by Emilia Pardo Bazán
When his second son was born, puny and barely breathing, the father looked down at the child in fury, for he had dreamed of a lineage of sturdy sons. And when the boy’s mother exclaimed — optimistic, as all mothers are — “We must find him a godmother,” the father growled:
“Godmother! Godmother! Death will be his godmother… if he lives!”
Convinced the baby would not survive, the father allowed the baptism day to arrive without stopping his wife from bringing their son to the font. In such cases, it’s good luck to invite the first person who comes along to be the godparent. So that’s what they did, when at dusk of a December day they went to the parish church.
Crossing the frost-hardened street, they saw a tall, thin, veiled woman, dressed in mourning. She stared with singular interest at the newborn, sleeping and wrapped in blankets and furs. When asked if she would be the godmother, the lady responded with a nod of agreement. In the church, the child awoke and began to cry; but as soon as his future godmother took him in her arms, his little yellowish face took on a calm expression. He fell asleep, and stayed sleeping as they put the cold water on his forehead and the bitter salt on his lips.
In the kitchens of the castle they spoke at length in hushed tones, by the light of the fire, about the baptism and the godmother, how upon leaving the church she disappeared as if by magic. The fearful whispering ran like a breath from the other world, causing the spindles to shake in the hands of the spinners, setting the housekeepers’ double chins atremble beneath their caps, and furrowing the bushy brows of the footmen, who proclaimed:
“Nothing that starts off with witchcraft can ever end well.”
In the meantime the second son continued to grow, not without setbacks. Such serious illnesses assailed him that twice they ordered his coffin made. Yet always, when he seemed on the verge of an agonizing death rattle, a sort of resurrection occurred: the boy would sit up, pass his hand over his eyes, and ravenously ask for something to eat….
“He has nine lives like a cat,” said the housekeeper Marimiño to the footman Fernán. “This is witchcraft; he wouldn’t die if they threw him off the highest tower!”
They remembered this remark with fear some few days after. The second son was playing with his older brother on the platform of the tower. As the two pretended to duel, they wandered near the outer wall, slipped through a breach, and fell from that formidable height. All that was left of the eldest, Don Félix, was a bloody and shapeless mass. The other brother, Don Beltrán, his fall arrested by the lip of a cornice and somewhat cushioned by vegetation growing on the parapet, managed to hold on, clinging to the wall, and climb back onto the platform.
Fernán, an eyewitness, recounted the incident with superstitious amazement; and in the winter evenings, the servants evoked the eerie figure of the godmother in black. Only she could have arranged events so favorably for her godchild. Beltrán would no longer enter a monastery; the house and estates were his; he had passed from second son to universal heir.
They decided to prepare him for the hardships of warfare. Feeble as he was, he required training in the use of arms. This turned him belligerent, no stranger to brawls, challenges and knifings; and his weak arm made the sword leap from the wrist of the best opponent. In military functions he emerged without a scratch, in spite of displays of reckless valor. His peers now regarded him with apprehension, the common people with a mix of veneration and terror. A chance event added even more fuel to the gossip.
Don Beltrán was hopelessly in love with Doña Estrella de Guevara, a beautiful and illustrious widow, desired by all. She favored Moncada, the Duke of San Juan, and the two were set to marry. On the eve of the wedding, as the duke was enjoying himself on the banks of the Jarama River with his betrothed and several friends, a wild bull charged him, goring him so badly that he died the next day.
Things went from bad to worse. Voices cried even louder that witchcraft danced in the affairs of Don Beltrán, and the Holy Office felt compelled to involve itself in a situation that was agitating the town and the court, inspiring outlandish tales. It was even said that the bull was not a bull, but a fantastic fire-breathing dragon, and that the marks on the body of the miserable duke were not those of horns, but of burning claws.
The thought of arresting a nobleman caused deep turmoil in the Holy Tribunal. The position of Inquisitor General was held by the Bishop of Oviedo y Plasencia, Don Diego Sarmiento de Valladares, scion of aristocracy on both sides; and the inquisitorial rigors fell only on the little people: Galician or Portuguese shopkeepers and merchants, sinister illuminati, renegade and bigamous Judiazers. Several such wretches had recently been seized, to be burned alive, imprisoned for life, burned in effigy, whipped in the streets, and have all their worldly goods confiscated (even those they didn’t have), during the famous auto-da-fé, which was attended by Carlos II and the two queens. The King himself threw in the first fagot of kindling to feed the fire at the stake.
But the powerful families of the Duke of San Juan and Doña Estrella de Guevara exerted so much pressure that finally Don Beltrán was seized and thrown in the dungeons, still damp with the tears of the unhappy victims of the Inquisition. In the darkness of his subterranean cell, he recalled with confusion the words of his nursemaid, the insinuations of the housekeeper Mari Nuño, the guarded conversations of his parents, lies and old wives’ tales that had fallen on his ears since childhood. And with desperate earnestness, he called:
“Lady Death! Godmother! Help me!”
A pallid light pervaded the room, and Don Beltrán saw before him a strange woman, half girl and half crone, richly dressed on one side and naked on the other. Her face resembled Don Beltrán’s, as if she were he, his own death. And Don Beltrán remembered the saying of a certain illustrious knight of the Order of Santiago: “You will not recognize death, for death is you: she has the face of each one of you, and you are all your own death.”
“What can I offer you, godson?” she asked solicitously.
“I want to leave this prison!” pleaded Don Beltrán.
“That is beyond my power. I’ve done well by you: twenty times I’ve turned away from you, I’ve removed the obstacles that lay before you, and I’ve smoothed your path with graveyard earth. But my abilities have limits, and love and hate are both stronger than I. You’ll be in prison for many years; your rival’s relatives have resolved that you shall rot here.”
Pulling at his hair, Don Beltrán begged her vehemently.
“Isn’t there anything you can do, Godmother? Out there the sun is shining, people are passing, eyes are sparkling, festive music plays, the gallants flirt and cross swords… And here I am, entombed in this pit, in danger of being dragged out in a penitent’s robe and cap! Godmother, you are all-powerful, feared, and respected… I’ve felt your terrible protection so many times! Can’t you find a way to save me now?”
His godmother was silent for moment, and then replied in a slow, prolonged whisper, like the rustling leaves of an immense shade tree:
“I know one remedy that will give you freedom. Can’t you guess? I can transport mortals away from the site of their suffering, without fail, by taking them with me.”
Don Beltrán felt a subtle chill and covered his eyes with his hands. When he removed them he found himself alone: his godmother had disappeared.
For more than two years, Death’s godson did not dare call on her. On the contrary, from time to time he prayed that she wouldn’t come near: he feared the temptation to grab that smooth, white, marble hand, to clutch it and so emerge from captivity. He would not call his godmother, not even on the day that they tied him to the rack and turned it three times, cracking his bones, stretching his tendons, sending pain down into the deepest places of his being. They left him nearly dead, transferring him to a cell whose barred window looked out on the street.
And one morning, looking through the bars, he saw an extremely beautiful woman pass by, accompanied by a grave, full-skirted chaperone and a bizarre gallant: Doña Estrella de Guevara herself. Her curly hair, dyed Venetian blonde, made her complexion seem brighter and her lips a deeper red; she was dressed in green velvet with gold trim, and in her sloe-black eyes sparkled an insolent and triumphant joie de vivre.
“Godmother! Come! Come to me!” shouted Don Beltrán with fervor, sitting up in spite of his broken bones.
And no sooner had the nobleman called sincerely on his godmother than his eyelids closed, the breath left his chest, and he fell back on the uncaring bed. An icy hand took hold of his, and Don Beltrán left his prison, free and happy.
Collected in Cuentos trágicos (Tragic Tales) (1913)
First published in El Imparcial, 1 December 1902
Translated by Nina Zumel