Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 36)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
That night, following his renunciation, as he was undressing for bed, he recited for Fermina Daza the bitter litany of his early morning insomnia, his sudden stabbing pains, his desire to weep in the afternoon, the encoded symptoms of secret love, which he recounted as if they were the miseries of old age. He had to tell someone or die, or else tell the truth, and so the relief he obtained was sanctified within the domestic rituals of love. She listened to him with close attention, but without looking at him, without saying anything as she picked up every article of clothing he removed, sniffed it with no gesture or change of expression that might betray her wrath, then crumpled it and tossed it into the wicker basket for dirty clothes. She did not find the odor, but it was all the same: tomorrow was another day. Before he knelt down to pray before the altar in the bedroom, he ended the recital of his misery with a sigh as mournful as it was sincere: “I think I am going to die.” She did not even blink when she replied.
“That would be best,” she said. “Then we could both have some peace.”
Years before, during the crisis of a dangerous illness, he had spoken of the possibility of dying, and she had made the same brutal reply. Dr. Urbino attributed it to the natural hardheartedness of women, which allows the earth to continue revolving around the sun, because at that time he did not know that she always erected a barrier of wrath to hide her fear. And in this case it was the most terrible one of all, the fear of losing him.
That night, on the other hand, she wished him dead with all her heart, and this certainty alarmed him. Then he heard her slow sobbing in the darkness as she bit the pillow so he would not hear. He was puzzled, because he knew that she did not cry easily for any affliction of body or soul. She cried only in rage, above all if it had its origins in her terror of culpability, and then the more she cried the more enraged she became, because she could never forgive her weakness in crying. He did not dare to console her, knowing that it would have been like consoling a tiger run through by a spear, and he did not have the courage to tell her that the reason for her weeping had disappeared that afternoon, had been pulled out by the roots, forever, even from his memory.
Fatigue overcame him for a few minutes. When he awoke, she had lit her dim bedside lamp and lay there with her eyes open, but without crying. Something definitive had happened to her while he slept: the sediment that had accumulated at the bottom of her life over the course of so many years had been stirred up by the torment of her jealousy and had floated to the surface, and it had aged her all at once. Shocked by her sudden wrinkles, her faded lips, the ashes in her hair, he risked telling her that she should try to sleep: it was after two o’clock. She spoke, not looking at him but with no trace of rage in her voice, almost with gentleness.
“I have a right to know who she is,” she said.
And then he told her everything, feeling as if he were lifting the weight of the world from his shoulders, because he was convinced that she already knew and only needed to confirm the details. But she did not, of course, so that as he spoke she began to cry again, not with her earlier timid sobs but with abundant salty tears that ran down her cheeks and burned her nightdress and inflamed her life, because he had not done what she, with her heart in her mouth, had hoped he would do, which was to be a man: deny everything, and swear on his life it was not true, and grow indignant at the false accusation, and shout curses at this ill-begotten society that did not hesitate to trample on one’s honor, and remain imperturbable even when faced with crushing proofs of his disloyalty. Then, when he told her that he had been with his confessor that afternoon, she feared she would go blind with rage. Ever since her days at the Academy she had been convinced that the men and women of the Church lacked any virtue inspired by God. This was a discordant note in the harmony of the house, which they had managed to overlook without mishap. But her husband’s allowing his confessor to be privy to an intimacy that was not only his but hers as well was more than she could bear.
“You might as well have told a snake charmer in the market,” she said. For her it was the end of everything. She was sure that her honor was the subject of gossip even before her husband had finished his penance, and the feeling of humiliation that this produced in her was much less tolerable than the shame and anger and injustice caused by his infidelity. And worst of all, damn it: with a black woman. He corrected her: “With a mulatta.” But by then it was too late for accuracy: she had finished.
“Just as bad,” she said, “and only now I understand: it was the smell of a black woman.”
This happened on a Monday. On Friday at seven o’clock in the evening, Fermina Daza sailed away on the regular boat to San Juan de la Ciénaga with only one trunk, in the company of her goddaughter, her face covered by a mantilla to avoid questions for herself and her husband. Dr. Juvenal Urbino was not at the dock, by mutual agreement, following an exhausting three-day discussion in which they decided that she should go to Cousin Hildebranda Sanchez’s ranch in Flores de María for as long a time as she needed to think before coming to a final decision. Without knowing her reasons, the children understood it as a trip she had often put off and that they themselves had wanted her to make for a long time. Dr. Urbino arranged matters so that no one in his perfidious circle could engage in malicious speculation, and he did it so well that if Florentino Ariza could find no clue to Fermina Daza’s disappearance it was because in fact there was none, not because he lacked the means to investigate. Her husband had no doubts that she would come home as soon as she got over her rage. But she left certain that her rage would never end.
However, she was going to learn very soon that her drastic decision was not so much the fruit of resentment as of nostalgia. After their honeymoon she had returned several times to Europe, despite the ten days at sea, and she had always made the trip with more than enough time to enjoy it. She knew the world, she had learned to live and think in new ways, but she had never gone back to San Juan de la Ciénaga after the aborted flight in the balloon. To her mind there was an element of redemption in the return to Cousin Hildebranda’s province, no matter how belated. This was not her response to her marital catastrophe: the idea was much older than that. So the mere thought of revisiting her adolescent haunts consoled her in her unhappiness. When she disembarked with her goddaughter in San Juan de la Ciénaga, she called on the great reserves of her character and recognized the town despite all the evidence to the contrary. The Civil and Military Commander of the city, who had been advised of her arrival, invited her for a drive in the official Victoria while the train was preparing to leave for San Pedro Alejandrino, which she wanted to visit in order to see for herself if what they said was true, that the bed in which The Liberator had died was as small as a child’s. Then Fermina Daza saw her town again in the somnolence of two o’clock in the afternoon. She saw the streets that seemed more like beaches with scum-covered pools, and she saw the mansions of the Portuguese, with their coats of arms carved over the entrance and bronze jalousies at the windows, where the same hesitant, sad piano exercises that her recently married mother had taught to the daughters of the wealthy houses were repeated without mercy in the gloom of the salons. She saw the deserted plaza, with no trees growing in the burning lumps of sodium nitrate, the line of carriages with their funereal tops and their horses asleep where they stood, the yellow train to San Pedro Alejandrino, and on the corner next to the largest church she saw the biggest and most beautiful of the houses, with an arcaded passageway of greenish stone, and its great monastery door, and the window of the bedroom where Álvaro would be born many years later when she no longer had the memory to remember it. She thought of Aunt Escolástica, for whom she continued her hopeless search in heaven and on earth, and thinking of her, she found herself thinking of Florentino Ariza with his literary clothes and his book of poems under the almond trees in the little park, as she did on rare occasions when she recalled her unpleasant days at the Academy. She drove around and around, but she could not recognize the old family house, for where she supposed it to be she found only a pigsty, and around the corner was a street lined with brothels where whores from all over the world took their siestas in the doorways in case there was something for them in the mail. It was not the same town.
When they began their drive, Fermina Daza had covered the lower half of her face with her mantilla, not for fear of being recognized in a place where no one could know her but because of the dead bodies she saw everywhere, from the railroad station to the cemetery, bloating in the sun. The Civil and Military Commander of the city told her: “It’s cholera.” She knew it was, because she had seen the white lumps in the mouths of the sweltering corpses, but she noted that none of them had the coup de grace in the back of the neck as they had at the time of the balloon.
“That is true,” said the officer. “Even God improves His methods.”
The distance from San Juan de la Ciénaga to the old plantation of San Pedro Alejandrino was only nine leagues, but the yellow train took the entire day to make the trip because the engineer was a friend of the regular passengers, who were always asking him to please stop so they could stretch their legs by strolling across the golf courses of the banana company, and the men bathed naked in the clear cold rivers that rushed down from the mountains, and when they were hungry they got off the train to milk the cows wandering in the pastures. Fermina Daza was terrified when they reached their destination, and she just had time to marvel at the Homeric tamarinds where The Liberator had hung his dying man’s hammock and to confirm that the bed where he had died, just as they had said, was small not only for so glorious a man but even for a sevenmonth-old infant. Another visitor, however, who seemed very well informed, said that the bed was a false relic, for the truth was that the father of his country had been left to die on the floor. Fermina Daza was so depressed by what she had seen and heard since she left her house that for the rest of the trip she took no pleasure in the memory of her earlier trip, as she had longed to do, but instead she avoided passing through the villages of her nostalgia. In this way she could still keep them, and keep herself from disillusionment. She heard the accordions in her detours around disenchantment, she heard the shouts from the cockfighting pits, the bursts of gunfire that could just as well signal war as revelry, and when she had no other recourse and had to pass through a village, she covered her face with her mantilla so that she could remember it as it once had been.
One night, after so much avoidance of the past, she arrived at Cousin Hildebranda’s ranch, and when she saw her waiting at the door she almost fainted: it was as if she were seeing herself in the mirror of truth. She was fat and old, burdened with unruly children whose father was not the man she still loved without hope but a soldier living on his pension whom she had married out of spite and who loved her to distraction. But she was still the same person inside her ruined body. Fermina Daza recovered from her shock after just a few days of country living and pleasant memories, but she did not leave the ranch except to go to Mass on Sundays with the grandchildren of her wayward conspirators of long ago, cowboys on magnificent horses and beautiful, well-dressed girls who were just like their mothers at their age and who rode standing in oxcarts and singing in chorus until they reached the mission church at the end of the valley. She only passed through the village of Flores de María, where she had not gone on her earlier trip because she had not thought she would like it, but when she saw it she was fascinated. Her misfortune, or the village’s, was that she could never remember it afterward as it was in reality, but only as she had imagined it before she had been there.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino made the decision to come for her after receiving a report from the Bishop of Riohacha, who had concluded that his wife’s long stay was caused not by her unwillingness to return but by her inability to find a way around her pride. So he went without notifying her after an exchange of letters with Hildebranda, in which it was made clear that his wife was filled with nostalgia: now she thought only of home. At eleven o’clock in the morning, Fermina Daza was in the kitchen preparing stuffed eggplant when she heard the shouts of the peons, the neighing of the horses, the shooting of guns into the air, then the resolute steps in the courtyard and the man’s voice:
“It is better to arrive in time than to be invited.”
She thought she would die ofjoy. Without time to think about it, she washed her hands as well as she could while she murmured: “Thank you, God, thank you, how good you are,” thinking that she had not yet bathed because of the damned eggplant that Hildebranda had asked her to prepare without telling her who was coming to lunch, thinking that she looked so old and ugly and that her face was so raw from the sun that he would regret having come when he saw her like this, damn it. But she dried her hands the best she could on her apron, arranged her appearance the best she could, called on all the haughtiness she had been born with to calm her maddened heart, and went to meet the man with her sweet doe’s gait, her head high, her eyes shining, her nose ready for battle, and grateful to her fate for the immense relief of going home, but not as pliant as he thought, of course, because she would be happy to leave with him, of course, but she was also determined to make him pay with her silence for the bitter suffering that had ended her life.