Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 14)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 14

The only thing Florentino Ariza salvaged from that disaster was the loving shelter of the lighthouse. He had gone there in Euclides’ canoe one night when a storm at sea took them by surprise, and from that time on he would go there in the afternoons to talk to the lighthouse keeper about the innumerable marvels on land and water that the keeper had knowledge of. It was the beginning of a friendship that survived the many changes in the world. Florentino Ariza learned to feed the fire, first with loads of wood and then with large earthen jars of oil, before electrical energy came to us. He learned to direct the light and augment it with mirrors, and orí several occasions, when the lighthouse keeper could not do so, he stayed to keep watch over the night at sea from the tower. He learned to know the ships by their voices, by the size of their lights on the horizon, and to sense that something of them came back to him in the flashing beacon of the lighthouse.

During the day, above all on Sundays, there was another kind of pleasure. In the District of the Viceroys, where the wealthy people of the old city lived, the women’s beaches were separated from those of the men by a plaster wall: one lay to the right and the other to the left of the lighthouse. And so the lighthouse keeper installed a spyglass through which one could contemplate the women’s beach by paying a centavo. Without knowing they were being observed, the young society ladies displayed themselves to the best of their ability in ruffled bathing suits and slippers and hats that hid their bodies almost as much as their street clothes did and were less attractive besides. Their mothers, sitting out in the sun in wicker rocking chairs, wearing the same dresses, the same feathered hats, and holding the same organdy parasols as they had at High Mass, watched over them from the shore, for fear the men from the neighboring beaches would seduce their daughters under the water. The reality was that one could not see anything more, or anything more exciting, through the spyglass than one could see on the street, but there were many clients who came every Sunday to wrangle over the telescope for the pure delight of tasting the insipid forbidden fruits of the walled area that was denied them.

Florentino Ariza was one of them, more from boredom than for pleasure, but it was not because of that additional attraction that he became a good friend of the lighthouse keeper. The real reason was that after Fermina Daza rejected him, when he contracted the fever of many disparate loves in his effort to replace her, it was in the lighthouse and nowhere else that he lived his happiest hours and found the best consolation for his misfortunes. It was the place he loved most, so much so that for years he tried to convince his mother, and later his Uncle Leo XII, to help him buy it. For in those days the lighthouses in the Caribbean were private property, and their owners charged ships according to their size for the right to enter the port. Florentino Ariza thought that it was the only honorable way to make a profit out of poetry, but neither his mother nor his uncle agreed with him, and by the time he had the resources to do it on his own, the lighthouses had become the property of the state.

None of these dreams was in vain, however. The tale of the galleon and the novelty of the lighthouse helped to alleviate the absence of Fermina Daza, and then, when he least expected it, he received the news of her return. And in fact, after a prolonged stay in Riohacha, Lorenzo Daza had decided to come home. It was not the most benign season on the ocean, due to the December trade winds, and the historic schooner, the only one that would risk the crossing, might find itself blown by a contrary wind back to the port where it had started. And that is what happened. Fermina Daza spent an agonized night vomiting bile, strapped to her bunk in a cabin that resembled a tavern latrine not only because of its oppressive narrowness but also because of the pestilential stench and the heat. The motion was so strong that she had the impression several times that the straps on the bed would fly apart; on the deck she heard fragments of shouted lamentations that sounded like a shipwreck, and her father’s tigerish snoring in the next bunk added yet another ingredient to her terror. For the first time in almost three years she spent an entire night awake without thinking for even one moment of Florentino Ariza, while he, on the other hand, lay sleepless in his hammock in the back room, counting the eternal minutes one by one until her return. At dawn the wind suddenly died down and the sea grew calm, and Fermina Daza realized that she had slept despite her devastating seasickness, because the noise of the anchor chains awakened her. Then she loosened the straps and went to the porthole, hoping to see Florentino Ariza in the tumult of the port, but all she saw were the customs sheds among the palm trees gilded by the first rays of the sun and the rotting boards of the dock in Riohacha, where the schooner had set sail the night before.

The rest of the day was like a hallucination: she was in the same house where she had been until yesterday, receiving the same visitors who had said goodbye to her, talking about the same things, bewildered by the impression that she was reliving a piece of life she had already lived. It was such a faithful repetition that Fermina Daza trembled at the thought that the schooner trip would be a repetition, too, for the mere memory of it terrified her. However, the only other possible means of returning home was two weeks on muleback over the mountains in circumstances even more dangerous than the first time, since a new civil war that had begun in the Andean state of Cauca was spreading throughout the Caribbean provinces. And so at eight o’clock that night she was once again accompanied to the port by the same troop of noisy relatives shedding the same tears of farewell and with the same jumble of last-minute gifts and packages that did not fit in the cabins. When it was time to sail, the men in the family saluted the schooner with a volley of shots fired into the air, and Lorenzo Daza responded from the deck with five shots from his revolver. Fermina Daza’s fears dissipated because the wind was favorable all night, and there was a scent of flowers at sea that helped her to sleep soundly without the safety straps. She dreamed that she was seeing Florentino Ariza again, and that he took off the face that she had always seen on him because in fact it was a mask, but his real face was identical to the false one. She got up very early, intrigued by the enigma of the dream, and she found her father drinking mountain coffee with brandy in the captain’s bar, his eye twisted by alcohol, but he did not show the slightest hint of uncertainty regarding their return. They were coming into port. The schooner slipped in silence through the labyrinth of sailing ships anchored in the cove of the public market whose stench could be smelled several leagues out to sea, and the dawn was saturated by a steady drizzle that soon broke into a full-fledged downpour. Standing watch on the balcony of the telegraph office, Florentino Ariza recognized the schooner, its sails disheartened by the rain, as it crossed Las Ánimas Bay and anchored at the market pier. The morning before, he had waited until eleven o’clock, when he learned through a casual telegram of the contrary winds that had delayed the schooner, and on this day he had returned to his vigil at four o’clock in the morning. He continued to wait, not taking his eyes off the launch that carried ashore the few passengers who had decided to disembark despite the storm. Halfway across, the launch ran aground, and most of them had to abandon ship and splash through the mud to the pier. At eight o’clock, after they had waited in vain for the rain to stop, a black stevedore in water up to his waist received Fermina Daza at the rail of the schooner and carried her ashore in his arms, but she was so drenched that Florentino Ariza did not recognize her.

She herself was not aware of how much she had matured during the trip until she walked into her closed house and at once undertook the heroic task of making it livable again with the help of Gala Placidia, the black servant who came back from her old slave quarters as soon as she was told of their return. Fermina Daza was no longer the only child, both spoiled and tyrannized by her father, but the lady and mistress of an empire of dust and cobwebs that could be saved only by the strength of invincible love. She was not intimidated because she felt herself inspired by an exalted courage that would have enabled her to move the world. The very night of their return, while they were having hot chocolate and crullers at the large kitchen table, her father delegated to her the authority to run the house, and he did so with as much formality as if it were a sacred rite.

“I turn over to you the keys to your life,” he said.

She, with all of her seventeen years behind her, accepted with a firm hand, conscious that every inch of liberty she won was for the sake of love. The next day, after a night of bad dreams, she suffered her first sense of displeasure at being home when she opened the balcony window and saw again the sad drizzle in the little park, the statue of the decapitated hero, the marble bench where Florentino Ariza used to sit with his book of verses. She no longer thought of him as the impossible sweetheart but as the certain husband to whom she belonged heart and soul. She felt the heavy weight of the time they had lost while she was away, she felt how hard it was to be alive and how much love she was going to need to love her man as God demanded. She was surprised that he was not in the little park, as he had been so many times despite the rain, and that she had received no sign of any kind from him, not even a premonition, and she was shaken by the sudden idea that he had died. But she put aside the evil thought at once, for in the recent frenzy of telegrams regarding her imminent return they had forgotten to agree on a way to continue communicating once she was home.

The truth is that Florentino Ariza was sure she had not returned, until the telegraph operator in Riohacha confirmed that they had embarked on Friday aboard the very same schooner that did not arrive the day before because of contrary winds, so that during the weekend he watched for any sign of life in her house, and at dusk on Monday he saw through the windows a light that moved through the house and was extinguished, a little after nine, in the bedroom with the balcony. He did not sleep, victim to the same fearful nausea that had disturbed his first nights of love. Tránsito Ariza arose with the first roosters, alarmed that her son had gone out to the patio at midnight and had not yet come back inside, and she did not find him in the house. He had gone to wander along the jetties, reciting love poetry into the wind and crying with joy until daybreak. At eight o’clock he was sitting under the arches of the Parish Café, delirious with fatigue, trying to think of how to send his welcome to Fermina Daza, when he felt himself shaken by a seismic tremor that tore his heart.

It was she, crossing the Plaza of the Cathedral, accompanied by Gala Placidia who was carrying the baskets for their marketing, and for the first time she was not wearing her school uniform. She was taller than when she had left, more polished and intense, her beauty purified by the restraint of maturity. Her braid had grown in, but instead of letting it hang down her back she wore it twisted over her left shoulder, and that simple change had erased all girlish traces from her. Florentino Ariza sat bedazzled until the child of his vision had crossed the plaza, looking to neither the left nor the right. But then the same irresistible power that had paralyzed him obliged him to hurry after her when she turned the corner of the Cathedral and was lost in the deafening noise of the market’s rough cobblestones.

He followed her without letting himself be seen, watching the ordinary gestures, the grace, the premature maturity of the being he loved most in the world and whom he was seeing for the first time in her natural state. He was amazed by the fluidity with which she made her way through the crowd. While Gala Placidia bumped into people and became entangled in her baskets and had to run to keep up with her, she navigated the disorder of the street in her own time and space, not colliding with anyone, like a bat in the darkness. She had often been to the market with her Aunt Escolástica, but they made only minor purchases, since her father himself took charge of provisioning the household, not only with furniture and food but even with women’s clothing. So this first excursion was for her a fascinating adventure idealized in her girlhood dreams.

She paid no attention to the urgings of the snake charmers who offered her a syrup for eternal love, or to the pleas of the beggars lying in doorways with their running sores, or to the false Indian who tried to sell her a trained alligator. She made a long and detailed tour with no planned itinerary, stopping with no other motive than her unhurried delight in the spirit of things. She entered every doorway where there was something for sale, and everywhere she found something that increased her desire to live. She relished the aroma of vetiver in the cloth in the great chests, she wrapped herself in embossed silks, she laughed at her own laughter when she saw herself in the full-length mirror in The Golden Wire disguised as a woman from Madrid, with a comb in her hair and a fan painted with flowers. In the store that sold imported foods she lifted the lid of a barrel of pickled herring that reminded her of nights in the northeast when she was a very little girl in San Juan de la Ciénaga. She sampled an Alicante sausage that tasted of licorice, and she bought two for Saturday’s breakfast, as well as some slices of cod and a jar of red currants in aguardiente. In the spice shop she crushed leaves of sage and oregano in the palms of her hands for the pure pleasure of smelling them, and bought a handful of cloves, another of star anise, and one each of ginger root and juniper, and she walked away with tears of laughter in her eyes because the smell of the cayenne pepper made her sneeze so much. In the French cosmetics shop, as she was buying Reuter soaps and balsam water, they put a touch of the latest perfume from Paris behind her ear and gave her a breath tablet to use after smoking.

She played at buying, it is true, but what she really needed she bought without hesitation, with an authority that allowed no one to think that she was doing so for the first time, for she was conscious that she was buying not only for herself but for him as well: twelve yards of linen for their table, percale for the marriage sheets that by dawn would be damp with moisture from both their bodies, the most exquisite of everything for both of them to enjoy in the house of love. She asked for discounts and she got them, she argued with grace and dignity until she obtained the best, and she paid with pieces of gold that the shopkeepers tested for the sheer pleasure of hearing them sing against the marble counters.

Florentino Ariza spied on her in astonishment, he pursued her breathlessly, he tripped several times over the baskets of the maid who responded to his excuses with a smile, and she passed so close to him that he could smell her scent, and if she did not see him then it was not because she could not but because of the haughty manner in which she walked. To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else’s heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell. Nevertheless, when she entered the riotous noise of the Arcade of the Scribes, he realized that he might lose the moment he had craved for so many years.

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