The Prescription of Happiness is the second and final book extract from Gabriel Garcia’s short novel Love and Other Demons. More information about the author and book can be found in my first article.
Sierva Maria de Todos Los Angeles is the twelve-year-old daughter of the Marquis and his wife Bernarda. Her hair has never been cut, and was promised to the saints when she was born with the umbilical cord around her neck. She was raised by the slaves on the Carribean-coast in Colombia, fluent in multiple African languages, and familiar with the customs. In the beginning of the book she is bit by a rabid dog. She is subject to multiple “healing” methods, which can be considered torture. Today’s extract in-part deals with her father’s (Marquis) intent on using ‘whatever-means’ by healers available in the town to alleviate Maria’s suffering.
Márquez presents a society that is steeped in superstition and sees evil and signs of doom everywhere. The disease of rabies has always been loaded with myths and otherworldly references. As it is transmitted by animal bites, it has been associated with creatures from all fantasy spectrums, from werewolves and vampires to the Devil himself. Furthermore, the psychological implications of the virus and the way in which victims were dying helped in elevating rabies to the sphere of the metaphysical and the unexplainable. Márquez used these myths to perfection in this novella.
Some readers might find some of this content distressing:
He continued with the prescription of happiness for Sierva Maria. From San Lázaro Hill they observed the fatal swamps to the east, and to the west the enormous red sun as it sank into a flaming sea. She asked what was on the other side of the ocean, and he replied: ‘The world.’ For each of his gestures he discovered an unexpected resonance in the girl. One afternoon they saw the Galleon Fleet on the horizon, its sails full to bursting.
The city was transformed. Father and daughter were entertained by Puppet shows, by fire-eaters, by the countless fairground attractions coming into port during that April of good omen. In two months Sierva Maria learned more about white people’s ways than she ever had before. In his effort to transform her, the Marquis also became a different man, and in so drastic a manner that it did not seem an alteration in his personality as much as a change in his very nature.
The house was filled with every kind of wind-up ballerina, music box, and mechanical clock displayed in the fairs of europe. The Marquis dusted off the Italian theorbo. he restrung it, tuned it with a perseverance that could be understood only as love, and once again accompanied the songs of the past, sung with the good voice and bad ear that neither years nor troubled memories had changed. This was when she asked him whether it was true that love conquered all, as the songs said.
‘It is true’ he replied ‘but you would do well not to believe it.’
Pleased by these good timings, the Marquis began to consider a trip to Seville so that Sierva Maria could recover from her silent sorrows and finish learning about the world. the dates and the itinery had already been arranged when Caridad de Cobre woke him from his siesta with brutal news:
‘Señor, my poor girl is turning into a dog.’
Called in for the emergency, Abrenuncio refuted the popular superstition that the victims of rabies became identical to the animal that had bitten them. He confirmed that the girl had a slight fever, and although this was considered a disease in itself and not a symptom of other ailments, he did not disregard it. He warned the grief-stricken nobleman that the girl was not safe from any illness, for the bite of a dog, rabid or not, offered no protection against anything else. As always, the only recourse was to wait.
The Marquis asked him: ‘Is that all you can tell me?’
‘Science has not given me the means to tell you anything else,’ the physician replied with the same acerbity. ‘But if you have no faith in me you still have another recourse: Put your trust in God’.
The Marquis did not understand.
‘I would have sworn you were an unbeliever,’ he said.
The doctor did not even turn to look at him:
‘I only wish I were, Señor.’
The Marquis put his trust not in God but in anything that might offer some hope. The city had three other physicians, six pharmacists, eleven barber-surgeons, and countless magical healers and masters of the arts of sorcery, although the Inquisition had condemned thirteen hundred of them to a variety of punishments over the past fifty years, and burned seven at the stake. A young physician from Salamanca opened Sierve Maria’s closed wound and applied caustic poultices to draw out the rank humors. Another attempted to achieve the same end with leeches on her back. A barber-surgeon bathed the wound in her own urine, and another had her drink it. At the end of two weeks she had been subjected to two herbal baths and two emollient enemas a day, and was brought to the brink of death with potions of natural antimony and other fatal concoctions.
The fever subsided, but no one dared proclaim that rabies had been averted. Sierva Maria felt as if she were dying. At first she had resisted with her pride intact, but after two fruitless weeks she had a fiery ulcer on her ankle, her body was scalded by mustard plasters and blistering poultices, and the skin of her stomanch was raw. She had suffered everything: vertigo, convulsions, spasms, deliriums, looseness of the bowels and bladder, and she rolled on the floor howling in pain and fury. Even the boldest healers left her to her fate, convinced she was mad or possessed by demons. The Marquis had lost all hope when Sagunta appeared with the key of Saint Hubert.
It was the end. Sagunta stripped off her sheets, smeared herself with Indian ointments, and rubbed hisbody against the body of the naked girl. She fought back with her hands and feet despite her extreme weakness, and Sagunta subdued her by force. Bernarda heard their demented screams from her room. She ran to see what was going on and found Sierva Maria kicking in a rage on the floor, and Sagunta on top of her, wrapped in the copper flood of the girl’s hair and bellowing the prayer of Saint Hubert. She whipped them both with the clews of her hammock. First on the floor, where they huddled against the surprise attack, and then pursuing them from corner to corner until she was out of breath.