Of Love and Other Demons


  Bernarda took refuge on the sugar plantation. The house was left to drift, and if it did not sink then, it was because of the masterful hand of Dominga de Adviento, who, in the end, raised Sierva Maria as her gods willed. The Marquis knew next to nothing of his wife's downfall. Rumors from the plantation said that she was living in a state of delirium, that she talked to herself, that she selected the best-endowed slaves and shared them in Roman orgies with her former schoolmates. The fortune that came to her by water left by water, and she was at the mercy of the skins of honey and sacks of cacao that she kept hidden in various places so she would lose no time when her relentless longings pursued her. The only security she had left were two urns filled with gold doubloons, pieces of one hundred and pieces of four, which she had buried under her bed in the days of plenty. Her deterioration was so great that not even her husband recognized her when, after three uninterrupted years at the sugar plantation, she returned from Mahates for the last time, not long before the dog bit Sierva Maria.

  By the middle of March the risk of rabies seemed to have been averted. The Marquis, grateful for his good fortune, resolved to rectify the past and win the girl's heart with the prescription for happiness recommended by Abrenuncio. He devoted all his time to her. He tried to learn to comb and braid her hair. He tried to teach her to be a real white, to revive for her his failed dreams of an American-born noble, to suppress her fondness for pickled iguana and armadillo stew. He attempted almost everything except asking himself whether this was the way to make her happy.

  Abrenuncio continued to visit the house. It was not easy for him to communicate with the Marquis but he was intrigued by his lack of awareness in an outpost of the world intimidated by the Holy Office. And so the months of hot weather passed, Abrenuncio talking without being heard beneath the flowering orange trees, and the Marquis rotting in his hammock at a distance of 1,300 nautical leagues from a king who had never heard his name. During one of these visits they were interrupted by a baleful lament from Bernarda.

  Abrenuncio was alarmed. The Marquis pretended to be deaf, but the next groan was so heartrending he could not ignore it. 'That person, whoever it is, needs help,' said Abrenuncio.

  'That person is my second wife,' said the Marquis.

  'Well, her liver is diseased,' said Abrenuncio.

  'How do you know?'

  'Because she groans with her mouth open,' said the doctor.

  He pushed her door open without knocking and tried to see Bernarda in the darkened room, but she was not in the bed. He called her by name, and she did not answer. Then he opened the window, and the metallic light of four o'clock revealed her, naked and sprawled in a cross on the floor, enveloped in the glow of her lethal gases. Her skin had the pale gray color of full-blown dyspepsia. She raised her head, blinded by the sudden brilliance streaming in the open window and could not recognize the doctor with the light behind him. One glance was all he needed to know her destiny.

  'The piper is demanding to be paid, my dear,' he said.

  He explained that there was still time to save her, but only if she submitted to an emergency treatment to purify her blood. Then Bernarda recognized him, struggled into a sitting position and let loose a string of obscenities. An impassive Abrenuncio endured them as he closed the window again. He left the room, stopped beside the Marquis's hammock and made a more specific prognosis: 'The Senora Marquise will die on the fifteenth of September at the latest, if she does not hang herself from the rafters first.'

  Unmoved, the Marquis said, 'The only problem is that the fifteenth of September is so far away.'

  He continued with the prescription of happiness for Sierva Maria. From San Lazaro Hill they observed the fatal swamps to the east and to the west the enormous red sun as it sank into a flaming sea. She asked what was on the other side of the ocean, and he replied: 'The world.' For each of his gestures he discovered an unexpected resonance in the girl. One afternoon they saw the Galleon Fleet appear on the horizon, its sails full to bursting.

  The city was transformed. Father and daughter were entertained by puppet shows, by fire-eaters, by the countless fairground attractions coming into port during that April of good omen. In two months Sierva Maria learned more about white people's ways than she ever had before. In his effort to transform her, the Marquis also became a different man, and in so drastic a manner that it did not seem an alteration in his personality as much as a change in his very nature.

  The house was filled with every kind of wind-up ballerina, music box and mechanical clock displayed in the fairs of Europe. The Marquis dusted off the Italian theorbo. He restrung it, tuned it with a perseverance that could be understood only as love and once again accompanied the songs of the past, sung with the good voice and bad ear that neither years nor troubled memories had changed. This was when she asked him whether it was true that love conquered all, as the songs said.

  'It is true,' he replied, 'but you would do well not to believe it.'

  Pleased by these good tidings, the Marquis began to consider a trip to Seville so that Sierva Maria could recover from her silent sorrows and finish learning about the world. The dates and itinerary had already been arranged when Caridad del Cobre woke him from his siesta with brutal news: 'Senor, my poor girl is turning into a dog.'

  Called in for the emergency, Abrenuncio refuted the popular superstition that the victims of rabies became identical to the animal that had bitten them. He confirmed that the girl had a slight fever, and although this was considered a disease in itself and not a symptom of other ailments, he did not disregard it. He warned the grief-stricken nobleman that the girl was not safe from any illness, for the bite of a dog, rabid or not, offered no protection against anything else. As always, the only recourse was to wait.

  The Marquis asked him, 'Is that all you can tell me?'

  'Science has not given me the means to tell you anything else,' the physician replied with the same acerbity. 'But if you have no faith in me, you still have another recourse: put your trust in God.'

  The Marquis did not understand.

  'I would have sworn you were an unbeliever,' he said.

  The doctor did not even turn to look at him. 'I only wish I were, Senor.'

  The Marquis put his trust not in God but in anything that might offer some hope. The city had three other physicians, six pharmacists, eleven barber-surgeons and countless magical healers and masters of the arts of sorcery, although the Inquisition had condemned 1,300 of them to a variety of punishments over the past fifty years and burned seven at the stake. A young physician from Salamanca opened Sierva Maria's closed wound and applied caustic poultices to draw out the rank humors. Another attempted to achieve the same end with leeches on her back. A barber-surgeon bathed the wound in her own urine, and another had her drink it. At the end of two weeks she had been subjected to two herbal baths and two emollient enemas a day and was brought to the brink of death with potions of natural antimony and other fatal concoctions.

  The fever subsided, but no one dared proclaim that rabies had been averted. Sierva Maria felt as if she were dying. At first she had resisted with her pride intact but after two fruitless weeks she had a fiery ulcer on her ankle, her body was scalded by mustard plasters and blistering poultices and the skin on her stomach was raw. She had suffered everything: vertigo, convulsions, spasms, deliriums, looseness of the bowels and bladder; and she rolled on the floor howling in pain and fury. Even the boldest healers left her to her fate, convinced she was mad or possessed by demons. The Marquis had lost all hope when Sagunta appeared with the key of Saint Hubert.

  It was the end. Sagunta stripped off her sheets, smeared herself with Indian ointments and rubbed her body against the body of the naked girl. She fought back with her hands and feet despite her extreme weakness, and Sagunta subdued her by force. Bernarda heard their demented screams from her room. She ran to see what was going on and found Sierva Maria kicking in a rage on the floor, and Sagunta on top of her, wrapped in the copper flood
of the girl's hair and bellowing the prayer of Saint Hubert. She whipped them both with the clews of her hammock. First on the floor, where they huddled against the surprise attack, and then pursuing them from corner to corner until she was out of breath.

  The bishop of the diocese, Don Toribio de Caceres y Virtudes, alarmed at the public scandal caused by Sierva Maria's vicissitudes and ravings, sent for the Marquis but did not specify a reason, a date or a time, which was interpreted as an indication of utmost urgency. The Marquis overcame his uncertainty and paid an unannounced visit that same day.

  The Bishop had assumed his ministry when the Marquis was already withdrawn from public life, and they had never met. He was, moreover, a man assailed by poor health; his stentorian body permitted him to do very little on his own and was corroded by a malignant asthma that put his faith to the test. He had not been present at numerous public events where his absence was unthinkable, and at the few he did attend he maintained an aloofness that over time was turning him into an unreal being.

  The Marquis had seen him on a few occasions, always at a distance and in public, but the memory he had of the Bishop was a Mass at which he officiated wearing a pallium and was carried in a sedan chair by government dignitaries. Because of his huge body and the extravagant richness of his vestments, at first glance he had seemed nothing more than a colossal old man, but his clean-shaven face, with its precise features and unusual green eyes, preserved an ageless beauty intact. High in the sedan chair, he had the magical aura of a Supreme Pontiff, and those who knew him at closer quarters sensed the same thing in the brilliance of his learning and his consciousness of power.

  The palace where he lived was the oldest in the city and had two stories of vast, ruined spaces, although the Bishop occupied less than half a floor. It was adjacent to the cathedral, and the two buildings shared a cloister with blackened arches and a courtyard where a crumbling cistern was surrounded by desert scrub. Even its imposing facade of carved stone and great entrances made of single timbers revealed the ravages of neglect.

  The Marquis was received at the main door by an Indian deacon. He distributed meager alms to the crowd of beggars crawling in front of the portico, and entered the cool shadows of the interior just as the enormous tolling of four o'clock sounded in the cathedral and resounded in his belly. The central corridor was so dark that he followed after the deacon without seeing him and considered each step before taking it to avoid stumbling over ill-placed statues and debris that blocked the way. At the end of the corridor was a small anteroom where a transom provided more light. The deacon stopped here, asked the Marquis to have a seat and wait and then walked through the door into an adjoining room. The Marquis remained standing and looked at a large oil portrait, hung on the long wall, of a young soldier in the dress uniform of the King's Cadets. Only when he read the bronze plaque on the frame did he realize it was a portrait of the Bishop in his youth.

  The deacon opened the door to ask him in, and the Marquis did not have to move to see the Bishop again, forty years older than in his portrait. Even overcome by asthma and undone by the heat, he was much larger and more imposing than people claimed. The perspiration streamed off his body, and he rocked at a snail's pace in a chair from the Philippines, barely moving a palm fan back and forth as he leaned forward to ease his breathing. He was dressed in peasant sandals and a tunic of coarse linen with patches worn thin by abuses of soap. The sincerity of his poverty was evident at first glance. Most notable, however, was the purity of his eyes, understandable only as a privilege of the soul. He stopped rocking as soon as he saw the Marquis in the doorway and waved the fan in an affectionate gesture.

  'Come in, Ygnacio,' he said. 'My house is yours.'

  The Marquis wiped his perspiring hands on his trousers, walked through the door and found himself under a canopy of yellow bellflowers and hanging ferns on an outdoor terrace that overlooked all the church towers, the red-tile roofs of the principal houses, the dovecotes drowsing in the heat, the military fortifications outlined against the glass sky, the burning sea. The Bishop extended his soldier's hand in a meaningful way, and the Marquis kissed his ring.

  Asthma made his breathing heavy and stony, and his phrases were interrupted by inopportune sighs and a harsh, brief cough, but nothing could affect his eloquence. He established an immediate, easy exchange of trivial commonplaces. Sitting across from him, the Marquis was grateful for this consolatory preamble, so rich and protracted that they were taken aback when the bells tolled five. More than a sound, it was a vibration that made the afternoon light tremble and filled the sky with startled pigeons.

  'It is horrible,' said the Bishop. 'Each hour resonates deep inside me like an earthquake.'

  The phrase surprised the Marquis, for he had responded with the same thought at four o'clock. It seemed a natural coincidence to the Bishop. 'Ideas do not belong to anyone,' he said. With his index finger he sketched a series of continuous circles in the air and concluded, 'They fly around up there like the angels.'

  A nun in his domestic service brought in a decanter of thick, strong wine with chopped fruit and a basin of steaming water that filled the air with a medicinal odor. The Bishop closed his eyes and inhaled the vapor, and when he emerged from his ecstasy he was another man: the absolute master of his authority.

  'We had you come,' he told the Marquis, 'because we know you are in need of God and pretend not to notice.'

  His voice had lost its organ tonalities, and his eyes had recovered their earthly light. The Marquis drank half a glass of wine in one swallow to give himself courage.

  'Your Grace should know that I am burdened by the greatest misfortune a human being can suffer,' he said with disarming humility. 'I no longer believe.'

  'We know, my son,' the Bishop answered without surprise. 'How could we not know!'

  He said this with a certain joy, for he too, as a King's Cadet in Morocco, had lost his faith at the age of twenty, surrounded by the din of battle. 'It was the thundering certainty that God had ceased to exist,' he said. In terror he had dedicated himself to a life of prayer and penitence.

  'Until God took pity on me and showed me the path of my vocation,' he concluded. 'What is essential, therefore, is not that you no longer believe, but that God continues to believe in you. And regarding that there can be no doubt, for it is He in His infinite diligence who has enlightened us so that we may offer you this consolation.'

  'I have tried to endure my misfortune in silence,' said the Marquis.

  'Well, you have in no way succeeded,' said the Bishop. 'It is an open secret that your poor child rolls on the floor in obscene convulsions, howling the gibberish of idolaters. Are these not the unequivocal symptoms of demonic possession?'

  The Marquis was aghast.

  'What do you mean?'

  'That one of the demon's numerous deceptions is to take on the appearance of a foul disease in order to enter an innocent body,' he said. 'And once he is inside, no human power is capable of making him leave.'

  The Marquis explained the medical alterations in the bite, but the Bishop always found an explanation that favored his position. He asked a question, although there was no doubt he already knew the answer, 'Do you know who Abrenuncio is?'

  'He was the first doctor to see the girl,' said the Marquis.

  'I wanted to hear it from your own lips,' said the Bishop.

  He rang a little bell that he kept by his hand, and a priest in his mid-thirties appeared with the suddenness of a genie liberated from a bottle. The Bishop introduced him as Father Cayetano Delaura, nothing more, and asked him to sit down. He wore a simple cassock because of the heat and sandals like those of the Bishop. He was intense and pale, and had spirited eyes and deep black hair with a streak of white at his forehead. His rapid breathing and feverish hands did not seem those of a happy man.

  'What do we know about Abrenuncio?' the Bishop asked him.

  Father Delaura did not have to think before answering.

  'Abrenunc
io de Sa Pereira Cao,' he said, as if spelling out the name. And then he turned to the Marquis. 'Have you noticed, Senor Marquis, that his last family name means "dog" in the language of the Portuguese?'

  In actual fact, Delaura continued, it was not known whether that was his real name. According to the records of the Holy Office, he was a Portuguese Jew expelled from the Peninsula and sheltered here by a grateful governor whom he had cured of a two-pound hernia with the purifying waters of Turbaco. He spoke of his magical prescriptions, of the pride with which he foretold death, of his probable pederasty, of his libertine readings, of his life without God. Nevertheless, the only concrete charge brought against him was that he had resurrected a tailor in the district of Getsemani. Serious testimony had been obtained to the effect that the man was already in his shroud and coffin when Abrenuncio ordered him to rise. It was fortunate that the resurrected tailor himself stated before the tribunal of the Holy Office that at no time had he lost consciousness. 'That saved Abrenuncio from the stake,' said Delaura. He concluded by recalling the incident of the horse that had died on San Lazaro Hill and been buried in holy ground.

  'He loved it as if it were a human being,' the Marquis interceded.

  'It was an affront to our faith, Senor Marquis,' said Delaura. 'Hundred-year-old horses are not the work of God.'

  The Marquis was alarmed that a private joke had reached the archives of the Holy Office. He attempted a timid defense: 'Abrenuncio has a loose tongue, but in all humility I believe there is a good distance between that and heresy.' The discussion would have become bitter and endless if the Bishop had not returned them to the question at hand.

  'No matter what the physicians may claim,' he said, 'rabies in humans is often one of the many snares of the Enemy.'

  The Marquis did not understand. The Bishop gave him so dramatic an explanation that it seemed the prelude to eternal damnation.

  'It is fortunate,' he concluded, 'that although your daughter's body may be lost forever, God has provided us with the means to save her soul.'

 
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