Of Love and Other Demons


  The oppressiveness of twilight filled the world. The Marquis saw the first star in the mauve sky and thought of his daughter, alone in the wretched house, dragging her abused foot through the botched cures of the healers. With his natural modesty he asked, 'What should I do?'

  The Bishop told him point by point. He authorized him to use his name at every step of the way, above all at the Convent of Santa Clara, where he was to confine the girl without delay.

  'Put her in our hands,' he concluded. 'God will do the rest.'

  The Marquis took his leave more troubled than when he arrived. From the window of his carriage he contemplated the desolate streets, the children playing naked in the puddles, the garbage scattered by the turkey buzzards. The carriage turned the corner and he saw the ocean, always in its place, and he was assailed by uncertainty.

  He reached the darkened house as the Angelus was ringing and for the first time since the death of Dona Olalla he said the prayer aloud: 'The angel of the Lord announced to Mary.' The strings of the theorbo resonated in the shadows as if at the bottom of a pond. The Marquis felt his way, following the sound of the music to his daughter's bedroom. There she was, seated on her dressing-table chair in a white tunic, her unbound hair falling to the floor, playing an elementary exercise she had learned from him. Unless a miracle had occurred, he could not believe she was the same girl he had left at noon, prostrated by the cruelty of the healers. It was a fleeting illusion. Sierva Maria became aware of his presence, stopped playing and fell back into her affliction.

  He stayed with her the entire night. He assisted in the ritual of the bedroom with all the clumsiness of a borrowed father. He put her nightdress on backward, and she had to take it off and put it on again the right way. He had not seen her naked before and he was saddened by her ribs so close to the skin, her little button nipples, her tender down. A burning halo surrounded the inflamed ankle. As he helped her into bed, the girl continued her solitary suffering with an almost inaudible moan, and he was shaken by the certainty that he was helping her to die.

  For the first time since losing his faith he felt the urge to pray. He went to the oratory, trying with all his strength to recover the god who had forsaken him, but to no avail: disbelief is more resistant than faith because it is sustained by the senses. He heard the girl cough several times in the cool air of the small hours and he returned to her bedroom. On the way he saw that Bernarda's door was ajar. He pushed it open, moved by the need to share his doubts. She was lying face up on the floor, and her snores were deafening. The Marquis remained in the doorway, his hand on the latch, and did not wake her. He said to no one, 'Your life for hers.' And made an immediate correction: 'Both our shit lives for hers, damn it!'

  The girl was sleeping. The Marquis saw her motionless and pale and wondered if he preferred to see her dead or suffering the torment of rabies. He adjusted the mosquito netting so the bats would not drain her blood, he covered her so she would not cough and he kept watch next to the bed, feeling the new joy of knowing he loved her as he had never loved in this world. Then he made the decision of his life without consulting God or anyone else. At four in the morning, when Sierva Maria opened her eyes, she saw him sitting next to her bed.

  'It is time for us to go,' said the Marquis.

  The girl got up with no further explanations. The Marquis helped her dress for the occasion. He looked in the chest for velvet slippers so the stiff counter of her boot would not chafe her ankle, and happened to find a ball gown that had belonged to his mother when she was a girl. The dress was faded and stained with age but clearly had not been worn twice. Now, almost a century later, the Marquis put it on Sierva Maria, over her Santeria necklaces and baptism scapular. The gown was a little tight and that somehow made it seem older. In the chest he also found a hat with colored ribbons that had nothing to do with the dress. The fit was perfect. Then he packed a small valise with a nightgown, a comb with teeth narrow enough to root out lice eggs and her grandmother's small breviary with gold hinges and mother-of-pearl covers.

  It was Palm Sunday. The Marquis took Sierva Maria to five-o'clock Mass, and she was willing to accept the blessed palm frond without knowing what it was for. As they drove away in the carriage, they saw the sunrise. The Marquis occupied the principal seat, holding the little valise on his knees, and the imperturbable girl sat across from him, looking out the window at the last streets of her twelve-year-old life. She had not expressed the slightest interest in knowing where she was being taken so early in the morning, dressed like mad Queen Juana and wearing the hat of a harlot. After long meditation, the Marquis asked, 'Do you know who God is?'

  The girl shook her head no.

  There was lightning and distant thunder on the horizon, the sky was lowering and the ocean surly. They turned a corner and there stood the Convent of Santa Clara, white and solitary, with three floors of blue window blinds facing the rubbish heap of a beach. The Marquis pointed with his finger. 'There it is,' he said. And then he pointed to his left. 'You will see the ocean all day from the windows.' Since the girl took no notice, he gave the only explanation he would ever give her of her destiny: 'You are going to spend a few days with the good Sisters of Santa Clara.'

  Because it was Palm Sunday, more beggars than usual were at the entrance with its turnstile gate. Some lepers who were arguing with them over kitchen scraps also rushed toward the Marquis, their hands extended. He distributed meager alms, one coin to each of them until he had no more cuartillos left. The nun who guarded the gate saw him in his black taffetas, and the girl dressed like a queen, and she made her way through the crowd to attend to them. The Marquis explained that he was bringing Sierva Maria by order of the Bishop. The gatekeeper did not doubt it, because of the manner in which he spoke. She examined the girl and removed her hat.

  'Hats are forbidden here,' she said.

  The nun kept it. The Marquis also tried to hand her the valise, but she would not accept it: 'She won't need anything.'

  The girl's braid had not been pinned up with care and it unrolled almost to the ground. The gatekeeper did not believe it was real. The Marquis attempted to roll it again. The girl brushed him aside and arranged her own hair unassisted, and with a skill that surprised the gatekeeper.

  'It has to be cut,' she said.

  'It is pledged to the Blessed Virgin until the day she marries,' said the Marquis.

  The gatekeeper accepted his reasoning. She took the girl by the hand, without giving her time to say goodbye, and passed her through the turnstile. Since her ankle hurt when she walked, the girl took off her left slipper. The Marquis watched her move away, favoring her bare foot and holding the slipper in her hand. He hoped in vain that in a rare moment of compassion she would turn to look at him. The last memory he had of Sierva Maria was her crossing the gallery in the garden, dragging her painful foot, and disappearing into the pavilion of those interred in life.

  Three

  The convent of Santa Clara faced the sea and had three floors of innumerable identical windows and a gallery of semicircular arches surrounding a dark, overgrown garden. There was a stone path through the banana trees and wild ferns, a slender palm that had grown higher than the flat roofs in its search for light and a colossal tree with vanilla vines and strings of orchids hanging from its branches. Beneath the tree a cistern of stagnant water had a rusted iron rim on which captive macaws performed like circus acrobats.

  The garden divided the convent into two separate wings. To the right were the three floors occupied by those interred in life, where the gasp of the undertow at the cliffs and the prayers and canticles of the canonical hours almost never penetrated. This wing communicated with the chapel by means of an interior door that permitted the cloistered nuns to enter the chancel without passing through the public nave, and hear Mass and sing behind a latticed jalousie through which they could see and not be seen. The beautiful coffered ceiling of noble woods, repeated throughout the convent, had been built by a Spanish artisan who devote
d half his life to the work in exchange for the right to be buried in a vaulted niche of the high altar. There he was, crowded behind the marble slabs along with almost two centuries of abbesses and bishops and other eminent personages.

  When Sierva Maria entered the convent, the cloistered nuns numbered eighty-two Spanishwomen, all with their own servants, and thirty-six American-born daughters of the great viceregal families. After taking their vows of poverty, silence and chastity, their only communication with the outside world was a rare visit held in the locutory, where wooden jalousies admitted voices but not light. The locutory was situated next to the turnstile gate, and its use was regulated, restricted and always required the presence of a chaperone.

  To the left of the garden were the schools, every kind of workshop and a large population of novices and female teachers of handicrafts. The service building was located here, with its enormous kitchen and wood-burning stoves, a butchering shop and a great bread oven. At the rear was a courtyard, always flooded with dirty wash-water, where several families of slaves lived together, and beyond that were the stables, a goat pen, the pigsty, the garden and the beehives, where everything needed for the good life was raised and grown.

  Last of all, as far away as possible and abandoned by the hand of God, stood a solitary pavilion that had been used as a prison by the Inquisition for sixty-eight years and still served the same purpose for Clarissans gone astray. It was in the farthest cell of this forgotten corner where they would lock Sierva Maria ninety-three days after she had been bitten by the dog and showed no symptoms of rabies.

  At the end of the corridor the gatekeeper who had led her by the hand saw a novice who was going to the kitchens and asked her to take Sierva Maria to the Abbess. The novice thought it imprudent to subject so languid and well-dressed a girl to the clamor of the kitchens and she left her sitting on one of the stone benches in the garden, planning to return for her later. But on her way back she forgot.

  Two novices walked past Sierva Maria, became interested in her necklaces and rings and asked her who she was. She did not reply. They asked her whether she knew Spanish, and it was as if they were talking to a corpse.

  'She's a deaf-mute,' said the younger novice.

  'Or German,' said the other.

  The younger one began to treat her as if she lacked all her senses. She unrolled the braid that Sierva Maria had wound at her neck and measured it. 'Almost four spans,' she said, convinced the girl could not hear her. She began to undo the braid but was intimidated by a look. The novice stared back and stuck out her tongue.

  'You have the eyes of the devil,' she said.

  She removed one of the girl's rings and met no resistance, but when the other novice tried to take her necklaces, Sierva Maria coiled like a viper and bit her on the hand with perfect, unhesitating aim. The novice ran off to rinse away the blood.

  The singing of Terce began just as Sierva Maria stood to take a drink from the cistern. She was frightened and returned to the bench without drinking, but went back when she realized it was the sound of nuns singing. She pushed away the skim of rotting leaves with a deft movement of the hand and drank her fill from her cupped palm, not bothering to remove the water worms. Then she urinated behind the tree, squatting and holding a stick at the ready to defend herself against abusive animals and predatory men, just as Dominga de Adviento had taught her to do.

  A short while later two black slave women came by, recognized the Santeria necklaces and spoke to her in Yoruban. The girl's eager reply was in the same language. Since no one knew why she was there, the slaves took her to the tumultuous kitchen, where the servants welcomed her with jubilation. Then someone noticed the wound on her ankle and wanted to know what had happened. 'My mother did it with a knife,' the girl said. When they asked her what she was called, she gave them her black name: Maria Mandinga.

  She had recovered her world. She helped slit the throat of a goat that struggled against dying and cut out its eyes and sliced off its testicles, which were the parts she liked best. She played diabolo with the adults in the kitchen and the children in the courtyard and won every game. She sang in Yoruban, Congolese and Mandingo, and even those who did not understand listened to her, enthralled. For lunch she ate a dish of the goat's eyes and testicles cooked in lard and seasoned with burning spices.

  By this time the entire convent knew the girl was there except Josefa Miranda, the Abbess, a lean, hard woman whose narrowness of mind was a family trait. She had been brought up in Burgos, in the shadow of the Holy Office, but her talent for command and the rigor of her prejudices came from within and had always been hers. Two capable nuns served as her vicars, but they were unnecessary because she took charge of everything, with no help from anyone.

  Her rancor toward the local Bishopric had begun almost one hundred years before her birth. As in other great historical disputes, the initial cause was a minor disagreement over financial and jurisdictional matters between the Clarissan sisters and the Franciscan bishop. Finding him intransigent, the nuns obtained the support of the civil government, and this was the start of a war that at one point became a free-for-all.

  Backed by other communities, the Bishop imposed a state of siege on the convent in order to starve it into submission and decreed the Cessatio a Divinis: in other words, the cessation of all religious services in the city until further notice. The populace fragmented into opposing camps, and in their confrontation the civil and religious authorities were supported by one group or the other. But after six months of siege the Clarissans were still alive and on a war footing, until the discovery of a secret tunnel used by their partisans to supply them with food. The Franciscans, this time with the backing of a new governor, violated the cloistered recesses of Santa Clara and drove out the nuns.

  It took twenty years for tempers to cool and the dismantled convent to be restored to the Clarissans, but after a century Josefa Miranda was still simmering in rancor. She inculcated the novices with her animosity, nurtured it in her will rather than her heart and embodied all responsibility for its existence in Bishop de Caceres y Virtudes and everything in any way related to him. Her reaction, therefore, was predictable when she was told that the Marquis de Casalduero, by order of the Bishop, had brought his twelve-year-old daughter, who showed mortal symptoms of demonic possession, to the convent. She asked only one question: 'But does any such marquis exist?' Her query was doubly venomous, because the affair had to do with the Bishop and because she had always denied the legitimacy of American-born aristocrats, whom she called 'gutter nobility'.

  It was time for the midday meal, and she had not been able to find Sierva Maria in the convent. The gatekeeper had told one of the vicars that at dawn a man in mourning had handed over a fair-haired girl dressed like a queen, but she had learned nothing more about her because just at that moment the beggars were fighting over the Palm Sunday cassava soup. To prove her veracity she gave the vicar the hat with colored ribbons. The vicar showed it to the Abbess when they were looking for the girl, and the Abbess had no doubt regarding the owner. She picked it up with her fingertips and observed it at arm's length.

  'A real little marquise with the hat of a slut,' she said. 'Satan knows what he is doing.'

  On her way to the locutory at nine that morning the Abbess had passed through the garden and spent some time there discussing the cost of work on the water-pipes with the masons, but she did not see the girl sitting on the stone bench. Other nuns who had walked through the garden at various times did not see her either. The two novices who took her ring swore they did not see her when they passed by the bench after the singing of Terce.

  The Abbess had just awakened from her siesta when she heard a melody sung by a voice that filled the entire convent. She pulled the cord that hung beside her bed, and a novice appeared at once in the darkened room. The Abbess asked who was singing with so much skill.

  'The girl,' said the novice.

  Still half asleep, the Abbess murmured, 'What a beautifu
l voice.' And then she sat up with a start. 'What girl?'

  'I don't know,' said the novice. 'The one who's had the back courtyard in an uproar since this morning.'

  'By the Blessed Sacrament!' shouted the Abbess.

  She leapt from her bed. Guided by the voice, she raced through the convent to the slaves' courtyard. Sierva Maria, with her hair spread out along the ground, sat on a stool and sang, surrounded by enchanted servants. When she saw the Abbess she stopped singing. The Abbess raised the crucifix she wore around her neck.

  'Hail Mary Most Pure,' she said.

  'Conceived without sin,' they all said.

  The Abbess brandished the crucifix as if it were a weapon against Sierva Maria. 'Vade retro,' she shouted. The slaves retreated and left the girl isolated in her space, eyes fixed and on her guard.

  'Spawn of Satan!' shouted the Abbess. 'You became invisible to confound us.'

  They could not make her say a word. A novice tried to lead Sierva Maria away by the hand, but the terrified Abbess stopped her. 'Do not touch her!' she shouted. And then to everyone, 'No one is to touch her.'

  In the end they took her by force, kicking and snapping at the air like a dog, to the farthest cell in the prison pavilion. On the way they realized she was soiled with her own excrement and washed her down with buckets of water at the stable.

  'So many convents in this city, and His Grace the Bishop sends us turds,' the Abbess protested.

  The cell was large, with rough walls and a high ceiling that had termite tracks in the coffers. Next to the only door was a full-length window, its stout bars made of lathed wood and its frame secured by an iron crosspiece. On the far wall, facing the sea, a high window was sealed by a wooden lattice. The bed was a concrete base covered by a canvas mattress filled with straw and stained with use. A built-in stone bench and a work table that also served as an altar and washstand were beneath a solitary crucifix nailed into the wall. They left Sierva Maria there, drenched all the way to her braid and trembling with fear, in the care of a warder trained in winning the millenarian war against the demon.

 
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