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My mother asked me to go with her to sell the house. She had come that morning from the distant town where the family lived, and she had no idea how to find me. She asked around among acquaintances and was told to look for me at the Librería Mundo, or in the nearby cafés, where I went twice a day to talk with my writer friends. The one who told her this warned her: "Be careful, because they're all out of their minds." She arrived at twelve sharp. With her light step she made her way among the tables of books on display, stopped in front of me, looking into my eyes with the mischievous smile of her better days, and before I could react she said:
"I'm your mother."
Something in her had changed, and this kept me from recognizing her at first glance. She was forty-five. Adding up her eleven births, she had spent almost ten years pregnant and at least another ten nursing her children. She had gone gray before her time, her eyes seemed larger and more startled behind her first bifocals, and she wore strict, somber mourning for the death of her mother, but she still preserved the Roman beauty of her wedding portrait, dignified now by an autumnal air. Before anything else, even before she embraced me, she said in her customary, ceremonial way:
"I've come to ask you to please go with me to sell the house."
She did not have to tell me which one, or where, because for us only one existed in the world: my grandparents' old house in Aracataca, where I'd had the good fortune to be born, and where I had not lived again after the age of eight. I had just dropped out of the faculty of law after six semesters devoted almost entirely to reading whatever I could getmy hands on, and reciting from memory the unrepeatable poetry of the Spanish Golden Age. I already had read, in translation, and in borrowed editions, all the books I would have needed to learn the novelist's craft, and had published six stories in newspaper supplements, winning the enthusiasm of my friends and the attention of a few critics. The following month I would turn twenty-three, I had passed the age of military service and was a veteran of two bouts of gonorrhea, and every day I smoked, with no foreboding, sixty cigarettes made from the most barbaric tobacco. I divided my leisure between Barranquilla and Cartagena de Indias, on Colombia's Caribbean coast, living like a king on what I was paid for my daily commentaries in the newpaper El Heraldo, which amounted to almost less than nothing, and sleeping in the best company possible wherever I happened to be at night. As if the uncertainty of my aspirations and the chaos of my life were not enough, a group of inseparable friends and I were preparing to publish without funds a bold magazine that Alfonso Fuenmayor had been planning for the past three years. What more could anyone desire?
For reasons of poverty rather than taste, I anticipated what would be the style in twenty years' time: untrimmed mustache, tousled hair, jeans, flowered shirts, and a pilgrim's sandals. In a darkened movie theater, not knowing I was nearby, a girl I knew told someone: "Poor Gabito is a lost cause." Which meant that when my mother asked me to go with her to sell the house, there was nothing to prevent me from saying I would. She told me she did not have enough money, and out of pride I said I would pay my own expenses.
At the newspaper where I worked, this was impossible to arrange. They paid me three pesos for a daily commentary and four for an editorial when one of the staff writers was out, but it was barely enough to live on. I tried to borrow money, but the manager reminded me that I already owed more than fifty pesos. That afternoon I was guilty of an abuse that none of my friends would have been capable of committing. At the door of the Café Colombia, next to the bookstore, I approached Don Ramón Vinyes, the old Catalan teacher and bookseller, and asked for a loan of ten pesos. He had only six.
Neither my mother nor I, of course, could even have imagined that this simple two-day trip would be so decisive that the longest and most diligent of lives would not be enough for me to finish recounting it. Now, with more than seventy-five years behind me, I know it was the most important of all the decisions I had to make in my career as a writer. That is to say: in my entire life.
Before adolescence, memory is more interested in the future than the past, and so my recollections of the town were not yet idealized by nostalgia. I remembered it as it was: a good place to live where everybody knew everybody else, located on the banks of a river of transparent water that raced over a bed of polished stones as huge and white as prehistoric eggs. At dusk, above all in December, when the rains had ended and the air was like a diamond, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and its white peaks seemed to come right down to the banana plantations on the other side of the river. From there you could see the Arawak Indians moving in lines like ants along the cliffs of the sierra, carrying sacks of ginger on their backs and chewing pellets of coca to make life bearable. As children we dreamed of shaping balls of the perpetual snow and playing war on the parched, burning streets. For the heat was so implausible, in particular at siesta time, that the adults complained as if it were a daily surprise. From the day I was born I had heard it said, over and over again, that the rail lines and camps of the United Fruit Company had been built at night because during the day the sun made the tools too hot to pick up.
The only way to get to Aracataca from Barranquilla was by dilapidated motor launch through a narrow channel excavated by slave labor during colonial times, and then across the ciénaga, a vast swamp of muddy, desolate water, to the mysterious town that was also called Ciénaga. There you took the daily train that had started out as the best in the country and traveled the last stretch of the journey through immense banana plantations, making many pointless stops at hot, dusty villages and deserted stations. This was the trip my mother and I began at seven in the evening on Saturday, February 19, 1950—the eve of Carnival—in an unseasonable rainstorm and with thirty-two pesos that would be just enough to get us home if the house was not sold for the amount she had anticipated.
The trade winds were so fierce that night that I had trouble at the river port convincing my mother to board the boat. She was not being unreasonable. The launches were abbreviated imitations of the steamships out of New Orleans, but with gasoline motors that transmitted the tremors of a high fever to everything on board. There was a small salon that had hooks for hanging hammocks at different levels, and wooden benches where people elbowed their way to a seat with all their baggage, bundles of merchandise, crates of chickens, and even live pigs. There were a few suffocating cabins, each furnished with two army cots, almost always occupied by threadbare little whores who offered emergency services during the crossing. Since by now none of the cabins was free, and we had not brought hammocks, my mother and I took by storm two iron chairs in the central passageway, and there we prepared to spend the night.
Just as she had feared, the squall lashed the reckless ship as we crossed the Magdalena River, which has an oceanic temperament so close to its estuary. In the port I had bought a good supply of the least expensive cigarettes, made of black tobacco and a cheap paper that could have been used to wrap packages, and I began to smoke the way I did in those days, using the butt end of one cigarette to light the next, as I reread Light in August: at the time, William Faulkner was the most faithful of my tutelary demons. My mother clung to her rosary as if it were a capstan that could hoist a tractor or hold a plane in the air, and as always she requested nothing for herself but asked for the prosperity and long life of her eleven orphans. Her prayer must have gone where it was supposed to, because the rain became gentle when we entered the channel and the breeze almost was not strong enough to keep the mosquitoes away. Then my mother put away her rosary and for a long while observed in silence the tumultuous life going on around us.
She had been born to a modest family but grew up in the ephemeral splendor of the banana company, from which she at least had retained her rich girl's good education at the Colegio de la Presentación de la Santísima Vírgen in Santa Marta. During Christmas vacations she would embroider with her friends, play the clavichord at charity bazaars, and, with an aunt as chaperone, attend the purest dances given by the timid local aristocracy, but as far as anyone knew she had no sweetheart until she married the town telegraph operator against her parents' wishes. Since that time her most conspicuous virtues had been a sense of humor and an iron good health that the sneak attacks of adversity would never defeat over the course of her long life. But her most surprising trait, and also since that time the least likely to be suspected, was the exquisite skill with which she hid her tremendous strength of character: a perfect Leo. This had allowed her to establish a matriarchal power whose domain extended to the most distant relatives in the most unexpected places, like a planetary system that she controlled from her kitchen with a subdued voice and almost without blinking, while the pot of beans was simmering.
Seeing her endure that brutal trip with equanimity, I asked myself how she had been able to subordinate the injustices of poverty with so much speed and mastery. That awful night tested her to the limit. The bloodthirsty mosquitoes, the dense heat, the nauseating reek of the channel mud churned up by the launch as it passed, the frantic back-and-forth of sleepless passengers who could find no place to sit in the crush of people—it all seemed intended to unhinge the most even-tempered nature. My mother bore everything, sitting motionless in her chair, while the girls for hire, dressed up as men or as manolas,* reaped the harvest of Carnival in the nearby cabins. One of them had entered and left her cabin, which was right next to my
*The manolo was to Madrid what the cockney was to London mother's chair, several times, and always with a different client. I thought my mother had not seen her. But the fourth or fifth time in less than an hour that the girl went in and came out, she followed her with a pitying eye to the end of the passageway.
"Poor things," she said with a sigh. "What they have to do to live is worse than working."
This is how matters stood until midnight, when the unbearable vibration and the dim lights in the passageway made me tired of reading, and I sat down beside her to smoke, trying to free myself from the quicksands of Yoknapatawpha County. I had left the university the year before with the rash hope that I could earn a living in journalism and literature without any need to learn them, inspired by a sentence I believe I had read in George Bernard Shaw: "From a very early age I've had to interrupt my education to go to school." I was not capable of discussing this with anyone because I felt, though I could not explain why, that my reasons might be valid only to me.
Trying to convince my parents of this kind of lunacy, when they had placed so much hope in me and spent so much money they did not have, was a waste of time. My father in particular would have forgiven me anything except my not hanging on the wall the academic degree he could not have. Our communication was interrupted. Almost a year later I was still planning a visit to explain my reasons to him when my mother appeared and asked me to go with her to sell the house. But she did not mention the subject until after midnight, on the launch, when she sensed as if by divine revelation that she had at last found the opportune moment to tell me what was, beyond any doubt, the real reason for her trip, and she began in the manner and tone and with the precise words that she must have ripened in the solitude of her sleepless nights long before she set out.
"Your papá is very sad," she said.
So there it was, the inferno I feared so much. She began as she always did, when you least expected it, in a soothing voice that nothing could agitate. Only for the sake of the ritual, since I knew very well what the answer would be, I asked:
"And why's that?"
"Because you've left your studies."
"I didn't leave them," I said. "I only changed careers."
The idea of a thorough discussion raised her spirits.
"Your papá says it amounts to the same thing," she said.
Knowing it was false, I told her:
"He stopped studying too, to play the violin."
"That was different," she replied with great vivacity. "He only played the violin at parties and serenades. If he left his studies it was because he didn't have enough money to eat. But in less than a month he learned telegraphy, which was a very good profession back then, above all in Aracataca."
"I earn a living, too, writing for newspapers," I said.
"You say that so as not to mortify me," she said. "But even from a distance anybody can see the state you're in. So bad I didn't even recognize you when I saw you in the bookstore."
"I didn't recognize you either," I told her.
"But not for the same reason," she said. "I thought you were a beggar." She looked at my worn sandals and added: "Not even any socks."
"It's more comfortable," I said. "Two shirts and two pairs of undershorts: you wear one while the other's drying. What else does anyone need?"
"A little dignity," she said. But she softened this at once by saying in a different tone: "I'm telling you this because of how much we love you."
"I know," I said. "But tell me something: wouldn't you do the same thing in my place?"
"I wouldn't," she said, "not if it meant upsetting my parents."
Recalling the tenacity with which she had broken down her family's opposition to her marriage, I said with a laugh:
"I dare you to look me in the eye."
But she was somber as she avoided my glance because she knew all too well what I was thinking.
"I didn't marry until I had my parents' blessing," she said. "Unwilling, I grant you, but I had it."
She interrupted the discussion, not because my arguments had defeated her but because she wanted to use the toilet and did not trust the state of its hygiene. I spoke to the bosun to find out if there was a more sanitary place, but he explained that he himself used the public lavatory. And concluded, as if he had just been reading Conrad: "At sea we are all equal." And so my mother submitted to the law of equality. Contrary to what I had feared, when she came out it was all she could do to control her laughter.
"Can you imagine," she said to me, "what your papá will think if I come back with a social disease?"
Some time after midnight we were delayed for three hours because clumps of anemones growing in the channel slowed down the propellers, the launch ran aground in a thicket of mangroves, and many passengers had to stand on the banks and pull it free with the cords of their hammocks. The heat and mosquitoes became excruciating, but my mother eluded them with her instantaneous and intermittent catnaps, famous in our family, which allowed her to rest without losing the thread of the conversation. When we resumed our journey and a fresh breeze began to blow, she was wide awake.
"In any case," she said with a sigh, "I have to bring your papá some kind of answer."
"Don't worry about it," I said with the same innocence. "In December I'll go myself and explain everything to him."
"That's ten months from now," she said.
"Well, after all, it's too late this year to arrange anything at the university," I told her.
"Do you really promise you'll go?"
"I promise." And for the first time I detected a certain tension in her voice:
"Can I tell your papá that you're going to say yes?"
"No," was my categorical answer. "You can't."
It was clear that she was looking for another way out. But I did not give it to her.
"Then it's better if I tell him the whole truth right away," she said, "so it won't seem like a deception."
"All right," I said with relief. "Tell him."
We stopped there, and someone who did not know her very well would have thought it was over, but I knew this was only a pause so that she could catch her breath. A little while later she was sound asleep. A light wind blew away the mosquitoes and saturated the new air with a fragrance of flowers. Then the launch acquired the grace of a sailboat.
We were in the great swamp, the Ciénaga Grande, another of the myths of my childhood. I had crossed it several times when my grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Ricardo Márquez Mejía—his grandchildren called him Papalelo—took me from Aracataca to Barranquilla to visit my parents. "You shouldn't be afraid of the swamp, but you must respect it," he had told me, speaking of the unpredictable moods of its waters, which could behave like either a pond or an untameable ocean. In the rainy season it was at the mercy of storms that came down from the sierra. From December to April, when the weather was supposed to be calm, the north winds attacked it with so much force that each night was an adventure. My maternal grandmother, Tranquilina Iguarán—Mina—would not risk the crossing except in cases of dire emergency, after a terrifying trip when they'd had to seek shelter and wait until dawn at the mouth of the Riofrío.
That night, to our good fortune, it was a still water. From the windows at the prow, where I went for a breath of air a little before dawn, the lights of the fishing boats floated like stars in the water. There were countless numbers of them, and the invisible fishermen conversed as if they were paying a call, for their voices had a phantasmal resonance within the boundaries of the swamp. As I leaned on the railing, trying to guess at the outline of the sierra, nostalgia's first blow caught me by surprise.
On another night like this, as we were crossing the Ciénaga Grande, Papalelo left me asleep in the cabin and went to the bar. I don't know what time it was when, over the drone of the rusted fan and the clattering metal laths in the cabin, the raucous shouts of a crowd woke me. I could not have been more than five years old and was very frightened, but it soon grew quiet again and I thought it must have been a dream. In the morning, when we were already at the dock in Ciénaga, my grandfather stood shaving with his straight razor, the door open and the mirror hanging from the frame. The memory is exact: he had not yet put on his shirt, but over his undershirt he wore his eternal elastic suspenders, wide and with green stripes. While he shaved he kept talking to a man I could still recognize today at first glance. He had the unmistakable profile of a crow and a sailor's tattoo on his right hand, and he wore several solid gold chains around his neck, and bracelets and bangles, also of gold, on both wrists. I had just gotten dressed and was sitting on the bed, putting on my boots, when the man said to my grandfather:
"Don't doubt it for a second, Colonel. What they wanted to do with you was throw you into the water."
My grandfather smiled and did not stop shaving, and with his typical haughtiness he replied:
"Just as well for them they didn't try."
Only then did I understand the uproar of the previous night, and I was very shaken by the idea that someone would have thrown my grandfather into the swamp.
The recollection of this unexplained episode took me by surprise that dawn when I was going with my mother to sell the house, and was contemplating the sierra snows gleaming blue in the first rays of the sun. A delay in the channels allowed us to see in the full light of day the narrow bar of luminous sand that separates the sea from the swamp, where there were fishing villages with their nets laid out to dry in the sun and thin, grimy children playing soccer with balls made of rags. It was astounding to see on the streets the number of fishermen whose arms were mutilated because they had not thrown their sticks of dynamite in time. As the launch passed by, the children began to dive for the coins the passengers tossed to them.
It was almost seven when we dropped anchor in a pestilential marsh a short distance from the town of Ciénaga. Teams of porters, up to their knees in mud, took us in their arms and carried us to the dock, splashing through wheeling turkey buzzards that fought over the unspeakable filth in the quagmire. We were sitting at the tables in the port, eating an unhurried breakfast of delicious mojarra fish from the swamp and slices of fried green plantain, when my mother resumed the offensive in her personal war.