Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 13)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 13

One night she came back from her daily walk stunned by the revelation that one could be happy not only without love, but despite it. The revelation alarmed her, because one of her cousins had surprised her parents in conversation with Lorenzo Daza, who had suggested the idea of arranging the marriage of his daughter to the only heir to the fabulous fortune of Cleofás Moscote. Fermina Daza knew who he was. She had seen him in the plazas, pirouetting his perfect horses with trappings so rich they seemed ornaments used for the Mass, and he was elegant and clever and had a dreamer’s eyelashes that could make the stones sigh, but she compared him to her memory of poor emaciated Florentino Ariza sitting under the almond trees in the little park, with the book of verses on his lap, and she did not find even the shadow of a doubt in her heart.
In those days Hildebranda Sánchez was delirious with hope after visiting a fortuneteller whose clairvoyance had astonished her. Dismayed by her father’s intentions, Fermina Daza also went to consult with her. The cards said there was no obstacle in her future to a long and happy marriage, and that prediction gave her back her courage because she could not conceive of such a fortunate destiny with any man other than the one she loved. Exalted by that certainty, she assumed command of her fate. That was how the telegraphic correspondence with Florentino Ariza stopped being a concerto of intentions and illusory promises and became methodical and practical and more intense than ever. They set dates, established means, pledged their lives to their mutual determination to marry without consulting anyone, wherever and however they could, as soon as they were together again. Fermina Daza considered this commitment so binding that the night her father gave her permission to attend her first adult dance in the town of Fonseca, she did not think it was decent to accept without the consent of her fiancé. Florentino Ariza was in the transient hotel that night, playing cards with Lotario Thugut, when he was told he had an urgent telegram on the line.

It was the telegraph operator from Fonseca, who had keyed in through seven intermediate stations so that Fermina Daza could ask permission to attend the dance. When she obtained it, however, she was not satisfied with the simple affirmative answer but asked for proof that in fact it was Florentino Ariza operating the telegraph key at the other end of the line. More astonished than flattered, he composed an identifying phrase: Tell her that I swear by the crowned goddess. Fermina Daza recognized the password and stayed at her first adult dance until seven in the morning, when she had to change in a rush in order not to be late for Mass. By then she had more letters and telegrams in the bottom of her trunk than her father had taken away from her, and she had learned to behave with the air of a married woman. Lorenzo Daza interpreted these changes in her manner as proof that distance and time had cured her of her juvenile fantasies, but he never spoke to her about his plans for the arranged marriage. Their relations had become fluid within the formal reserve that she had imposed since the expulsion of Aunt Escolástica, and this allowed them such a comfortable modus vivendi that no one would have doubted that it was based on affection.

It was at this time that Florentino Ariza decided to tell her in his letters of his determination to salvage the treasure of the sunken galleon for her. It was true, and it had come to him in a flash of inspiration one sunlit afternoon when the sea seemed paved with aluminum because of the numbers of fish brought to the surface by mullein. All the birds of the air were in an uproar because of the kill, and the fishermen had to drive them away with their oars so they would not have to fight with them for the fruits of that prohibited miracle. The use of the mullein plant to put the fish to sleep had been prohibited by law since colonial times, but it continued to be a common practice- among the fishermen of the Caribbean until it was replaced by dynamite. One of Florentino Ariza’s pastimes during Fermina Daza’s journey was to watch from the jetties as the fishermen loaded their canoes with enormous nets filled with sleeping fish. At the same time, a gang of boys who swam like sharks asked curious bystanders to toss coins into the water so they could dive to the bottom for them. They were the same boys who swam out to meet the ocean liners for that purpose, and whose skill in the art of diving had been the subject of so many tourist accounts written in the United States and Europe. Florentino Ariza had always known about them, even before he knew about love, but it had never occurred to him that perhaps they might be able to bring up the fortune from the galleon. It occurred to him that afternoon, and from the following Sunday until Fermina Daza’s return almost a year later, he had an additional motive for delirium.

After talking to him for only ten minutes, Euclides, one of the boy swimmers, became as excited as he was at the idea of an underwater exploration. Florentino Ariza did not reveal the whole truth of the enterprise, but he informed himself thoroughly regarding his abilities as a diver and navigator. He asked him if he could descend without air to a depth of twenty meters, and Euclides told him yes. He asked him if he was prepared to sail a fisherman’s canoe by himself in the open sea in the middle of a storm with no instruments other than his instinct, and Euclides told him yes. He asked him if he could find a specific spot sixteen nautical miles to the northwest of the largest island in the Sotavento Archipelago, and Euclides told him yes. He asked him if he was capable of navigating by the stars at night, and Euclides told him yes. He asked him if he was prepared to do so for the same wages the fishermen paid him for helping them to fish, and Euclides told him yes, but with an additional five reales on Sundays. He asked him if he knew how to defend himself against sharks, and Euclides told him yes, for he had magic tricks to frighten them away. He asked him if he was able to keep a secret even if they put him in the torture chambers of the Inquisition, and Euclides told him yes, in fact he did not say no to anything, and he knew how to say yes with so much conviction that there was no way to doubt him. Then the boy reckoned expenses: renting the canoe, renting the canoe paddle, renting fishing equipment so that no one would suspect the truth behind their incursions. It was also necessary to take along food, a demijohn of fresh water, an oil lamp, a pack of tallow candles, and a hunter’s horn to call for help in case of emergency.

Euclides was about twelve years old, and he was fast and clever and an incessant talker, with an eel’s body that could slither through a bull’s-eye. The weather had tanned his skin to such a degree that it was impossible to imagine his original color, and this made his big yellow eyes seem more radiant. Florentino Ariza decided on the spot that he was the perfect companion for an adventure of such magnitude, and they embarked without further delay the following Sunday.

They sailed out of the fishermen’s port at dawn, well provisioned and better disposed, Euclides almost naked, with only the loincloth that he always wore, and Florentino Ariza with his frock coat, his tenebrous hat, his patent-leather boots, the poet’s bow at his neck, and a book to pass the time during the crossing to the islands. From the very first Sunday he realized that Euclides was as good a navigator as he was a diver, and that he had astonishing knowledge of the character of the sea and the debris in the bay. He could recount in the most unexpected detail the history of each rusting hulk of a boat, he knew the age of each buoy, the origin of every piece of rubbish, the number of links in the chain with which the Spaniards closed off the entrance of the bay. Fearing that he might also know the real purpose of his expedition, Florentino Ariza asked him sly questions and in this way realized that Euclides did not have the slightest suspicion about the sunken galleon. Ever since he had first heard the story of the treasure in the transient hotel, Florentino Ariza had learned all he could about the habits of galleons. He learned that the San José was not the only ship in the coral depths. It was, in fact, the flagship of the Terra Firma fleet, and had arrived here after May 1708, having sailed from the legendary fair of Portobello in Panama where it had taken on part of its fortune: three hundred trunks of silver from Peru and Veracruz, and one hundred ten trunks of pearls gathered and counted on the island of Contadora. During the long month it had remained here, the days and nights had been devoted to popular fiestas, and the rest of the treasure intended to save the Kingdom of Spain from poverty had been taken aboard: one hundred sixteen trunks of emeralds from Muzo and Somondoco and thirty million gold coins.

The Terra Firma fleet was composed of no less than twelve supply ships of varying sizes, and it set sail from this port traveling in a convoy with a French squadron that was heavily armed but still incapable of protecting the expedition from the accurate cannon shot of the English squadron under Commander Charles Wager, who waited for it in the Sotavento Archipelago, at the entrance to the bay. So the San José was not the only sunken vessel, although there was no reliable documented record of how many had succumbed and how many had managed to escape the English fire. What was certain was that the flagship had been among the first to sink, along with the entire crew and the commander standing straight on the quarterdeck, and that she alone carried most of the cargo.
Florentino Ariza had learned the route of the galleons from the navigation charts of the period, and he thought he had determined the site of the shipwreck. They left the bay between the two fortresses of Boca Chica, and after four hours of sailing they entered the interior still waters of the archipelago in whose coral depths they could pick up sleeping lobsters with their hands. The air was so soft and the sea so calm and clear that Florentino Ariza felt as if he were his own reflection in the water. At the far end of the backwater, two hours from the largest island, was the site of the shipwreck.

Suffocating in his formal clothes under the infernal sun, Florentino Ariza indicated to Euclides that he should try to dive to a depth of twenty meters and bring back anything he might find at the bottom. The water was so clear that he saw him moving below like a tarnished shark among the blue ones that crossed his path without touching him. Then he saw him disappear into a thicket of coral, and just when he thought that he could not possibly have any more air in his lungs, he heard his voice at his back. Euclides was standing on the bottom, with his arms raised and the water up to his waist. And so they continued exploring deeper sites, always moving toward the north, sailing over the indifferent manta rays, the timid squid, the rosebushes in the shadows, until Euclides concluded that they were wasting their time. “If you don’t tell me what you want me to find, I don’t know how I am going to find it,” he said.

But he did not tell him. Then Euclides proposed to him that he take off his clothes and dive with him, even if it was only to see that other sky below the world, the coral depths. But Florentino Ariza always said that God had made the sea to look at through the window, and he had never learned to swim. A short while later, the afternoon grew cloudy and the air turned cold and damp, and it grew dark with so little warning that they had to navigate by the lighthouse to find the port. Before they entered the bay, the enormous white ocean liner from France passed very close to them, all its lights blazing as it trailed a wake of tender stew and boiled cauliflower.

They wasted three Sundays in this way, and they would have continued to waste them all if Florentino Ariza had not decided to share his secret with Euclides, who then modified the entire search plan, and they sailed along the old channel of the galleons, more than twenty nautical leagues to the east of the spot Florentino Ariza had decided on. Less than two months had gone by when, one rainy afternoon out at sea, Euclides spent considerable time down on the bottom and the canoe drifted so much that he had to swim almost half an hour to reach it because Florentino Ariza could not row it closer to him. When at last he climbed on board, he took two pieces of woman’s jewelry out of his mouth and displayed them as if they were the prize for his perseverance.

What he recounted then was so fascinating that Florentino Ariza promised himself that he would learn to swim and dive as far under water as possible just so he could see it with his own eyes. He said that in that spot, only eighteen meters down, there were so many old sailing ships lying among the coral reefs that it was impossible to even calculate the number, and they were spread over so extensive an area that you could not see to the end of them. He said that the most surprising thing was that none of the old wrecks afloat in the bay was in such good condition as the sunken vessels. He said that there were several caravelles with their sails still intact, and that the sunken ships were visible even on the bottom, for it seemed as if they had sunk along with their own space and time, so that they were still illumined by the same eleven o’clock sun that was shining on Saturday, June 9, when they went down. Choking on the driving force of his imagination, he said that the easiest one to distinguish was the galleon San José, for its name could be seen on the poop in gold letters, but it was also the ship most damaged by English artillery. He said he had seen an octopus inside, more than three centuries old, whose tentacles emerged through the openings in the cannon and who had grown to such a size in the dining room that one would have to destroy the ship to free him. He said he had seen the body of the commander, dressed for battle and floating sideways inside the aquarium of the forecastle, and that if he had not dived down to the hold with all its treasure, it was because he did not have enough air in his lungs. There were the proofs: an emerald earring and a medal of the Virgin, the chain corroded by salt.

That was when Florentino Ariza first mentioned the treasure to Fermina Daza in a letter he sent to Fonseca a short while before her return. The history of the sunken galleon was familiar to her because she had heard it many times from Lorenzo Daza, who had lost both time and money trying to convince a company of German divers to join with him in salvaging the sunken treasure. He would have persevered in the enterprise if several members of the Academy of History had not convinced him that the legend of the shipwrecked galleon had been invented by some brigand of a viceroy to hide his theft of the treasures of the Crown. In any case, Fermina Daza knew that the galleon lay beyond the reach of any human being, at a depth of two hundred meters, not the twenty claimed by Florentino Ariza. But she was so accustomed to his poetic excesses that she celebrated the adventure of the galleon as one of his most successful. Still, when she continued to receive other letters with still more fantastic details, written with as much seriousness as his promises of love, she had to confess to Hildebranda Sánchez her fear that her bedazzled sweetheart must have lost his mind.

During this time Euclides had surfaced with so many proofs of his tale that it was no longer a question of playing with earrings and rings scattered amid the coral but of financing a major enterprise to salvage the fifty ships with their cargo of Babylonian treasure. Then what had to happen sooner or later happened: Florentino Ariza asked his mother for help in bringing his adventure to a successful conclusion. All she had to do was bite the metal settings and look at the gems made of glass against the light to realize that someone was taking advantage of her son’s innocence. Euclides went down on his knees and swore to Florentino Ariza that he had done nothing wrong, but he was not seen the following Sunday in the fishermen’s port, or anywhere else ever again.

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