born nobles that their slaves would murder them in their beds. He would wake with a start, not knowing if the feverish eyes at the transoms were of this world or the next. He would tiptoe to the door, open it with a sudden movement and surprise a slave spying on him through the keyhole. He heard the blacks, naked and smeared with coconut oil to elude capture, slip away with tiger steps along the corridors. Overwhelmed by so many simultaneous fears, he ordered that the lamps be kept burning until dawn, ejected the slaves who, little by little, had been taking over the empty spaces and brought into the house the first mastiffs trained in the arts of war.

  The main entrance to the house was closed. The French furnishings, their velvet stinking of dampness, were banished, the Gobelin tapestries and porcelains and masterpieces of the clockmaker's art were sold, and string hammocks were hung in the dismantled bedchambers to fend off the heat. The Marquis did not hear another Mass or go on another retreat, he did not carry the pallium of Our Lord in processions or observe holidays or respect fasts, although he continued to be punctual in paying his tithes to the Church. He took refuge in his hammock, sometimes in the bedroom during the lethargy of August, and almost always under the orange trees in the orchard for his siesta. The madwomen would throw down kitchen scraps and shout tender obscenities at him, but when the government offered him the courtesy of moving the lunatic asylum, he objected out of gratitude to its inmates.

  Conquered by the rebuffs of the man she had wooed, Dulce Olivia found consolation in nostalgia for what had never been. Whenever she could she would escape from Divina Pastora through breaches in the orchard. She tamed the hunting mastiffs and made them her own with the food of her chaste love, and devoted the hours when she should have been sleeping to caring for the house she never had, sweeping it with brooms made of sweet basil for good luck and hanging strings of garlic in the bedrooms to frighten away mosquitoes. Dominga de Adviento, whose right hand left nothing to chance, died without ever discovering why the corridors were cleaner at dawn than they had been the night before and why the things she had arranged one way were in a different order the next morning. The Marquis had been a widower for less than a year when he discovered Dulce Olivia in the kitchen for the first time, scrubbing pots and pans that she believed the slave women had left dirty.

  'I did not think you would dare so much,' he said.

  'That's because you're still the same poor devil you always were,' she replied.

  And so they resumed a forbidden friendship that at one time, at least, had resembled love. They would talk until dawn, without illusions or rancor, like an old married couple condemned to routine. They thought they were happy, and perhaps they were, until one of them said one word too many, or took one step too few, and the night rotted into a battle between Vandals that demoralized the mastiffs. Then everything would go back to the beginning, and for a long while Dulce Olivia would not return to the house.

  The Marquis confessed to her that his contempt for the goods of this world and the changes in his way of life were the result not of devotion, but of the fear caused by his abrupt loss of faith when he saw his wife's body charred by lightning. Dulce Olivia offered to console him. She promised to be his submissive slave in both the kitchen and the bed. He did not yield.

  'I will never marry again,' he vowed.

  Before the year was out, however, he had been married in secret to Bernarda Cabrera, the daughter of one of his father's former overseers who had made a fortune in imported foods. They had met when Bernarda's father sent her to the house with the pickled herring and black olives that were Dona Olalla's weakness, and when she died, Bernarda continued to bring them to the Marquis. One afternoon she found him in the hammock in the orchard and read the destiny written on the palm of his left hand. The Marquis was so impressed by her accuracy that he kept sending for her at siesta time even when he had nothing to buy, but two months passed and he made no move of any kind. And so she did it for him. She stormed the hammock, mounted him, gagged him with the skirts of the djellaba he was wearing and left him exhausted. Then she revived him with an ardor and skill he could not have imagined in the meager pleasures of his solitary lovemaking and wit
hout glory deprived him of his virginity. He was fifty-two years old and she was twenty-three, but age was the least pernicious of the differences between them.

  They continued to make hurried, heartless siesta love in the evangelical shade of the orange trees. The madwomen encouraged them from the terraces with indecent songs and celebrated their triumphs with stadium ovations. Before the Marquis was aware of the dangers that pursued him, Bernarda woke him from his stupor with the news that she was in the second month of pregnancy. She reminded him that she was not a black but the daughter of an astute Indian and a white woman from Castille, and the only needle that could mend her honor was formal matrimony. He held her off until one siesta when her father knocked at the main door, an ancient harquebus slung over his shoulder. He was slow of speech and gentle of manner, and he handed the weapon to the Marquis without looking him in the face.

  'Do you know what this is, Senor Marquis?' he asked.

  The Marquis did not know what to do with the weapon he was holding.

  'If I am not mistaken, I believe it is a harquebus,' he said. And he asked with genuine bewilderment, 'What do you use it for?'

  'To defend myself against pirates, Senor,' said the Indian, still not looking him in the face. 'I have brought it now in the event Your Excellency wishes to do me the honor of killing me before I kill you.'

  Then he looked straight at him. His narrow eyes were sad and silent, but the Marquis understood what they did not say. He returned the harquebus and invited him in to celebrate their arrangement. Two days later the priest of a nearby church officiated at the wedding, which was attended by her parents and both their sponsors. When it was over, Sagunta appeared out of nowhere and crowned the bride and groom with the wreaths of happiness.

  One morning, during a late rainstorm and under the sign of Sagittarius, Sierva Maria de Todos los Angeles was born, premature and puny. She looked like a bleached tadpole, and the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck was strangling her.

  'It's a girl,' said the midwife. 'But it won't live.'

  That was when Dominga de Adviento promised her saints that if they granted the girl the grace of life, her hair would not be cut until her wedding night. No sooner had she made the promise than the girl began to cry. Dominga de Adviento sang out in jubilation, 'She will be a saint!' The Marquis, who saw her for the first time when she was bathed and dressed, was less prescient.

  'She will be a whore,' he said. 'If God gives her life and health.'

  The girl, daughter of an aristocrat and a commoner, had the childhood of a foundling. Her mother hated her from the moment she nursed her for the first and only time and then refused to keep the baby with her for fear she would kill her. Dominga de Adviento suckled her, baptized her in Christ and consecrated her to Olokun, a Yoruban deity of indeterminate sex whose face is presumed to be so dreadful it is seen only in dreams and always hidden by a mask. Transplanted to the courtyard of the slaves, Sierva Maria learned to dance before she could speak, learned three African languages at the same time, learned to drink rooster's blood before breakfast and to glide past Christians unseen and unheard, like an incorporeal being. Dominga de Adviento surrounded her with a jubilant court of black slave women, mestiza maids and Indian errand girls, who bathed her in propitiatory waters, purified her with the verbena of Yemaya and tended the torrent of hair, which fell to her waist by the time she was five, as if it were a rosebush. Over time the slave women hung the beads of various gods around her neck, until she was wearing sixteen necklaces.

  Bernarda had seized control of the house with a firm hand while the Marquis vegetated in the orchard. Shielded by the powers of the first Marquis, she set about restoring the fortune given away by her husband. In his day, the first Marquis had obtained licenses to sell 5,000 slaves in eight years, agreeing to import two barrels of flour for each black. Making use of masterful fraud and the venality of the customs agents, he sold the mandated flour but also smuggled and sold 3,000 more slaves than he had contracted for, which made him the most successful individual trader of his century.

  It was Bernarda who realized that the profitable business was not slaves but flour, although in reality the greatest profits lay in her incredible powers of persuasion. With a single license to import 1,000 slaves in four years, and three barrels of flour for each black, she made the deal of a lifetime: she sold the contracted number of slaves, but instead of 3,000 barrels of flour she imported 12,000. It was the largest smuggling operation of the century.

  During this period she spent half her time at the Mahates sugar plantation, where she established the center of her business affairs, since the proximity of the Great Magdalena River allowed for every kind of traffic with the interior of the vice-regency. Occasional reports of her prosperity reached the house of the Marquis, but she rendered accounts to no one. When she spent time here, even before her crises, she seemed like another caged mastiff. Dominga de Adviento said it best: 'Her ass was too big for her body.'

  When her slave woman died, and the splendid bedroom of the first Marquise was prepared for her, Sierva Maria occupied a stable position in the house for the first time. A tutor was named to give her lessons in Peninsular Spanish and impart some notion of arithmetic and the natural sciences. He tried to teach her to read and write. She refused, she said, because she could not understand the letters. A lay teacher introduced her to an appreciation of music. The girl showed interest and good taste but did not have the patience to learn an instrument. The teacher resigned in consternation and said, as she took her leave of the Marquis, 'It is not that the girl is unfit for everything; it is that she is not of this world.'

  Bernarda had wanted to quiet her own rancorous feelings toward the girl, but it soon became evident that the fault lay not in one or the other but in the very nature of each. She had lived with her heart in her mouth ever since she discovered a certain phantasmal quality in her daughter. She trembled at the mere memory of the times she would turn around and find herself face to face with the inscrutable eyes of the languid creature in filmy tulle, whose untamed hair now reached to the back of her knees. 'Girl!' she would shout. 'I forbid you to look at me that way!' When she was most involved in her business affairs, she would feel on the back of her neck the sibilant breath of a snake lying in ambush and recoil in terror.

  'Girl!' she would shout. 'Make a noise before you come in!'

  And the girl would heighten her fear with a string of Yoruban curses. At night it was worse, because Bernarda would wake with a start, sensing that someone had touched her, and there was the girl at the foot of the bed, watching her as she slept. Her attempt to tie a cowbell around Sierva Maria's wrist failed because the girl's movements were so stealthy it did not make a sound. 'The only thing white about that child is her color,' her mother would say. This was so true that the girl changed her name to an African name of her own invention: Maria Mandinga.

  Their relationship reached a crisis when Bernarda woke in the small hours of the morning, dying of thirst brought on by excesses of cacao, and found one of Sierva Maria's dolls at the bottom of the large water jar. She did not think it was really a simple doll floating in the water but something horrifying: a murdered doll.

  Convinced that Sierva Maria had cast an evil African spell on her, she decided that the two of them could not live in the same house. The Marquis attempted a timid mediation, and she cut him off: 'It's her or me.' And so Sierva Maria returned to the slave women's shack, even when her mother was at the sugar plantation. She remained as reticent as when she was born and as illiterate.

  But Bernarda was no better off. She had tried to hold on to Judas Iscariote by becoming like him and in less than two years she lost her bearings in her business and even her life. She would dress him as a Nubian pirate, as the Ace of Clubs, as King Melchior, and take him to the poor districts, above all when the galleons were anchored in the bay and the city went on a binge that lasted half a year. Taverns and brothels were improvised in outlying districts for the merchants
who came from Lima, Portobelo, Havana or Veracruz to contend for goods and merchandise from all over the discovered world. One night, staggering with drink in a tavern for galley slaves, Judas came up to Bernarda in a very mysterious way.

  'Open your mouth and close your eyes,' he said.

  She did, and he placed a tablet of the magic chocolate from Oaxaca on her tongue. Bernarda recognized the taste and spat it out, for she had felt a special aversion to cacao ever since her childhood. Judas convinced her it was a sacred substance that brought joy to life, enhanced physical prowess, raised the spirits and strengthened sexuality.

  Bernarda exploded in laughter.

  'If that were true,' she said, 'the good Sisters of Santa Clara would be fighting bulls.'

  She was already addicted to fermented honey, which she had consumed with her schoolfriends before she was married and still consumed, not only by mouth but through all five senses in the sultry air of the sugar plantation. With Judas she learned to chew tobacco and coca leaves mixed with ashes of the yarumo tree, like the Indians in the Sierra Nevada. In the taverns she experimented with cannabis from India, turpentine from Cyprus, peyote from Real de Catorce and, at least once, opium from the Nao of China brought by Filipino traffickers. But she did not turn a deaf ear to Judas's proclamation in favor of cacao. After trying all the rest, she recognized its virtues and preferred it to everything else. Judas became a thief, a pimp, an occasional sodomite, all out of sheer depravity because he lacked for nothing. One ill-fated night, in front of Bernarda, with only his bare hands, he fought three galley slaves in a dispute over cards and was beaten to death with a chair.

 
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