Of Love and Other Demons

  'Who knows, they may be right,' he said. 'The cards of the Lord are not easy to read.'

  'This phenomenon was calculated thousands of years ago by Assyrian astronomers,' said Delaura.

  'That is the answer of a Jesuit,' said the Bishop.

  Cayetano continued to observe the sun, not using the glass out of simple distraction. At twelve minutes past two the sun looked like a perfect black disc, and for an instant it was midnight in the middle of the day. Then the eclipse recovered its earthbound quality, and dawn's roosters began to crow. When Delaura stopped looking, the medal of fire persisted on his retina.

  'I still see the eclipse,' he said, amused. 'Wherever I look it is there.'

  The Bishop considered the spectacle finished. 'It will go away in a few hours,' he said. He stretched and yawned as he sat in the hammock and gave thanks to God for the new day.

  Delaura had not lost the thread of their conversation.

  'With all due respect, Father,' he said, 'I do not believe the child is possessed.'

  This time the Bishop was alarmed in earnest.

  'Why do you say that?'

  'I believe she is only terrified,' said Delaura.

  'We have an abundance of proof,' said the Bishop. 'Or have you not read the acta?'

  Yes. Delaura had studied them with great care, and they were more useful for understanding the mentality of the Abbess than the condition of Sierva Maria. They had exorcised the places where the girl had been on the morning she entered the convent, as well as everything she had touched. Those who had been in contact with her had submitted to fasting and purification. The novice who had stolen her ring on the first day was condemned to forced labor in the garden. They said the girl had enjoyed quartering a goat whose throat she slit with her own hands and had eaten its testicles and eyes with spices as hot as fire. She had displayed a gift for languages that allowed her to talk with Africans from any nation better than they could among themselves, or with any sort of animal. The day after her arrival, the eleven captive macaws that had adorned the garden for twenty years died for no apparent reason. She had charmed the servants with demonic songs sung in voices other than her own. When she learned that the Abbess was looking for her, she had made herself invisible only to her eyes.

  'I believe, however,' said Delaura, 'that what seems demonic to us are the customs of the blacks, learned by the girl as a consequence of the neglected condition in which her parents kept her.'

  'Take care!' the Bishop warned. 'The Enemy makes better use of our intelligence than of our errors.'

  'Then the best gift we could give him would be to exorcise a healthy child,' said Delaura.

  The Bishop bristled. 'Ought I to assume that you are in a state of defiance?'

  'You ought to assume that I have my doubts, Father,' said Delaura. 'But I obey in all humility.'

  And so he returned to the convent without having convinced the Bishop. Over his left eye he wore the patch that the doctor had prescribed until the sun imprinted on his retina was erased. He sensed the glances following him through the garden and along the series of corridors that led to the prison pavilion, but no one said a word to him. The entire convent seemed to be convalescing from the eclipse.

  When the warder opened Sierva Maria's cell, Delaura felt his heart bursting in his chest, and it was all he could do to remain standing. To test her mood that morning, he asked the girl whether she had seen the eclipse. She had, in fact, from the terrace. She did not understand why he had to wear a patch over his eye, when she had looked at the sun without protection and felt fine. She told him that the nuns had watched on their knees and that the convent had been paralyzed until the roosters crowed. But to her it had not seemed anything otherworldly.

  'What I saw is what I see every night,' she said.

  Something had changed in her that Delaura could not define, and its most visible symptom was a trace of sadness. He was not mistaken. As he began to treat her wounds, the girl stared at him with troubled eyes and said in a tremulous voice, 'I'm going to die.'

  Delaura shuddered.

  'Who told you that?'

  'Martina,' said the girl.

  'Have you seen her?'

  She told him that Martina had come to her cell twice to teach her embroidery and that they had looked at the eclipse together. She said that Martina was good and gentle, and the Abbess had allowed her to hold the embroidery lessons on the terrace so they could watch the twilights over the sea.

  'Aha,' he said without blinking. 'And did she tell you when you are going to die?'

  The girl nodded, her lips closed tight to keep from crying.

  'After the eclipse,' she said.

  'After the eclipse could be the next hundred years,' said Delaura.

  But he had to concentrate on the treatment so she would not notice the lump in his throat. Sierva Maria said no more. He looked at her again, intrigued by her silence, and saw that her eyes were wet.

  'I'm afraid,' she said.

  She collapsed on the bed and burst into heartrending tears. He moved closer and comforted her with the palliatives of a confessor. This was when Sierva Maria learned that Cayetano was her exorcist and not her physician.

  'Then why are you healing me?' she asked.

  His voice trembled.

  'Because I love you very much.'

  She was not aware of his audacity.

  When he left Sierva Maria, Delaura stopped at Martina's cell. Close to her for the first time, he saw that she had pockmarked skin, a shorn head, a nose that was too large and the teeth of a rat, but her seductive power was a material current that could be felt at once. Delaura chose to speak to her from the doorway.

  'That poor child already has enough reasons to be frightened,' he said. 'I beg you not to add to them.'

  Martina was taken aback. She would never dream of predicting the day of anyone's death, least of all that of a girl who was so appealing and defenseless. She had only asked about her circumstances, and had realized after three or four answers that she lied out of habit. Martina spoke with so much gravity that Delaura knew Sierva Maria had lied to him as well. He asked her to forgive his rashness, and begged her to demand no explanations from the girl.

  'I will know what to do,' he concluded.

  Martina enveloped him in her charm. 'I know who Your Reverence is,' she said, 'and I know you have always known very well what to do.' But Delaura was wounded by this evidence that Sierva Maria needed no help from anyone to nurture a horror of death in the solitude of her cell.

  In the course of that week Mother Josefa Miranda sent the Bishop a formal memorandum of complaints and protests written in her own hand. She asked that the Clarissans be relieved of the guardianship of Sierva Maria, which she considered a belated punishment for faults that had already been purged many times over. She enumerated a new list of extraordinary occurrences that had been cited in the acta and could be explained only as the consequences of shameless complicity between the girl and the demon. She ended with a furious denunciation of Cayetano Delaura's arrogance, his freethinking, his personal animosity toward her and the abusiveness of his bringing food into the convent in defiance of the prohibitions of their rule.

  The Bishop showed him the memorandum as soon as he returned, and Delaura read it where he stood, not moving a muscle of his face. When he finished he was in a rage.

  'If anyone is possessed by all the demons, it is Josefa Miranda,' he said. 'Demons of rancor, intolerance, imbecility. She is detestable!'

  The Bishop was surprised by his vehemence. Delaura observed this and tried to speak in a calmer tone.

  'What I mean,' he said, 'is that she attributes so much power to the forces of evil that she seems like a worshipper of the demon.'

  'My investiture does not permit me to agree with you,' said the Bishop. 'But I would like to.'

  He reprimanded Delaura for any excess he might have committed, and asked for his patience in enduring the Abbess's unfortunate nature. 'The Gospels are fille
d with women like her, some with even worse defects,' he said. 'And yet Jesus exalted them.' The Bishop could not continue, because the thunder resounded over the house and then rolled out to sea, and a biblical downpour cut them off from the rest of the world. The Bishop lay back in the rocking chair and was shipwrecked in nostalgia.

  'How far we are!' he sighed.

  'From what?'

  'From ourselves,' said the Bishop. 'Does it seem reasonable to you that a man should need up to a year to learn he is an orphan?' And since there was no answer, he confessed to his homesickness: 'The very idea that they have already slept tonight in Spain fills me with terror.'

  'We cannot intervene in the rotation of the earth,' said Delaura.

  'But we could be unaware of it so that it does not cause us grief,' said the Bishop. 'More than faith, what Galileo lacked was a heart.'

  Delaura was familiar with these crises that had tormented the Bishop on nights of melancholy rain ever since old age had assailed him. All he could do was distract him from the attack of black bile until sleep overcame him.

  Toward the end of the month, a proclamation announced the imminent arrival of the new viceroy, Don Rodrigo de Buen Lozano, who would stop here for a visit on his way to the seat of government in Santa Fe de Bogota. He was traveling with his entourage of magistrates and functionaries, servants and personal physicians, and a string quartet presented to him by the Queen to help him endure the tedium of the Indies. The Vicereine, a distant relative of the Abbess, had asked to be lodged at the convent.

  Sierva Maria was forgotten in the heating quicklime and steaming pitch, the plague of hammering and the shouted blasphemies of all kinds of people who invaded the house as far as the cloister. A scaffolding collapsed with a deafening crash, killing a bricklayer and injuring seven other workers. The Abbess attributed the disaster to the malevolent spells of Sierva Maria and took advantage of this new opportunity to insist that she be sent to another convent until the festivities were concluded. This time her principal argument was the inadvisability of allowing someone possessed to be in close proximity to the Vicereine. The Bishop did not respond.

  Don Rodrigo de Buen Lozano was a mature, elegant Asturian, a champion at pelota and partridge shooting, who compensated with his other attractions for being twenty-two years older than his wife. He laughed, even at himself, with his entire body, which he lost no opportunity to display. From the moment he felt the first Caribbean breezes intermingled with nocturnal drums and the fragrance of ripe guava, he removed his springtime attire and wandered bare-chested among the gatherings of ladies on board ship. He disembarked in shirtsleeves, with no speeches and no salutes by the Lombard cannon. In his honor, fandangos, bundes and cumbiambas were authorized although they had been prohibited by the Bishop, and bullfights and cockfights were held outdoors.

  The Vicereine, an active and somewhat mischievous girl just past adolescence, burst into the convent like a windstorm of change. There was no corner she did not examine, no problem she did not consider, nothing good she did not wish to improve. She wandered through the convent, wanting to see everything with all the eagerness of a young novice. The Abbess, in fact, thought it prudent to spare her the unpleasant impression of the prison.

  'It is not worth the visit,' she said. 'There are only two inmates, and one is possessed by the demon.'

  That was enough to awaken the Vicereine's interest. She did not care at all that the cells had not been prepared and the inmates had not been notified. As soon as her door was opened, Martina Laborde threw herself at the Vicereine's feet, begging for a pardon.

  It did not seem probable, after one failed escape and another that had succeeded. She had attempted the first six years earlier, along the terrace overlooking the sea, in the company of three other nuns condemned for diverse reasons to a variety of sentences. One of them escaped. This was when the windows were sealed and the courtyard beneath the terrace was fortified. The following year, the three remaining prisoners tied up the warder, who at that time slept in the pavilion, and fled through a service door. Martina's family followed the advice of their confessor and returned her to the convent. For four long years she had been the only prisoner, with no right to receive visits in the locutory or hear Sunday Mass in the chapel. A pardon seemed impossible. The Vicereine, however, promised to intercede with her husband.

  In Sierva Maria's cell the air was still harsh with quicklime and lingering traces of pitch, but a new order prevailed. As soon as the warder opened the door, the Vicereine felt bewitched by a glacial breath of wind. In a corner illuminated by its own light, Sierva Maria sat in her torn tunic and stained slippers, plying a slow needle. She did not look up until the Vicereine greeted her. In the girl's eyes she saw the irresistible force of a revelation. 'By the Blessed Sacrament,' she murmured, and stepped into the cell.

  'Take care,' the Abbess whispered in her ear. 'She is like a tiger.'

  The Abbess seized her arm. The Vicereine did not go in, but one glimpse of Sierva Maria was enough for her to resolve to save the girl.

  The governor of the city, an effeminate bachelor, gave a luncheon, for men only, in honor of the Viceroy. The string quartet from Spain and a bagpipe-and-drum ensemble from San Jacinto played, and blacks in costume performed bold parodies of white dances. As a finale, a curtain at the back of the room was raised to reveal the Abyssinian slave purchased by the Governor for her weight in gold. She wore an almost transparent tunic that heightened the peril of her nakedness. After showing herself to the ordinary guests she stopped in front of the Viceroy, and the tunic slipped down her body to the floor.

  Her perfection was alarming. Her shoulder had not been profaned by the slaver's brand, the initial of her first owner had not been burned on her back, and her entire person breathed an air of intimacy. The Viceroy turned pale, inhaled deeply and with a movement of his hand erased the unbearable vision from his memory.

  'Take her away, for God's sake,' he ordered. 'I do not want to see her again for the rest of my days.'

  Perhaps in retribution for the Governor's frivolity, the Vicereine presented Sierva Maria at the dinner the Abbess gave in her private dining room. Martina Laborde had warned them: 'Don't try to take away her necklaces and bracelets, and you'll see how well she behaves.' It was true. They dressed her in her grandmother's gown, the one she had worn when she came to the convent, they washed and combed her unbraided hair so that it trailed behind her, and the Vicereine herself led her by the hand to her husband's table. Even the Abbess was stunned by the girl's elegance, her physical brilliance, the prodigy of her hair. The Vicereine murmured in her husband's ear, 'She is possessed by the demon.'

  The Viceroy refused to believe it. In Burgos he had seen a possessed woman who defecated without pause the entire night until she filled the room to overflowing. Trying to avoid a similar fate for Sierva Maria, he had her examined by his physicians. They confirmed that she showed no symptom of rabies and they agreed with Abrenuncio that it was improbable she would contract the disease now. But no one believed himself authorized to doubt she was possessed by the demon.

  The Bishop took advantage of the festivities to reflect on the memorandum from the Abbess and on Sierva Maria's final disposition. For his part, Cayetano Delaura attempted the purification that precedes exorcism and shut himself away in the library with nothing to eat but cassava bread and water. He failed. He spent delirious nights and sleepless days writing unrestrained verses that were his only calmative for the raging desires of his body.

  When the library was dismantled close to a century later, some of these poems were discovered in a sheaf of almost indecipherable papers. The first, and the only one legible in its entirety, was Delaura's recollection of himself at the age of twelve, sitting on his student's trunk under a light spring rain in the cobbled courtyard of the seminary at Avila. He had just arrived from Toledo after several days on muleback, wearing an outfit of his father's that had been altered to fit him, and traveling with the trunk that was more th
an twice his weight because his mother had packed in it everything he might need to live with honor until the end of his novitiate. The porter helped him carry it to the middle of the courtyard and then left him to his fate in the rain.

  'Take it up to the third floor,' the porter told him, 'and they'll show you where you sleep in the dormitory.'

  In an instant the entire seminary appeared on the balconies overlooking the courtyard, watching to see what Cayetano would do with the trunk, as if he were the single protagonist in a play known to everyone but him. When he realized that no one would help him, he removed as many things as he could carry and took them up the steep stairs of living rock to the third floor. The proctor showed him his place in the two rows of beds in the dormitory for novices. Cayetano put his things on the bed, went back to the courtyard and climbed the stairs four more times until he had finished. At last he took the empty trunk by the handle and dragged it up the staircase.

  The teachers and students watching from the balconies did not turn to look at him as he passed each floor. But the Father Rector was waiting on the third-floor landing when he brought up the trunk and he began the applause. The others followed suit and gave him an ovation. Then Cayetano learned that he had passed with flying colors the first initiation rite of the seminary, which consisted of carrying one's trunk up to the dormitory without asking any questions or requesting help from anyone. His quick intelligence, good disposition and strong character were proclaimed as examples for the other novices.

  But the memory that would make the greatest mark on him was his conversation on that first night in the office of the Rector, who had arranged to see him to discuss the only book found in his trunk, its binding torn and the title page missing, just as Cayetano had discovered it in one of his father's chests. He had read as much of the volume as he could during the nights of his journey, and he longed to know the ending. The Father Rector wanted to hear his opinion of it.

  'I will know when I finish reading it,' he said.

  The Rector, with a relieved smile, locked the volume away.

  'You will never know,' he said. 'It is a forbidden book.'

  Twenty-four years later, in the gloom of the diocesan library, he realized he had read every book that had passed through his hands, authorized or not, except this one. He shuddered with the sensation that an entire life had ended that day. Another, unpredictable life was beginning.

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