When María de las Nieves Moran crossed from convent school to cloister to become a novice nun, it was to prevent Paquita Aparicio, her beloved childhood companion, from marrying the man both girls called “El Anticristo.” Of course that is not the version known to history. María de las Nieves became one of “the English Nun’s” last two novice nuns, and took as her religious name Sor San Jorge—Slayer of Dragons, Defender of Virgins. She did understand that she was living in a time that called for acts of selfless valor, and that by her own self-sacrifice she was eternally sealing Paquita’s sacred vow not to engage in conjugal relations until she—María de las Nieves/Sor San Jorge—had first.
The upholding or breaking of that vow between two thirteen-year-old convent schoolgirls would not only influence the history of that small Central American Republic but also alter the personal lives of some of our American hemisphere’s most illustrious men of politics, literature, and industry.
What if we read history the way we do love poems, or even the life stories of sainted Sacred Virgins? What if love, earthly or divine, is to history as air is to a rubber balloon? I’m holding a balloon inflated more than a century ago, the nearly weightless globe still supple and warm with the human breath inside. What if I unknot it and let the ghostly air escape, or better yet, take it into my own lungs . . . ? (Maybe this balloon, at least for now, should be regarded as metaphorical.) This project, which you did not live to see completed, Mathilde, had its origin in an old newspaper photograph that, more than thirty years ago, first brought me to your door in Wagnum, Massachusetts. That photograph in the Wagnum Chronicle was a reprint of one that had appeared earlier in Le Figaro in Paris, and it depicted a Wagnum man bearing a remarkable resemblance to one of Latin America’s greatest poet-heroes not just of the nineteenth century but of all time, and forever and ever. As a result of that visit, I’ve spent the ensuing years unearthing and writing this story of María de las Nieves Moran and the people who were closest to her.
One afternoon when they were both still students in the Convent of Nuestra Señora de Belén, Francisca Aparicio—Paquita, familiarly—summoned María de las Nieves to a secret rendezvous in one of the school pavilion’s superfluous stone patios. She wanted to share with María de las Nieves the latest note she’d received from her terrifying suitor, smuggled into the convent by his secret ally and friend, the eminent Canon Priest Ángel Arroyo: “. . . It won’t be long now, Paquita, before we close the convents. Then you won’t have anywhere to hide from me. See how love conquers all, mi dulce monjita?” Paquita laughed, though the unfolded note trembled in her hands. The patio smelled of rainy season mold and the urine of little girls who never made it, in the deep hours of the night, from the dormitories to the privies in the rear garden. “His sweet little nun!” she exclaimed. “But this man is so impudent and pernicious, little sister! Look what he calls me! Look at the diabolical messages he sends!” She spoke as if she’d just discovered a new, haughtily adult way of speaking, as if she should have been covering half her face behind a deftly wielded fan as she spoke.
Alarmed, María de las Nieves snatched the note from Paquita and hotly announced, “This I am bringing to the Headmistress General ahorititita!” (Double dimunitives, “little-little right now,” usually signifying, in that local vernacular, more of something, in that case a more immediate immediately.) Paquita’s hands reflexively lashed out to grab the letter back, and tore it in half. As if in mirror images, each lunged at the other’s half of the letter. Standing stiffly inside their petticoats and identical ankle-length brown serge jumpers and high-collared white blouses, the interned students’ uniform, they ended up entwined like Spanish gypsy dancers, slowly circling, each with one arm cocked behind her head to hold half a letter as far back as possible from her rival’s reach and the other groping forward, fully extended, fingers wriggling—one girl, Paquita, with skin as white as a sliced almond and black eyes glossy with tears, already ample breast rising and falling, her abundant hair a swooshing avalanche of ebony ringlets down to her waist, her elegant, ladylike nose up in the air like her own avenging angel; and the other, María de las Nieves, damp-cinnamon-colored and skinny as a puppet made of hinged sticks, with no chest at all, and the thin, straight, rust-streaked hair of Indio-Yankee miscegenation, her small flat nose flared out with fury, and strikingly opaque eyes under slashing scimitar brows, swampy mud-hued eyes which, like those of an intelligent drunkard’s, seemed always to be intensely staring outward, inward, and nowhere at the same time. Four hands now entwined into one writhing fist, they hovered face to face, until María de las Nieves let go, pushed Paquita away, and flung her balled scrap of the letter to the floor. Paquita staggered backward, righted herself, flopped down on top of it, and, looking up, was run through by María de las Nieves’s look of cold pity and disdain.
“I don’t need the letter, little-little leadhead. I’ll just tell the Madre Headmistress about it.” María de las Nieves spun to go, and almost crashed forward onto the floor as Paquita’s arms closed around her knees. And so Paquita found herself kneeling before this daughter of an Aparicio family employee (an Indian, albeit a landowning one) begging, pleading: “But it’s just a lot of wind! He always says things like that! Close down the convents? He couldn’t even if he wanted to. Hermanita mía, you know as well as I that as long as the President’s wife is our Madre Prioress’s patrona . . .” and so on.
María de las Nieves’s expression softened, turned thoughtful, until finally she said, “Bueno. But you have to promise me just one thing.”
“Claro, claro, anything.”
“You will remain a virgin until I no longer am one myself.”
“Sí, sí, claro, I promise.” And she grabbed and kissed María de las Nieves’s hand.
That had felt like a return to the tortuous method of some of their childhood games, when Paquita had learned to fear María de las Nieves’s occasional bouts of perversity, until she’d discovered that she could always reduce “Las Nievecitas” (“The Little-Snows”) to a fit of remorseful giggles with a well-timed smile of bemused and tolerant love. But this time all Paquita’s smile seemed to accomplish was to further incite her fanaticism: María de las Nieves grabbed Paquita’s wrist, jerked her to her feet, and pulled her, almost running, back into the school and to the oratory dedicated to La Virgen del Socorro, she of breast and erect nipple bared to succor her Divine Infant with her Divine Milk. She pushed Paquita down onto her knees and kneeled closely alongside her to seal the vow in prayer. Paquita obeyed, but stole a sidelong glance at her childhood friend, certain that she would be met by a playful look of conspiratorial mirth. Instead María de las Nieves answered with a theatrical stare of righteous anger and sorrow, and Paquita bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. But in the next instant she was filled with fear: María de las Nieves roughly grabbed her by the wrist again, lifting the back of Paquita’s hand to her own tear-soaked cheek to hold it there as if it were a handkerchief before thrusting it back against Paquita’s lips with the command “Lick my tears!” No, said Paquita, she would not lick her tears. María de las Nieves whispered, “Francisca Aparicio, harlot of the pigsties, lick my tears or I will scream!” And Paquita audibly gasped.
Only when Paquita finally licked the other’s salty tears from the back of her own trembling hand did María de las Nieves release her grip on her wrist, telling her: “It’s a Holy Vow to La Sant’sima Virgen María and can never be betrayed without damning us both. So now he can never make you his wife. I swear that I won’t free you from this until he’s dead, which I hope will be soon.” And having expressed such a perhaps sinful desire, María de las Nieves quickly crossed herself, whispered an act of contrition, lifted her slender arms around Paquita’s rigid shoulders, covered her cheeks with soft kisses, and murmured, “Ay my poor hermanita, now we even share each other’s sins.”
That was how the historic vow—heretofore unknown to history—was made. If the vow was broken, history and the lives of illustrious men would unfold one way; upheld, history and men would turn out, at the least, a little-little differently.
Two years before, Juan Aparicio had dispatched his daughter to the convent school in the faraway capital of the Republic to put her beyond the reach of her despicable suitor, a man nearly thirty years her senior, the new revolutionary Liberal government’s governor and military commander of the department of Los Altos. María de las Nieves was also enrolled in the school by the Aparicios so that their daughter would not be too homesick, and to be the family’s trustworthy informer. Also to advance both girls’ educations and refine their feminine domestic skills and Christian virtues—it was well known that there was no better school for girls in all Central America than that of the Convent of Nuestra Señora de Belún. Juan Aparicio often told his daughter and María de las Nieves that no woman was beautiful unless the light of intelligence and learning showed in her eyes.
Los Altos was the country’s most Liberal department, at least if the mostly opposite loyalties of the Indian majority were discounted, and the Aparicios, who lived in Quezaltenango, the provincial capital, were among its leading Liberal criolla families. They were dutiful Roman Catholics who even sent their sons to study with the Jesuits, there being no better educational option in Quezaltenango, but they worshipped the ideals of Progress even more. Nobody had been happier than they when the Liberal rebels, invincible with their new breech-loading rifles and Mexican sanctuaries over the border, triumphantly entered their forward-looking little city; Juan Aparicio was among the first to sign his name to the decree expelling those same Jesuits, those “Perpetual Assassins of Thought,” and closing their school. But at least one trait set the Aparicios apart: despite their untainted Iberian heritage, they seemed immune to the native-born elite’s faux-aristocratic disdain for hard work. When coffee was still the crop of the future, Juan Aparicio had established the family’s first coffee plantation in the tropical wilds of the Costa Cuca piedmont with “his own bare hands,” alongside a drafted army of Mam Indian laborers. Now coffee was the crop of the present, and Juan Aparicio’s two-story Italianate mansion was one of the grandest in Quezaltenango, if not all Central America. When the Conservatives were finally driven from power in the capital of the Republic, the Aparicios were immediately comfortable with the Liberals—first President, the affably hedonistic General “Chafandín” García Granados, who declared that although the dark ages of more than three decades of nearly theocratic Conservative dictatorship had turned him into a revolutionary, he was adamantly not a Utopist. Naturally, the new Liberal governor and military commander of Los Altos, the Revolution’s indispensable radical rabble-rouser, had become a frequent visitor to the Aparicios’ mansion. During several of those visits the eleven-year-old Paquita had obediently entertained the legendary mestizo warrior, who was nearly forty, at the piano, her playing rudimentary but energetic. The Aparicios had been prepared to let themselves feel honored by a friendship with the man who, despite his scandalous and even criminal youth, had already made his mark on the history of the Americas on the side of enlightenment and progress. But the man of the people had thrown dirt on the family’s generosity by setting his rapt heart and marital ambitions on their daughter, still in most pure and innocent girlhood. Paquita’s father had resisted with tempered but resolute disdain. It was well known that El Anticristo had threatened Juan Aparicio’s life for his refusal, and begun to make trouble for the family in countless irritating but ominous ways in the city in which the Aparicios had lived for four generations. Soon after dispatching Paquita and María de las Nieves to the convent school, Juan Aparicio went to live in New York City, in order, the two girls were later told, to establish a firm that would import his own coffee to the United States, and export Yankee products to Central America.
In the nearly three years since, Paquita had laid eyes on her reprehensible suitor only once, during her second year in the school, when the revolutionary government had convened public examinations of Nuestra Señora de Belén’s interned students in order to judge whether the girls’ minds and spirits were being deformed by the nuns—medieval regimens, and to decide whether the school should be allowed to stay open or immediately closed. So there he was that day, El Anticristo, who’d come all the way from Los Altos, seated along with President General García Granados and his wife, Do’a Cristina, a former student of the school and now the convent’s most eminent patron. Madre Melchora the Prioress and Sor Gertrudis, also known to history as “La Monjita Inglesa”—the foreign nun was still the school’s Headmistress General, though the following year she would be elected Novice Mistress—faces veiled, were the only two nuns present in the school salon that day. Paquita spotted him at the end of the long row of government delegates rising almost in unison from their chairs as she entered. He was still dressing as he had whenever he came to their house in Quezaltenango: in a short jacket—Paquita’s mother said he wore it only because a military officer’s frock coat made his legs look comically short—and straw jipijapa hat, though for once he wasn’t carrying his notorious bullwhip. The hat, brim pulled low over his eyes, may have hid the donkey bristle of his haircut, but his pair of horizontal mustaches, square graying beard, and side whiskers could not obscure the sun-baked swarthiness of his mestizo skin or the strict thinness of his lips, though all contributed to his overall air of trying to hide himself behind an elaborate disguise, of which his martial stiffness and fearsome reputation were aspects. Paquita recited a sonnet by Quevedo—“mórale el cielo eternizír lo humano”—and calmly solved all the arithmetic problems posed to her, was quizzed in geography and Spanish but not Latin grammar, spoke a few simple phrases in English, and performed a fairly brief, modestly enunciated oration on Christian virtues as they should be embodied in the home by a loving Christian mother and wife. One of her examination books was passed among the dignitaries so that they could examine her penmanship, as were samples of her needlework. There were no questions on theology or Church history. She was aware of his eyes fixed on her the whole time, his head tilted back as he stared through the shadow under the brim. Halfway through the exam she reflected, surprised, that she hadn’t even blushed, as she always had in his proximity back in Los Altos, before she’d even understood what was happening. In detached wonder, she told herself, There is the man who by going to my father and declaring his intention to marry me made himself ridiculous and caused unending calamity for my family—and for María de las Nieves too, because if not for him, neither of us would be here, we would still be living at home, we would still just be day students at the Belemitas’ school. At last nearing the end of her speech on the God-fearing wife and mother, she saw him extract a small diary and pencil from inside his jacket and drop his eyes as he jotted something down, releasing her from his stare, and only then did her face blaze with confusion and shame. When she was finished he was the first to erupt into applause, and all the others, rising to their feet, followed, which could have given the impression that both her performance and his approval had saved the school, which was not in the least true, because everyone knew that the school was in no realistic danger of being closed as long as the President and Primera Dama’s own daughters were enrolled as day students. Later María de las Nieves told Paquita that when it was her own turn to be examined, El Anticristo dozed through the whole thing, head jerking up and down, finally snoring so explosively that she forgot the words to her own oration on a Christian woman’s domestic duties and stopped and looked pleadingly at Sor Gertudis and Madre Melchora, while the President’s wife whispered to her husband, who looked sleepy himself, and who finally lifted his long, languid, frock coat—clad frame from his chair, walked over to El Anticristo, and, taking his hat by the crown, picked it off his head and set it back down, waking him. El Anticristo had not liked that at all, darting a look like a snarling dog’s at his master’s retreating back; he collected himself and smiled at María de las Nieves, his even row of little teeth flashing between his whiskers like a piece of yellowed bone.
During the students’ Wednesday afternoon walks to one or the other of the hilltop churches at either end of the city, El Calvario or El Cerro del Carmen, Paquita was always expecting her appalling suitor to appear at any street corner, standing among the clusters of schoolboys, clerks, and soldiers who regularly lined their route, whistling and even calling out some of the girls’ names while the servants and lay matrons shepherding them scolded, Eyes down and forward, niñas; she imagined him looming over the crowd on horseback to stare at her from under his hat. But he never turned up anywhere, not once. Yet hardly a day passed when she didn’t receive at least a tersely affectionate or merely informative sentence printed in his own distinct hand, or even a message discreetly confided to her by a stranger, as just a few weeks ago, when the new barber who came to the school, pruning the knotted ends of her hair, had whispered a sentimental message of affection and salutation from “El Héroe of the Battle of Malacate.” His most trusted emissary was still the rooster-faced Padre Éngel Arroyo, whose breath always smelled of stale liquor and the heavy sweetness of the anise seeds he chewed to hide it. As a priest, he was allowed to visit her without chaperone in the interned students’ visiting parlor. Padre Éngel claimed to be a longtime intimate of Paquita’s family, a ruse to which there was not a crumb of truth. During only Paquita’s third week as a student there the priest had passed her a note through the visiting parlor’s wrought iron bars, which she read later in the dense shade of the amate tree in a corner of the garden. The then-thirty-eight-year-old military hero of the Liberal Revolution, leader of its most radically anticlerical faction, had written to his eleven-year-old paramour to inform her of the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Republic. So she’d known even before Madre Melchora, though the Company of Jesus had provided the convent with its preaching clergy and confessors, including the stuttering little Irish priest who came solely to confess Sor Gertrudis—La Monjita Inglesa—in English.
That night of the historic vow, Paquita penned by far the longest letter she’d ever written to her exasperating suitor—El Anticristo, as she often teasingly addressed him, even in a serious missive like this one, knowing that he liked it, knowing that she did not like him for liking it, reawakening that itch to feel furious with him, to scold and rebuke, so strangely, deeply pleasing—pouring out her confusion over the whole incident with María de las Nieves. Perhaps it will be better if for a little-little while you stop sharing your little-little secrets with me, she wrote. A few days later Padre Éngel delivered his reply, rolled up into a thin tube, tied with a pale blue ribbon, and pushed through the visiting parlor’s bars. In that letter El Anticristo assumed the comforting tone of a doting father, telling her not to worry, white dove of my heart, though it was precisely because of vows like that, so redolent of the Dark Ages and against nature, that he was going to send all those crazy humbug-stuffed harridans to the same place, far from our shores, that they’d sent the Jesuits, who’d been followed into exile soon after by all the other useless monks and friars of the male religious Orders, and also the Archbishop: Soon their vows and professions will mean nothing here anymore. Tell your misbegotten so-called sister, in my name, that if in the little time you have left there she causes you any more difficulty, I will make her pay. I think she knows what my bullwhip is made of.
Paquita was unable to resist sharing this letter with María de las Nieves as well. They met in a corner of the orchard, which was also off-limits to the students, though all knew the way in through a door in the storage rooms behind the school kitchen. Paquita watched tensely as María de las Nieves, holding the letter, read it over more than once. Smiling calmly, handing the letter back, María de las Nieves said, “Bien. You’ve become a heretic?”
“Claro qué no. Qué no, qué no, but I felt a duty to warn you.”
“When he says in his own name, which name is he referring to?” María de las Nieves then asked, because she knew that before the war El Anticristo’s name had been José Rufino and now he had changed it to Justo Rufino. Rufino the Just!
Paquita folded the note and tucked it inside her sleeve. When she looked up again, María de las Nieves was already walking away through the orange trees. Not even two weeks later María de las Nieves stupefied everybody by leaving school to become one of Sor Gertrudis’s two remaining novice nuns. The gray-eyed, pale, and freckled Novice Mistress was by then already renowned throughout that city and even beyond as La Monjita Inglesa, though her heritage was not English but Irish and she originally hailed from Yonkers, New York. In her judgment, María de las Nieves, during her nearly three years as a boarding student, had revealed sufficient evidence of a vocation for a life of chastity, poverty, obedience, and prayer, and so the convent’s twenty-three nuns voted unanimously to accept her, with dispensations for her young age and lack of dowry. That Sor Gertrudis had only two novices to train was a reflection of the decline all the female religious communities were experiencing during those years of insecurity and danger. The Liberal government might forbid any further taking of vows and professions any day. The death of the individual personality, so zealously and prayerfully sought by those interred in convents, being a kind of suicide, went the radical Liberals’ reasoning, wasn’t it immoral not to put a stop to it? For woman was formed to be man’s companion, not to bury the treasure of her beauty and grace in the sad solitude of a convent.
Slightly more than half a century later, in 1927, in Madrid, Spain, Padre Santiago Bruno would publish his La Monjitia Inglesa, his hagiographic life of Sor Gertrudis de la Sangre Divina. The Spanish Jesuit’s book provides the only known historical account of events inside that convent during the cataclysmic last year of the convents, including a description of María de las Nieves’s veiling ceremony in the convent chapel:
Then how can religion be coming to an end in our Republic if He still summons this virgin to dedicate herself to a life of penitence for all our sins and to be His bride? Give thanks for Sor San Jorge’s taking of her vows, for her humble obedience placates God’s ire, and through her prayers and devotion our sweet little country’s anarchy shall be tamed . . . So went Bishop Julian Ibes’s sermon, delivered while María de las Nieves lay prostrate on the stone floor before the altar, legs straight and arms out from her sides (she was a shadow of the Crucifix, waiting to be filled in by His suffering). Ponder for a moment the immense difference between the place this Sacred Virgin today leaves behind, and the one to which she comes to live, where austerity shall be her constant companion, fasts her only banquets, mortifications and disciplines her only luxuries and gifts. What shall be her rewards? The tranquillity of a good conscience, and the eternal gratitude of pious patriots . . . This sermon of the soon-after-exiled Bishop Ibes, in the form of a clandestinely printed pamphlet, was swiftly circulated among those loyal to religion and the Conservative party. According to Padre Bruno, for many months afterward, in rich and poor Christian households, obedient little girls knelt before private oratories, altars, and domestic saints to say a prayer for the famous sermon’s little novice nun, who had taken the name Sor San Jorge.
So maybe María de las Nieves’s initial conception of her calling and vocation really wasn’t so contradictory, in spirit if not in scale, to Padre Bruno’s historical version after all. On that day of her veiling ceremony, as she lay, face burning with embarrassment, against the cold stone floor while Bishop Ibes pronounced his sermon, hadn’t she wanted to leap to her feet and stare defiantly toward where Paquita and the other boarding students were sitting behind their own screened tribune and shout, Let’s see if you dare to marry El Anticristo now?!
Bishop Ibes had then come down from the pulpit and, taking María de las Nieves by the arm, led her toward the rear of the chapel and the door to the lower-choir. Carrying her newly consecrated white veil in both hands, she walked with her eyes straight ahead, posture erect, shoulders back, a dreamy smile fixed upon her face—I am promised in marriage to Our Lord! (Oh, maybe that was the last time any of this had felt right!) Behind the lower-choir’s opaque grille her new Sisters were intoning the Regnum Mundi in the very hushed manner of those trying to disguise the imperfection of their voices. She stooped through the lower-choir’s door with an abrupt little stumble and the veil unfurled from her hands; inside the nuns closed around her, jostling to be the next to embrace her, covering her face with their foul-smelling kisses, a few with upper lips, even cheeks and chins, nearly as bristly as a man’s. (It was horrifying, she would recall so many years later, describing that moment as she never could have then. I was a feed trough in a barn full of starved animals.) Prodded down onto her knees, she watched her hair, sliced from her head with a large shears, falling in thin splashes to the floor. Sor Gertrudis ordered her to keep her eyes closed while two of the most elderly nuns vigorously stripped the layers of her student uniform from her body for the last time, and then her new religious garments were being roughly pulled over her head, that first touch of scratchy wool against startled skin prompting a feverlike shiver that ran down her torso and made her nipples ache. She felt so transformed by the somber weight of her habit and the thick linen headdress tightly hooding her head, blocking her ears, swaddling her neck and chin, that she put her hands out for balance, even as the white veil was ceremonially lowered over her eyes and Sor Gertrudis intoned, “You no longer need to see, Sor San Jorge, because you will see everything in heaven.” At that moment she’d wanted nothing more than a mirror. But mirrors were prohibited in the cloister; she was never to look at herself in a mirror again for as long as she lived. From that day forward she was to have no other mirror than her Sisters in Religion and the starry examples of holy and sainted nuns through history. The first book her Novice Mistress, Sor Gertrudis, assigned to her as spiritual reading was filled with accounts of the horrifying fates of young novices who, against the will of God, decided to return to the world. Those stories often came vividly to mind, causing her to squeeze her eyes shut and clench her fists while twitchy shudders ran all through her.
Because María de las Nieves was a probationary novice nun, wasn’t she still free to renounce her vows? Poor and innocent belief! She owed absolute obedience to the Novice Mistress and to her Confessor, now the sole guardians of her conscience and will.
When both were still students in the convent school, María de las Nieves and Paquita were taught to manage the hypothetical expenses of a Christian household, paying with the nearly edible hardtack coins baked by the nuns for that purpose. The two girls had then elaborated those lessons into their own game of “shop“—they especially liked that English word, shop—always played around one or the other’s bed in the dormitory. “Let’s make a shopping in the shop.” The bed was the shop and the merchandise was the assortment of personal belongings arrayed over it, though mostly these were extremely ordinary, in keeping with the school’s strict regulations on personal possessions. Because in the dormitory all but the most necessary conversation was prohibited, it was a quiet and subtle game, requiring caution and tact. If caught, they would be forced to kneel on hard corn kernels in the school patio with their arms out straight and a rock in each hand for hours—or worse! But any Madre Monitor nun or student observing María de las Nieves and Paquita only saw the two inseparable girls standing as if in transfixed meditation or stupefied boredom or idly pacing around a bed upon which lay, for example, a pencil box, a tortoiseshell comb, and a catechism book. The ‘shopkeeper’s’ role was to decide what more desirable item each of these ordinary ones would be changed into, and that was really the heart of the game: a catechism book might be changed into a crystal bottle of Parisian perfume with India-rubber tube and bulb attached, and so on. The strolling shopper, circling the bed, having stopped to eye “the window,” would almost always decide to enter—declining to enter ended the game immediately, though that had hardly ever happened. Whenever it had, it had always been María de las Nieves who’d declined, which is not as surprising as it might seem, for in this way she could compensate a bit for Paquita’s much greater knowledge of luxury items; but it was also because she was prone to such seemingly bewildering rebuffs, as if really she disliked being treated with gentleness and affection and could endure it for only so long before she had to put a stop to it, sometimes grossly. Once inside the shop, if the shopper could not remember what an ordinary item had been turned into, she wasn’t allowed to ask, not even for a hint. With a gesture, a raised eyebrow, she could ask the price, and with held-up fingers or even a whisper, a price would be given; they never haggled like people did in the markets; each girl paid from her own savings of real coins.
Paquita had shown María de las Nieves how to hold the perfume bottle in one hand and the pink little bulb in the other, squeezing it to make a misty cloud of perfume fly from the bottle’s atomizer onto her neck like a kiss. She’d paid six centavos for that, and thereby acquired Paquita’s worn, lambskin-bound volume of Padre Ripalda’s Catechism.
When María de las Nieves became a novice nun, that slender volume was the only personal item from her secular life that she was allowed to bring with her into the cloister. It was kept inside the plain pine box at the end of her narrow bed of planks and straw-filled mattress, along with her breviary, book of meditations, the Contempus Mundi, her cilicio, and rosary beads.
Now she had been a novice nun for five months. It was the first Thursday after Pentecost, only weeks into what would be one of the rainiest winters in memory. In the cell she shared with the Novice Mistress and Sor Gloria de los Ángeles, her sole sister novice, María de las Nieves had just awoken—before five, but well after four, as according to the Rule of the Order. Silently, in the predawn park, she recited the prayer points assigned by the Novice Mistress the night before and stepped to the end of the bed to begin dressing herself with profound Modesty, while giving thanks to the Lord, who guarded you through the night. Her religious garments lay folded atop the box. Crouched beneath her habit of night-dampened wool, she wriggled-hopped out of her sleeping chemise, reached for the sackcloth tunic folded atop the box, and wrestled it on. Only then could she straighten up and push her head out through the habit’s collar, her arms down the sleeves. She pulled on her hood, pinned on her white veil, and knotted her black cord belt. She glanced across the darkened cell and saw Sor Gloria still struggling inside her habit like a headless, limbless beast, and that profane image provoked a silent puff of laughter that hung inside her like one small cloud in an otherwise leaden sky; a little cloud, she ruefully reflected, full of sin instead of rain. She lifted the lid off the box and reached inside for her manual of Meditation Points, but picked up Paquita’s old catechism book instead and brought it to her nose.
Was it still a perfume bottle from Paris, or had it turned back into Padre Ripalda’s Catechism?
Only You know the truth, my Lord, she dutifully prayed. Oh, please let it be a catechism book.
María de las Nieves’s harsh and submissive new life in the cloister, during those first months, had passed like a deep dream in which she watched herself growing ever weaker and more infirm, slowly fading away like a mild patch of afternoon light on the forest floor. But just look at what a droopy and dejected little thing I’ve become in here, she admitted to herself one day, with an inward shiver of lonely truthfulness and self-pity. I, who in childhood was so brazen and sharp-tongued that even adults were wary of me! But did that mean her personality was dying? Shouldn’t she rejoice that her future Bridegroom had decided so quickly to favor her? Still, whatever it was she was losing had yet to be replaced by even an inkling of the promised radiance of His divine love.
Every day she prayed: Please, my Lord, please let me feel something of what I am supposed to feel.
In the five months since María de las Nieves had become Sor San Jorge she hadn’t seen Paquita Aparicio once, not even a glimpse, nor had she received any message from her, nor had she even heard her name spoken. She hadn’t received any visitors from home either: not from her own mother or Paquita’s mother or Paquita’s older brother, Juan, who’d all occasionally come from Quezaltenango when she was a student; nor had she received any letters. As a novice nun she was forbidden all locutory parlor visits and all correspondence, even from her mother, for a year.
Every day she prayed also for some bit of news of Paquita. But it was obvious that she had no gift for prayer, or even any ability.
The story of how María de las Nieves had first come to live with Paquita and her family when both girls were six was a peculiar but fascinating one, and Juan Aparicio never tired of telling it. Over the years many people, in many parts of the world, would hear it from his own lips, and those listeners often remembered it, so that it spread the way a good traveler’s tale does, routinely provoking head nodding and heartfelt commonplaces about fate and the way things can go in the American tropics, and sometimes even stirring imaginations in more private ways. How there had been a legend, or rumors, brought down by Indians to Quezaltenango, that far away in the mountains two women and a little girl were living on their own deep in the forest. The little girl had golden hair, one of the women had leathery black skin, and they spoke among themselves, the Indians claimed, in an unintelligible demon language. After a few years of hearing those stories, Juan Aparicio had finally hired a Mam Indian to lead him to the mysterious females. For more than a full day, and all through the night, they’d hiked across a terrain of forested ridges, mountain slopes, and valleys. When they finally arrived at the rustic little forest compound, they found a little girl standing alone in the dirt yard. A spotted fawn, tamely standing by her, bright brown fur nearly the same color as her skin, scampered away at the sound of the men’s approach, and the girl turned and stared at Juan Aparicio so directly yet calmly that it was he who was startled. The scent of a still-smoldering cooking fire hung in the air, though there was no sign of the legend’s other two women. The little girl wore a begrimed smock of coarse cloth, her hair was braided into numerous limp sprouts tied with rag ribbons, and she was puffing on a crude cigar of wild jungle tobacco. From one hand she dangled a strangely buoyant, elongated, yet gelatinous object, a sort of ghostly idol fashioned, it appeared, from some smudgily translucent material that it irked Juan Aparicio to be unable to identify. But the girl’s stare was every bit as disconcerting. Her eyes had the dark radiance and mossy hue of deep forest light, steadily and fearlessly watching as Juan Aparicio slowly approached, speaking to her in a tone he might have used to soothe a panicked animal. She called out a burst of gibberish and held the idol out as if to warn him away with it—because of its size and the way she now balanced it upon both palms, oddly tremulous and almost floating, the thing, he realized, was nearly weightless. It appeared to have a little face painted on in red blood or perhaps cochineal paste, and long ears. Juan Aparicio had then needed a long moment to recompose himself. Meanwhile the little girl’s expression, wide-eyed and grinning, had become one of excited hope and emotion.
“Muddah and Lucy gon git wadah, Dada,” she screeched, as emphatically as before. “Yuh brin me panqueques made av sno like yu promis me, Da? Jaja! Look da rabid Pakal Chon make me!”
The demon language was English. The little girl’s hair was not golden but a rust hue that would darken as she grew older. The idol turned out to be a plaything, a sort of anthropomorphic doll, made by one of her Indian neighbors from the inflated intestines of a peccary, ingeniously twisted and tied together into the crude form of a rabbit. Juan Aparicio was the first white man María de las Nieves had seen since the death of her father, Timothy Moran, almost three years before. Though she knew that her father was dead and where he was buried, in her confusion and excitement—probably abetted somewhat by the slightly psychotropic effects of wild tobacco upon such an immature brain—she also thought that her father had somehow returned from his long journey to New York City, where he was originally from. In New York City, her Da had liked to tell her, the little girls ate pancakes made of snow. When he’d named her Mary of the Snows, hadn’t he been thinking of those special pancakes and the fortunate girls who ate them? In her fantasy she had always known that when her Da returned, he would bring her pancakes made of snow. So María de las Nieves herself would recall many years later in My Forest Memories, her brief unpublished memoir, handwritten in the simple style of a children’s story and composed for at least one very young reader. (There it was one morning, inside a plain manila folder, laid upon the desk at which I’d been invited to work.)