Of Love and Other Demons


  Sierva Maria sat down on the narrow bed, looking at the iron bars on the reinforced door, and this is how the servant found her when she brought a supper tray at five o'clock. The girl did not stir. The servant tried to remove her necklaces, and Sierva Maria seized her by the wrist and forced her to let them go. In the acta of the convent which began to be recorded that night, the servant declared that a supernatural force had thrown her to the ground.

  The girl sat motionless while the door was closed, and the chain rattled and two turns of the key sounded in the lock. She looked at the food: a few shreds of dried meat, a piece of cassava bread and a cup of chocolate. She bit into the cassava bread, chewed it, spat it out. She lay down on her back. She heard the gasp of the sea, the wind heavy with rain, the first thunder of the season approaching. At dawn the next day, when the servant returned with breakfast, she found the girl sleeping on the straw stuffing of the mattress she had disemboweled with her teeth and nails.

  At midday she allowed herself to be led to the refectory for those who had not yet taken their reclusive vows. It was a spacious room with a high vaulted ceiling and large windows through which the brilliance of the sea came clamoring in and the uproar at the cliffs sounded very close. Twenty novices, most of them young, were sitting at a double row of long, rough tables. They wore ordinary serge habits, their heads were shaved and they were cheerful and silly and did not hide the excitement of eating their barracks rations at the same table as one possessed. Sierva Maria sat near the main door, between two distracted warders, and ate almost nothing. They had dressed her in a gown like the ones worn by the novices and in her slippers, which were still damp. No one looked at her while they ate, but when the meal was over, several novices gathered around to admire her beads. One tried to take them off. Sierva Maria went into a rage. She shoved away the warders, who attempted to subdue her, climbed onto the table, and ran from one end to the other in a rampage of destruction, shrieking as if truly possessed. She broke everything in her path, then leapt through the window and wrecked the arbors in the courtyard, upset the beehives and knocked over the railings in the stables and the fences around the corrals. The bees flew away, and the animals, bellowing with panic, stampeded as far as the cloistered sleeping quarters.

  From then on, nothing occurred that was not attributed to the pernicious influence of Sierva Maria. Several novices declared in the acta that she flew on transparent wings that emitted a strange humming. Two days and a squadron of slaves were needed to round up the livestock and shepherd the bees back to their honeycombs and put the house in order. Rumors circulated to the effect that the pigs had been poisoned, that the water induced prophetic visions, that one of the frightened hens flew above the rooftops and out to sea, disappearing over the horizon. But the terrors of the Clarissans were inconsistent, for despite the emotional displays of the Abbess and the dread that each of them felt, Sierva Maria's cell became the focus of everyone's curiosity.

  Curfew in the cloister was in effect from the singing of Vespers at seven in the evening until the hour of Prime and six-o'clock Mass. All lights were extinguished except for those in a few authorized cells. Yet never before had life in the convent been so agitated and free. There was a traffic of shadows along the corridors, of intermittent whispers and haste held in check. They gambled in the most unexpected cells, either with Spanish decks of cards or weighted dice and drank furtive liquors and smoked the tobacco rolled in secret ever since Josefa Miranda had forbidden it in the cloister. The presence inside the convent walls of a girl possessed by demons had all the excitement of an extraordinary adventure.

  Even the most rigid nuns slipped out of the cloister after curfew and went in groups of two or three to talk to Sierva Maria. She greeted them with her nails but soon learned to deal with them according to each one's personality and each night's mood. A frequent request was that she serve as their intermediary with the devil to ask for impossible favors. Sierva Maria would imitate voices from beyond the grave, voices of those who had been decapitated, voices of the spawn of Satan, and many believed her sly deceptions and attested to their truth in the acta. A band of nuns in disguise attacked the cell one evil night, gagged Sierva Maria and stripped her of the sacred necklaces. It was an ephemeral victory. As they hurried away, the commander of the raiding party stumbled and fell on the dark stairs and fractured her skull. Her companions did not have a moment's peace until they returned the stolen necklaces to their owner. No one disturbed the nights in her cell again.

  For the Marquis de Casalduero, these were days of mourning. It had taken him longer to confine the girl than to repent of his action and he suffered an attack of melancholy from which he never recovered. He spent several hours prowling around the convent, wondering at which of the countless windows Sierva Maria was thinking of him. When he returned home, he saw Bernarda in the courtyard enjoying the cool air of early evening. He was shaken by a premonition that she would ask about Sierva Maria, but she did not even look at him.

  He let the mastiffs out of their cages and lay down in the hammock in his bedroom, hoping to sleep forever. But he could not. The trade winds had passed, and the night was burning. The swamps sent out all kinds of insects dazed by the sweltering heat, along with clouds of carnivorous mosquitoes, and it was necessary to burn cattle dung in the bedrooms to drive them away. Souls sank into lethargy. This was the time of year when the first rainstorm was hoped for with as much longing as that with which perpetual clear weather would be prayed for six months later.

  At daybreak the Marquis went to Abrenuncio's house. He had just sat down when he felt in advance the immense relief of sharing his sorrow. He came to the point with no preambles: 'I have left the girl in Santa Clara.'

  Abrenuncio did not understand, and the Marquis took advantage of his confusion to deliver the next blow.

  'She is to be exorcised,' he said.

  The physician gave a deep sigh and said with exemplary calm, 'Tell me everything.'

  Then the Marquis told him about his visit to the Bishop, his desire to pray, his blind decision, his sleepless night. It was the confession of an Old Christian who did not hold back a single secret for his own enjoyment.

  'I am convinced it was a commandment from God,' he concluded.

  'You mean you have recovered your faith,' said Abrenuncio.

  'One never quite stops believing,' said the Marquis. 'Some doubt remains forever.'

  Abrenuncio understood. He had always thought that ceasing to believe caused a permanent scar in the place where one's faith had been, making it impossible to forget. What did seem inconceivable to him was subjecting one's child to the castigation of exorcism.

  'There is not much difference between that and the witchcraft of the blacks,' he said. 'In fact, it is even worse, because the blacks only sacrifice roosters to their gods, while the Holy Office is happy to break innocents on the rack or burn them alive in a public spectacle.'

  The presence of Monsignor Cayetano Delaura during the Marquis's visit with the Bishop seemed a sinister precedent. 'He is an executioner,' Abrenuncio said with no elaboration. And then he became involved in an erudite listing of ancient autos-da-fe carried out against mental patients who had been executed for demonic possession or heresy.

  'I think that killing her would have been more Christian than burying her alive,' he concluded.

  The Marquis crossed himself. Abrenuncio looked at him, tremulous and phantasmal in his mourning taffetas and again saw in his eyes the fireflies of uncertainty that had been with him since birth.

  'Take her out of there,' he said.

  'It is what I have wanted to do since I saw her walking toward the pavilion of those interred in life,' said the Marquis. 'But I do not feel as if I have the strength to oppose the will of God.'

  'Well, start to feel as if you did,' said Abrenuncio. 'Perhaps God will thank you some day.'

  That night the Marquis requested an audience with the Bishop. He wrote the letter himself, in a circuitous style and a
childish hand, and gave it to the porter in person to be sure it would reach its destination.

  The Bishop was informed on Monday that Sierva Maria was ready for exorcism. He had finished his afternoon meal on the terrace with yellow bellflowers and took no special notice of the message. He ate little, but with a circumspection that could prolong the ritual for three hours. Sitting across from him, Father Cayetano Delaura was reading aloud in a measured voice and somewhat theatrical style. Both qualities suited the books that he chose according to his own taste and judgment.

  The old palace was too large for the Bishop, for whom the reception room and bedroom and the open terrace where he took his siestas and meals until the rains began were sufficient. In the opposite wing was the official library, founded, enriched and sustained with a master hand by Cayetano Delaura, and in its time considered one of the best in the Indies. The rest of the building consisted of eleven closed chambers where the debris of two centuries had accumulated.

  Except for the nun who served his food, Cayetano Delaura was the only person with access to the Bishop's house during meals, not because of personal privilege, as some said, but because of his position as reader. He did not have a definite office or any title other than librarian, but he was considered a de facto vicar because of his close association with the Bishop, and no one could imagine the prelate making an important decision without him. He had his own cell in an adjoining house that had interior passageways to the palace and contained the offices and living quarters of diocesan officials and the half-dozen nuns in the Bishop's domestic service. His true home, however, was the library, where he spent as many as fourteen hours a day working and reading, and where he kept a campaign cot for the times he was caught off guard by sleep.

  The surprise on this historic afternoon was that Delaura had faltered several times in his reading. And even more unusual was that he skipped a page without realizing it and went on reading. The Bishop observed him through his tiny alchemist's spectacles until he turned the page. Then he interrupted, amused, 'What are you thinking about?'

  Delaura gave a start.

  'It must be the heat,' he said. 'Why?'

  The Bishop continued to look into his eyes. 'I am sure it is something more than the heat,' he said. And in the same tone he repeated, 'What were you thinking about?'

  'The girl,' said Delaura.

  He was not more specific, for ever since the visit of the Marquis there had been no other girl in the world as far as they were concerned. They had discussed her at length. Together they had reviewed histories of possession and the chronicles of saints who had performed exorcisms. Delaura sighed, 'I dreamed about her.'

  'How could you dream about a person you have never seen?' asked the Bishop.

  'She was a little twelve-year-old American-born marquise with hair that trailed after her like a queen's mantle,' he said. 'How could it be anyone else?'

  The Bishop was not a man given to celestial visions, or miracles, or flagellations. His kingdom was of this world. And so he nodded without conviction and continued to eat. Delaura resumed reading with more care. The Bishop finished his meal, and Delaura helped him sit down in his rocking chair. When he was settled and comfortable, the Bishop said, 'And now, tell me the dream.'

  It was very simple. Delaura had dreamed that Sierva Maria sat at a window overlooking a snow-covered field, eating grapes one by one from a cluster she held in her lap. Each grape she pulled off grew back again on the cluster. In the dream it was evident the girl had spent many years at that infinite window trying to finish the cluster, and was in no hurry to do so because she knew that in the last grape lay death.

  'The strangest part,' concluded Delaura, 'is that the window through which she looked at the field was the one in Salamanca, during that winter when it snowed for three days and the lambs suffocated in the snow.'

  The Bishop was moved. He knew and loved Cayetano Delaura too well to ignore the enigmas of his dreams. He had earned the place he occupied, in the diocese and in his affections, through his many talents and good character. The Bishop closed his eyes to sleep the three minutes of his late-afternoon siesta.

  In the meantime, Delaura ate at the same table before they said evening prayers together. He was still eating when the Bishop stirred in the rocking chair and made the decision of his life: 'You take charge of the case.'

  He spoke without opening his eyes and emitted a lion's snore. Delaura finished his meal and sat down in his usual armchair beneath the flowering vines. Then the Bishop opened his eyes.

  'You have not answered me,' he said.

  'I thought you were talking in your sleep,' said Delaura.

  'Now I am saying it again, when I am awake,' said the Bishop. 'I entrust the girl's health to you.'

  'This is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me,' said Delaura.

  'Do you mean you refuse?'

  'I am not an exorcist, Father,' said Delaura. 'I do not have the character or the training or the knowledge to claim to be one. Besides, we know that God has set me on another path.'

  It was true. Because of certain measures taken by the Bishop, Delaura was one of three candidates for the position of Curator of the Sephardic collection at the Vatican Library. But this was the first time it had been mentioned between them, although they both knew it.

  'That is even more reason,' said the Bishop. 'The girl's case, brought to a successful conclusion, may be the impetus we need.'

  Delaura was aware of his own awkwardness with women. To him they seemed endowed with an untransferable use of reason that allowed them to navigate without difficulty among the hazards of reality. The mere idea of an encounter, even with a defenseless child like Sierva Maria, turned the perspiration on his palms to ice.

  'No, Senor,' he decided. 'I do not feel qualified.'

  'You not only are,' replied the Bishop, 'but you have more than enough of what someone else would be lacking: inspiration.'

  It was too great a word not to be the last. The Bishop, however, did not insist on his immediate acceptance, but granted him a period of reflection, until after the penance of Holy Week, which began that day.

  'Go to see the girl,' he said. 'Make a thorough study of the case, and report back to me.'

  This was how Cayetano Alcino del Espiritu Santo Delaura y Escudero, at the age of thirty-six, entered the life of Sierva Maria and the history of the city. He had been the Bishop's student when he held the celebrated chair of theology at Salamanca, where Delaura had graduated with highest honors. He was convinced that his father was a direct descendant of Garcilaso de la Vega, whom he held in almost religious reverence, and he did not hesitate to make this known. His mother was from San Martin de Loba in the province of Mompox and had emigrated to Spain with her parents. Delaura had not believed he resembled her in any way until he reached the New Kingdom of Granada and recognized his hereditary nostalgia.

  From his first conversation with Delaura in Salamanca, Bishop de Caceres y Virtudes had felt he was in the presence of one of those rare figures who adorned the Christianity of his time. It was a frozen February morning, and through the window one could see the snow-covered fields and, in the distance, the row of poplars along the river. The wintry landscape would be the frame of a recurrent dream that was to pursue the young theologian for the rest of his life.

  They talked of books, of course, and the Bishop could not believe that Delaura had read so much at his age. He spoke to the Bishop about Garcilaso. His mentor confessed he did not know him very well but remembered him as a pagan poet who had not mentioned God more than twice in all his work.

  'More times than that,' said Delaura. 'But during the Renaissance this was not unusual, even among good Catholics.'

  On the day Delaura took his first vows, his mentor proposed that he accompany him to the uncertain kingdom of Yucatan, where he had just been named bishop. For Delaura, who knew life through books, the vast world of his mother seemed a dream that would never be his. While petrified lambs were b
eing dug out of the snow, he had difficulty imagining the oppressive heat, the eternal stink of carrion, the steaming swamps. For the Bishop, who had fought in the African wars, it was easier to conceive of them.

  'I have heard that our clerics go mad with joy in the Indies,' said Delaura.

  'And some hang themselves,' said the Bishop. 'It is a kingdom menaced by sodomy, idolatry and anthropophagy.' And he added without bias: 'Like the land of the Moors.'

  But he also thought that this was its greatest attraction. There was a need for warriors as capable of imposing the gifts of Christian civilization as of preaching in the desert. At the age of twenty-three, however, Delaura believed that his road to the right hand of the Holy Spirit, toward whom he felt absolute devotion, had already been decided.

  'All my life I have dreamed of being a chief librarian,' he said. 'It is the only work I am fit for.'

  He had taken part in the public examinations for a position in Toledo that would be the first step toward realizing his dream and he was certain he would receive the appointment. But his mentor was obstinate.

  'It is easier to become a saint as a librarian in Yucatan than as a martyr in Toledo,' he said.

  Delaura replied with no humility, 'If God is willing, I would rather be an angel than a saint.'

  He was still thinking over his mentor's offer when he was named to the post in Toledo, but he chose Yucatan instead. Delaura and the Bishop never arrived, however. They were shipwrecked in the Windward Passage after seventy days of rough seas and were rescued by a battered convoy that abandoned them to their fate at Santa Maria la Antigua in Darien. They spent more than a year there, waiting for the illusory mails carried by the Galleon Fleet, until de Caceres was named interim bishop of these lands, whose see was left vacant at the sudden death of the titular bishop. When he saw the colossal jungle of Uraba from the small vessel carrying them to their new destination, Delaura recognized the nostalgia that had tormented his mother during the lugubrious winters of Toledo. The hallucinatory twilights, the nightmarish birds, the exquisite putrefactions of the mangrove swamps, seemed the cherished memories of a past he had not lived.

 
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