Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 12)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 12

Florentino Ariza still had not recovered when Lorenzo Daza held him by the arm and steered him across the Plaza of the Cathedral to the arcaded gallery of the Parish Café and invited him to sit on the terrace. There were no other customers at that hour: a black woman was scrubbing the tiles in the enormous salon with its chipped and dusty stainedglass windows, and the chairs were still upside down on the marble tables. Florentino Ariza had often seen Lorenzo Daza gambling and drinking cask wine there with the Asturians from the public market, while they shouted and argued about other longstanding wars that had nothing to do with our own. Conscious of the fatality of love, he had often wondered how the meeting would be that he was bound to have with Lorenzo Daza sooner or later, the meeting that no human power could forestall because it had been inscribed in both their destinies forever. He had supposed it would be an unequal dispute, not only because Fermina Daza had warned him in her letters of her father’s stormy character, but because he himself had noted that his eyes seemed angry even when he was laughing at the gaming table. Everything about him was a testimony to crudeness: his ignoble belly, his emphatic speech, his lynx’s side-whiskers, his rough hands, the ring finger smothered by the opal setting. His only endearing trait, which Florentino Ariza recognized the first time he saw him walking, was that he had the same doe’s gait as his daughter. However, when he showed him the chair so that he could sit down, he did not find Lorenzo Daza as harsh as he appeared to be, and his courage revived when he invited him to have a glass of anisette. Florentino Ariza had never had a drink at eight o’clock in the morning, but he accepted with gratitude because his need for one was urgent.

Lorenzo Daza, in fact, took no more than five minutes to say what he had to say, and he did so with a disarming sincerity that confounded Florentino Ariza. When his wife died he had set only one goal for himself: to turn his daughter into a great lady. The road was long and uncertain for a mule trader who did not know how to read or write and whose reputation as a horse thief was not so much proven as widespread in the province of San Juan de la Ciénaga. He lit a mule driver’s cigar and lamented: “The only thing worse than bad health is a bad name.” He said, however, that the real secret of his fortunewas that none of his mules worked as hard and with so much determination as he did himself, even during the bitterest days of the wars when the villages awoke in ashes and the fields in ruins. Although his daughter was never aware of the premeditation in her destiny, she behaved as if she were an enthusiastic accomplice. She was intelligent and methodical, to the point where she taught her father to read as soon as she herself learned to, and at the age of twelve she had a mastery of reality that would have allowed her to run the house without the help of her Aunt Escolástica. He sighed: “She’s a mule worth her weight in gold.” When his daughter finished primary school with highest marks in every subject and honorable mention at graduation, he understood that San Juan de la Ciénaga was too narrow for his dreams. Then he liquidated lands and animals and moved with new impetus and seventy thousand gold pesos to this ruined city and its moth-eaten glories, where a beautiful woman with an old-fashioned upbringing still had the possibility of being reborn through a fortunate marriage. The sudden appearance of Florentino Ariza had been an unforeseen obstacle in his hard-fought plan. “So I have come to make a request of you,” said Lorenzo Daza. He dipped the end of his cigar in the anisette, pulled on it and drew no smoke, then concluded in a sorrowful voice:

“Get out of our way.”
Florentino Ariza had listened to him as he sipped his anisette, and was so absorbed in the disclosure of Fermina Daza’s past that he did not even ask himself what he was going to say when it was his turn to speak. But when the moment arrived, he realized that anything he might say would compromise his destiny.

“Have you spoken to her?” he asked.

“That doesn’t concern you,” said Lorenzo Daza.

“I ask you the question,” said Florentino Ariza, “because it seems to

“None of that,” said Lorenzo Daza. “This is a matter for men and it will be decided by men.”

His tone had become threatening, and a customer who had just sat down at a nearby table turned to look at them. Florentino Ariza spoke in a most tenuous voice, but with the most imperious resolution of which he was capable:

“Be that as it may, I cannot answer without knowing what she thinks. It would be a betrayal.”

Then Lorenzo Daza leaned back in his chair, his eyelids reddened and damp, and his left eye spun in its orbit and stayed twisted toward the outside. He, too, lowered his voice. “Don’t force me to shoot you,” he said.

Florentino Ariza felt his intestines filling with cold froth. But his voice did not tremble because he felt himself illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

“Shoot me,” he said, with his hand on his chest. “There is no greater glory than to die for love.”

Lorenzo Daza had to look at him sideways, like a parrot, to see him with his twisted eye. He did not pronounce the four words so much as spit them out, one by one:

“Son of a bitch!”
That same week he took his daughter away on the journey that would make her forget. He gave her no explanation at all, but burst into her bedroom, his mustache stained with fury and his chewed cigar, and ordered her to pack. She asked him where they were going, and he answered: “To our death.” Frightened by a response that seemed too close to the truth, she tried to face him with the courage of a few days before, but he took off his belt with its hammered copper buckle, twisted it around his fist, and hit the table with a blow that resounded through the house like a rifle shot. Fermina Daza knew very well the extent and occasion of her own strength, and so she packed a bedroll with two straw mats and a hammock, and two large trunks with all her clothes, certain that this was a trip from which she would never return. Before she dressed, she locked herself in the bathroom and wrote a brief farewell letter to Florentino Ariza on a sheet torn from the pack of toilet paper. Then she cut off her entire braid at the nape of her neck with cuticle scissors, rolled it inside a velvet box embroidered with gold thread, and sent it along with the letter.

It was a demented trip. The first stage along the ridges of the Sierra Nevada, riding muleback in a caravan of Andean mule drivers, lasted eleven days, during which time they were stupefied by the naked sun or drenched by the horizontal October rains and almost always petrified by the numbing vapors rising from the precipices. On the third day a mule maddened by gadflies fell into a ravine with its rider, dragging along the entire line, and the screams of the man and his pack of seven animals tied to one another continued to rebound along the cliffs and gullies for several hours after the disaster, and continued to resound for years and years in the memory of Fermina Daza. All her baggage plunged over the side with the mules, but in the centuries-long instant of the fall until the scream of terror was extinguished at the bottom, she did not think of the poor dead mule driver or his mangled pack but of how unfortunate it was that the mule she was riding had not been tied to the others as well.

It was the first time she had ever ridden, but the terror and unspeakable privations of the trip would not have seemed so bitter to her if it had not been for the certainty that she would never see Florentino Ariza again or have the consolation of his letters. She had not said a word to her father since the beginning of the trip, and he was so confounded that he hardly spoke to her even when it was an absolute necessity to do so, or he sent the mule drivers to her with messages. When their luck was good they found some roadside inn that served rustic food which she refused to eat, and rented them canvas cots stained with rancid perspiration and urine. But more often they spent the night in Indian settlements, in open-air public dormitories built at the side of the road, with their rows of wooden poles and roofs of bitter palm where every passerby had the right to stay until dawn. Fermina Daza could not sleep through a single night as she sweated in fear and listened in the darkness to the coming and going of silent travelers who tied their animals to the poles and hung their hammocks where they could.

At nightfall, when the first travelers would arrive, the place was uncrowded and peaceful, but by dawn it had been transformed into a fairground, with a mass of hammocks hanging at different levels and Aruac Indians from the mountains sleeping on their haunches, with the raging of the tethered goats, and the uproar of the fighting cocks in their pharaonic crates, and the panting silence of the mountain dogs, who had been taught not to bark because of the dangers of war. Those privations were familiar to Lorenzo Daza, who had trafficked through the region for half his life and almost always met up with old friends at dawn. For his daughter it was perpetual agony. The stench of the loads of salted catfish added to the loss of appetite caused by her grief, and eventually destroyed her habit of eating, and if she did not go mad with despair it was because she always found relief in the memory of Florentino Ariza. She did not doubt that this was the land of forgetting. Another constant terror was the war. Since the start of the journey there had been talk of the danger of running into scattered patrols, and the mule drivers had instructed them in the various ways of recognizing the two sides so that they could act accordingly. They often encountered squads of mounted soldiers under the command of an officer, who rounded up new recruits by roping them as if they were cattle on the hoof. Overwhelmed by so many horrors, Fermina Daza had forgotten about the one that seemed more legendary than imminent, until one night when a patrol of unknown affiliation captured two travelers from the caravan and hanged them from a campano tree half a league from the settlement. Lorenzo Daza did not even know them, but he had them taken down and he gave them a Christian burial in thanksgiving for not having met a similar fate. And he had reason: the assailants had awakened him with a rifle in his stomach, and a commander in rags, his face smeared with charcoal, had shone a light on him and asked him if he was Liberal or Conservative.

“Neither one or the other,” said Lorenzo Daza. “I am a Spanish subject.”

“What luck!” said the commander, and he left with his hand raised in a salute. “Long live the King!”

Two days later they descended to the luminous plain where the joyful town of Valledupar was located. There were cockfights in the patios, accordion music on the street corners, riders on thoroughbred horses, rockets and bells. A pyrotechnical castle was being assembled. Fermina Daza did not even notice the festivities. They stayed in the home of Uncle Lisímaco Sánchez, her mother’s brother, who had come out to receive them on the King’s Highway at the head of a noisy troop of young relatives riding the best-bred horses in the entire province, and they were led through the streets of the town to the accompaniment of exploding fireworks. The house was on the Grand Plaza, next to the colonial church that had been repaired several times, and it seemed more like the main house on a hacienda because of its large, somber rooms and its gallery that faced an orchard of fruit trees and smelled of hot sugarcane juice.

No sooner had they dismounted in the stables than the reception rooms were overflowing with numerous unknown relatives whose unbearable effusiveness was a scourge to Fermina Daza, for she was incapable of ever loving anyone else in this world, she suffered from saddle burn, she was dying of fatigue and loose bowels, and all she longed for was a solitary and quiet place to cry. Her cousin Hildebranda Sánchez, two years older than she and with the same imperial haughtiness, was the only one who understood her condition as soon as she saw her, because she, too, was being consumed in the fiery coals of reckless love. When it grew dark she took her to the bedroom that she had prepared to share with her, and seeing the burning ulcers on her buttocks, she could not believe that she still lived. With the help of her mother, a very sweet woman who looked as much like her husband as if they were twins, she prepared a bath for her and cooled the burning with arnica compresses, while the thunder from the gunpowder castle shook the foundations of the house.
At midnight the visitors left, the public fiesta scattered into smoldering embers, and Cousin Hildebranda lent Fermina Daza a madapollam nightgown and helped her to lie down in a bed with smooth sheets and feather pillows, and without warning she was filled with the instantaneous panic of happiness. When at last they were alone in the bedroom, Cousin Hildebranda bolted the door with a crossbar and from under the straw matting of her bed took out a manila envelope sealed in wax with the emblem of the national telegraph. It was enough for Fermina Daza to see her cousin’s expression of radiant malice for the pensive scent of white gardenias to grow again in her heart’s memory, and then she tore the red sealing wax with her teeth and drenched the eleven forbidden telegrams in a shower of tears until dawn.

Then he knew. Before starting out on the journey, Lorenzo Daza had made the mistake of telegraphing the news to his brother-in-law Lisímaco Sánchez, and he in turn had sent the news to his vast and intricate network of kinfolk in numerous towns and villages throughout the province. So that Florentino Ariza not only learned the complete itinerary but also established an extensive brotherhood of telegraph operators who would follow the trail of Fermina Daza to the last settlement in Cabo de la Vela. This allowed him to maintain intensive communications with her from the time of her arrival in Valledupar, where she stayed three months, until the end of her journey in Riohacha, a year and a half later, when Lorenzo Daza took it for granted that his daughter had at last forgotten and he decided to return home. Perhaps he was not even aware of how much he had relaxed his vigilance, distracted as he was by the flattering words of the in-laws who after so many years had put aside their tribal prejudices and welcomed him with open arms as one of their own. The visit was a belated reconciliation, although that had not been its purpose. As a matter of fact, the family of Fermina Sánchez had been opposed in every way to her marrying an immigrant with no background who was a braggart and a boor and who was always traveling, trading his unbroken mules in a business that seemed too simple to be honest. Lorenzo Daza played for high stakes, because his sweetheart was the darling of a typical family of the region: an intricate tribe of wild women and softhearted men who were obsessed to the point of dementia with their sense of honor. Fermina Sánchez, however, settled on her desire with the blind determination of love when it is opposed, and she married him despite her family, with so much speed and so much secrecy that it seemed as if she had done so not for love but to cover over with a sacramental cloak some premature mistake.

Twenty-five years later, Lorenzo Daza did not realize that his intransigence in his daughter’s love affair was a vicious repetition of his own past, and he complained of his misfortune to the same in-laws who had opposed him, as they had complained in their day to their own kin. Still, the time he spent in lamentation was time his daughter gained for her love affair. So that while he went about castrating calves and taming mules on the prosperous lands of his in-laws, she was free to spend time with a troop of female cousins under the command of Hildebranda Sánchez, the most beautiful and obliging of them all, whose hopeless passion for a married man, a father who was twenty years older than she, had to be satisfied with furtive glances. After their prolonged stay in Valledupar they continued their journey through the foothills of the mountains, crossing flowering meadows and dreamlike mesas, and in all the villages they were received as they had been in the first, with music and fireworks and new conspiratorial cousins and punctual messages in the telegraph offices. Fermina Daza soon realized that the afternoon of their arrival in Valledupar had not been unusual, but rather that in this fertile province every day of the week was lived as if it were a holiday. The visitors slept wherever they happened to be at nightfall, and they ate wherever they happened to be hungry, for these were houses with open doors, where there was always a hammock hanging and a three-meat stew simmering on the stove in case guests arrived before the telegram announcing their arrival, as was almost always the case. Hildebranda Sánchez accompanied her cousin for the remainder of the trip, guiding her with joyful spirit through the tangled complexities of her blood to the very source of her origins. Fermina Daza learned about herself, she felt free for the first time, she felt herself befriended and protected, her lungs full of the air of liberty, which restored her tranquillity and her will to live. In her final years she would still recall the trip that, with the perverse lucidity of nostalgia, became more and more recent in her memory.

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