Hunger's Brides
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"Rose of San Jerónimo"

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Plaguesbeginning on page 11 of Hunger's Brides...

17th day of April, in the year of Our Lord 1695

A nun of the Hieronymite order slips out of the room to inform the Prioress, who will notify the Archbishop of México, who will in turn send word to the Viceroy of New Spain, and he finally to his monarch in Madrid. While I just stand by — raging, as Juana Inés de la Cruz lies stricken with plague. And I, Antonia Mora — betrayer, forger, whore — know exactly who to blame. Such a fine tableau we now make.
      So then let the official record show that in these last, darkest days, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz emerged from the safety of her seclusion and toiled unstintingly, impervious to the swelling pandemonium — with me, her oh-so-loyal secretary and companion at her side — ministering to the sick of this convent, even down to its servants and slaves.
      The end began two months ago. Late February, 1695. It is become now a year to remember.
      The first whispers sifted in like smoke: A strange pestilence, burning like a brushfire through the Indian population of nearby Xochimilco. Soon neighbours all across Mexico City were reminding each other of a terrible plague said to have reached the coast on a slave ship in from Africa last year. Killing hundreds, then vanishing. Leaving villages without a living soul. Fathers and husbands gone mad: home from a week’s hunting to find their thresholds strewn with bloated bodies lying in the sun where dogs had turned away from them. Buzzards too sated to fly ... rumours too horrible to be anything but true.
      Here in the capital it has always started among the poor. This time is no different. Out of every ten Indians, it strikes nine and kills eight, depopulating an overcrowded slum in as little as a week. Among the Europeans, our city’s densely packed religious communities offer up the ripest pickings.
By the time the sickness takes hold in the convent of Jesús María, a few short blocks away, our own cloister is ablaze with tales — not so wild, it turns out — of nuns vomiting fire, of bodies swollen black, hunched, horridly misshapen.
      All but a few here have succumbed to the rising hysteria, and I have felt it in me, in the pit of my stomach, a fluttering like young love. I have seen it flickering like firelight in my neighbours’ eyes ... and it is a temptation difficult to resist. I resist another day or two by writing this.
      I write as she taught me, I write because she no longer can.

[]


Three separate strains of disease, shipmates now ashore and travelling the same road.
      Sometimes they attack simultaneously, but more often each culls its own prey — wolves dividing up a flock. The first favours the body’s hollows and joints, spawning grotesque swellings at the neck, under the arms, between the legs. Death is slow but survival, if in a greatly diminished state, is at least a possibility.
      The second — el Dragón, or so we in whispers now call it — covets the lungs, drawing from its tortured interlocutors carmine flames of arterial blood that scorch the air for several feet about the deathbed. Llamas de carmina ... everyone says, never red, never vermilion or scarlet. Carmine. What do we sense in this tint just short of purple — the dye of the cloak that protects, or the mantle that none may resist?
      How I wish I could ask her ... this, and trescientas cosas mas.
      The third killer, the deadliest, we call la Flojera. The Lazy One. A name that chills me to my very soul. La Flojera fancies her meat predigested, liquefied. Savaging its victim’s moist linings, her softest tissues ... within hours a friend, a woman, is reduced to a moaning sac of overripe fruit leaking thin blood from her body’s every opening.
      Three nights ago, dark rites of propitiation for the deadly sins that surely brought on this plague flared into orgies of frenzied mortification. Chanting, flickering tapers, the swaying glow of censers ... hair shirts black with blood and moonlight. Thirty nuns crawled that night on flayed knees over the convent patio, and with excoriated tongues licked its volcanic paving stones clean in the shape of a glistening cross.
      We are the Brides of Christ, heads teeming with dreams of a lover resurrected as the plague claims us in our bloodied beds one by one.
      It has been a consummation of appalling violence.
      In this place of women, men now are everywhere, scuttling stooped and harried through the rooms and passageways; shovelling lime into now-vacant cells. Litter bearers and gravediggers, priests bending reluctantly to hear gasped confessions, handkerchiefs pressed to pale faces against the meaty stench. Any servants not yet stricken stay away. So few able-bodied women now remain that surgeons and priests do double duty supervising the labourers as they burn the dead women’s garments.
      Any man caught fondling a corpse or looting it of jewellery will be, by order of the Viceroy, drawn and quartered in the public square; and by order of the Archbishop, excommunicated from God. But we have discovered that neither decree is necessary. From best to worst, all of us have at last been delivered from sin.
      It seems we have gone dead inside. Appetites, emotions, even the senses.
      The screams echoing through these stone corridors are horror filled and agonized — children’s voices crying out for Lord and mother in equal measure, while we the living communicate in brief shouts, as though to the deaf.
We move, day and night, through a kind of roaring twilight welling up from the corners of our eyes. And everywhere now this sullen smudge of smoke fed on sodden cloth. In some insidious way it is indistinguishable from the drone of bottle flies buzzing above the jumble of unburied bodies beside the bonfires. Few of us notice anymore that everything, every surface — plaster, porcelain, stone, skin — glistens with a fatty sheen of suet and ash. Until the evenings, when by lamplight we all scrub furiously and wonder if the oily clinging of it will ever leave us.
      Yesterday morning I struck an Indian full in the face, for handling a body too roughly. Convent discipline verged on total breakdown. Mass hysteria, even violent madness, hovered about us, very near....
      Then, after the blackest night of all, just when it seems every last one of us must be taken, a clear morning breaks. An hour of eerie calm settles over this place. Though we cannot know it yet, the plague has withdrawn just as suddenly as it came.
      There will be only one death today.
      The stench too has lifted — and the flies, scattered now on a breeze that wafts the delicate fragrance of tangerines into Juana’s cell. The nuns and novices who have assembled here, as though at a summons, exchange looks hungry for miracles. It is already beginning. They will say your body smelled of tangerines.

 

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