Of Love and Other Demons

519mjbtt5llRabies does not kill young Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles. Nor is she possessed by demons.

 

As it turns out.

 

Daughter of a marquis and a commoner, Sierva María is neither noble nor lowborn. Or both, I suppose one could say.

 

She’s born with the cord wrapped around her neck. The infant hovers between life and death. Her distraught mother prays to the saints to intervene, vowing that she will not cut her daughter’s hair until her wedding night. Sierva María survives. Her hair grows and grows.

 

Neglected by her timid father and her impetuous mother, Sierva María is raised by the servants. She learns to worship their African gods. She learns to speak their African languages. She straddles the boundary between her native and adoptive cultures. She is neither here nor there. She is betwixt and between.

 

Meanwhile, her copper-colored hair grows and grows and grows.

 

She is nipped on her ankle by a rabid dog. Her quick intelligence, her headstrong nature, her talent for lying, her African ways — all these make it difficult to distinguish hydrophobia from simple precocity. Rumor races through the city.

 

For the marquis, it is as if his daughter’s misfortune has awakened him from a dream. He is frantic to save her. He consults a doctor whose unconventional methods have made him a pariah among the other doctors in the city, and whose atheism has made him an enemy of the Church. The outcast tells the marquis to wait and see, and in the meantime, to make her happy: “No medicine cures what happiness cannot.”

 

Unfortunately, word of the allegedly rabid girl reaches the local bishop. He summons the father and bids him deliver the girl to a local convent for incarceration. It is clear to the bishop that Sierva María is a victim of demonic possession. A demon, that is, that mimics the symptoms of rabies.

 

He entrust the exorcism to his protégé, a cerebral priest of great erudition. Upon first seeing Sierva María, however, this book-lover is filled with love of a different kind. Which, in time, she reciprocates.

 

Soon their ardent love, never consummated, is discovered. The bishop dismisses his protégé and himself takes charge of the exorcism. He orders Sierva María’s  hair shorn and her head shaved. A straitjacket is put upon her. She is given an enema of holy water. She does not know why her lover has abandoned her. She refuses to eat. She grows emaciated. Her ferocious grief and rage are demonic in scope.

 

The Church is thereby vindicated. She was possessed, after all.

 

Abandoned by her parents, delivered by her father into the hands of a spiteful abbess, imprisoned within the convent, subjected to the rigors of exorcism, deprived of her lover, Sierva María dies.

 

Before her death, though, at a time when her priestly lover believed they might still be saved, he “assured her that despite his titanic corpulence, his bellowing voice, his martial methods, the Bishop was a good and wise man.”

 

Two hundred years later, when her tomb is opened, out pours a stream of living hair the color of copper. Spread out on the floor, the hair measures twenty-two meters, eleven centimeters.

 

*****

 

Each of us is a Sierva María. For none of us is entirely one thing or the other. We all lie at a point somewhere betwixt and between. And as such, each of us must one day confront a Bishop, eager to exorcise from us the demons of love, of earthly vitality, of natural inquisitiveness, of creativity, of individuality.

 

Make of that what you will.

 

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