Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 20)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 20

The boat, one of three identical vessels belonging to the River Company of the Caribbean, had been renamed in honor of the founder: Pius V Loayza. It was a floating two-story wooden house on a wide, level iron hull, and its maximum draft of five feet allowed it to negotiate the variable depths of the river. The older boats had been built in Cincinnati in midcentury on the legendary model of the vessels that traveled the Ohio and the Mississippi, with a wheel on each side powered by a wood-fed boiler. Like them, the boats of the River Company of the Caribbean had a lower deck almost level with the water, with the steam engines and the galleys and the sleeping quarters like henhouses where the crew hung their hammocks crisscrossed at different heights. On the upper deck were the bridge, the cabins of the Captain and his officers, and a recreation and dining room, where notable passengers were invited at least once to have dinner and play cards. On the middle deck were six first-class cabins on either side of a passage that served as a common dining room, and in the prow was a sitting room open to the river, with carved wood railings and iron columns, where most of the passengers hung their hammocks at night. Unlike the older boats, these did not have paddle wheels at the sides; instead, there was an enormous wheel with horizontal paddles at the stern, just underneath the suffocating toilets on the passenger deck. Florentino Ariza had not taken the trouble to explore the boat when he came aboard on a Sunday in July at seven o’clock in the morning, as those traveling for the first time did almost by instinct. He became aware of his new milieu only at dusk, as they were sailing past the hamlet of Calamar, when he went to the stern to urinate and saw, through the opening in the toilet, the gigantic paddle wheel turning under his feet with a volcanic display of foam and steam.

He had never traveled before. He had with him a tin trunk with his clothes for the mountain wastelands, the illustrated novels that he bought in pamphlet form every month and that he himself sewed into cardboard covers, and the books of love poetry that he recited from memory and that were about to crumble into dust with so much reading. He had left behind his violin, for he identified it too closely with his misfortune, but his mother had obliged him to take his petate, a very popular and practical bedroll, with its pillow, sheet, small pewter chamber pot, and mosquito netting, all of this wrapped in straw matting tied with two hemp ropes for hanging a hammock in an emergency. Florentino Ariza had not wanted to take it, for he thought it would be useless in a cabin that provided bed and bedclothes, but from the very first night he had reason once again to be grateful for his mother’s good sense. At the last moment, a passenger dressed in evening clothes boarded the boat; he had arrived early that morning on a ship from Europe and was accompanied by the Provincial Governor himself. He wanted to continue his journey without delay, along with his wife and daughter and liveried servant and seven trunks with gold fittings, which were almost too bulky for the stairway. To accommodate the unexpected travelers, the Captain, a giant from Curaçao, called on the passengers’ indigenous sense of patriotism. In a jumble of Spanish and Curaçao patois, he explained to Florentino Ariz that the man in evening dress was the new plenipotentiary from England, on his way to the capital of the Republic; he reminded him of how that kingdom had provided us with decisive resources in our struggle for independence from Spanish rule, and that as a consequence no sacrifice was too great if it would allow a family of such distinction to feel more at home in our country than in their own. Florentino Ariza, of course, gave up his cabin.

At first he did not regret it, for the river was high at that time of year and the boat navigated without any difficulty for the first two nights. After dinner, at five o’clock, the crew distributed folding canvas cots to the passengers, and each person opened his bed wherever he could find room, arranged it with the bedclothes from his petate, and set the mosquito netting over that. Those with hammocks hung them in the salon, and those who had nothing slept on the tables in the dining room, wrapped in the tablecloths that were not changed more than twice during the trip. Florentino Ariza was awake most of the night, thinking that he heard the voice of Fermina Daza in the fresh river breeze, ministering to his solitude with her memory, hearing her sing in the respiration of the boat as it moved like a great animal through the darkness, until the first rosy streaks appeared on the horizon and the new day suddenly broke over deserted pastureland and misty swamps. Then his journey seemed yet another proof of his mother’s wisdom, and he felt that he had the fortitude to endure forgetting. After three days of favorable water, however, it became more difficult to navigate between inopportune sandbanks and deceptive rapids. The river turned muddy and grew narrower and narrower in a tangled jungle of colossal trees where there was only an occasional straw hut next to the piles of wood for the ship’s boilers. The screeching of the parrots and the chattering of the invisible monkeys seemed to intensify the midday heat. At night it was necessary to anchor the boat in order to sleep, and then the simple fact of being alive became unendurable. To the heat and the mosquitoes was added the reek of strips of salted meat hung to dry on the railings. Most of the passengers, above all the Europeans, abandoned the pestilential stench of their cabins and spent the night walking the decks, brushing away all sorts of predatory creatures with the same towel they used to dry their incessant perspiration, and at dawn they were exhausted and swollen with bites. Moreover, another episode of the intermittent civil war between Liberals and Conservatives had broken out that year, and the Captain had taken very strict precautions to maintain internal order and protect the safety of the passengers. Trying to avoid misunderstandings and provocations, he prohibited the favorite pastime during river voyages in those days, which was to shoot the alligators sunning themselves on the broad sandy banks. Later on, when some of the passengers divided into two opposing camps during an argument, he confiscated everyone’s weapons and gave his word of honor that they would be returned at the end of the journey. He was inflexible even with the British minister who, on the morning following their departure, appeared in a hunting outfit, with a precision carbine and a double-barreled rifle for killing tigers. The restrictions became even more drastic above the port of Tenerife, where they passed a boat flying the yellow plague flag. The Captain could not obtain any further information regarding that alarming sign because the other vessel did not respond to his signals. But that same day they encountered another boat, with a cargo of cattle for Jamaica, and were informed that the vessel with the plague flag was carrying two people sick with cholera, and that the epidemic was wreaking havoc along the portion of the river they still had to travel. Then the passengers were prohibited from leaving the boat, not only in the ports but even in the uninhabited places where they stopped to take on wood. So that until they reached the final port, a trip of six days, the passengers acquired the habits of prisoners, including the pernicious contemplation of a packet of pornographic Dutch postcards that circulated from hand to hand without anyone’s knowing where it came from, although no veteran of the river was unaware that this was only a tiny sampling of the Captain’s legendary collection. But, in the end, even that distraction with no expectation only increased the tedium.

Florentino Ariza endured the hardships of the journey -with the mineral patience that had brought sorrow to his mother and exasperation to his friends. He spoke to no one. The days were easy for him as he sat at the rail, watching the motionless alligators sunning themselves on sandy banks, their mouths open to catch butterflies, watching the flocks of startled herons that rose without warning from the marshes, the manatees that nursed their young at large maternal teats and startled the passengers with their woman’s cries. On a single day he saw three bloated, green, human corpses float past, with buzzards sitting on them. First the bodies of two men went by, one of them without a head, and then a very young girl, whose medusan locks undulated in the boat’s wake. He never knew, because no one ever knew, if they were victims of the cholera or the war, but the nauseating stench contaminated his memory of Fermina Daza.

That was always the case: any event, good or bad, had some relationship to her. At night, when the boat was anchored and most of the passengers walked the decks in despair, he perused the illustrated novels he knew almost by heart under the carbide lamp in the dining room, which was the only one kept burning until dawn, and the dramas he had read so often regained their original magic when he replaced the imaginary protagonists with people he knew in real life, reserving for himself and Fermina Daza the roles of star-crossed lovers. On other nights he wrote anguished letters and then scattered their fragments over the water that flowed toward her without pause. And so the most difficult hours passed for him, at times in the person of a timid prince or a paladin of love, at other times in his own scalded hide of a lover in the middle of forgetting, until the first breezes began to blow and he went to doze in the lounge chairs by the railing.

One night when he stopped his reading earlier than usual and was walking, distracted, toward the toilets, a door opened as he passed through the dining room, and a hand like the talon of a hawk seized him by the shirt sleeve and pulled him into a cabin. In the darkness he could barely see the naked woman, her ageless body soaked in hot perspiration, her breathing heavy, who pushed him onto the bunk face up, unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned his trousers, impaled herself on him as if she were riding horseback, and stripped him, without glory, of his virginity. Both of them fell, in an agony of desire, into the void of a bottomless pit that smelled of a salt marsh full of prawns. Then she lay for a moment on top of him, gasping for breath, and she ceased to exist in the darkness.

“Now go and forget all about it,” she said. “This never happened.” The assault had been so rapid and so triumphant that it could only be understood not as a sudden madness caused by boredom but as the fruit of a plan elaborated over time and down to its smallest detail. This gratifying certainty increased Florentino Ariza’s eagerness, for at the height of pleasure he had experienced a revelation that he could not believe, that he even refused to admit, which was that his illusory love for Fermina Daza could be replaced by an earthly passion. And so it was that he felt compelled to discover the identity of the mistress of violation in whose panther’s instincts he might find the cure for his misfortune. But he was not successful. On the contrary, the more he delved into the search the further he felt from the truth.

The assault had taken place in the last cabin, but this communicated with the one next to it by a door, so that the two rooms had been converted into family sleeping quarters with four bunks. The occupants were two young women, another who was rather mature but very attractive, and an infant a few months old. They had boarded in Barranco de Loba, the port where cargo and passengers from Mompox were picked up ever since that city had been excluded from the itineraries of the steamboats because of the river’s caprices, and Florentino Ariza had noticed them only because they carried the sleeping child in a large birdcage.

They dressed as if they were traveling on a fashionable ocean liner, with bustles under their silk skirts and lace gorgets and broad-brimmed hats trimmed with crinoline flowers, and the two younger women changed their entire outfits several times a day, so that they seemed to carry with them their own springlike ambience while the other passengers were suffocating in the heat. All three were skilled in the use of parasols and feathered fans, but their intentions were as indecipherable as those of other women from Mompox. Florentino Anza could not even determine their relationship to one another, although he had no doubt they came from the same family. At first he thought that the older one might be the mother of the other two, but then he realized she was not old enough for that, and that she also wore partial mourning that the others did not share. He could not imagine that one of them would have dared to do what she did while the others were sleeping in the nearby bunks, and the only reasonable supposition was that she had taken advantage of a fortuitous, or perhaps prearranged, moment when she was alone in the cabin. He observed that at times two of them stayed out for a breath of cool air until very late, while the third remained behind, caring for the infant, but one night when it was very hot all three of them left the cabin, carrying the baby, who was asleep in the wicker cage covered with gauze.

Despite the tangle of clues, Florentino Ariza soon rejected the possibility that the oldest had been the perpetrator of the assault, and with as much dispatch he also absolved the youngest, who was the most beautiful and the boldest of the three. He did so without valid reasons, but only because his avid observations of the three women had persuaded him to accept as truth the profound hope that his sudden lover was in fact the mother of the caged infant. That supposition was so seductive that he began to think about her with more intensity than he thought about Fermina Daza, ignoring the evidence that this recent mother lived only for her child. She was no more than twenty-five, she was slender and golden, she had Portuguese eyelids that made her seem even more aloof, and any man would have been satisfied with only the crumbs of the tenderness that she lavished on her son. From breakfast until bedtime she was busy with him in the salon, while the other two played Chinese checkers, and when at last she managed to put him to sleep she would hang the wicker cage from the ceiling on the cooler side of the railing. She did not ignore him, however, even when he was asleep, but would rock the cage, singing love songs under her breath while her thoughts flew high above the miseries of the journey. Florentino Ariza clung to the illusion that sooner or later she would betray herself, if only with a gesture. He even observed the changes in her breathing, watching the reliquary that hung on her batiste blouse as he looked at her without dissimulation over the book he pretended to read, and he committed the calculated impertinence of changing his seat in the dining room so that he would face her. But he could not find the slightest hint that she was in fact the repository of the other half of his secret. The only thing of hers he had, and that only because her younger companion called to her, was her first name: Rosalba.

On the eighth day, the boat navigated with great difficulty through a turbulent strait squeezed between marble cliffs, and after lunch it anchored in Puerto Nare. This was the disembarkation point for those passengers who would continue their journey into Antioquia, one of the provinces most affected by the new civil war. The port consisted of half a dozen palm huts and a store made of wood, with a zinc roof, and it was protected by several squads of barefoot and ill-armed soldiers because there-had been rumors of a plan by the insurrectionists to plunder the boats. Behind the houses, reaching to the sky, rose a promontory of uncultivated highland with a wrought-iron cornice at the edge of the precipice. No one on board slept well that night, but the attack did not materialize, and in the morning the port was transformed into a Sunday fair, with Indians selling Tagua amulets and love potions amid packs of animals ready to begin the six-day ascent to the orchid jungles of the central mountain range.

Florentino Ariza passed the time watching black men unload the boat onto their backs, he watched them carry off crates of china, and pianos for the spinsters of Envigado, and he did not realize until it was too late that Rosalba and her party were among the passengers who had stayed on shore. He saw them when they were already sitting sidesaddle, with their Amazons’ boots and their parasols in equatorial colors, and then he took the step he had not dared to take during, the preceding days: he waved goodbye to Rosalba, and the three women responded in kind, with a familiarity that cut him to the quick because his boldness came too late. He saw them round the corner of the store, followed by the mules carrying their trunks, their hatboxes, and the baby’s cage, and soon afterward he saw them ascend along the edge of the precipice like a line of ants and disappear from his life. Then he felt alone in the world, and the memory of Fermina Daza, lying in ambush in recent days, dealt him a mortal blow.

He knew that she was to have an elaborate wedding, and then the being who loved her most, who would love her forever, would not even have the right to die for her. Jealousy, which until that time had been drowned in weeping, took possession of his soul. He prayed to God that the lightning of divine justice would strike Fermina Daza as she was about to give her vow of love and obedience to a man who wanted her for his wife only as a social adornment, and he went into rapture at the vision of the bride, his bride or no one’s, lying face up on the flagstones of the Cathedral, her orange blossoms laden with the dew of death, and the foaming torrent of her veil covering the funerary marbles of the fourteen bishops who were buried in front of the main altar. Once his revenge was consummated, however, he repented of his own wickedness, and then he saw Fermina Daza rising from the ground, her spirit intact, distant but alive, because it was not possible for him to imagine the world without her. He did not sleep again, and if at times he sat down to pick at food, it was in the hope that Fermina Daza would be at the table or, conversely, to deny her the homage of fasting for her sake. At times his solace was the certainty that during the intoxication of her wedding celebration, even during the feverish nights of her honeymoon, Fermina Daza would suffer one moment, one at least but one in any event, when the phantom of the sweetheart she had scorned, humiliated, and insulted would appear in her thoughts, and all her happiness would be destroyed.

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