Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 40)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(Audible Chapter 12 7′)
They had planned to be together on Pentecost until she had to return to school, five minutes before the Angelus, but the tolling of the bells reminded Florentino Ariza of his promise to attend the funeral of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, and he dressed with more haste than usual. First, as always, he plaited her single braid that he himself had loosened before they made love, and he sat her on the table to tie the bow on her school shoes, which was something she never did well. He helped her without malice, and she helped him to help her, as if it were an obligation: after their first encounters they had both lost awareness of their ages, and they treated each other with the familiarity of a husband and wife who had hidden so many things in this life that there was almost nothing left for them to say to each other.
The offices were closed and dark because of the holiday, and at the deserted dock there was only one ship, its boilers damped. The sultry weather presaged the first rains of the year, but the transparent air and the Sunday silence in the harbor seemed to belong to a more benevolent month. The world was harsher here than in the shadowy cabin, and the bells caused greater grief, even if one did not know for whom they tolled. Florentino Ariza and the girl went down to the patio of saltpeter, which the Spaniards had used as a port for blacks and where there were still the remains of weights and other rusted irons from the slave trade. The automobile was waiting for them in the shade of the warehouses, and they did not awaken the driver, asleep with his head on the steering wheel, until they were settled in their seats. The automobile turned around behind the warehouses enclosed by chicken wire, crossed the area of the old market on Las Ánimas Bay, where near-naked adults were playing ball, and drove out of the river harbor in a burning cloud of dust. Florentino Ariza was sure that the funerary honors could not be for Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, but the insistent tolling filled him with doubts. He put his hand on the driver’s shoulder and asked him, shouting into his ear, for whom the bells tolled. “It’s for that doctor with the goatee,” said the driver. “What’s his name?”
Florentino Ariza did not have to wonder who that was. Nevertheless, when the driver told him how he had died, his instantaneous hope vanished because he could not believe what he heard. Nothing resembles a person as much as the way he dies, and no death could resemble the man he was thinking about less than this one. But it was he, although it seemed absurd: the oldest and best-qualified doctor in the city, and one of its illustrious men for many other meritorious reasons, had died of a broken spine, at the age of eightyone, when he fell from the branch of a mango tree as he tried to catch a parrot.
All that Florentino Ariza had done since Fermina Daza’s marriage had been based on his hope for this event. But now that it had come, he did not feel the thrill of triumph he had imagined so often in his sleeplessness. Instead, he was seized by terror: the fantastic realization that it could just as well have been himself for whom the death knell was tolling. Sitting beside him in the automobile that jolted along the cobbled streets, América Vicuña was frightened by his pallor, and she asked him what was the matter. Florentino Ariza grasped her hand with his icy one.
“Oh, my dear,” he sighed, “I would need another fifty years to tell you about it.”
He forgot Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s funeral. He left the girl at the door of the school with a hurried promise that he would come back for her the following Saturday, and he told the driver to take him to the house of Dr. Juvenal Urbino. He was confronted by an uproar of automobiles and hired carriages in the surrounding streets and a multitude of curious onlookers outside the house. The guests of Dr. Lácides Olivella, who had received the bad news at the height of the celebration, came rushing in. It was not easy to move inside the house because of the crowd, but Florentino Ariza managed to make his way to the master bedroom, peered on tiptoe over the groups of people blocking the door, and saw Juvenal Urbino in the conjugal bed as he had wanted to see him since he had first heard of him–wallowing in the indignity of death. The carpenter had just taken his measurements for the coffin, and at his side, still wearing the dress of a newly-wed grandmother that she had put on for the party, Fermina Daza was introspective and dejected.
Florentino Ariza had imagined that moment down to the last detail since the days of his youth when he had devoted himself completely to the cause of his reckless love. For her sake he had won fame and fortune without too much concern for his methods, for her sake he had cared for his health and personal appearance with a rigor that did not seem very manly to other men of his time, and he had waited for this day as no one else could have waited for anything or anyone in this world: without an instant of discouragement. The proof that death had at last interceded on his behalf filled him with the courage he needed to repeat his vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love to Fermina Daza on herfirst night of widowhood.
He did not deny the accusations of his conscience that it had been a thoughtless and inappropriate act, one he had rushed into for fear that the opportunity would never be repeated. He would have preferred something less brutal, something in the manner he had so often imagined, but fate had given him no choice. He left the house of mourning, full of sorrow at leaving her in the same state of upheaval in which he found himself, but there was nothing he could have done to prevent it because he felt that this barbarous night had been forever inscribed in both their destinies.
For the next two weeks he did not sleep through a single night. He asked himself in despair where Fermina Daza could be without him, what she could be thinking, what she would do, in the years of life remaining to her, with the burden of consternation he had left in her hands. He suffered a crisis of constipation that swelled his belly like a drum, and he had to resort to remedies less pleasant than enemas. The complaints of old age, which he endured better than his contemporaries because he had known them since his youth, all attacked at the same time. On Wednesday he appeared at the office after a week at home, and Leona Cassiani was horrified at seeing him so pale and enervated. But he reassured her: it was insomnia again, as always, and once more he bit his tongue to keep the truth from pouring out through the bleeding wounds in his heart. The rain did not allow him a moment of sun to think in. He spent another unreal week unable to concentrate on anything, eating badly and sleeping worse, trying to find the secret signs that would show him the road to salvation. But on Friday he was invaded by an unreasoning calm, which he interpreted as an omen that nothing new was going to happen, that everything he had done in his life had been in vain, that he could not go on: it was the end. On Monday, however, when he returned to his house on the Street of Windows, he discovered a letter floating in a puddle inside the entrance, and on the wet envelope he recognized at once the imperious handwriting that so many changes in life had not changed, and he even thought he could detect the nocturnal perfume of withered gardenias, because after the initial shock, his heart told him everything: it was the letter he had been waiting for, without a moment’s respite, for over half a century.
(Audible Chapter 13)
FERMINA DAZA could not have imagined that her letter, inspired by blind rage, would have been interpreted by Florentino Ariza as a love letter. She had put into it all the fury of which she was capable, her crudest words, the most wounding, most unjust vilifications, which still seemed minuscule to her in light of the enormity of the offense. It was the final act in a bitter exorcism through which she was attempting to come to terms with her new situation. She wanted to be herself again, to recover all that she had been obliged to give up in half a century of servitude that had doubtless made her happy but which, once her husband was dead, did not leave her even the vestiges of her identity. She was a ghost in a strange house that overnight had become immense and solitary and through which she wandered without purpose, asking herself in anguish which of them was deader: the man who had died or the woman he had left behind.
She could not avoid a profound feeling of rancor toward her husband for having left her alone in the middle of the ocean. Everything of his made her cry: his pajamas under the pillow, his slippers that had always looked to her like an invalid’s, the memory of his image in the back of the mirror as he undressed while she combed her hair before bed, the odor of his skin, which was to linger on hers for a long time after his death. She would stop in the middle of whatever she was doing and slap herself on the forehead because she suddenly remembered something she had forgotten to tell him. At every moment countless ordinary questions would come to mind that he alone could answer for her. Once he had told her something that she could not imagine: that amputees suffer pains, cramps, itches, in the leg that is no longer there. That is how she felt without him, feeling his presence where he no longer was.
When she awoke on her first morning as a widow, she turned over in bed without opening her eyes, searching for a more comfortable position so that she could continue sleeping, and that was the moment when he died for her. For only then did it become clear that he had spent the night away from home for the first time in years. The other place where this struck her was at the table, not because she felt alone, which in fact she was, but because of her strange belief that she was eating with someone who no longer existed. It was not until her daughter Ofelia came from New Orleans with her husband and the three girls that she sat at a table again to eat, but instead of the usual one, she ordered a smaller, improvised table set up in the corridor. Until then she did not take a regular meal. She would walk through the kitchen at any hour, whenever she was hungry, and put her fork in the pots and eat a little of everything without placing anything on a plate, standing in front of the stove, talking to the serving women, who were the only ones with whom she felt comfortable, the ones she got along with best. Still, no matter how hard she tried, she could not elude the presence of her dead husband: wherever she went, wherever she turned, no matter what she was doing, she would come across something of his that would remind her of him. For even though it seemed only decent and right to grieve for him, she also wanted to do everything possible not to wallow in her grief. And so she made the drastic decision to empty the house of everything that would remind her of her dead husband, which was the only way she could think of to go on living without him.
It was a ritual of eradication. Her son agreed to take his library so that she could replace his office with the sewing room she had never had when she was married. And her daughter would take some furniture and countless objects that she thought were just right for the antique auctions in New Orleans. All of this was a relief for Fermina Daza, although she was not at all amused to learn that the things she had bought on her honeymoon were now relics for antiquarians. To the silent stupefaction of the servants, the neighbors, the women friends who came to visit her during that time, she had a bonfire built in a vacant lot behind the house, and there she burned everything that reminded her of her husband: the most expensive and elegant clothes seen in the city since the last century, the finest shoes, the hats that resembled him more than his portraits, the siesta rocking chair from which he had arisen for the last time to die, innumerable objects so tied to her life that by now they formed part of her identity. She did it without the shadow of a doubt, in the full certainty that her husband would have approved, and not only for reasons of hygiene. For he had often expressed his desire to be cremated and not shut away in the seamless dark of a cedar box. His religion would not permit it, of course: he had dared to broach the subject with the Archbishop, just in case, and his answer had been a categorical no. It was pure illusion, because the Church did not permit the existence of crematoriums in our cemeteries, not even for the use of religions other than Catholic, and the advantage of building them would not have occurred to anyone but Juvenal Urbino. Fermina Daza did not forget her husband’s terror, and even in the confusion of the first hours she remembered to order the carpenter to leave a chink where light could come into the coffin as a consolation to him.
In any event, the holocaust was in vain. In a very short while Fermina Daza realized that the memory of her dead husband was as resistant to the fire as it seemed to be to the passage of time. Even worse: after the incineration of his clothing, she continued to miss not only the many things she had loved in him but also what had most annoyed her: the noises he made on arising. That memory helped her to escape the mangrove swamps of grief. Above all else, she made the firm decision to go on with her life, remembering her husband as if he had not died. She knew that waking each morning would continue to be difficult, but it would become less and less so.
At the end of the third week, in fact, she began to see the first light. But as it grew larger and brighter, she became aware that there was an evil phantom in her life who did not give her a moment’s peace. He was not the pitiable phantom who had haunted her in the Park of the Evangels and whom she had evoked with a certain tenderness after she had grown old, but the hateful phantom with his executioner’s frock coat and his hat held against his chest, whose thoughtless impertinence had disturbed her so much that she found it impossible not to think about him. Ever since her rejection of him at the age of eighteen, she had been convinced that she had left behind a seed of hatred in him that could only grow larger with time. She had always counted on that hatred, she had felt it in the air when the phantom was near, and the mere sight of him had upset and frightened her so that she never found a natural way to behave with him. On the night when he reiterated his love for her, while the flowers for her dead husband were still perfuming the house, she could not believe that his insolence was not the first step in God knows what sinister plan for revenge. 367