Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 31)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 31

The next afternoon, just at dinnertime, the beautiful pigeon fancier saw the gift carrier pigeon in the dovecote and thought it had escaped. But when she picked it up to examine it, she realized that there was a slip of paper inside the ring: a declaration of love. It was the first time that Florentino Ariza had left a written trace, and it would not be the last, although on this occasion he had been prudent enough not to sign his name. He was going into his house the following afternoon, a Wednesday, when a street boy handed him the same pigeon in a cage, with a memorized message that the pigeon lady hereby sends you this, and says to tell you to please keep the cage locked because if not it will fly away again and this is the last time she will send it back. He had no idea how to interpret this: either the pigeon had lost the note en route, or the pigeonkeeper had decided to play innocent, or she had returned the pigeon so that he could send it back to her again. If that was true, however, the natural thing would have been for her to return the pigeon with a reply.

On Saturday morning, after much thought, Florentino Ariza sent back the pigeon with another unsigned letter. This time he did not have to wait until the next day. In the afternoon the same boy brought it back in another cage, with a message that said she hereby sends back the pigeon that flew away again, and that the day before yesterday she returned it out of courtesy and this time she returns it out of pity, but that now it is really true that she will not return it again if it flies away another time. Tránsito Ariza played with the pigeon until very late, she took it out of the cage, she rocked it in her arms, she tried to lull it to sleep with children’s songs, and then suddenly Florentino Ariza realized that in the ring around its leg was a little piece of paper with one line written on it: I do not accept anonymous letters. Florentino Ariza read it, his heart wild with joy as if this were the culmination of his first adventure, and he did not sleep a wink that night as he tossed and turned with impatience. Very early the next day, before he left for the office, he once again set the pigeon free, carrying a love note that bore his clear signature, and he also put in the ring the freshest, reddest, and most fragrant rose from his garden.

It was not that easy. After three months of pursuit, the beautiful pigeon fancier was still sending the same answer: I am not one of those women. But she never refused to accept his messages or broke any of the dates that Florentino Ariza arranged so that they would seem to be casual encounters. He was a different person: the lover who never showed his face, the man most avid for love as well as most niggardly with it, the man who gave nothing and wanted everything, the man who did not allow anyone to leave a trace of her passing in his heart, the hunter lying in ambush–this man went out on the street in the midst of ecstatic signed letters, gallant gifts, imprudent vigils at the pigeonkeeper’s house, even on two occasions when her husband was not on a trip or at the market. It was the only time, since his youngest days, when he felt himself run through by the lance of love.

Six months after their first meeting, they found themselves at last in a cabin on a riverboat that was being painted at the docks. It was a marvelous afternoon. Olimpia Zuleta had the joyous love of a startled pigeon fancier, and she preferred to remain naked for several hours in a slow-moving repose that was, for her, as loving as love itself. The cabin was dismantled, half painted, and they would take the odor of turpentine away with them in the memory of a happy afternoon. In a sudden inspiration, Florentino Ariza opened a can of red paint that was within reach of the bunk, wet his index finger, and painted the pubis of the beautiful pigeon fancier with an arrow of blood pointing south, and on her belly the words: This pussy is mine. That same night, Olimpia Zuleta undressed in front of her husband, having forgotten what was scrawled there, and he did not say a word, his breathing did not even change, nothing, but he went to the bathroom for his razor while she was putting on her nightgown, and in a single slash he cut her throat.

Florentino did not find out until many days later, when the fugitive husband was captured and told the newspapers the reasons for the crime and how he had committed it. For many years he thought with terror about the signed letters, he kept track of the prison term of the murderer, who knew him because of his dealings with the boat company, but it was not so much fear of a knife at his throat or a public scandal as the misfortune of Fermina Daza’s learning about his infidelity. One day during his years of waiting, the woman who took care of Tránsito Ariza had to stay at the market longer than expected because of an unseasonable downpour, and when she returned to the house she found her sitting in the rocking chair, painted and bedecked as always, and with eyes so animated and a smile so mischievous that her caretaker did not realize she was dead until two hours later. Shortly before her death she had distributed to the neighborhood children the fortune in gold and jewels hidden in the jars buried under her bed, saying they could eat them like candy, and some of the most valuable were impossible to recover. Florentino Ariza buried her in the former Hand of God ranch, which was still known as the Cholera Cemetery, and he planted a rosebush on her grave.

After his first few visits to the cemetery, Florentino Ariza discovered that Olimpia Zuleta was buried very close by, without a tombstone but with her name and the date scrawled in the fresh cement of the crypt, and he thought in horror that this was one of her husband’s sanguinary jokes. When the roses bloomed he would place a flower on her grave if there was no one in sight, and later he planted a cutting taken from his mother’s rosebush. Both bloomed in such profusion that Florentino Ariza had to bring shears and other garden tools to keep them under control. But the task was beyond him: after a few years the two rosebushes had spread like weeds among the graves, and from then on, the unadorned cemetery of the plague was called the Cemetery of Roses, until some mayor who was less realistic than popular wisdom cleared out the roses one night and hung a republican sign from the arch of the entrance gate: Universal Cemetery.

The death of his mother left Florentino Ariza condemned once again to his maniacal pursuits: the office, his meetings in strict rotation with his regular mistresses, the domino games at the Commercial Club, the same books of love, the Sunday visits to the cemetery. It was the rust of routine, which he had despised and feared so much, but which had protected him from an awareness of his age. However, one Sunday in December, when the rosebushes on the tombs had already defeated the garden shears, he saw the swallows on the recently installed electric wires and he suddenly realized how much time had gone by since the death of his mother, and how much since the murder of Olimpia Zuleta, and how very much since that other distant December afternoon when Fermina Daza sent him a letter saying yes, she would love him always. Until then he had behaved as if time would not pass for him but only for others. Just the week before, he happened to meet on the street one of the many couples who had married because of the letters he had written, and he did not recognize their oldest child, who was his godson. He smoothed over his embarrassment with the conventional exclamation: “I’ll be damned, he’s a man already!” And he continued in the same way even after his body began sending him the first warning signals, because he had always had the iron constitution of the sickly. Tránsito Ariza used to say: “The only disease my son ever had was cholera.” She had confused cholera with love, of course, long before her memory failed. But in any event she was mistaken, because her son had suffered from six blennorrhagias, although the doctor had said they were not six but the same one that reappeared after each lost battle. He had also had a swollen lymph gland, four warts, and six cases of impetigo in the groin, but it would not have occurred to him or any man to think of these as diseases; they were only the spoils of war.

When he had just turned forty, he had gone to the doctor because of vague pains in various parts of his body. After many tests, the doctor had said: “It’s age.” He had returned home without even wondering if any of that had anything to do with him. For his only point of reference in his own past was the ephemeral love affair with Fermina Daza, and only what concerned her had anything to do with reckoning his life. So that on the afternoon when he saw the swallows on the electric wires, he reviewed the past from his earliest memory, he reviewed his chance loves, the countless pitfalls he had been obliged to avoid in order to reach a position of authority, the events without number that had given rise to his bitter determination that Fermina Daza would be his and he would be hers despite everything, in the face of everything, and only then did he realize that his life was passing. He was shaken by a visceral shudder that left his mind blank, and he had to drop the garden tools and lean against the cemetery wall so that the first blow of old age would not knock him down.

“Damn it,” he said, appalled, “that all happened thirty years ago!” And it had. Thirty years that had also gone by for Fermina Daza, of course, but had

been for her the most pleasant and exhilarating years of her life. The days of horror in the Palace of Casalduero were relegated to the trash heap of memory. She was living in her new house in La Manga, absolute mistress of her own destiny, with a husband she would have preferred to all the men in the world if she had to choose again, a son who was continuing the family tradition in the Medical School, and a daughter so much like her when she was her age that at times she was disturbed by the impression of feeling herself duplicated. She had returned to Europe three times after the unfortunate trip from which she had intended never to return so that she would not have to live in perpetual turmoil.

God must have finally listened to someone’s prayers: after two years in Paris, when Fermina Daza and Juvenal Urbino were just beginning to find what remained of their love in the ruins, a midnight telegram awoke them with the news that Doña Blanca de Urbino was gravely ill, and almost on its heels came another with the news of her death. They returned without delay. Fermina Daza walked off the ship wearing a black tunic whose fullness could not hide her condition. In fact she was pregnant again, and this news gave rise to a popular song, more mischievous than malicious, whose chorus was heard for the rest of the year: What d’you think she does over there, this beauty from our earth? Whenever she comes back from Paris, she’s ready to give birth. Despite the vulgarity of the words, for many years afterward Dr. Juvenal Urbino would request it at Social Club dances to prove he was a good sport.

The noble palace of the Marquis de Casalduero, whose existence and coat of arms had never been documented, was sold to the municipal treasury for a decent price, and then resold for a fortune to the central government when a Dutch researcher began excavations to prove that the real grave of Christopher Columbus was located there: the fifth one so far. The sisters of Dr. Urbino, without taking vows, went to live in seclusion in the Convent of the Salesians, and Fermina Daza stayed in her father’s old house until the villa in La Manga was completed. She walked in with a firm step, she walked in prepared to command, with the English furniture brought back on their honeymoon and the complementary furnishings they sent for after their reconciliation trip, and from the first day she began to fill it with exotic animals that she herself went to buy on the schooners from the Antilles. She walked in with the husband she had won back, the son she had raised with propriety, the daughter who was born four months after their return and whom they baptized Ofelia. Dr. Urbino, for his part, understood that it was impossible to possess his wife as completely as he had on their honeymoon, because the part of love he wanted was what she had given, along with her best hours, to her children, but he learned to live and be happy with what was left over. The harmony they had longed for reached its culmination when they least expected it, at a gala dinner at which a delicious food was served that Fermina Daza could not identify. She began with a good portion, but she liked it so much that she took another of the same size, and she was lamenting the fact that urbane etiquette did not permit her to help herself to a third, when she learned that she had just eaten, with unsuspected pleasure, two heaping plates of pureed eggplant. She accepted defeat with good grace, and from that time on, eggplant in all its forms was served at the villa in La Manga with almost as much frequency as at the Palace of Casalduero, and it was enjoyed so much by everyone that Dr. Juvenal Urbino would lighten the idle hours of his old age by insisting that he wanted to have another daughter so that he could give her the best-loved word in the house as a name: Eggplant Urbino. Fermina Daza knew then that private life, unlike public life, was fickle and unpredictable. It was not easy for her to establish real differences between children and adults, but in the last analysis she preferred children, because their judgment was more reliable. She had barely turned the corner into maturity, free at last of illusions, when she began to detect the disillusionment of never having been what she had dreamed of being when she was young, in the Park of the Evangels. Instead, she was something she never dared admit even to herself: a deluxe servant. In society she came to be the woman most loved, most catered to, and by the same token most feared, but in nothing was she more demanding or less forgiving than in the management of her house. She always felt as if her life had been lent to her by her husband: she was absolute monarch of a vast empire of happiness, which had been built by him and for him alone. She knew that he loved her above all else, more than anyone else in the world, but only for his own sake: she was in his holy service.

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