Herbs and Pins
(Yerbas y alfileres)
by Juana Manuela Gorriti
“Doctor, do you believe in curses?” I said one day to my old friend, the illustrious Professor Passaman. I liked to ask him such questions, because his answers always elicited a lesson, or an interesting story.
“What if I do believe in curses?” he answered. “In those of diabolical origin, no; in those of a natural order, yes.”
“And without the devil having a part in them, can’t they be the work of a supernatural power?”
“Nature is the glimmer of divine power; and as such, it contains within itself mysteries that confound the ignorance of humankind, whose pride leads it to seek solutions in chimerical delusions.”
“And what would you say if you saw, as I have, a woman, after three months confinement a hospital bed, spitting spiders and toad’s bones?”
“I’d say she had them hidden in her mouth.”
“Ah, ah, ah! And those who are tortured through effigies?”
“Nonsense! That ‘torture’ is one of the many diseases that afflict humanity, which occurs by coincidence simultaneously with some enmity, some hatred to whose sinister influence superstition then attributes the disease.
“I have been a witness and participant in a story that must be told to you to disabuse you of these absurd beliefs…. But, bah! you love them, they are like candy for your spirit, and you will insist on holding to them. It’s useless.”
“Oh no, dear doctor, do tell the story, by God! Who knows? Maybe I’ll convert!”
“I don’t think so,” he said, and continued.
* * *
I found myself many years ago in La Paz, that rich and populous city that you know.
I had been preceded there less than by my reputation as a doctor than as a mesmerist.
A multitude of people milled day and night around my residence. They all longed not just to witness, but to test the effects of that mysterious power of which they had only heard, and that troubled them with a mixed feeling of curiosity and terror.
Among the infinite number of people who asked at all hours to see me, a young woman came whose dress proclaimed her wealth; but her face, though lovely, was pale and revealed the deep sadness of long suffering.
“I have not come to consult a doctor,” she said, smiling with bitter dejection. “Ah! I no longer hope for anything from science; I come to ask the mysterious muse that serves you the cause of an evil that consumes the one I idolize; a strange ailment that has resisted the resources of skill, of vows, of prayers; I come to demand from you a remedy, though it may be at the cost of my blood or my life.
“They say that to make use of your muse you embody it in a human brain. Place it in mine: let it see with my thoughts; let it speak with my lips, and shed light on the arcane mystery that fills my existence with sorrow. Ah!…”
Her voice died out in a sigh.
As she had been speaking, I had hypnotized her.
A few passes had been enough to show me the extraordinary lucidity residing in that young woman.
“Do you hear me, pretty girl?” I said to her, using the adjective that so powerfully appeals to all women; because before putting her under hypnotic influence I had forgotten a preliminary: to ask for her name.
“Pretty!” she exclaimed; and a sad smile appeared on her lips. “Ah! I no longer am. Sorrow has destroyed my beauty and left me only a shadow.”
“Have you suffered much?”
“Oh! So much!”
And a tear welled up from beneath her closed eyelid and traversed her pale cheek.
“Well then, tell me your troubles. Do you miss some lost joy? Were you so very happy?”
“Ah! So much! Santiago loved me; he was going to be my husband. The next day’s sun should have seen us united, but that fatal night, a terrible disease attacked him in his bed, he who lay there young, handsome, strong and healthy. It stiffened his limbs and left him paralyzed, his body gripped by horrible pain that made his life hell. A year has come and gone twice without bringing even a single respite to his illness.
“All hope has vanished from Santiago’s soul; and when he sees me prostrate, praying for the return of his health, he says to me: ‘Laura, pray for my death!'”
“Laura,” I said to her, interrupting that lengthy exposition, made in a slow and oppressed voice, “no more about the present; return to the past, to the last day of good fortune. Look back to it… what do you see?”
“And around Santiago?”
“Nothing but my love!”
“Nothing more? Look well…”
Suddenly the hypnotized woman shuddered, and her hand trembled between mine; her lips contorted and she exclaimed in a hoarse voice:
Uttering this name, she was overpowered by such terrible convulsions that I was forced to awaken her.
There is nothing as amazing as the transition from hypnotic trance to wakefulness. The young woman’s beautiful and sad eyes smiled at me sweetly.
“Pardon me, doctor,” she said with embarrassment, “I think I’ve been distracted. This overwhelming sorrow frequently makes me absentminded. I was telling you a moment ago…”
I interrupted her to announce that I knew how much she had come to trust me, and I mentioned her fiance’s case, which she had just recounted.
She was astonished, and looked at me with an admiration mixed with terror.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, “since you have penetrated the unknown, you must know the nature of the evil that afflicts poor Santiago and carries him to the grave. Save him, doctor, save him! He and I are rich and we will give you our gold and our eternal gratitude.”
And the young woman wept.
I managed to calm her and offered to restore her fiance’s health.
This promise changed her sorrow to joy; and with the confident abandon of youth, she surrendered herself to hope.
I then ventured to mention the name of Lorenza.
Laura made a gesture of surprise.
“Since that marvelous gift has let you see everything, I don’t need to tell you that Lorenza is the friend of my heart. Ah! Without her consolation, without her taking on such an immense share of my burdens, they would have killed me long ago.”
The contrast between these words and the sinister tone of Laura’s voice when uttering Lorenza’s name just previously made me guess at a mystery that I set out to clarify.
Laura said goodbye, and an hour later I was summoned by her fiance’s family.
I entered a house of aristocratic aspect, and found a handsome, pale, and gaunt young man, lying in bed. As Laura had said, all his limbs were gripped by a horrible paralysis that had left him prostrate for two years, and which none of the curative systems adopted by the various physicians who had attended him had been able to alleviate.
I, like them, followed my own, but in vain; the disease resisted all the efforts of science, and seemed to mock me with bizarre symptoms that changed my diagnosis every day.
Stung in my professional pride, I devoted myself stubbornly to his care, seconded by Laura and her friend Lorenza.
As for the latter, it didn’t take me long to read her heart: she loved Santiago.
Laura had penetrated that mystery in the light of her hypnotic trance.
This was why she had uttered the name of Lorenza with indignation.
The days passed, and the months passed; and the sick man’s state was the same. Filled with pity for his horrible suffering, I never left his side even at night, alternating with his lovely nurses in the duty of sitting up with him. My presence seemed to revive him; and this was the only relief that his doctor could give him.
One day I spoke with Dr. Boso, the celebrated botanist, explaining to him the strange character of that disease that neither advanced nor regressed; persistent, unchanging, horrible.
“I will give you a remedy that will defeat it,” he said. “It’s an herb that I discovered in the Apolobamba mountains, which I used to cure a paralysis that had lasted twenty years.
“Prescribe it to your patient; give him a tincture of it to drink, and rub his body with it.
“It’s a marvelous medicinal created in the laboratory of the great chemist who made the Universe.”
He left, and a moment later delivered to me a packet of plants freshly plucked from his herbarium.
I prepared them according to my friend’s prescriptions, and waited until the early hours of the morning to apply them.
That night, seeing in my evening’s companions the fatigue of long insomnia, I begged them to retire to rest for a few hours, and I was left alone with the patient.
As with all illnesses, this one tormented him greatly after the sun went down.
In order to relieve him as much as possible, I changed the position of his body, smoothed out the bedcovers, straightened the sheets.
As I fluffed up his pillow, I felt a sturdy object between the feathers. I tore open the pillowcase and took it out. It was a strange figure, a cloth doll wrapped in a scrap of red taffeta.
Since I couldn’t see it well in the darkness of the room, lit only by a single lamp, I put it in my pocket and thought no more of it.
The following morning I administered the herbal tincture to my patient, gave him a massage, and left him to the care of Laura and her friend, then went to spend the day with my wife, who was passing the summer in the pretty little town of Obraje.
Searching for my handkerchief while talking with her and several friends, I found the doll.
My wife took it and began to inspect it.
Suddenly she exclaimed in surprise.
The doll was impaled with pins from its neck to the tip of its toes.
Like you, Mrs. Passaman is superstitious and jumped straight into the realm of the fantastic.
In order to not encourage her ramblings, I refrained from saying where I had found the doll. But she decided that whomever the doll had been made for would be suffering horribly.
Those words impressed me; and without wanting to, I thought of my poor patient; and strangely, while contemplating the doll I thought I detected a similarity to Santiago.
My wife, moved to pity for the original of the effigy, proposed to free it from its pins; but the rust stuck them to the cloth of the doll’s garments, and she could only manage it by using tweezers from my medical case.
After she had released it from its torture, she wrapped it carefully in a cambric handkerchief and put it away in the bottom of her jewelry box.
When at nightfall I returned to the city and entered my home, I found an urgent appeal from Santiago’s house written twenty times on the slate.
I rushed over there, and found great desolation.
Laura, on her knees and heedless of her tears, clasped the rigid hand of Santiago, who lay motionless, his face contorted and his eyes shut, looking like a corpse.
Lorenza, standing pale and dry-eyed, stared at Santiago with a strange expression.
“Ah! Doctor! Your treatment has killed him!” exclaimed Laura. “Horrendous pain and horrible convulsions preceded his agony; and here he is, dying.”
Without answering her, I approached the patient; I felt his pulse, and found in that annihilation a natural sleep.
I seated myself at the head of the bed and asked for the herbal tincture. Parting the sick man’s lips, I administered a few drops every hour, all night.
At dawn, after twelve hours sleep, Santiago opened his eyes, and to Laura’s astonishment stretched out to us his hands, which were now mobile.
A few days afterwards he got out of bed, and one year later he was Laura’s husband.
* * *
“Have you met him now that he’s healthy?”
“And what do you say to that?”
“I believe in Lorenza’s pins.”
“I believe in Dr. Boso’s herbs.”
From Panoramas de la vida (Panoramas of Life), 1876.
Translated by Nina Zumel