Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 10)
Love in the Time of the Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
At first she had not even thought seriously that she was obliged to respond, but the letter was so explicit that there was no way to avoid it. Meanwhile, in the torment of her doubts, she was surprised to find herself thinking about Florentino Ariza with more frequency and interest than she cared to allow, and she even asked herself in great distress why he was not in the little park at the usual hour, forgetting that it was she who had asked him not to return while she was preparing her reply. And so she thought about him as she never could have imagined thinking about anyone, having premonitions that he would be where he was not, wanting him to be where he could not be, awaking with a start, with the physical sensation that he was looking at her in the darkness while she slept, so that on the afternoon when she heard his resolute steps on the yellow leaves in the little park it was difficult for her not to think this was yet another trick of her imagination. But when he demanded her answer with an authority that was so different from his languor, she managed to overcome her fear and tried to dodge the issue with the truth: she did not know how to answer him. But Florentino Ariza had not leapt across an abyss only to be shooed away with such excuses.
“If you accepted the letter,” he said to her, “it shows a lack of courtesy not to answer it.”
That was the end of the labyrinth. Fermina Daza regained her self-control, begged his pardon for the delay, and gave him her solemn word that he would have an answer before the end of the vacation. And he did. On the last Friday in February, three days before school reopened, Aunt Escolástica went to the telegraph office to ask how much it cost to send a telegram to Piedras de Moler, a village that did not even appear on the list of places served by the telegraph, and she allowed Florentino Ariza to attend her as if she had never seen him before, but when she left she pretended to forget a breviary covered in lizard skin, leaving it on the counter, and in it there was an envelope made of linen paper with golden vignettes. Delirious with joy, Florentino Ariza spent the rest of the afternoon eating roses and reading the note letter by letter, over and over again, and the more he read the more roses he ate, and by midnight he had read it so many times and had eaten so many roses that his mother had to hold his head as if he were a calf and force him to swallow a dose of castor oil. It was the year they fell into devastating love. Neither one could do anything except think about the other, dream about the other, and wait for letters with the same impatience they felt when they answered them. Never in that delirious spring, or in the following year, did they have the opportunity to speak to each other. Moreover, from the moment they saw each other for the first time until he reiterated his determination a half century later, they never had the opportunity to be alone or to talk of their love. But during the first three months not one day went by that they did not write to each other, and for a time they wrote twice a day, until Aunt Escolástica became frightened by the intensity of the blaze that she herself had helped to ignite.
After the first letter that she carried to the telegraph office with an ember of revenge against her own destiny, she had allowed an almost daily exchange of messages in what appeared to be casual encounters on the street, but she did not have the courage to permit a conversation, no matter how banal and fleeting it might be. Still, after three months she realized that her niece was not the victim of a girlish fancy, as it had seemed at first, and that her own life was threatened by the fire of love. The truth was that Escolástica Daza had no other means of support except her brother’s charity, and she knew that his tyrannical nature would never forgive such a betrayal of his confidence. But when it was time for the final decision, she did not have the heart to cause her niece the same irreparable grief that she had been obliged to nurture ever since her youth, and she permitted her to use a strategy that allowed her the illusion of innocence. The method was simple: Fermina Daza would leave her letter in some hiding place along her daily route from the house to the Academy, and in that letter she would indicate to Florentino Ariza where she expected to find his answer. Florentino Ariza did the same. In this way, for the rest of the year, the conflicts in Aunt Escolástica’s conscience were transferred to baptisteries in churches, holes in trees, and crannies in ruined colonial fortresses. Sometimes their letters were soaked by rain, soiled by mud, torn by adversity, and some were lost for a variety of other reasons, but they always found a way to be in touch with each other again.
Florentino Ariza wrote every night. Letter by letter, he had no mercy as he poisoned himself with the smoke from the palm oil lamps in the back room of the notions shop, and his letters became more discursive and more lunatic the more he tried to imitate his favorite poets from the Popular Library, which even at that time was approaching eighty volumes. His mother, who had urged him with so much fervor to enjoy his torment, became concerned for his health. “You are going to wear out your brains,” she shouted at him from the bedroom when she heard the first roosters crow. “No woman is worth all that.” She could not remember ever having known anyone in such a state of unbridled passion. But he paid no attention to her. Sometimes he went to the office without having slept, his hair in an uproar of love after leaving the letter in the prearranged hiding place so that Fermina Daza would find it on her way to school. She, on the other hand, under the watchful eye of her father and the vicious spying of the nuns, could barely manage to fill half a page from her notebook when she locked herself in the bathroom or pretended to take notes in class. But this was not only due to her limited time and the danger of being taken by surprise, it was also her nature that caused her letters to avoid emotional pitfalls and confine themselves to relating the events of her daily life in the utilitarian style of a ship’s log. In reality they were distracted letters, intended to keep the coals alive without putting her hand in the fire, while Florentino Ariza burned himself alive in every line. Desperate to infect her with his own madness, he sent her miniaturist’s verses inscribed with the point of a pin on camellia petals.
It was he, not she, who had the audacity to enclose a lock of his hair in one letter, but he never received the response he longed for, which was an entire strand of Fermina Daza’s braid. He did move her at last to take one step further, and from that time on she began to send him the veins of leaves dried in dictionaries, the wings of butterflies, the feathers of magic birds, and for his birthday she gave him a square centimeter of St. Peter Clavier’s habit, which in those days was being sold in secret at a price far beyond the reach of a schoolgirl her age. One night, without any warning, Fermina Daza awoke with a start: a solo violin was serenading her, playing the same waltz over and over again. She shuddered when she realized that each note was an act of thanksgiving for the petals from her herbarium, for the moments stolen from arithmetic to write her letters, for her fear of examinations when she was thinking more about him than about the natural sciences, but she did not dare believe that Florentino Ariza was capable of such imprudence.
The next morning at breakfast Lorenzo Daza could not contain his curiosity–first because he did not know what playing a single piece meant in the language of serenades, and second because, despite the attention with which he had listened, he could not determine which house it had been intended for. Aunt Escolástica, with a sangfroid that took her niece’s breath away, stated that she had seen through the bedroom curtains that the solitary violinist was standing on the other side of the park, and she said that in any event a single piece was notification of severed relations. In that day’s letter Florentino Ariza confirmed that he had played the serenade, that he had composed the waltz, and that it bore the name he called Fermina Daza in his heart: “The Crowned Goddess.” He did not play it in the park again, but on moonlit nights in places chosen so that she could listen without fear in her bedroom. One of his favored spots was the paupers’ cemetery, exposed to the sun and the rain on an indigent hill, where turkey buzzards dozed and the music achieved a supernatural resonance. Later he learned to recognize the direction of the winds, and in this way he was certain that his melody carried as far as it had to.
In August of that year a new civil war, one of the many that had been devastating the country for over half a century, threatened to spread, and the government imposed martial law and a six o’clock curfew in the provinces along the Caribbean coast. Although some disturbances had already occurred, and the troops had committed all kinds of retaliatory abuses, Florentino Ariza was so befuddled that he was unaware of the state of the world, and a military patrol surprised him one dawn as he disturbed the chastity of the dead with his amorous provocations. By some miracle he escaped summary execution after he was accused of being a spy who sent messages in the key of G to the Liberal ships marauding in nearby waters.
“What the hell do you mean, a spy?” said Florentino Ariza. “I’m nothing but a poor lover.”
For three nights he slept with irons around his ankles in the cells of the local garrison. But when he was released he felt defrauded by the brevity of his captivity, and even in the days of his old age, when so many other wars were confused in his memory, he still thought he was the only man in the city, and perhaps the country, who had dragged fivepound leg irons for the sake of love.
Their frenetic correspondence was almost two years old when Florentino Ariza, in a letter of only one paragraph, made a formal proposal of marriage to Fermina Daza. On several occasions during the preceding six months he had sent her a white camellia, but she would return it to him in her next letter so that he would have no doubt that she was disposed to continue writing to him, but without the seriousness of an engagement. The truth is that she had always taken the comings and goings of the camellia as a lovers’ game, and it had never occurred to her to consider it as a crossroads in her destiny. But when the formal proposal arrived she felt herself wounded for the first time by the clawings of death. Panic-stricken, she told her Aunt Escolástica, who gave her advice with the courage and lucidity she had not had when she was twenty and was forced to decide her own fate. “Tell him yes,” she said. “Even if you are dying of fear, even if you are sorry later, because whatever you do, you will be sorry all the rest of your life if you say no.”
Fermina Daza, however, was so confused that she asked for some time to think it over. First she asked for a month, then two, then three, and when the fourth month had ended and she had still not replied, she received a white camellia again, not alone in the envelope as on other occasions but with the peremptory notification that this was the last one: it was now or never. Then that same afternoon it was Florentino Ariza who saw the face of death when he received an envelope containing a strip of paper, torn from the margin of a school notebook, on which a one-line answer was written in pencil: Very well, I will marry you ifyou promise not to make me eat eggplant.
Florentino Ariza was not prepared for that answer, but his mother was. Since he had first spoken to her six months earlier about his intention to marry, Tránsito Ariza had begun negotiations for renting the entire house which, until that time, she had shared with two other families. A two-story structure dating from the seventeenth century, it was the building where the tobacco monopoly had been located under Spanish rule, and its ruined owners had been obliged to rent it out in bits and pieces because they did not have the money to maintain it. It had one section facing the street, where the retail tobacco shop had been, another section at the rear of a paved patio, where the factory had been located, and a very large stable that the current tenants used in common for washing and drying their clothes. Tránsito Ariza occupied the first section, which was the most convenient and the best preserved, although it was also the smallest. The notions store was in the old tobacco shop, with a large door facing the street, and to one side was the former storeroom, with only a skylight for ventilation, where Tránsito Ariza slept. The stockroom took up half the space that was divided by a wooden partition. In it were a table and four chairs, used for both eating and writing, and it was there that Florentino Ariza hung his hammock when dawn did not find him writing. It was a good space for the two of them, but too small for a third person, least of all a young lady from the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin whose father had restored a house in ruins until it was like new, while the families with seven titles went to bed with the fear that the roofs of their mansions would cave in on them while they slept. So Tránsito Ariza had arranged with the owner to let her also occupy the gallery in the patio, and in exchange she would keep the house in good condition for five years.
She had the resources to do so. In addition to the cash income from the notions store and the hemostatic rags, which sufficed for her modest life, she had multiplied her savings by lending them to a clientele made up of the embarrassed new poor, who accepted her excessive interest rates for the sake of her discretion. Ladies with the airs of queens descended from their carriages at the entrance to the notions shop, unencumbered by nursemaids or servants, and as they pretended to buy Holland laces and passementerie trimmings, they pawned, between sobs, the last glittering ornaments of their lost paradise. Tránsito Ariza rescued them from difficulties with so much consideration for their lineage that many of them left more grateful for the honor than for the favor they had received. In less than ten years she knew the jewels, so often redeemed and then tearfully pawned again, as if they had been her own, and at the time her son decided to marry, the profits, converted into gold, lay hidden in a clay jar under her bed. Then she did her accounts and discovered not only that she could undertake to keep the rented house standing for five years, but that with the same shrewdness and a little more luck she could perhaps buy it, before she died, for the twelve grandchildren she hoped to have. Florentino Ariza, for his part, had received provisional appointment as First Assistant at the telegraph office, and Lotario Thugut wanted him to head the office when he left to direct the School of Telegraphy and Magnetism, which he expected to do the following year.
So the practical side of the marriage was resolved. Still, Tránsito Ariza thought that two final conditions were prudent. The first was to find out who Lorenzo Daza really was, for though his accent left no doubt concerning his origins, no one had any certain information as to his identity and livelihood. The second was that the engagement be a long one so that the fiancés could come to know each other person to person, and that the strictest reserve be maintained until both felt very certain of their affections. She suggested they wait until the war was over. Florentino Ariza agreed to absolute secrecy, not only for his mother’s reasons but because of the hermeticism of his own character. He also agreed to the delay, but its terms seemed unrealistic to him, since in over half a century of independent life the nation had not had a single day of civil peace.
“We’ll grow old waiting,” he said.
His godfather, the homeopathic practitioner, who happened to be taking part in the conversation, did not believe that the wars were an obstacle. He thought they were nothing more than the struggles of the poor, driven like oxen by the landowners, against barefoot soldiers who were driven in turn by the government.
“The war is in the mountains,” he said. “For as long as I can remember, they have killed us in the cities with decrees, not with bullets.”