Love in the Time of Cholera Chapter 1 By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Full Read  Love in the Time of Cholera Spanish Novel, Chapter 1 by Gabriel García Marquez English translated for free online.


IT WAS INEVITABLE: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him

of the fate of unrequited love. Dr. Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as

he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent

call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years

before. The Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war

veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent

in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic

fumes of gold cyanide.

He found the corpse covered with a blanket on the campaign cot where

he had always slept, and beside it was a stool with the developing tray

he had used to vaporize the poison. On the floor, tied to a leg of the

cot, lay the body of a black Great Dane with a snow-white chest, and

next to him were the crutches. At one window the splendor of dawn

was just beginning to illuminate the stifling, crowded room that served

as both bedroom and laboratory, but there was enough light for him to

recognize at once the authority of death. The other windows, as well as

every other chink in the room, were muffled with rags or sealed with

black cardboard, which increased the oppressive heaviness. A counter

was crammed with jars and bottles without labels and two crumbling

pewter trays under an ordinary light bulb covered with red paper. The

third tray, the one for the fixative solution, was next to the body.

There were old magazines and newspapers everywhere, piles of

negatives on glass plates, broken furniture, but everything was kept

free of dust by a diligent hand. Although the air coming through thewindow had purified the atmosphere, there still remained for the one

who could identify it the dying embers of hapless love in the bitter

almonds. Dr. Juvenal Urbino had often thought, with no premonitory

intention, that this would not be a propitious place for dying in a state

of grace. But in time he came to suppose that perhaps its disorder

obeyed an obscure determination of Divine Providence.

A police inspector had come forward with a very young medical

student who was completing his forensic training at the municipal

dispensary, and it was they who had ventilated the room and covered

the body while waiting for Dr. Urbino to arrive. They greeted him with

a solemnity that on this occasion had more of condolence than

veneration, for no one was unaware of the degree of his friendship

with Jeremiah de Saint-Amour. The eminent teacher shook hands with

each of them, as he always did with every one of his pupils before

beginning the daily class in general clinical medicine, and then, as if it

were a flower, he grasped the hem of the blanket with the tips of his

index finger and his thumb, and slowly uncovered the body with

sacramental circumspection. Jeremiah de Saint-Amour was completely

naked, stiff and twisted, eyes open, body blue, looking fifty years

older than he had the night before. He had luminous pupils, yellowish

beard and hair, and an old scar sewn with baling knots across his

stomach. The use of crutches had made his torso and arms as broad as

a galley slave’s, but his defenseless legs looked like an orphan’s. Dr.

Juvenal Urbino studied him for a moment, his heart aching as it rarely

had in the long years of his futile struggle against death.

“Damn fool,” he said. “The worst was over.”

He covered him again with the blanket and regained his academic

dignity. His eightieth birthday had been celebrated the year beforewith an official three-day jubilee, and in his thank-you speech he had

once again resisted the temptation to retire. He had said: “I’ll have

plenty of time to rest when I die, but this eventuality is not yet part of

my plans.” Although he heard less and less with his right ear, and

leaned on a silver-handled cane to conceal his faltering steps, he

continued to wear a linen suit, with a gold watch chain across his vest,

as smartly as he had in his younger years. His Pasteur beard, the color

of mother-of-pearl, and his hair, the same color, carefully combed

back and with a neat part in the middle, were faithful expressions of

his character. He compensated as much as he could for an increasingly

disturbing erosion of memory by scribbling hurried notes on scraps of

paper that ended in confusion in each of his pockets, as did the

instruments, the bottles of medicine, and all the other things jumbled

together in his crowded medical bag. He was not only the city’s oldest

and most illustrious physician, he was also its most fastidious man.

Still, his too obvious display of learning and the disingenuous manner

in which he used the power of his name had won him less affection

than he deserved.

His instructions to the inspector and the intern were precise and rapid.

There was no need for an autopsy; the odor in the house was sufficient

proof that the cause of death had been the cyanide vapors activated in

the tray by some photographic acid, and Jeremiah de Saint-Amour

knew too much about those matters for it to have been an accident.

When the inspector showed some hesitation, he cut him off with the

kind of remark that was typical of his manner: “Don’t forget that I am

the one who signs the death certificate.” The young doctor was

disappointed: he had never had the opportunity to study the effects of

gold cyanide on a cadaver. Dr. Juvenal Urbino had been surprised thathe had not seen him at the Medical School, but he understood in an

instant from the young man’s easy blush and Andean accent that he

was probably a recent arrival to the city. He said: “There is bound to

be someone driven mad by love who will give you the chance one of

these days.” And only after he said it did he realize that among the

countless suicides he could remember, this was the first with cyanide

that had not been caused by the sufferings of love. Then something

changed in the tone of his voice.

“And when you do find one, observe with care,” he said to the intern:

“they almost always have crystals in their heart.”

Then he spoke to the inspector as he would have to a subordinate. He

ordered him to circumvent all the legal procedures so that the burial

could take place that same afternoon and with the greatest discretion.

He said: “I will speak to the Mayor later.” He knew that Jeremiah de

Saint-Amour lived in primitive austerity and that he earned much more

with his art than he needed, so that in one of the drawers in the house

there was bound to be more than enough money for the funeral


“But if you do not find it, it does not matter,” he said. “I will take care

of everything.” He ordered him to tell the press that the photographer

had died of natural causes, although he thought the news would in no

way interest them. He said: “If it is necessary, I will speak to the

Governor.” The inspector, a serious and humble civil servant, knew

that the Doctor’s sense of civic duty exasperated even his closest

friends, and he was surprised at the ease with which he skipped over

legal formalities in order to expedite the burial. The only thing he was

not willing to do was speak to the Archbishop so that Jeremiah de

Saint-Amour could be buried in holy ground. The inspector, astonishedat his own impertinence, attempted to make excuses for him.

“I understood this man was a saint,” he said.

“Something even rarer,” said Dr. Urbino. “An atheistic saint. But those

are matters for God to decide.”

In the distance, on the other side of the colonial city, the bells of the

Cathedral were ringing for High Mass. Dr. Urbino put on his half-moon

glasses with the gold rims and consulted the watch on its chain, slim,

elegant, with the cover that opened at a touch: he was about to miss

Pentecost Mass.

In the parlor was a huge camera on wheels like the ones used in public

parks, and the backdrop of a marine twilight, painted with homemade

paints, and the walls papered with pictures of children at memorable

moments: the first Communion, the bunny costume, the happy

birthday. Year after year, during contemplative pauses on afternoons

of chess, Dr. Urbino had seen the gradual covering over of the walls,

and he had often thought with a shudder of sorrow that in the gallery

of casual portraits lay the germ of the future city, governed and

corrupted by those unknown children, where not even the ashes of his

glory would remain.

On the desk, next to a jar that held several old sea dog’s pipes, was

the chessboard with an unfinished game. Despite his haste and his

somber mood, Dr. Urbino could not resist the temptation to study it.

He knew it was the previous night’s game, for Jeremiah de

Saint-Amour played at dusk every day of the week with at least three

different opponents, but he always finished every game and then

placed the board and chessmen in their box and stored the box in a

desk drawer. The Doctor knew he played with the white pieces and

that this time it was evident he was going to be defeated withoutmercy in four moves. “If there had been a crime, this would be a good

clue,” Urbino said to himself. “I know only one man capable of

devising this masterful trap.” If his life depended on it, he had to find

out later why that indomitable soldier, accustomed to fighting to the

last drop of blood, had left the final battle of his life unfinished.

At six that morning, as he was making his last rounds, the night

watchman had seen the note nailed to the street door: Come in without

knocking and inform the police. A short while later the inspector

arrived with the intern, and the two of them had searched the house

for some evidence that might contradict the unmistakable breath of

bitter almonds. But in the brief minutes the Doctor needed to study the

unfinished game, the inspector discovered an envelope among the

papers on the desk, addressed to Dr. Juvenal Urbino and sealed with

so much sealing wax that it had to be ripped to pieces to get the letter

out. The Doctor opened the black curtain over the window to have

more light, gave a quick glance at the eleven sheets covered on both

sides by a diligent handwriting, and when he had read the first

paragraph he knew that he would miss Pentecost Communion. He read

with agitated breath, turning back on several pages to find the thread

he had lost, and when he finished he seemed to return from very far

away and very long ago. His despondency was obvious despite his

effort to control it: his lips were as blue as the corpse and he could not

stop the trembling of his fingers as he refolded the letter and placed it

in his vest pocket. Then he remembered the inspector and the young

doctor, and he smiled at them through the mists of grief.

“Nothing in particular,” he said. “His final instructions.”

It was a half-truth, but they thought it complete because he ordered

them to lift a loose tile from the floor, where they found a wornaccount book that contained the combination to the strongbox. There

was not as much money as they expected, but it was more than

enough for the funeral expenses and to meet other minor obligations.

Then Dr. Urbino realized that he could not get to the Cathedral before

the Gospel reading.

“It’s the third time I’ve missed Sunday Mass since I’ve had the use of

my reason,” he said. “But God understands.”

So he chose to spend a few minutes more and attend to all the details,

although he could hardly bear his intense longing to share the secrets

of the letter with his wife. He promised to notify the numerous

Caribbean refugees who lived in the city in case they wanted to pay

their last respects to the man who had conducted himself as if he were

the most respectable of them all, the most active and the most radical,

even after it had become all too clear that he had been overwhelmed

by the burden of disillusion. He would also inform his chess partners,

who ranged from distinguished professional men to nameless laborers,

as well as other, less intimate acquaintances who might perhaps wish

to attend the funeral. Before he read the posthumous letter he had

resolved to be first among them, but afterward he was not certain of

anything. In any case, he was going to send a wreath of gardenias in

the event that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour had repented at the last

moment. The burial would be at five, which was the most suitable hour

during the hottest months. If they needed him, from noon on he would

be at the country house of Dr. Lácides Olivella, his beloved disciple,

who was celebrating his silver anniversary in the profession with a

formal luncheon that day.

Once the stormy years of his early struggles were over, Dr. Juvenal

Urbino had followed a set routine and achieved a respectability andprestige that had no equal in the province. He arose at the crack of

dawn, when he began to take his secret medicines: potassium bromide

to raise his spirits, salicylates for the ache in his bones when it rained,

ergosterol drops for vertigo, belladonna for sound sleep. He took

something every hour, always in secret, because in his long life as a

doctor and teacher he had always opposed prescribing palliatives for

old age: it was easier for him to bear other people’s pains than his

own. In his pocket he always carried a little pad of camphor that he

inhaled deeply when no one was watching to calm his fear of so many

medicines mixed together.

He would spend an hour in his study preparing for the class in general

clinical medicine that he taught at the Medical School every morning,

Monday through Saturday, at eight o’clock, until the day before his

death. He was also an avid reader of the latest books that his

bookseller in Paris mailed to him, or the ones from Barcelona that his

local bookseller ordered for him, although he did not follow Spanish

literature as closely as French. In any case, he never read them in the

morning, but only for an hour after his siesta and at night before he

went to sleep. When he was finished in the study he did fifteen

minutes of respiratory exercises in front of the open window in the

bathroom, always breathing toward the side where the roosters were

crowing, which was where the air was new. Then he bathed, arranged

his beard and waxed his mustache in an atmosphere saturated with

genuine cologne from Farina Gegenüber, and dressed in white linen,

with a vest and a soft hat and cordovan boots. At eighty-one years of

age he preserved the same easygoing manner and festive spirit that

he had on his return from Paris soon after the great cholera epidemic,

and except for the metallic color, his carefully combed hair with thecenter part was the same as it had been in his youth. He breakfasted

en famille but followed his own personal regimen of an infusion of

wormwood blossoms for his stomach and a head of garlic that he

peeled and ate a clove at a time, chewing each one carefully with

bread, to prevent heart failure. After class it was rare for him not to

have an appointment related to his civic initiatives, or his Catholic

service, or his artistic and social innovations.

He almost always ate lunch at home and had a ten-minute siesta on

the terrace in the patio, hearing in his sleep the songs of the servant

girls under the leaves of the mango trees, the cries of vendors on the

street, the uproar of oil and motors from the bay whose exhaust fumes

fluttered through the house on hot afternoons like an angel condemned

to putrefaction. Then he read his new books for an hour, above all

novels and works of history, and gave lessons in French and singing to

the tame parrot who had been a local attraction for years. At four

o’clock, after drinking a large glass of lemonade with ice, he left to call

on his patients. In spite of his age he would not see patients in his

office and continued to care for them in their homes as he always had,

since the city was so domesticated that one could go anywhere in


After he returned from Europe the first time, he used the family

landau, drawn by two golden chestnuts, but when this was no longer

practical he changed it for a Victoria and a single horse, and he

continued to use it, with a certain disdain for fashion, when carriages

had already begun to disappear from the world and the only ones left

in the city were for giving rides to tourists and carrying wreaths at

funerals. Although he refused to retire, he was aware that he was

called in only for hopeless cases, but he considered this a form ofspecialization too. He could tell what was wrong with a patient just by

looking at him, he grew more and more distrustful of patent

medicines, and he viewed with alarm the vulgarization of surgery. He

would say: “The scalpel is the greatest proof of the failure of

medicine.” He thought that, in a strict sense, all medication was poison

and that seventy percent of common foods hastened death. “In any

case,” he would say in class, “the little medicine we know is known

only by a few doctors.” From youthful enthusiasm he had moved to a

position that he himself defined as fatalistic humanism: “Each man is

master of his own death, and all that we can do when the time comes

is to help him die without fear of pain.” But despite these extreme

ideas, which were already part of local medical folklore, his former

pupils continued to consult him even after they were established in the

profession, for they recognized in him what was called in those days a

clinical eye. In any event, he was always an expensive and exclusive

doctor, and his patients were concentrated in the ancestral homes in

the District of the Viceroys.

His daily schedule was so methodical that his wife knew where to send

him a message if an emergency arose in the course of the afternoon.

When he was a young man he would stop in the Parish Café before

coming home, and this was where he perfected his chess game with his

father-in-law’s cronies and some Caribbean refugees. But he had not

returned to the Parish Café since the dawn of the new century, and he

had attempted to organize national tournaments under the sponsorship

of the Social Club. It was at this time that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour

arrived, his knees already dead, not yet a photographer of children,

yet in less than three months everyone who knew how to move a

bishop across a chessboard knew who he was, because no one hadbeen able to defeat him in a game. For Dr. Juvenal Urbino it was a

miraculous meeting, at the very moment when chess had become an

unconquerable passion for him and he no longer had many opponents

who could satisfy it.

Thanks to him, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour could become what he was

among us. Dr. Urbino made himself his unconditional protector, his

guarantor in everything, without even taking the trouble to learn who

he was or what he did or what inglorious Avars he

had come from in his crippled, broken state. He eventually lent him

the money to set up his photography studio, and from the time he took

his first picture of a child startled by the magnesium flash, Jeremiah de

Saint-Amour paid back every last penny with religious regularity.

It was all for chess. At first they played after supper at seven o’clock,

with a reasonable handicap for Jeremiah de Saint-Amour because of

his notable superiority, but the handicap was reduced until at last they

played as equals. Later, when Don Galileo Daconte opened the first

outdoor cinema, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour was one of his most

dependable customers, and the games of chess were limited to the

nights when a new film was not being shown. By then he and the

Doctor had become such good friends that they would go to see the

films together, but never with the Doctor’s wife, in part because she

did not have the patience to follow the complicated plot lines, and in

part because it always seemed to her, through sheer intuition, that

Jeremiah de Saint-Amour was not a good companion for anyone.

His Sundays were different. He would attend High Mass at the

Cathedral and then return home to rest and read on the terrace in the

patio. He seldom visited a patient on a holy day of obligation unless it

was of extreme urgency, and for many years he had not accepted asocial engagement that was not obligatory. On this Pentecost, in a rare

coincidence, two extraordinary events had occurred: the death of a

friend and the silver anniversary of an eminent pupil. Yet instead of

going straight home as he had intended after certifying the death of

Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, he allowed himself to be carried along by


As soon as he was in his carriage, he again consulted the posthumous

letter and told the coachman to take him to an obscure location in the

old slave quarter. That decision was so foreign to his usual habits that

the coachman wanted to make certain there was no mistake. No, no

mistake: the address was clear and the man who had written it had

more than enough reason to know it very well. Then Dr. Urbino

returned to the first page of the letter and plunged once again into the

flood of unsavory revelations that might have changed his life, even at

his age, if he could have convinced himself that they were not the

ravings of a dying man.

The sky had begun to threaten very early in the day and the weather

was cloudy and cool, but there was no chance of rain before noon. In

his effort to find a shorter route, the coachman braved the rough

cobblestones of the colonial city and had to stop often to keep the

horse from being frightened by the rowdiness of the religious societies

and fraternities coming back from the Pentecost liturgy. The streets

were full of paper garlands, music, flowers, and girls with colored

parasols and muslin ruffles who watched the celebration from their

balconies. In the Plaza of the Cathedral, where the statue of The

Liberator was almost hidden among the African palm trees and the

globes of the new streetlights, traffic was congested because Mass had

ended, and not a seat was empty in the venerable and noisy Parish

Café. Dr. Urbino’s was the only horse-drawn carriage; it wasdistinguishable from the handful left in the city because the

patent-leather roof was always kept polished, and it had fittings of

bronze that would not be corroded by salt, and wheels and poles

painted red with gilt trimming like gala nights at the Vienna Opera.

Furthermore, while the most demanding families were satisfied if their

drivers had a clean shirt, he still required his coachman to wear livery

of faded velvet and a top hat like a circus ringmaster’s, which, more

than an anachronism, was thought to show a lack of

compassion in the dog days of the Caribbean summer.

Despite his almost maniacal love for the city and a knowledge of it

superior to anyone’s, Dr. Juvenal Urbino had not often had reason as

he did that Sunday to venture boldly into the tumult of the old slave

quarter. The coachman had to make many turns and stop to ask

directions several times in order to find the house. As they passed by

the marshes, Dr. Urbino recognized their oppressive weight, their

ominous silence, their suffocating gases, which on so many insomniac

dawns had risen to his bedroom, blending with the fragrance of

jasmine from the patio, and which he felt pass by him like a wind out

of yesterday that had nothing to do with his life. But that pestilence so

frequently idealized by nostalgia became an unbearable reality when

the carriage began to lurch through the quagmire of the streets where

buzzards fought over the slaughterhouse offal as it was swept along by

the receding tide. Unlike the city of the Viceroys where the houses

were made of masonry, here they were built of weathered boards and

zinc roofs, and most of them rested on pilings to protect them from the

flooding of the open sewers that had been inherited from the

Spaniards. Everything looked wretched and desolate, but out of the

sordid taverns came the thunder of riotous music, the godless drunkencelebration of Pentecost by the poor. By the time they found the

house, gangs of ragged children were chasing the carriage and

ridiculing the theatrical finery of the coachman, who had to drive them

away with his whip. Dr. Urbino, prepared for a confidential visit,

realized too late that there was no innocence more dangerous than the

innocence of age.

The exterior of the unnumbered house was in no way distinguishable

from its less fortunate neighbors, except for the window with lace

curtains and an imposing front door taken from some old church. The

coachman pounded the door knocker, and only when he had made

certain that it was the right house did he help the Doctor out of the

carriage. The door opened without a sound, and in the shadowy

interior stood a mature woman dressed in black, with a red rose

behind her ear. Despite her age, which was no less than forty, she was

still a haughty mulatta with cruel golden eyes and hair tight to her

skull like a helmet of steel wool. Dr. Urbino did not recognize her,

although he had seen her several times in the gloom of the chess

games in the photographer’s studio, and he had once written her a

prescription for tertian fever. He held out his hand and she took it

between hers, less in greeting than to help him into the house. The

parlor had the climate and invisible murmur of a forest glade and was

crammed with furniture and exquisite objects, each in its natural place.

Dr. Urbino recalled without bitterness an antiquarian’s shop, No. 26 rue

Montmartre in Paris, on an autumn Monday in the last century. The

woman sat down across from him and spoke in accented Spanish.

“This is your house, Doctor,” she said. “I did not expect you so soon.”

Dr. Urbino felt betrayed. He stared at her openly, at her intense

mourning, at the dignity of her grief, and then he understood that thiswas a useless visit because she knew more than he did about

everything stated and explained in Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s

posthumous letter. This was true. She had been with him until a very

few hours before his death, as she had been with him for half his life,

with a devotion and submissive tenderness that bore too close a

resemblance to love, and without anyone knowing anything about it in

this sleepy provincial capital where even state secrets were common

knowledge. They had met in a convalescent home in Port-au-Prince,

where she had been born and where he had spent his early years as a

fugitive, and she had followed him here

a year later for a brief visit, although both of them knew without

agreeing to anything that she had come to stay forever. She cleaned

and straightened the laboratory once a week, but not even the most

evil-minded neighbors confused appearance with reality because they,

like everyone else, supposed that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s disability

affected more than his capacity to walk. Dr. Urbino himself supposed

as much for solid medical reasons, and never would have believed his

friend had a woman if he himself had not revealed it in the letter. In

any event, it was difficult for him to comprehend that two free adults

without a past and living on the fringes of a closed society’s prejudices

had chosen the hazards of illicit love. She explained: “It was his wish.”

Moreover, a clandestine life shared with a man who was never

completely hers, and in which they often knew the sudden explosion of

happiness, did not seem to her a condition to be despised. On the

contrary: life had shown her that perhaps it was exemplary.

On the previous night they had gone to the cinema, each one

separately, and had sat apart as they had done at least twice a month

since the Italian immigrant, Don Galileo Daconte, had installed hisopen-air theater in the ruins of a seventeenth-century convent. They

saw All Quiet on the Western Front, a film based on a book that had

been popular the year before and that Dr. Urbino had read, his heart

devastated by the barbarism of war. They met afterward in the

laboratory, she found him brooding and nostalgic, and thought it was

because of the brutal scenes of wounded men dying in the mud. In an

attempt to distract him, she invited him to play chess and he accepted

to please her, but he played inattentively, with the white pieces, of

course, until he discovered before she did that he was going to be

defeated in four moves and surrendered without honor. Then the

Doctor realized that she had been his opponent in the final game, and

not General Jerónimo Argote, as he had supposed. He murmured in


“It was masterful!”

She insisted that she deserved no praise, but rather that Jeremiah de

Saint-Amour, already lost in the mists of death, had moved his pieces

without love. When he stopped the game at about a quarter past

eleven, for the music from the public dances had ended, he asked her

to leave him. He wanted to write a letter to Dr. Juvenal Urbino, whom

he considered the most honorable man he had ever known, and his

soul’s friend, as he liked to say, despite the fact that the only affinity

between the two was their addiction to chess understood as a dialogue

of reason and not as a science. And then she knew that Jeremiah de

Saint-Amour had come to the end of his suffering and that he had only

enough life left to write the letter. The Doctor could not believe it.

“So then you knew!” he exclaimed.

She not only knew, she agreed, but she had helped him to endure the

suffering as lovingly as she had helped him to discover happiness.Because that was what his last eleven months had been: cruel


“Your duty was to report him,” said the Doctor.

“I could not do that,” she said, shocked. “I loved him too much.”

Dr. Urbino, who thought he had heard everything, had never heard

anything like that, and said with such simplicity. He looked straight at

her and tried with all his senses to fix her in his memory as she was at

that moment: she seemed like a river idol, undaunted in her black

dress, with her serpent’s eyes and the rose behind her ear. A long time

ago, on a deserted beach in Haiti where the two of them lay naked

after love, Jeremiah de SaintAmour had sighed: “I will never be old.”

She interpreted this as a heroic determination to

struggle without quarter against the ravages of time, but he was more

specific: he had made the irrevocable decision to take his own life

when he was seventy years old.

He had turned seventy, in fact, on the twenty-third of January of that

year, and then he had set the date as the night before Pentecost, the

most important holiday in a city consecrated to the cult of the Holy

Spirit. There was not a single detail of the previous night that she had

not known about ahead of time, and they spoke of it often, suffering

together the irreparable rush of days that neither of them could stop

now. Jeremiah de Saint-Amour loved life with a senseless passion, he

loved the sea and love, he loved his dog and her, and as the date

approached he had gradually succumbed to despair as if his death had

been not his own decision but an inexorable destiny.

“Last night, when I left him, he was no longer of this world,” she said.

She had wanted to take the dog with her, but he looked at the animal

dozing beside the crutches and caressed him with the tips of hisfingers. He said: “I’m sorry, but Mister Woodrow Wilson is coming with

me.” He asked her to tie him to the leg of the cot while he wrote, and

she used a false knot so that he could free himself. That had been her

only act of disloyalty, and it was justified by her desire to remember

the master in the wintry eyes of his dog. But Dr. Urbino interrupted her

to say that the dog had not freed himself. She said: “Then it was

because he did not want to.” And she was glad, because she preferred

to evoke her dead lover as he had asked her to the night before, when

he stopped writing the letter he had already begun and looked at her

for the last time. “Remember me with a rose,” he said to her.

She had returned home a little after midnight. She lay down fully

dressed on her bed, to smoke one cigarette after another and give him

time to finish what she knew was a long and difficult letter, and a little

before three o’clock, when the dogs began to howl, she put the water

for coffee on the stove, dressed in full mourning, and cut the first rose

of dawn in the patio. Dr. Urbino already realized how completely he

would repudiate the memory of that irredeemable woman, and he

thought he knew why: only a person without principles could be so

complaisant toward grief.

And for the remainder of the visit she gave him even more

justification. She would not go to the funeral, for that is what she had

promised her lover, although Dr. Urbino thought he had read just the

opposite in one of the paragraphs of the letter. She would not shed a

tear, she would not waste the rest of her years simmering in the

maggot broth of memory, she would not bury herself alive inside these

four walls to sew her shroud, as native widows were expected to do.

She intended to sell Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s house and all its

contents, which, according to the letter, now belonged to her, and shewould go on living as she always had, without complaining, in this

death trap of the poor where she had been happy.

The words pursued Dr. Juvenal Urbino on the drive home: “this death

trap of the poor.” It was not a gratuitous description. For the city, his

city, stood unchanging on the edge of time: the same burning dry city

of his nocturnal terrors and the solitary pleasures of puberty, where

flowers rusted and salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four

centuries except a slow aging among withered laurels and putrefying

swamps. In winter sudden devastating downpours flooded the latrines

and turned the streets into sickening bogs. In summer an invisible dust

as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the bestprotected

corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the

houses and carried away children through the air. On Saturdays the

poor mulattoes, along with all their domestic animals and kitchen

utensils, tumultuously abandoned their hovels of cardboard and tin on

the edges of the swamps and in jubilant assault took over the rocky

beaches of the colonial district. Until a few years ago, some of the

older ones still bore the royal slave brand that had been burned onto

their chests with flaming irons. During the weekend they danced

without mercy, drank themselves blind on home-brewed alcohol, made

wild love among the icaco plants, and on Sunday at midnight they

broke up their own party with bloody free-for-alls. During the rest of

the week the same impetuous mob swarmed into the plazas and alleys

of the old neighborhoods with their stores of everything that could be

bought and sold, and they infused the dead city with the frenzy of a

human fair reeking of fried fish: a new life.

Independence from Spain and then the abolition of slavery precipitated

the conditions of honorable decadence in which Dr. Juvenal Urbino hadbeen born and raised. The great old families sank into their ruined

palaces in silence. Along the rough cobbled streets that had served so

well in surprise attacks and buccaneer landings, weeds hung from the

balconies and opened cracks in the whitewashed walls of even the

best-kept mansions, and the only signs of life at two o’clock in the

afternoon were languid piano exercises played in the dim light of

siesta. Indoors, in the cool bedrooms saturated with incense, women

protected themselves from the sun as if it were a shameful infection,

and even at early Mass they hid their faces in their mantillas. Their

love affairs were slow and difficult and were often disturbed by sinister

omens, and life seemed interminable. At nightfall, at the oppressive

moment of transition, a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of

the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred

the certainty of death in the depths of one’s soul.

And so the very life of the colonial city, which the young Juvenal

Urbino tended to idealize in his Parisian melancholy, was an illusion of

memory. In the eighteenth century, the commerce of the city had been

the most prosperous in the Caribbean, owing in the main to the

thankless privilege of its being the largest African slave market in the

Americas. It was also the permanent residence of the Viceroys of the

New Kingdom of Granada, who preferred to govern here on the shores

of the world’s ocean rather than in the distant freezing capital under a

centuries-old drizzle that disturbed their sense of reality. Several times

a year, fleets of galleons carrying the treasures of Potosí, Quito, and

Veracruz gathered in the bay, and the city lived its years of glory. On

Friday, June 8, 1708, at four o’clock in the afternoon, the galleon San

José set sail for Cádiz with a cargo of precious stones and metals

valued at five hundred billion pesos in the currency of the day; it wassunk by an English squadron at the entrance to the port, and two long

centuries later it had not yet been salvaged. That treasure lying in its

bed of coral, and the corpse of the commander floating sideways on

the bridge, were evoked by historians as an emblem of the city

drowned in memories.

Across the bay, in the residential district of La Manga, Dr. Juvenal

Urbino’s house stood in another time. One-story, spacious and cool, it

had a portico with Doric columns on the outside terrace, which

commanded a view of the still, miasmic water and the debris from

sunken ships in the bay. From the entrance door to the kitchen, the

floor was covered with black and white checkerboard tiles, a fact often

attributed to Dr. Urbino’s ruling passion without taking into account

that this was a weakness common to the Catalonian craftsmen who

built this district for the nouveaux riches at the beginning of the

century. The large drawing room had the very high ceilings found

throughout the rest of the house, and six full-length windows facing the

street, and it was separated from the dining room by an enormous,

elaborate glass door covered with branching vines and bunches of

grapes and maidens seduced by the pipes of fauns in a bronze grove.

The furnishings in the reception rooms, including the pendulum clock

that stood like a living sentinel in the drawing room, were all original

English pieces from the late nineteenth century, and the lamps that

hung from the walls were all teardrop crystal, and there were Sèvres

vases and bowls everywhere and little alabaster statues of pagan

idylls. But that European coherence vanished in the rest of the house,

where wicker armchairs were jumbled together with Viennese rockers

and leather footstools made by local craftsmen. Splendid hammocks

from San Jacinto, with multicolored fringe along the sides and theowner’s name embroidered in Gothic letters with silk thread, hung in

the bedrooms along with the beds. Next to the dining room, the space

that had originally been designed for gala suppers was used as a small

music room for intimate concerts when famous performers came to the

city. In order to enhance the silence, the tiles had been covered with

the Turkish rugs purchased at the World’s Fair in Paris; a recent model

of a victrola stood next to a stand that held records arranged with

care, and in a corner, draped with a Manila shawl, was the piano that

Dr. Urbino had not played for many years. Throughout the house one

could detect the good sense and care of a woman whose feet were

planted firmly on the ground.

But no other room displayed the meticulous solemnity of the library,

the sanctuary of Dr. Urbino until old age carried him off. There, all

around his father’s walnut desk and the tufted leather easy chairs, he

had lined the walls and even the windows with shelves behind glass

doors, and had arranged in an almost demented order the three

thousand volumes bound in identical calfskin with his initials in gold on

the spines. Unlike the other rooms, which were at the mercy of noise

and foul winds from the port, the library always enjoyed the

tranquillity and fragrance of an abbey. Born and raised in the

Caribbean superstition that one opened doors and windows to summon

a coolness that in fact did not exist, Dr. Urbino and his wife at first felt

their hearts oppressed by enclosure. But in the end they were

convinced of the merits of the Roman strategy against heat, which

consists of closing houses during the lethargy of August in order to

keep out the burning air from the street, and then opening them up

completely to the night breezes. And from that time on theirs was the

coolest house under the furious La Manga sun, and it was a delight totake a siesta in the darkened bedrooms and to sit on the portico in the

afternoon to watch the heavy, ash-gray freighters from New Orleans

pass by, and at dusk to see the wooden paddles of the riverboats with

their shining lights, purifying the stagnant garbage heap of the bay

with the wake of their music. It was also the best protected from

December through March, when the northern winds tore away roofs

and spent the night circling like hungry wolves looking for a crack

where they could slip in. No one ever thought that a marriage rooted

in such foundations could have any reason not to be happy.

In any case, Dr. Urbino was not when he returned home that morning

before ten o’clock, shaken by the two visits that not only had obliged

him to miss Pentecost Mass but also threatened to change him at an

age when everything had seemed complete. He wanted a short siesta

until it was time for Dr. Lácides Olivella’s gala luncheon, but he found

the servants in an uproar as they attempted to catch the parrot, who

had flown to the highest branches of the mango tree when they took

him from his cage to clip his wings. He was a deplumed, maniacal

parrot who did not speak when asked to but only when it was least

expected, but then he did so with a clarity and rationality that were

uncommon among human beings. He had been tutored by Dr. Urbino

himself, which afforded him privileges that no one else in the family

ever had, not even the children when they were young.

He had lived in the house for over twenty years, and no one knew how

many years he had been alive before then. Every afternoon after his

siesta, Dr. Urbino sat with him on the terrace in the patio, the coolest

spot in the house, and he had summoned the most diligent reserves of

his passion for pedagogy until the parrot learned to speak French like

an academician. Then, just for love of the labor, he taught him theLatin accompaniment to the Mass and selected passages from the

Gospel according to St. Matthew, and he tried without success to

inculcate in him a working notion of the four arithmetic functions. On

one of his last trips to Europe he brought back the first phonograph

with a trumpet speaker, along with many of the latest popular records

as well as those by his favorite classical composers. Day after day,

over and over again for several months, he played the songs of Yvette

Guilbert and Aristide Bruant, who had charmed France during the last

century, until the parrot learned them by heart. He sang them in a

woman’s voice if they were hers, in a tenor’s voice if they were his,

and ended with impudent laughter that was a masterful imitation of

the servant girls when they heard him singing in French. The fame of

his accomplishments was so widespread that on occasion distinguished

visitors who had traveled from the interior on the riverboats would ask

permission to see him, and once some of the many English tourists,

who in those days sailed the banana boats from New Orleans, would

have bought him at any price. But the day of his greatest glory was

when the President of the Republic, Don Marco Fidel Suárez, with his

entourage of cabinet ministers, visited the house in order to confirm

the truth of his reputation. They arrived at about three o’clock in the

afternoon, suffocating in the top hats and frock coats they had worn

during three days of official visits under the burning August sky, and

they had to leave as curious as when they arrived, because for two

desperate hours the parrot refused to say a single syllable, ignoring

the pleas and threats and public humiliation of Dr. Urbino, who had

insisted on that foolhardy invitation despite the sage warnings of his


The fact that the parrot could maintain his privileges after that historicact of defiance was the ultimate proof of his sacred rights. No other

animal was permitted in the house, with the exception of the land

turtle who had reappeared in the kitchen after three or four years,

when everyone thought he was lost forever. He, however, was not

considered a living being but rather a mineral good luck charm whose

location one could never be certain of. Dr. Urbino was reluctant to

confess his hatred of animals, which he disguised with all kinds of

scientific inventions and philosophical pretexts that convinced many,

but not his wife. He said that people who loved them to excess were

capable of the worst cruelties toward human beings. He said that dogs

were not loyal but servile, that cats were opportunists and traitors, that

peacocks were heralds of death, that macaws were simply decorative

annoyances, that rabbits fomented greed, that monkeys carried the

fever of lust, and that roosters were damned because they had been

complicit in the three denials of Christ.

On the other hand, Fermina Daza, his wife, who at that time was

seventy-two years old and had already lost the doe’s gait of her

younger days, was an irrational idolater of tropical flowers and

domestic animals, and early in her marriage she had taken advantage

of the novelty of love to keep many more of them in the house than

good sense would allow. The first were three Dalmatians named after

Roman emperors, who fought for the favors of a female who did honor

to her name of Messalina, for it took her longer to give birth to nine

pups than to conceive another ten. Then there were Abyssinian cats

with the profiles of eagles and the manners of pharaohs, cross-eyed

Siamese and palace Persians with orange eyes, who walked through

the rooms like shadowy phantoms and shattered the night with the

howling of their witches’ sabbaths of love. For several years anAmazonian monkey, chained by his waist to the mango tree in the

patio, elicited a certain compassion because he had the sorrowful face

of Archbishop Obdulio y Rey, the same candid eyes, the same eloquent

hands; that, however, was not the reason Fermina got rid of him, but

because he had the bad habit of pleasuring himself in honor of the


There were all kinds of Guatemalan birds in cages along the

passageways, and premonitory curlews, and swamp herons with long

yellow legs, and a young stag who came in through the windows to eat

the anthurium in the flowerpots. Shortly before the last civil war, when

there was talk for the first time of a possible visit by the Pope, they

had brought a bird of paradise from Guatemala, but it took longer to

arrive than to return to its homeland when it was learned that the

announcement of the pontifical visit had been a lie spread by the

government to alarm the conspiratorial Liberals. Another time, on the

smugglers’ ships from Curaçao, they bought a wicker cage with six

perfumed crows identical to the ones that Fermina Daza had kept as a

girl in her father’s house and that she still wanted to have as a married

woman. But no one could bear the continual flapping of their wings

that filled the house with the reek of funeral wreaths. They also

brought in an anaconda, four meters long, whose insomniac hunter’s

sighs disturbed the darkness in the bedrooms although it accomplished

what they had wanted, which was to frighten with its mortal breath the

bats and salamanders and countless species of harmful insects that

invaded the house during the rainy months. Dr. Juvenal Urbino, so

occupied at that time with his professional obligations and so absorbed

in his civic and cultural enterprises, was content to assume that in the

midst of so many abominable creatures his wife was not only the mostbeautiful woman in the Caribbean but also the happiest. But one rainy

afternoon, at the end of an exhausting day, he encountered a disaster

in the house that brought him to his senses. Out of the drawing room,

and for as far as the eye could see, a stream of dead animals floated

in a marsh of blood. The servant girls had climbed on the chairs, not

knowing what to do, and they had not yet recovered from the panic of

the slaughter.

One of the German mastiffs, maddened by a sudden attack of rabies,

had torn to pieces every animal of any kind that crossed its path, until

the gardener from the house next door found the courage to face him

and hack him to pieces with his machete. No one knew how many

creatures he had bitten or contaminated with his green slaverings, and

so Dr. Urbino ordered the survivors killed and their bodies burned in

an isolated field, and he requested the services of Misericordia Hospital

for a thorough disinfecting of the house. The only animal to escape,

because nobody remembered him, was the giant lucky charm tortoise.

Fermina Daza admitted for the first time that her husband was right in

a domestic matter, and for a long while afterward she was careful to

say no more about animals. She consoled herself with color

illustrations from Linnaeus’s Natural History, which she framed and

hung on the drawing room walls, and perhaps she would eventually

have lost all hope of ever seeing an animal in the house again if it had

not been for the thieves who, early one morning, forced a bathroom

window and made off with the silver service that had been in the

family for five generations. Dr. Urbino put double padlocks on the

window frames, secured the doors on the inside with iron crossbars,

placed his most valuable possessions in the strongbox, and belatedly

acquired the wartime habit of sleeping with a revolver under hispillow. But he opposed the purchase of a fierce dog, vaccinated or

unvaccinated, running loose or chained up, even if thieves were to

steal everything he owned.

“Nothing that does not speak will come into this house,” he said.

He said it to put an end to the specious arguments of his wife, who was

once again determined to buy a dog, and he never imagined that his

hasty generalization was to cost him his life. Fermina Daza, whose

straightforward character had become more subtle with the years,

seized on her husband’s casual words, and months after the robbery

she returned to the ships from Curaçao and bought a royal Paramaribo

parrot, who knew only the blasphemies of sailors but said them in a

voice so human that he was well worth the extravagant price of twelve


He was a fine parrot, lighter than he seemed, with a yellow head and a

black tongue, the only way to distinguish him from mangrove parrots

who did not learn to speak even with turpentine suppositories. Dr.

Urbino, a good loser, bowed to the ingenuity of his wife and was even

surprised at how amused he was by the advances the parrot made

when he was excited by the servant girls. On rainy afternoons, his

tongue loosened by the pleasure of having his feathers drenched, he

uttered phrases from another time, which he could not have learned in

the house and which led one to think that he was much older than he

appeared. The Doctor’s final doubts collapsed one night when the

thieves tried to get in again through a skylight in the attic, and the

parrot frightened them with a mastiff’s barking that could not have

been more realistic if it had been real, and with shouts of stop thief

stop thief stop thief, two saving graces he had not learned in the

house. It was then that Dr. Urbino took charge of him and ordered theconstruction of a perch under the mango tree with a container for

water, another for ripe bananas, and a trapeze for acrobatics. From

December through March, when the nights were cold and the north

winds made living outdoors unbearable, he was taken inside to sleep

in the bedrooms in a cage covered by a blanket, although Dr. Urbino

suspected that his chronic swollen glands might be a threat to the

healthy respiration of humans. For many years they clipped his wing

feathers and let him wander wherever he chose to walk with his

hulking old horseman’s gait. But one day he began to do acrobatic

tricks on the beams in the kitchen and fell into the pot of stew with a

sailor’s shout of every man for himself, and with such good luck that

the cook managed to scoop him out with the ladle, scalded and

deplumed but still alive. From then on he was kept in the cage even

during the daytime, in defiance of the vulgar belief that caged parrots

forget everything they have learned, and let out only in the four

o’clock coolness for his classes with Dr. Urbino on the terrace in the

patio. No one realized in time that his wings were too long, and they

were about to clip them that morning when he escaped to the top of

the mango tree.

And for three hours they had not been able to catch him. The servant

girls, with the help of other maids in the neighborhood, had used all

kinds of tricks to lure him down, but he insisted on staying where he

was, laughing madly as he shouted long live the Liberal Party, long

live the Liberal Party damn it, a reckless cry that had cost many a

carefree drunk his life. Dr. Urbino could barely see him amid the

leaves, and he tried to cajole him in Spanish and French and even in

Latin, and the parrot responded in the same languages and with the

same emphasis and timbre in his voice, but he did not move from histreetop. Convinced that no one was going to make him move

voluntarily, Dr. Urbino had them send for the fire department, his most

recent civic pastime.

Until just a short time before, in fact, fires had been put out by

volunteers using brickmasons’ ladders and buckets of water carried in

from wherever it could be found, and methods so disorderly that they

sometimes caused more damage than the fires. But for the past year,

thanks to a fund- organized by the Society for Public Improvement, of

which Juvenal Urbino was honorary president, there was a corps of

professional firemen and a water truck with a siren and a bell and two

high-pressure hoses. They were so popular that classes were

suspended when the church bells were heard sounding the alarm, so

that children could watch them fight the fire. At first that was all they

did. But Dr. Urbino told the municipal authorities that in Hamburg he

had seen firemen revive a boy found frozen in a basement after a

three-day snowstorm. He had also seen them in a Neapolitan alley

lowering a corpse in his coffin from a tenth-floor balcony because the

stairway in the building had so many twists and turns that the family

could not get him down to the street. That was how the local firemen

learned to render other emergency services, such as forcing locks or

killing poisonous snakes, and the Medical School offered them a

special course in first aid for minor accidents. So it was in no way

peculiar to ask them to please get a distinguished parrot, with all the

qualities of a gentleman, out of a tree. Dr. Urbino said: “Tell them it’s

for me.” And he went to his bedroom to dress for the gala luncheon.

The truth was that at that moment, devastated by the letter from

Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, he did not really care about the fate of the

parrot.Fermina Daza had put on a loose-fitting silk dress belted at the hip, a

necklace of real pearls with six long, uneven loops, and high-heeled

satin shoes that she wore only on very solemn occasions, for by now

she was too old for such abuses. Her stylish attire did not seem

appropriate for a venerable grandmother, but it suited her

figure–long-boned and still slender and erect, her resilient hands

without a single age spot, her steel-blue hair bobbed on a slant at her

cheek. Her clear almond eyes and her inborn haughtiness were all that

were left to her from her wedding portrait, but what she had been

deprived of by age she more than made up for in character and

diligence. She felt very well: the time of iron corsets, bound waists,

and bustles that exaggerated buttocks was receding into the past.

Liberated bodies, breathing freely, showed themselves for what they

were. Even at the age of seventy-two.

Dr. Urbino found her sitting at her dressing table under the slow blades

of the electric fan, putting on her bell-shaped hat decorated with felt

violets. The bedroom was large and bright, with an English bed

protected by mosquito netting embroidered in pink, and two windows

open to the trees in the patio, where one could hear the clamor of

cicadas, giddy with premonitions of rain. Ever since their return from

their honeymoon, Fermina Daza had chosen her husband’s clothes

according to the weather and the occasion, and laid them out for him

on a chair the night before so they would be ready for him when he

came out of the bathroom. She could not remember when she had also

begun to help him dress, and finally to dress him, and she was aware

that at first she had done it for love, but for the past five years or so

she had been obliged to do it regardless of the reason because he

could not dress himself. They had just celebrated their golden weddinganniversary, and they were not capable of living for even an instant

without the other, or without thinking about the other, and that

capacity diminished as their age increased. Neither could have said if

their mutual dependence was based on love or convenience, but they

had never asked the question with their hands on their hearts because

both had always preferred not to know the answer. Little by little she

had been discovering the uncertainty of her husband’s step, his mood

changes, the gaps in his memory, his recent habit of sobbing while he

slept, but she did not identify these as the unequivocal signs of final

decay but rather as a happy return to childhood. That was why she did

not treat him like a difficult old man but as a senile baby, and that

deception was providential for the two of them because it put them

beyond the reach of pity.

Life would have been quite another matter for them both if they had

learned in time that it was easier to avoid great matrimonial

catastrophes than trivial everyday miseries. But if they had learned

anything together, it was that wisdom comes to us when it can no

longer do any good. For years Fermina Daza had endured her

husband’s jubilant dawns with a bitter heart. She clung to the last

threads of sleep in order to avoid facing the fatality of another

morning full of sinister premonitions, while he awoke with the

innocence of a newborn: each new day was one more day he had won.

She heard him awake with the roosters, and his first sign of life was a

cough without rhyme or reason that seemed intended to awaken her

too. She heard him grumble, just to annoy her, while he felt around

for the slippers that were supposed to be next to the bed. She heard

him make his way to the bathroom, groping in the dark. After an hour

in his study, when she had fallen asleep again, he would come back todress, still without turning on the light. Once, during a party game, he

had been asked how he defined himself, and he had said: “I am a man

who dresses in the dark.” She heard him, knowing full well that not

one of those noises was indispensable, and that he made them on

purpose although he pretended not to, just as she was awake and

pretended not to be. His motives were clear: he never needed her

awake and lucid as much as he did during those fumbling moments.

There was no sleeper more elegant than she, with her curved body

posed for a dance and her hand across her forehead, but there was

also no one more ferocious when anyone disturbed the sensuality of

her thinking she was still asleep when she no longer was. Dr. Urbino

knew she was waiting for his slightest sound, that she even would be

grateful for it, just so she could blame someone for waking her at five

o’clock in the morning, so that on the few occasions when he had to

feel around in the dark because he could not find his slippers in their

customary place, she would suddenly say in a sleepy voice: “You left

them in the bathroom last night.” Then right after that, her voice fully

awake with rage, she would curse: “The worst misfortune in this house

is that nobody lets you sleep.”

Then she would roll over in bed and turn on the light without the least

mercy for herself, content with her first victory of the day. The truth

was they both played a game, mythical and perverse, but for all that

comforting: it was one of the many dangerous pleasures of domestic

love. But one of those trivial games almost ended the first thirty years

of their life together, because one day there was no soap in the


It began with routine simplicity. Dr. Juvenal Urbino had returned to the

bedroom, in the days when he still bathed without help, and begun todress without turning on the light. As usual she was in her warm fetal

state, her eyes closed, her breathing shallow, that arm from a sacred

dance above her head. But she was only half asleep, as usual, and

he knew it. After a prolonged sound of starched linen in the darkness,

Dr. Urbino said to himself:

“I’ve been bathing for almost a week without any soap.”

Then, fully awake, she remembered, and tossed and turned in fury

with the world because in fact she had forgotten to replace the soap in

the bathroom. She had noticed its absence three days earlier when she

was already under the shower, and she had planned to replace it

afterward, but then she forgot until the next day, and on the third day

the same thing happened again. The truth was that a week had not

gone by, as he said to make her feel more guilty, but three

unpardonable days, and her anger at being found out in a mistake

maddened her. As always, she defended herself by attacking.

“Well I’ve bathed every day,” she shouted, beside herself with rage,

“and there’s always been soap.”

Although he knew her battle tactics by heart, this time he could not

abide them. On some professional pretext or other he went to live in

the interns’ quarters at Misericordia Hospital, returning home only to

change his clothes before making his evening house calls. She headed

for the kitchen when she heard him come in, pretending that she had

something to do, and stayed there until she heard his carriage in the

street. For the next three months, each time they tried to resolve the

conflict they only inflamed their feelings even more. He was not ready

to come back as long as she refused to admit there had been no soap

in the bathroom, and she was not prepared to have him back until he

recognized that he had consciously lied to torment her.The incident, of course, gave them the opportunity to evoke many

other trivial quarrels from many other dim and turbulent dawns.

Resentments stirred up other resentments, reopened old scars, turned

them into fresh wounds, and both were dismayed at the desolating

proof that in so many years of conjugal battling they had done little

more than nurture their rancor. At last he proposed that they both

submit to an open confession, with the Archbishop himself if necessary,

so that God could decide once and for all whether or not there had

been soap in the soap dish in the bathroom. Then, despite all her

selfcontrol, she lost her temper with a historic cry:

“To hell with the Archbishop!”

The impropriety shook the very foundations of the city, gave rise to

slanders that were not easy to disprove, and was preserved in popular

tradition as if it were a line from an operetta: “To hell with the

Archbishop!” Realizing she had gone too far, she anticipated her

husband’s predictable response and threatened to move back to her

father’s old house, which still belonged to her although it had been

rented out for public offices, and live there by herself. And it was not

an idle threat: she really did want to leave and did not care about the

scandal, and her husband realized this in time. He did not have the

courage to defy his own prejudices, and he capitulated. Not in the

sense that he admitted there had been soap in the bathroom, but

insofar as he continued to live in the same house with her, although

they slept in separate rooms, and he did not say a word to her. They

ate in silence, sparring with so much skill that they sent each other

messages across the table through the children, and the children never

realized that they were not speaking to each other.

Since the study had no bathroom, the arrangement solved the problemof noise in the morning, because he came in to bathe after preparing

his class and made a sincere effort not to awaken his wife. They would

often arrive at the bathroom at the same time, and

then they took turns brushing their teeth before going to sleep. After

four months had gone by, he lay down on their double bed one night

to read until she came out of the bathroom, as he often did, and he

fell asleep. She lay down beside him in a rather careless way so that

he would wake up and leave. And in fact he did stir, but instead of

getting up he turned out the light and settled himself on the pillow.

She shook him by the shoulder to remind him that he was supposed to

go to the study, but it felt so comfortable to be back in his

great-grandparents’ featherbed that he preferred to capitulate.

“Let me stay here,” he said. “There was soap.”

When they recalled this episode, now they had rounded the corner of

old age, neither could believe the astonishing truth that this had been

the most serious argument in fifty years of living together, and the

only one that had made them both want to abandon their

responsibilities and begin a new life. Even when they were old and

placid they were careful about bringing it up, for the barely healed

wounds could begin to bleed again as if they had been inflicted only


He was the first man that Fermina Daza heard urinate. She heard him

on their wedding night, while she lay prostrate with seasickness in the

stateroom on the ship that was carrying them to France, and the sound

of his stallion’s stream seemed so potent, so replete with authority,

that it increased her terror of the devastation to come. That memory

often returned to her as the years weakened the stream, for she never

could resign herself to his wetting the rim of the toilet bowl each timehe used it. Dr. Urbino tried to convince her, with arguments readily

understandable to anyone who wished to understand them, that the

mishap was not repeated every day through carelessness on his part,

as she insisted, but because of organic reasons: as a young man his

stream was so defined and so direct that when he was at school he

won contests for marksmanship in filling bottles, but with the ravages

of age it was not only decreasing, it was also becoming oblique and

scattered, and had at last turned into a .fantastic fountain, impossible

to control despite his many efforts to direct it. He would say: “The

toilet must have been invented by someone who knew nothing about

men.” He contributed to domestic peace with a quotidian act that was

more humiliating than humble: he wiped the rim of the bowl with toilet

paper each time he used it. She knew, but never said anything as long

as the ammoniac fumes were not too strong in the bathroom, and then

she proclaimed, as if she had uncovered a crime: “This stinks like a

rabbit hutch.” On the eve of old age this physical difficulty inspired Dr.

Urbino with the ultimate solution: he urinated sitting down, as she did,

which kept the bowl clean and him in a state of grace.

By this time he could do very little for himself, and the possibility of a

fatal slip in the tub put him on his guard against the shower. The house

was modern and did not have the pewter tub with lion’s-paw feet

common in the mansions of the old city. He had had it removed for

hygienic reasons: the bathtub was another piece of abominable junk

invented by Europeans who bathed only on the last Friday of the

month, and then in the same water made filthy by the very dirt they

tried to remove from their bodies. So he had ordered an outsized

washtub made of solid lignum vitae, in which Fermina Daza bathed her

husband just as if he were a newborn child. Waters boiled with mallowleaves and orange skins were mixed into the bath that lasted over an

hour, and the effect on him was so sedative that he sometimes fell

asleep in the perfumed infusion. After bathing him, Fermina Daza

helped him to dress: she sprinkled talcum powder between his legs,

she smoothed cocoa butter on his rashes, she helped him put on his

undershorts with as much love as if they had been a diaper, and

continued dressing him, item by item, from his socks to the knot in his

tie with the topaz pin. Their conjugal dawns grew calm because he had

returned to the childhood his children had taken away from him. And

she, in turn, at last accepted the domestic schedule because the years

were passing for her too; she slept less and less, and by the time she

was seventy she was awake before her husband.

On Pentecost Sunday, when he lifted the blanket to look at Jeremiah

de Saint-Amour’s body, Dr. Urbino experienced the revelation of

something that had been denied him until then in his most lucid

peregrinations as a physician and a believer. After so many years of

familiarity with death, after battling it for so long, after so much

turning it inside out and upside down, it was as if he had dared to look

death in the face for the first time, and it had looked back at him. It

was not the fear of death. No: that fear had been inside him for many

years, it had lived with him, it had been another shadow cast over his

own shadow ever since the night he awoke, shaken by a bad dream,

and realized that death was not only a permanent probability, as he

had always believed, but an immediate reality. What he had seen that

day, however, was the physical presence of something that until that

moment had been only an imagined certainty. He was very glad that

the instrument used by Divine Providence for that overwhelming

revelation had been Jeremiah de SaintAmour, whom he had alwaysconsidered a saint unaware of his own state of grace. But when the

letter revealed his true identity, his sinister past, his inconceivable

powers of deception, he felt that something definitive and irrevocable

had occurred in his life.

Nevertheless Fermina Daza did not allow him to infect her with his

somber mood. He tried, of course, while she helped him put his legs

into his trousers and worked the long row of buttons on his shirt. But

he failed because Fermina Daza was not easy to impress, least of all

by the death of a man she did not care for. All she knew about him

was that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour was a cripple on crutches whom she

had never seen, that he had escaped the firing squad during one of

many insurrections on one of many islands in the Antilles, that he had

become a photographer of children out of necessity and had become

the most successful one in the province, and that he had won a game

of chess from someone she remembered as Torremolinos but in reality

was named Capablanca.

“But he was nothing more than a fugitive from Cayenne, condemned to

life imprisonment for an atrocious crime,” said Dr. Urbino. “Imagine,

he had even eaten human flesh.”

He handed her the letter whose secrets he wanted to carry with him to

the grave, but she put the folded sheets in her dressing table without

reading them and locked the drawer with a key. She was accustomed

to her husband’s unfathomable capacity for astonishment, his

exaggerated opinions that became more incomprehensible as the

years went by, his narrowness of mind that was out of tune with his

public image. But this time he had outdone himself. She had supposed

that her husband held Jeremiah de SaintAmour in esteem not for what

he had once been but for what he began to be after he arrived herewith only his exile’s rucksack, and she could not understand why he

was so distressed by the disclosure of his true identity at this late date.

She did not comprehend why he thought it an abomination that he had

had a woman in secret, since that was an atavistic custom of a certain

kind of man, himself included, yes even he in a moment of

ingratitude, and besides, it seemed to her a heartbreaking proof of

love that she had helped him carry out his decision to die. She said: “If

you also decided to do that for reasons as serious as his, my duty

would be to do what she did.” Once again Dr. Urbino

found himself face to face with the simple incomprehension that had

exasperated him for a half a century.

“You don’t understand anything,” he said. “What infuriates me is not

what he was or what he did, but the deception he practiced on all of us

for so many years.”

His eyes began to fill with easy tears, but she pretended not to see.

“He did the right thing,” she replied. “If he had told the truth, not you

or that poor woman or anybody in this town would have loved him as

much as they did.”

She threaded his watch chain through the buttonhole in his vest. She

put the finishing touches to the knot in his tie and pinned on his topaz

tiepin. Then she dried his eyes and wiped his teary beard with the

handkerchief sprinkled with florida water and put that in his breast

pocket, its corners spread open like a magnolia. The eleven strokes of

the pendulum clock sounded in the depths of the house.

“Hurry,” she said, taking him by the arm. “We’ll be late.”

Aminta Dechamps, Dr. Lácides Olivella’s wife, and her seven equally

diligent daughters, had arranged every detail so that the silver

anniversary luncheon would be the social event of the year. The familyhome, in the very center of the historic district, was the old mint,

denatured by a Florentine architect who came through here like an ill

wind blowing renovation and converted many seventeenth-century

relics into Venetian basilicas. It had six bedrooms and two large,

well-ventilated dining and reception rooms, but that was not enough

space for the guests from the city, not to mention the very select few

from out of town. The patio was like an abbey cloister, with a stone

fountain murmuring in the center and pots of heliotrope that perfumed

the house at dusk, but the space among the arcades was inadequate

for so many grand family names. So it was decided to hold the

luncheon in their country house that was ten minutes away by

automobile along the King’s Highway and, had over an acre of patio,

and enormous Indian laurels, and local water lilies in a gently flowing

river. The men from Don Sancho’s Inn, under the supervision of

Señora de Olivella, hung colored canvas awnings in the sunny areas

and raised a platform under the laurels with tables for one hundred

twenty-two guests, with a linen tablecloth on each of them and

bouquets of the day’s fresh roses for the table of honor. They also built

a wooden dais for a woodwind band whose program was limited to

contradances and national waltzes, and for a string quartet from the

School of Fine Arts, which was Señora de Olivella’s surprise for her

husband’s venerable teacher, who would preside over the luncheon.

Although the date did not correspond exactly to the anniversary of his

graduation, they chose Pentecost Sunday in order to magnify the

significance of the celebration.

The preparations had begun three months earlier, for fear that

something indispensable would be left undone for lack of time. They

brought in live chickens from Ciénaga de Oro, famous all along thecoast not only for their size and flavor but because in colonial times

they had scratched for food in alluvial deposits and little nuggets of

pure gold were found in their gizzards. Señora de Olivella herself,

accompanied by some of her daughters and her domestic staff,

boarded the luxury ocean liners and selected the best from

everywhere to honor her husband’s achievements. She had anticipated

everything except that the celebration would take place on a Sunday in

June in a year when the rains were late. She realized the danger that

very morning when she went to High Mass and was horrified by the

humidity and saw that the sky was heavy and low and that one could

not see to the ocean’s horizon. Despite these ominous signs, the

Director of the Astronomical Observatory, whom she met at Mass,

reminded her that in all the troubled history of the city, even during

the crudest winters, it had never rained on Pentecost. Still, when the

clocks struck twelve and many of the guests were already having an

aperitif outdoors, a single crash of thunder made the earth tremble,

and a turbulent wind from the sea knocked over the tables and blew

down the canopies, and the sky collapsed in a catastrophic downpour.

In the chaos of the storm Dr. Juvenal Urbino, along with the other late

guests whom he had met on the road, had great difficulty reaching the

house, and like them he wanted to move from the carriage to the

house by jumping from stone to stone across the muddy patio, but at

last he had to accept the humiliation of being carried by Don Sancho’s

men under a yellow canvas canopy. They did the best they could to set

up the separate tables again inside the house–even in the

bedrooms–and the guests made no effort to disguise their surly,

shipwrecked mood. It was as hot as a ship’s boiler room, for the

windows had to be closed to keep out the wind-driven rain. In thepatio each place at the tables had been marked with a card bearing

the name of the guest, one side reserved for men and the other for

women, according to custom. But inside the house the name cards

were in confusion and people sat where they could in an obligatory

promiscuity that defied our social superstitions on at least this one

occasion. In the midst of the cataclysm Aminta de Olivella seemed to

be everywhere at once, her hair soaking wet and her splendid dress

spattered with mud, but bearing up under the misfortune with the

invincible smile, learned from her husband, that would give no quarter

to adversity. With the help of her daughters, who were cut from the

same cloth, she did everything possible to keep the places at the table

of honor in order, with Dr. Juvenal Urbino in the center and Archbishop

Obdulio y Rey on his right. Fermina Daza sat next to her husband, as

she always did, for fear he would fall asleep during the meal or spill

soup on his lapel. Across from him sat Dr. Lácides Olivella, a

well-preserved man of about fifty with an effeminate air, whose festive

spirit seemed in no way related to his accurate diagnoses. The rest of

the table was occupied by provincial and municipal officials and last

year’s beauty queen, whom the Governor escorted to the seat next to

him. Although it was not customary for invitations to request special

attire, least of all for a luncheon in the country, the women wore

evening gowns and precious jewels and most of the men were dressed

in dinner jackets with black ties, and some even wore frock coats. Only

the most sophisticated, Dr. Urbino among them, wore their ordinary

clothes. At each place was a menu printed in French, with golden


Señora de Olivella, horror-struck by the devastating heat, went

through the house pleading with the men to take off their jacketsduring the luncheon, but no one dared to be the first. The Archbishop

commented to Dr. Urbino that in a sense this was a historic luncheon:

there, together for the first time at the same table, their wounds

healed and their anger dissipated, sat the two opposing sides in the

civil wars that had bloodied the country ever since Independence. This

thought accorded with the enthusiasm of the Liberals, especially the

younger ones, who had succeeded in electing a president from their

party after forty-five years of Conservative hegemony. Dr. Urbino did

not agree: in his opinion a Liberal president was exactly the same as a

Conservative president, but not as well dressed. But he did not want to

contradict the Archbishop, although he would have liked to point out to

him that guests were at that luncheon not because of what they

thought but because of the merits of their lineage, which was

something that had always stood over and above the hazards of

politics and the horrors of war. From this point of view, in fact, not a

single person was missing.

The downpour ended as suddenly as it had begun, and the sun began

to shine in a cloudless sky, but the storm had been so violent that

several trees were uprooted and the overflowing stream had turned

the patio into a swamp. The greatest disaster had occurred in the

kitchen. Wood fires had been built outdoors on bricks behind the

house, and the cooks barely had time to rescue their pots from the

rain. They lost precious time reorganizing the flooded kitchen and

improvising new fires in the back gallery. But by one o’clock the crisis

had been resolved and only the dessert was missing: the Sisters of St.

Clare were in charge of that, and they had promised to send it before

eleven. It was feared that the ditch along the King’s Highway had

flooded, as it did even in less severe winters, and in that case it wouldbe at least two hours before the dessert arrived. As soon as the

weather cleared they opened the windows, and the house was cooled

by air that had been purified by the sulfurous storm. Then the band

was told to play its program of waltzes on the terrace of the portico,

and that only heightened the confusion because everyone had to shout

to be heard over the banging of copper pots inside the house. Tired of

waiting, smiling even on the verge of tears, Aminta de Olivella ordered

luncheon to be served.

The group from the School of Fine Arts began their concert in the

formal silence achieved for the opening bars of Mozart’s “La Chasse.”

Despite the voices that grew louder and more confused and the

intrusions of Don Sancho’s black servants, who could barely squeeze

past the tables with their steaming serving dishes, Dr. Urbino managed

to keep a channel open to the music until the program was over. His

powers of concentration had decreased so much with the passing years

that he had to write down each chess move in order to remember what

he had planned. Yet he could still engage in serious conversation and

follow a concert at the same time, although he never reached the

masterful extremes of a German orchestra conductor, a great friend of

his during his time in Austria, who read the score of Don Giovanni

while listening to Tannhäuser.

He thought that the second piece on the program, Schubert’s “Death

and the Maiden,” was played with facile theatricality. While he strained

to listen through the clatter of covered dishes, he stared at a blushing

boy who nodded to him in greeting. He had seen him somewhere, no

doubt about that, but he could not remember where. This often

happened to him, above all with people’s names, even those he knew

well, or with a melody from other times, and it caused him suchdreadful anguish that one night he would have preferred to die rather

than endure it until dawn. He was on the verge of reaching that state

now when a charitable flash illuminated his memory: the boy had been

one of his students last year. He was surprised to see him there, in the

kingdom of the elect, but Dr. Olivella reminded him that he was the

son of the Minister of Health and was preparing a thesis in forensic

medicine. Dr. Juvenal Urbino greeted him with a joyful wave of his

hand and the young doctor stood up and responded with a bow. But not

then, not ever, did he realize that this was the intern who had been

with him that morning in the house of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour.

Comforted by yet another victory over old age, he surrendered to the

diaphanous and fluid lyricism of the final piece on the program, which

he could not identify. Later the young cellist, who had just returned

from France, told him it was a quartet for strings by Gabriel Fauré,

whom Dr. Urbino had not even heard of, although he was always very

alert to the latest trends in Europe. Fermina Daza, who was keeping an

eye on him as she always did, but most of all when she saw him

becoming introspective in public, stopped eating and put her earthly

hand on his. She said: “Don’t think about it anymore.” Dr. Urbino

smiled at her from the far shore of ecstasy, and it was then that he

began to think again about what she had feared. He remembered

Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, on view at that hour in his coffin, in his

bogus military uniform with his fake decorations, under the accusing

eyes of the children in the portraits. He turned to the Archbishop to tell

him about the suicide, but he had already heard the news. There had

been a good deal of talk after High Mass, and he had even received a

request from General Jerónimo Argote, on behalf of the Caribbean

refugees, that he be buried in holy ground. He said: “The requestitself, it seemed to me, showed a lack of respect.” Then, in a more

humane tone, he asked if anyone knew the reason for the suicide. Dr.

Urbino answered: “Gerontophobia,” the proper word although he

thought he had just invented it. Dr. Olivella, attentive to the guests

who were sitting closest to him, stopped listening to them for a

moment to take part in his teacher’s conversation. He said: “It is a pity

to still find a suicide that is not for love.” Dr. Urbino was not surprised

to recognize his own thoughts in those of his favorite disciple.

“And worse yet,” he said, “with gold cyanide.”

When he said that, he once again felt compassion prevailing over the

bitterness caused by the letter, for which he thanked not his wife but

rather a miracle of the music. Then he spoke to the Archbishop of the

lay saint he had known in their long twilights of chess, he spoke of the

dedication of his art to the happiness of children, his rare erudition in

all things of this world, his Spartan habits, and he himself was

surprised by the purity of soul with which Jeremiah de Saint-Amour

had separated himself once and for all from his past. Then he spoke to

the Mayor about the advantages of purchasing his files of photographic

plates in order to preserve the images of a generation who might

never again be happy outside their portraits and in whose hands lay

the future of the city. The Archbishop was scandalized that a militant

and educated Catholic would dare to think that a suicide was saintly,

but he agreed with the plan to create an archive of the negatives. The

Mayor wanted to know from whom they were to be purchased. Dr.

Urbino’s tongue burned with the live coal of the secret. “I will take care

of it.” And he felt redeemed by his own loyalty to the woman he had

repudiated five hours earlier. Fermina Daza noticed it and in a low

voice made him promise that he would attend the funeral. Relieved,he said that of course he would, that went without saying.

The speeches were brief and simple. The woodwind band began a

popular tune that had not been announced on the program, and the

guests strolled along the terraces, waiting for the men from Don

Sancho’s Inn to finish drying the patio in case anyone felt inclined to

dance. The only guests who stayed in the drawing room were those at

the table of honor, who were celebrating the fact that Dr. Urbino had

drunk half a glass of brandy in one swallow in a final toast. No one

recalled that he had already done the same thing with a glass of grand

cru wine as accompaniment to a very special dish, but his heart had

demanded it of him that afternoon, and his self-indulgence was well

repaid: once again, after so many long years, he felt like singing. And

he would have, no doubt, on the urging of the young cellist who

offered to accompany him, if one of those new automobiles had not

suddenly driven across the mudhole of the patio, splashing the

musicians and rousing the ducks in the barnyards with the quacking of

its horn. It stopped in front of the portico and Dr. Marco Aurelio Urbino

Daza and his wife emerged, laughing for all they were worth and

carrying a tray covered with lace cloths in each hand. Other trays just

like them were on the jump seats and even on the floor next to the

chauffeur. It was the belated dessert. When the applause and the

shouted cordial jokes had ended, Dr. Urbino Daza explained in all

seriousness that before the storm broke, the Sisters of St. Clare had

asked him to please bring the dessert, but he had left the King’s

Highway because someone said that his parents’ house was on fire. Dr.

Juvenal Urbino became upset before his son could finish the story, but

his wife reminded him in time that he himself had called for the

firemen to rescue the parrot. Aminta de Olivella was radiant as shedecided to serve the dessert on the terraces even though they had

already had their coffee. But Dr. Juvenal Urbino and his wife left

without tasting it, for there was barely enough time for him to have his

sacred siesta before the funeral.

And he did have it, although his sleep was brief and restless because

he discovered when he returned home that the firemen had caused

almost as much damage as a fire. In their efforts to frighten the parrot

they had stripped a tree with the pressure hoses, and a misdirected jet

of water through the windows of the master bedroom had caused

irreparable damage to the furniture and to the portraits of unknown

forebears hanging on the walls. Thinking that there really was a fire,

the neighbors had hurried over when they heard the bell on the fire

truck, and if the disturbance was no worse, it was because the schools

were closed on Sundays. When they realized they could not reach the

parrot even with their extension ladders, the firemen began to chop at

the branches with machetes, and only the opportune arrival of Dr.

Urbino Daza prevented them from mutilating the tree all the way to

the trunk. They left, saying they would return after five o’clock if they

received permission to prune, and on their way out they muddied the

interior terrace and the drawing room and ripped Fermina Daza’s

favorite Turkish rug. Needless disasters, all of them, because the

general impression was that the parrot had taken advantage of the

chaos to escape through neighboring patios. And in fact Dr. Urbino

looked for him in the foliage, but there was no response in any

language, not even to whistles and songs, so he gave him up for lost

and went to sleep when it was almost three o’clock. But first he

enjoyed the immediate pleasure of smelling a secret garden in his

urine that had been purified by lukewarm asparagus.He was awakened by sadness. Not the sadness he had felt that

morning when he stood before the corpse of his friend, but the

invisible cloud that would saturate his soul after his siesta and which

he interpreted as divine notification that he was living his final

afternoons. Until the age of fifty he had not been conscious of the size

and weight and condition of his organs. Little by little, as he lay with

his eyes closed after his daily siesta, he had begun to feel them, one

by one, inside his body, feel the shape of his insomniac heart, his

mysterious liver, his hermetic pancreas, and he had slowly discovered

that even the oldest people were younger than he was and that he had

become the only survivor of his generation’s legendary group portraits.

When he became aware of his first bouts of forgetfulness, he had

recourse to a tactic he had heard about from one of his teachers at the

Medical School: “The man who has no memory makes one out of

paper.” But this was a short-lived illusion, for he had reached the stage

where he would forget what the written reminders in his pockets

meant, search the entire house for the eyeglasses he was wearing,

turn the key again after locking the doors, and lose the sense of what

he was reading because he forgot the premise of the argument or the

relationships among the characters. But what disturbed him most was

his lack of confidence in his own power of reason: little by little, as in

an ineluctable shipwreck, he felt himself losing his good judgment.

With no scientific basis except his own experience, Dr. Juvenal Urbino

knew that most fatal diseases had their own specific odor, but that

none was as specific as old age. He detected it in the cadavers slit

open from head to toe on the dissecting table, he even recognized it in

patients who hid their age with the greatest success, he smelled it in

the perspiration on his own clothing and in the unguarded breathing ofhis sleeping wife. If he had not been what he was–in essence an

old-style Christian–perhaps he would have agreed with Jeremiah de

Saint-Amour that old age was an indecent state that had to be ended

before it was too late. The only consolation, even for someone like

him who had been a good man in bed, was sexual peace: the slow,

merciful extinction of his venereal appetite. At eighty-one years of age

he had enough lucidity to realize that he was attached to this world by

a few slender threads that could break painlessly with a simple change

of position while he slept, and if he did all he could to keep those

threads intact, it was because of his terror of not finding God in the

darkness of death.

Fermina Daza had been busy straightening the bedroom that had been

destroyed by the firemen, and a little before four she sent for her

husband’s daily glass of lemonade with chipped ice and reminded him

that he should dress for the funeral. That afternoon Dr. Urbino had two

books by his hand: Man, the Unknown by Alexis Carrel and The Story

of San Michele by Axel Munthe; the pages of the second book were still

uncut, and he asked Digna Pardo, the cook, to bring him the marble

paper cutter he had left in the bedroom. But when it was brought to

him he was already reading Man, the Unknown at the place he had

marked with an envelope: there were only a few pages left till the

end. He read slowly, making his way through the meanderings of a

slight headache that he attributed to the half glass of brandy at the

final toast. When he paused in his reading he sipped the lemonade or

took his time chewing on a piece of ice. He was wearing his socks, and

his shirt without its starched collar; his elastic suspenders with the

green stripes hung down from his waist. The mere idea of having to

change for the funeral irritated him. Soon he stopped reading, placedone book on top of the other, and began to rock very slowly in the

wicker rocking chair, contemplating with regret the banana plants in

the mire of the patio, the stripped mango, the flying ants that came

after the rain, the ephemeral splendor of another afternoon that would

never return. He had forgotten that he ever owned a parrot from

Paramaribo whom he loved as if he were a human being, when

suddenly he heard him say: “Royal parrot.” His voice sounded close

by, almost next to him, and then he saw him in the lowest branch of

the mango tree.

“You scoundrel!” he shouted.

The parrot answered in an identical voice: “You’re even more of a

scoundrel, Doctor.”

He continued to talk to him, keeping him in view while he put on his

boots with great care so as not to frighten him and pulled his

suspenders up over his arms and went down to the patio, which was

still full of mud, testing the ground with his stick so that he would not

trip on the three steps of the terrace. The parrot did not move, and

perched so close to the ground that Dr. Urbino held out his walking

stick for him so that he could sit on the silver handle, as was his

custom, but the parrot sidestepped and jumped to the next branch, a

little higher up but easier to reach since the house ladder had been

leaning against it even before the arrival of the firemen. Dr. Urbino

calculated the height and thought that if he climbed two rungs he

would be able to catch him. He stepped onto the first, singing a

disarming, friendly song to distract the attention of the churlish bird,

who repeated the words without the music but sidled still farther out on

the branch. He climbed to the second rung without difficulty, holding

on to the ladder with both hands, and the parrot began to repeat theentire song without moving from the spot. He climbed to the third rung

and then the fourth, for he had miscalculated the height of the branch,

and then he grasped the ladder with his left hand and tried to seize the

parrot with his right. Digna Pardo, the old servant, who was coming to

remind him that he would be late for the funeral, saw the back of a

man standing on the ladder, and she would not have believed that he

was who he was if it had not been for the green stripes on the elastic


“Santísimo Sacramento!” she shrieked. “You’ll kill yourself!”

Dr. Urbino caught the parrot around the neck with a triumphant sigh:

ça y est. But he released him immediately because the ladder slipped

from under his feet and for an instant he was suspended in air and

then he realized that he had died without Communion, without time to

repent of anything or to say goodbye to anyone, at seven minutes

after four on Pentecost Sunday.

Fermina Daza was in the kitchen tasting the soup for supper when she

heard Digna Pardo’s horrified shriek and the shouting of the servants

and then of the entire neighborhood. She dropped the tasting spoon

and tried her best to run despite the invincible weight of her age,

screaming like a madwoman without knowing yet what had happened

under the mango leaves, and her heart jumped inside her ribs when

she saw her man lying on his back in the mud, dead to this life but still

resisting death’s final blow for one last minute so that she would have

time to come to him. He recognized her despite the uproar, through his

tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at

her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more

grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a

century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his lastbreath:

“Only God knows how much I loved you.”

It was a memorable death, and not without reason. Soon after he had

completed his course of specialized studies in France, Dr. Juvenal

Urbino became known in his country for the drastic new methods he

used to ward off the last cholera epidemic suffered by the province.

While he was still in Europe, the previous one had caused the death of

a quarter of the urban population in less than three months; among

the victims was his father, who was also a highly esteemed physician.

With his immediate prestige and a sizable contribution from his own

inheritance, he founded the Medical Society, the first and for many

years the only one in the Caribbean provinces, of which he was

lifetime President. He organized the construction of the first aqueduct,

the first sewer system, and the covered public market that permitted

filth to be cleaned out of Las Ánimas Bay. He was also President of the

Academy of the Language and the Academy of History. For his service

to the Church, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem made him a Knight of

the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, and the French Government conferred

upon him the rank of Commander in the Legion of Honor. He gave

active encouragement to every religious and civic society in the city

and had a special interest in the Patriotic Junta, composed of politically

disinterested influential citizens who urged governments and local

businesses to adopt progressive ideas that were too daring for the

time. The most memorable of them was the testing of an aerostatic

balloon that on its inaugural flight carried a letter to San Juan de la

Ciénaga, long before anyone had thought of airmail as a rational

possibility. The Center for the Arts, which was also his idea,

established the School of Fine Arts in the same house where it is stilllocated, and for many years he was a patron of the Poetic Festival in


Only he achieved what had seemed impossible for at least a century:

the restoration of the Dramatic Theater, which had been used as a

henhouse and a breeding farm for game cocks since colonial times. It

was the culmination of a spectacular civic campaign that involved

every sector of the city in a multitudinous mobilization that many

thought worthy of a better cause. In any event, the new Dramatic

Theater was inaugurated when it still lacked seats or lights, and the

audience had to bring their own chairs and their own lighting for the

intermissions. The same protocol held sway as at the great

performances in Europe, and the ladies used the occasion to show off

their long dresses and their fur coats in the dog days of the Caribbean

summer, but it was also necessary to authorize the admission of

servants to carry the chairs and lamps and all the things to eat that

were deemed necessary to survive the interminable programs, one of

which did not end until it was time for early Mass. The season opened

with a French opera company whose novelty was a harp in the

orchestra and whose unforgettable glory was the impeccable voice and

dramatic talent of a Turkish soprano who sang barefoot and wore rings

set with precious stones on her toes. After the first act the stage could

barely be seen and the singers lost their voices because of the smoke

from so many palm oil lamps, but the chroniclers of the city were very

careful to delete these minor inconveniences and to magnify the

memorable events. Without a doubt it was Dr. Urbino’s most

contagious initiative, for opera fever infected the most surprising

elements in the city and gave rise to a whole generation of Isoldes and

Otellos and Aïdas and Siegfrieds. But it never reached the extremes

Dr. Urbino had hoped for, which was to see Italianizers and

Wagnerians confronting each other with sticks and canes during the


Dr. Juvenal Urbino never accepted the public positions that were

offered to him with frequency and without conditions, and he was apitiless critic of those physicians who used their professional prestige to

attain political office. Although he was always considered a Liberal and

was in the habit of voting for that party’s candidates, it was more a

question of tradition than conviction, and he was perhaps the last

member of the great families who still knelt in the street when the

Archbishop’s carriage drove by. He defined himself as a natural

pacifist, a partisan of definitive reconciliation between Liberals and

Conservatives for the good of the nation. But his public conduct was so

autonomous that no group claimed him for its own: the Liberals

considered him a Gothic troglodyte, the Conservatives said he was

almost a Mason, and the Masons repudiated him as a secret cleric in

the service of the Holy See. His less savage critics thought he was just

an aristocrat enraptured by the delights of the Poetic Festival while the

nation bled to death in an endless civil war.

Only two of his actions did not seem to conform to this image. The first

was his leaving the former palace of the Marquis de Casalduero, which

had been the family mansion for over a century, and moving to a new

house in a neighborhood of nouveaux riches. The other was his

marriage to a beauty from the lower classes, without name or fortune,

whom the ladies with long last names ridiculed in secret until they

were forced to admit that she outshone them all in distinction and

character. Dr. Urbino was always acutely aware of these and many

other cracks in his public image, and no one was as conscious as he of

being the last to bear a family name on its way to extinction. His

children were two undistinguished ends of a line. After fifty years, his

son, Marco Aurelio, a doctor like himself and like all the family’s

firstborn sons in every generation, had done nothing worthy of

note–he had not even produced a child. Dr. Urbino’s only daughter,Ofelia, was married to a solid bank employee from New Orleans, and

had reached the climacteric with three daughters and no son. But

although stemming the flow of his blood into the tide of history caused

him pain, what worried Dr. Urbino most about dying was the solitary

life Fermina Daza would lead without him.

In any event, the tragedy not only caused an uproar among his own

household but spread to the common people as well. They thronged

the streets in the hope of seeing something, even if it was only the

brilliance of the legend. Three days of mourning were proclaimed,

flags were flown at half mast in public buildings, and the bells in all

the churches tolled without pause until the crypt in the family

mausoleum was sealed. A group from the School of Fine Arts made a

death mask that was to be used as the mold for a life-size bust, but

the project was canceled because no one thought the faithful rendering

of his final terror was decent. A renowned artist who happened to be

stopping here on his way to Europe painted, with pathos-laden realism,

a gigantic canvas in which Dr. Urbino was depicted on the ladder at the

fatal moment when he stretched out his hand to capture the parrot.

The only element that contradicted the raw truth of the story was that

in the painting he was wearing not the collarless shirt and the

suspenders with green stripes, but rather a bowler hat and black frock

coat copied from a rotogravure made during the years of the cholera

epidemic. So that everyone would have the chance to see it, the

painting was exhibited for a few months after the tragedy in the vast

gallery of The Golden Wire, a shop that sold imported merchandise,

and the entire city filed by. Then it was displayed on the walls of all

the public and private institutions that felt obliged to pay tribute to the

memory of their illustrious patron, and at last it was hung, after asecond funeral, in the School of Fine Arts, where it was pulled down

many years later by art students who burned it in the Plaza of the

University as a symbol of an aesthetic and a time they despised.

From her first moment as a widow, it was obvious that Fermina Daza

was not as helpless as her husband had feared. She was adamant in

her determination not to allow the body to be used for any cause, and

she remained so even after the honorific telegram from the President

of the Republic ordering it to lie in state for public viewing in the

Assembly Chamber of the Provincial Government. With the same

serenity she opposed a vigil in the Cathedral, which the Archbishop

himself had requested, and she agreed to the body’s lying there only

during the funeral Mass. Even after the mediation of her son, who was

dumbfounded by so many different requests, Fermina Daza was firm in

her rustic notion that the dead belong only to the family, and that the

vigil would be kept at home, with mountain coffee and fritters and

everyone free to weep for him in any way they chose. There would be

no traditional nine-night wake: the doors were closed after the funeral

and did not open again except for visits from intimate friends.

The house was under the rule of death. Every object of value had been

locked away with care for safekeeping, and on the bare walls there

were only the outlines of the pictures that had been taken down.

Chairs from the house, and those lent by the neighbors, were lined up

against the walls from the drawing room to the bedrooms, and the

empty spaces seemed immense and the voices had a ghostly

resonance because the large pieces of furniture had been moved to

one side, except for the concert piano which stood in its corner under a

white sheet. In the middle of the library, on his father’s desk, what had

once been Juvenal Urbino de la Calle was laid out with no coffin, withhis final terror petrified on his face, and with the black cape and

military sword of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. At his side, in

complete mourning, tremulous, hardly moving, but very much in

control of herself, Fermina Daza received condolences with no great

display of feeling until eleven the following morning, when she bade

farewell to her husband from the portico, waving goodbye with a


It had not been easy for her to regain her self-control after she heard

Digna Pardo’s shriek in the patio and found the old man of her life

dying in the mud. Her first reaction was one of hope, because his eyes

were open and shining with a radiant light she had never seen there

before. She prayed to God to give him at least a moment so that he

would not go without knowing how much she had loved him despite all

their doubts, and she felt an irresistible longing to begin life with him

over again so that they could say what they had left unsaid and do

everything right that they had done badly in the past. But she had to

give in to the intransigence of death. Her grief exploded into a blind

rage against the world, even against herself, and that is what filled her

with the control and the courage to face her solitude alone. From that

time on she had no peace, but she was careful about any gesture that

might seem to betray her grief. The only moment of pathos, although

it was involuntary, occurred at eleven o’clock Sunday night when they

brought in the episcopal coffin, still smelling of ship’s wax, with its

copper handles and tufted silk lining. Dr. Urbino Daza ordered it closed

without delay since the air in the house was already rarefied with the

heady fragrance of so many flowers in the sweltering heat, and he

thought he had seen the first purplish shadows on his father’s neck. An

absent-minded voice was heard in the silence: “At that age you’re halfdecayed while you’re still alive.” Before they closed the coffin Fermina

Daza took off her wedding ring and put it on her dead husband’s

finger, and then she covered his hand with hers, as she always did

when she caught him digressing in public.

“We will see each other very soon,” she said to him.

Florentino Ariza, unseen in the crowd of notable personages, felt a

piercing pain in his side. Fermina Daza had not recognized him in the

confusion of the first condolences, although no one would be more

ready to serve or more useful during the night’s urgent business. It

was he who imposed order in the crowded kitchens so that there would

be enough coffee. He found additional chairs when the neighbors’

proved insufficient, and he ordered the extra wreaths to be put in the

patio when there was no more room in the house. He made certain

there was enough brandy for Dr. Lácides Olivella’s guests, who had

heard the bad news at the height of the silver anniversary celebration

and had rushed in to continue the party, sitting in a circle under the

mango tree. He was the only one who knew how to react when the

fugitive parrot appeared in the dining room at midnight with his head

high and his wings spread, which caused a stupefied shudder to run

through the house, for it seemed a sign of repentance. Florentino Ariza

seized him by the neck before he had time to shout any of his witless

stock phrases, and he carried him to the stable in a covered cage. He

did everything this way, with so much discretion and such efficiency

that it did not even occur to anyone that it might be an intrusion in

other people’s affairs;

on the contrary, it seemed a priceless service when evil times had

fallen on the house.

He was what he seemed: a useful and serious old man. His body wasbony and erect, his skin dark and clean-shaven, his eyes avid behind

round spectacles in silver frames, and he wore a romantic,

old-fashioned mustache with waxed tips. He combed the last tufts of

hair at his temples upward and plastered them with brilliantine to the

middle of his shining skull as a solution to total baldness. His natural

gallantry and languid manner were immediately charming, but they

were also considered suspect virtues in a confirmed bachelor. He had

spent a great deal of money, ingenuity, and willpower to disguise the

seventy-six years he had completed in March, and he was convinced in

the solitude of his soul that he had loved in silence for a much longer

time than anyone else in this world ever had.

The night of Dr. Urbino’s death, he was dressed just as he had been

when he first heard the news, which was how he always dressed, even

in the infernal heat of June: a dark suit with a vest, a silk bow tie and

a celluloid collar, a felt hat, and a shiny black umbrella that he also

used a walking stick. But when it began to grow light he left the vigil

for two hours and returned as fresh as the rising sun, carefully shaven

and fragrant with lotions from his dressing table. He had changed into

a black frock coat of the kind worn only for funerals and the offices of

Holy Week, a wing collar with an artist’s bow instead of a tie, and a

bowler hat. He also carried his umbrella, not just out of habit but

because he was certain that it would rain before noon, and he

informed Dr. Urbino Daza of this in case the funeral could be held

earlier. They tried to do so, in fact, because Florentino Ariza belonged

to a shipping family and was himself President of the River Company

of the Caribbean, which allowed one to suppose that he knew

something about predicting the weather. But they could not alter the

arrangements in time with the civil and military authorities, the publicand private corporations, the military band, the School of Fine Arts

orchestra, and the schools and religious fraternities, which were

prepared for eleven o’clock, so the funeral that had been anticipated

as a historic event turned into a rout because of a devastating

downpour. Very few people splashed through the mud to the family

mausoleum, protected by a colonial ceiba tree whose branches spread

over the cemetery wall. On the previous afternoon, under those same

branches but in the section on the other side of the wall reserved for

suicides, the Caribbean refugees had buried Jeremiah de Saint-Amour

with his dog beside him, as he had requested.

Florentino Ariza was one of the few who stayed until the funeral was

over. He was soaked to the skin and returned home terrified that he

would catch pneumonia after so many years of meticulous care and

excessive precautions. He prepared hot lemonade with a shot of

brandy, drank it in bed with two aspirin tablets, and, wrapped in a

wool blanket, sweated by the bucketful until the proper equilibrium

had been reestablished in his body. When he returned to the wake he

felt his vitality completely restored. Fermina Daza had once again

assumed command of the house, which was cleaned and ready to

receive visitors, and on the altar in the library she had placed a

portrait in pastels of her dead husband, with a black border around the

frame. By eight o’clock there were as many people and as intense a

heat as the night before, but after the rosary someone circulated the

request that everyone leave early so that the widow could rest for the

first time since Sunday afternoon.

Fermina Daza said goodbye to most of them at the altar, but she

accompanied the last group of intimate friends to the street door so

that she could lock it herself, as she had always done, as she wasprepared to do with her final breath, when she saw Florentino Ariza,

dressed in mourning and standing in the middle of the deserted

drawing room. She was pleased, because for many years she had

erased him from her life, and this was the first time she saw him

clearly, purified by forgetfulness. But before she could thank him for

the visit, he placed his hat over his heart, tremulous and dignified, and

the abscess that had sustained his life finally burst.

“Fermina,” he said, “I have waited for this opportunity for more than

half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity

and everlasting love.”

Fermina Daza would have thought she was facing a madman if she had

not had reason to believe that at that moment Florentino Ariza was

inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Her first impulse was to curse

him for profaning the house when the body of her husband was still

warm in the grave. But the dignity of her fury held her back. “Get out

of here,” she said. “And don’t show your face again for the years of life

that are left to you.” She opened the street door, which she had begun

to close, and concluded:

“And I hope there are very few of them.”

When she heard his steps fade away in the deserted street she closed

the door very slowly with the crossbar and the locks, and faced her

destiny alone. Until that moment she had never been fully conscious of

the weight and size of the drama that she had provoked when she was

not yet eighteen, and that would pursue her until her death. She wept

for the first time since the afternoon of the disaster, without witnesses,

which was the only way she wept. She wept for the death of her

husband, for her solitude and rage, and when she went into the empty

bedroom she wept for herself because she had rarely slept alone inthat bed since the loss of her virginity. Everything that belonged to her

husband made her weep again: his tasseled slippers, his pajamas

under the pillow, the space of his absence in the dressing table mirror,

his own odor on her skin. A vague thought made her shudder: “The

people one loves should take all their things with them when they die.”

She did not want anyone’s help to get ready for bed, she did not want

to eat anything before she went to sleep. Crushed by grief, she prayed

to God to send her death that night while she slept, and with that hope

she lay down, barefoot but fully dressed, and fell asleep on the spot.

She slept without realizing it, but she knew in her sleep that she was

still alive, and that she had half a bed to spare, that she was lying on

her left side on the left-hand side of the bed as she always did, but

that she missed the weight of the other body on the other side.

Thinking as she slept, she thought that she would never again be able

to sleep this way, and she began to sob in her sleep, and she slept,

sobbing, without changing position on her side of the bed, until long

after the roosters crowed and she was awakened by the despised sun

of the morning without him. Only then did she realize that she had

slept a long time without dying, sobbing in her sleep, and that while

she slept, sobbing, she had thought more about Florentino Ariza than

about her dead husband.

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