Under the Shadows

I hardly know where to begin in a task such as this. I have not written much since my youth in the convent, although then I flattered myself with thinking I was quite skilled at the practice. There was some writing when I was in the employ of Don Tadeo, but it was not of this kind. I have never been interested in stories—beginnings and middles—one has to arrive at an end from which to gain a vantage point to scan the whole proceedings. I am not the kind to look back or dwell on past moments and their significance.  That sort of thing is always changing anyway; the morning has a different hue come evening.

So it is a foreign thing I am doing here, and I beg your forgiveness should the telling go poorly. But you have insisted and I shall comply. I owe you that much anyway. Owe you that and so much more, but these inadequate phrases shall have to suffice. Perhaps you can understand something of this burden that shadows my every step.

I was born into a family of some standing in the year of Our Lord 1585 in Lima whose name I will not mention, for their honor will have suffered enough from my various transgressions. We had a large estate in one of the finer neighborhoods of that fair city, surrounded by towering walls that sheltered us from any prying eyes. Those walls delineated the universe of my childhood, for I rarely left the estate and my only time out of doors was spent in the crafted and manicured gardens of the grounds.

My childhood was one of shadow and darkness. The sunlight gave my mother severe headaches and she spent most her days in bed. The windows in her wing of the estate had to be shuttered and covered with blinds in case she should happen to emerge, leaving most of the house off-limits to her. I was her only child and, with no real friends or companions among the rest of the household, I spent most of my days near her quarters in the, often vain, hope that she would be well enough to invite me into her chambers. There I would listen as she recounted tales of our family’s remarkable history.

My father I remember as a distant, pained figure who rarely strayed to my mother’s rooms. I cannot recall more than three words that he said to me directly. My very presence seemed to wound him. He had two other daughters, both older than I, who the servants and my cousins doted on. Me they avoided, whispering to each other when I would pass them in the hall.

One of my clearest memories of that time is of a conversation I managed to overhear in my father’s quarters. I cannot call to mind how I came to be there, hidden in the cove beneath his writing desk and behind the desk’s chair – no doubt I was in the midst of some childish game, for I was no more than ten – but there I was as two of the house servants stole an embrace and then shared a confidence.

That woman is a seductress. She has used sorcery on the Don. This from the woman, a scullery girl and a mulata, who should not have been in my father’s quarters, though the same could have been said of me.

Yes she has clearly done evil to him with her spells. This was one of my father’s servants, an Indian boy.

And that child is of the same kind. Those words have never left me; they come to my thoughts unbidden, in those moments when I am unguarded from drink or despair. That was the first I became aware I was different from others in some fundamental way and that this was the reason for the unkindness, the whispers and the evil glares. How they feared me! Their hatred gave me strength which still carries me through my days, even as my steps have grown heavier with each year.

Mother was never long for this world, so it seemed to me. I have been told she was once one of Lima’s most beautiful women, but she had faded from that glory by the time I can remember her. Her skin was always a spectral shade, her breathing labored and her eyes unfocused. In her last year of life she was rarely coherent, subsiding often into a fever-like state where she would rave about those in San Sebastién, who had conspired against her and condemned her to this exile. She told me, in one of her final lucid moments before she succumbed to the pox that swept through Lima that winter, how sorry she was that she would not have more time with me. Though I was young I understood what her meaning was.

There was so much I was going to teach you, she told me. So much you needed to learn. The world will be difficult for you. It was for me. That is our lot. I only hope you do more than I have with what you have been given.

I do not know if I have succeeded in this regard. My life has been a series of wrong turns, each leading me farther astray. Who knows what the future offers, though I fear you will have more to say in that regard than I. Perhaps that is for the best, given all I have done.

I fear my thoughts have overwhelmed me, this pen, so burdensome; it has dragged my spirit down to a step before damnation. What a punishment you have devised for me! You would say it is no such thing, that it is for my and your edification. I have not thought of these times in many years. They were not kind to me, though few times have been, as you shall see. Onward.

Following my mother’s death I was sent to pass the remainder of my days in Convent of La Encarnación. I was eleven or twelve perhaps and my father had long determined that I was not suitable material for marriage. His family name was at stake. I would have been sent to a monastery earlier, I am certain, had my mother not opposed it. I was her only true companion in those last years. With her gone there was nothing left for me in that home and there had been so little happiness, even when she was alive, that I went to the convent gladly. Our family was important enough that my dowry was easily paid for and I was ensconced as a novice in its enclosure…

From Maleficio in the Cloister by Clint Westgard

Forthcoming March, 2013

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