Chapter One: Rosa the Beautiful — ONE — ROSA THE BEAUTIFUL
Barrabás came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterward, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own. Barrabás arrived on a Holy Thursday. He was in a despicable cage, caked with his own excrement and urine, and had the lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner; but the regal carriage of his head and the size of his frame bespoke the legendary giant he would become. It was a bland, autumnal day that gave no hint of the events that the child would record, which took place during the noon mass in the parish of San Sebastián, with her whole family in attendance. As a sign of mourning, the statues of the saints were shrouded in purple robes that the pious ladies of the congregation unpacked and dusted off once a year from a cupboard in the sacristy. Beneath these funereal sheets the celestial retinue resembled nothing so much as a roomful of furniture awaiting movers, an impression that the candles, the incense, and the soft moans of the organ were powerless to counteract. Terrifying dark bundles loomed where the life-size saints had stood, each with its influenza-pale expression, its elaborate wig woven from the hair of someone long dead, its rubies, pearls, and emeralds of painted glass, and the rich gown of a Florentine aristocrat. The only one whose appearance was enhanced by mourning was the church’s patron saint, Sebastián, for during Holy Week the faithful were spared the sight of that body twisted in the most indecent posture, pierced by arrows, and dripping with blood and tears like a suffering homosexual, whose wounds, kept miraculously fresh by Father Restrepo’s brush, made Clara tremble with disgust.
It was a long week of penitence and fasting, during which there were no card games and no music that might lead to lust or abandon; and within the limits of possibility, the strictest sadness and chastity were observed, even though it was precisely at this time that the forked tail of the devil pricked most insistently at Catholic flesh. The fast consisted of soft puff pastries, delicious vegetarian dishes, spongy tortillas, and enormous cheeses from the countryside, with which each family commemorated the Passion of the Lord, taking every precaution not to touch the least morsel of meat or fish on pain of excommunication, as Father Restrepo had repeatedly made clear. No one had ever dared to disobey him. The priest was blessed with a long, incriminating finger, which he used to point out sinners in public, and a tongue well schooled in arousing emotions.
“There’s the thief who steals from the collection box!” he shouted from the pulpit as he pointed to a gentleman who was busying himself with the lint on his lapel so as not to show his face. “And there’s the shameless hussy who prostitutes herself down by the docks!” he accused Doña Ester Trueba, disabled by arthritis and a devotee of the Virgin del Carmen, who opened her eyes wide, not knowing the meaning of the word or where the docks were. “Repent, sinners, foul carrion, unworthy of our Lord’s great sacrifice! Fast! Do penance!”
Carried away by vocational zeal, the priest did all he could do to avoid openly disobeying the instructions of his ecclesiastic superiors, who, shaken by the winds of modernism, were opposed to hair shirts and flagellation. He himself was a firm believer in the value of a good thrashing to vanquish the weaknesses of the soul and was famous for his unrestrained oratory. The faithful followed him from parish to parish, sweating as he described the torments of the damned in hell, the bodies ripped apart by various ingenious torture apparatuses, the eternal flames, the hooks that pierced the male member, the disgusting reptiles that crept up female orifices, and the myriad other sufferings that he wove into his sermons to strike the fear of God into the hearts of his parishioners. Even Satan was described in his most intimate perversions in the Galician accents of this priest whose mission in this world was to rouse the conscience of his indolent Creole flock.
Severo del Valle was an atheist and a Mason, but he had political ambitions and could not allow himself the luxury of missing the most heavily attended mass on Sundays and feast days, when everyone would have a chance to see him. His wife, Nívea, preferred to deal with God without benefit of intermediaries. She had a deep distrust of cassocks and was bored by descriptions of heaven, purgatory, and hell, but she shared her husband’s parliamentary ambitions, hoping that if he won a seat in Congress she would finally secure the vote for women, for which she had fought for the past ten years, permitting none of her numerous pregnancies to get in her way. On this Holy Thursday, Father Restrepo had led his audience to the limits of their endurance with his apocalyptic visions, and Nívea was beginning to feel dizzy. She wondered if she was pregnant again. Despite cleansings with vinegar and spongings with gall, she had given birth to fifteen children, of whom eleven were still alive, but she had good reason to suppose that she was settling into maturity, because her daughter Clara, the youngest of her children, was now ten. It seemed that the force of her astonishing fertility had finally begun to ebb. She was able to attribute her present discomfort to Father Restrepo when he pointed at her to illustrate a point about the Pharisees, who had tried to legalize bastards and civil marriage, thereby dismembering the family, the fatherland, private property, and the Church, and putting women on an equal footing with men—this in open defiance of the law of God, which was most explicit on the issue. Along with their children, Nívea and Severo took up the entire third row of benches. Clara was seated beside her mother, who squeezed her hand impatiently whenever the priest lingered too long on the sins of the flesh, for she knew that this would only lead the child to visualize with even greater accuracy aberrations that transcended reality. Clara was extremely precocious and had inherited the run-away imagination of all the women in her family on her mother’s side. This was evident from the questions she asked, to which no one knew the answers.
The temperature inside the church had risen, and the penetrating odor of the candles, the incense, and the tightly packed crowd all contributed to Nívea’s fatigue. She wished the ceremony would end at once so she could return to her cool house, sit down among the ferns, and taste the pitcher of barley water flavored with almonds that Nana always made on holidays. She looked around at her children. The younger ones were tired and rigid in their Sunday best, and the older ones were beginning to squirm. Her gaze rested on Rosa, the oldest of her living daughters, and, as always, she was surprised. The girl’s strange beauty had a disturbing quality that even she could not help noticing, for this child of hers seemed to have been made of a different material from the rest of the human race. Even before she was born, Nívea had known she was not of this world, because she had already seen her in dreams. This was why she had not been surprised when the midwife screamed as the child emerged. At birth Rosa was white and smooth, without a wrinkle, like a porcelain doll, with green hair and yellow eyes—the most beautiful creature to be born on earth since the days of original sin, as the midwife put it, making the sign of the cross. From her very first bath, Nana had washed her hair with camomile, which softened its color, giving it the hue of old bronze, and put her out in the sun with nothing on, to strengthen her skin, which was translucent in the most delicate parts of her chest and armpits, where the veins and secret texture of the muscles could be seen. Nana’s gypsy tricks did not suffice, however, and rumors quickly spread that Nívea had borne an angel. Nívea hoped that the successive and unpleasant stages of growth would bring her daughter a few imperfections, but nothing of the sort occurred. On the contrary, at eighteen Rosa was still slender and remained unblemished; her maritime grace had, if anything, increased. The tone of her skin, with its soft bluish lights, and of her hair, as well as her slow movements and silent character, all made one think of some inhabitant of the sea. There was something of the fish to her (if she had had a scaly tail, she would have been a mermaid), but her two legs placed her squarely on the tenuous line between a human being and a creature of myth. Despite everything, the young woman had led a nearly normal life. She had a fiancé and would one day marry, on which occasion the responsibility of her beauty would become her husband’s. Rosa bowed her head and a ray of sunlight pierced the Gothic stained-glass windows of the church, outlining her face in a halo of light. A few people turned to look at her and whispered among themselves, as often happened as she passed, but Rosa seemed oblivious. She was immune to vanity and that day she was more absent than usual, dreaming of new beasts to embroider on her tablecloth, creatures that were half bird and half mammal, covered with iridescent feathers and endowed with horns and hooves, and so fat and with such stubby wings that they defied the laws of biology and aerodynamics. She rarely thought about her fiancé, Esteban Trueba, not because she did not love him but because of her forgetful nature and because two years’ absence is a long time. He was working in the mines in the North. He wrote to her regularly and Rosa sometimes replied, sending him lines of poetry and drawings of flowers she had copied out on sheets of parchment paper. Through this correspondence, which Nívea violated with impunity at regular intervals, she learned about the hazards of a miner’s life, always dreading avalanches, pursuing elusive veins, asking for credit against good luck that was still to come, and trusting that someday he would strike a marvelous seam of gold that would allow him to become a rich man overnight and return to lead Rosa by the arm to the altar, thus becoming the happiest man in the universe, as he always wrote at the end of his letters. Rosa, however, was in no rush to marry and had all but forgotten the only kiss they had exchanged when they said goodbye; nor could she recall the color of her tenacious suitor’s eyes. Because of the romantic novels that were her only reading matter, she liked to picture him in thick-soled boots, his skin tanned from the desert winds, clawing the earth in search of pirates’ treasure, Spanish doubloons, and Incan jewels. It was useless for Nívea to attempt to convince her that the wealth of mines lay in rocks, because to Rosa it was inconceivable that Esteban Trueba would spend years piling up boulders in the hope that by subjecting them to God only knew what wicked incinerating processes, they would eventually spit out a gram of gold. Meanwhile she awaited him without boredom, unperturbed by the enormous task she had taken upon herself: to embroider the largest tablecloth in the world. She had begun with dogs, cats, and butterflies, but soon her imagination had taken over, and her needle had given birth to a whole paradise filled with impossible creatures that took shape beneath her father’s worried eyes. Severo felt that it was time for his daughter to shake off her lethargy, stand firmly in reality, and learn the domestic skills that would prepare her for marriage, but Nívea thought differently. She preferred not to torment her daughter with earthly demands, for she had a premonition that her daughter was a heavenly being, and that she was not destined to last very long in the vulgar traffic of this world. For this reason she left her alone with her embroidery threads and said nothing about Rosa’s nightmarish zoology.
A bone in Nívea’s corset snapped and the point jabbed her in the ribs. She felt she was choking in her blue velvet dress, with its high lace collar, its narrow sleeves, and a waist so tight that when she removed her belt her stomach jumped and twisted for half an hour while her organs fell back in place. She had often discussed this with her suffragette friends and they had all agreed that until women shortened their dresses and their hair and stopped wearing corsets, it made no difference if they studied medicine or had the right to vote, because they would not have the strength to do it, but she herself was not brave enough to be among the first to give up the fashion. She noticed that the voice from Galicia had ceased hammering at her brain. They were in one of those long breaks in the sermon that the priest, a connoisseur of unbearable silences, used with frequency and to great effect. His burning eyes glanced over the parishioners one by one. Nívea dropped Clara’s hand and pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve to blot the drop of sweat that was rolling down her neck. The silence grew thick, and time seemed to stop within the church, but no one dared to cough or shift position, so as not to attract Father Restrepo’s attention. His final sentences were still ringing between the columns.
Just at that moment, as Nívea would recall years later, in the midst of all that anxiety and silence, the voice of little Clara was heard in all its purity.
“Psst! Father Restrepo! If that story about hell is a lie, we’re all fucked, aren’t we.…”
The Jesuit’s index finger, which was already raised to illustrate additional tortures, remained suspended like a lightning rod above his head. People stopped breathing, and those whose heads had been nodding suddenly woke up. Señor and Señora del Valle were the first to react. They were swept by panic as they saw their children fidget nervously. Severo understood that he must act before collective laughter broke out around them or some divine cataclysm occurred. He grabbed his wife by the arm and Clara by the neck and walked out dragging them behind him with enormous strides, followed by his other children, who stampeded toward the door. They managed to escape before the priest could summon a ray of lightning to turn them all into pillars of salt, but from the threshold they could hear his dreadful voice of offended archangel.
“Possessed… She’s possessed by the devil!”
These words of Father Restrepo were etched in the family memory with all the gravity of a diagnosis, and in the years to come they had more than one occasion to recall them. The only one who never thought of them again was Clara herself, who simply wrote them in her diary and forgot them. Her parents, however, could not forget, even though they both agreed that demonic possession was a sin too great for such a tiny child. They were afraid of other people’s curses and Father Restrepo’s fanaticism. Until that day they had never given a name to the eccentricities of their youngest daughter, nor had it ever crossed their minds to ascribe them to satanic influence. Clara’s strangeness was simply an attribute of their youngest daughter, like Luis’s limp or Rosa’s beauty. The child’s mental powers bothered no one and produced no great disorder; they almost always surfaced in matters of minor importance and within the strict confines of their home. It was true there had been times, just as they were about to sit down to dinner and everyone was in the large dining room, seated according to dignity and position, when the saltcellar would suddenly begin to shake and move among the plates and goblets without any visible source of energy or sign of illusionist’s trick. Nívea would pull Clara’s braids and that would be enough to wake her daughter from her mad distraction and return the saltcellar to immobility. The other children had organized a system so that in case of visitors, whoever was closest would reach out and stop whatever might be moving on the table before the guests noticed and were startled. The family continued eating without comment. They had also grown accustomed to the youngest daughter’s prophecies. She would announce earthquakes in advance, which was quite useful in that country of catastrophes, for it gave them a chance to lock up the good dishes and place their slippers within reach in case they had to run out in the middle of the night. At the age of six, Clara had foreseen that the horse was going to throw Luis, but he refused to listen and had had a dislocated hip ever since. In time, his left leg had shortened and he had to wear a special shoe with an enormous platform that he made himself. After that Nívea had worried, but Nana reassured her by telling her that many children fly like birds, guess other people’s dreams, and speak with ghosts, but that they all outgrow it when they lose their innocence.
“None of them reach adulthood like that,” she explained. “Wait till she starts to ‘demonstrate.’ You’ll see how fast she loses interest in making furniture move across the room and predicting disasters!”
Clara was Nana’s pet. She had helped at her birth and was the only one who really understood the child’s eccentricities. When Clara had emerged from her mother’s womb, Nana had cradled and washed her, and from that time on she had felt a desperate love for this fragile creature whose lungs were always full of phlegm, who was always on the verge of losing her breath and turning purple, and whom she had had to revive so many times with the warmth of her huge breasts because she knew that this was the only cure for asthma, much more effective than Dr. Cuevas’s fortified syrups.
On that particular Holy Thursday, Severo was pacing up and down the drawing room worrying about the scandal his daughter had provoked at mass. He reasoned that only a fanatic like Father Restrepo could believe in satanic possession in the heart of the twentieth century, this century of light, science, and technology, a time in which the devil had finally lost his reputation. Nívea interrupted him to say that was not the point. The seriousness of what had happened was that if word of their daughter’s powers reached beyond the walls of the house and the priest began his own investigation, all their neighbors would find out.
“People are going to start lining up to look at her as if she were a monster,” Nívea said.
“And the Liberal Party will go to hell,” Severo added, anticipating the damage to his political career that could be caused by having a bewitched child in the family.
Just then Nana shuffled in with her sandals flapping, in her froufrou of starchy petticoats, to announce that a group of men were out in the courtyard unloading a dead man. And so they were. A four-horse carriage had drawn up outside occupying the whole first courtyard, trampling the camellias, and getting manure all over the shiny cobblestones, all this amidst a whirlwind of dust, a pawing of horses, and the curses of superstitious men who were gesticulating against the evil eye. They had come to deliver the body of Uncle Marcos and all his possessions. A honey-voiced man dressed in black, with a frock coat and a hat that was too big for him, was directing the tumult. He began a solemn speech explaining the circumstances of the case, but was brutally interrupted by Nívea, who threw herself on the dusty coffin that held the remains of her dearest brother. She was shouting for them to lift the cover so she could see him with her own two eyes. She had buried him once before, which explained why she had room for doubt whether this time his death was real. Her shouts brought the servants streaming from the house, as well as all her children, who came as fast as they could when they heard their uncle’s name echoing amidst the cries of mourning.
It had been two years since Clara had last seen her Uncle Marcos, but she remembered him very well. His was the only perfectly clear image she retained from her whole childhood, and in order to describe him she did not need to consult the daguerreotype in the drawing room that showed him dressed as an explorer leaning on an old-fashioned double-barreled rifle with his right foot on the neck of a Malaysian tiger, the same triumphant position in which she had seen the Virgin standing between plaster clouds and pallid angels at the main altar, one foot on the vanquished devil. All Clara had to do to see her uncle was close her eyes and there he was, weather-beaten and thin, with a pirate’s mustache through which his strange, sharklike smile peered out at her. It seemed impossible that he could be inside that long black box that was lying in the middle of the courtyard.
Each time Uncle Marcos had visited his sister Nívea’s home, he had stayed for several months, to the immense joy of his nieces and nephews, particularly Clara, causing a storm in which the sharp lines of domestic order blurred. The house became a clutter of trunks, of animals in jars of formaldehyde, of Indian lances and sailor’s bundles. In every part of the house people kept tripping over his equipment, and all sorts of unfamiliar animals appeared that had traveled from remote lands only to meet their death beneath Nana’s irate broom in the farthest corners of the house. Uncle Marcos’s manners were those of a cannibal, as Severo put it. He spent the whole night making incomprehensible movements in the drawing room; later they turned out to be exercises designed to perfect the mind’s control over the body and to improve digestion. He performed alchemy experiments in the kitchen, filling the house with fetid smoke and ruining pots and pans with solid substances that stuck to their bottoms and were impossible to remove. While the rest of the household tried to sleep, he dragged his suitcases up and down the halls, practiced making strange, high-pitched sounds on savage instruments, and taught Spanish to a parrot whose native language was an Amazonic dialect. During the day, he slept in a hammock that he had strung between two columns in the hall, wearing only a loincloth that put Severo in a terrible mood but that Nívea forgave because Marcos had convinced her that it was the same costume in which Jesus of Nazareth had preached. Clara remembered perfectly, even though she had been only a tiny child, the first time her Uncle Marcos came to the house after one of his voyages. He settled in as if he planned to stay forever. After a short time, bored with having to appear at ladies’ gatherings where the mistress of the house played the piano, with playing cards, and with dodging all his relatives’ pressures to pull himself together and take a job as a clerk in Severo del Valle’s law practice, he bought a barrel organ and took to the streets with the hope of seducing his Cousin Antonieta and entertaining the public in the bargain. The machine was just a rusty box with wheels, but he painted it with seafaring designs and gave it a fake ship’s smokestack. It ended up looking like a coal stove. The organ played either a military march or a waltz, and in between turns of the handle the parrot, who had managed to learn Spanish although he had not lost his foreign accent, would draw a crowd with his piercing shrieks. He also plucked slips of paper from a box with his beak, by way of selling fortunes to the curious. The little pink, green, and blue papers were so clever that they always divulged the exact secret wishes of the customers. Besides fortunes there were little balls of sawdust to amuse the children and a special powder that was supposed to cure impotence, which Marcos sold under his breath to passersby afflicted with that malady. The idea of the organ was a last desperate attempt to win the hand of Cousin Antonieta after more conventional means of courting her had failed. Marcos thought no woman in her right mind could remain impassive before a barrel-organ serenade. He stood beneath her window one evening and played his military march and his waltz just as she was taking tea with a group of female friends. Antonieta did not realize the music was meant for her until the parrot called her by her full name, at which point she appeared in the window. Her reaction was not what her suitor had hoped for. Her friends offered to spread the news to every salon in the city, and the next day people thronged the downtown streets hoping to see Severo del Valle’s brother-in-law playing the organ and selling little sawdust balls with a moth-eaten parrot, for the sheer pleasure of proving that even in the best of families there could be good reason for embarrassment. In the face of this stain to the family reputation, Marcos was forced to give up organ-grinding and resort to less conspicuous ways of winning over his Cousin Antonieta, but he did not renounce his goal. In any case, he did not succeed, because from one day to the next the young lady married a diplomat who was twenty years her senior; he took her to live in a tropical country whose name no one could recall, except that it suggested negritude, bananas, and palm trees, where she managed to recover from the memory of that suitor who had ruined her seventeenth year with his military march and his waltz. Marcos sank into a deep depression that lasted two or three days, at the end of which he announced that he would never marry and that he was embarking on a trip around the world. He sold his organ to a blind man and left the parrot to Clara, but Nana secretly poisoned it with an overdose of cod-liver oil, because no one could stand its lusty glance, its fleas, and its harsh, tuneless hawking of paper fortunes, sawdust balls, and powders for impotence.
That was Marcos’s longest trip. He returned with a shipment of enormous boxes that were piled in the far courtyard, between the chicken coop and the woodshed, until the winter was over. At the first signs of spring he had them transferred to the parade grounds, a huge park where people would gather to watch the soldiers file by on Independence Day, with the goose step they had learned from the Prussians. When the crates were opened, they were found to contain loose bits of wood, metal, and painted cloth. Marcos spent two weeks assembling the contents according to an instruction manual written in English, which he was able to decipher thanks to his invincible imagination and a small dictionary. When the job was finished, it turned out to be a bird of prehistoric dimensions, with the face of a furious eagle, wings that moved, and a propeller on its back. It caused an uproar. The families of the oligarchy forgot all about the barrel organ, and Marcos became the star attraction of the season. People took Sunday outings to see the bird; souvenir vendors and strolling photographers made a fortune. Nonetheless, the public’s interest quickly waned. But then Marcos announced that as soon as the weather cleared he planned to take off in his bird and cross the mountain range. The news spread, making this the most talked-about event of the year. The contraption lay with its stomach on terra firma, heavy and sluggish and looking more like a wounded duck than like one of those newfangled airplanes they were starting to produce in the United States. There was nothing in its appearance to suggest that it could move, much less take flight across the snowy peaks. Journalists and the curious flocked to see it. Marcos smiled his immutable smile before the avalanche of questions and posed for photographers without offering the least technical or scientific explanation of how he hoped to carry out his plan. People came from the provinces to see the sight. Forty years later his great-nephew Nicolás, whom Marcos did not live to see, unearthed the desire to fly that had always existed in the men of his lineage. Nicolás was interested in doing it for commercial reasons, in a gigantic hot-air sausage on which would be printed an advertisement for carbonated drinks. But when Marcos announced his plane trip, no one believed that his contraption could be put to any practical use. The appointed day dawned full of clouds, but so many people had turned out that Marcos did not want to disappoint them. He showed up punctually at the appointed spot and did not once look up at the sky, which was growing darker and darker with thick gray clouds. The astonished crowd filled all the nearby streets, perching on rooftops and the balconies of the nearest houses and squeezing into the park. No political gathering managed to attract so many people until half a century later, when the first Marxist candidate attempted, through strictly democratic channels, to become President. Clara would remember this holiday as long as she lived. People dressed in their spring best, thereby getting a step ahead of the official opening of the season, the men in white linen suits and the ladies in the Italian straw hats that were all the rage that year. Groups of elementary-school children paraded with their teachers, clutching flowers for the hero. Marcos accepted their bouquets and joked that they might as well hold on to them and wait for him to crash, so they could take them directly to his funeral. The bishop himself, accompanied by two incense bearers, appeared to bless the bird without having been asked, and the police band played happy, unpretentious music that pleased everyone. The police, on horseback and carrying lances, had trouble keeping the crowds far enough away from the center of the park, where Marcos waited dressed in mechanic’s overalls, with huge racer’s goggles and an explorer’s helmet. He was also equipped with a compass, a telescope, and several strange maps that he had traced himself based on various theories of Leonardo da Vinci and on the polar knowledge of the Incas. Against all logic, on the second try the bird lifted off without mishap and with a certain elegance, accompanied by the creaking of its skeleton and the roar of its motor. It rose flapping its wings and disappeared into the clouds, to a send-off of applause, whistlings, handkerchiefs, drumrolls, and the sprinkling of holy water. All that remained on earth were the comments of the amazed crowd below and a multitude of experts, who attempted to provide a reasonable explanation of the miracle. Clara continued to stare at the sky long after her uncle had become invisible. She thought she saw him ten minutes later, but it was only a migrating sparrow. After three days the initial euphoria that had accompanied the first airplane flight in the country died down and no one gave the episode another thought, except for Clara, who continued to peer at the horizon.
After a week with no word from the flying uncle, people began to speculate that he had gone so high that he had disappeared into outer space, and the ignorant suggested he would reach the moon. With a mixture of sadness and relief, Severo decided that his brother-in-law and his machine must have fallen into some hidden crevice of the cordillera, where they would never be found. Nívea wept disconsolately and lit candles to San Antonio, patron of lost objects. Severo opposed the idea of having masses said, because he did not believe in them as a way of getting into heaven, much less of returning to earth, and he maintained that masses and religious vows, like the selling of indulgences, images, and scapulars, were a dishonest business. Because of his attitude, Nívea and Nana had the children say the rosary behind their father’s back for nine days. Meanwhile, groups of volunteer explorers and mountain climbers tirelessly searched peaks and passes, combing every accessible stretch of land until they finally returned in triumph to hand the family the mortal remains of the deceased in a sealed black coffin. The intrepid traveler was laid to rest in a grandiose funeral. His death made him a hero and his name was on the front page of all the papers for several days. The same multitude that had gathered to see him off the day he flew away in his bird paraded past his coffin. The entire family wept as befit the occasion, except for Clara, who continued to watch the sky with the patience of an astronomer. One week after he had been buried, Uncle Marcos, a bright smile playing behind his pirate’s mustache, appeared in person in the doorway of Nívea and Severo del Valle’s house. Thanks to the surreptitious prayers of the women and children, as he himself admitted, he was alive and well and in full possession of his faculties, including his sense of humor. Despite the noble lineage of his aerial maps, the flight had been a failure. He had lost his airplane and had to return on foot, but he had not broken any bones and his adventurous spirit was intact. This confirmed the family’s eternal devotion to San Antonio, but was not taken as a warning by future generations, who also tried to fly, although by different means. Legally, however, Marcos was a corpse. Severo del Valle was obliged to use all his legal ingenuity to bring his brother-in-law back to life and the full rights of citizenship. When the coffin was pried open in the presence of the appropriate authorities, it was found to contain a bag of sand. This discovery ruined the reputation, up till then untarnished, of the volunteer explorers and mountain climbers, who from that day on were considered little better than a pack of bandits.
Marcos’s heroic resurrection made everyone forget about his barrel-organ phase. Once again he was a sought-after guest in all the city’s salons and, at least for a while, his name was cleared. Marcos stayed in his sister’s house for several months. One night he left without saying goodbye, leaving behind his trunks, his books, his weapons, his boots, and all his belongings. Severo, and even Nívea herself, breathed a sigh of relief. His visit had gone on too long. But Clara was so upset that she spent a week walking in her sleep and sucking her thumb. The little girl, who was only seven at the time, had learned to read from her uncle’s storybooks and been closer to him than any other member of the family because of her prophesying powers. Marcos maintained that his niece’s gift could be a source of income and a good opportunity for him to cultivate his own clairvoyance. He believed that all human beings possessed this ability, particularly his own family, and that if it did not function well it was simply due to a lack of training. He bought a crystal ball in the Persian bazaar, insisting that it had magic powers and was from the East (although it was later found to be part of a buoy from a fishing boat), set it down on a background of black velvet, and announced that he could tell people’s fortunes, cure the evil eye, and improve the quality of dreams, all for the modest sum of five centavos. His first customers were the maids from around the neighborhood. One of them had been accused of stealing, because her employer had misplaced a valuable ring. The crystal ball revealed the exact location of the object in question: it had rolled beneath a wardrobe. The next day there was a line outside the front door of the house. There were coachmen, storekeepers, and milkmen; later a few municipal employees and distinguished ladies made a discreet appearance, slinking along the side walls of the house to keep from being recognized. The customers were received by Nana, who ushered them into the waiting room and collected their fees. This task kept her busy throughout the day and demanded so much of her time that the family began to complain that all there ever was for dinner was old string beans and jellied quince. Marcos decorated the carriage house with some frayed curtains that had once belonged in the drawing room but that neglect and age had turned to dusty rags. There he and Clara received the customers. The two divines wore tunics “the color of the men of light,” as Marcos called the color yellow. Nana had dyed them with saffron powder, boiling them in pots usually reserved for rice and pasta. In addition to his tunic, Marcos wore a turban around his head and an Egyptian amulet around his neck. He had grown a beard and let his hair grow long and he was thinner than ever before. Marcos and Clara were utterly convincing, especially because the child had no need to look into the crystal ball to guess what her clients wanted to hear. She would whisper in her Uncle Marcos’s ear, and he in turn would transmit the message to the client, along with any improvisations of his own that he thought pertinent. Thus their fame spread, because all those who arrived sad and bedraggled at the consulting room left filled with hope. Unrequited lovers were told how to win over indifferent hearts, and the poor left with foolproof tips on how to place their money at the dog track. Business grew so prosperous that the waiting room was always packed with people, and Nana began to suffer dizzy spells from being on her feet so many hours a day. This time Severo had no need to intervene to put a stop to his brother-in-law’s venture, for both Marcos and Clara, realizing that their unerring guesses could alter the fate of their clients, who always followed their advice to the letter, became frightened and decided that this was a job for swindlers. They abandoned their carriage-house oracle and split the profits, even though the only one who had cared about the material side of things had been Nana.
Of all the del Valle children, Clara was the one with the greatest interest in and stamina for her uncle’s stories. She could repeat each and every one of them. She knew by heart words from several dialects of the Indians, was acquainted with their customs, and could describe the exact way in which they pierced their lips and earlobes with wooden shafts, their initiation rites, the names of the most poisonous snakes, and the appropriate antidotes for each. Her uncle was so eloquent that the child could feel in her own skin the burning sting of snakebites, see reptiles slide across the carpet between the legs of the jacaranda room-divider, and hear the shrieks of macaws behind the drawing-room drapes. She did not hesitate as she recalled Lope de Aguirre’s search for El Dorado, or the unpronounceable names of the flora and fauna her extraordinary uncle had seen; she knew about the lamas who take salt tea with yak lard and she could give detailed descriptions of the opulent women of Tahiti, the rice fields of China, or the white prairies of the North, where the eternal ice kills animals and men who lose their way, turning them to stone in seconds. Marcos had various travel journals in which he recorded his excursions and impressions, as well as a collection of maps and books of stories and fairy tales that he kept in the trunks he stored in the junk room at the far end of the third courtyard. From there they were hauled out to inhabit the dreams of his descendants, until they were mistakenly burned half a century later on an infamous pyre.
Now Marcos had returned from his last journey in a coffin. He had died of a mysterious African plague that had turned him as yellow and wrinkled as a piece of parchment. When he realized he was ill, he set out for home with the hope that his sister’s ministrations and Dr. Cuevas’s knowledge would restore his health and youth, but he was unable to withstand the sixty days on ship and died at the latitude of Guayaquil, ravaged by fever and hallucinating about musky women and hidden treasure. The captain of the ship, an Englishman by the name of Longfellow, was about to throw him overboard wrapped in a flag, but Marcos, despite his savage appearance and his delirium, had made so many friends on board and seduced so many women that the passengers prevented him from doing so, and Longfellow was obliged to store the body side by side with the vegetables of the Chinese cook, to preserve it from the heat and mosquitoes of the tropics until the ship’s carpenter had time to improvise a coffin. At El Callao they obtained a more appropriate container, and several days later the captain, furious at all the troubles this passenger had caused the shipping company and himself personally, unloaded him without a backward glance, surprised that not a soul was there to receive the body or cover the expenses he had incurred. Later he learned that the post office in these latitudes was not as reliable as that of far-off England, and that all his telegrams had vaporized en route. Fortunately for Longfellow, a customs lawyer who was a friend of the del Valle family appeared and offered to take charge, placing Marcos and all his paraphernalia in a freight car, which he shipped to the capital to the only known address of the deceased: his sister’s house.
This would have been one of the most painful moments in Clara’s life if Barrabás had not arrived among her uncle’s things. Unaware of the commotion in the courtyard, she was led by instinct directly to the corner where the cage had been set down. In it was Barrabás. Or, rather, a pile of bones covered with a skin of indefinite color that was full of infected patches, with one eye sealed shut and the other crusted over, rigid as a corpse in his own excrement. Despite his appearance, the child had no trouble in identifying him.
“A puppy!” she cried.
The animal became her responsibility. She removed it from the cage, rocked it in her arms, and with a missionary’s care managed to get water down his parched, swollen throat. No one had bothered to feed him since Captain Longfellow—who, like most Englishmen, was kinder to animals than to people—had dropped him on the pier along with all the other baggage. While the dog had been on board with his dying master, the captain had fed him with his own hand and taken him up on deck, lavishing on him every attention that he had denied Marcos, but once on land he was treated as part of the baggage. Without any competition for the job, Clara became the creature’s mother, and she soon revived him. A few days later, after the storm of the corpse’s arrival had died down and Uncle Marcos had been laid to rest, Severo noticed the hairy animal his daughter was holding in her arms.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Barrabás,” Clara replied.
“Give him to the gardener so he can get rid of him. He might be contagious,” Severo ordered.
But Clara had adopted him. “He’s mine, Papa. If you take him away, I’ll stop breathing and I promise you I’ll die.”
The dog remained in the house. Soon afterward he was running everywhere, devouring drape fringes, Oriental rugs, and all the table legs. He rapidly recovered from his terrible condition and began to grow. After he had had a bath, he was found to be black, with a square head, long legs, and short hair. Nana suggested cutting off his tail to make him more refined, but Clara had a tantrum that degenerated into an asthma attack and no one ever mentioned it again. Barrabás kept his tail, which in time grew to be as long as a golf club and developed a life all its own that led to lamps and china being swept from tabletops. He was of unknown pedigree. He had nothing in common with the stray dogs in the street, much less with the thoroughbred racers that assorted families of the aristocracy were raising. The veterinarian was unable to pinpoint his origin and Clara decided that he was from China, because most of her uncle’s baggage was from that distant land. The dog had a seemingly unlimited capacity for growth. Within six months he was the size of a sheep, and at the end of a year he was as big as a colt. In desperation the family began to question whether he would ever stop growing and whether he really was a dog. They suggested that he might be some exotic animal their uncle had caught in some remote corner of the world and that perhaps in his natural habitat he was wild. Nívea looked at his crocodile claws and his sharp little teeth and her heart leapt at the thought that if in one bite he could snap the head off any grown-up, it would be even easier for him to gobble up one of her children. But Barrabás gave no indication of ferocity. On the contrary, he had all the captivating ways of a frolicsome kitten. He slept by Clara’s side with his head on her feather pillow and a quilt up to his neck because he was very sensitive to cold, and later, when he was too big for the bed, he lay on the floor beside her, his horse’s hoof resting on the child’s hand. He never barked or growled. He was as black and silent as a panther, liked ham and every known type of marmalade, and whenever there was company and the family forgot to lock him up he would steal into the dining room and slink around the table, removing with the greatest delicacy all his favorite dishes, and of course none of the diners dared to interfere. Despite his docility, Barrabás inspired terror. Delivery men fled precipitously whenever he stuck his head out into the street, and once he caused a riot among the women who were lined up waiting to buy milk, startling the dray horse who took off like a shot, scattering milk pails every which way on the pavement. Severo had to pay for all the damage and ordered the dog tied up in the courtyard, but Clara had another fit and the decision was indefinitely postponed. Popular imagination and ignorance with respect to his past lent Barrabás the most mythological characteristics. It was said that he would not stop growing, and that if a butcher’s cruelty had not put an end to his existence, he would have reached the size of a camel. Some people believed him to be a cross between a dog and a mare, and expected him to sprout wings and horns and acquire the sulfuric breath of a dragon, like the beasts Rosa was embroidering on her endless tablecloth. Tired of picking up broken china and hearing rumors of how he turned into a wolf when there was a full moon, Nana applied the same method she had used with the parrot, but the overdose of cod-liver oil did not kill the dog. It simply gave him a four-day case of diarrhea that covered the house from top to bottom and that she herself had to clean.
Those were difficult times. I was about twenty-five then, but I felt as if I had only a little life left ahead of me to build my future and attain the position that I wanted. I worked like a beast and the few times I sat down to rest, not by choice but forced by the tedium of Sunday afternoons, I felt as if I were losing precious moments of my life: each idle minute meant another century away from Rosa. I lived in the mine, in a wooden shack with a zinc roof that I built myself with the help of a few peons. It was just one square room, in which I had arranged all my belongings, with a crude window in each wall so that by day the stifling desert air would have a chance to circulate, and with shutters to keep out the glacial wind that blew at night. My furniture consisted of a chair, a cot, a rough table, a typewriter, and a heavy safe I had hauled across the desert on a mule, in which I kept the miners’ logbooks, a few papers, and a canvas pouch containing the few sparkling pieces of gold that were the only fruit of all my effort. It wasn’t very pleasant, but I was used to discomfort. I had never taken a hot bath, and my childhood memories were of cold, of loneliness, and of a perpetually empty stomach. There I ate, slept, and wrote for two long years, with no greater distraction than the handful of books I read and reread, a stack of old magazines, some English grammars, from which I pieced together the rudiments of that magnificent language, and a box with a key, in which I kept my correspondence with Rosa. I had got into the habit of typing all my letters to her, keeping a copy for myself that I filed along with the few letters I received from her. I ate the same food that was cooked for all the miners, and I had forbidden the drinking of alcoholic beverages within the mine. I kept none in my own house either, because I’ve always held that loneliness and boredom can lead a man to drink. It may have been the memory of my father—open-collared, his tie loosened and stained, his eyes clouded and his breath heavy, glass in hand—that made me a teetotaler. Besides, I don’t hold my liquor well. I get drunk in nothing flat. I discovered this at the age of sixteen and I’ve never forgotten it. My granddaughter once asked me how I managed to live alone for so long far removed from civilization. The truth is I don’t know. But it must have been easier for me than for most people, because I’ve never been particularly sociable; I have few friends and I don’t enjoy parties or festivities. I’m much happier when I’m alone. At that time I had never lived with a woman, so I could hardly miss something I hadn’t grown accustomed to. I wasn’t the type who’s always falling in love—I never have been. I’m the faithful type, though it’s true that all it takes is the shadow of an arm, the curve of a waist, or the crease of a female knee to put ideas into my head even now when I’m so old that I don’t recognize myself when I look in the mirror. I look like a twisted tree. I’m not trying to justify the sins of my youth by saying that I couldn’t control my instincts: nothing of the sort. By that point I was used to having dead-end relationships with easy women, since there was no possibility of any other kind. In my generation we used to distinguish between decent women and all the rest, and we also divided up the decent ones into our own and others’. I had never thought of love until I met Rosa, and romance struck me as dangerous and pointless; if a young girl caught my eye, I didn’t dare approach her, since I was afraid of being rejected and ridiculed. I’ve always been very proud, and because of my pride I’ve suffered more than most.
More than half a century has passed, but I can still remember the exact moment when Rosa the Beautiful entered my life like a distracted angel who stole my soul as she went by. She was with her Nana and another child, probably one of her younger sisters. I think she was wearing a violet dress, but I’m not sure, because I have no eye for women’s clothes and because she was so beautiful that even if she had been wearing an ermine cape all I would have noticed was her face. I don’t generally spend my time thinking about women, but only a fool could have failed to spot that apparition, who caused a stir wherever she went, and tied up traffic, with her incredible green hair, which framed her face like a fantastic hat, her fairy-tale manner, and her special way of moving as if she were flying. She crossed right in front of me without seeing me and floated into the pastry shop on the Plaza de Armas. Dumbstruck, I waited in the street while she bought licorice drops, which she selected one by one, with that tinkling laugh of hers, tossing some into her mouth and handing others to her sister. I wasn’t the only one to stand there hypnotized, for within a few minutes a whole circle of men had formed, their noses pressed against the window. It was then that I reacted. It didn’t cross my mind that since I had no fortune, was no one’s idea of a proper young man, and faced a most uncertain future, I was far from being the ideal suitor for that heavenly girl. I didn’t even know her! But I was bewitched, and I decided then and there that she was the only woman in the world who was worthy to be my wife, and that if I couldn’t have her I would remain a bachelor. I followed her all the way home. I got on the same streetcar and took the seat behind her, unable to take my eyes off her perfect nape, her round neck, and her soft shoulders caressed by the green curls that had escaped from her coiffure. I didn’t feel the motion of the car, because I was in a dream. Suddenly she swept down the aisle and as she passed me her astonishing gold eyes rested for a moment on my own. Part of me must have died. I couldn’t breathe and my pulse stopped in its tracks. When I recovered my composure, I had to leap onto the sidewalk at the risk of breaking all my bones, and run toward the street down which she had already turned. Thanks to a cloud of violet disappearing behind a gate, I learned where she lived. From that day on I stood guard outside her house, pacing up and down the street like an orphaned dog, spying on her, slipping money to the gardener, engaging the maids in conversation, until I finally managed to speak to Nana, and she, God bless her, took pity on me and agreed to be our go-between, conveying my love letters, my flowers, and the innumerable boxes of licorice drops with which I tried to win Rosa’s affection. I also sent her acrostics. I don’t know how to write poetry, but there was a Spanish bookseller with a real genius for rhyme from whom I ordered poems and songs—anything whose raw material was paper and ink. My sister Férula helped me get closer to the del Valle family by uncovering distant links between our ancestors and theirs, and seeking out every opportunity to greet them as they came out of mass. That was how I was finally able to visit Rosa, but the day I entered her house and was within speaking range of her, I couldn’t think of anything to say. I stood there mute, my hat in my hand and my mouth gaping, until her parents, who were well acquainted with such symptoms, came to my rescue. I can’t imagine what Rosa could have seen in me—or why, with time, she came to accept me as her husband. I became her official suitor without having to perform any superhuman tasks because, despite her awesome beauty and her innumerable virtues, Rosa had no other wooers. Her mother explained it to me this way: she said that no one felt strong enough to spend his life protecting her from other men’s desire. Many had circled around her, even fallen head over heels in love with her, but until I came along none had made up his mind. Her beauty struck fear into their hearts and they preferred to admire her from afar, not daring to approach her. That had never occurred to me, to tell you the truth. My problem was that I didn’t have a cent, although I felt capable, through my love, of becoming a rich man. I looked around to find the quickest route within the limits of the honesty in which I had been raised, and I realized that success required godparents, advanced studies, or capital. It wasn’t enough to have a respectable last name. I suppose that if I had had the money to start out with, I would have tried my luck at the gaming tables or the races, but since that was not the case I had to think of a line of work that, while it might entail certain risks, held out the promise of a fortune. Gold and silver mines were the dream of all adventurers: a mine could plunge you into abject poverty, kill you with tuberculosis, or make you a rich man overnight. It was a question of luck. Thanks to the prestige of my mother’s name, I was able to obtain the concession for a mine in the North, for which the bank gave me a loan. I vowed to extract the last gram of precious metal even if it meant I had to crush the hills with my own hands and grind the rocks with my feet. For Rosa’s sake, I was prepared to do that and much more.
At the end of autumn, when the family had calmed down about Father Restrepo, who was forced to mitigate his inquisitional behavior after the bishop had personally warned him to leave little Clara del Valle alone, and when they had all resigned themselves to the fact that Uncle Marcos was truly dead, Severo’s political designs began to take shape. He had worked for years toward this end, so it was a personal triumph when he was invited to be the Liberal Party candidate in the upcoming Congressional elections, representing a southern province that he had never set foot in and that he had difficulty finding on the map. The party badly needed people and Severo was anxious for a seat in Congress, so they had no trouble convincing the downtrodden voters of the South to choose him as their candidate. Their invitation was supported by a monumental rose-colored roast pig, which the voters shipped directly to candidate del Valle’s home. It arrived on an enormous wooden tray, scented and gleaming, with a sprig of parsley in its mouth and a carrot protruding from its rump, the whole reposing on a bed of tomatoes. Its stomach had been stitched closed, and it was stuffed with partridges that in turn were stuffed with plums. It was accompanied by a decanter containing half a gallon of the best brandy in the country. The idea of becoming a deputy or, better still, a senator, was a long-cherished dream of Severo’s. Over the years he had been meticulously laying the groundwork, by means of contacts, friendships, secret meetings, discreet but effective public appearances, and gifts of money or favors made to the right people at the right moment. That southern province, however distant and unknown, was exactly what he had been waiting for.
The pig arrived on a Tuesday. On Friday, when the pig was no more than a heap of skin and bones that Barrabás was gnawing in the courtyard, Clara announced that there would soon be another death in the del Valle family.
“But it will be by mistake,” she added.
On Saturday she slept badly and awoke screaming in the middle of the night. In the morning Nana made her a cup of linden tea but no one paid her much attention, because everyone was busy with the preparations for their father’s southern trip, and because Rosa the Beautiful had developed a chill. Nívea gave orders for Rosa to remain in bed, and Dr. Cuevas said that it was nothing serious and that she should be given sugared lemonade with a splash of liquor to help bring down her fever. Severo went in to see his daughter and found her flushed and wide-eyed, sunk deep in the butter-colored lace sheets. He took her a dance card as a present and gave Nana permission to open the decanter of brandy and pour some in the lemonade. Rosa drank the lemonade, wrapped herself in her woolen shawl, and immediately fell asleep next to Clara, with whom she shared the room.
On the morning of that tragic Sunday, Nana woke up early as she always did. Before going to mass, she went into the kitchen to prepare breakfast for the family. The wood and coal stove had been readied the night before, and she lit the smoldering, still-warm embers. While the water heated and the milk boiled, she stacked the plates to be taken into the dining room. She put some oatmeal on the stove, strained the coffee, and toasted the bread. She arranged two trays, one for Nívea, who always breakfasted in bed, and one for Rosa, who by virtue of her illness was entitled to the same treatment as her mother. She covered Rosa’s tray with a linen napkin that had been embroidered by the nuns, to keep the coffee warm and prevent flies from getting in the food, and stuck her head out in the courtyard to make sure Barrabás was not in sight. He had a penchant for leaping at her whenever she went by with the breakfast tray. She saw him in the corner playing with a hen and took advantage of his momentary distraction to begin her long trip across courtyards and through hallways, from the kitchen, which was in the middle of the house, all the way to the girls’ room, which was on the other side. When she came to Rosa’s door, she stopped, gripped by a premonition. She entered without knocking, as she always did, and immediately noticed the scent of roses, even though they were not in season. This was how Nana understood that an inescapable disaster had occurred. She set the tray down carefully beside the bed and walked slowly to the window. She opened the heavy drapes and let the pale morning sun into the room. Grief-stricken, she turned around and was not at all surprised to see Rosa lying dead upon the bed, more beautiful than ever, her hair strikingly green, her skin the tone of new ivory, and her honey-gold eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling. Little Clara was at the foot of the bed observing her sister. Nana fell to her knees beside the bed, took Rosa’s hand in hers, and began to pray. She prayed for a long time, until the terrible moan of a lost freighter was heard throughout the house. It was the first and last time anyone heard Barrabás’s voice. He mourned the dead girl all that day, fraying the nerves of the whole family and all the neighbors, who came running at the sound of his shipwrecked howls.
After taking one look at Rosa’s body, Dr. Cuevas knew that she had died of no ordinary fever. He began to search the entire house, going over the kitchen inch by inch, sticking his fingers into pots, opening flour sacks and bags of sugar, prying the tops off boxes of dried fruit, and leaving a wake of destruction behind him. He rummaged through Rosa’s drawers, questioned the servants one by one, and harassed Nana until she was beside herself; finally his search led to the decanter of brandy, which he requisitioned instantly. He shared his doubts with no one, but he took the bottle to his laboratory. He returned three hours later, his rosy face transformed by horror into the pale mask he wore throughout that whole dreadful episode. He walked up to Severo, took him by the arm, and led him off to one side.
“There was enough poison in that brandy to fell an ox,” he said between tight lips. “But in order to be sure that that’s what killed the child, I’ll have to do an autopsy.”
“Does that mean you have to cut her open?” Severo moaned.
“Not completely. I won’t have to touch her head, just her digestive tract,” the doctor explained.
Severo was overcome.
By that point Nívea was worn out from weeping, but when she learned that they were thinking of taking her daughter to the morgue, she quickly regained her strength. She calmed down only when they swore that they would take Rosa directly from the house to the Catholic cemetery: only then did she accept the laudanum the doctor handed her. She slept for twenty hours.
When evening fell, Severo made his preparations. He sent his children up to bed and gave the servants permission to retire early. He allowed Clara, who was too upset by what had happened, to spend the night in the bedroom of another sister. When all the lights were out and the house was silent, Dr. Cuevas’s assistant, a sickly, myopic young man with a stutter, arrived. They helped Severo carry his daughter’s body into the kitchen and set it gently down on the slab of marble where Nana kneaded pastry and chopped vegetables. Despite his sturdy character, Severo was overcome when his daughter’s nightgown was lifted to reveal the splendid body of a mermaid. He staggered out of the room, drunk with grief, and collapsed in an armchair, weeping like a child. Dr. Cuevas too, who had seen Rosa come into this world and knew her like the palm of his own hand, was taken aback at the sight of her nude body. The young assistant began to pant, so overwhelmed was he, and he panted for years to come, every time he recalled the extraordinary sight of Rosa naked and asleep on the kitchen table, her long hair sweeping to the floor in a cascade of green.
While they were at work on their terrible task, Nana, bored with weeping and prayer and sensing that something strange was going on in her domain, got up, wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, and set out through the house. She saw a light in the kitchen, but the door and wooden shutters were closed. She continued down the frozen, silent hallways, crossing the three wings of the house, until she came to the drawing room. Through the open door she could see her employer pacing up and down with a desolate air. The fire in the fireplace had long since gone out. She stepped into the room.
“Where is Rosa?” she asked.
“Dr. Cuevas is with her, Nana,” he replied. “Come have a drink with me.”
Nana remained standing, her crossed arms holding her shawl against her chest. Severo pointed to the sofa and she approached shyly. She sat down beside him. It was the first time she had been this close to her employer since she had lived in his house. Severo poured them each a glass of sherry and downed his in a single gulp. He buried his head in his hands, tearing his hair and murmuring a strange litany between his teeth. Nana, who was sitting stiffly on the edge of her seat, relaxed when she saw him cry. She stretched out her rough, chapped hand and, with a gesture that came automatically, smoothed his hair with the same caress she had used to console his children for the past twenty years. He glanced up and when he saw the ageless face, the Indian cheekbones, the black bun, the broad lap against which he had seen all his descendants burped and rocked to sleep, he felt that this woman, as warm and generous as the earth itself, would be able to console him. He leaned his forehead on her skirt, inhaled the sweet scent of her starched apron, and broke into the sobs of a small boy, spilling all the tears he had held in during his life as a man. Nana scratched his back, patted him gently, spoke to him in the half-language that she used to put the littlest ones to sleep, and sang him one of her peasant ballads until he had calmed down. They remained seated side by side, sipping sherry and weeping from time to time as they recalled the happy days when Rosa scampered in the garden startling the butterflies with her beauty that could only have come from the bottom of the sea.
In the kitchen, Dr. Cuevas and his assistant prepared their dread utensils and foul-smelling jars, donned rubber aprons, rolled up their sleeves, and proceeded to poke around in Rosa’s most intimate parts until they had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the girl had swallowed an extraordinary quantity of rat poison.
“This was meant for Severo,” the doctor concluded, washing his hands in the sink.
The assistant, overcome by the young girl’s beauty, could not resign himself to leaving her sewn up like a jacket and suggested that they fix her up a bit. Both men plunged into the work of preserving her with unguents and filling her with mortician’s paste. They worked until four o’clock in the morning, when Dr. Cuevas announced that he was too tired and too sad to continue. He went out of the room and Rosa was left in the hands of the assistant, who wiped the bloodstains from her skin with a sponge, put her embroidered nightgown back over her chest to cover up the seam that ran from her throat all the way to her sex, and arranged her hair. Then he cleaned up the mess that he and the doctor had made.
Dr. Cuevas walked into the living room and found Severo and Nana half drunk with tears and sherry.
“She’s ready,” he said. “We’ve fixed her up a little so her mother can go in and have a look at her.”
He told Severo that his doubts had been well founded and that in his daughter’s stomach he had found the same lethal substance as in the gift of brandy. It was then that Severo recalled Clara’s prediction and lost whatever remained of his composure, for he was incapable of thinking that his daughter had died instead of him. He crumpled to the floor, moaning that he was the guilty one because of his ambition and bluster, that no one had told him to get involved in politics, that he had been much better off as an ordinary lawyer and family man, and that from then on he was renouncing his accursed candidacy, resigning from the Liberal Party and from all his public deeds and works, and that he hoped none of his descendants would ever get mixed up in politics, which was a trade for butchers and bandits—till finally Dr. Cuevas took pity on him and did him the favor of getting him drunk. The sherry was stronger than his suffering and guilt. Nana and the doctor carried him up to his bedroom, removed his clothes, and put him in his bed. Then they went into the kitchen, where the assistant was just putting the final touches on Rosa.
Nívea and Severo del Valle woke up late the following morning. Their relatives had hung the house in mourning. The curtains were drawn and bore black crepe ribbons, and the walls were piled with wreaths of flowers whose sickly sweet odor filled the halls. A funeral chapel had been set up in the dining room. There on the big table, covered with a black cloth with gold fringes, lay Rosa’s white coffin with its silver rivets. Twelve yellow candles in bronze candelabras cast a dusky light over the girl. They had dressed her in the white gown and crown of wax orange blossoms that were being saved for her wedding day.
At twelve o’clock the parade of friends, relatives, and acquaintances began to file in to express their sympathy to the family. Even their most confirmed enemies appeared at the house, and Severo del Valle interrogated each pair of eyes in the hope of discovering the identity of the assassin; but in each, even those of the president of the Conservative Party, he saw the same innocence and grief.
During the wake, the men wandered through the sitting rooms and hallways of the house, speaking softly of business. They kept a respectful silence whenever any member of the family approached. When the time came to enter the dining room and pay their last respects to Rosa, everyone trembled, for if anything her beauty had grown more remarkable in death. The ladies moved into the living room, where they arranged the chairs in a circle. There they could weep at leisure, unburdening themselves of their own troubles as they wept for someone else’s death. The weeping was copious, but it was dignified and muted. Some of the women murmured prayers under their breath. The maids moved back and forth through the sitting rooms and halls, distributing tea and cognac, homemade sweets, handkerchiefs for the women, and cold compresses soaked in ammonia for those ladies who felt faint from the lack of air, the scent of candles, and the weight of their emotion. All the del Valle sisters except Clara, who was still only a child, were dressed in black from head to toe and flanked their mother like a row of crows. Nívea, who had shed all her tears, sat rigid on her chair without a sigh, without a word, and without ammonia, to which she was allergic. As they arrived at the house, visitors stopped in to pay her their condolences. Some kissed her on both cheeks and others held her tight for a few seconds, but she seemed not to recognize even those she numbered among her closest friends. She had seen others of her children die in early childhood or at birth, but none had caused the sense of loss that she felt now.
All the brothers and sisters said goodbye to Rosa with a kiss on her cold forehead except for Clara, who refused to go anywhere near the dining room. They did not insist, because of both her extreme sensitivity and her tendency to sleepwalk whenever her imagination ran away with her. She stayed by herself in the garden curled up beside Barrabás, refusing to eat or have anything to do with the funeral. Only Nana kept an eye on her and tried to comfort her, but Clara pushed her away.
Despite the care Severo took to hush all speculation, Rosa’s death became a public scandal. To anyone who listened, Dr. Cuevas offered the most logical explanation of her death, which was due, he said, to galloping pneumonia. But rumor had it that she had mistakenly been poisoned in her father’s stead. In those days political assassinations were unknown in the country, and in any case poison was a method only whores and fishwives would resort to, a lowly technique that had not been seen since colonial times; even crimes of passion were nowadays resolved face to face. There was a great uproar over the attempt on his life, and before Severo could do anything to stop it, an announcement appeared in the opposition paper in which veiled accusations were made against the oligarchy and it was asserted that the conservatives were even capable of this act, because they could not forgive Severo del Valle for throwing his lot in with the liberals despite his social class. The police tried to pursue the clue of the brandy decanter, but all they were able to learn was that its source was not the same as that of the roast pig stuffed with partridges and plums and that the voters of the South had nothing to do with the whole matter. The mysterious decanter had been found outside the service door to the del Valle house on the same day and at the same time that the roast pig was delivered. The cook had simply assumed that it was part of the same gift. Neither the zeal of the police nor Severo’s own investigation, which was carried out with the help of a private detective he engaged, shed any light on the identity of the assassin, and the shadow of suspended vengeance has continued to hang over succeeding generations. It was the first of many acts of violence that marked the fate of the del Valle family.
I remember perfectly. It had been a very happy day for me, because a new lode had appeared, the thick, magnificent seam that had eluded me throughout that time of sacrifice, absence, and hope, and that might represent the wealth I had been seeking for so long. I was sure that within six months I would have enough money to get married, and that by the time the year was out I would be able to call myself a wealthy man. I was very lucky, because in the mines there were more men who lost the little that they had than those who made a fortune, which is just what I was writing to Rosa that evening as I sat there so euphoric and so impatient that my fingers locked on the old typewriter and all the words came out jammed together. I was in the middle of the letter when I heard the pounding at the door that would cut off my inspiration forever. It was a peasant, with a team of mules, who had brought a telegram from town, sent by my sister Férula, telling me of Rosa’s death.
I had to read the scrap of paper three times through before I understood the extent of my grief. The only thought that had never crossed my mind was that Rosa could be mortal. I suffered greatly whenever it occurred to me that, bored with waiting for me, she might marry someone else, or that the cursed vein that would spell my fortune might never turn up, or that the mine might cave in, squashing me like a cockroach. I had thought of all these possibilities and more, but never that of Rosa’s death, despite my proverbial pessimism, which always leads me to expect the worst. I felt that without Rosa life no longer had any meaning. All the air went out of me as if I were a punctured balloon; all my enthusiasm vanished. God only knows how long I sat there in my chair, staring out the window at the desert, until my soul gradually returned to my body. My first reaction was one of rage. I turned against the walls, pounding the flimsy wooden planks until my knuckles bled. Then I tore all of Rosa’s letters and drawings and the copies of my letters to her into a thousand pieces, stuffed my clothing, my papers, and my canvas pouch filled with gold into my suitcase, and went to find the foreman so I could leave him the logbooks and the keys to the warehouse. The mule driver offered to take me to the train. We had to travel almost the whole night on the animals’ backs, with thin Spanish blankets as our only shield against the freezing mist, advancing at a snail’s pace through that endless wasteland in which only the instinct of my guide guaranteed our safe arrival, for there were no points of reference. The night was clear and full of stars. I felt the cold pierce my bones, cut off the circulation in my hands, and seep into my soul. I was thinking of Rosa and wishing with an unreasoning violence that her death wasn’t true, desperately begging the heavens for it all to turn out to be a terrible mistake, and praying that, revived by the force of my love, she would rise like Lazarus from her deathbed. I wept inwardly, sunk in my grief and in the icy night, cursing at the mule who was so slow, at Férula, the bearer of bad news, at Rosa herself for having died, and at God for having let her, until light appeared over the horizon and I saw the star fade away and the first shades of dawn appear, dyeing the landscape red and orange. With the light, I regained some of my strength. I began to resign myself to my misfortune and to ask no longer that she be resurrected but simply that I would arrive in time to see her one last time before they buried her. We doubled our pace and an hour later the driver took leave of me outside the tiny train station where I caught the narrow-gauge locomotive that linked the civilized world and the desert where I had spent two years.
I traveled more than thirty hours without stopping to eat, not even noticing my thirst, and I managed to reach the del Valle home before the funeral. They say that I arrived covered with dust, without a hat, filthy and bearded, thirsty and furious, shouting for my bride. Little Clara, who at the time was just a skinny child, came out to meet me when I stepped into the courtyard, took me by the hand, and drew me silently toward the dining room. There was Rosa in the folds of the white satin lining of her white coffin, still intact three days after she had died, and a thousand times more beautiful than I remembered her, for in death Rosa had been subtly transformed into the mermaid she had always been in secret.
“Damn her! She slipped through my hands!” they say I shouted, falling to my knees beside her, scandalizing all the relatives, for no one could comprehend my frustration at having spent two years scratching the earth to make my fortune with no other goal than that of one day leading this girl to the altar, and death had stolen her away from me.
Moments later the carriage arrived, an enormous black, shiny coach drawn by six plumed chargers, as was used on those occasions, and driven by two coachmen in livery. It pulled away from the house in the middle of the afternoon beneath a light drizzle, followed by a procession of cars that carried family and friends and all the flowers. It was the custom then for women and children not to attend funerals, which were considered a male province, but at the last minute Clara managed to slip into the cortège to accompany her sister Rosa, and I felt the grip of her small gloved hand. She stayed by my side all along the way, a small, silent shadow who aroused an unknown tenderness in my soul. At that moment I hadn’t been told that she hadn’t spoken in two days; and three more were to pass before the family became alarmed by her silence.
Severo del Valle and his oldest sons bore Rosa’s white coffin with the silver rivets, and they themselves laid it down in the open niche in the family tomb. They were dressed in black, silent and dry-eyed, as befits the norms of sadness in a country accustomed to the dignity of grief. After the gates to the mausoleum had been locked and the family, friends, and gravediggers had retired, I was left alone among the flowers that had escaped Barrabás’s hunger and accompanied Rosa to the cemetery. Tall and thin as I was then, before Férula’s curse came true and I began to shrink, I must have looked like some dark winter bird with the bottom of my jacket dancing in the wind. The sky was gray and it looked as if it might rain. I suppose it must have been quite cold, but I didn’t feel it, because my rage was eating me alive. I couldn’t take my eyes off the small marble rectangle where the name of Rosa the Beautiful had been engraved in tall Gothic letters, along with the dates that marked her brief sojourn in this world. I thought about how I had lost two years dreaming of Rosa, working for Rosa, writing to Rosa, wanting Rosa, and how in the end I wouldn’t even have the consolation of being buried by her side. I thought about the years I still had left to live and decided that without her it wasn’t worth it, for I would never find another woman with her green hair and underwater beauty. If anyone had told me then that I would live to be more than ninety, I would have put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger.
I didn’t hear the footsteps of the caretaker as he approached me from behind; I jumped when he touched me on the shoulder.
“How dare you put your hands on me!” I roared.
The poor man jumped back in fright. A few drops of rain fell sadly on the flowers of the dead.
“Forgive me, señor,” I think he must have said. “It’s six o’clock and I have to lock up.”
He tried to explain to me that the rules forbade anyone but employees from staying in the place after sundown, but I didn’t let him finish. I thrust a few bills in his hand and pushed him away so he would leave me in peace. I saw him walk away looking back at me over his shoulder. He must have thought I was a madman, one of those crazed necrophiliacs who sometimes haunt cemeteries.
It was a long night, perhaps the longest in my life. I spent it sitting next to Rosa’s tomb, speaking with her, accompanying her on the first part of her journey to the Hereafter, which is when it’s hardest to detach yourself from earth and you need the love of those who have remained behind, so you can leave with at least the consolation of having planted something in someone else’s heart. I remembered her perfect face and cursed my luck. I blamed Rosa for the years I had spent dreaming of her deep within the mine. I didn’t tell her that I hadn’t seen any other women all that time except for a handful of shriveled old prostitutes, who serviced the whole camp with more good will than ability. But I did tell her that I had lived among rough, lawless men, that I had eaten chickpeas and drunk green water far from civilization, thinking of her night and day and bearing her image in my soul like a banner that gave me the strength to keep hacking at the mountain even if the lode was lost, even if I was sick to my stomach the whole year round, even if I was frozen to the bone at night and dazed by the sun during the day, all with the single goal of marrying her, but she goes and dies on me, betraying me before I can fulfill my dreams, and leaving me with this incurable despair. I told her she had mocked me, that we had never been completely alone together, that I had only been able to kiss her once. I had had to weave my love out of memories and cravings that were impossible to satisfy, out of letters that took forever to arrive and arrived faded, and that were incapable of reflecting the intensity of my feelings or the pain of her absence, because I have no gift for letter writing and much less for writing about my own emotions. I told her that those years in the mine were an irremediable loss, and that if I had known she wasn’t long for this world I would have stolen the money that I needed to marry her and built her a palace studded with treasures from the ocean floor—with pearls and coral and walls of nacre. I would have kidnapped her and locked her up, and only I would have had the key. I would have loved her without interruption almost till infinity, for I was convinced that if she had been with me she would never have drunk the poison that was meant for her father and she would have lived a thousand years. I told her of the caresses I’d saved for her, the presents with which I’d planned to surprise her, the ways I would have loved her and made her happy. In short, I told her all the crazy things I never would have said if she could hear me and that I’ve never told a woman since.
That night I thought I had lost my ability to fall in love forever, that I would never laugh again or pursue an illusion. But never is a long time. I’ve learned that much in my long life.
I had a vision of anger spreading through me like a malignant tumor, sullying the best hours of my life and rendering me incapable of tenderness or mercy. But beyond confusion and rage, the strongest feeling I remember having that night was frustrated desire, because I would never be able to satisfy my need to run my hands over Rosa’s body, to penetrate her secrets, to release the green fountain of her hair and plunge into its deepest waters. In desperation I summoned up the last image I had of her, outlined against the satin pleats in her virginal coffin, with her bride’s blossoms in her hair and a rosary in her hands. I couldn’t know that years later I would see her once again for a fleeting second just as she was then, with orange blossoms in her hair and a rosary in her hands.
With the first glints of dawn the caretaker appeared again. He must have felt sorry for the half-frozen madman who had spent the night among the livid ghosts of the graveyard. He held out his flask.
“Hot tea,” he offered.
But I pushed it away and walked out with great furious strides, cursing, among the lines of tombs and cypresses.
The night that Dr. Cuevas and his assistant cut open Rosa’s corpse in the kitchen to establish the cause of her death, Clara lay in bed with her eyes wide open, trembling in the dark. She was terrified that Rosa had died because she had said she would. She believed that just as the power of her mind could move the saltcellar on the table, she could also produce deaths, earthquakes, and other, even worse catastrophes. In vain her mother had explained that she could not bring about events, only see them somewhat in advance. She felt lonely and guilty, and it occurred to her that if only she could be with Rosa she would feel much happier. She got up in her nightshirt and walked barefoot to the bedroom she had shared with her older sister, but she was not in the bed where she had seen her for the last time. She went out to look for her. The house was dark and quiet. Her mother, drugged by Dr. Cuevas, was asleep, and her brothers and sisters and the servants were already in their rooms. She went through the sitting rooms, slipping along the walls, frightened and cold. The heavy furniture, the thick drapes, the paintings on the wall, the wallpaper with its flowers against a background of dark cloth, the low lamps flickering on the ceiling, and the potted ferns on their porcelain columns all looked menacing to her. She noticed a crack of light coming from under the drawing-room door, and she was on the verge of going in, but she was afraid she would run into her father and that he would send her back to bed. So she went toward the kitchen, thinking to comfort herself against Nana’s breasts. She crossed the main courtyard, passed between the camellias and the miniature orange trees, went through the sitting rooms of the second wing of the house and the dark open corridors, where the faint gas lights were left burning every night in case there was an earthquake and to scare the bats away, and arrived in the third courtyard, where the service rooms and kitchen were. There the house lost its aristocratic bearing and the kennels, chicken coops, and servants’ quarters began. Farther on was the stable where the old horses Nívea still rode were kept, even though Severo del Valle had been one of the first to buy an automobile. The kitchen door and shutters were closed, and so was the pantry. Instinct told Clara that something out of the ordinary was going on inside. She tried to see in but her nose didn’t reach the window ledge. She had to fetch a wooden box and pull it to the window. She stood on tiptoe and looked through a crack between the wooden shutter and the window frame, which was warped with damp and age. Then she saw inside.
Dr. Cuevas, that kind, sweet, wonderful old man with the thick beard and ample paunch, who had helped her into this world and attended her through all the usual childhood illnesses and all her asthma attacks, had been transformed into a dark, fat vampire just like the ones in her Uncle Marcos’s books. He was bent over the table where Nana prepared her meals. Next to him was a young man she had never seen before, pale as the moon, his shirt stained with blood and his eyes drunk with love. She saw her sister’s snow-white legs and naked feet. Clara began to shake. At that moment Dr. Cuevas moved aside and she was able to see the dreadful spectacle of Rosa lying on her back on the marble slab, a deep gash forming a canal down the front of her body, with her intestines beside her on the salad platter. Rosa’s head was twisted toward the window through which Clara was squinting, and her long green hair hung like a fern from the table onto the tiled floor, which was stained with blood. Her eyes were closed, but the little girl, because of the shadows, her own distance, and her imagination, thought she saw a supplicating and humiliated expression on her sister’s face.
Stock-still on her wooden box, Clara could not keep from watching until the very end. She peered through the crack for a long time, until the two men had finished emptying Rosa out, injecting her veins with liquid, and bathing her inside and out with aromatic vinegar and essence of lavender. She stood there until they had filled her with mortician’s paste and sewn her up with a curved upholsterer’s needle. She stayed until Dr. Cuevas rinsed his hands in the sink and dried his tears, while the other one cleaned up the blood and the viscera. She stayed until the doctor left, putting on his black jacket with a gesture of infinite sadness. She stayed until the young man she had never seen before kissed Rosa on the lips, the neck, the breasts, and between the legs; until he wiped her with a sponge, dressed her in her embroidered nightgown, and, panting, rearranged her hair. She stayed until Nana and Dr. Cuevas came and dressed Rosa in her white gown and put on her hair the crown of orange blossoms that they’d kept wrapped in tissue paper for her wedding day. She stayed until the assistant took her in his arms with the same tenderness with which he would have picked her up and carried her across the threshold of his house if she had been his bride. She could not move until the first lights of dawn appeared. Only then did she slide back into her bed, feeling within her the silence of the entire world. Silence filled her utterly. She did not speak again until nine years later, when she opened her mouth to announce that she was planning to be married.