Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 48)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
She was ready at eleven o’clock, bathed and smelling of flower-scented soap, wearing a very simple widow’s dress of gray etamine, and completely recovered from the night’s turmoil. She ordered a sober breakfast from the steward, who was dressed in impeccable white, and in the Captain’s personal service, but she did not send a message for anyone to come for her. She went up alone, dazzled by the cloudless sky, and she found Florentino Ariza talking to the Captain on the bridge. He looked different to her, not only because she saw him now with other eyes, but because in reality he had changed. Instead of the funereal clothing he had worn all his life, he was dressed in comfortable white shoes, slacks, and a linen shirt with an open collar, short sleeves, and his monogram embroidered on the breast pocket. He also had on a white Scottish cap and removable dark lenses over his perpetual eyeglasses for myopia. It was evident that everything was being used for the first time and had been bought just for the trip, with the exception of the well-worn belt of dark brown leather, which Fermina Daza noticed at first glance as if it were a fly in the soup. Seeing him like this, dressed just for her in so patent a manner, she could not hold back the fiery blush that rose to her face. She was embarrassed when she greeted him, and he was more embarrassed by her embarrassment. The knowledge that they were behaving as if they were sweethearts was even more embarrassing, and the knowledge that they were both embarrassed embarrassed them so much that Captain Samaritano noticed it with a tremor of compassion. He extricated them from their difficulty by spending the next two hours explaining the controls and the general operation of the ship. They were sailing very slowly up a river without banks that meandered between arid sandbars stretching to the horizon. But unlike the troubled waters at the mouth of the river, these were slow and clear and gleamed like metal under the merciless sun. Fermina Daza had the impression that it was a delta filled with islands of sand.
“It is all the river we have left,” said the Captain.
Florentino Ariza, in fact, was surprised by the changes, and would be even more surprised the following day, when navigation became more difficult and he realized that the Magdalena, father of waters, one of the great rivers of the world, was only an illusion of memory. Captain Samaritano explained to them how fifty years of uncontrolled deforestation had destroyed the river: the boilers of the river-boats had consumed the thick forest of colossal trees that had oppressed Florentino Ariza on his first voyage. Fermina Daza would not see the animals of her dreams: the hunters for skins from the tanneries in New Orleans had exterminated the alligators that, with yawning mouths, had played dead for hours on end in the gullies along the shore as they lay in wait for butterflies, the parrots with their shrieking and the monkeys with their lunatic screams had died out as the foliage was destroyed, the manatees with their great breasts that had nursed their young and wept on the banks in a forlorn woman’s voice were an extinct species, annihilated by the armored bullets of hunters for sport. Captain Samaritano had an almost maternal affection for the manatees, because they seemed to him like ladies damned by some
extravagant love, and he believed the truth of the legend that they were the only females in the animal kingdom that had no mates. He had always opposed shooting at them from the ship, which was the custom despite the laws prohibiting it. Once, a hunter from North Carolina, his papers in order, had disobeyed him, and with a well-aimed bullet from his Springfield rifle had shattered the head of a manatee mother whose baby became frantic with grief as it wailed over the fallen body. The Captain had the orphan brought on board so that he could care for it, and left the hunter behind on the deserted bank, next to the corpse of the murdered mother. He spent six months in prison as the result of diplomatic protests and almost lost his navigator’s license, but he came out prepared to do it again, as often as the need arose. Still, that had been a historic episode: the orphaned manatee, which grew up and lived for many years in the rare-animal zoo in San Nicolás de las Barrancas, was the last of its kind seen along the river.
“Each time I pass that bank,” he said, “I pray to God that the gringo will board my ship so that I can leave him behind all over again.” Fermina Daza, who had felt no fondness for the Captain, was so moved by the tenderhearted giant that from that morning on he occupied a privileged place in her heart. She was not wrong: the trip was just beginning, and she would have many occasions to realize that she had not been mistaken.
Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza remained on the bridge until it was time for lunch. It was served a short while after they passed the town of Calamar on the opposite shore, which just a few years before had celebrated a perpetual fiesta and now was a ruined port with deserted streets. The only creature they saw from the boat was a woman dressed in white, signaling to them with a handkerchief. Fermina Daza could not understand why she was not picked up when she seemed so distressed, but the Captain explained that she was the ghost of a drowned woman whose deceptive signals were intended to lure ships off course into the dangerous whirlpools along the other bank. They passed so close that Fermina Daza saw her in sharp detail in the sunlight, and she had no doubt that she did not exist, but her face seemed familiar.
It was a long, hot day. Fermina Daza returned to her cabin after lunch for her inevitable siesta, but she did not sleep well because of a pain in her ear, which became worse when the boat exchanged mandatory greetings with another R.C.C. vessel as they passed each other a few leagues above Barranca Vieja. Florentino Ariza fell into instantaneous sleep in the main salon, where most of the passengers without cabins were sleeping as if it were midnight, and close to the spot where he had seen her disembark, he dreamed of Rosalba. She was traveling alone, wearing her Mompox costume from the last century, and it was she and not the child who slept in the wicker cage that hung from the ceiling. It was a dream at once so enigmatic and so amusing that he enjoyed it for the rest of the afternoon as he played dominoes with the Captain and two of the passengers who were friends of his.
It grew cooler as the sun went down, and the ship came back to life. The passengers seemed to emerge from a trance; they had just bathed and changed into fresh clothing, and they sat in the wicker armchairs in the salon, waiting for supper, which was announced at exactly five o’clock by a waiter who walked the deck from one end to the other and rang a sacristan’s bell, to mocking applause. While they were eating, the band began to play fandangos, and the dancing continued until midnight.
Fermina Daza did not care to eat because of the pain in her ear, and she watched as the first load of wood for the boilers was taken on from a bare gully where there was nothing but stacked logs and a very old man who supervised the operation. There did not seem to be another person for many leagues around. For Fermina Daza it was a long, tedious stop that would have been unthinkable on the ocean liners to Europe, and the heat was so intense that she could feel it even on her cooled observation deck. But when the boat weighed anchor again there was a cool breeze scented with the heart of the forest, and the music became more lively. In the town of Sitio Nuevo there was only one light in only one window in only one house, and the port office did not signal either cargo or passengers, so the boat passed by without a greeting.
Fermina Daza had spent the entire afternoon wondering what stratagems Florentino Ariza would use to see her without knocking at her cabin door, and by eight o’clock she could no longer bear the longing to be with him. She went out into the passageway, hoping to meet him in what would seem a casual encounter, and she did not have to go very far: Florentino Ariza was sitting on a bench in the passageway, as silent and forlorn as he had been in the Park of the Evangels, and for over two hours he had been asking himself how he was going to see her. They both made the same gesture of surprise that they both knew was feigned, and together they strolled the first-class deck, crowded with young people, most of them boisterous students who, with some eagerness, were exhausting themselves in the final fling of their vacation. In the lounge, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza sat at the bar as if they were students themselves and drank bottled soft drinks, and suddenly she saw herself in a frightening situation. She said: “How awful!” Florentino Ariza asked her what she was thinking that caused her so much distress.
“The poor old couple,” she said. “The ones who were beaten to death in the boat.” They both decided to turn in when the music stopped, after a long, untroubled conversation on the dark observation deck. There was no moon, the sky was cloudy, and on the horizon flashes of lightning, with no claps of thunder, illuminated them for an instant. Florentino Ariza rolled cigarettes for her, but she did not smoke more than a few, for she was tormented by pain that would ease for a few moments and flare up again when the boat bellowed as it passed another ship or a sleeping village, or when it slowed to sound the depth of the river. He told her with what longing he had watched her at the Poetic Festival, on the balloon flight, on the acrobat’s velocipede, with what longing he had waited all year for public festivals just so he could see her. She had often seen him as well, and she had never imagined that he was there only to see her. However, it was less than a year since she had read his letters and wondered how it was possible that he had never competed in the Poetic Festival: there was no doubt he would have won. Florentino Ariza lied to her: he wrote only for her, verses for her, and only he read them. Then it was she who reached for his hand in the darkness, and she did not find it waiting for her as she had waited for his the night before. Instead, she took him by surprise, and Florentino Ariza’s heart froze.
“How strange women are,” he said.
She burst into laughter, a deep laugh like a young dove’s, and she thought again about the old couple in the boat. It was incised: the image would always pursue her. But that night she could bear it because she felt untroubled and calm, as she had few times in her life: free of all blame. She would have remained there until dawn, silent, with his hand perspiring ice into hers, but she could not endure the torment in her ear. So that when the music was over, and then the bustle of the ordinary passengers hanging their hammocks in the salon had ended, she realized that her pain was stronger than her desire to be with him. She knew that telling him about it would alleviate her suffering, but she did not because she did not want to worry him. For now it seemed to her that she knew him as well as if she had lived with him all her life, and she thought him capable of ordering the boat back to port if that would relieve her pain.
Florentino Ariza had foreseen how things would be that night, and he withdrew. At the door of her cabin he tried to kiss her good night, but she offered him her left cheek. He insisted, with labored breath, and she offered him her other cheek, with a coquettishness that he had not known when she was a schoolgirl. Then he insisted again, and she offered him her lips, she offered her lips with a profound trembling that she tried to suppress with the laugh she had forgotten after her wedding night.
“My God,” she said, “ships make me so crazy.”
Florentino Ariza shuddered: as she herself had said, she had the sour smell of old age. Still, as he walked to his cabin, making his way through the labyrinth of sleeping hammocks, he consoled himself with the thought that he must give off the same odor, except his was four years older, and she must have detected it on him, with the same emotion. It was the smell of human fermentation, which he had perceived in his oldest lovers and they had detected in him. The Widow Nazaret, who kept nothing to herself, had told him in a cruder way: “Now we stink like a henhouse.” They tolerated each other because they were an even match: my odor against yours. On the other hand, he had often taken care of América Vicuña, whose diaper smell awakened maternal instincts in him, but he was disturbed at the idea that she had disliked his odor: the smell of a dirty old man. But all that belonged to the past. The important thing was that not since the afternoon when Aunt Escolástica left her missal on the counter in the telegraph office had Florentino Ariza felt the happiness he felt that night: so intense it frightened him.
At five o’clock he was beginning to doze off, when the ship’s purser woke him in the port of Zambrano to hand him an urgent telegram. It was signed by Leona Cassiani and dated the previous day, and all its horror was contained in a single line: América Vicuña dead yesterday reasons unknown. At eleven o’clock in the morning he learned the details from Leona Cassiani in a telegraphic conference during which he himself operated the transmitting equipment for the first time since his years as a telegraph operator. América Vicuña, in the grip of mortal depression because she had failed her final examinations, had drunk a flask of laudanum stolen from the school infirmary. Florentino Ariza knew in the depths of his soul that the story was incomplete. But no: América Vicuña had left no explanatory note that would have allowed anyone to be blamed for her decision. The family, informed by Leona Cassiani, was arriving now from Puerto Padre, and the funeral would take place that afternoon at five o’clock. Florentino Ariza took a breath. The only thing he could do to stay alive was not to allow himself the anguish of that memory. He erased it from his mind, although from time to time in the years that were left to him he would feel it revive, with no warning and for no reason, like the sudden pang of an old scar.
The days that followed were hot and interminable. The river became muddy and narrow, and instead of the tangle of colossal trees that had astonished Florentino Ariza on his first voyage, there were calcinated flatlands stripped of entire forests that had been devoured by the boilers of the riverboats, and the debris of godforsaken villages whose streets remained flooded even in the crudest droughts. At night they were awakened not by the siren songs of manatees on the sandy banks but by the nauseating stench of corpses floating down to the sea. For there were no more wars or epidemics, but the swollen bodies still floated by. The Captain, for once, was solemn: “We have orders to tell the passengers that they are accidental drowning victims.” Instead of the screeching of the parrots and the riotous noise of invisible monkeys, which at one time had intensified the stifling midday heat, all that was left was the vast silence of the ravaged land.
There were so few places for taking on wood, and they were so far apart from each other, that by the fourth day of the trip the New Fidelity had run out of fuel. She was stranded for almost a week while her crew searched bogs of ashes for the last scattered trees. There was no one else: the woodcutters had abandoned their trails, fleeing the ferocity of the lords of the earth, fleeing the invisible cholera, fleeing the larval wars that governments were bent on hiding with distracted decrees. In the meantime, the passengers in their boredom held swimming contests, organized hunting expeditions, and returned with live iguanas that they split open from top to bottom and sewed up again with baling needles after removing the clusters of soft, translucent eggs that they strung over the railings to dry. The poverty-stricken prostitutes from nearby villages followed in the path of the expeditions, improvised tents in the gullies along the shore, brought music and liquor with them, and caroused across the riverfrom the stranded vessel.