Love in the Time
Señora de Olivella, horror-struck by the devastating heat, went through the house pleading with the men to take off their jackets during 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 he gemony. 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 would be 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 such dreadful 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 request itself, 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 she decided 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 eye glasses 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 of his 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, placed one 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 the entire 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 suspenders.
“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 last breath:
“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 still located, and for many years he was a patron of the Poetic Festival in April.
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 intermissions.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino never accepted the public positions that were offered to him with frequency and without conditions, and he was a pitiless 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 name s 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 reno wned 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 a second 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, with his 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 handkerchief.
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 half decayed 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.