Breasts Like Fawns


an excerpt from the novel

Breasts Like Fawns That Feed Among the Lilies


Teresa in Ecstacy 2.jpg

The Bridegroom: “Your two breasts are two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies.”

            The Song of Songs, 4:5


 Alba de Tormes

            Soft insistent knocking at last got through to him on the horse in another flood dream, and this time her face, in the wagon, faded with a smile as fond as it was impatient.

            “Fray Jeronimo!”

            He all but leaped from the pallet to open the cell door.

            “Fray Cristobal has reached her,” la Priora whispered; then her tone fell.  “But the coffin has fallen in.”

            “Thank you, my Sister,” and stepped ahead of her.

            He did not need to dress.  He was Provincial of both men and women religious of the Carmelite Reform in Castile; but like all Descalzos he slept in his habit, though it was now dirty and damp with sweat.

            The cell the Descalzitas had given him was near the entrance to the chapel but outside the grille which separated the Descalzitas from all others.  The occasion being extraordinary, the grille had been opened to allow Fray Jeronimo and Fray Cristobal access to la Santa Madre’s grave in its recess on the far side of the chapel.  The Blessed Sacrament was removed to the chapter room, where it rested in a simple monstrance on a table, and where all the Descalzitas gathered to chant the Divine Office except those detailed, two by two, for one hour at a time, to pray in the chapel choir during the course of the exhumation.

            Fray Jeronimo and Fray Cristobal had now been digging for four days.  The adobe chapel walls kept the July heat outdoors during the day, but even the night air was helpless against the humidity from the river.  Night chill made sweat even slimier.

            On the road here with Fray Cristobal he had almost convinced himself it was a high filial duty to return her remains – not immediately but soon -- to Avila, to the Carmel de San Jose she had founded first – and any debt he owed her by being elsewhere when she died would be quit.  Who could have guessed, old and frail as she was – she who had survived crippling falls and two attacks of influenza that killed everyone around her, not to mention the years of noise in her head – who in her seventh decade had survived the trek to Burgos through storm and flood only to inveigle the bishop and put the new house in order with the vigor of a woman not yet 40 – who could have expected her to die of a common catarro only a day’s journey from home?

            Not in the first days after the news arrived in Valladolid, but more and more in the weeks that followed he felt her unspoken accusation: at the very end, he had abandoned her.  It was absurd to think so -- she had been eager for him to leave Burgos to preach in Valladolid -- but that was the thought that gnawed at him, , because it was what she -- innocent of all spite -- would say.  Absurd to think he of all people meant more to her than her daughters in Our Lady who surrounded her as she died.  She called him Father and treated him as a son – there were all those thirty years of age and experience separating them – but they both knew – of course she knew – more was going on between them.  What else, all those years ago, could Beas have meant? Why did she think he stayed away so long -- so often?  Well, it was also to follow his own call, be the “grown-up” son – as Our Lord left his mother, sometimes rudely.  If they were to continue to work together it was best by correspondence: he had work to do with Descalzos as she had with Descalzitas.  If the Reform were to succeed they must do the Lord’s work where the Spirit sent them.  Travel was also a kind of disciplina – a scourge to the Adam flesh in several ways.  It kept their relationship – yes, their love – right and just, avoiding any cause for scandal – though enemies denounced them all the same, even after the Inquisitors found nothing in it.

            When he was not digging he tried to discipline all this turmoil of memory with the picture of her just as she was on the road to Burgos: leaning on the ebony stick her brother had given her, face when the veil blew aside and her hands as brown as the mud, teeth black, toes in their old sandals gnarled, sinking in and sucking the mud when she got out of the wagon; her famous three moles, beauty spots (it was said) in her youth, now sprouting hair.  But it took an effort to see her ugly. At least when he did his share of the digging it was enough to keep his eyes on the pick, the spade, the dirt and the stones.

            Now, suddenly, the digging was over.

            Only one of the two Descalzitas detailed to the chapel for this hour was chanting, in a tone noticeably higher-pitched than usual.

            “We must wait for Doña Teresa,” whispered la Priora.  The second of the two Descalzitas had been sent to wake la Fundadora.  Doña Teresa de Laiz, who took tranquil pride that she shared the name of la Santa Madre, had not yet and perhaps never would take the veil and profess.  But she lived the life of a noble beata: pious, austere (up to a point), chaste (beyond doubt: now a widow); not avowed to obedience, to anyone, but freely submissive to the community rule unless she found reason to make an exception; and as for poverty, devoted all her wealth to the community of la Anunciacion-- but herwealth it remained.  She lived just outside the cloister in a wing of the monastery that was actually part of her large house.  She kept a “cell” of her own -- which she had once shown the Provincial -- whose simplicity -- plain bed, bare stone floor, large leather Biblioon a wooden stand -- was accented, above the bed, by a crucifix made of rough juniper wood twisting as voluptuously as the bleeding naked Christ nailed to it.  Above the crucifix, however, in a position whose placement could cause an Inquisitor to raise a question, spread a magnificent painting, elegantly framed, of the Mother of God, robed in blue in a spume of resplendent clouds like most modern Madonnas Fray Jeronimo did not care for.  (Might an Inquisitor make too much of the absence of a Divine Child from this Madonna?)  Very striking was the Mother of God’s face: not round and meek and serene in divine transport, but with long strong-boned cheeks and leveling a gaze at the beholder steady and commanding.  Fray Jeronimo suspected it was no coincidence that the face of this Mother reflected the strong handsome face and frequent gaze of Doña Teresa de Laiz; but he was too diplomatic to inquire, even indirectly, if the painting had been commissioned  … and posed for.  He did give la Fundadoracredit, though, for keeping the portrait in her … cell.

            Doña Teresa had bought and donated these buildings in response to a dream.  Childless, she had prayed and prayed, especially to San Andres who was supposed to be a good advocate to the Lord, to conceive children with her late husband. Then one night, or morning -- she could not be sure if she were asleep or awake -- she thought she was in a house with a courtyard, and in the courtyard, beneath a gallery, was a well. Beyond the well spread a green meadow filled with white flowers; and beside the well stood a friendly old man she recognized as San Andres himself, who said to her: “These are different children from those you desire so much.”  The vision, she said, gave her great joy and peace, and she knew that its meaning was that the Lord wished her to found a monastery.  She never again desired children.  She told her husband about the vision or dream and the joy it gave her, and this made him quite happy, because it made her happy.  They were disappointed to find no suitable place in their own village.  Meanwhile the Duquesa de Alba summoned Señor Laiz to take over administration of the Duque de Alba’s estate (the Duque being away at the war in the Low Countries). Doña Teresa did not like the town of Alba de Tormes.  When she arrived at the big house her husband purchased there, however, she wandered into the courtyard -- and there was the well she had seen in her vision.  There was no meadow full of white flowers, nor any friendly old man, but that did not matter: she knew who the flowers were meant to be.  Much more would be done before the foundation was made, but in the end everything she believed the Lord called Doña Teresa de Laiz to do was done.

            Many times Madre Teresa had sighed that for twenty years she herself had been a beata. “We must be patient with her” – la Fundadora.

            The Monasterio de la Anunciacion was deeded over to the Order, yet remained as much Doña Teresa’s as Madre Teresa’s.  (Which was not the least of the reasons Madre Teresa did not like to accept endowments for her monasteries.)  Doña Teresa had no doubt the Mother of God directed Madre Teresa de Jesus to Alba de Tormes,  not Avila, to die; and on her deathbed, in response to her confessor’s question wouldn’t she prefer to be removed to her home town, la Santa Madre said: “Jesus! You ask me this, mi Padre?  I have to be in my own grave at home?  They don’t have the charity here to give me a little bit of earth?”

            And so la Fundadora had instructed la Priora to have the original grave diggers not only bury la Santa Madre deep – and immediately, without embalming – but load her coffin with stones and bricks and barrows of earth stamped and packed, and underneath it, all over the pine lid of the coffin, pounds and pounds of quicklime to dissolve it and its contents fast so that no one could ever remove la Santa Madre from her poco de tierrain Doña Teresa’s Anunciacion.  What’s more she had the grave dug beneath the inside of the wall, first hollowed out then after the burial filled with more rubble atop a concrete seal across the grave, then the wall replastered with a simple line naming la Madre Santa and her years of birth and death.

            La Fundadora had certainly gone to extraordinary lengths to seal the body, but failed to appreciate the endurance of the fragrance attending la Santa Madre in her last days and diffusing through the monastery as she died.  Now, nine months later, the fragrance not only persisted but grew noticeably sweeter on the feast days of saints.  And as strange as the fragrance itself  --  Olor Sanctorum! Odor of Sanctity! The Descalzitas exulted -- was the fact that, the true purpose of his Provincial Visitation being to reconnoiter the grave and arrangements necessary to effect a disinterment of Madre Teresa de Jesus and her translation to Avila -- in particular how to manage the resistance the Descalzitas, in their horror, would give him -- as strange, and perhaps as miraculous, as that persisting fragrance, when he arrived, was it to be greeted by la Priora, speaking for all her community (including the uneasy Fundadora), with a fervent request that the body of their Santa Madre be exhumed so they could see if she were truly incorrupt -- the first proof of her sainthood in heaven.

            Through the chapel’s grille Fray Jeronimo saw Fray Cristobal’s tonsured head bobbing oddly in the soft light of the lanterns perched along the grave.  They had been taking turns shoveling out earth, stones, and other debris into two mounds lengthening along either side of the recess in the wall where the grave had been placed.  (La Fundadora had asked wouldn’t it be beneath the dignity of a Provincial to dig a grave?  “That’s one more reason to do it,” he replied.  There were also rules about cloister and grille; the Provincial refused to allow the original grave diggers back in.)

            The grave was well located in a spot very awkward for disinterment.  The recess beneath the arch was shallow to begin with, making it impossible to shovel out the diggings anywhere except into the chapel nave itself. While the customary six feet underground, the coffin was under the wall, not under the chapel floor.  Thus la Fundadora’s strategy for discouraging any attempt to remove the saint from la Anunciacion, even if she were not wholly dissolved by quicklime.  Fray Jeronimo and Fray Cristobal had to swing a pick horizontally into the wall to open the space behind it.  The stones and bricks piled inside the space had to be shoveled out first before they could pick through the concrete seal under which the grave lay.  Thanks to the Tormes and the humidity not even loss of the day’s heat lightened, in moments both men, whether taking a turn or supervising, were as drenched as they would have been digging in the river itself.

            In the grave Fray Cristobal appeared to be balancing unsteadily at its lower end.  At the sound of hastening feet his hand came up to clear more earth and stone aside from the little passage they kept between the two mounds.  He peered up at Fray Jeronimo, the little hair left on his skull wet with the sweat running into his eyes.  The mysterious fragrance – sometimes jasmine, sometimes lilies, sometimes roses or other flowers -- was if anything stronger – all but overpowering the smell of male sweat, but also tainted a little with an odor of mildew.  Fray Cristobal blessed himself and nodded toward the head of the grave.

            “We must wait for la Fundadora,” la Priora said as Fray Jeronimo knelt into the mound overlooking the head of the hole.  Nodding, he stayed on his knees, took up the nearest lantern and lowered it as deep as he could without falling in.

            “The coffin is rotted,” said Fray Cristobal.  “I don’t think we can raise it.”

            What he did not say was just as clear.  During the four days of digging two coils of hemp had lain nearby and on a chair the Descalzitas had folded four clean linen sheets to serve as new shrouds.

            The lantern cast a red light down the earthen walls but not as deep as the coffin.  Fray Jeronimo passed the lantern to Fray Cristobal’s hand.  The lower end of the coffin, on which Fray Cristobal balanced, still supported a layer of stones and dirt; at the upper end, as Fray Cristobal swung the lantern, the lid, or its remains, were visible.  It had caved under the weight of everything piled on top of it, and the powder noticeable in the earth, greenish or whitish as the light swung, was evidence the quicklime had done its work.   Fray Jeronimo asked his companion to place the lantern in the dirt as close to that far end as he could reach.  Meanwhile he repositioned himself closer to Fray Cristobal, and steadied the man’s shoulder as he leaned to place the lantern gently forward.  The light still settled on the walls above the coffin, not on it.  Cristobal straightened up and looked at Fray Jeronimo.  The latter told him to shovel gently, just small amounts of earth and debris from the forward portion of the coffin, and hand the spade up horizontally, where Jeronimo would take and empty it onto the chapel floor and return it to him.

            He heard the sandals and robes hurrying across the chapel floor -- he presumed la Fundadora was one of them -- but did not look round to greet the nuns.  He heard them drop to their knees and begin murmuring prayers, but kept his attention on Fray Cristobal and the head of the coffin.

            After a few spadefuls bristling with splinters, the remaining lumps of earth clearly outlined a human form that sent a flush to Jeronimo’s neck and prickled his scalp.  He had never before seen a human body appear to emerge slowly out of the ground.  As earth continued to be cleared away, the state of the grave clothes became curious.  The gold brocade pall that had been placed over the whole body was now in blackened tatters, almost entirely gone.  The folds of white mantle along the sides of the figure were decomposed to wet, very yellowed shreds; yet the brown frieze scapular down the center of the body, though wet at the edges, appeared whole; and as they were exposed, so did the head band and coif and wimple – all as white, despite the dirt on them, as those worn by the women praying behind Fray Jeronimo.

            Fray Jeronimo helped Fray Cristobal climb out of the grave and gently lowered himself into it.  He knew the lean, much lighter Cristobal was probably the better man to do the rest of the work.  Before ordination he had been a lay brother, a mason and carpenter before that, and before everything else a peasant.  Before and still after ordination he tended the Descalzos’ convent garden and as general handyman did quite a bit of maintenance and repairs.  Fray Jeronimo had asked him to make this Visitation with him as part of a “more ample training in religious administration.” Fray Cristobal, however, had insisted on taking longer turns at the exhumation; his hands were already well-calloused and stronger.  Fray Jeronimo -- before ordination and everything else a scholar -- developed painful blisters by the second of his own turns, but bore them, for the glory of the Mother of God and her Son, and refused to leave an inordinate share of the work to the more capable friar.  Tender hands and lack of manual experience, though, were not the principal difficulty Fray Jeronimo had to overcome in the grave.  Despite frequent though sensible fasts -- Madre Teresa had once teased him: “I see you still fast in moderation, my Jeronimo.  Excelente!” -- Fray Jeronimo’s belly never thinned; and for four days, in the tight space, his size and awkward positions had caused leg cramps and knots of muscle pain in his back and sides.

            Gingerly Fray Jeronimo slid one sandal then the other along each side of the coffin, wood giving way step after step, till he halted just past what he presumed was the waist.  He reached up to take the lantern Fray Cristobal was holding ahead of him.  He lowered it before his knees to cast more light upon the head of the coffin.  He could not believe what he was doing and seeing. It was difficult to distinguish patches of the brown scapular from the dirt on it but parts of a crucifix could be glimpsed.  Broad dirty sleeves on either side arched in above the waist, joining what could only be hands, or their remains, holding the crucifix.  The sleeves were in tatters yet he tricked his gaze so it would not notice any flesh, however that would look.  He was focused most closely on what would be the left arm, the one her fall left useless.  The one he did not stare toward, except to scrape dirt gently, was the right whose hand she wrote with.  After his shock at the news of her death, the refusal to believe, his very first thought had been: There won’t be any more letters from her.

            With a deep breath, memorizing the disposition of soil and debris beneath him, and setting the lantern a little behind him, he spooned the remaining earth in front of him with the spade, lifting it to Fray Cristobal to empty.  Finally he gestured Cristobal to keep the spade; and reaching the lantern round to the front and squatting, then bracing one hand against a wall slid one knee fastidiously down to the coffin’s side.  It occurred to him, before making his next move, to pray silently for success and no irreverence.  The face at the head of the coffin lay covered, according to custom, by the veil of her habit folded over from the back of her head.

            “Pray for us,” he whispered to Fray Cristobal.

            Heart beating hard, sweat dripping, panting almost too audibly, which he tried to disguise as prayer, Fray Jeronimo brushed and blew the loose dirt off the veil, took its two corners, and carefully lifted it back over the head.

            That was when the ones above him heard his sharp gasp that brought them all to the side of Fray Cristobal on the mound of earth lowering a second lamp above Fray Jeronimo.

            Jeronimo was astounded.

            Although the unsteady flame-light could not show the flesh of the face as daylight would, the skin of the cheeks looked fresh.  White.  And so much younger-looking than 67; younger than 47; a face without wrinkle about the closed eyes or a furrow in the little portion of forehead exposed below the headband.  A youthful face -- muy linda -- or, if that could be said, a face that had lost nothing of its youth as it had matured.  There were the three famous little moles: one well beneath the left eye, the second to the side, the third to the left of her closed lips.  Two of them, yes, appeared still to hold an aging hair, but the youthful look was not marred.  The mouth, secured by the wimple under the chin, stayed shut; and for him it would be too, too much to examine the teeth.  The lips were dark in the poor light, dirty, yet plump and fresh-seeming as the rest of the face.  He tried to use the edge of the veil to brush away the dirt, which was still sliding now and then onto the face.  He also noticed, on the chin and on the right cheek small black patches, which might be where quicklime had penetrated.  But there was little trace of quicklime anywhere under the remains of the coffin lid. He tried not to look at her closed eyes, which almost with fright he imagined could fly open and turn on him a smile.

            He busied himself with little tasks, not looking at her eyes, until he realized he was doing nothing useful.

            His finger pushed her cheek before he realized it.  The flesh of the cheek dimpled, and undimpled as he let go.  He reached both hands under her shoulders and lifted; her head fell back, exposing a white neck.  He touched the neck’s flesh.  Both cheek and neck were cool, but not cold as anything buried for nine months should be.

            “The  -- body, Cristobal -- is not stiff.”

            A cry went up above and a loud sob burst.  It was la Fundadora, Doña Teresa.  Presently Fray Jeronimo would see her collapsed in the arms of la Priora and another Descalzita, wearing the plain black priest’s sotana she often wore as her personal habit, clutching a plain black mantilla tightly round her head.

            “Incorrupt!” she cried. “She is a saint!  We have a saint!”

            Through the cries and sobbing and excited instructions a suddenly heavy, nearly breathless Jeronimo forced words toward his companion.

            He called to Cristobal. “Take my place, I am too clumsy.” He managed to say clearly that they should try to slide a sheet under the body and lift.  He was not sure how even that would do.  In fact he was obliged to re-enter the grave and help Fray Cristobal raise the sheet with the surprisingly light body to the Descalzitas reaching for it.

            A quarter hour later the body of Madre Teresa de Jesus, surprisingly supple, lay, her habit though dirty and a bit shredded much more intact than it should be, on a white sheet on the chapel floor, and all the Descalzitas of la Anunciacion (there were only eight or nine), summoned from the chapter room, flocked about her with prayerful exclamations.  There were cries, sighs, and all that might be expected, but swiftly the dominant tone became careful instruction, subdued adjustments, efficient taking of places.  But it was quickly apparent the Descalzitas were not able to control themselves sufficiently to lift and carry their Santa Madre; and la Prioragranted Fray Jeronimo and Fray Cristobal permission to carry her to a little room off the chapel – indeed the room in which Madre Teresa had died – while the Descalzitas fetched water and cloths and a clean habit.

            Jeronimo and Cristobal retired to the cell where they had taken turns sleeping.

            For a few moments they expressed to each other their astonishment, their disbelief despite what their eyes were seeing; joined a brief prayer of thanks and praise; fell silent.

            “You want to sleep?” Jeronimo asked.

            “I cannot.”

            They walked back and forth in the dark of the cell, clearing lungs, stretching, kicking out tight muscles.

            Jeronimo broke the silence.

            “I would not want to do this a second time.”

            Cristobal gave a tired laugh, then halted.

            “A second time!”

            “Madre Teresa belongs at San Jose in Avila.”

            “You said that on the way here -- is that why you brought me?”

            “No.  How was I to guess the Descalzitas would ask us to disinter her!”


            “I can only conclude the Lord moved them.”


            “Yes, my Cristobal, it was, and is, my wish to return Madre Teresa to her true home.  But it certainly was not my plan.  For this Visitation.”

            “I understand, yet -- we brought a cart.”

            “You know I am not skillful at riding donkeys.”

            In his imagination they always turned into horses.  The dream from which he had been wakened had him on a horse in the flood, not the donkey it should have been.

            Cristobal fell silent.  Then he said:

            “I believe we would need more men in any event.”

            “I would not want to do all this a second time.”

            Fray Cristobal said nothing.

            “She will need a new coffin,” Jeronimo went on.  “It can be placed on the cart--.”

            “But the Descalzitas--!” said Cristobal.

            “I am their Provincial. They will obey.”

            “La Doña Teresa!  She does not have to obey.”

            “No.  Though difficulties can be made for her.”

            “It’s not only la Doña Teresa.  If the Duquesa hears about it, she can have us arrested.  Even order men to attack us.  There are only the two of us, and a long day’s journey in a very slow cart.”

            Now Fray Jeronimo said nothing.

            “Well, ” Fray Cristobal added, “I don’t know if I can lift a spade again.  My spirit is willing--.”

            A rapid knock interrupted him.

            It was again la Priora.

            “Please come,” she said.

            Doña Teresa was waiting in the doorway to the room containing Madre Teresa:

            “She must be dressed in a habit before any men can look at her!”

            La Priora bowed to la Fundadora and, blocking her, gestured for the men to enter.

            Fray Jeronimo hesitated.

            “Don’t you agree, Fray Jeronimo!” said Doña Teresa, almost losing her footing.

            “La Santa Madre is decently covered,” said la Priora to Fray Jeronimo.  “I humbly request the Provincial to witness an extraordinary miracle.”

            “This is no way to treat a saint!”

            Entering, Fray Jeronimo found the dark of the room flickering from the flames of several large candles and dozens of small votive candles.  What he saw was something he had never in his life imagined.

            A queue of nuns in what appeared a state of breathless elation stood murmuring to themselves by the foot of the bed.  The one in front was kneeling, head bent, cheeks streaming tears, hands squeezed together shaking.  Then gracefully dipped and kissed the heel of the white foot protruding from the end of the sheet.  She stood up, head still bowed, wiped tears with her wrist, and took a new position at the rear of the queue.

            La Priora’s hand indicated the upper end of the sheet out of which a woman’s head, almost hairless, lay face up, skin in the orange candlelight as clean and smooth as a bone.  The Provincial lifted his hand and a tall candle was put in it.  He stepped up to the edge of the bed and moved the candle about to get the clearest look.

            Head scrubbed and groomed, naked but for a new wimple to keep the mouth shut, the sleeping face looked even younger than in the grave.  The fragrance that enveloped the grave and the chapel here seemed more delicate, as in a garden in the cool of the morning.  He could not resist pushing a finger into one cheek.  It was cool.  Though a little taut, like the skin of someone on a spare diet, the flesh gave, and slowly resumed shape when he let go.  He reached over and pushed the far cheek; drew his fingers over the smooth forehead; slid fingers under the wimple to feel the throat.  Then he bent over, cheek almost to cheek, and inhaled deeply.  The tangy sweetness filling his nose and pouring into his lungs nearly caused him to lose balance.  He straightened up.

            She seemed, in her still youthfulness, so alive.

            He noticed that, while he stood there, the queue of Descalzitas kneeling to kiss the foot had not moved.  He was about to turn away, and let them resume their venerations, when he realized something else.  He noticed something he had not noticed in the grave.

            After the briefest hesitation he took the edge of the sheet and lifted it.  He paused an instant for any sudden intakes of breath around him; but there was no time.  The nude body he looked down upon, in the shadow of the raised sheet, played upon by votive flames, lay as clean and white as the sheet. 

            Gazing at her breasts, so high and full like a girl’s, so clean in the candle flicker, he felt every dried drop of sweat of the past four days, every grain of dirt on his face and his hands and arms, on his legs and feet, and inbreathed the odor of his sweat and dirt that spoiled, at least for him, the sweet fragrance of her body. He yearned to bathe in the river; but not to bathe, at least not before returning to Avila, was a useful penance: it made plain, for all his learning and aspiration and with the Lord’s grace his achievements, he was no more than a clod of the field, unworthy of the beauty of those already with the Lord.

            As he lowered the sheet he noticed her arm, as bare and clean and young as her breasts.  But there was something odd about it; then he remembered, it was the useless arm, broken by the fall down the stairs.  He lifted the sheet again to look at the right arm.  Both forearms were angled up on the chest, hands joined in prayer, the crucifix she was buried with again inserted between the thumbs. Decision became clear.

            Nodding to the Sisters to resume their venerations, he asked la Priora which of them had charge of the kitchen this month; and beckoning this Sister from the queue, asked her to fetch papers and olive oil and a spare coif.

            “What do you want?” Doña Teresa demanded, overhearing.

            “La Santa Madre belongs with her Sisters in Avila,” he began.

            “Never!  She asked to stay here -- her poco de tierra -- and here she stays!”

            La Fundadora’s raised voice caught alarmed glances from the Sisters in the queue. She blocked the doorway.

            “And here she shall remain,” said Fray Jeronimo, with a nod to la Priora and to Fray Cristobal. “Fray Cristobal and I have duties to perform.”

            “You’re going to say mass?” Doña Teresa softened.

            “Fray Cristobal shall say mass, later.” 

            “La Santa Madre must be present at mass,” said Doña Teresa.

            Fray Jeronimo looked at la Priora.

            “That is for la Priorato decide.”

            La Priora, after hesitation, nodded.

            “I am certain,” Fray Jeronimo said, “Madre -- la Santa Madre would wish to hear mass.”

            He and Fray Cristobal left the room.

            “I must clean up,” said Fray Cristobal, “before I say mass.”

            “Not yet.”


            Fray Jeronimo told him.  Cristobal glared and almost said something, but at a wagged finger from his Superior kept his tongue.  He just stared at Jeronimo in the dim light.

            When they returned to the room the Sister from the kitchen had not yet appeared.

            Fray Jeronimo asked la Priora to dismiss the others but herself remain.

            “What is this about?” demanded Doña Teresa as the other Sisters filed out.

            “This is about fulfilling your wishes, Doña Teresa,” said Fray Jeronimo.

            “You intend to rebury la Santa Madre already?”

            “Not before mass.”

            “What’s in the bag?”  Pointing to Fray Cristobal’s traveling bag.

            “We are guests in your house, Doña Teresa--.“

            “The bag, the bag!”

            “I am not your Superior, and so cannot require you to leave a room of your own house.  But as Provincial of this monastery I can instruct la Priora to exclude all non-religious.”

            “Sor Juana!” Doña Teresa turned to la Priora.

            La Priora, not quite looking her in the eye, and with a tremble in her voice, asked Doña Teresa to join the Sisters outside.  La Fundadora did not disguise her anger, but stepped outside, shutting the door with a sharp bang which made la Priora start.  The door reopened, but it was only the Sister sent to the kitchen, who gave la Priorathe papers and oil and the coif, and stepped out again, closing the door.

            “What is your intention, mi Padre, if I may--?” la Prioraasked, giving these things to Fray Jeronimo.

            He set the little jug of oil on the floor and the coif and papers on the edge of the bed.

            “We obtain a relic for the Sisters at San Jose in Avila.”

            La Priora could not help a gasp.  Fray Cristobal cleared his throat with a sigh that drew a glance from his Superior.

            “You need not remain,” Fray Jeronimo began.

            “I will stay,” la Priora answered.  “And pray.”

            Jeronimo nodded, and he and Fray Cristobal set to work. Jeronimo had not really expected to exhume Teresa but planned, in prudence, for any eventuality, including a small, sharp saw and cords to use as a tourniquet.  It was her right hand, the one with which she wrote her books and her letters to him, which he wanted.  But she was positioned with the right arm along the wall, even though the right hand joined the left in holding the crucifix.  Leaning too far across the body, in la Priora's presence, would be awkward.  He could still pull the bed out, etcetera, but to minimize the disturbance to la Priora he indicated to Cristobal they would make do with the left hand she never wrote with and which for years had been useless for anything.  Until now.

            Praying for quick and smooth success, with a frowning Fray Cristobal holding a lamp so that the sheet flickered orange, Jeronimo lay the sheet, from the waist up, on the right side of the body, leaving exposed only the left side, arm, and hand, tucking the sheet gently under the body and covering the left breast.  He gripped the wrist, whose flesh, orange in the lamplight, was supple as the breast, though cold; but the elbow was stiff and he could not pull it aside.  When he tried just a little the joined hands and crucifix moved with him.  He replaced them and carefully drew the crucifix up out of the clutching fingers, then slid papers under the left hand.  The candle flicker seemed to render it less a hand than a kind of sculpture.  Under the wrist he tied the cord tight.  The saw in his own right hand now, he gripped Teresa’s fingers -- which he realized he had never touched before -- expelled a harried breath, with an aspiration prayer, positioned the saw teeth on the flesh just under the wrist, and sawed.  The lamplight disappeared a moment when Fray Cristobal looked away.

            Jeronimo was surprised to find that he had carved beef on the bone with more difficulty.

            He wrapped the severed hand in the coif and the coif in papers lightly wet with oil, which he folded, looking at the tourniquet.  He thought he’d leave it on until they could bandage the arm, or leave it on permanently; in the grave it wouldn't matter. He should have brought another cord to tie up the papers and coif.  Only later, when he unwrapped the package in better light, did he note the blood stains were more brown than red; less miraculous.  That was when, with a knife, he removed the little finger, for which he tore some oiled paper to keep it moist.


         The Descalzitas in Avila were overjoyed to receive their beloved Mother’s hand; if nothing else, it appeared a sure sign the rest of her sacred body would soon follow.  They anointed the hand with precious oils donated by wealthy damas just as excited to have this first-class relic of the Santa Madre in their city; wrapped it in leather, and, blessed by their confessor, rested it in a small box made of silver from Nueva España and encrusted with three jewels (emeralds, rubies), also the gifts of those damas, which changed each month in turn so each dama would receive the honor of her devotion to the saint.

            Fray Jeronimo understood but kept his objections to himself, only partly because he had reserved the little finger for himself. Also oiled, also wrapped and tied in very soft lambskin, he fitted it into a small tin casket or cartouche like an elongated thimble inserted in a small leather bag worn on a leather thong round his neck like a scapular. Madre Teresa herself would be appalled on so many levels; but now in the innermost mansion of her heavenly moradas, beholding the Beatific Vision, she would scarcely notice what anyone was doing here on earth.  What he further understood, but of course neither said nor wrote, was that herebelow, for all the spirituality they aspired to -- and he was no different -- human beings lusted to see the Unseeable -- if possible to … touch what was … Untouchable.

John FoleyComment