Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 3)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Independence from Spain and then the abolition of slavery precipitated the conditions of honorable decadence in which Dr. Juvenal Urbino had been born and raised. The great old families sank into their ruined palaces in silence. Along the rough cobbled streets that had served so well in surprise attacks and buccaneer landings, weeds hung from the balconies and opened cracks in the whitewashed walls of even the best-kept mansions, and the only signs of life at two o’clock in the afternoon were languid piano exercises played in the dim light of siesta. Indoors, in the cool bedrooms saturated with incense, women protected themselves from the sun as if it were a shameful infection, and even at early Mass they hid their faces in their mantillas. Their love affairs were slow and difficult and were often disturbed by sinister omens, and life seemed interminable. At nightfall, at the oppressive moment of transition, a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred the certainty of death in the depths of one’s soul.
And so the very life of the colonial city, which the young Juvenal Urbino tended to idealize in his Parisian melancholy, was an illusion of memory. In the eighteenth century, the commerce of the city had been the most prosperous in the Caribbean, owing in the main to the thankless privilege of its being the largest African slave market in the Americas. It was also the permanent residence of the Viceroys of the New Kingdom of Granada, who preferred to govern here on the shores of the world’s ocean rather than in the distant freezing capital under a centuries-old drizzle that disturbed their sense of reality. Several times a year, fleets of galleons carrying the treasures of Potosí, Quito, and Veracruz gathered in the bay, and the city lived its years of glory. On Friday, June 8, 1708, at four o’clock in the afternoon, the galleon San José set sail for Cádiz with a cargo of precious stones and metals valued at five hundred billion pesos in the currency of the day; it was sunk by an English squadron at the entrance to the port, and two long centuries later it had not yet been salvaged. That treasure lying in its bed of coral, and the corpse of the commander floating sideways on the bridge, were evoked by historians as an emblem of the city drowned in memories.
Across the bay, in the residential district of La Manga, Dr. Juvenal Urbino’s house stood in another time. One-story, spacious and cool, it had a portico with Doric columns on the outside terrace, which commanded a view of the still, miasmic water and the debris from sunken ships in the bay. From the entrance door to the kitchen, the floor was covered with black and white checkerboard tiles, a fact often attributed to Dr. Urbino’s ruling passion without taking into account that this was a weakness common to the Catalonian craftsmen who built this district for the nouveaux riches at the beginning of the century. The large drawing room had the very high ceilings found throughout the rest of the house, and six full-length windows facing the street, and it was separated from the dining room by an enormous, elaborate glass door covered with branching vines and bunches of grapes and maidens seduced by the pipes of fauns in a bronze grove. The furnishings in the reception rooms, including the pendulum clock that stood like a living sentinel in the drawing room, were all original English pieces from the late nineteenth century, and the lamps that hung from the walls were all teardrop crystal, and there were Sèvres vases and bowls everywhere and little alabaster statues of pagan idylls. But that European coherence vanished in the rest of the house, where wicker armchairs were jumbled together with Viennese rockers and leather footstools made by local craftsmen. Splendid hammocks from San Jacinto, with multicolored fringe along the sides and the owner’s name embroidered in Gothic letters with silk thread, hung in the bedrooms along with the beds. Next to the dining room, the space that had originally been designed for gala suppers was used as a small music room for intimate concerts when famous performers came to the city. In order to enhance the silence, the tiles had been covered with the Turkish rugs purchased at the World’s Fair in Paris; a recent model of a victrola stood next to a stand that held records arranged with care, and in a corner, draped with a Manila shawl, was the piano that Dr. Urbino had not played for many years. Throughout the house one could detect the good sense and care of a woman whose feet were planted firmly on the ground.
But no other room displayed the meticulous solemnity of the library, the sanctuary of Dr. Urbino until old age carried him off. There, all around his father’s walnut desk and the tufted leather easy chairs, he had lined the walls and even the windows with shelves behind glass doors, and had arranged in an almost demented order the three thousand volumes bound in identical calfskin with his initials in gold on the spines. Unlike the other rooms, which were at the mercy of noise and foul winds from the port, the library always enjoyed the tranquillity and fragrance of an abbey. Born and raised in the Caribbean superstition that one opened doors and windows to summon a coolness that in fact did not exist, Dr. Urbino and his wife at first felt their hearts oppressed by enclosure. But in the end they were convinced of the merits of the Roman strategy against heat, which consists of closing houses during the lethargy of August in order to keep out the burning air from the street, and then opening them up completely to the night breezes. And from that time on theirs was the coolest house under the furious La Manga sun, and it was a delight to take a siesta in the darkened bedrooms and to sit on the portico in the afternoon to watch the heavy, ash-gray freighters from New Orleans pass by, and at dusk to see the wooden paddles of the riverboats with their shining lights, purifying the stagnant garbage heap of the bay with the wake of their music. It was also the best protected from December through March, when the northern winds tore away roofs and spent the night circling like hungry wolves looking for a crack where they could slip in. No one ever thought that a marriage rooted in such foundations could have any reason not to be happy.
In any case, Dr. Urbino was not when he returned home that morning before ten o’clock, shaken by the two visits that not only had obliged him to miss Pentecost Mass but also threatened to change him at an age when everything had seemed complete. He wanted a short siesta until it was time for Dr. Lácides Olivella’s gala luncheon, but he found the servants in an uproar as they attempted to catch the parrot, who had flown to the highest branches of the mango tree when they took him from his cage to clip his wings. He was a deplumed, maniacal parrot who did not speak when asked to but only when it was least expected, but then he did so with a clarity and rationality that were uncommon among human beings. He had been tutored by Dr. Urbino himself, which afforded him privileges that no one else in the family ever had, not even the children when they were young.
He had lived in the house for over twenty years, and no one knew how many years he had been alive before then. Every afternoon after his siesta, Dr. Urbino sat with him on the terrace in the patio, the coolest spot in the house, and he had summoned the most diligent reserves of his passion for pedagogy until the parrot learned to speak French like an academician. Then, just for love of the labor, he taught him the Latin accompaniment to the Mass and selected passages from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, and he tried without success to inculcate in him a working notion of the four arithmetic functions. On one of his last trips to Europe he brought back the first phonograph with a trumpet speaker, along with many of the latest popular records as well as those by his favorite classical composers. Day after day, over and over again for several months, he played the songs of Yvette Guilbert and Aristide Bruant, who had charmed France during the last century, until the parrot learned them by heart. He sang them in a woman’s voice if they were hers, in a tenor’s voice if they were his, and ended with impudent laughter that was a masterful imitation of the servant girls when they heard him singing in French. The fame of his accomplishments was so widespread that on occasion distinguished visitors who had traveled from the interior on the riverboats would ask permission to see him, and once some of the many English tourists, who in those days sailed the banana boats from New Orleans, would have bought him at any price. But the day of his greatest glory was when the President of the Republic, Don Marco Fidel Suárez, with his entourage of cabinet ministers, visited the house in order to confirm the truth of his reputation. They arrived at about three o’clock in the afternoon, suffocating in the top hats and frock coats they had worn during three days of official visits under the burning August sky, and they had to leave as curious as when they arrived, because for two desperate hours the parrot refused to say a single syllable, ignoring the pleas and threats and public humiliation of Dr. Urbino, who had insisted on that foolhardy invitation despite the sage warnings of his wife.
The fact that the parrot could maintain his privileges after that historic act of defiance was the ultimate proof of his sacred rights. No other animal was permitted in the house, with the exception of the land turtle who had reappeared in the kitchen after three or four years, when everyone thought he was lost forever. He, however, was not considered a living being but rather a mineral good luck charm whose location one could never be certain of. Dr. Urbino was reluctant to confess his hatred of animals, which he disguised with all kinds of scientific inventions and philosophical pretexts that convinced many, but not his wife. He said that people who loved them to excess were capable of the worst cruelties toward human beings. He said that dogs were not loyal but servile, that cats were opportunists and traitors, that peacocks were heralds of death, that macaws were simply decorative annoyances, that rabbits fomented greed, that monkeys carried the fever of lust, and that roosters were damned because they had been complicit in the three denials of Christ.
On the other hand, Fermina Daza, his wife, who at that time was seventy-two years old and had already lost the doe’s gait of her younger days, was an irrational idolater of tropical flowers and domestic animals, and early in her marriage she had taken advantage of the novelty of love to keep many more of them in the house than good sense would allow. The first were three Dalmatians named after Roman emperors, who fought for the favors of a female who did honor to her name of Messalina, for it took her longer to give birth to nine pups than to conceive another ten. Then there were Abyssinian cats with the profiles of eagles and the manners of pharaohs, cross-eyed Siamese and palace Persians with orange eyes, who walked through the rooms like shadowy phantoms and shattered the night with the howling of their witches’ sabbaths of love. For several years an Amazonian monkey, chained by his waist to the mango tree in the patio, elicited a certain compassion because he had the sorrowful face of Archbishop Obdulio y Rey, the same candid eyes, the same eloquent hands; that, however, was not the reason Fermina got rid of him, but because he had the bad habit of pleasuring himself in honor of the ladies.
There were all kinds of Guatemalan birds in cages along the passageways, and premonitory curlews, and swamp herons with long yellow legs, and a young stag who came in through the windows to eat the anthurium in the flowerpots. Shortly before the last civil war, when there was talk for the first time of a possible visit by the Pope, they had brought a bird of paradise from Guatemala, but it took longer to arrive than to return to its homeland when it was learned that the announcement of the pontifical visit had been a lie spread by the government to alarm the conspiratorial Liberals. Another time, on the smugglers’ ships from Curaçao, they bought a wicker cage with six perfumed crows identical to the ones that Fermina Daza had kept as a girl in her father’s house and that she still wanted to have as a married woman. But no one could bear the continual flapping of their wings that filled the house with the reek of funeral wreaths. They also brought in an anaconda, four meters long, whose insomniac hunter’s sighs disturbed the darkness in the bedrooms although it accomplished what they had wanted, which was to frighten with its mortal breath the bats and salamanders and countless species of harmful insects that invaded the house during the rainy months. Dr. Juvenal Urbino, so occupied at that time with his professional obligations and so absorbed in his civic and cultural enterprises, was content to assume that in the midst of so many abominable creatures his wife was not only the most beautiful woman in the Caribbean but also the happiest. But one rainy afternoon, at the end of an exhausting day, he encountered a disaster in the house that brought him to his senses. Out of the drawing room, and for as far as the eye could see, a stream of dead animals floated in a marsh of blood. The servant girls had climbed on the chairs, not knowing what to do, and they had not yet recovered from the panic of the slaughter.
One of the German mastiffs, maddened by a sudden attack of rabies, had torn to pieces every animal of any kind that crossed its path, until the gardener from the house next door found the courage to face him and hack him to pieces with his machete. No one knew how many creatures he had bitten or contaminated with his green slaverings, and so Dr. Urbino ordered the survivors killed and their bodies burned in an isolated field, and he requested the services of Misericordia Hospital for a thorough disinfecting of the house. The only animal to escape, because nobody remembered him, was the giant lucky charm tortoise.