The Foxed Mirror
Not much older than three, Guillermo is being held above a glass coffin. Beneath him lies the Christ, ribs and knee bones exposed. Guillermo's mother urges him to kiss the glass and when he refuses, twisting and arching his back, she grabs his head by the hair and forces his face down until his nose and mouth are pressed so close he cannot breathe.
All the way home he screams, refusing to be comforted, spitting bile. Ever after the world will seem flat and colorless, its asperities rubbed away as with sandpaper. Guillermo will walk a straight road beneath an indifferent sky. Desireless and willing to fulfill his mother's dreams, and despite a vague but persistent disgust he can never fathom nor explain, he will study for the priesthood, and at the age of nineteen walk to the village of Niñopan-first to assist and then to replace the swiftly deteriorating Father Cleofas, who wears a rusty cassock stained with his morning egg.
Although the air of early summer is warm and golden, when Guillermo arrives in Niñopan he is chilled to the bone. Father Cleofas appears beaming and unkempt, and with the cordial but absentminded brevity that will characterize their association, gives Guillermo a tour of the premises. Guillermo sees that the churchyard needs water; its many clay pots hold dying laurel trees. But the little church is filled with fresh flowers and the familiar smells of roses and hot tallow put him at ease.
Under the supervision of mendicant friars, the church had been built in the early sixteenth century by Indian workmen who had managed to subvert the christian iconography with charming and mysterious examples of indigenous and sacred forms of animals and plants. The wood ceiling over the nave is carved with skulls and butterflies. Recently the church has captured the attention of historians, and a national competition has been announced: painters under thirty years of age have been urged to contend for the honor of supplying the church-its paintings long ago destroyed by saltpeter and worms-with the fourteen stations of the cross. Sent to Mexico City for evaluation, examples of the contenders' work will be judged by a bishop, a famous painter and the wife of a general. Pointing again and again to the bare walls, freshly whitewashed, Father Cleofas speaks of little else. But finally the tour is over and Guillermo is taken to his quarters, a little one-room structure of stone at the far end of the churchyard. The room contains an iron bed, a wretched table, a chair and a low cupboard in which he finds an oil lamp, a pitcher of fresh water standing in a basin and a piece of mirror to shave by. He has brought his own soap from home wrapped in a square of clean linen.
Picking up the mirror, Guillermo gazes sadly into his face. He has inherited his mother's looks. Even as a young woman she had been too plump, her powdered face puffy like unbaked bread, her eyes overly big, the eyes of a bereaved cow, angry and perplexed. That fat white face, those looming eyes, beetling brow, and uncompromising mouth have thus far assured them both unsparing solitude. His father had been handsome and frivolous, a lover of laughter. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, he had vanished after only a few years of married life. His name was Severo Vertiz Salas-the only thing Guillermo knows about him. Growing up he had thought the name wonderful: Severo Vertiz Salas, and had repeated it over and over in his mind like an incantation in order to conjure sleep, recognizing even as a child that in his mother's house this incantation, so like a serpent's hiss, was extreme subversion.
When Guillermo was six years old he found a small silver cigar case that had-or so he imagined-belonged to his father. That night he took it to bed and as he whispered his father's name caressed the case between his fingers. Over time the case-which had been highly decorated-became smooth, its water lilies and sirens almost invisible. One night when he reached for the case it was gone. Taking up his own sex like a damp lily and causing it to rise and fill his hand with fire, he caressed it instead. But because he could not utter his father's name and caress himself at the same time, he ceased to invoke it. Shortly thereafter he left home to study for the priesthood. It did not discourage him when those in charge of his instruction explained the meaning of celibacy, for he thought he could manage very well in the world without embraces.
Putting away the piece of broken mirror, Guillermo thinks he is fortunate not to want love because with a face such as his, love cannot want him. Besides, the thought of a woman's thighs is terrible. He cannot imagine entering into the very place from which he was expelled at birth. It seems obscene. He thinks man's contract with nature is scandalously incestuous, forcing men to have-metaphorically at least-sexual relations with their own mothers. Why would anyone wish to return to the womb he had left behind?
In October Guillermo performs his first wedding. He and Father Cleofas are invited to dinner after. The dinner-a feast for one hundred people-takes place in the Crepúsculo, an inn fitted out like a chapel with windows and doors of stained glass. The motifs are secular: idealized fruits and flowers filling stylized vases or cornucopias in mutable sequences. The Crepúsculo has a glass ceiling also, illumed by lanterns of metal and glass, and whenever windows and doors are absent, mirrors hang so that the great oval room seems built upon transparencies, wholly ethereal, even when grounded by the smells of overheated bodies, posole, and albóndigas reales. Stuck to the sleeve of the old priest like a clod of earth, Guillermo feels foolish and dazed; waiters appear to revolve about the room in one direction and musicians in another as they pierce the air with birdcalls and the cries of amorous coyotes. Beside him, Cleofas, already too drunk to use a knife and fork, prods his mole with his fingers. Elbows on the table, Guillermo closes his eyes behind his hands and wonders if God has made him insane. Life he knows is a torment: that is the nature of space and time. But if the torment is insupportable, wouldn't one be better off dead? And if such a thought is sacrilege, why has God placed it in his head?
This is a beautiful room, he reminds himself, and I am hearing music and conversation. I have just finished a generous helping of the best green mole I have ever eaten. I am sitting next to the priest I am about to replace and I have just been served a fresh piece of cake iced with white frosting and I love white frosting. So why, Lord, do I feel like taking poison? Guillermo cuts into his cake, licks the prongs of his fork, is stunned by the sudden sweetness and then, leaning back, looks across the room into a mirror that rises from floor to ceiling, its entire surface badly foxed. Reflected in that mirror as though through a curtain of gold lace, Guillermo sees the marvelous face and form of a youth about his own age who is entertaining a group of children by spinning a top on his own open palm. As he gazes at the top which is wheeling like a green planet, his eyes shine with a concentrated fire that in an instant dispels Guillermo's dark mood. The boy is like a living flame, Guillermo thinks. If I could meet him that would change everything!
Deep within the mirror, the children are jumping up and down in their chairs with excitement, for now the youth has rolled up his sleeve and set more tops spinning along the length of his arm. Tossing back a mane of black hair, his eyes flashing, he looks like a matador, like Adonis. O! The little alchemist! Guillermo breathes, transformed.
"Saturnino!" a child cries out, his voice rising above the general din, "let me roll back your other sleeve and set the rest to spinning!" But before this comes to pass, the old priest has wet himself and needs to be helped from the room, swiftly and discreetly. As Guillermo leads Cleofas around the musicians and into the street he bites his tongue with rage.
"You old fool!" he scolds. "What must God think of you?"
"God no longer thinks of me," Cleofas sputters, leaning on Guillermo to keep himself from falling; "now he only has thoughts for you."
That night, embraced by a scarlet mystery, Guillermo imagines the youth, Saturnino, caressing him. Captivated he imagines the world has not abandoned him, after all, and the next day discovers more: The boy's name is Saturnino Atl and he is a leading contender for the painting prize.
Guillermo has never looked at paintings seriously, not even the one which-in his church of few treasures-provides inspiration. The painting is dark, over-varnished and insipid, and its stiff figures could be studies after wax or plaster. Suspended at the center, a blue virgin seems heretically spineless. Weeks elapse, Guillermo roaming the streets hoping to catch sight of Saturnino Atl until his excitement gives way to a profound conviction of error. The lively impulse the painter had awakened dies. Guillermo fulfills his duties without interest, thinking to live out his life in obscurity and morbid dullness. He leads his flock-campesinos for the most part-telling them that their president, Profirio Diáz, is a servant of peace and order-which is another way of saying a servant of God. He hears confession, administers absolution, and catalogs the contents of the church's cupboards and closets, counting and sorting candles of tallow and beeswax, the large and small, and all toothed by mice. But then comes the news longed for and feared: Saturnino Atl has been chosen to provide the church its fourteen stations. A small, excited child on a burro invites Guillermo and Father Cleofas-now in retirement-to visit the studio on Friday the following week.
To settle his mind, and despite the burning heat of full summer, Guillermo-who has counted every candle and vase and who can extend his itemized lists no further-throws himself into garden work, pulling up dead plants and cutting away withered foliage, renewing the exhausted earth of the potted laurels with alluvial soil taken from the lakeside in a wheelbarrow. By week's end the garden's vigor, for the most part illusory because grown in vessels of clay set upon a sandy ground, is restored. Friday comes. Taking up his broken mirror, Guillermo shaves himself with care, taking satisfaction in features browned and, he imagines, rendered serene and strengthened by the week's activity. He is anything but serene, however. He wants Saturnino to himself but Cleofas remains a permanent fixture in the church of Niñopan and on the way to the studio Guillermo trails the old priest angrily. Cleofas is stunned with wine, and his old toes, thickened and yellow with horn, sprout like endives from his sandals. Guillermo has no choice but to plunge on after him thinking murderous thoughts.
As they enter doors wide open to the sunlit courtyard, the painter is moving in a landscape stunning in strangeness. A painter's wand in his hand, Saturnino turns away from his easel and comes toward them, blazing a trail through a wilderness of jars bristling with brushes and knives and indescribable mater: burnt orange, lemon yellow, a luminous green, an unearthly white. How strange the air. . .Guillermo thinks when with a wild beating of wings the pigments, varnishes and oils fly like bees up his nose. He begins to sneeze so violently he has no choice but, his face in his sleeve, to run out again. For a time he sits on the doorstep blinking at the rim of a stone pool from which he can hear the intermittent croakings of frogs. He might have wept with shame had Saturnino not appeared, a canvas under each arm. These he places along the courtyard wall. The sky washes over them, making them shine.
" A solar day," Saturnino says as if to himself, before moving through a shaft of light and back into the studio for more. "Father Cleofas has asked to see the Stations of the Cross," he says, returning almost at once, "but I've only just begun. The competition was won with something dramatic but banal, a pietà, wildly sentimental. These are different. And the stations. . . Well, they shall be black gems, rubies from Hell!"
Attentive to the painter's every move, Guillermo stands silently by, fingering the cloth of his cassock, the bones of his face aching. The courtyard is shot through and through with color now, swarming with abundance. Cleofas wanders about looking bewildered. "You must be a genius," he says to Saturnino Atl, "Because I don't understand a thing." He shuffles off and once he is gone, Guillermo sighs with pleasure. Coming closer Saturnino looks into Guillermo's eyes with unexpected heat.
"And you?" he smiles, charming and ironical, "Do you think I'm a genius too?"
Burned raw Guillermo tears himself from those eyes and leans toward the first painting as into a pure flame. It is a triptych hinged together and painted on wood. At the center is a scene of the crucifixion on the hill, but distant; the three crosses are barely visible. The theme of the painting is Christ's blood and it takes the form of a river leading down from Golgotha, a river of blood forming a deep pool, so deep that when Guillermo's eyes reach the lower third of the painting the hill is revealed to be an island floating in a lake, eerily luminous: the blood suffuses the scene with a livid glow. This lake of bloody fire is an animating fluid so compelling Guillermo is transfixed for a long while. When at last he shifts his gaze to the triptych's left panel, he sees Saturn sitting on a throne of lucent bones. In one hand he holds the scythe with which he emasculated his father, Uranus; in the other he holds his own infant son whom he is about to devour. This painting is also informed by fire: the throne gives off an eerie light and behind it the sky bristles with comets, flashes of lightning, blazing stars.
Guillermo is held in thrall by the juxtaposition of Christian and pagan themes, a heretical conjunction and dangerous. To the right Saturnino has painted the Tower of Babel; it appears to be erupting like a volcano. At its base fire-eaters vomit sheaves of flame: the muddled languages of men have become fire, a polluting fire, thick with smoke.
When Guillermo's eyes return to Saturn and his eerie throne, the painter explains: "The ancients believed if you rattled the bones of lions they would ignite." And indeed, as Guillermo looks he sees that the earth beneath the throne is fissured and shaking. Saturn's throne stands upon a ground in upheaval; those bones are rattling!
"I've been told the temptation of the marvelous-" Guillermo says breathlessly, 'is the temptation of-"
"Illumination." Saturnino Atl finishes the sentence for him.
"Vertigo!" Guillermo corrects him. "Delirium!"
"Exactly!" Saturnino Atl laughs. "There is no illumination without vertigo. Without Delirium!"
Guillermo approaches the next picture. It is a martirio de San Sebastián, and the arrows piercing the saint's flesh are so sharp and swift Guillermo can hear them strike bone. The flesh swells around the shafts like ravening lips; the arrows, he thinks with a shudder, are being received with hunger. Stirred by the painting, Guillermo gnaws his knuckles in excitement, and sees a draped figure surge from the shadows behind the martyred saint, holding a scarlet cloth as if to hide him from the eyes of the crowd. Another smaller figure further back, enigmatic and nearly concealed by shadow, offers Guillermo a glass of blood like a ruby wine. The glass, like the throne of bones, illumines the entire scene.
"-And the temptation of the marvelous is the temptation of violence," says Saturnino Atl, his voice soft and mocking. Guillermo thinks this must be so. He thinks: The marvelous may be a place where the spirit breathes.
One after another Guillermo gazes at Saturnino Atl's astonishing paintings, one moment feeling vivid and inspired, scandalized the next. Looking at fire Guillermo burns; looking at water he drowns. The earth Saturnino has painted is not mineral, not organic, but a treacherous stuff from some other world. And when he paints air, it is so congested with sparks and the voices of angels it is unbreathable.
Gasping, Guillermo steps back as if scorched. As he looks into the painter's face his admiration and longing is so unmistakable that Saturnino approaches him and placing the back of his hand gently to Guillermo's mouth says:
"Do you wish to fuck me, little priest?" And when Guillermo, fascinated and immobile, says nothing, Saturnino continues with sinuous intensity: "Come then, little raven. I'll fuck your heart." He insinuates his hand between Guillermo's thighs.
"I!" Guillermo cries, falling against Saturnino as a frightened child falls against its mother's breast, 'I am so afraid!"
"Good!" Saturnino laughs, pushing him away and then gently taking him by the shoulders. 'This way it will be even better. But I warn you,' he says, gravely, leading Guillermo into the gathering shadows of the garden, 'I have an unfettered soul. I belong to no one.' Drunk with delight, Guillermo does not entirely believe him. "The temptation of the marvelous,' Saturnino laughs gently, "is inconstancy." And caressing Guillermo's naked breast and arms: "How plump you are! Like a girl! A fat little hen!" He bites Guillermo just above a nipple, making a small bruise that persists before vanishing.
Then Guillermo leaves the garden he enters into a void and knows that void will be his until he is once more with Saturnino Atl. He is tempted to turn back but knows that do so would be a grave error. He must not weigh upon Saturnino; what has happened in a state of grace may not be possible to duplicate. But he has entered into the painter's gravitational system as it were, and if he returns to the void, it is a void tilted towards Saturnino so that he needs to do battle with himself to keep from retracing his steps and turning up the cobbled road that leads to the studio. He suppresses the impulse although it causes him pain, fearing that any action he might take will lead to catastrophe. He lives the next few days in segments as though he could in this way reshape time and make its passing bearable. But even then the pattern of the minutes and hours are tediously slow like the formation of tree rings, the wearing away of mountains.
If I don't return, Guillermo thinks, I will become as precious to him as he is to me. If I don't return. And this thought becomes an incantation with which he charms himself, a prayer: If I don't return. And then: I will not return. Time drags along, until Guillermo has celebrated a year of holy days.
One summer morning a child on a burro, perhaps the same child Saturnino had sent before but taller now, informs Guillermo that the stations of the cross have been completed and that Saturnino Atl wishes to deliver them the next day. Guillermo receives this news as a violent intrusion; time gathers speed as does his blood and all that night he thrashes about in the hot ocean evoked by the painter's memory: violent, yes, and vertiginous, yes; illuminating, also.
A clatter of hooves and iron wheels announces the painter's arrival. Guillermo stands before his church, the doors open wide, the altar bright with roses. In one spellbinding gesture, Saturnino leaps from the carriage followed by a wild company of young men, each one as little, as witching as he, their hair tumbling to their shoulders like clusters of purple grapes, their dark eyes sparking the air. They all wear white shirts open at the throat, riding boots-like actors! Guillermo thinks with growing terror; like gypsies! Taking down paintings and surging toward him, Guillermo wonders what and who they are, so unlike the tame flock he is used to tending. Like wild geese! Apprentices? Models? Or Saturnino Atl's lovers? Something tells him these are lovers. Because of their beauty. Because their eyes mock him. Because they fill the courtyard with catcalls and howling. When the painter passes the priest he clucks like a hen, evoking raucous laughter.
Guillermo flees up the rood stairs to the rood tower and there, although he is not aware of it, gnaws his knuckles and wrings his hands. He thinks: I am a coward. Saturnino Atl was right to have insulted me just now. Hadn't the painter given him the only hour of pleasure he had ever known? And how had Guillermo responded? By hiding out! By killing time!
Later, when the commotion and the laughter have ceased, when the hammering and shouts come no more, nor the sound of the ladder being pulled across the stone floor; when the horses' hooves and the carriage wheels are only a memory, and long after the dust has settled in the road; later when the moon and the stars have risen and Guillermo descends into the church and lights all the candles, the cheap and the dear, and gazes intently at the fourteen incidents of Christ's passion in succession, he knows his own humiliation is scarcely like this.