Translated by Alex Ross.
In Which the Author Explains the Origin of His Enthusiasm for Saints and Places this Book Under the Earthly Gaze of Sonia
ONE OF my many grandmothers --I no longer remember which one-- or perhaps several of them --it doesn't really matter-- set up an altar in her bedroom covered with votive candles, angels, virgins, and saints --and in one corner, peering out from between two of the smallest candles, was a clay demon. Day and night, in the semi-darkness of that room whose curtains were never opened, the little flames flickered and glowed continuously. Here, one would always enter in silence, or at least with lowered voice. The play of shadows revealed venerable tonsures, mutilated breasts, archangelic swords, crosses, blessings, and miriad expressions: the most pious and the most cruel, the most serene and those which enlightened my innocence with a shudder of lust. In this admirable confusion, I heard from my grandmother's lips, before setting foot in any school, my first stories of saints. This genre, marvelous by definition, has lived with me ever since and never ceases to astonish me.
There are many more saints than those who are bureaucractically recognized by the Church. I have chosen to tell of the deeds of some who seemed to have fallen into anonymity.
I owe my knowledge of them to the erudition of my grandmother, to my penchant for visiting abandoned churches, to my fondness for The Golden Legend and the verses of Berceo, and to the certainty that the greatest of miracles has been granted to me: to be able to glimpse the enormity of divine love in the love of a woman.
For José Luís Martínez
In the third chapel, Saint Frutos is venerated. He is identified by his bare feet, his tonsured head, his thickset body, his empty belt pouch, and his appearance of having gone for many days without eating. But most of all it is the the books hidden under his robe which single him out. In order to see these, it is necessary observe carefully. No one who passes by him quickly will notice them.
It has long been popularly believed that he gives protection to those who, in conditions of extreme necessity, find themselves obliged to follow his example and who, at great risk to their personal security as well as to their reputation, appropriate books which they cannot afford to buy. It is recommended, in such cases, to offer the saint a novena which is to be recited while kneeling and with the fruit of the saint's intercession held out before him with open arms. He accepts offerings, as long as these are in printed form, and an efficacious means of obtaining his grace is to leave some pious text on the altar.
In the past, it was much debated which books are hidden under the saint's robe. One theory, long in circulation and deliciously irreverent, maintains that the books are entirely blank, since Saint Frutos was unable to read.
for Felipe Covarrubias
Of Andres de Vera Esperanza, the painter --it is impossible to say whether mad or possessed-- who was pursued by the pious Uraqueo, scourge of heretics in the region between Cuitzeo and Zirahuén, there only remains the vague tradition that the Devil had imbued him with the ability to sow confusion among the faithful. He would stop at modest temples and, in exchange for sustenance, he would paint, without rest for five days and nights, what appeared at the time to be a winged multitude of angels venerating the local patron saints.
It was only after the painter had abandoned the town that, in place of the angels, a hoard of demons would be found to be jeering at the venerable saints. The authorship of Vera Esperanza could be verified by the impossibility removing the images by scraping or even by the application of lime. Neither expiatory ceremonies nor exorcisms ever proved sufficient to bring about the destruction of the murals. The only effective remedy was to tear down the walls and bury the blocks of quarried stone or sun-hardened adobe.
It is possible that one of the murals may have survived. One day I heard that someone had seen, near a quiet lake among the bulrushes, a painting in which a female demon with voluminous hips, unseen by the angel of the flaming sword, led Adam and Eve by the hand to help them escape from Paradise. Vera Esperanza portrayed our first parents as handsome, happy, and naked. They also appeared somewhat startled --by the taste of freedom.
A small carved-bone figure, long since disappeared, is the only recorded image of Saint Sardirán: it shows a handsome, robust man, armed with a club and crowned by a large halo. It is rumored that the saint lived naked in a cavern, from which he expelled a demon. The angels rewarded his bellicose piety with an aureole which lit his way while underground.
In earlier times, it was often debated with holy intransigence by which form of argument the exorcism was achieved: cudgeling or prayer. Nowadays, this detail has lost importance. Debate now centers rather upon whether the hermit lived off the fruits of an almond tree or whether a prudent magpie brought him bread.
Venerated in life above all by impatient women, Saint Sardiran is today more important for treasure-hunters, speleologists, miners, and other subterranean workers or adventurers who, while deep underground, find themselves menaced by lascivious apparitions.
The bone miniature, it should be added, concealed the ostentatious virility of the hermit with careful discretion.
Saint Lugarda of Thrace
An old legend informs us that, up until the end of the eighteenth century, the third, and no longer extant, abbey of Biers, kept the barely singed heart of Saint Lugarda of Thrace as its most precious relic.
The saint was a lustful and a pious woman. The uncertain reconstruction of a parchment scroll discovered in Behnesa at the beginning of this century reveals her to us as a girl with golden hair and sturdy ankles "worthy of Ceres," as one copyist notes with admiration.
Basilio of Eritrea and other male saints left testimony as to the fascination which Lugarda provoked in whoever saw her, as well as the lubricity that consumed her and the atonements with which she attempted to stifle her sins. Convinced that her mere presence would be enough to drive him to sin, Cadmon refused to hear her confession.
Lugarda gathered together in one place all the men and the women --a mastiff is also mentioned-- who had enjoyed her body and set fire to the premises.
The Venerable Diego de Algeciras
It is difficult to find written records which shed light on the life of the virtuous Captain Diego de Algeciras. It is known, however, that he was a neighbor of Real de Teresa, in the extreme north of Nueva Galicia, and that he distinguished himself in the campaign against the Sumas, Pimas, and Yaboris. One afternoon, accompanied by another soldier, a young Cocoricocha Indian, a Franciscan monk, and three mules in the Yabori Mountain Range, as he searched for a ford in the San Ignacio River, he was surprised by a dozen Indians under the influence of peyote who attacked the expedition. The captain's companions, including the mules, soon fell beneath a hail of stones, arrows, and insults. Having lost his sword and run out of gun powder, his face ravaged, don Diego took the wooden cross that the monk had been carrying and rushed at the infidels. He vanquished four of them and sent the others running.
From that day onward, armed only with the simplest carpenter's tools, with no more company than his own shadow and a Book of Hours, don Diego dedicated the remainder of his life to populating that vast countryside with crosses.
No one ever saw him again. No one knew when or where he passed on to a better life. Only the crosses which still stand in the most remote spots keep the memory of his achievement alive.
Saint Tirana, the Child
From the time of her infancy, Tirana gained a wide reputation as a saint. One day, while passing by an abandoned temple, she happened upon a winged serpent which had its lair there and lived by feeding upon travelers who passed by on their way to or from Hierapolis. Armed with only the sign of the cross, the Child forced the vile predator to retire to the confines of the desert.
On another occasion, while Tirana was preaching to a group of pilgrims, a volcano near Mount Celion erupted. The incandescent rocks and the lava began descending the mountainside precipitously, and some of the pilgrims, feeling endangered, ran away. Tirana knelt down and began to pray. All those who followed her example were saved. These and other miracles caused the maiden's fame to spread; great multitudes turned out to see her.
One morning, at the doors of Osma, she came upon a group of beggars who appealed to her for alms. Some were blind, others lame; some had horrible open sores, and others had lost their reason. Tirana, who never carried coins and who, in any case, had little regard for material wealth, lifted her hands toward Heaven, and all those needy people immediately recovered their health.
Nevertheless, upon realizing they had been deprived of their means of support, the mendicants attacked their benefactress with sticks and stones, which brought about her death.
Saint Rosalia of the Dust
For Victor Sandoval
It was in the time of the tyrant Argentyro that Rosalia carried out her act of defiance. Famed as much for her beauty as for her virtues, the young woman visited the sick, fed the hungry, dressed the needy. Early each morning she would cross the city covered with a cloak in order to conceal the splendor of her body. But how could she extinguish the brilliance of her eyes, the majesty of her stride?
Celebrated by roving bards, the glory of her beauty reached the ears of Argentyro, who would not rest until he had her in his presence. The despot begged, promised, threatened... Rosalia refused to uncover herself. At the tyrant's command, the guards began tearing off her clothes. Nobody managed to see her: A sudden gust of wind covered her with dust.
A forgotten altarpiece in a chapel in Ixtacan del Rio shows the soldiers and the courtiers blinded by the squall. Argentyro, wincing in pain, covers his eyes. The saint casts her eyes downward. The unknown painter could not resist the temptation to exhibit the girl's unsettling beauty.
One day Saint Godardo decided to visit the abbey of Klipstein in order to venerate the miraculous image of the Virgen of Vidantina. As it was morning, the sun began climbing in the sky, and the pious man, somewhat overweight, started to sweat more and more as he ascended --like the sun above him-- along the narrow path which led up the slope. Neither the considerable weight of his body nor the narrowness of the passage was enough to discourage him; nor was the steep angle of the slope, nor even the burning desire, which had obsessed him since the beginning of his journey, to pour a large bucket of water over his head. And the fact of the matter is that an idle demon had decided to prevent the monk from arriving at the feet of the Virgin. The mischievous imp immediately set to work implanting in Godardo's body the desire to jump into a pool of water or, at least, to feel the refreshing liquid rolling down his neck and shoulders. He not only revived the memory of the coolness of a summer swim; he also caused the monk to hear the lapping of the waves, many cubits below, at the foot of the great stone wall.
Godardo was invaded by the evil desire to forget the Virgin, turn around, and go down to the beach. He was unable to do so: The divine Lady prevented the stone walls from leaving him enough room. Thus, he was obliged to continue upward along the narrow slope, desperate in his desire for water, in his vain attempts to turn back, but also in his ambition to complete his journey --for deep in his heart, his piety had never abandoned him. Our Lady of Klipstein then took pity on the monk and made him sweat so copiously that Godardo felt as cool and comfortable as if he had indeed dunked his head into a large bucket of water.
How to describe the demon's fit of rage? He ground his teeth and contorted his face and stamped his feet so hard that he sunk one leg knee-deep into the ground. "I'll wager this one's lustful," he said to himself, recalling the popular wisdom about fat people, and, springing into the air, he landed in front of the monk, converted into an appetizing young woman. What a surprise for Godardo! How to describe the impact of that shimmering hair, those radiant eyes, the garnet mouth, the slender heron's neck, the naked arms?
The monk lowered his eyes and took a step back. Bad luck for the devil! Sure of his imminent triumph, he couldn't resist moving forward and thereby revealing the tip of one hoof: that hoof which demons, in their haste to bring about men's perdition, always forget to metamorphose.
The future saint, shuddering with horror, shut his eyes and marched resolutely forward. He didn't stop until arriving at the altar of the Virgin. Since his enormous body left no extra room in the stone passageway, the devil had to run forward, and, with no time to leap out of the way or to transform himself into anything, he had no choice but to humiliate himself at the feet of Our Lady, the Virgin Vidantina.
Patron of those who seem to aspire to a spherical form, Saint Godardo is usually represented with a broad smile running over into his abundant flesh. More objective than irreverent, some ecclesiastical accounts remember him simply as Saint Godardo the Fat.
Patron of lovers, especially those who lie awake nights fretting about their frustrated hopes, Saint Agonía has neither temples nor chapels nor sacred images nor altars. An ancient Cypriot legend supposes her to have been martyred to a long and vainly nurtured love on the shores of a dark and quiet sea. At one time prayers, now long since forgotten, were consecrated to her. Anyone stung by love who was able to recite these prayers could always be sure of winning the object of their passion.
Several verses which are believed to be part of Kokalus, the lost comedy of Aristophanes, could be a kind of premonition, as some would have us believe, of Saint Agonía and her unknown ordeals. They tell of the visit of a tyrant of Sparta to a young woman who, with her gaze lost in the hope of a dawn of roses and honey, paid no heed to the promises, the threats, or the oaths of her exalted suitor. After taking his leave of the girl, the Spartan saw her standing erect at the edge of a cliff, the wind causing her light tunic to cling tightly to the contours of her body, and feeling that he would never be able to love another woman, he put out his own eyes in order to prevent some other image from expunging that vision.
Saint Silvestre the Young
Of the authentic Saint Silvestre the Young there remains no memory other than the encounter he had with the false Saint Silvestre the Young, or Pseudo Silvestre, as he was called. This interview was a frequent motif for the painters of altarpieces in the chicle forest in the first third of this century, but very few of these works remain, whether because, as some maintain, the natural conditions of the region make the conservation of these paintings on wood improbable, or rather because, as held by others, in reality the painters of altarpieces in the chicle forest were quite rare; there are even those who doubt their very existence.
Be that as it may, one summer afternoon, as we watched the waters of the San Pedro River flowing gently by, a woman with glowing skin and ample breasts, known, for her wanderings, as the Blackbird, told me that one day long ago, somewhere in the jungle --this jungle of the San Pedro River, she said, as the wind began to gather up clouds, because she believed or knew that everything that happened in the world happened on the banks of her river--, the false and the true Saint Silvestre the Young encountered one another, each one followed by women, men, and children who had reverently borne witness to their miracles, and who, upon discovering each other, brandished clubs and machetes with feverish devotion. But not for nothing were the two men saints, although one of them we must assume to have been false, and each one calmed his followers with a sideways glance.
As if in a topada*, they proceeded to put each other to the test, first with ordinary miracles: a bit of levitation, walking through flames, bringing hummingbirds back to life.
Finally, one of them decided to provide an irrefutable demonstration and made his way to a backwater which nobody ordinarily approached because it was infested with mosquitoes. But he murmured to them in a soothing voice and the insects separated without touching him. Then the other also entered the water, took off his shirt, and spoke to the mosquitoes, who then covered him completely and fed on his blood.
The Blackbird looked at me with her mouth half-open and her breathing quickened. Behind her head I saw enormous clouds continuing to gather in the sky, and I wanted to ask her which of the two she believed to be the true Saint Silvestre the Young, but before I could speak, the storm broke.
When we looked at each other again, soaked and yearning under the resounding tin roof of the warehouse, we'd already forgotten about saints; other matters now claimed our attention.
Topada: a contest, common in parts of southern Mexico, in which two rivals take turns improvising verses.
Saint Ciprian the Sallow
Among the traffickers in holy relics who flourished in the early Middle Ages, none was more false nor more devout than Ciprian of Alexandria, or Ciprian the Rich or, as he came to be known with the passage of time, Saint Ciprian the Sallow.
It was he who sold to Benedict IV the charred remains of a wheel from the chariot that carried off the prophet Elijah; to the cathedral of Arbenz he sold two and a half cubits of the shroud of Lazarus and the ribbon worn by Susana in her famous bath. A braid made from the mane of Melchor's horse, the sandals worn by Peter when he was crucified, Dalila's scissors, and a clay pigeon modeled by Jesus when he was a child were some of the treasures sold by Ciprian in his days as a merchant.
The life of Ciprian the Rich changed one night in December. A girl who came from the holy land knocked at his door and said she had brought a marvelous relic. Ciprian interrupted the banquet he was hosting for his friends and went out to see what was being offered. Hours later, his absence was noticed. They found him in front of his palace, at the foot of a palm tree, staring at himself in a mirror. He never again sold sacred plunder. In time, he started to perform miracles. He cured the sick. He brought peace to the disconsolate. He calmed the souls of the perverse.
The wind and the rain and the passing years gave him the color of his sanctity. Someone said that the mirror had been used by the Virgin to comb her hair at the gates of Bethlehem.
Prayer to Saint Nostalgia
For Waldo Saavedra
Across the sea there is an island. Across the sea of land, the sea of men, the sea of time, the sea of tall waves and salty dawns. Deep within, we all harbor images of other days, other plazas, another sun, another gaze; the urgent need to return to --or discover-- the promised land.
By the grace of your mercy, great Lady, I come to prostrate myself under the protection of your shadow to ask that you safeguard my passage.
Saint Nostalgia, siren and virgin, watch over my steps, my dreams, my winds, my companions, my thoughts, my sorrows. Keep me from losing my island --or from reaching it without knowing it; do not allow me to destroy it with my greed, my anger, my carelessness, or the awkwardness of my love.