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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 34
Author: Isabel Rodríguez Vergara, Ed.
Title: Colombia: Literatura y Cultura del Siglo XX


This essay will discuss Gabriel García Márquez’s most recent historical novel, Of Love and Other Demons,1 with its nuances of magic realism and self-consciousness: at the same time that it tells a story, it discusses its own creative process. The friction between the “original” text of Colombian history and the fictitious text of the novel will be pondered in this paper. Its discourse will be interpreted as an exploration of the Hispanic-American identity under the Spanish colonial system, which builds up and destroys itself at the same time, through the central character, Sierva María de Todos los Angeles, a twelve-year-old girl (the daughter of a mestizo woman and a Spanish marquis)—a metaphor for the colonized.

The presentation of the “being” under colonialism will be analyzed through the ethnic and family heritage and the moral, mental, and physical condition of this young woman, that is to say, her condition as a sick person and a madwoman, as a saint and a prostitute, characteristics that place her at the moral, medical, and geographic extremes. Sierva María stands on an undefined boundary between two worlds: that of the white European on the one hand and of the American black and Indian on the other: the healthy world and the sick world; the moral and the amoral world. María Mandinga’s illness, her madness (supposedly caused by a dog bite), could be considered a historical and political metaphor in Of Love and Other Demons, while exorcism and the Inquisition will be seen as the repressive means to silence the colonized.

Beneath the surface narrative of the brief and intense love story between the twelve-year-old Sierva María de Todos los Angeles and the thirty-six-year-old priest Cayetano Alcino del Espíritu Santo Delaura y Escudero, the discourse of the novel discusses the complexity of symbolic systems during the Spanish colonial period, among which the most important are language, the rules of love and matrimony, economic relations, art, science, and religion. Conscious of the inability of cultures to offer every human being the same means of entry into the symbolic order, the discourse of the novel places a woman, normally situated somewhere between culture and nature, at a lower level than a man at its center, in order to disseminate its cultural significance. Hence the importance of Sierva María’s role as a transgressor of the colonial order.

The fertile and ambiguous title of the novel suggests the state of being in love (between two transgressors under a colonial system) as just another demon, while at the same time the narrator more than once identifies the demon as the set of prejudices held by the colonizers against those colonized, prejudices that awaken in Sierva María repressed instinctual impulses (obscene convulsions, yelps in idolatrous gibberish, shouts, aggression against others, etc.) that she projects to the exterior world, interpreted as sickness.2

The novel opens with two untitled introductory pages, by way of prologue (a device similar to that used in García Márquez’s previous work, Strange Pilgrims: Twelve Stories, 1992), which emphasizes two events pertinent to the creation of the novel. The first is the prominent position of the narrator, who as a witness-reporter in 1949 was present at the emptying of the crypts of the old convent of Santa Clara, which has been sold to build a five-star hotel. There he found “the news,” that is, the body of Sierva María de Todos los Angeles, with “a head of hair twenty-two meters and eleven centimeters long” (11, an allusion to the hair in the epigraph from Saint Thomas Aquinas), in a confusion of bones from three generations of bishops and abbesses, among others. This event confers authority upon the narrator while at the same time the discourse identifies him as writer-historian and archaeologist, all of them rescuing topics (bodies), classifying information (bones), and identifying objects (words).3

The second event announced in this prologue, which puts in doubt the authorship of the novel, is the happy coincidence of having found in the body of Sierva María de Todos los Angeles, with her splendid magic hair, the source of the legend his grandmother had told him when he was a child, which in turn is the origin of the text of the novel. An elusive legend (oral), primitive archaeology (bones in the wrong graves), and an autobiographical episode are mentioned as sources of the novel that begins to take shape in 1949, three centuries after the events took place, and is published in 1994, forty-three years after the dismantling of the crypt.4

But García Márquez does not tell us in his introduction that besides the oral legend transmitted to him by his grandmother, Sierva María exists in the “official” history of Cartagena de Indias, in texts that, given his rigor as a researcher, he must have consulted. I am speaking of the sorceress Lorenza de Acereto, tried by the Tribunal of the Inquisition in 1613.5  García Márquez, then, would be rewriting a historical case of a victim of the Inquisition in Cartagena de Indias in the seventeenth century (which goes beyond mere legend in its details) as a pretext for re-creating the cultural complex that dramatizes a colonial situation, marrying anthropology to novel-writing and psychoanalysis as hermeneutic disciplines (since they all revolve around the study of meanings). The analyst-narrator functions as a sort of interpreter, establishing communication between the various sectors of power (the state, the church, the texts); García Márquez’s loyalty does not seem here to lean towards the discourse of colonial power, since he does not seek a “culturally acceptable” position for the central character, but rather a fair acceptance of the culture of the “other” (the colonized).

The discourse of the novel skillfully dramatizes the intricate process of cultural interpretation, both in anthropology and in history, a process that ultimately dissipates in the fictitious signs of language. The well-known phrase of the controversial anthropologist Clifford Geertz—that “cultures were not to be seen through for the objective truths underneath. They had to be entered and understood like a novel. Societies, like lives, contain their own interpretations”6 —is comparable to the contradictions of interpretation and imprecision of historical language, so different from that of the exact sciences, as Hayden White had already warned.7  García Márquez also blends history and the novel to the point of saying that he wrote The General in His Labyrinth, a novel about Simon Bolívar, in order to “write the true history of Colombia . . . not the official history, so that they can tell us in one single volume what that country is like, but written in the form of a novel.”  He adds that he believes he has written the true history of Bolívar.8  And just as it happened that the passage about the massacre of the banana workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude moved from fiction into “official history”, it would not be surprising if the novel about Bolívar and the one about Lorenza de Acereto acquired the eminence of historical events. Using an anthropological frame of reference with regard to culture (the latter defined in situations of colonial power), García Márquez sets out the behavior of a community and presents its actions and attitudes so that they may be understood and described in the light of broader and more specific contexts in time and space; in other words, more historical.  Nevertheless, the text of the novel, like history, cannot be objective or scientific; it is interpretative and therefore ideological.

The texts of the “official” and the fictitious history debate each other, creating friction, coincidences, and contradictions and eventually, as in a Botero painting, the fiction takes ideological turns foreseeable by those who know García Márquez’s previous work. Like the fictitious Sierva María, Lorenza (the sorceress) was born in Cartagena de Indias; the former the daughter of a Spanish marquis and a mestizo woman, the latter the daughter of an adventurer from Genoa and a Spanish woman. The Aceretos had settled in Cartagena de Indias around the year 1585, and in 1586 Lorenza was born; the parents of Sierva María, Ignacio Alfaro de Dueñas, second Marquis of Casalduero and Lord of the Daríen, and Bernarda Cabrera, lived during the seventeenth century. The family unit of the two girls is nonexistent for different reasons; with Sierva María because of the absence of love between her parents, with Lorenza because of her mother’s death and her father’s dedication to business. The former falls in love, at the age of twelve, with a thirty-six-year-old priest and poet by the name of Cayetano Alcino del Espíritu Santo Delaura y Escudero. The latter marries, at the age of eleven, a thirty-eight-year-old man. Sierva María confronts the Spanish culture by falling in love with a priest, speaking African languages, and dressing as a black woman; Lorenza, for her part, marries without loving him a man who is unfaithful on numerous occasions and has children with him until, tired of his mistreatment, she decides to take a lover and get rid of her husband by means of witchcraft, according to historians who have written about her case. The time element is different in the two stories: Lorenza’s story encompasses many years of her adult life, but is centered on the Inquisitorial trial; Sierva María’s story covers about five months of her life, compressing details of her sickness, exorcism, imprisonment, falling in love, and dying. Both are tried by the Inquisition, on similar charges concerned mainly with crimes against the Catholic faith: witchcraft, the use of superstitions, the mixture of sacred and profane matters, and invocations of the devil to learn the future, which “belongs to the Creator,” according to the inquisitors; Lorenza particularly is also accused of having led a dishonest life and made an attempt on the integrity of her husband. The accusations against Sierva María, although similar to those of her double, are poeticized in the discourse of the novel. Nevertheless, García Márquez interferes to add some of his own or to exaggerate those against the colonials, carrying the discourse of the novel to its extremes. These extremes may be summed up in two main features: first, the relationship of Sierva María, culturally a black African, with a white priest; and secondly her sickness (invented by the colonials). The end of both “stories” also indicates asymmetrically the narrator’s condemnation of the colonialist system. Although in the original story Lorenza ironically received a very light sentence, two years’ voluntary exile from Cartagena, some penance, and a fine of four thousand Castilian ducats (owing to the influence of the Acereto family, which had three relatives in the Holy Office), Sierva María condemns herself to suicide when she loses her love and faces her powerlessness to survive the colonial system. This is a gesture that must be understood as García Márquez’s censure of the system.

The narrator usurps the role of analyst and deconstructs his “subject” of analysis through complex processes of meaning. There is therefore no absolute inseparability between the terms “subject” and “discourse”; the human subject is the topic of semiotics as related to psychoanalysis; significance occurs only through discourse. 9  The “subject” here will be a woman, Sierva María de Todos los Angeles, defined by her subconscious and by cultural determination (conscious); a woman “exposed” as a product of colonial historical discourses, among them ethnography and psychoanalysis. García Márquez explores as an analyst the American identity, centering the linguistic, political, and cultural debate upon this twelve-year-old child.

Let us sum up the characteristics of the subject Sierva María de Todos los Angeles or María Mandinga and see how her reality is “constructed”—that is, her significant activities, culturally specific and generally unconscious. Her birth, physical appearance, childhood, location, and language; her tastes and inclinations; the perception of others towards her, and her condition as a sick person, all place this character on the borderline, on undefined boundaries between the two worlds: the black American and the white European; the healthy world and the world of madness.

The description of Sierva María’s family and language are essential for the formation of her subjectivity and her cultural field. She is born at the very edge, nearly strangling, premature and unloved, of a Spanish father, with some appearance of mental retardation, and rejected by her mestizo mother. 10  The name, the childhood, and the cultural and geographic environment of this character are also borderline: she alternates her first name in Spanish—no last name—with an African name she has invented for herself, María Mandinga, and she is also culturally double because her environment is Spanish (daughter of the Marquis of Casalduero and of the plebeian Bernarda Cabrera) and African (nursed, reared, and baptized under the tutelage of the Catholic-Yoruba black woman Dominga de Adviento, a symbol of “the link between the two worlds”). But Sierva María recognizes Dominga as her mother and chooses to sleep with the slaves; she dances and speaks several African languages, she wears African clothes and necklaces and celebrates her twelfth birthday with them with fireworks and music. Sierva María chooses and constructs her African identity as María Mandinga: she speaks the Yoruba language and refuses to learn peninsular Spanish and to read, write, or study arithmetic.

Just as her origin and upbringing are tinged with two colors, her physical space fluctuates between displacements from the two worlds: that of the masters (the home of her white biological parents) and that of the slaves (the courtyard and halfway areas) where her wet nurse Dominga lives (not her biological mother, thus putting into question the family as a cultural legacy).

Three “defects” in Sierva María will motivate her sentence to exorcism and trial by the Inquisition: a social one, a moral one, and one of kinship. Her social “defect,” her lack of a Spanish surname and apparent illegitimacy, negates the presence of the father and marks her out as powerless against the colonials. Instead, she autonomously substitutes an African identify for her white one under the name of María Mandinga, by her own choice, thus challenging the colonial laws of kinship. Her second “defect” is moral: her future integrity is thrown into doubt, placed on the border between sanctity and prostitution by the prophecies of Dominga Sarmiento (who declares that she will be a saint) and of her father, Ignacio de Alfaro Dueñas, second Marquis of Casalduero and Lord of the Darién (who asserts that she will be a whore) (42). The third “defect” is physical: María Mandinga is not normal either; she suffers from some illness in the eyes of white people; rabies, demonic possession, and madness all blend into one, at a time when no distinction was made between medicine-religion and superstition, as Foucault aptly reminds us.11  Her ailment, physically marked by a slight scar on her left ankle caused by the bite of a supposedly rabid dog, emphasizes an ill-fated difference that will cause her death; physically, her behavior, openly and morbidly African for the daughter of a white nobleman and a mestizo woman, threatens the predominant cultural order and therefore must be controlled by the laws of the Inquisition.

And so it is that María Mandinga, under suspicion of demonic possession, as decreed by the bishop because of “her obscene convulsions, howling the gibberish of idolaters” (55), is committed to the Santa Clara Convent, where she is led symbolically dressed as Queen Joanna the Mad on Palm Sunday, until “disappearing into the pavilion of those interred in life” (61). They take her to the farthest cell, next to the wing that served as a prison for the Inquisition, “ninety-three days after she had been bitten by the dog and showed no symptoms of rabies” (63) while she is called a creature of Satan by the nuns, but comforted by the Yoruban slave women who work in the prison. From that moment on, rabies (a virulent sickness transmitted by animals) and possession by demons (a disease invented or interpreted by the Church) are fused into one in this character who must be subjected to exorcism (a ceremony used by the Catholic Church to cast out the demons from the people who have fallen under their power) according to Church law, which follows the European rules of the Inquisition.

In an environment intimidated by the Church, the discourse of the novel debates the significance of the meeting of two worlds: the black African in America (a product of the slave trade) and the white Spanish (which controls the legal and governmental institutions); it stresses the tenuous dividing line between the practice (by blacks) of black magic and the rituals of exorcism (by whites), coming down on the side of the former, in which animals are sacrificed, whereas the exorcists and the “Holy Office [are] happy to break innocents on the rack or burn them alive in public spectacle” (72). It contrasts the efficacy of the black people’s medicine with that of Europe; it questions Spanish cultural attitudes and values such as the persecution and prejudices against the Jews and the relevance of honor; it notes that in fifty years the Inquisition had sentenced thirteen hundred medical or related professionals to various penalties or to the stake.

It is Abrenuncio, intentionally a Portuguese Jewish physician on whom the Church zealously keeps an eye, who exposes and unmasks, with his full scientific authority, the deplorable examples in which rabies, possession by the devil, and certain forms of madness and other disturbances of the spirit have been confused (115). He dares to express his view that killing Sierva María would have been more Christian than burying her alive (72). In private he denies the girl’s supernatural powers (leviation, divination, sanctity), though powerless and sadly convinced that nobody would stand up to popular credulity. At the level of spiritual authority, the priest and poet Cayetano Alcino del Espíritu Santo Delaura y Escudero does not find demonic possession, but identifies and explains the motive (to which García Márquez wants to lead readers) for Sierva’s reactions: “I believe that what seems demonic to us are the customs of the blacks learned by the girl as a consequence of the neglected condition in which her parents kept her” (91). It is therefore black culture that is on trial by the Europeans and must be exorcized, and Sierva María serves as the scapegoat. Nevertheless, the exit vindicates black culture and accuses that of Europe when Delaura himself, referring to the Abbess Josefa Miranda, says, “If anyone is possessed by all the demons, it is Josefa Miranda. Demons of rancor, intolerance, imbecility. She is detestable!” (94). 12

García Márquez is seeking in this novel to articulate both the history of individuals over the subconscious of culture and the historicity of cultures over the subconscious of individuals, which undoubtedly opens up more general problems that may be posed about mankind.

And lastly I shall speak of love, which, like another demon from the European point of view, will also be a cause of transgression in this novel. The love—partly unconscious and partly a cultural construct—between the girl and the priest allows the narrator to explore dogmas and theological principles of the Catholic faith (such as the idea of sin, the institution of matrimony, the Indians’ lack of a soul, and the animality of blacks, the origin of serious racial prejudices prevalent in the twentieth century) in a highly polemic and dialogic fashion.

When passion springs up between Delaura and Sierva María, the priest (to whom the bishop describes love as a feeling against nature) transfers through time and contact the language of love in the Gospels to that of neo-Platonism in the Spanish Renaissance poet Garcilaso de la Vega (1501?-1536) on the many occasions when he addresses Sierva María to pay homage: “For you I was born, for you do I have life, for you will I die, and for you I am now dying” (88).13 He confesses to her that “every moment was filled with thoughts of her, that everything he ate tasted of her; that she was his life, always and everywhere, as only God had the right and power to be, and that the supreme joy of his heart would be to die with her” (125). Love, the subject that dominated Spanish literature in the sixteenth century, is re-created in this novel, transplanting from Europe two literary topics beautifully expressed: courtly love and the locus amoenus.14  This passion between Monsignor Cayetano Delaura at thirty-six years of age and Sierva María at twelve is born in prison as a relationship between a healer and a sufferer, through a language that adopts and, at the same time, corrupts the medieval and Renaissance topic of courtly love, expressed as the struggle of a lover for an unattainable woman. The discourse of the novel is impregnated with voices of troubadours, in which we mostly hear Delaura, interrupted by Sierva María. Garcilaso de la Vega’s love poetry, recited, lived, and distorted by the illicit lovers, is set in a prison and in the imagined literary garden of constant self-creation (eternal spring).

As a courtly lover, Delaura conceives love as a desire that grows and is never satisfied, as an ennobling force in which one pays homage to the loved one, whereas Sierva María, accustomed to witnessing the free love of black people, is surprised at the virtuous suffering of her lover. In the novel, they lie side by side without making love, but never ceasing to talk about the evils of love:

They exhausted themselves in kisses, they wept burning tears as they declaimed lovers’ verses, they sang into each other’s ear, they writhed in quicksands of desire to the very limits of their strength: spent, but virgin. For he had resolved to keep his vow until he received the sacrament, and she with him. (127)

As time goes by, Delaura’s passion will become, according to him, a demonic possession that he confesses to the bishop after stripping himself naked, weeping, and self-flagellating: “It is the Demon, Father . . .the most terrible one of all” (118). For Delaura erotic love can only be a synonym of the Devil; his sincere confession to the bishop is more or less a judicial routine, after which he is sentenced to nurse lepers in the Amor de Dios Hospital, where he can never see Sierva María again.

The locus amoenus theme appears three times in the novel through Delaura’s and Sierva María’s successive dreams. While Cayetano Delaura investigates the diabolical possession of Sierva María, he dreams that

Sierva María sat at a window overlooking a snow-covered field, eating grapes one by one from a cluster she held in her lap. Each grape she pulled off grew back again on the cluster. In the dream it was evident the girl had spent many years at that infinite window trying to finish the cluster, and was in no hurry to do so because she knew that in the last grape lay death. (75)

In part four of the novel, to Delaura’s astonishment and fear, Sierva tells him  she has had the same dream. In the last scene a fatal variation occurs: instead of plucking the grapes one by one, Sierva does it “two by two, hardly breathing in her longing to strip the cluster of its last grape” (147), and she dies of love before her sixth exorcism session. García Márquez has transgressed the topic of locus amoenus; the fertile Renaissance literary garden, constant self-generator of life, becomes in this novel a garden of death. A prisoner of the Inquisition and far from her African identity, María Mandinga chooses to die when she loses her love—her only existing bridge to the colonial culture. On becoming aware of her situation as a scapegoat of the colonial system to punish the Hispanic American demons by the repressive means of exorcism and the Inquisition, Sierva María chooses to let herself die (an earthly death in America) as a sign of defeat and protest (to then regain the sense of immortality of a radiant newborn baby). Her “being” has been lost under the politics of colonialism. For the Mandingan-European girl America has ceased to be the supposed, longed-for Renaissance literary paradise and become a tomb where all that is left is to hasten death: suicide.15

And this is how it ends, this beautiful legend of love that the author once heard his grandmother tell.



1. Translation by Edith Grossman of Del amor y otros demonios (Bogotá: Norma, 1994) ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995) from which all quotations in this essay are taken.  The concept of historical novel in Latin America has recently been studied by Seymour Menton in Latin America’s New Historical Novel(Austin: University of Texas, 1993).

2. To Freud the demon could be a paternal figure and demonic possession would be what today is understood as neuroses disguised as organic disease.  The demons would be repressed instinctual impulses projected outward.  Sigmund Freud, “A Neurosis of Demoniacal Possession in the Seventeenth Century” (1923), in Collected Papers, IV (New York: Basic Books, 1959)  436-472.

3. The primitiveness of the archaeology reads in the novel as follows: “The foreman copied the information that was on each stone into a notebook, arranged the bones into distinct piles, and placed a sheet of paper with a name on top of every mound to keep them all separate.  And so the first thing I saw when I entered the temple was a long line of stacked bones, heated by the savage October sun pouring in through the holes in the roof and with no more identity than a name scrawled in pencil on a piece of paper.  Almost half a century later, I can still feel the confusion produced in me by that terrible testimony to the devastating passage of years” ( 3, 4).

4. The text says: “I, on the other hand, did not think it so trivial a matter, for when I was a boy my grandmother told me the legend of a little twelve-year-old marquise with hair that trailed behind her like a bridal train, who had died of rabies caused by a dog bite and was venerated in the towns along the Caribbean coast for the many miracles she had performed.  The idea that the tomb might be hers was my news item for the day, and the origin of this book” ( 5).

5. In Manuel Tejado Fernández, Aspectos de la vida social en Cartagena de Indias (Sevilla: Escuela de Estudios Hispanoamericanos, 1954) 45-79. This chapter tells the life story of the sorceress Lorenza de Acereto, taken from Inquisition Section of the National Historical Archives.

6. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), cited in the New York Times Magazine 9 April 1995: 46.

7. Hayden White, “The Historical Text as a Literary Artifact,” The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding, eds, Robert A. Canary and Henry Kozicki (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978) 41-62.

8. In María Elvira Samper, “Entrevista a Gabriel García Márquez,” Semana (marzo 14, 1989):  27-33.  For a study on this novel, see my book El mundo satírico de Gabriel García Márquez (Madrid: Pliegos, 1991).

9. For an analysis of the relationship between semiotics and psychoanalysis, see Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

10. The description in the text of her birth at the edge of death is very interesting.  It says that Sierva María was near physical strangling by the umbilical cord and that she miraculously survived.  She looked like a “bleached tadpole, and the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck was strangling her” ( 42).

11. See Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Random House, 1965, 1988).  Referring to life in the asylums of eighteenth-century France, Foucault points out how confusing and undefined was the concept of madness, similar to the confusion between rabies, diabolic possession, and madness in Of Love and Other Demons.  He says: “between madness, false madness, and the simulation of madness, the limit was indistinct—identical symptoms confused to the point where transgression replaced unity; further still, medical thought finally effected the identification over which all Western thought since Greek medicine has hesitated: the identification of madness with madness—that is, of the medical concept with the critical concept of madness” ( 276, 277).

12. The section on love ( 276, 277), is part of a paper read at the III Encuentro de Escritores Hispanoamericanos, [Vienna] (October 7-10, 1994).

13. In a number of instances courtly love is represented not only in the love poetry of Garcilaso de la Vega, but in that of the tradition of the Italian Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), considered the first great humanist of the Renaissance, who had a decisive influence on Spanish poetry, especially in his Canzioniere and Trionfi, inspired by his love for Laura de Noves.  García Márquez reinterprets, adapting the idea of Garcilaso’s “Sonnet X,” which speaks of the clothes of his loved one.  When Delaura brings to Sierva the little suitcase her father had sent her, he “placed the articles on the table one by one.  He came to know them, smelled them with his body’s avid desire, loved them, spoke to them in obscene hexameters until he could tolerate no more” ( 118).  The tone of love after death is transmitted by Delaura, who was certain that “he had no room in his heart for anything but Sierva María, and even so it was not large enough to hold her.  He was convinced that on oceans or mountains, no laws of earth or heaven, no powers of hell could keep them apart” ( 122).

14. For a definition of courtly love, see Alex Preminger, ed., Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton, N.J: University Press, 1965) 156-159.  A. D. Deyermond, in Historia de la literatura española: La edad media, (Barcelona, Ariel, 1973), discusses the locus amoenus, the meadow as a traditional figure of speech in Latin rhetoric, represented as an open forest or garden that frequently serves as the stage for amorous events.  Gonzalo de Berceo, born towards the end of the twelfth century, in his Milagros de nuestra señora was distinguished in the medieval Spanish tradition for his development of this topic, which continued in the Renaissance ( 109-123).

15. The discourse of the text suggests at the end of the novel a merging of the Yoruba approach to death and that of the Catholic faith, the existence of a life after death, a sense of immortality.  Sierva María continues living as a child with her “eyes radiant and her skin like that of a newborn baby.  Strands of hair gushed like bubbles as they grew back on her shaved head” (147).