Aztec Gold Excerpt

Here is an excerpt from my as yet to be published historical mystery, AZTEC GOLD. It features Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a real-life 17th century Mexican nun, who is arguably the most famous literary figure of all of Colonial Latin America. I combine real historical people with fictional characters and create the type of mystery that the real Sor Juana, I hope, would love to have solved. She is a kind of Sherlock Holmes meets Nero Wolfe, who with the help of friends, solves mysteries and murders from the cloister, which she cannot leave. This chapter includes the murder in the convent where Sor Juana lives, which will involve her in the search to unmask the killer.

AZTEC GOLD

by

CAROLINE DOW

Chapter One
December 12, 1676. Santa Paula Convent, Mexico City.

The bells announcing Lauds and daybreak had not yet rung when Cacha, her brown face glowing orange in the light of the roaring wood fire, pulled the fig paste tartlets from the oven. She puffed with the effort to heft the heavy stone slab laden with sweetmeats.

“Ave María!” she bellowed and, with a thud, deposited the slab on a table to cool. Wiping from her face a strand of damp hair that had escaped her braid, she paused to sample a fragrant pastry.

“Once again Cacha the Cook has managed to outdo herself to honor Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe,” she informed the oven. “Her sweetmeats are famous in this convent, throughout the city, even in pueblos beyond the Valley.” Her thick lips curved in a satisfied smile. “The Reverend Mother will be pleased.”

The thought of the Prioress and the occasion for which Cacha still needed to whip up a mountain of food cut short her self-congratulatory soliloquy. She began moving around the convent kitchen in her ponderous, deliberate way, her thick sandals flapping against the flagstones. Stretching to reach for a heavy clay olla on the wall in which to brew the atole de chocolate, she decided it was a good thing she’d risen practically in the middle of the night. She still had many kinds of bread and more sweetmeats to bake for the bigwigs who’d attend Mass at the convent later this morning, and the oven could hold only so many loaves at a time. She placed the olla on the counter and thought of all the high-muckety-mucks savoring her culinary delights. Rumor had it that even the handsome Viceroy and his beautiful Vice Queen would attend. Such an honor for the Santa Paula Convent! And as everybody including Cacha knew, the recognition was thanks in no small part to the convent’s famous nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

By now, the tartlets had cooled enough for Cacha to remove them to a sideboard. From the same counter, she hefted the pans of dough that had risen and were ready to arrange on the slab and bake.

As she closed the oven door on the bread, she thought she heard a soft scratching noise. Cacha took pride in her unflappability, or as she put it, “I’m no scaredy cat.” She considered herself to be as practical as the unbleached blouse and plain, black cotton skirt she always wore so it wouldn’t show the dirt. As chief cook at the convent, she had no time for flights of fancy. Not like her twin, who was too much influenced by Aztec religious gibberish. So she wasn’t concerned to be the only soul awake and tramping about the sprawling convent at this early hour. Unlike many of her people, Cacha didn’t believe in miasmas, the untold evils borne on the night breezes. Back in Ixtlán, poblanos still kept their children indoors at night so they wouldn’t get spirited away by phantasms. Cacha pursed her lips in disgust. Honestly, sometimes her people could be so backward! She gave those notions such short shrift that earlier, in defiance of that old Aztec superstition, she’d cracked open the kitchen door that led into the alley to let smoke from the oven escape.

The noise, she reasoned, was probably an early beggar, sniffing around the open doorway like a hungry mongrel, drawn to the fruity smell of her irresistible baked delights. She picked up a slightly burned tartlet for the beggar and went to the door to have a look. Not a soul in sight.
The noise came again. This time it sounded from inside the convent—a slight shuffling and scraping, like a furtive mouse prowling the halls hoping to stumble on a tasty morsel.
When she turned back to the kitchen, her sandal slipped on a slick spot. Beneath her feet, a trickle of water extended across the floor in the direction of the hall. Probably water from pans she’d washed earlier. She pursed her lips again and a crease appeared on her low brow. On second thought, she hadn’t gone anywhere near the door that led to the hall and chapel. She shrugged her ample shoulders. “No time for such boberías today!”

While tucking a stray strand back into her braid, she heard it again. This time, the noise was accompanied by a soft swishing. Ah, the sound of skirts! It was probably the niña Sor Juana roaming the halls in the middle of the night again. “Pobrecita!” she clucked.

Cacha always thought of the esteemed soror as a girl, even though the nun had probably lived through almost thirty winters by now. But she looked so young and dainty with her perfectly white, unblemished face. The porcelain doll’s face of a lady-in-waiting at the Viceroy’s Court, which was exactly what she once had been. Who’d ‘a thought such a pretty face and a head with such shiny black hair under its wimple could hold so much book learning? At least that’s what the other nuns said. They whispered that Sor Juana knew everything there was to know about subjects that Cacha could barely pronounce, let alone understand.

What Cacha did know was that the Creole nun often spoke to her in her native Nahuatl. How d’ya suppose that girl learned to talk like us so good, she wondered? A head crammed with so many words knocking into each other for space would naturally keep the little nun awake at night. Well, she’d see if she could tempt her favorite soror with a tartlet—just one to keep her strength up for the tough day ahead.

Cacha replaced the burnt pastry on the sideboard and picked up the most plump, delicious-looking treat. She left the kitchen for the chapel, the slapping of her sandals echoing along the dark corridor.

Elena Velasco and her maid-chaperone Lupe, who was struggling to keep up, hurried along the mud-rutted street. Carrying a bundle she didn’t trust Lupe to protect properly, Elena cradled it in her cape as tenderly as a newborn child. Up from the canal dock where her father had moored his great canoe laden with blooming bouquets, the flower merchant’s daughter and maid-chaperone slipped and slid along the mucky thoroughfare. Elena paused to readjust the cape around a couple of blossoms that had managed to peek through their protective covering.

Suddenly a dark form emerged from the shadows. Elena started. “José Manuel! What are you doing here?”
Her neighbor’s houseboy took a sudden interest in his shoes. “Sorry I made you jump, Señorita Elena,” he said without meeting her gaze. “I’m going to the bakery to get the first bread from the oven for my master’s breakfast.”

By the way her maid blushed and not from the cold, Elena guessed the encounter was no coincidence. Lupe may try to conceal it, but the fact that she was smitten with the houseboy was an open secret. Elena sensed she was in a position to extend a kindness toward a couple in love—a kindness that, given her own position within the rigid social structure, was not allowed to her.
“Hmm. Fresh, hot bread sounds divine,” she said. “Lupe, why don’t you run along with José Manuel and buy some for our household, too. When he gets home, I’m sure Papi will appreciate eating it along with his morning cocoa, especially after the strenuous night he’s put in.” She rummaged in her skirt pocket and found a few maravedís. “Here, take these.”

“But Mistress,” Lupe countered, belatedly reminded of her duty, “I shouldn’t leave you alone on the street.”

“Tonterías! The convent’s only a few blocks away. I’ll be fine.”
Lupe curtseyed and took her lad’s arm. As the enamored couple scampered off, Elena called, “Make sure Mami doesn’t see you coming home without me.”
Elena set out again along the lonely street with only the white light from the waxing moon above and her thoughts to keep her company. She’d left the dock where her father’s crew was unloading what seemed like fields of freshly picked blossoms to sell at the morning market. Papi had cautioned her to keep the exquisite bouquet of red roses sheltered from the elements. Great care had been taken to run them by courier from the coast to the seat of the Viceroyalty in time for the Guadalupe celebration. It would be a sin to expose the flowers to the chilly air, where surely they would wither and die.

This is how it must have been for Juan Diego, she mused. Over a century before, the converted Indian was on his way to hear Mass when an image of the dark Virgin appeared to him high upon Tepeyac Hill. The Lady bid him to charge the Bishop with erecting a temple on the site in her honor. When the Bishop was approached, he scoffed and demanded proof.
As a disconsolate Juan Diego trudged home, the vision materialized again. This time, she instructed him to climb the hill and cut some roses he would find there as proof of her existence. Though Juan Diego knew roses couldn’t survive at this altitude in winter, he obeyed her command. To his astonishment, he found red blossoms miraculously flourishing in the snow. He cut the flowers, wrapped them for protection in his tilpa cloak made from hide, and ran to the Bishop. Upon casting the roses at the Bishop’s feet, the tilpa fell away to reveal the Virgin’s image emblazoned upon it. From that moment, the Virgin of Guadalupe was widely worshipped in New Spain.

Again, Elena shivered under her thick cotton dress. She didn’t mind the cold because she was delivering another small miracle in the form of this bouquet to the Santa Paula Convent and into the delicate hands of her beloved mentor, Sor Juana. She quickened her step.

Moon was thoroughly enjoying her waxing phase. She actually preferred it to being full because at full moon, she knew that her powers would slowly wane. While she was waxing, however, she felt herself growing stronger each night. So it was with benign indulgence that Lady Luna shone upon the scene. Although she couldn’t infuse the shivering Elena with warmth, for she had no heat to give, (Why hadn’t the girl worn a thicker outer garment?!), she could light her way to her destination.

Of all the cities in the world that Lunar Lady illuminated each night, Mexico was one of her most beloved. (If push came to shove, she had to admit a preference for Venice—her light danced so joyously over the water there.) But Mexico, with its rarefied air and often cloudless evenings that let her beams reach all the way to her cousin Earth, was high on the list. And the people! Always tiptoeing around at night, attempting to avoid her light, but failing, committing all sorts of intriguing deeds. They were a source of never-ending fascination.

Because she possessed omnipresence, the silvery lady could illuminate Elena’s path as well as her destination simultaneously. The light from a single candle glimmering in Sor Juana’s cell window drew her. Luna slid between the bars and nuzzled against the nun’s forehead to rouse her, for she saw that Juana Inés had work to do. Then she turned her attention to something untoward about to occur in the chapel.

Sor Juana gave a jolt. Had she really dropped off? Absurd! She would never permit herself to be so undisciplined. She rubbed her eyes and looked at the carol she had finished copying it seemed but a minute ago. Then she glanced at the woman across from her and smiled like a contented cat. Once again, Antonia, her pale Angolan warrior princess, which was the way she often thought of her secretary, had fallen asleep at the worktable. Though the candle was sputtering, Juana easily distinguished her friend’s face so fair it had earned her the sobriquet White Chocolate in the house of ill repute from where Bishop Damián Zabaleta had rescued her. Running in a vertical line down the side of Antonia’s face from eye to chin like a tendril of a morning glory was the wisp of a scar. Rather than mar the Mulatta’s beauty, the flaw added mystery to the intelligent face that now relaxed in innocent repose.

With her pluma still in hand, Antonia had fallen asleep in the middle of copying a carol. Carefully Juana extracted the writing instrument from the young woman’s fingers and slid the parchment from under her arm. Juana examined the handiwork. Good! Only a couple of stanzas left to copy. Juana dipped her own pluma into the inkwell and hurried to finish writing the lines because time was of the essence.

“Ay, no!”

In her haste, Juana had let an ink droplet fly from her pluma, which landed on the bottom corner of the parchment. No matter; that one would be her own copy. She shot a quick glance at Antonia to see if her outburst had awakened her. But the woman’s head still rested on the table, her face bathed in moonlight, and she snored lightly. Juana blotted the page with pounce and stacked it with the other nineteen. She stood and brushed the excess powdered cuttlebone and gum sandarac from her habit. There! Twenty copies of carols written in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe ready to take to the choir loft.

She had chosen the best voices from the convent school and worked with them tirelessly to improve their technique. Although the choir had not yet seen this particular song, they would practice it a few times to get it right before the Mass began. If Juana had faith in anything, it was in her pupils.

As she prepared to leave for the choir loft, the nun’s thoughts turned to the dark Virgin, whose statue in the chapel would later be lifted away like a feather by members of the lay brotherhood and paraded through the streets. She envisioned the bronze-skinned, raven-haired Madonna draped in her long blue cape under which she wore a resplendent white and red damask robe embroidered with gold. With eyes cast down and hands clasped in prayerful attitude, the Virgin would be suffused in a halo of brilliant sunlight as the brotherhood paused at the steps of the Cathedral before moving on to the Templo Expiatorio a Cristo Rey, still under construction, but nonetheless receiving worshippers. This was where Juan Diego’s tilpa with the Virgin’s image emblazoned upon it was displayed as part of the altarpiece. Juana Inés imagined how Guadalupe’s twelve-star crown would sparkle like the firmament that she had contemplated from her upstairs bedroom window when she was a girl living on the hacienda. How she’d wished a thousand times that she could fly to the stars and explore that limitless universe! In her mind the words of a poem began to take shape:

“La compuesta de flores Maravilla Marvel of flowers formed
Divina Protectora Americana America’s Divine Protector
Que a ser se pasa Rosa Mexicana To a Mexican Rose reborn
Aparaciendo Rosa de Castilla. While a Rose of Castille is begun.”

She let each line flow over her like a limpid mountain stream on the parched earth. Then she lit a fresh candle from the guttering one and started down the hall.

In the interest of economy, at this early hour the convent passageways were shrouded in deep shadows, illuminated only by a few tapers widely spaced in wall sconces. This minor inconvenience didn’t bother Cacha. She knew the corridors’ twists and turns as well as the wrinkles on the road to Ixtlán where her aged and ailing mother and sister still lived.

As she plodded along the halls she thought about her life—something she rarely had opportunity or desire to do. If she had to go to the city instead of remaining in the pueblo with her people, she couldn’t have chosen a better workplace than the Hieronymite Santa Paula Convent. The sorores praised her culinary abilities, making her feel wanted and needed. Here she had as much to eat as she wanted. And at night, she bedded down on a little cot all by herself instead of sharing a matate with several family members. Cacha was only allowed to visit her people twice a year—once on her saint’s name day and again at Christmas. She didn’t mind very much now that she’d met the handsome Cristóbal Espinoza. In his yellow brocade pantaloons, matching hose, buckle shoes, and rose-colored vest decorated with real silver buttons that accentuated his glistening ebony skin, Bishop Alarcón’s footman was a man most Indian women could only dream about. And he didn’t just chew tobacco like every other so-and-so, no. He actually rolled it in little corn sheaves, lit it, and smoked it that way.

Lately, Cristóbal had started dropping by the kitchen to share a cup of manzanilla tea or bowl of chocolate. This Cristóbal, he was a real man of the world. Free to move around the city and countryside, in a position to know about everything going on in both Bishop Alarcón’s palace and in the whole wide city, too. With his deep, rich laugh, he reminded her, “Nobody pays attention to a footman. We may as well be statues.” Only this man was no statue, uh, uh! Cacha loved the way his black eyes sparkled when they exchanged especially juicy tidbits of gossip. Sure, she always saved a pastry or bowl of stew for him, but she knew in her heart he wasn’t just interested in her cooking. One day, he’d actually bent his lanky frame over her, stroked her braid, and planted a big kiss on her cheek. That same cheek flamed briefly now at the memory.

A twist of fate—the will of God, as the nuns would say—had dictated that Cacha was born forty minutes after her twin. While Ant Rose Flower remained in the pueblo, marked with the coveted tattoo on her back along with all the accompanying privileges, including a magnificent quetzal feather cape, Cacha had been sent to the city to perform domestic labor. But she didn’t envy her twin, no. She felt sympathy for her sister and the path laid out for her from birth by Coatlicue, Mother of Us All. For along with the honors came big responsibilities. Cacha would rather be applauded for her superb tartlets and receive the tender ministrations of Cristóbal any day than submit to her stuck-up sister’s destiny.

As Cacha turned a corner, the noise sounded again, this time from deep within the chapel. The niña must be going to the choir loft to prepare for Mass.
Aloud she said, “Sor Juana, is that you?”

Cacha lumbered through an archway, skidded, and almost lost her balance. She held on to the tartlet, but part of the edge crumbled and fell to the floor. Looking down, she saw that she’d slipped on a wet patch. A faint trail of water meandered across the floor.

She clicked her tongue and called out, “Must be the roof leaking again, Sor Juana. I slipped on something wet.” Following the water trail, she stopped short at the foot of the statue of the Virgin.

Cacha regarded the image shining with an inner light and inhaled the exotic fragrances of frankincense, myrrh, and roses that still clung to the chapel walls from last night’s Compline prayers. Simply being in the Virgin’s presence filled her with warmth and happiness. And the statue itself was so beautiful. It would cut a fine figure later that morning as it was carried on the shoulders of the faithful through the city. As Cacha gazed, her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness and were able to penetrate the shadows surrounding the statue.
Suddenly she let out a surprised, “Ay! You startled me. What are you doing . . . .?”

At first, Elena hadn’t minded the cold. But after slogging along the wet streets, the bouquet weighed heavy in her arms. Now she wished she’d brought along a second cape to cover her own thin shoulders. Her mud-caked leather shoes were soaked through and her feet felt like the blocks of ice that slaves ran into town from snow-covered Popocatepetl to make the frosty treats they sold in the main square.

With a grateful sigh, she felt her shoes touch cobblestones. She was nearing the city center and the convent. She glanced at the myriads of stars glittering in the expanse of sky and the waxing moon about to disappear over the horizon. The nighttime storm had passed like a phantom in the night, and this day of days surely would dawn clear and glorious.

In spite of her need to hurry, Elena paused to wonder at the majesty of the early morning firmament that spread above her, vast and unfathomable, brimming with mysteries to be solved. She filled her lungs with bracing air and exhaled a thin haze skyward. As soon as she delivered the roses, she’d sit down and write a poem about the stars that crowned the Virgin. If it was deemed good enough, Sor Juana might let her recite it as an addition to the day’s program. Then she might attract the attention of François Dubois—her Francisco—who would be worshipping there with his family.

Her eyes misted. Francisco would lift his chocolate brown eyes toward the choir loft and smile his enigmatic smile. Afterwards, they might even take hot atole de chocolate together in the locutory. Atole de chocolate and Francisco. Heavenly!

Her daydream dispersed, Elena sped on and soon reached the walk that extended along the side of the high convent wall. She could hardly wait to get to the kitchen. Perhaps Cacha would already have a pot of chocolate simmering on the stove and would offer her some.

Thoughts of the poem, chocolate, and Francisco vied for attention in her head so that as she rounded the corner to head up the walkway to the kitchen door, she didn’t see the person striding down the path toward the street. They almost collided.

“Ay, perdón señor!” she cried, and jumped aside to give way.

The tall figure, features unrecognizable in the pre-dawn dimness, drew a voluminous black cape across his face. Without a word, the shape flew up the street like an enormous crow and melted into the shadows.

Elena rearranged the flowers in the cape that had gotten jostled. Who could be leaving the convent by the back door at this early hour? The only detail that caught her eye was something that glittered in the moonlight when the long hand pulled the cape tight. Whatever it was sparkled like a star against the sable-black cloak.

She’d heard rumors of lovers visiting nuns’ cells in the dead of night—even religious men. Surely nothing so sinful ever happened in the Santa Paula Convent. Not with Madre Gertrudis Alfonsín de Onís at the helm. The Prioress’s exemplary conduct reached every corner of the convent, serving as a paragon for all.
On the other hand, the convent school buzzed with rumors about the friendship between the lively Sor Juana and Don Carlos de Siguenza, famed, high-born scholar. Elena shook her head vigorously to banish such impure thoughts from her mind. Her mentor would never fall under the thrall of any man. Of that, Elena was certain. Without further ado, she scuttled into the safety and warmth of the kitchen in search of Cacha and atole de chocolate.

A whirlwind reeled and eddied through Sor Juana’s head. But she glided down the hall softly in the way nuns were taught, the only sound coming from her onyx rosary as it thumped lightly against her habit. Her tranquil appearance, however, was marred by the fact that she was chewing her lower lip. Ay, if only she could be like Sor Piedad, Santa Paula’s most recent initiate. That wisp of a soror looked placid and content, with nothing to fill her mind beyond her love of God and Christ. Juana’s mind, on the other hand, was as fertile as the lush valley of the hacienda where she’d been born. A blessing and a curse because it never stilled. Her mind overflowed with a bountiful harvest of ideas, and sometimes also choked with weeds.

With an effort, she stopped chewing her lip, willed her face to assume a meek expression, and failed. So she concentrated her thoughts on the coming day’s celebration. She’d composed three beautiful carols, befitting the splendid dark Virgin. If only the day would hurry up and get here, she’d find out if her compositions had been effective. If everyone was impressed, sorely needed donations would flow into the convent’s coffers.

Anybody who was anybody in the Viceroyalty would be at Mass, including her great friend and Antonia’s savior, Damián Blasco de Zabaleta. Unfortunately Damián wasn’t the only bishop invited. That devious lizard of a bishop from the hellhole of the Spanish Extremadura—“the extreme, hard land”—who now called this city his home, would be there, too. Juana Inés didn’t trust Bishop Rodrigo Alarcón de Vigil. His watchful eyes sat too close together like a vulture’s and he walked hand in glove with the Master Examiner.

Shaking off the repulsive image as if it were an annoying gnat, she mulled over more pleasant aspects of the day ahead. She was sure to see the elegant and cultivated Viceroy Antonio Toledo along with his white powdered queen and Juana’s friend when the convent entertained them later on the roof. María Luisa had not visited Juana for more than two months. Hadn’t even sent a letter. Well, she had her son now and was remodeling her quarters. Juana ached to be at the Vice Queen’s side to offer suggestions. How she missed her graceful, white-haired noble amiga and their shared confidences from the time when Juana had been the maiden of honor at Court. Perhaps her carols would impress the Vice Queen with the power and beauty of their words and her dear friend would understand why she’d turned her back on the Palace to become a bride of Christ.

Ay, Juana! She heard her old wet nurse Xochitl chastise her in the clicking tones of her native Nahuatl tongue. You’re committing the sin of pride. For that, you deserve at least twenty self-inflicted lashes with the scourge.

The nun’s pace slowed. In the shadows cast by her taper on the wall, there materialized before her eyes a vision of Xochitl and her daughter Amanda, Juana Inés’ childhood friend, both still living at the hacienda. How would the Native people celebrate this day? Not with pomp and sententious sermons preached in a drafty chapel where the perfumed Gachupines and Creoles roosted like so many plump pigeons on torturously uncomfortable wooden benches worthy of the Holy Office’s Examiners. To the primitive, insistent beat of accompanying drums, the Indians would make the arduous pilgrimage on their knees from their pueblos and farms across the vast interior of the Viceroyalty to the Templo Expiatorio. Filthy and bleeding, their clothes in tatters from their travails, they would at last reach the image of the Blessed Lady, whose skin was their own dusky color. Many would request that Guadalupe, their personal savior, perform a miracle.

Juana had reached the chapel when two things happened. First, she smelled burning bread wafting from the kitchen. Then she slipped on water. Bending toward the floor to take a closer look, she clicked her tongue in an unconscious gesture inherited from her mother along with her exquisite looks. It appeared that the roof had sprung yet another leak. She raised her taper and squinted toward the rafters. Odd, though. The water’s trajectory was wrong. It didn’t pool but instead, ran along the ground in a little trickle, like the slime trail left by a slug, carrying along with it a few flakes of plaster. When she went to the roof for the party she’d have to check on the repairs. As director of works around the convent, she’d been obliged to muster a crew of Indian workers mostly from Ixtlán to get the repairs underway. But with the holidays looming and workers traveling home to visit family, the process was slow going. If the roof wasn’t fixed soon, Juana feared the ceiling might collapse in the next heavy rainstorm. She continued to follow the water trail in the direction of the statue of the Virgin.

Elena’s face fell like an unleavened cake as she looked toward the stove. No atole de chocolate in sight—just an empty olla near the stove. And no Cacha either. She wrinkled her nose at the bread burning in the oven.

“Cacha? Are you here?” Still holding the bouquet, she went through the open doorway toward the chapel and called again, “Cacha! Your bread is turning to charcoal.”

She shuffled down the hallway into the chapel and skidded on water. Then her shoe crunched broken pottery. Peering down into the darkness, she gasped and dropped the cape, scattering scarlet petals over the stones like blossoming drops of blood.

At the same moment, Sor Juana appeared, holding a candle. In its wavering light she saw Elena, saw the roses and the shattered dish. Then she saw the body. Cacha lay flat on her back, her arms and legs flung wide. Her eyes protruded like a frog’s, and her face—her face matched the ruby hue of the roses.

Juana knelt and took the cook’s hand. She felt for a pulse, dropped the limp wrist, and made the sign of the Cross. She turned to the white-faced school girl and said,

“Cacha is dead.”