For the daughter of the doctor and the saint, the Forty Years of Peace was a deceiving grace; a time of celebration and prosperity that began with a great love and ended with the return of the mole-faced heirs of her father’s assassin. And it was recorded, all of it, for the survivor to read: the tragedy of a great love in threads of black, gray, and burgundy, the thirty daughters in the colors of the rainbow, and the mole-faced heirs in threads dyed with blood. Fuerte wove into her tapestry everything she had witnessed as well as the things she would never witness but knew simply by the act of knowing. She recorded the events of the day as they came to her in her room without windows, and she recorded the events of the future as if they were happening simultaneously with the events of the day—and always with the understanding that yesterday, today, and tomorrow live in the same house, under the same sky. “The events of today point to the events of tomorrow and reflect the events of the past,” Fuerte told the daughter. “If you understand your day, you understand your past, and if you understand all that has gone before you, the future is a small step forward.”
“When your mind is more receptive, I will draw the alphabet and teach you to read the threads. It is not difficult but there is one hill you must climb. In your language you have a different form of the verb to express a different time, but in the language of the threads the verb remains the same; the time changes only with the reader’s understanding. You must also pay attention to the short lines as well as the long ones. Both must be read.”
She stressed the difference between the two lines and the purpose for both: The short line was used to capture her thoughts before they left her, and the long line was used to expound upon them. In both lines, long and short, Fuerte recorded the coming of the thirty daughters who would bring great riches into the house, and the arrival of the parrots that would draw the mole-faced heirs of the doctor’s assassin to the daughter’s door. In the long line she recorded the coming of the multitudes, the desires of a servant called Contenta, and the return of the poet, the daughter’s first and greatest love.
From the streets came a poet, one the daughter had already met from her balcony. Finally, he returned, and she, thinking it was a pilgrim knocking at eight in the evening, threw open her door without asking who was there. And it was with surprise and great pleasure that she recognized her visitor, a man not much younger than she, a man of great stature: a lean face; black hair that fell in ringlets; eyes that danced with fire and romance.
She stood to one side.
And the poet entered her house.
And with him she lived five years of pleasure,
And one of sorrow.
And with him she sang five poems of love,
And one of sorrow.
And with him, she wept.
He returned on the Day of All Souls, at one minute past eight in the evening, two years after their eyes first met. He arrived out of the dust of the street and with the dampness of the waterworks clinging to his flesh. Threadbare, soiled, and proud, he was dressed in a black suit with a red ribbon wrapped twice around the collar of his white shirt, wrapped twice with distinction and tied in a loose knot, the ends hanging. He had no hat, no boutonniere, no handkerchief for his pocket, no gift for the daughter except himself.
“You are dusty,” she said.
“I am thirsty,” he replied.
“How can one who spends so much time at the waterworks be thirsty?”
“It is not water that I desire,” he confessed.
“Then why has it taken you so long to return?”
“I have stood before your door six times without knocking,” the poet said. “I was not ready to face the inevitable.”
It was then that she noticed his damp shoes. Thin but recently polished, the leather was splitting across the instep, and the laces, although they were identical, were much too long for the well-worn shoes, and like his tie, which was merely a discarded ribbon, the laces were threaded twice through the eyelets; threaded twice and tied with ends hanging.
“My father,” she said, escorting him into the large courtyard, “had six pair of shoes. Perhaps, they will fit you.”
“I did not come here for charity,” he replied.
“For what reason then?” she asked.
“To sit before my mother’s grave,” he answered.
“Carlota Montejo.” He spoke the name with pride.
For a long time they sat on opposite sides of Carlota’s grave, and finally, the poet confessed that he had known neither his mother nor his father, the matador José Maria de Vega. He had been conceived the night before the matador’s death and had been taken to the orphanage at birth. That was the story he told.
“Then you can be no more than nine years old,” Josefina said. “I was present that afternoon when de Vega faced his last bull.”
“And what did you see?” he asked.
“You do not wish to know,” she replied.
“I am twenty-two,” he said. “I wish to know.”
“If you are twenty-two, then I surely must be thirty-four. But I am not thirty-four, and you are not twenty-two, and if you are twenty-two, and de Vega was your father, you were not conceived on the eve of his death.”
“I must have a heritage,” he said. “I am a poet.”
“I will gladly give you a heritage,” she replied. “And I will give you many poems as well.”
For six years they lived the poem, and the poem was their own, and at the end of their first year the first poem was printed in gold letters on a folio of indigo paper. Bound in red leather and edged in black, the poem, an epic to everlasting love, was read by everyone in the capital. By the rich and the poor it was read and quoted in the cafés and plazas, along the harbor and the streets where people gathered to talk of the day.
For six years they lived the poem, and the poem was their own, and the poem was in six parts, and each part covered one year of life together, a year in the courtyards and on the balconies, a year in their bedroom, and on the tree-lined boulevards as well, for they were often seen together: strolling, listening to music, sitting in their private box at the opera, clothed in shadows that separated them from the world, but not from each other.
For six years they lived the poem, and the poem was their own. And every year for five years another poem was printed on indigo and bound in red. Bound in red leather and edged in black, five poems were published and four were loved. The fifth was read but it was not quoted. It was read, but it was not loved, and the sixth poem would never be published in the daughter’s lifetime, for unlike the others, it was a poem of heart-rending sorrow.
And not once during the first five years did the daughter weep. Not once did she fall into despair. Not once did she give herself to remorse or thoughts of evil returns.
Day after day the lovers lived only for each other. Their passion filled every room of the house, and Fuerte, deeply infected by their amorous desires, wove continuously through the days and nights hardly stopping to rest, to eat, or feed the spiders. No one existed except the two lovers, the weaver, and the pilgrims who begged to be let in and were let in, but for the first time they were treated with disregard by the daughter who had eyes only for her poet. He may have been eighteen. He may have been twenty-two, but together they were insatiable; the courtyard was Eden, and they were love. What did they care that the pilgrims were watching them? What did they care if their love infected the entire street, the city, the nation?
“I wish to become a great lover as well as a great poet,” he told her.
“With me,” she said, “you will realize your dreams.”
From the moment he arrived, thirsty and tired, they were locked in each other’s arms; only the daily arrival of threadbare pilgrims separated them, but not even the pilgrims in their sackcloth and thorns could separate them for long. “Yes, you may enter,” she would say with ringing irritation. “But if you have come expecting to be fed, you will be disappointed. In this house we do not live by food and food alone, but by love and love alone.”
Leaving the pilgrims to wander on their own, she would return to her bedroom where love was created during the heat of the afternoon on a bed that was never made, on carpets forever rumpled, among overturned chairs, and behind drawn curtains. And when they tired of the bedroom and chapel they joined in hammocks, and doorways, on tables and stairs, on the roof under the soft light of the moon or the glaring sun. Often they chased each other through the courtyards; running like naked children, they startled the pilgrims, the priests, and the ordinary citizens who had come out of curiosity to see how many graves were actually there and what the daughter was doing to occupy her time.
On an afternoon when the ocean was restless and three lost pelicans flew into the courtyard to take shelter from an approaching storm, Tomaso Pardo, the president of the nation and a poet himself, followed the pilgrims through the front door. Concealing himself behind a column, he watched the prancing pelicans and listened to the lovers. Their footsteps pounded the gallery floor, and the seabirds fled into the small courtyard and back again as if looking for a place to hide.
“I will catch you,” the poet, shouted. “And when I do I will kiss every part of your body. I will cover you with kisses that will burn your flesh. Kisses that will blister your skin. Kisses that will make you go mad with love, and then I will go on kissing you.”
Down the stairs they ran, naked and delirious. The pelicans took flight, and the pilgrims screamed at the sight of the naked man chasing the naked woman around the graves, back up the stairway and across the gallery.
“Surely this cannot be the daughter of our saint,” they said.
“Surely we have come to the wrong house.”
“Surely there’s a mistake.”
“There’s no mistake,” Tomaso Pardo told them. “Surely, you will never find a happier pair.”
The daughter did not hear what was said and neither did her poet. Nothing that day distracted them, not even the archbishop’s flashing robes and trail of incense. Having heard that the daughter’s concupiscence, due to its infectious nature, was cause for great concern to the Christian world, the ancient archbishop paid an unexpected visit to the house of forty-three rooms, two courtyards, and four balconies. After the president had slipped away unrecognized, the archbishop arrived in the scorching afternoon heat, and for no other purpose than to investigate the rumors of indecency that surrounded the daughter of the saint and the poet who shared her life. The archbishop had just read the poet’s second book which inflamed his mind, and caused him to lose three nights of sleep. “It is not fit for the Christian mind,” he told his parish. “It is made for burning.”
Adorned in rich robes with a cattleya orchid pinned to his chasuble, the archbishop, whose face was flush with communion wine and glistening with sweat, stood in the courtyard among pilgrims whose heads were circled with thorns and whose feet were bare and bleeding. Prepared to cast out demons, and to intervene with the Heavenly Father on behalf of the daughter, whose iniquities had been enumerated by church officials, the archbishop listened in righteous indignation to the lovers’ voices wafting down the stairs.
“Do not stop,” the daughter cried. “If you stop making love to me, I shall slay you without forethought.”
“Slay me,” the poet said. “And then this house shall be a tomb where buried love doth live.”
From the bottom of the stairs, the archbishop called for the lovers to cease. “The Lord and all the angels in Heaven are listening to you,” he said. “Every word spoken or thought reaches them on high.”
Throwing open the bedroom door the daughter ran—flying, it seemed to the archbishop’s tired eyes—around the gallery and down the stairs. Without clothes or shame she brushed the archbishop to one side. “Too hot the eye of heaven shines,” she said, plucking the orchid from his cape and soaring across the courtyard. Behind her came a swarm of sulfur butterflies and behind the butterflies came the naked poet who also ran as if flying through the air. Without concern for modesty, he chased her through the passageway and into the small courtyard where he threw her into a hammock of many colors.
“Flee youthful lusts!” the archbishop shouted into the dark passage. “Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being always deceived.”
Demanding that the visitors leave before evil infiltrated the air they breathed, the archbishop held the front door open, and as the pilgrims departed he touched each of them on the forehead.
After they had all left, Hortencia Flores, who was also in the house that day, came forward to kiss the episcopal ring. “Blessings upon you, Hortencia, and upon your devout mother as well,” the archbishop said to the young girl who carried herself with the weight of the cross. She was fifteen years old, but the lines on her face showed her to be a woman twice that age, and her mouse-colored hair, cropped unevenly from ear to ear, gave her the appearance of a boy locked inside the withering body of an older woman.
“Stay in this house, Hortencia,” the archbishop commanded. “I will send someone to care for your mother. The Lord God beseeches you to open the door when the pilgrims knock, but only if the inhabitants of this place are fully clothed. It is your mission to prevent lascivious thoughts from escaping into the air, for lascivious thoughts are contagious, and must be obliterated from the earth. Capture them in your heart to make them your own, and then ask God to rid you of them.”
“Yes, Your Excellency,” Hortencia said.
“And one thing more my child, the poet’s books are contaminated with unhealthy desires. They are filled with lustful longings and words that poison the air. Do not read them. Do not touch them. Destroy them at once.”
For one week the pious Hortencia remained inside the house unbeknownst to the poet and his lover, who had eyes only for each other. For one week Fuerte wove passionately rarely abandoning her loom, while the young girl, whose face was already washed with wrinkles, hid behind chairs and columns to observe that which she had never allowed herself to imagine. Never before had she seen an unclothed man. Even as a child she had refrained from staring too long at pictures of half-clothed saints for even they carried a wild call, and a clear call, and a call that could not be denied. “Protect me Jesus,” she prayed. “The daughter and her poet behave like animals, the lowest of the kingdom.”
During the afternoons when the pilgrims begged to be let in, Hortencia sent them home. “There’s illness in this house,” she told them, closing the door quickly and returning to her watch.
Hiding under tables, behind curtains, and doors, she watched the lovers without ceasing, and without allowing herself to see all there was to see; seeing too much might give rise to a blindness of the soul or a quickening of the heart, so she watched through half-closed eyes, with her head slightly bowed and her ears tuned to harmless sounds: the dripping of water, the flouncing of goldfish, or the fluttering of sparrows, candle moths, butterflies, anything to protect her from hearing what must never be heard. From her various hiding places, she watched without seeing and listened without hearing, and on her fourth afternoon in the house the pilgrims gained her attention by demanding to be recognized. They attacked the door, beating upon it with fists and rocks, and from the middle of the street they cried:
“Let us in!”
“We have walked three days to visit our saint.”
“Let us in! We are the living.”
“We must let them in,” Fuerte called from her dark room. “They will destroy the door if you do not.”
Finally, Hortencia allowed the pilgrims to enter the house, but when they saw the naked lovers, flying like angels across the courtyard, they departed rapidly.
“We have knocked on the wrong door,” they said.
“We have lost our way.”
“Something has confused us.”
The next day it was the same. While Fuerte dreamed feverishly over her loom, the pilgrims arrived. When they entered the courtyard and saw the naked lovers playing in a hammock, they were convinced that they had been led astray by Satan.
“Tell me,” said the poet, whose right hand rested between the daughter’s thighs. “What is the name of this article I hold in my hand?”
“Surely you know by now,” said she. “It is my coynte.”
“You are destitute of modesty,” he laughed. “And what other names is it known by?”
“By the names of exotic flowers and luscious fruits that mellow with age,” she answered.
“You are without shame,” he cried in jest. “Now tell me what is the name of this concern of mine I hold in my hand?”
“In The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, it’s called a pizzle.”
“No, no, that’s not its proper name,” he teased. “Tell me again.”
“In the same book, and on the same night it’s called a prickle and a pintle.”
“Prickle, pintle, or pizzle,” said he, “which do you prefer.”
“I prefer them all,” she cried, smothering him with kisses and laughter.
“And what would happen,” he asked, “should I take you in my arms and never let you go.”
“Oh my love,” the daughter sighed, “should you do such a thing, tomorrow will not exist, for this moment will dissolve into eternity.”