“I’m telling you, that black witch has been scaring everyone with stories that we are all living right on top of Hell itself! We have to leave this town now!” The poor, terrified woman, standing outside the courtroom, kept crying while she explained to her sister the reason why their hometown of Remedios, on Cuba’s northern coast, was the most devil-ridden place on the whole island. The doors of the courtroom then suddenly opened and the entire population of Remedios rushed in, trampling over each other, in order to get a good seat. They all wanted to stare not only at the Black Witch of Remedios but also at the priest on trial for “public scandal” and “grand larceny”.
It was a cloudy, windless morning, predicting nothing but heat and humidity in that packed Cuban courtroom, with no relief forthcoming from an air conditioner or even a ceiling fan. After all, this was Cuba in 1682. At about this time, up in the English colonies, around Massachusetts, there was a town named Salem. And at their witch trials, they also would have no air conditioner and no ceiling fans. Back in Remedios, though, the infamous “Mouth of Hell trial” finally began and the last of the witnesses to be called to testify, the most notorious, was Leonarda, the Black Witch of Remedios herself.
“State your name and your color and your status,” began the Prosecutor.
“Most people call me Leonarda,” and then she added mysteriously, “however, I have many names … and I am a slave, but only at the plantation, for my powers are such that …”
“Yes, yes, we all know by now that you think you can speak with Lucifer himself,” interrupted the Prosecutor, looking patronizingly at the tips of his fingernails, a sort of smile wrinkling his face. “Just state your name, color, and status for the record …” he repeated, already bored with the whole process.
“I am a slave and I belong to my lady Doña Pascuala Leal.” Doña Pascuala at this point lifted her manicured right hand, gave a faint smile, and waived at the assembly like the Queen of Spain at her coronation. “And if you can’t tell what color I am, then I don’t know how good of a Prosecutor you are going to be!” retorted the witch, sassing with relish “that little lawyer man”, as she had started to call him. Laughter erupted from the whole assembly. Some could even see a half-hidden smile from the Judge himself. Leonada, finally in her glory, looked around at the whole town of Remedios watching her.
“And do you know why you are here? Why you are being questioned? Do you know what ‘public scandal’ means?” injected the Prosecutor, now irritated and wanting to put the black woman in her place.
“Yes, I do. And I don’t agree that warning people about the Prince of Darkness is any kind of scandal. Not telling them about the Devil, like you want people to do, that’s the scandal, sir!” answered Leonard, provoking with this a general round of applause from the assembled citizens of Remedios. The Prosecutor stopped looking at his fingernails.
“Leonarda,” the Prosecutor tried to plow ahead, but now more on his guard. “Do you know a priest by the name of Father Cristóbal Bejerano?”
“A demon he is, I tell you! A man who tries to mislead the innocent and the stupid, who tries to convince them to move out of Remedios to his village of Holy Faith, which I call ‘Faith in Hell’!” responded the slave, with great passion. She then added immediately, with an empty and vague look in her eyes, staring into nothingness, “I have seen that priest come and go freely through the Mouth of Hell…”
“With my mouth on your big melons, you lying witch!” flew the wisecrack, like an arrow, from one of Fr. Cristóbal’s followers sitting in the assembly. Leonarda shot back a look at the man who had dared so boldly. She then closed her eyes, dramatically moving her face heavenward. Seeing that, the heckler, a skinny old man with tanned and wrinkled skin, like a lizard, sank back in his bench.
The Prosecutor, feeling that he had totally lost control of the cross-examination, hurried to ask Leonarda, “And do you know why some people have wanted to leave Remedios in the past, Leonarda?”
“Yes!” she answered, breathlessly, “because of the pirates. Because of what El Olonés did to all those poor sailors the Governor sent out to get him. But El Olonés took over their ship and he cut the throat of each and every man on board, each and every wretch, one by one … And he did it not because he is a pirate … but because he is possessed!”
By now the Black Witch was on her feet, her arms extended straight up over her head, her hair were standing on end, her eyes wide open, staring fixedly at the floor of the courtroom, as if she could see through the floor tiles the entrails of Hell itself. Through that floor, she believed she could see the Pit of Darkness, the cradle of the French pirate El Olonés, the monster who had carried out one of the most heinous atrocities in Cuban history just a few years before. By simply evoking the name of El Olonés, Leonarda now held them all spellbound, frozen with fear.
“And are you possessed?” asked the Prosecutor in an insinuating tone, posing the question that was on everyone’s mind. By asking this question, though, the Prosecutor had now stepped unwittingly into a haze of black magic, had been swallowed up into the mounting hysteria. He and everyone else had now left behind the pedestrian reality of a courtroom trial and had entered the world of metaphysics. “Are you a witch possessed by Lucifer?” he repeated.
“I used to be…” came back the answer, hanging in midair like a spider from a web.
“But no longer?” The Prosecutor attempted to throw some light of reason into that enigmatic response.
“No. The Lord Most High sent me a man from Heaven to save my soul. He expelled from me many demons and, like the Magdalene, I am possessed no more,” the former witch concluded, folding her hands modestly over her lap, her voice trailing off as if in church, her eyes gazing now upon the Crucifix above the Judge’s dais.
“And is your alleged savior the other priest sitting in this courtroom, Father José González de la Cruz?” “No!” Leonarda immediately cried out. “I have but one Savior and that is Our Lord Jesus Christ! Fr. José only acted in the name of Jesus when he … exorcized me!” The Prosecutor continued, “And what did you tell Fr. José when he allegedly exorcized the demons from you?”
“That she didn’t expel the demons from the Mouth of Hell! That she let them out from some other place, the lying witch!” someone else shouted out from the assembly, causing another uproar of Cuban mockery from Fr. Cristóbal’s side of the courtroom. The Judge stared at the heckler but this time he did not smile. The Judge turned his head and stated simply and dryly, “The Prosecution may continue …”
“Then, Leonarda,” the Prosecutor pursued his line of questioning, “what did your evil spirits allegedly feel compelled to reveal to Fr. José as they left your body during the exorcism?” The witch responded, “The spirits told him that Remedios is
the City of the Damned; that all the people must leave and leave now; that Fr. José knows where to lead them; that he is their new Moses; and that El Copay is their Promised Land, not Fr. Cristóbal’s ‘Faith in Hell’!” By now she had closed her eyes and had spread her arms wide, like a cross.
“Your demons surely appear to be well-versed in Scripture, Leonard, as well-versed as a priest… Are you sure it wasn’t Fr. José who told you to say all that?”
“No! No! I was the one who told him that under a certain gourd tree in Remedios I had seen the Mouth of Hell for myself! Right here, in this town!”
“The mouth where all your filthy lies come out of, you crazy witch!” Someone had hurled yet another insult. Apparently, it had jumped out again from Fr. Cristóbal’s side of the courtroom and was causing yet more disruption in the proceedings. This was too much. At this one, the judge became irate. “I have repeatedly advised the assembly that this is a court of law and not the stage of a comedy house! Bailiff, remove that man from the courtroom.” Then turning to the rest, “One more outburst like that from either Fr. Cristóbal’s side or from Fr. José’s side and, I swear to Almighty God, I will personally cast each one of you into the Mouth of Hell! Now, the Prosecution, proceed!” There was a little bit of snickering from the assembly at this, but not much else. The Judge then added in his most serious voice, just crossing the line into pomposity, “the Prosecution will now call the accused, Fr. José González de la Cruz.”
At this Leonarda was not too pleased. Her time to be famous had expired. She now was forced to relinquish center stage. Slowly, the alleged former witch rose from the witness box. Slowly, she took her time to smooth down her apron. Then, even more slowly, she took more time to pat down her headscarf. Only when she was done with all of this did she step down from the bench, parading around as if she were the Infanta Margarita landing at Havana Harbor. Everyone was expecting some whistling or, worse yet, the random rotten egg, but the Judge’s admonition had had its effect and the proper decorum was incongruously maintained in this farce masquerading as a trial.
Fr. José now walked to the bench and, as he made his way, everyone immediately remarked on the amount and quality of his jewelry. The priest was a walking jewelry shop: rings, pins, broaches, bracelets, everything made of the finest gold and encrusted with gems.
“Fr. José,” began the Prosecutor, “the slave Leonarda has alluded to El Copay as a new Promised Land, where you, as the new Moses, would lead us all to safe harbor and away from the allegedly damned town of Remedios. Please tell the court exactly what is El Copay.”
“It is the land promised to the faithful. It is the land to inhabit and there be saved from both corporal death by pirates and from spiritual death brought on by demons filtering in from the Pit of Hell. It is the land where …”
“Yes, yes, we already established all that with the witness testimony we just heard. However, let me be more precise, isn’t El Copay—besides being the Promised Land, of course—also a personal real estate property of yours? Isn’t it more accurately a real estate investment? A development project that you wish to see come to fruition because of the lucrative return on investment it would bring to you personally, Father?” It had taken some time but the Prosecution had finally hit a bull’s eye.
“Well … I mean, no! NO! I am only thinking of the safety and welfare of Remedios, of the faithful. Of course, I don’t want anything for myself, you understand!” heatedly protested the real estate owner.
“But, Father, isn’t it also true that when a Royal commission, consisting of a delegate from the Governor and the entire town of Remedios, visited El Copay they unanimously found it to be an utterly unhealthy terrain, thoroughly unfit to build a town on?”
“Well, I … they felt that … we all agreed that with some time and some repairs…” The Prosecutor now had the priest on the run. “Pardon me, Father, but you all agreed on nothing! The King’s representative and the people both said no to El Copay. And when they said ‘no’ to El Copay, you then said that there happened to be another piece of land, which coincidentally you also owned, that could be used instead. However, when the commission said yes to that other piece of land and advised you that they would take it, your answer came back that first they had to pay you for it since there were homes and farms already on it. Father, it sounds to me that when you included that little requirement, the alleged love and concern you felt for the people of Remedios found their limit!” concluded the Prosecutor.
“But, you have to understand that as a private property owner…” began to mumble Fr. José.
“No, Father, you are the one who has to understand that the record clearly shows that very soon after the people told you that they would not pay you so they would be allowed to settle on that second property, you suddenly revealed how you had just exorcized that poor, demented slave. You then went on to tell everyone how Leonarda had revealed to you that Remedios is located not only within easy reach of pirate raids but, in fact, is also sitting on top of Hell itself!” The Prosecutor was now sweating, but smiling. The courtroom by this time had become unbearably hot and the assembly had grown quiet as a tomb. All eyes were now on Fr. José.
“Well, I had to warn the town, didn’t I? I mean, their very souls were in danger of eternal damnation!” responded the landowner.
“And is that why,” shot back the Prosecutor, “you then went back to your chapel, stole the Holy Sacrament, stole all the most valuable items in the sanctuary, and made off to El Copay, but not before deceiving twelve families into following you there?”
“They heard the word of God—through me!”
The Prosecutor was ready for that, “Or is it? Is it then that because they heard the word of God through you telling them to go and live on your real estate property that soon after that all of you were threatened with excommunication if you did not return to Remedios, Father?” Another bull’s eye. The Prosecutor was not to be stopped now. “Doesn’t all this hocus-pocus about the Mouth of Hell really boil down to a real estate war and a pride-filled point of honor duel between you and Fr. Cristóbal, between the properties at El Copay and at Holy Faith?”
“Death Leaves the Mouth of Hell to Hunt a Soul”, medieval engraving
Fr. José was by now on his feet, indignant, his eyes bulging, his face red from both anger and shame, his fists and his lips clenched so tightly that they were white, so full of rage was the priest at being unmasked so completely and so publicly by “that little lawyer man”. The alleged man of God now blurted out, on the verge of apoplexy.
“I have exorcized thousands upon thousands of demons! And you, little man, have the audacity to say to me that …”
“The town is burning! Remedios is in flames! We’re doomed and Pérez de Morales burned it down!” Someone had just burst into the courtroom and announced the end of everything. The news, coming out like a cannon shot, initially stunned the whole assembly into silence, immediate and absolute silence, leaving them petrified with panic. Then, out of nowhere, a scream was heard. It was Leonarda. “Holy Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, listen to my fervent prayer! Spare my life from the flames of this fire! Save me, Satan! Save me! Let me live so I may continue to serve you!” And on and on she went, Leonarda, still a witch, until the Judge ordered the Bailiff to restrain her and to take her immediately into custody.
The entire assembly then trampled over each other again but this time to get out of the courtroom, rushing outside to watch the spectacle of the town of Remedios going down in flames, like a great Spanish galleon attacked by pirates. The flames had finally consumed Remedios—but these were not the flames of Hell. Captain Pérez de Morales, acting under direct orders from the Governor of Cuba, had set the town ablaze. Apparently, the Governor had had enough of this endless land dispute that had been going on now for over twenty five years. Therefore, the Governor had finally decided to play Solomon. He would cut the baby in half. No more Remedios? No more problems! Let them all go live wherever they pleased—even down the Mouth of Hell itself, for all he cared! And the town was reduced to ashes.
In 1695, thirteen years after the fire that destroyed the town of Remedios, a Royal Court in Santo Domingo determined that Remedios could remain as a town and did not have to be abandoned. The Court also determined that the “farm of Antonio Díaz” could also be settled and soon a new town was founded there, independent of Remedios. This new town was initially known as Pueblo Nuevo. Subsequently, it was called Villa Clara. Today, it is called Santa Clara and is a major city in contemporary Cuba. The land was twelve miles long, over a flat terrain. Originally, it had an enclosure or pale and a chapel dedicated to Christ of the Good Voyage, possibly for protection against pirate attacks.
A little over a hundred years after the infamous trial and the destruction of the town by fire, in 1805, Bishop Espada visited both Remedios and Villa Clara on a pastoral visit. In Villa Clara, the whole town was decorated for the occasion and an orchestra, including an organ, welcomed the Bishop with music. Espada noted that all the churches were well built and in good condition. He also observed that the town had a high social and cultural level. At the time, it was composed of 300 families living on forty streets and enjoying a picturesque town square. Espada also remarked that Villa Clara was the only town in all of Cuba where wheat was grown. The Bishop stayed in Villa Clara for twenty one days and performed five thousand Confirmations. Espada then left for the Mouth of Hell—the old town of Remedios.
Despite the peeling of bells and orchestra music at his reception, the Bishop imposed a fine of 200 gold pesos on the pastor of the main church of Remedios for the filthy state, bad condition, and overall neglect of the church, its decorations, and objects used during the Mass. However, not all was lost. Espada did decide to stay in Remedios for thirteen days and the Bishop was delighted at the number of trees and sweet-smelling, flowery plants growing around most homes. He compared the whole town to a huge garden. In fact, Bishop Espada chose to remain in Remedios and celebrate Holy Week there. Espada also seized the moment and began a new tradition: the Bishop ordered that a surgeon be brought from Havana to inoculate against small pox approximately 800 people, mostly children, a saintly action taken directly over the Mouth of Hell.
From the collection of bilingual short stories on Cuba:
Cuba, Between History and Legend/Cuba, entre la historia y la leyenda
(out in bookstores Spring 2007), by Oscar M. Ramírez-Orbea, Ph.D.
For more information on this and other works by the same author, please go to http://www.cubairememberyou.zoomshare.com .
Copyright by Oscar M. Ramírez-Orbea. All rights reserved. Work may not be reproduced in any form or for any purpose except with author’s direct permission.
The town of Remedios was founded in 1607 and enjoyed great wealth due to a privileged location, as the town was a hub from where supplies that came by ship could be sent to Havana. By 1620, Remedios already had a population of 1,000 inhabitants.
Remedios’ wealth made it a coveted possession for pirates, especially those from the island of Tortuga. In 1658, French pirate Jean-David Nau, known as “El Olonés” due to his birthplace in France (Les Sables d’Olonne), a pirate notoriously heartless and fierce and capable of many atrocities, beheaded the entire crew of a Spanish ship sent out from Havana to apprehend him in order to protect the lives of the inhabitants of Cuba. After this atrocity, the families of Remedios decided to move further inland for their safety, as other families had already done in other parts of the island as, for example, in Camagüey (then “Puerto Príncipe”). El Olonés subsequently died at the hands (and in the mouths) of some Central American cannibals which the pirate had attacked and who later killed him in battle before devouring him.
“The Mouth of Hell” was a medieval concept often found depicted on church walls since the ninth century A.D.. It was used as a teaching tool by preachers. According to this concept, devils could exit Hell through openings on the Earth’s surface (“mouths”) that connected the Underworld with the Earth. The devils would suddenly seize the souls of unsuspecting or sinful men and women and drag them back to Hell with them, thus condemning the souls to an eternity of suffering away from God.
Almost a hundred years after the events that this story narrates, the Bishop of Cuba, Morell de Santa Cruz (see “The Secret” in this collection), after reviewing the historical record of the events of 1682 in Remedios, declared them to be more worthy of a stage comedy than of a court of law. This was later done by Dr. Fernando Ortiz, who wrote a comedy called A Cuban Struggle Against Demons based on the historical events at Remedios, a play today forgotten.
The historical account of the events in Remedios and Santa Clara recounted in this story may be found in, among other sources, Historia de la iglesia católica en Cuba (I), by Msgr. Ramón Suárez Polcari (Ediciones Universal, Miami, 2003), pp. 113-116 and 308-309.
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