Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 4)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Fermina Daza admitted for the first time that her husband was right in a domestic matter, and for a long while afterward she was careful to say no more about animals. She consoled herself with color illustrations from Linnaeus’s Natural History, which she framed and hung on the drawing room walls, and perhaps she would eventually have lost all hope of ever seeing an animal in the house again if it had not been for the thieves who, early one morning, forced a bathroom window and made off with the silver service that had been in the family for five generations. Dr. Urbino put double padlocks on the window frames, secured the doors on the inside with iron crossbars, placed his most valuable possessions in the strongbox, and belatedly acquired the wartime habit of sleeping with a revolver under his pillow. But he opposed the purchase of a fierce dog, vaccinated or unvaccinated, running loose or chained up, even if thieves were to steal everything he owned.
“Nothing that does not speak will come into this house,” he said.
He said it to put an end to the specious arguments of his wife, who was once again determined to buy a dog, and he never imagined that his hasty generalization was to cost him his life. Fermina Daza, whose straightforward character had become more subtle with the years, seized on her husband’s casual words, and months after the robbery she returned to the ships from Curaçao and bought a royal Paramaribo parrot, who knew only the blasphemies of sailors but said them in a voice so human that he was well worth the extravagant price of twelve centavos.
He was a fine parrot, lighter than he seemed, with a yellow head and a black tongue, the only way to distinguish him from mangrove parrots who did not learn to speak even with turpentine suppositories. Dr. Urbino, a good loser, bowed to the ingenuity of his wife and was even surprised at how amused he was by the advances the parrot made when he was excited by the servant girls. On rainy afternoons, his tongue loosened by the pleasure of having his feathers drenched, he uttered phrases from another time, which he could not have learned in the house and which led one to think that he was much older than he appeared. The Doctor’s final doubts collapsed one night when the thieves tried to get in again through a skylight in the attic, and the parrot frightened them with a mastiff’s barking that could not have been more realistic if it had been real, and with shouts of stop thief stop thief stop thief, two saving graces he had not learned in the house. It was then that Dr. Urbino took charge of him and ordered the construction of a perch under the mango tree with a container for water, another for ripe bananas, and a trapeze for acrobatics. From December through March, when the nights were cold and the north winds made living outdoors unbearable, he was taken inside to sleep in the bedrooms in a cage covered by a blanket, although Dr. Urbino suspected that his chronic swollen glands might be a threat to the healthy respiration of humans. For many years they clipped his wing feathers and let him wander wherever he chose to walk with his hulking old horseman’s gait. But one day he began to do acrobatic tricks on the beams in the kitchen and fell into the pot of stew with a sailor’s shout of every man for himself, and with such good luck that the cook managed to scoop him out with the ladle, scalded and deplumed but still alive. From then on he was kept in the cage even during the daytime, in defiance of the vulgar belief that caged parrots forget everything they have learned, and let out only in the four o’clock coolness for his classes with Dr. Urbino on the terrace in the patio. No one realized in time that his wings were too long, and they were about to clip them that morning when he escaped to the top of the mango tree.
And for three hours they had not been able to catch him. The servant girls, with the help of other maids in the neighborhood, had used all kinds of tricks to lure him down, but he insisted on staying where he was, laughing madly as he shouted long live the Liberal Party, long live the Liberal Party damn it, a reckless cry that had cost many a carefree drunk his life. Dr. Urbino could barely see him amid the leaves, and he tried to cajole him in Spanish and French and even in Latin, and the parrot responded in the same languages and with the same emphasis and timbre in his voice, but he did not move from his treetop. Convinced that no one was going to make him move voluntarily, Dr. Urbino had them send for the fire department, his most recent civic pastime.
Until just a short time before, in fact, fires had been put out by volunteers using brickmasons’ ladders and buckets of water carried in from wherever it could be found, and methods so disorderly that they sometimes caused more damage than the fires. But for the past year, thanks to a fund- organized by the Society for Public Improvement, of which Juvenal Urbino was honorary president, there was a corps of professional firemen and a water truck with a siren and a bell and two high-pressure hoses. They were so popular that classes were suspended when the church bells were heard sounding the alarm, so that children could watch them fight the fire. At first that was all they did. But Dr. Urbino told the municipal authorities that in Hamburg he had seen firemen revive a boy found frozen in a basement after a three-day snowstorm. He had also seen them in a Neapolitan alley lowering a corpse in his coffin from a tenth-floor balcony because the stairway in the building had so many twists and turns that the family could not get him down to the street. That was how the local firemen learned to render other emergency services, such as forcing locks or killing poisonous snakes, and the Medical School offered them a special course in first aid for minor accidents. So it was in no way peculiar to ask them to please get a distinguished parrot, with all the qualities of a gentleman, out of a tree. Dr. Urbino said: “Tell them it’s for me.” And he went to his bedroom to dress for the gala luncheon. The truth was that at that moment, devastated by the letter from Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, he did not really care about the fate of the parrot.
Fermina Daza had put on a loose-fitting silk dress belted at the hip, a necklace of real pearls with six long, uneven loops, and high-heeled satin shoes that she wore only on very solemn occasions, for by now she was too old for such abuses. Her stylish attire did not seem appropriate for a venerable grandmother, but it suited her figure–long-boned and still slender and erect, her resilient hands without a single age spot, her steel-blue hair bobbed on a slant at her cheek. Her clear almond eyes and her inborn haughtiness were all that were left to her from her wedding portrait, but what she had been deprived of by age she more than made up for in character and diligence. She felt very well: the time of iron corsets, bound waists, and bustles that exaggerated buttocks was receding into the past. Liberated bodies, breathing freely, showed themselves for what they were. Even at the age of seventy-two.
Dr. Urbino found her sitting at her dressing table under the slow blades of the electric fan, putting on her bell-shaped hat decorated with felt violets. The bedroom was large and bright, with an English bed protected by mosquito netting embroidered in pink, and two windows open to the trees in the patio, where one could hear the clamor of cicadas, giddy with premonitions of rain. Ever since their return from their honeymoon, Fermina Daza had chosen her husband’s clothes according to the weather and the occasion, and laid them out for him on a chair the night before so they would be ready for him when he came out of the bathroom. She could not remember when she had also begun to help him dress, and finally to dress him, and she was aware that at first she had done it for love, but for the past five years or so she had been obliged to do it regardless of the reason because he could not dress himself. They had just celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, and they were not capable of living for even an instant without the other, or without thinking about the other, and that capacity diminished as their age increased. Neither could have said if their mutual dependence was based on love or convenience, but they had never asked the question with their hands on their hearts because both had always preferred not to know the answer. Little by little she had been discovering the uncertainty of her husband’s step, his mood changes, the gaps in his memory, his recent habit of sobbing while he slept, but she did not identify these as the unequivocal signs of final decay but rather as a happy return to childhood. That was why she did not treat him like a difficult old man but as a senile baby, and that deception was providential for the two of them because it put them beyond the reach of pity.
Life would have been quite another matter for them both if they had learned in time that it was easier to avoid great matrimonial catastrophes than trivial everyday miseries. But if they had learned anything together, it was that wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good. For years Fermina Daza had endured her husband’s jubilant dawns with a bitter heart. She clung to the last threads of sleep in order to avoid facing the fatality of another morning full of sinister premonitions, while he awoke with the innocence of a newborn: each new day was one more day he had won. She heard him awake with the roosters, and his first sign of life was a cough without rhyme or reason that seemed intended to awaken her too. She heard him grumble, just to annoy her, while he felt around for the slippers that were supposed to be next to the bed. She heard him make his way to the bathroom, groping in the dark. After an hour in his study, when she had fallen asleep again, he would come back to dress, still without turning on the light. Once, during a party game, he had been asked how he defined himself, and he had said: “I am a man who dresses in the dark.” She heard him, knowing full well that not one of those noises was indispensable, and that he made them on purpose although he pretended not to, just as she was awake and pretended not to be. His motives were clear: he never needed her awake and lucid as much as he did during those fumbling moments. There was no sleeper more elegant than she, with her curved body posed for a dance and her hand across her forehead, but there was also no one more ferocious when anyone disturbed the sensuality of her thinking she was still asleep when she no longer was. Dr. Urbino knew she was waiting for his slightest sound, that she even would be grateful for it, just so she could blame someone for waking her at five o’clock in the morning, so that on the few occasions when he had to feel around in the dark because he could not find his slippers in their customary place, she would suddenly say in a sleepy voice: “You left them in the bathroom last night.” Then right after that, her voice fully awake with rage, she would curse: “The worst misfortune in this house is that nobody lets you sleep.”
Then she would roll over in bed and turn on the light without the least mercy for herself, content with her first victory of the day. The truth was they both played a game, mythical and perverse, but for all that comforting: it was one of the many dangerous pleasures of domestic love. But one of those trivial games almost ended the first thirty years of their life together, because one day there was no soap in the bathroom.
It began with routine simplicity. Dr. Juvenal Urbino had returned to the bedroom, in the days when he still bathed without help, and begun to dress without turning on the light. As usual she was in her warm fetal state, her eyes closed, her breathing shallow, that arm from a sacred dance above her head. But she was only half asleep, as usual, and he knew it. After a prolonged sound of starched linen in the darkness, Dr. Urbino said to himself:
“I’ve been bathing for almost a week without any soap.”
Then, fully awake, she remembered, and tossed and turned in fury with the world because in fact she had forgotten to replace the soap in the bathroom. She had noticed its absence three days earlier when she was already under the shower, and she had planned to replace it afterward, but then she forgot until the next day, and on the third day the same thing happened again. The truth was that a week had not gone by, as he said to make her feel more guilty, but three unpardonable days, and her anger at being found out in a mistake maddened her. As always, she defended herself by attacking.
“Well I’ve bathed every day,” she shouted, beside herself with rage, “and there’s always been soap.”
Although he knew her battle tactics by heart, this time he could not abide them. On some professional pretext or other he went to live in the interns’ quarters at Misericordia Hospital, returning home only to change his clothes before making his evening house calls. She headed for the kitchen when she heard him come in, pretending that she had something to do, and stayed there until she heard his carriage in the street. For the next three months, each time they tried to resolve the conflict they only inflamed their feelings even more. He was not ready to come back as long as she refused to admit there had been no soap in the bathroom, and she was not prepared to have him back until he recognized that he had consciously lied to torment her.
The incident, of course, gave them the opportunity to evoke many other trivial quarrels from many other dim and turbulent dawns. Resentments stirred up other resentments, reopened old scars, turned them into fresh wounds, and both were dismayed at the desolating proof that in so many years of conjugal battling they had done little more than nurture their rancor. At last he proposed that they both submit to an open confession, with the Archbishop himself if necessary, so that God could decide once and for all whether or not there had been soap in the soap dish in the bathroom. Then, despite all her selfcontrol, she lost her temper with a historic cry:
“To hell with the Archbishop!”
The impropriety shook the very foundations of the city, gave rise to slanders that were not easy to disprove, and was preserved in popular tradition as if it were a line from an operetta: “To hell with the Archbishop!” Realizing she had gone too far, she anticipated her husband’s predictable response and threatened to move back to her father’s old house, which still belonged to her although it had been rented out for public offices, and live there by herself. And it was not an idle threat: she really did want to leave and did not care about the scandal, and her husband realized this in time. He did not have the courage to defy his own prejudices, and he capitulated. Not in the sense that he admitted there had been soap in the bathroom, but insofar as he continued to live in the same house with her, although they slept in separate rooms, and he did not say a word to her. They ate in silence, sparring with so much skill that they sent each other messages across the table through the children, and the children never realized that they were not speaking to each other.
Since the study had no bathroom, the arrangement solved the problem of noise in the morning, because he came in to bathe after preparing his class and made a sincere effort not to awaken his wife. They would often arrive at the bathroom at the same time, and then they took turns brushing their teeth before going to sleep. After four months had gone by, he lay down on their double bed one night to read until she came out of the bathroom, as he often did, and he fell asleep. She lay down beside him in a rather careless way so that he would wake up and leave. And in fact he did stir, but instead of getting up he turned out the light and settled himself on the pillow. She shook him by the shoulder to remind him that he was supposed to go to the study, but it felt so comfortable to be back in his great-grandparents’ featherbed that he preferred to capitulate.
“Let me stay here,” he said. “There was soap.”