Of Love and Other Demons


  'Only the Holy Spirit could have arranged things so well and brought me to the land of my mother,' he said.

  Twelve years later the Bishop had renounced the dream of Yucatan. He had lived a full seventy-three years, he was dying of asthma and he knew he would never again watch the snow fall in Salamanca. At the time Sierva Maria entered the convent, he had decided to retire once he had smoothed the road to Rome for his disciple.

  The next day Cayetano Delaura went to the Convent of Santa Clara. Despite the heat he wore a habit of raw wool and carried a flask of holy water and a casket with sacramental oils, primary weapons in the war against the demon. The Abbess had never seen him, but talk of his intelligence and power had penetrated the silence of the cloister. When she received him in the locutory at six in the morning, she was struck by his air of youth, his pallor worthy of a martyr, the timbre of his voice, the enigma of his lock of white hair. But no virtue would have been enough to make her forget that he was the soldier of the Bishop. All that Delaura noticed, though, was the uproarious crowing of the roosters.

  'There are only six of them, but they make enough noise for a hundred,' said the Abbess. 'Furthermore, a pig spoke and a goat gave birth to triplets.' And she added with fervor, 'Everything has been like this since your Bishop did us the favor of sending us his poisoned gift.'

  She viewed with equal alarm the garden flowering with so much vigor that it seemed contra natura. As they walked across it she pointed out to Delaura that there were flowers of exceptional size and color, some with an unbearable scent. As far as she was concerned, everything ordinary had something supernatural about it. With each word Delaura felt that she was stronger than he, and he hastened to sharpen his weapons.

  'We have not stated that the girl is possessed,' he said, 'but only that there are reasons to suspect it.'

  'What we are witnessing speaks for itself,' said the Abbess.

  'Take care,' said Delaura. 'Sometimes we attribute certain things we do not understand to the demon, not thinking they may be things of God that we do not understand.'

  'Saint Thomas said it, and I will be guided by him,' said the Abbess: ' "One must not believe demons even when they speak the truth." '

  The cloistered silence began on the second floor. On one side were the empty cells, locked and bolted during the day, and facing them was a row of windows opened to the splendor of the sea. The novices did not seem to be distracted from their labors, but in reality they followed every move of the Abbess and her visitor as they made their way toward the prison pavilion.

  Before they came to the far end of the corridor, where Sierva Maria was confined, they passed the cell of Martina Laborde, a former nun condemned to life imprisonment for having murdered two of her companions with a carving knife. She never confessed her motive. She had spent eleven years there and was better known for her failed escape attempts than for her crime. She never accepted that being imprisoned for life was the same as being a cloistered nun, and in this she was so consistent that she had offered to serve the rest of her sentence as a maid in the pavilion of those interred in life. Her implacable obsession, to which she devoted the same zeal she brought to her faith, was to be free even if she had to kill again.

  Delaura could not resist his rather puerile curiosity and peered into the cell through the iron bars at the window. Martina's back was to him. When she sensed someone looking at her, she turned toward the door, and Delaura felt at once the power of her charm. An uneasy Abbess moved him away from the window.

  'Take care,' she said. 'That creature is capable of anything.'

  'So much a threat, even behind bars?' said Delaura.

  'That much and more,' said the Abbess. 'If it were up to me, she would have been released long ago. The perturbation she causes is too great for this convent.'

  When the warder opened the door, Sierva Maria's cell exhaled a breath of decay. The girl lay on her back on the stone bed with no mattress, her feet and hands bound with leather straps. She seemed dead, but her eyes held the light of the sea. Delaura thought she was identical to the girl in his dream, and a tremor took control of his body and soaked him in icy perspiration. He closed his eyes and prayed in a low voice, with all the weight of his faith, and when he finished he had regained his composure.

  'Even if she were not possessed by any demon,' he said, 'this poor creature is in the most propitious environment for becoming so.'

  The Abbess replied, 'This is an honor we do not deserve.' For they had done everything to keep the cell in the best condition, yet Sierva Maria generated her own dung heap.

  'Our war is not against her but against the demons who may inhabit her,' said Delaura.

  He entered on tiptoe to avoid the filth on the floor and sprinkled the cell with the hyssop of holy water, murmuring the ritual formulas. The Abbess was terrified by the stains the water left on the walls.

  'Blood!' she screamed.

  Delaura challenged the frivolity of her reasoning. Just because the water was red, that did not mean it had to be blood, and even if it were, that did not mean it had to be diabolical. 'It would be more reasonable to assume this is a miracle, and that power belongs only to God,' he said. It was neither one thing nor the other, however, for when the spots dried on the whitewashed walls, they had changed from red to an intense green. The Abbess blushed. Not only the Clarissans but all the women of her day were forbidden any kind of formal education, yet from the time she was very young she had learned scholastic argumentation in her family of distinguished theologians and great heretics.

  'At least,' she replied, 'let us not deny to demons the simple power to change the color of blood.'

  'Nothing is more useful than a timely doubt,' was Delaura's immediate retort, and he looked straight at her. 'Read Saint Augustine.'

  'I have already read him with great care,' said the Abbess.

  'Well, read him again,' said Delaura.

  Before turning his attention to the girl, he asked the warder in a very courteous tone to leave the cell. Then, without the same sweetness, he told the Abbess, 'You too, please.'

  'On your responsibility,' she said.

  'The Bishop is the highest authority,' he said.

  'There is no need to remind me of that,' said the Abbess with a touch of sarcasm. 'We know by now that you are the masters of God.'

  Delaura granted her the pleasure of the last word. He sat on the edge of the bed and examined the girl with the thoroughness of a physician. He continued to tremble but no longer perspired.

  Seen at close quarters, Sierva Maria was scratched and bruised, and her skin was chafed raw by the straps. But what affected him most was the wound on her ankle, inflamed and festering as a result of the healers' ineptitude.

  As he examined her, Delaura explained that she had been brought there not to be martyrized but because of the suspicion that a demon had entered her body in order to steal her soul. He needed her help to establish the truth. But it was impossible to know whether she was listening and whether she understood that it was a plea from the heart.

  When he had completed the examination, Delaura requested a chest of medicines but did not permit the apothecary nun to enter the cell. He applied balsams to the girl's wounds and with gentle breaths relieved the burning on her raw skin, astounded at her tolerance of pain. Sierva Maria answered none of his questions, showed no interest in his preaching and complained about nothing.

  It was a discouraging start that pursued Delaura until he reached the calm waters of the library. The largest room in the Bishop's house, it did not have a single window, and the walls were lined with glass-doored mahogany cabinets containing numerous books arranged in careful order. In the center of the room stood a large table that held maritime charts, an astrolabe and other navigational instruments, and a globe of the earth with additions and emendations that successive cartographers had made by hand as the size of the world increased. In the rear was a rustic work table with an inkwell, penknife, turkey quills for writing, sand to
dry the ink and a withered carnation in a vase. The entire room was in shadow and had the odor of paper at rest and the coolness and peace of a forest glade.

  In a smaller enclosure at the back of the room was a locked cabinet with doors made of ordinary lumber. This was the prison of forbidden books, purged by the Holy Inquisition because they dealt with 'deceptive and profane matters, and false histories'. No one had access to it but Cayetano Delaura, who had pontifical permission to explore the abysses of written works gone astray.

  From the moment he first saw Sierva Maria, those calm waters of so many years became his inferno. He would not meet there again with his friends, the clergy and laymen who shared with him the delight of pure ideas and organized scholastic tourneys, literary gatherings, musical evenings. His passion was reduced to understanding the wily deceptions of the demon, and for five days and nights he devoted all his reading and reflection to the subject before he returned to the convent. On Monday, when the Bishop saw him leave with a firm step, he asked him how he felt.

  'As if I had the wings of the Holy Spirit,' said Delaura.

  He had put on his cassock of ordinary cotton, which filled him with the courage of a woodcutter, and his soul wore armor against despair. They stood him in good stead. The warder responded to his greeting with a grunt, Sierva Maria received him with an ill-tempered frown, and it was difficult to breathe in the cell because excrement and the remains of earlier meals were strewn over the floor. On the altar, next to the Sanctuary Lamp, the midday meal lay untouched. Delaura picked up the plate and offered the girl a spoonful of black beans in coagulated grease. She turned her head. He insisted several times, but her response was always the same. Then Delaura put the spoonful of beans in his mouth, tasted it, and swallowed without chewing, showing real signs of repugnance.

  'You are right,' he told her. 'This is vile.'

  The girl did not pay the slightest attention to him. When he treated her inflamed ankle, the skin twitched and her eyes filled with tears. He thought she had surrendered, and he comforted her with the murmurings of a good shepherd, and at last dared loosen the straps to give her ravaged body some respite. The girl flexed her fingers several times to feel whether they were still hers and stretched her feet numbed by the bindings. Then she looked at Delaura for the first time, weighed and measured him and attacked with the well-aimed pounce of a hunted animal. The warder helped subdue her and tighten the straps again. Before he left, Delaura took a sandalwood rosary from his pocket and hung it around Sierva Maria's neck over her Santeria beads.

  The Bishop was alarmed when he saw him return with scratches on his face and a bite on his hand, the mere sight of which caused him distress. But he was even more alarmed by Delaura's reaction. He displayed his wounds as if they were battle trophies and scoffed at the danger of contracting rabies. The Bishop's physician, however, treated them with utmost seriousness, for he was one of those who feared that the eclipse on the following Monday would be the prelude to grave disasters.

  On the other hand, the murderer Martina Laborde did not encounter the least resistance in Sierva Maria. She had tiptoed to her cell, as if by chance, and seen her in the bed, tied by her feet and hands. The girl went on the defensive and kept her eyes fixed and alert until Martina smiled. Then she smiled too, and her surrender was unconditional. It was as if the soul of Dominga de Adviento had filled the entire cell.

  Martina told her who she was and why she was there for the rest of her days, even though she had grown hoarse proclaiming her innocence. When Martina asked Sierva Maria the reasons for her confinement, she could tell her only the little she had learned from her exorcist: 'I have a devil inside.'

  Martina asked no more questions, assuming that the girl lied or had been lied to, not realizing she was one of the few white women to whom Sierva Maria had told the truth. She gave her a demonstration of the art of embroidery, and the girl asked to be freed so that she could try it too. Martina showed her the scissors she carried in the pocket of her gown along with other items used for needlework.

  'What you want is for me to free you,' she said. 'But I warn you: If you try to hurt me, I have the means to kill you.'

  Sierva Maria did not doubt her determination. She was freed and she repeated the embroidery lesson with the facility and good ear with which she had learned to play the theorbo. Before Martina left, she promised to obtain permission for them to watch the total eclipse of the sun together on the following Monday.

  At dawn on Friday the swallows took their leave, making a wide circle in the sky and showering the streets and rooftops with a foul-smelling indigo snowstorm. It was difficult to eat and sleep until the midday sun dried the stubborn droppings and the night breezes purified the air. But terror prevailed. No one had ever seen swallows shit in mid-flight or heard of the stink of their excrement interfering with ordinary life.

  In the convent, of course, no one doubted that Sierva Maria had the power to change the laws of migration. On Sunday after Mass Delaura could even feel the hardness in the air as he crossed the garden with a little basket of pastries from the arcades. Sierva Maria, remote from everything, still wore the rosary around her neck but did not respond to his greeting or deign to look at him. He sat beside her, chewed a cruller from the basket with delight, and said, his mouth full, 'It tastes like heaven.'

  He brought the other half of the cruller to Sierva Maria's mouth. She turned her head, not facing the wall as she had on other occasions but indicating to Delaura that the warder was spying on them. He made an emphatic gesture with his hand in the direction of the door.

  'Get away from there,' he ordered.

  When the warder moved away, the girl tried to satisfy her long-standing hunger with the half of the cruller, but spat out the piece she had bitten off. 'It tastes like swallow shit,' she said. Still, her humor changed. She cooperated when Delaura treated the painful raw spots on her back, and paid attention to him for the first time when she saw his bandaged hand. With an innocence that could not be feigned, she asked what had happened.

  'I was bitten by a little rabid dog with a tail more than a meter long.'

  Sierva Maria wanted to see the wound. Delaura removed the bandage, and with her index finger she touched the crimson halo of swelling as if it were a burning coal, and laughed for the first time.

  'I'm worse than the plague,' she said.

  Delaura responded not with the Gospels but with Garcilaso: 'Well may you do this to one who can endure it.'

  He burned with the revelation that something immense and irreparable had begun to occur in his life. When he left the warder reminded him, on behalf of the Abbess, that it was forbidden to bring in provisions from the street because of the danger the food might be poisoned, as it had been during the siege. Delaura lied and said he had brought the basket with the permission of the Bishop, and lodged a formal complaint about the bad food served to those confined in a convent famous for its fine cuisine.

  During supper he read to the Bishop with renewed enthusiasm. As always, he joined him in the evening prayers, closing his eyes to make it easier to think of Sierva Maria as he prayed. He retired to the library earlier than usual, thinking of her, and the more he thought the stronger grew his desire to think. He recited aloud the love sonnets of Garcilaso, torn by the suspicion that every verse contained an enigmatic portent that had something to do with his life. He could not sleep. At dawn he was slumped over the desk, his forehead pressing against the book he had not read. From the depths of sleep he heard the three nocturns of the new day's Matins in the adjacent sanctuary. 'God save you, Maria de Todos los Angeles,' he said in his sleep. His own voice startled him awake, and in her inmate's tunic, with her fiery hair spilling over her shoulders, he saw Sierva Maria discard the old carnation and place a bouquet of newly opened gardenias in the vase on his work table. Delaura, with Garcilaso, told her in an ardent voice: 'For you was I born, for you do I have life, for you will I die, for you am I now dying.' Sierva Maria smiled without looking at him.
He closed his eyes to be sure she was not an illusion of the shadows. When he opened them the vision had disappeared, but the library was saturated with the scent of her gardenias.

  Four

  Father Cayetano Delaura was invited by the Bishop to wait for the eclipse beneath the canopy of yellow bellflowers, the only place in the house with a view of the ocean sky. The pelicans, motionless in the air on outspread wings, seemed to have died in mid-flight. The Bishop, who had just finished his siesta, moved a slow fan in a hammock hung from naval capstans on two wooden support beams. Delaura sat beside him in a wicker rocking chair. Both were in a state of grace, drinking tamarind water and looking over the rooftops at the vast cloudless sky. Just after two it began to grow dark, the hens huddled on their perches, and all the stars came out at the same time. The world trembled in a supernatural shudder. The Bishop heard the fluttering wings of laggard doves searching for their lofts in the darkness.

  'God is great,' he sighed. 'Even the animals feel it.'

  The nun in his service brought a candle and several pieces of smoked glass for looking at the sun. The Bishop sat up in the hammock and began to observe the eclipse through the glass.

  'You must look with only one eye,' he said, trying to control the whistle of his breathing. 'If not, you run the risk of losing both.'

  Delaura held the glass in his hand but did not look at the eclipse. After a long silence, the Bishop scrutinized him in the darkness and saw his luminous eyes indifferent to the enchantment of the counterfeit night.

  'What are you thinking about?' he asked.

  Delaura did not reply. He looked at the sun and saw a waning moon that hurt his retina despite the dark glass. But he did not stop looking.

  'You are still thinking about the girl,' said the Bishop.

  Cayetano was startled, despite the fact that the Bishop made this kind of accurate guess with almost unnatural frequency. 'I was thinking that the common people will relate their troubles to this eclipse,' he said. The Bishop shook his head without looking away from the sky.

 
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