Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 16)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 16

The first thing he did was to take possession of his father’s office. He kept in place the hard, somber English furniture made of wood that sighed in the icy cold of dawn, but he consigned to the attic the treatises on viceregal science and romantic medicine and filled the bookshelves behind their glass doors with the writings of the new French school. He took down the faded pictures, except for the one of the physician arguing with Death for the nude body of a female patient, and the Hippocratic Oath printed in Gothic letters, and he hung in their place, next to his father’s only diploma, the many diverse ones he himself had received with highest honors from various schools in Europe.

He tried to impose the latest ideas at Misericordia Hospital, but this was not as easy as it had seemed in his youthful enthusiasm, for the antiquated house of health was stubborn in its attachment to atavistic superstitions, such as standing beds in pots of water to prevent disease from climbing up the legs, or requiring evening wear and chamois gloves in the operating room because it was taken for granted that elegance was an essential condition for asepsis. They could not tolerate the young newcomer’s tasting a patient’s urine to determine the presence of sugar, quoting Charcot and Trousseau as if they were his roommates, issuing severe warnings in class against the mortal risks of vaccines while maintaining a suspicious faith in the recent invention of suppositories. He was in conflict with everything: his renovating spirit, his maniacal sense of civic duty, his slow humor in a land of immortal pranksters–everything, in fact, that constituted his most estimable virtues provoked the resentment of his older colleagues and the sly jokes of the younger ones.
His obsession was the dangerous lack of sanitation in the city. He appealed to the highest authorities to fill in the Spanish sewers that were an immense breeding ground for rats, and to build in their place a closed sewage system whose contents would not empty into the cove at the market, as had always been the case, but into some distant drainage area instead. The well-equipped colonial houses had latrines with septic tanks, but two thirds of the population lived in shanties at the edge of the swamps and relieved themselves in the open air. The excrement dried in the sun, turned to dust, and was inhaled by everyone along with the joys of Christmas in the cool, gentle breezes of December. Dr. Juvenal Urbino attempted to force the City Council to impose an obligatory training course so that the poor could learn how to build their own latrines. He fought in vain to stop them from tossing garbage into the mangrove thickets that over the centuries had become swamps of putrefaction, and to have them collect it instead at least twice a week and incinerate it in some uninhabited area.

He was aware of the mortal threat of the drinking water. The mere idea of building an aqueduct seemed fantastic, since those who might have supported it had underground cisterns at their disposal, where water rained down over the years was collected under a thick layer of scum. Among the most valued household articles of the time were carved wooden water collectors whose stone filters dripped day and night into large earthen water jars. To prevent anyone from drinking from the aluminum cup used to dip out the water, its edges were as jagged as the crown of a mock king. The water was crystalline and cool in the dark clay, and it tasted of the forest. But Dr. Juvenal Urbino was not taken in by these appearances of purity, for he knew that despite all precautions, the bottom of each earthen jar was a sanctuary for waterworms. He had spent the slow hours of his childhood watching them with an almost mystical astonishment, convinced along with so many other people at the time that waterworms were animes, supernatural creatures who, from the sediment in still water, courted young maidens and could inflict furious vengeance because of love. As a boy he had seen the havoc they had wreaked in the house of Lázara Conde, a schoolteacher who dared to rebuff the animes, and he had seen the watery trail of glass in the street and the mountain of stones they had thrown at her windows for three days and three nights. And so it was a long while before he learned that waterworms were in reality the larvae of mosquitoes, but once he learned it he never forgot it, because from that moment on he realized that they and many other evil animes could pass through our simple stone filters intact.

For a long time the water in the cisterns had been honored as the cause of the scrotal hernia that so many men in the city endured not only without embarrassment but with a certain patriotic insolence. When Juvenal Urbino was in elementary school, he could not avoid a spasm of horror at the sight of men with ruptures sitting in their doorways on hot afternoons, fanning their enormous testicle as if it were a child sleeping between their legs. It was said that the hernia whistled like a lugubrious bird on stormy nights and twisted in unbearable pain when a buzzard feather was burned nearby, but no one complained about those discomforts because a large, well-carried rupture was, more than anything else, a display of masculine honor. When Dr. Juvenal Urbino returned from Europe he was already well aware of the scientific fallacy in these beliefs, but they were so rooted in local superstition that many people opposed the mineral enrichment of the water in the cisterns for fear of destroying its ability to cause an honorable rupture.

Impure water was not all that alarmed Dr. Juvenal Urbino. He was just as concerned with the lack of hygiene at the public market, a vast extension of cleared land along Las Ánimas Bay where the sailing ships from the Antilles would dock. An illustrious traveler of the period described the market as one of the most varied in the world. It was rich, in fact, and profuse and noisy, but also, perhaps, the most alarming of markets. Set on its own garbage heap, at the mercy of capricious tides, it was the spot where the bay belched filth from the sewers back onto land. The offal from the adjoining slaughterhouse was also thrown away there–severed heads, rotting viscera, animal refuse that floated, in sunshine and starshine, in a swamp of blood. The buzzards fought for it with the rats and the dogs in a perpetual scramble among the deer and succulent capons from Sotavento hanging from the eaves of the market stalls, and the spring vegetables from Arjona displayed on straw mats spread over the ground. Dr. Urbino wanted to make the place sanitary, he wanted a slaughterhouse built somewhere else and a covered market constructed with stained-glass turrets, like the one he had seen in the old boquerías in Barcelona, where the provisions looked so splendid and clean that it seemed a shame to eat them. But even the most complaisant of his notable friends pitied his illusory passion. That is how they were: they spent their lives proclaiming their proud origins, the historic merits of the city, the value of its relics, its heroism, its beauty, but they were blind to the decay of the years. Dr. Juvenal Urbino, on the other hand, loved it enough to see it with the eyes of truth.

“How noble this city must be,” he would say, “for we have spent four hundred years trying to finish it off and we still have not succeeded,” They almost had, however. The epidemic of cholera morbus, whose first victims were struck down in the standing water of the market, had, in eleven weeks, been responsible for the greatest death toll in our history. Until that time the eminent dead were interred under the flagstones in the churches, in the exclusive vicinity of archbishops and capitulars, while the less wealthy were buried in the patios of convents. The poor were sent to the colonial cemetery, located on a windy hill that was separated from the city by a dry canal whose mortar bridge bore the legend carved there by order of some clairvoyant mayor: Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate. After the first two weeks of the cholera epidemic, the cemetery was overflowing and there was no room left in the churches despite the fact that they had dispatched the decayed remains of many nameless civic heroes to the communal ossuary. The air in the Cathedral grew thin with the vapors from badly sealed crypts, and its doors did not open again until three years later, at the time that Fermina Daza saw Florentino Ariza at close quarters as she left Midnight Mass. By the third week the cloister of the Convent of St. Clare was full all the way to its poplar-lined walks, and it was necessary to use the Community’s orchard, which was twice as large, as a cemetery. There graves were dug deep enough to bury the dead on three levels, without delay and without coffins, but this had to be stopped because the brimming ground turned into a sponge that oozed sickening, infected blood at every step. Then arrangements were made to continue burying in The Hand of God, a cattle ranch less than a league from the city, which was later consecrated as the Universal Cemetery.

From the time the cholera proclamation was issued, the local garrison shot a cannon from the fortress every quarter hour, day and night, in accordance with the local superstition that gunpowder purified the atmosphere. The cholera was much more devastating to the black population, which was larger and poorer, but in reality it had no regard for color or background. It ended as suddenly as it had begun, and the extent of its ravages was never known, not because this was impossible to establish but because one of our most widespread virtues was a certain reticence concerning personal misfortune.

Dr. Marco Aurelio Urbino, the father of Juvenal, was a civic hero during that dreadful time, as well as its most distinguished victim. By official decree he personally designed and directed public health measures, but on his own initiative he intervened to such an extent in every social question that during the most critical moments of the plague no higher authority seemed to exist. Years later, reviewing the chronicle of those days, Dr. Juvenal Urbino confirmed that his father’s methodology had been more charitable than scientific and, in many ways, contrary to reason, so that in large measure it had fostered the voraciousness of the plague. He confirmed this with the compassion of sons whom life has turned, little by little, into the fathers of their fathers, and for the first time he regretted not having stood with his father in the solitude of his errors. But he did not dispute his merits: his diligence and his self-sacrifice and above all his personal courage deserved the many honors rendered him when the city recovered from the disaster, and it was with justice that his name was found among those of so many other heroes of less honorable wars.

He did not live to see his own glory. When he recognized in himself the irreversible symptoms that he had seen and pitied in others, he did not even attempt a useless struggle but withdrew from the world so as not to infect anyone else. Locked in a utility room at Misericordia Hospital, deaf to the calls of his colleagues and the pleas of his family, removed from the horror of the plague victims dying on the floor in the packed corridors, he wrote a letter of feverish love to his wife and children, a letter of gratitude for his existence in which he revealed how much and with how much fervor he had loved life. It was a farewell of twenty heartrending pages in which the progress of the disease could be observed in the deteriorating script, and it was not necessary to know the writer to realize that he had signed his name with his last breath. In accordance with his instructions, his ashen body was mingled with others in the communal cemetery and was not seen by anyone who loved him.

Three days later, in Paris, Dr. Juvenal Urbino received a telegram during supper with friends, and he toasted the memory of his father with champagne. He said: “He was a good man.” Later he would reproach himself for his lack of maturity: he had avoided reality in order not to cry. But three weeks later he received a copy of the posthumous letter, and then he surrendered to the truth. All at once the image of the man he had known before he knew any other was revealed to him in all its profundity, the man who had raised him and taught him and had slept and fornicated with his mother for thirty-two years and yet who, before that letter, had never revealed himself body and soul because of timidity, pure and simple. Until then Dr. Juvenal Urbino and his family had conceived of death as a misfortune that befell others, other people’s fathers and mothers, other people’s brothers and sisters and husbands and wives, but not theirs. They were people whose lives were slow, who did not see themselves growing old, or falling sick, or dying, but who disappeared little by little in their own time, turning into memories, mists from other days, until they were absorbed into oblivion. His father’s posthumous letter, more than the telegram with the bad news, hurled him headlong against the certainty of death. And yet one of his oldest memories, when he was nine years old perhaps, perhaps when he was eleven, was in a way an early sign of death in the person of his father. One rainy afternoon the two of them were in the office his father kept in the house; he was drawing larks and sunflowers with colored chalk on the tiled floor, and his father was reading by the light shining through the window, his vest unbuttoned and elastic armbands on his shirt sleeves. Suddenly he stopped reading to scratch his back with a long-handled back scratcher that had a little silver hand on the end. Since he could not reach the spot that itched, he asked his son to scratch him with his nails, and as the boy did so he had the strange sensation of not feeling his own body. At last his father looked at him over his shoulder with a sad smile.

“If I died now,” he said, “you would hardly remember me when you are my age.”
He said it for no apparent reason, and the angel of death hovered for a moment in the cool shadows of the office and flew out again through the window, leaving a trail of feathers fluttering in his wake, but the boy did not see them. More than twenty years had gone by since then, and Juvenal Urbino would very soon be as old as his father was that afternoon. He knew he was identical to him, and to that awareness had now been added the awful consciousness that he was also as mortal. Cholera became an obsession for him. He did not know much more about it than he had learned in a routine manner in some marginal course, when he had found it difficult to believe that only thirty years before, it had been responsible for more than one hundred forty thousand deaths in France, including Paris. But after the death of his father he learned all there was to know about the different forms of cholera, almost as a penance to appease his memory, and he studied with the most outstanding epidemiologist of his time and the creator of the cordons sanitaires, Professor Adrien Proust, father of the great novelist. So that when he returned to his country and smelled the stench of the market while he was still out at sea and saw the rats in the sewers and the children rolling naked in the puddles on the streets, he not only understood how the tragedy had occurred but was certain that it would be repeated at any moment.

The moment was not long in coming. In less than a year his students at Misericordia Hospital asked for his help in treating a charity patient with a strange blue coloration all over his body. Dr. Juvenal Urbino had only to see him from the doorway to recognize the enemy. But they were in luck: the patient had arrived three days earlier on a schooner from Curaçao and had come to the hospital clinic by himself, and it did not seem probable that he had infected anyone else. In any event, Dr. Juvenal Urbino alerted his colleagues and had the authorities warn the neighboring ports so that they could locate and quarantine the contaminated schooner, and he had to restrain the military commander of the city who wanted to declare martial law and initiate the therapeutic strategy of firing the cannon every quarter hour.
“Save that powder for when the Liberals come,” he said with good humor. “We are no longer in the Middle Ages.”


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