Sunday, April 22, 2007

Chapter 2

The Seventh Witch

I recall from a previous read of this novel that there is a constant shifting of Time and characters. Identities do not always remain fixed and causality takes second place to the pre-eminence of narrative.

Brigida is alive and so this episode precedes the previous one or is almost concurrent with it. She is one of six women who gather at night in a corner of the Casa to gossip and tell stories. They have a pet too - the same Iris Mateluna - whom they hold in their arms like a baby and fuss with her clothes and hair as if she were a doll.

Mudito is near and hears one of the women tell a story. This story-within-the-story occupies the majority of this chapter.

The story, a once-upon-a-time tale, is about a great landowner who ruled over people and farms and towns. He had nine boys and one girl. The ten children, we are told, were models of virtue - industrious and beautiful and well-loved.

And then a rumor began circulating among the peasants. Frightening apparitions had been seen - a floating screaming head which resembled the landowners daughter. The conclusion is made among the people that the landowners daughter must be a witch.

One of the landowner's sons hears of this rumor and shares it with his brothers. At first they dismiss it as sheer idiocy and false gossip. But they begin to spy on their younger sister and the nursemaid who shares her room. Despite their eavesdropping, however, nothing suspicious is uncovered.

Then the apparition is actually sighted and the brothers are summoned. They rush back to their sister's room to find the nursemaid in a suspended state. The sister offers to explain it all if they do not kill the nursemaid. But she is ignored and sent off to live in a convent.

Fearful that the witch's body will contaminate the land, her body is tied to a floating log and shepherded for days by a band of horsemen until it reaches the sea:

"...this time the witches hadn't been able to steal the landowner's lovely daughter, which is what the witches were after, to steal her and sew up the nine orifices of her body and turn her into an imbunche, because that's the reason witches steal poor innocent children, to turn them into imbunches and keep them in their underground grottoes, with their eyes sewed up, their sex organs sewed up, their anuses sewed up, their mouths, nostrils, ears, everything sewed up, letting their hair and their fingernails and their toenails grow long, turning them into idiots, making the poor things worse off than animals, filthy, ridden with lice, able only to hop around when the goat and the drunken witches command them to dance..."

The story ends. Mudito also overhears that Iris Mateluna is pregnant. With grunts and gestures he threatens to tell this news to the nuns but the old women first laugh at him and then threaten to cast him out from the Casa to be chased and eaten by wolves.

The old women have a plan for Iris Mateluna and allow him to join because the Casa is his domain, he is the one who has keys and knows all the dark corridors:

"'Let him find us a room, a hidden loft, someplace no one knows about where we can bring up the miraculous baby that will be born of Iris's womb... Mudito find us a place, understand, where... no one is to know... no one is to hear... and no one is to see...'

Only when I told them I'd found just the right place, a cellar, was I accepted and allowed to be the seventh witch."

The story of the imbunche which first appears in this chapter is not an invention of Donoso's. The imbunche is a figure from Chilean folktales (particularly in the south of Chile) and is as described in the novel. Allegorically, it is a creature who is of this world and yet is completely shut off from it. The imbunche theme is echoed again at the end of the chapter as the women seek a place within the depths of the Casa also to hide from the outside world.

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