Hunger's Brides
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Novel Excerpts | Sor Juana's Poetry

"Cassandra"

About this chapter

WindowSor Juana writes to her intimate, the Countess of Paredes, who has returned home to Spain from Mexico City. Beginning on page 483 of Hunger's Brides...


[ 6th day of January, 1689 ]

la excma. doña María Luisa Manrique
Condesa de Paredes, Marquesa de la Laguna,
Madrid, España

Dearest María Luisa,

Sweet friend, beautiful Thetis of the Seas, you seek to fashion me a peerless armour at the glowing forge of your cares. How I love that you would protect me still. First, to let you know we are alone. Antonia has gone out on an errand. Please know that we will always have these moments, these letters written in my hand. But the simple fact of being alone does not leave me free to speak. And things we said here in this cell, just we two, I am not free to write, when the mails may be opened at any time by the Holy Office or the Crown. I know you know this — I want you to hear me say it. Still other things may be written to be read obliquely, as one reads fables written by a friend who has read and loved the same stories, as have you and I. And then there are lines that may only be spoken in the theatre you and I make here, that no longer resonate in the world outside, as with an instrument whose sounding board is split. If together we could not create such a place where the instrument could be heard again, what use would writing be, what use theatre?

Last, let there also be things I may say in these letters that I could never say with you here with me, sitting so near. We must always make a place for these, as I will before I stop tonight.

But if I am to keep my promise to write often, I will need help. To burden you with tedious plaints in the too brief hours we had alone together in this cell would have been too graceless even for me. Even now I hesitate, but hope you will give me leave....

You write to warn me that these seven years of quiet I celebrate as a truce are in truth a siege. So I tell you now that Father Núñez has indeed caught wind of our plans and has begun to rail against our Castalia before she even reaches here. It is as if he believed the lyrics on Sappho were in it — but how can that be, if the source of his information is the Holy Office there? Surely he knows they would have mentioned any verses on Sappho had they been there. And if he has some other source so early — who?

And yet, sweet Lysis, even with these fresh worries, what I most suffer from has little to do with Núñez or Archbishop Aguiar. Not a siege but a blockade — and I am that grain ship, that silver galleon straining at its hawsers to run the line, anxious, chafing to put to sea before I sink beneath the worthy new duties they heap on me almost daily. These will keep me from any work I might call mine more surely than any Church injunction can.
The daily Masses, the Friday chapter of faults, the public acts of contrition that bring the envious among my sisters so much satisfaction ... yes, these weary me a little more. But there is yet much more than these. The prayers of the Divine Office I barely mention — these you yourself have grumbled about often enough in my behalf. The very thought of being woken mid-night for the prayers of Matins (with those of Compline still on our lips), you find hideous; but I sleep little anyway. Often as not I am reading or writing when the chimes call us, and these at least I do not mind. Have we not always found them among the loveliest of the capital?

I have been elected convent accountant for the third straight term. Few convents in the city have ever earned six percent per annum. Of course we must first have money to invest, so by far the task most prodigal of my time lies in hosting the convent’s many patrons. To do this effectively, though, means rehearsing our niñas and novices in skits and our choir in musical entertainments. Then there is the writing of these — if something better suited really cannot be found. And because I have not been clever enough to conceal my familiarity with Nahuatl, I am become a sort of Solomon of disputes among the hundred and fifty servants here, though far from all speak Nahuatl.

Worse, because one set of apartments or another is always being renovated to accommodate still more servants, I very often find myself Superintendent of Works: as most of the workers are also native Mexicans, whose overseers are seemingly selected for their inability to let them work in peace.

Other charges I take in turn with three or four other sisters. Besides the classes I wrote you of, four of us see to courses in reading, music, dance and arithmetic for thirty young girls. Then there come occasional turns in the infirmary, the cellars, the archives, the library — this last, as you can imagine, I do not resent so much.
Having now quite exhausted myself (and surely you) I pass over a few other, minor tasks, to close with the sermons and arguments I am consulted on by various monks, priests, bishops and inquisitors, never forgetting the carols, lyrics and plays I am asked to write for the churches and cathedrals — these I do on my own time, though the commissions go chiefly to the convent coffers.

Perhaps you will understand after all this complaint why I can almost not bear the thought of doing without Antonia now that I have found her. I was thoughtless not to explain all this to you first in a letter in my own hand. (Even as sensing your hurt has made me see, if belatedly, how the similarity of her hand to mine only made things worse, and troubles you still. )

You have always been anxious about my friends. Gently you remind me that Hypermnestra’s husband, the sharp-eyed Lynceus, by showing kindness at first, killed more Danaïdes in the end than did all his forty-nine brothers combined. But I depend on so many people for so many things; I would be consumed with anxiety if I felt I could trust only the friends I did not need. This would be no way to inspire alliances anyway, but this you know better than I. A spirit of mistrust entrains its own surprises.

The Inquisitor Gutiérrez I admit to needing as much as liking, though I liked him instantly ... he of the bland looks and feigned bemusement that clothe the figures of a sharp mind in an almost childlike frankness. Scarce a fortnight over from Spain, he first ambled into my locutory to register his disappointment that so many otherwise serious individuals in this city were making fools of themselves with ridiculously exaggerated praise of a certain nun in a certain convent. He stayed three hours.

On his next visit we worked through some of the briefs he was preparing; I took a no doubt wicked pleasure in suggesting corrections he might make to a certain priest’s newest manual of devotion for nuns. Later, when one detailed argument in particular was singled out for commendation, Gutiérrez openly acknowledged my help — at the Holy Office, before a roomful of his colleagues! Everyone was talking about it. Can one even imagine it, the impertinence of the thing? The Jesuits and the Dominicans disliked him about equally for it, with the result that — we laugh about this — he’s now seen as something of an honest broker. One wry Augustinian to keep the Dominicans and the Jesuits from each other’s throats.

My prickly friend Carlos, for his part, made a terrible start with you — con ese asunto del arco. Certainly you of all people owe him nothing, not even the gift of your comprehension, having stayed your husband’s hand and kept my slightly seditious friend out of irons. You scarcely knew me then, yet heard my petition — which said so much for your openness of mind and heart. But if Carlos had made a better beginning I know you’d have seen under all that awful pride and irritability a beautiful mind and such a generous spirit. Yes I do take his employment with the Archbishop as a betrayal, but of our principles, not of me. In the matter of serving the His Grace, Carlos has little choice. The University’s stipend is a mean provocation — among his relations he has a dozen mouths to feed — and you’ve seen for yourself how profitlessly he conducts himself at the palace. Almost any extra income he gets is at the Archbishop’s sufferance: his chaplaincy at the hospital, his commission to write the history of the convent of the Immaculate Conception (and you cannot begin to know how galling his newfound ‘expertise’ in convent life can be), and now this post of Almoner.

It is only fitting that your questions turn to Antonia’s origins, for the defence of our good name is our best guarantee, however imperfect, of honourable conduct. What’s more, it is entirely in keeping with your own nobility of spirit that you have been able to forget the towering elevations separating your origins from mine. You will be angry even to hear me mention this again; but that I have never forgotten it is entirely in keeping with the natural laws of perception. From the depths of the lowest valleys, one cannot forget the majestic altitudes of the summit; whereas at the summit one is struck by the grandeur of what one sees, not where one stands.

I was born a natural daughter of the Church. My father was an adventurer barely of the hidalgo class whose name I do not even have the right to take. Antonia’s origins are not much different from mine, and if she has been so very much less fortunate, it serves to show me, as nothing ever has, how things might have gone with me. She too was born in the countryside. East of Puebla, not far from San Lorenzo de los Negros. Her father was a military physician who retired to the country to sire a score of daughters on the mulattas and negresses in his employment there. His less common passion, though, was educating them, and thereby proving to his satisfaction a theory of his that women, even of mixed race, may become gente de razón, if thoughtfully trained. I cannot decide if this lets me like him a little more, or a very great deal less. And yet I profit by his results.

Dearest Lysis, I know you will not let yourself be repelled when I tell you she was once forced to sell her body as a courtesan. In the better houses the men would ask for the educated one, the tall one — for White Chocolate, as though to order a hot beverage from a palace steward. But it is clear that in the beginning she was not in such fine houses.

There is the frailest line of scar — by glass, or sharpest steel — that runs from the corner of her left eye all down her pale cheek to the corner of her smile. Yet it has neither disfigured her face, nor maimed her spirit. She has been willing to tell me much more, but I do not want to know — while unspeakable, it is not quite beyond my capacity to imagine it. I have seen them in the streets. For years I heard their screams at night. We hear them even here.

Knowing that the situation of those dearest to her is precarious, I have begged Bishop Santa Cruz, who has done this much, to do whatever else he can. She has become a friend to me. You cannot know my loneliness when you left, my thoughts during this cold year. Until I met you I was content to stay in here, within the walls of this cell, with these friends who are my books my only company. But since you left how I hunger to see the streets again, to walk in them just one hour....

I have forfeited that liberty, but at least I have Antonia — a warm salt breeze, salt in speech, strong as the sea. She is tireless in my service, sleeps almost as little as I, though rather better, and though she is not yet twenty-two to my forty, fusses over me like an anxious mother hollow-eyed with worry and nights of care. (And as you are always chiding me for not making copies of the verses I give away as gifts, here is someone now for that work, too.) Know that in her you have the strongest ally, for she is always trying to warn me against one prideful folly or other. She has been my Penthesileia — no, like the Angolan warrior princesses of her grandmother’s ancestors, such strength, to see her in the orchards and the gardens they say ... the quiet rage in her that must find its release somewhere.

If I have never seen her there, it is because I do not go .... For you see, dear friend, the flowers in the orchards, the smell of the earth, the hard rain that lays bright bracelets of coin on each blade of grass, all these things bring too near the absence of another time. And of a kind of poetry now lost to me.
As the years go rushing, rushing by, in things absent I feel a presence as of stone — your absence as of a stone in my breast; your distance the darkness behind it, and all that holds it in are these letters from you: the presence of your absence. Absence, yours, others, is become a presence ever before me, an ever constant pressure, the mass of a stone I am afraid to roll back. Always for me lately, this absence, this dance. This too is a kind of siege.
I have been afraid to speak to you of all this, amada dueña de mi alma, for fear I will not know how to stop, or when I must.

There was the day you first came to this convent....

Sweet Lysis, I too regret, bitterly, every hour together we could not have. With this letter I enclose a few verses that, hesitant yet, reach for your hand....

I send you all my love and anxiously await word.

 

del día 6 de Enero 1689
y de este Convento de San Jerónimo,
de la Ciudad de México,
Nueva España

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