Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 17)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Manquez
The patient died in four days, choked by a grainy white vomit, but in the following weeks no other case was discovered despite constant vigilance. A short while later, The Commercial Daily published the news that two children had died of cholera in different locations in the city. It was learned that one of them had had common dysentery, but the other, a girl of five, appeared to have been, in fact, a victim of cholera. Her parents and three brothers were separated and placed under individual quarantine, and the entire neighborhood was subjected to strict medical supervision. One of the children contracted cholera but recovered very soon, and the entire family returned home when the danger was over. Eleven more cases were reported in the next three months, and in the fifth there was an alarming outbreak, but by the end of the year it was believed that the danger of an epidemic had been averted. No one doubted that the sanitary rigor of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, more than the efficacy of his pronouncements, had made the miracle possible. From that time on, and well into this century, cholera was endemic not only in the city but along most of the Caribbean coast and the valley of the Magdalena, but it never again flared into an epidemic. The crisis meant that Dr. Juvenal Urbino’s warnings were heard with greater seriousness by public officials. They established an obligatory Chair of Cholera and Yellow Fever in the Medical School, and realized the urgency of closing up the sewers and building a market far from the garbage dump. By that time, however, Dr. Urbino was not concerned with proclaiming victory, nor was he moved to persevere in his social mission, for at that moment one of his wings was broken, he was distracted and in disarray and ready to forget everything else in life, because he had been struck by the lightning of his love for Fermina Daza.
It was, in fact, the result of a clinical error. A physician who was a friend of his thought he detected the warning symptoms of cholera in an eighteen-year-old patient, and he asked Dr. Juvenal Urbino to see her. He called that very afternoon, alarmed at the possibility that the plague had entered the sanctuary of the old city, for all the cases until that time had occurred in the poor neighborhoods, and almost all of those among the black population. He encountered other, less unpleasant, surprises. From the outside, the house, shaded by the almond trees in the Park of the Evangels, appeared to be in ruins, as did the others in the colonial district, but inside there was a harmony of beauty and an astonishing light that seemed to come from another age. The entrance opened directly into a square Sevillian patio that was white with a recent coat of lime and had flowering orange trees and the same tiles on the floor as on the walls. There was an invisible sound of running water, and pots with carnations on the cornices, and cages of strange birds in the arcades. The strangest of all were three crows in a very large cage, who filled the patio with an ambiguous perfume every time they flapped their wings. Several dogs, chained elsewhere in the house, began to bark, maddened by the scent of a stranger, but a woman’s shout stopped them dead, and numerous cats leapt all around the patio and hid among the flowers, frightened by the authority in the voice. Then there was such a diaphanous silence that despite the disorder of the birds and the syllables of water on stone, one could hear the desolate breath of the sea.
Shaken by the conviction that God was present, Dr. Juvenal Urbino thought that such a house was immune to the plague. He followed Gala Placidia along the arcaded corridor, passed by the window of the sewing room where Florentino Ariza had seen Fermina Daza for the first time, when the patio was still a shambles, climbed the new marble stairs to the second floor, and waited to be announced before going into the patient’s bedroom. But Gala Placidia came out again with a message:
“The señorita says you cannot come in now because her papa is not at home.”
And so he returned at five in the afternoon, in accordance with the maid’s instructions, and Lorenzo Daza himself opened the street door and led him to his daughter’s bedroom. There he remained, sitting in a dark corner with his arms folded, and making futile efforts to control his ragged breathing during the examination. It was not easy to know who was more constrained, the doctor with his chaste touch or the patient in the silk chemise with her virgin’s modesty, but neither one looked the other in the eye; instead, he asked questions in an impersonal voice and she responded in a tremulous voice, both of them very conscious of the man sitting in the shadows. At last Dr. Juvenal Urbino asked the patient to sit up, and with exquisite care he opened her nightdress down to the waist; her pure high breasts with the childish nipples shone for an instant in the darkness of the bedroom, like a flash of gunpowder, before she hurried to cover them with crossed arms. Imperturbable, the physician opened her arms without looking at her and examined her by direct auscultation, his ear against her skin, first the chest and then the back.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino used to say that he experienced no emotion when he met the woman with whom he would live until the day of his death. He remembered the sky-blue chemise edged in lace, the feverish eyes, the long hair hanging loose over her shoulders, but he was so concerned with the outbreak of cholera in the colonial district that he took no notice of her flowering adolescence: he had eyes only for the slightest hint that she might be a victim of the plague. She was more explicit: the young doctor she had heard so much about in connection with the cholera epidemic seemed a pedant incapable of loving anyone but himself. The diagnosis was an intestinal infection of alimentary origin, which was cured by three days of treatment at home. Relieved by this proof that his daughter had not contracted cholera, Lorenzo Daza accompanied Dr. Juvenal Urbino to the door of his carriage, paid him a gold peso for the visit, a fee that seemed excessive even for a physician to the rich, and he said goodbye with immoderate expressions of gratitude. He was overwhelmed by the splendor of the Doctor’s family names, and he not only did not hide it but would have done anything to see him again, under less formal circumstances.
The case should have been considered closed. But on Tuesday of the following week, without being called and with no prior announcement, Dr. Juvenal Urbino returned to the house at the inconvenient hour of three in the afternoon. Fermina Daza was in the sewing room, having a lesson in oil painting with two of her friends, when he appeared at the window in his spotless white frock coat and his white top hat and signaled to her to come over to him. She put her palette down on a chair and tiptoed to the window, her ruffled skirt raised to keep it from dragging on the floor. She wore a diadem with a jewel that hung on her forehead, and the luminous stone was the same aloof color as her eyes, and everything in her breathed an aura of coolness. The Doctor was struck by the fact that she was dressed for painting at home as if she were going to a party. He took her pulse through the open window, he had her stick out her tongue, he examined her throat with an aluminum tongue depressor, he looked inside her lower eyelids, and each time he nodded in approval. He was less inhibited than on the previous visit, but she was more so, because she could not understand the reason for the unexpected examination if he himself had said that he would not come back unless they called him because of some change. And even more important: she did not ever want to see him again. When he finished his examination, the Doctor put the tongue depressor back into his bag, crowded with instruments and bottles of medicine, and closed it with a resounding snap.
“You are like a new-sprung rose,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Thank God,” he said, and he misquoted St. Thomas: “Remember that everything that is good, whatever its origin, comes from the Holy Spirit. Do you like music?”
“What is the point of that question?” she asked in turn. “Music is important for one’s health,” he said.
He really thought it was, and she was going to know very soon, and for the rest of her life, that the topic of music was almost a magic formula that he used to propose friendship, but at that moment she interpreted
it as a joke. Besides, her two friends, who had pretended to paint while she and Dr. Juvenal Urbino were talking at the window, tittered and hid their faces behind their palettes, and this made Fermina Daza lose her self-control. Blind with fury, she slammed the window shut. The Doctor stared at the sheer lace curtains in bewilderment, he tried to find the street door but lost his way, and in his confusion he knocked into the cage with the perfumed crows. They broke into sordid shrieking, flapped their wings in fright, and saturated the Doctor’s clothing with a feminine fragrance. The thundering voice of Lorenzo Daza rooted him to the spot: “Doctor–wait for me there.”
He had seen everything from the upper floor and, swollen and livid, he came down the stairs buttoning his shirt, his side-whiskers still in an uproar after a restless siesta. The Doctor tried to overcome his embarrassment.
“I told your daughter that she is like a rose.”
“True enough,” said Lorenzo Daza, “but one with too many thorns.” He walked past Dr. Urbino without greeting him. He pushed open the sewing room window and shouted a rough command to his daughter: “Come here and beg the Doctor’s pardon.”
The Doctor tried to intervene and stop him, but Lorenzo Daza paid no attention to him. He insisted: “Hurry up.” She looked at her friends with a secret plea for understanding, and she said to her father that she had nothing to beg pardon for, she had only closed the window to keep out the sun. Dr. Urbino, with good humor, tried to confirm her words, but Lorenzo Daza insisted that he be obeyed. Then Fermina Daza, pale with rage, turned toward the window, and extending her right foot as she raised her skirt with her fingertips, she made a theatrical curtsy to the Doctor.
“I give you my most heartfelt apologies, sir,” she said.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino imitated her with good humor, making a cavalier’s flourish with his top hat, but he did not win the compassionate smile he had hoped for. Then Lorenzo Daza invited him to have a cup of coffee in his office to set things right, and he accepted with pleasure so that there would be no doubt whatsoever that he did not harbor a shred of resentment in his heart.
The truth was that Dr. Juvenal Urbino did not drink coffee, except for a cup first thing in the morning. He did not drink alcohol either, except for a glass of wine with meals on solemn occasions, but he not only drank down the coffee that Lorenzo Daza offered him, he also accepted a glass of anisette. Then he accepted another coffee with another anisette, and then another and another, even though he still had to make a few more calls. At first he listened with attention to the excuses that Lorenzo Daza continued to offer in the name of his daughter, whom he defined as an intelligent and serious girl, worthy of a prince whether he came from here or anywhere else, whose only defect, so he said, was her mulish character. But after the second anisette, the Doctor thought he heard Fermina Daza’s voice at the other end of the patio, and his imagination went after her, followed her through the night that had just descended in the house as she lit the lights in the corridor, fumigated the bedrooms with the insecticide bomb, uncovered the pot of soup on the stove, which she was going to share that night with her father, the two of them alone at the table, she not raising her eyes, not tasting the soup, not breaking the rancorous spell, until he was forced to give in and ask her to forgive his severity that afternoon.
Dr. Urbino knew enough about women to realize that Fermina Daza would not pass by the office until he left, but he stayed nevertheless because he felt that wounded pride would give him no peace after the humiliations of the afternoon. Lorenzo Daza, who by now was almost drunk, did not seem to notice his lack of attention, for he was satisfied with his own indomitable eloquence. He talked at full gallop, chewing the flower of his unlit cigar, coughing in shouts, trying to clear his throat, attempting with great difficulty to find a comfortable position in the swivel chair, whose springs wailed like an animal in heat. He had drunk three glasses of anisette to each one drunk by his guest, and he paused only when he realized that they could no longer see each other, and he stood up to light the lamp. Dr. Juvenal Urbino looked at him in the new light, he saw that one eye was twisted like a fish’s and that his words did not correspond to the movement of his lips, and he thought these were hallucinations brought on by his abuse of alcohol. Then he stood up, with the fascinating sensation that he was inside a body that belonged not to him but to someone who was still in the chair where he had been sitting, and he had to make a great effort not to lose his mind.
It was after seven o’clock when he left the office, preceded by Lorenzo Daza. There was a full moon. The patio, idealized by anisette, floated at the bottom of an aquarium, and the cages covered with cloths looked like ghosts sleeping under the hot scent of new orange blossoms. The sewing room window was open, there was a lighted lamp on the worktable, and the unfinished paintings were on their
easels as if they were on exhibit. “Where art thou that thou art not here,” said Dr. Urbino as he passed by, but Fermina Daza did not hear him, she could not hear him, because she was crying with rage in her bedroom, lying face down on the bed and waiting for her father so that she could make him pay for the afternoon’s humiliation. The Doctor did not renounce his hope of saying goodbye to her, but Lorenzo Daza did not suggest it. He yearned for the innocence of her pulse, her cat’s tongue, her tender tonsils, but he was disheartened by the idea that she never wanted to see him again and would never permit him to try to see her. When Lorenzo Daza walked into the entryway, the crows, awake under their sheets, emitted a funereal shriek. “They will peck out your eyes,” the Doctor said aloud, thinking of her, and Lorenzo Daza turned around to ask him what he had said.
“It was not me,” he said. “It was the anisette.”
Lorenzo Daza accompanied him to his carriage, trying to force him to accept a gold peso for the second visit, but he would not take it. He gave the correct instructions to the driver for taking him to the houses of the two patients he still had to see, and he climbed into the carriage without help. But he began to feel sick as they bounced along the cobbled streets, so that he ordered the driver to take a different route. He looked at himself for a moment in the carriage mirror and saw that his image, too, was still thinking about Fermina Daza. He shrugged his shoulders. Then he belched, lowered his head to his chest, and fell asleep, and in his dream he began to hear funeral bells. First he heard those of the Cathedral and then he heard those of all the other churches, one after another, even the cracked pots of St. Julian the Hospitaler.
“Shit,” he murmured in his sleep, “the dead have died.” His mother and sisters were having café con leche and crullers for supper at the formal table in the large dining room when they saw him appear in the door, his face haggard and his entire being dishonored by the whorish perfume of the crows. The largest bell of the adjacent Cathedral resounded in the immense empty space of the house. His mother asked him in alarm where in the world he had been, for they had looked everywhere for him so that he could attend General Ignacio María, the last grandson of the Marquis de Jaraíz de la Vera, who had been struck down that afternoon by a cerebral hemorrhage: it was for him that the bells were tolling. Dr. Juvenal Urbino listened to his mother without hearing her as he clutched the doorframe, and then he gave a half turn, trying to reach his bedroom, but he fell flat on his face in an explosion of star anise vomit.
“Mother of God,” shouted his mother. “Something very strange must have happened for you to show up in your own house in this state.” The strangest thing, however, had not yet occurred. Taking advantage of the visit of the famous pianist Romeo Lussich, who played a cycle of Mozart sonatas as soon as the city had recovered from mourning the death of General Ignacio María, Dr. Juvenal Urbino had the piano from the Music School placed in a mule-drawn wagon and brought a history-making serenade to Fermina Daza. She was awakened by the first measures, and she did not have to look out the grating on the balcony to know who was the sponsor of that uncommon tribute. The only thing she regretted was not having the courage of other harassed maidens, who emptied their chamber pots on the heads of unwanted suitors. Lorenzo Daza, on the other hand, dressed without delay as the serenade was playing, and when it was over he had Dr. Juvenal Urbino and the pianist, still wearing their formal concert clothes, come in to the visitors’ parlor, where he thanked them for the serenade with a glass of good brandy.
Fermina Daza soon realized that her father was trying to soften her heart. The day after the serenade, he said to her in a casual manner: “Imagine how your mother would feel if she knew you were being courted by an Urbino de la Calle.” Her dry response was: “She would turn over in her grave.” The friends who painted with her told her that Lorenzo Daza had been invited to lunch at the Social Club by Dr. Juvenal Urbino, who had received a severe reprimand for breaking club rules. It was only then that she learned that her father had applied for membership in the Social Club on several occasions, and that each time he had been rejected with such a large number of black balls that another attempt was not possible. But Lorenzo Daza had an infinite capacity for assimilating humiliations, and he continued his ingenious strategies for arranging casual encounters with Juvenal Urbino, not realizing that it was Juvenal Urbino who went out of his way to let himself be encountered. At times they spent hours chatting in the office, while the house seemed suspended at the edge of time because Fermina Daza would not permit anything to run its normal course until he left. The Parish Café was a good intermediate haven. It was there that Lorenzo Daza gave Juvenal Urbino his first lessons in chess, and he was such a diligent pupil that chess became an incurable addiction that tormented him until the day of his death.