Memories of My Melancholy Whores (Chapter 1)

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 1

The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin. I thought of Rosa Cabarcas, the owner of an illicit house who would inform her good clients when she had a new girl available. I never succumbed to that or to any of her many other lewd temptations, but she did not believe in the purity of my principles. Morality, too, is a question of time, she would say with a malevolent smile, you’ll see. She was a little younger than I, and I hadn’t heard anything about her for so many years that she very well might have died. But after the first ring I recognized the voice on the phone, and with no preambles I fired at her: “Today’s the day.” She sighed: Ah, my sad scholar, you disappear for twenty years and come back only to ask for the impossible. She regained mastery of her art at once and offered me half a dozen delectable options, but all of them, to be frank, were used. I said no, insisting the girl had to be a virgin and available that very night. She asked in alarm: What are you trying to prove? Nothing, I replied, wounded to the core, I know very well what I can and cannot do. Unmoved, she said that scholars may know it all, but they don’t know everything: The only Virgos left in the world are people like you who were born in August. Why didn’t you give me more time? Inspiration gives no warnings, I said. But perhaps it can wait, she said, always more knowledgeable than any man, and she asked for just two days to make a thorough investigation of the market. I replied in all seriousness that in an affair such as this, at my age, each hour is like a year. Then it can’t be done, she said without the slightest doubt, but it doesn’t matter, it’s more exciting this way, what the hell, I’ll call you in an hour.

I don’t have to say so because people can see it from leagues away: I’m ugly, shy, and anachronistic. But by dint of not wanting to be those things I have pretended to be just the opposite. Until today, when I have resolved to tell of my own free will just what I’m like, if only to ease my conscience. I have begun with my unusual call to Rosa Cabarcas because, seen from the vantage point of today, that was the beginning of a new life at an age when most mortals have already died.

I live in a colonial house, on the sunny side of San Nicolas Park, where I have spent all the days of my life without wife or fortune, where my parents lived and died, and where I have proposed to die alone, in the same bed in which I was born and on a day that I hope will be distant and painless. My father bought the house at public auction at the end of the nineteenth century, rented the ground floor for luxury shops to a consortium of Italians, and reserved for himself the second floor, where he would live in happiness with one of their daughters, Florina de Dios Cargamantos, a notable interpreter of Mozart, a multilingual Garibaldian, and the most beautiful and talented woman who ever lived in the city: my mother.

The house is spacious and bright, with stucco arches and floors tiled in Florentine mosaics, and four glass doors leading to a wraparound balcony where my mother would sit on March nights to sing love arias with other girls, her cousins. From there you can see San Nicolas Park, the cathedral, and the statue of Christopher Columbus, and beyond that the warehouses on the river wharf and the vast horizon of the Great Magdalena River twenty leagues distant from its estuary. The only unpleasant aspect of the house is that the sun keeps changing windows in the course of the day, and all of them have to be closed when you try to take a siesta in the torrid half-light. When I was left on my own, at the age of thirty-two, I moved into what had been my parents’ bedroom, opened a doorway between that room and the library, and began to auction off whatever I didn’t need to live, which turned out to be almost everything but the books and the Pianola rolls.

For forty years I was the cable editor at El Diario de La Paz. which meant reconstructing and completing in indigenous prose the news of the world that we caught as it flew through sidereal space on shortwaves or in Morse code. Today I scrape by on my pension from that extinct profession, get by even less on the one I receive for having taught Spanish and Latin grammar, earn almost nothing from the Sunday column I’ve written without flagging for more than half a century, and nothing at all from the music and theater pieces published as a favor to me on the many occasions when notable performers come to town. I have never done anything except write, but I don’t possess the vocation or talents of a narrator, have no knowledge at all of the laws of dramatic composition, and if I have embarked upon this enterprise it is because I trust in the light shed by how much I have read in my life. In plain language, I am the end of a line, without merit or brilliance, who would have nothing to leave his descendants if not for the events I am prepared to recount, to the best of my ability, in these memories of my great love.

On my ninetieth birthday I woke, as always, at five in the morning. Since it was Friday, my only obligation was to write the signed column published on Sundays in El Diario de La Paz. My symptoms at dawn were perfect for not feeling happy: my bones had been aching since the small hours, my asshole burned, and thunder threatened a storm after three months of drought. I bathed while the coffee was brewing, drank a large cup sweetened with honey, had two pieces of cassava bread, and put on the linen coverall I wear in the house.

The subject of that day’s column, of course, was my ninetieth birthday. I never have thought about age as a leak in the roof indicating the quantity of life one has left to live. When I was very young I heard someone say that when people die the lice nesting in their hair escape in terror onto the pillows, to the shame of the family. That was so harsh a warning to me that I let my hair be shorn for school, and the few strands I have left I still wash with the soap you would use on a grateful fleabitten dog. This means, I tell myself now, that ever since I was little my sense of social decency has been more developed than my sense of death.

For months I had anticipated that my birthday column would not be the usual lament for the years that were gone, but just the opposite: a glorification of old age. I began by wondering when I had become aware of being old, and I believe it was only a short time before that day. At the age of forty-two I had gone to see the doctor about a pain in my back that interfered with my breathing. He attributed no importance to it: That kind of pain is natural at your age, he said.

“In that case,” I said, “what isn’t natural is my age.”

The doctor gave me a pitying smile. I see that you’re a philosopher, he said. It was the first time I thought about my age in terms of being old, but it didn’t take me long to forget about it. I became accustomed to waking every day with a different pain that kept changing location and form as the years passed. At times it seemed to be the clawing of death, and the next day it would disappear. This was when I heard that the first symptom of old age is when you begin to resemble your father. I must be condemned to eternal youth, I thought, because my equine profile will never look like my father’s raw Caribbean features or my mother’s imperial Roman ones. The truth is that the first changes are so slow they pass almost unnoticed, and you go on seeing yourself as you always were, from the inside, but others observe you from the outside.

In my fifth decade I had begun to imagine what old age was like when I noticed the first lapses of memory. I would turn the house upside down looking for my glasses until I discovered that I had them on, or I’d wear them into the shower, or I’d put on my reading glasses over the ones I used for distance. One day I had breakfast twice because I forgot about the first time, and I learned to recognize the alarm in my friends when they didn’t have the courage to tell me I was recounting the same story I had told them a week earlier. By then I had a mental list of faces I knew and another list of the names that went with each one, but at the moment of greeting I didn’t always succeed in matching the faces to the names.

My sexual age never worried me because my powers did not depend so much on me as on women, and they know the how and the why when they want to. Today I laugh at the eighty-year-old youngsters who consult the doctor, alarmed by these sudden shocks, not knowing that in your nineties they’re worse but don’t matter anymore: they are the risks of being alive. On the other hand, it is a triumph of life that old people lose their memories of inessential things, though memory does not often fail with regard to things that are of real interest to us. Cicero illustrated this with the stroke of a pen: No old man forgets where he has hidden his treasure.

With these reflections, and several others, I had finished a first draft of my column when the August sun exploded among the almond trees in the park, and the riverboat that carried the mail, a week late because of the drought, came bellowing into the port canal. I thought: My ninetieth birthday is arriving. I’ll never know why, and don’t pretend to, but it was under the magical effect of that devastating evocation that I decided to call Rosa Cabarcas for help in celebrating my birthday with a libertine night. I’d spent years at holy peace with my body, devoting my time to the erratic rereading of my classics and to my private programs of concert music, but my desire that day was so urgent it seemed like a message from God. After the call I couldn’t go on writing. I hung the hammock in a corner of the library where the sun doesn’t shine in the morning, and I lay down in it, my chest heavy with the anxiety of waiting.

I had been a pampered child, with a mother of many talents who died of consumption at the age of fifty and a formalistic father who never acknowledged an error and died in his widower’s bed on the day the Treaty of Neerlandia was signed, putting an end to the War of the Thousand Days and the countless civil wars of the previous century. Peace changed the city in a way that had not been foreseen or desired. A crowd of free women enriched to the point of delirium the old taverns along Calle Anche, which later was known as Camellَn Abello, and now is called Paseo Colَn, in this city of my soul loved so much by both natives and outsiders for the good character of its people and the purity of its light.

I have never gone to bed with a woman I didn’t pay, and the few who weren’t in the profession I persuaded, by argument or by force, to take money even if they threw it in the trash. When I was twenty I began to keep a record listing name, age, place, and a brief notation on the circumstances and style of lovemaking. By the time I was fifty there were 514 women with whom I had been at least once. I stopped making the list when my body no longer allowed me to have so many and I could keep track of them without paper. I had my own ethics. I never took part in orgies or in public encounters, and I did not share secrets or recount an adventure of the body or the soul, because from the time I was young I realized that none goes unpunished.

The only unusual relationship was the one I maintained for years with the faithful Damiana. She was almost a girl, Indianlike, strong, rustic, her words few and brusque, who went barefoot so as not to disturb me while I was writing. I remember I was reading La lozana andaluza The Haughty Andalusian Girl in the hammock in the hallway, when I happened to see her bending over in the laundry room wearing a skirt so short it bared her succulent curves. Overcome by irresistible excitement, I pulled her skirt up in back, pulled her underwear down to her knees, and charged her from behind. Oh, Seٌor, she said, with a mournful lament, that wasn’t made for coming in but for going out. A profound tremor shook her body but she stood firm. Humiliated at having humiliated her, I wanted to pay her twice what the most expensive women cost at the time, but she would not take a cent, and I had to raise her salary calculated on the basis of one mounting a month, always while she was doing the laundry, and always from the back.

At one time I thought these bed-inspired accounts would serve as a good foundation for a narration of the miseries of my misguided life, and the title came to me out of the blue: Memories of My Melancholy Whores. My public life, on the other hand, was lacking in interest: both parents dead, a bachelor without a future, a mediocre journalist who had been a finalist four times in the Poetic Competition, the Juegos Florales, of Cartagena de Indias, and a favorite of caricaturists because of my exemplary ugliness. In short, a wasted life off to a bad start beginning on the afternoon my mother led me by the hand when I was nineteen years old to see if El Diario de La Paz would publish a chronicle of school life that I had written in my Spanish and rhetoric class. It was published on Sunday with an encouraging introduction by the editor. Years later, when I learned that my mother had paid for its publication and for the seven that followed, it was too late for me to be embarrassed, because my weekly column was flying on its own wings and I was a cable editor and music critic as well.

After I obtained my bachillerato with a diploma ranked excellent, I began teaching classes in Spanish and Latin at three different public secondary schools at the same time. I was a poor teacher, with no training, no vocation, and no pity at all for those poor children who attended school as the easiest way to escape the tyranny of their parents. The only thing I could do for them was to keep them subject to the terror of my wooden ruler so that at least they would take away with them my favorite poem: O Fabio, O sorrow, what you see now, these fields of desolation, gloomy hills, were once the famous fair Italica. Only as an old man did I happen to learn the nasty name the students called me behind my back: Professor Gloomy Hills.

This was all that life gave me, and I have never done anything to obtain more. I ate lunch alone between classes, and at six in the evening I would go to the editorial offices of the paper to hunt for signals from sidereal space. At eleven, when the edition closed, my real life began. I slept in the red-light district, the Barrio Chino, two or three times a week, and with such a variety of companions that I was twice crowned client of the year. After supper at the nearby Café Roma I would choose a brothel at random and slip in through the back door. I did this because it amused me to, but in the end it became part of my work thanks to the careless speech of political bigwigs who would tell state secrets to their lovers for the night, never thinking they were overheard by public opinion through the cardboard partitions. By this means, of course, I also learned that they attributed my inconsolable bachelorhood to a nocturnal pederasty satisfied by orphan boys on the Calle del Crimen. I had the good fortune to forget this, among other sound reasons because I also heard the positive things said about me, which I appreciated for their true value.

I never had intimate friends, and the few who came close are in New York. By which I mean they’re dead, because that’s where I suppose condemned souls go in order not to endure the truth of their past lives. Since my retirement I have had little to do except take my pieces to the paper on Friday afternoons or fulfill other obligations that have a certain significance: concerts at Bellas Artes, painting exhibitions at the Centro Artistico, of which I am a founding member, an occasional civic conference at the Society for Public Improvement, or an important event like Fabregas’s engagement at the Teatro Apolo. As a young man I would go to the open-air movie theaters, where we could be surprised by a lunar eclipse or by a case of double pneumonia from a downpour gone astray. But what interested me more than films were the little birds of the night who would go to bed with you for the price of a ticket, or at no cost, or on credit. Movies are not my genre. The obscene cult of Shirley Temple was the final straw.

My only travels were four trips to the Juegos Florales in Cartagena de Indias, before I was thirty, and a bad night aboard a motor launch, when I was invited by Sacramento Montiel to the inauguration of one of her brothels in Santa Marta. As for my domestic life, I don’t eat very much and am easy to please. When Damiana grew old she stopped cooking for me, and since then my only regular meal has been a potato omelet at the Café Roma after the paper closes.

And so, on the eve of my ninetieth birthday, I had no lunch and could not concentrate on reading as I waited to hear from Rosa Cabarcas. The cicadas were chirruping as loud as they could in the twoo’clock heat, and the sun’s journey past the open windows forced me to move the hammock three times. It always seemed to me that my birthday fell at the hottest time of the year, and I had learned to tolerate it, but my mood that day made this difficult. At four o’clock I tried to calm my spirit with Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello in the definitive performance by Don Pablo Casals. I consider them the most accomplished pieces in all of music, but instead of soothing me as usual they left me in an even worse state of prostration. I fell asleep during the second, which I think lags somewhat, and in my sleep I confused the cello’s lament with that of a melancholy ship that was leaving. At almost the same time the telephone woke me, and the rusted voice of Rosa Cabarcas brought me back to life. You have a fool’s luck, she said. I found a little thing even better than what you wanted, but there’s one drawback: she just turned fourteen. I don’t mind changing diapers, I said as a joke, not understanding her motives. I’m not worried about you, she said, but who’s going to pay me for three years in jail?

Nobody was going to pay for them, she least of all, of course. She harvested her crop among the minors for sale in her shop, girls she broke in and squeezed dry until they moved on to a worse life as graduate whores in the historic brothel of Black Eufemia. She had never paid a fine, because her courtyard was the arcadia of local officialdom, from the governor to the lowest hanger-on in the mayor’s office, and it was inconceivable that the owner would not have the power to break the law to her heart’s content. Which meant her last-minute scruples were intended only to derive profit from her favors: the more punishable they were, the more expensive they would be. The question was settled with a two-peso increase in fees, and we agreed that at ten that night I would be at her house with five pesos in cash, payable in advance. Not a minute earlier, since the girl had to feed her younger brothers and sisters and put them to sleep and help her mother, crippled by rheumatism, into bed.

There were four hours to wait. As they passed, my heart filled with an acidic foam that interfered with my breathing. I made a useless effort to help time along with the procedures of dressing. Not surprising, of course, if even Damiana says I dress with all the rituals of a bishop. I shaved with my barber’s straight razor and had to wait until the water for the shower cooled, because it had been heated in the pipes by the sun, and the simple effort of drying myself with the towel made me sweat all over again. I dressed in accordance with the night’s good fortune: a white linen suit, a blue-striped shirt with a collar stiffened by starch, a tie of Chinese silk, boots rejuvenated with zinc white, and a watch of fine gold, its chain fastened at the buttonhole on my lapel. Then I folded the trouser cuffs under so that no one would notice the inches I’ve shrunk.

I have a reputation as a miser because no one can imagine I’m as poor as I am if I live where I live, but the truth is that a night like this was far beyond my means. From the money box hidden under my bed I took out two pesos to rent the room, four for the owner, three for the girl, and five in reserve for my supper and other minor expenses. In other words, the fourteen pesos the paper pays me for a month of Sunday columns. I hid them in a secret pocket inside my waistband, and I sprayed on the Florida Water of Lanman & Kemp-Barclay & Co. Then I felt the clawing of panic, and at the first stroke of eight I groped my way down the dark stairs, sweating with fear, and went out into the radiant night before my birthday.

The weather had cooled. On the Paseo Colَn groups of men were arguing at the top of their voices about soccer among the array of taxis parked in the middle of the sidewalk. A brass band played a languid waltz under the alameda of blossoming _matarratَn__trees. One of the poor little whores who hunt solemn clients on the Calle de los Notarios asked me for the usual cigarette, and I gave my usual answer: Today it’s thirty-three years, two months, and seventeen days since I stopped smoking. When I passed El Alambre de Oro I glanced at myself in the lighted windows, and I didn’t look the way I felt but older, dressed in shabbier clothes.

A little before ten I climbed into a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the Cementerio Universal so he wouldn’t know where I was really going. Amused, he looked at me in the mirror and said: Don’t scare me like that, Don Scholar, I hope God keeps me as alive as you are. We got out together in front of the cemetery because he didn’t have change and we had to get some in La Tumba, a destitute tavern where the poor drunkards of the small hours weep for their dead. When we had settled accounts, the driver said to me in a serious voice: Be careful, Seٌor, Rosa Cabarcas’s house isn’t even a shadow of what it was. All I could do was thank him, convinced, like everyone else, that there was no secret under the sun for the drivers on Paseo Colَn.

I walked into a poor district that had nothing to do with the one I had known in my day. It had the same wide streets of hot sand, houses with open doors, walls of rough wooden planks, roofs of bitter palm, and gravel courtyards. But its people had lost their tranquility. In most of the houses there were wild Friday parties with drums and cymbals that reverberated in your gut. For fifty centavos anybody could go into the party he liked best, but he could also stay outside and dance on the sidewalk to the music. I walked, worried the earth would swallow me up in my dandy’s outfit, but nobody paid attention to me except for an emaciated mulatto who sat dozing in the doorway of a tenement house.

Go with God, Doctor,” he shouted with all his heart, “and happy fucking!”

What could I do but thank him? I had to stop at least three times to catch my breath before I reached the top of the last incline. From there I saw the enormous copper moon coming up at the horizon, and an unexpected urgency in the belly made me fearful of the outcome, but that passed soon enough. At the end of the street, where the neighborhood turned into a forest of fruit trees, I went into Rosa Cabarcas’s shop.

She didn’t look the same. She had been the most discreet madam and for that same reason the best known, a very large woman whom we had wanted to crown as a sergeant in the fire department, as much for her corpulence as for her efficiency in putting out fires among her clientele. But solitude had shrunk her body, withered her skin, and sharpened her voice with so much skill that she resembled an aged little girl. All that was left to her from the old days were her perfect teeth, along with one she had capped with gold for coquettish reasons. She dressed in strict mourning for the husband who had died after fifty years of a shared life, added to which was a kind of black bonnet for the death of her only child, who used to assist her in her illicit activities. Only her clear, cruel eyes were still animated, and because of them I realized her character had not changed.

The shop had a dim lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and almost nothing for sale on the shelves, which did not even serve as a screen for a notorious business that everyone knew about but no one acknowledged. Rosa Cabarcas was taking care of a client when I tiptoed in. I don’t know if she really did not recognize me or if she was pretending for the sake of appearances. I sat on a bench to wait while she finished up, and in my memory I tried to reconstruct her as she had been. More than a few times, when both of us were strong and healthy, she had saved me from my own delusions. I think she read my mind because she turned toward me and scrutinized me with alarming intensity. Time doesn’t go by for you, and she heaved a mournful sigh. I wanted to flatter her: It does for you, but it makes you better. I’m serious, she said, it’s even helped to revive your dead horse’s face a little. It must be because I changed brothels, I said to tease her. She became animated. As I remember, you had the tool of a galley slave, she said. How’s it behaving? I evaded the question: The only thing different since the last time we saw each other is that sometimes my asshole burns. Her diagnosis was immediate: Lack of use. I have it only for the use God intended, I said, but it was true that it had burned for some time, always when the moon was full. Rosa searched through her sewing kit and opened a little tin of green salve that smelled of arnica liniment. You tell the girl to rub it in with her finger, like this, and she moved her index finger with brazen eloquence. I replied that thanks be to God I was still capable of getting along without peasant ointments. She mocked me, saying: Ah, Maestro, excuse me for living. And turned to business.

The girl had been in the room since ten, she told me; she was beautiful, clean, and well-mannered, but dying of fear because a friend of hers who ran away with a stevedore from Gayra had bled to death in two hours. But then, Rosa admitted, it’s understandable because the men from Gayra are famous for making she-mules sing. And she returned to her subject: Poor thing, besides all that she has to work the whole day attaching buttons in a factory. It didn’t seem to me like such hard work. That’s what men think, she replied, but it’s worse than breaking rocks. She went on to confess that she had given the girl a mixture of bromide and valerian to drink, and now she was asleep. I was afraid her compassion might be another trick to raise the price, but no, she said, my word is as good as gold. With set rules: each thing requiring separate payment, in cash and in advance. And so it was.

I followed her across the courtyard, moved by her wrinkled skin and the difficulty she had walking because of her swollen legs, encased in heavy cotton stockings. The full moon was climbing to the middle of the sky and the world looked as if it were submerged in green water. Near the shop was a canopy made of palm for the wild revels held by public administrators, with a good number of leather stools, and hammocks hanging from the wooden columns. In the back courtyard, where the forest of fruit trees began, there was a gallery of six unplastered adobe rooms with burlap windows to keep out mosquitoes. The only one that was occupied had a dim light and Toٌa la Negra singing a song of failed love on the radio. Rosa Cabarcas sighed: The bolero is life. I agreed, but until today I haven’t dared write it. She pushed the door, went in for a moment, and came out again. She’s still asleep, she said. You ought to let her rest for as long as her body needs it, your night is longer than hers. I was bewildered: What do you think I should do? You ought to know, she said with unwarranted placidity, there’s _some__ reason you’re a scholar. She turned and left me alone with my terror.

There was no escape. I went into the room, my heart in confusion, and saw the girl sleeping in the enormous bed for hire, as naked and helpless as the day she was born. She lay on her side, facing the door, illuminated from the ceiling by an intense light that spared no detail. I sat down to contemplate her from the edge of the bed, my five senses under a spell. She was dark and warm. She had been subjected to a regimen of hygiene and beautification that did not overlook even the incipient down on her pubis. Her hair had been curled, and she wore natural polish on the nails of her fingers and toes, but her molasses-colored skin looked rough and mistreated. Her newborn breasts still seemed like a boy’s, but they appeared full to bursting with a secret energy that was ready to explode. The best part of her body were her large, silent-stepping feet with toes as long and sensitive as fingers. She was drenched in phosphorescent perspiration despite the fan, and the heat became unbearable as the night progressed. It was impossible to imagine what her face was like under the paint applied with a heavy hand, the thick layer of rice powder with two daubs of rouge on her cheeks, the false lashes, her eyebrows and lids smoky with kohl, her lips augmented by a chocolate glaze. But the adornments and cosmetics could not hide her character: the haughty nose, heavy eyebrows, intense lips. I thought: A tender young fighting bull.

At eleven I tended to my routine procedures in the bathroom, where the poor girl’s clothes were folded on a chair with a rich girl’s refinement: an etamine dress with a butterfly print, cheap yellow panties, and fiber sandals. On top of the clothing were an inexpensive bracelet and a very fine chain with a medal of the Virgin. On the edge of the sink, a handbag with a lipstick, a compact of rouge, a key, and some loose coins. Everything so cheap and shabby with use that I couldn’t imagine anyone as poor as she was.

I undressed and did my best to arrange my clothes on the hanger so as not to muss the silk shirt and pressed linen. I urinated in the chain-flush toilet, sitting down as Florina de Dios had taught me to do from the time I was a boy so I would not wet the rim of the bowl, and still, modesty aside, with the immediate, steady stream of an untamed colt. Before I went out I peered into the mirror over the sink. The horse that looked back at me from the other side was not dead but funereal, and he had a Pope’s dewlaps, puffy eyelids, and thin, lank hair that had once been my musician’s mane.

“Shit,” I said to him, “what can I do if you don’t love me?”

Trying not to wake her, I sat on the bed, naked, my eyes accustomed by now to the deceptions of the red light, and I scrutinized her inch by inch. I ran the tip of my index finger along the damp nape of her neck, and she shivered inside, along the length of her body, like a chord on the harp, turned toward me with a grumble, and enveloped me in the ambience of her acid breath. I pinched her nose with my thumb and index finger, and she shook herself, moved her head away, and turned her back to me without waking. I succumbed to an unforeseen temptation and tried to separate her legs with my knee. On the first two attempts, she resisted with tensed thighs. I sang into her ear: _Angels surround the bed of Delgadina__. She relaxed a little. A warm current traveled up my veins, and my slow, retired animal woke from its long sleep.

Delgadina, my heart, I pleaded, filled with longing. Delgadina. She gave a sorrowful moan, escaped my thighs, turned her back, and curled up like a snail in its shell. The valerian potion must have been as effective for me as for her, because nothing happened, not to her, not to anybody. But I didn’t care. I asked myself what good it would do to wake her when I was feeling humiliated and sad and as cold as a striped mullet.

Then the bells, clear and ineluctable, struck midnight, and the morning of August 29, the day of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, began. Someone in the street wept at the top of his lungs and no one paid attention. I prayed for him, in case he needed that, and for me as well, giving thanks for benefits received: _Let no one be deceived, no, thinking that what he awaits will last longer than what he has seen__. The girl moaned in her sleep and I also prayed for her: _For everything will pass in its turn__. Then I turned off the radio and the light and went to sleep.

I woke in the small hours, not remembering where I was. The girl still slept in a fetal position, her back to me. I had a vague feeling that I had sensed her getting up in the dark and had heard water running in the bathroom, but it might have been a dream. This was something new for me. I was ignorant of the arts of seduction and had always chosen my brides for a night at random, more for their price than their charms, and we had made love without love, half-dressed most of the time and always in the dark so we could imagine ourselves as better than we were. That night I discovered the improbable pleasure of contemplating the body of a sleeping woman without the urgencies of desire or the obstacles of modesty.

I got up at five, uneasy because my Sunday column was supposed to be on the editor’s desk before noon. I moved my punctual bowels, still with the burning of the full moon, and when I pulled the chain I felt that my past rancors had gone down to the sewer. When I returned to the bedroom, refreshed and dressed, the girl was asleep on her back in the conciliatory light of dawn, lying sideways across the bed with her arms opened in a cross, absolute mistress of her virginity. God bless you, I said to her. All the money I still had, both hers and mine, I put on the pillow, and I said goodbye forever with a kiss on her forehead. The house, like all brothels at dawn, was the closest thing to paradise. I left by the orchard gate so I wouldn’t meet anyone. Under the burning sun on the street I began to feel the weight of my ninety years, and to count minute by minute the minutes of the nights I had left before I died.

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