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Serenade: How my father won my mother

. (The New Yorker, 2001). Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (The New Yorker, Feb. 19/26, 2001).

My mother became a woman in a godforsaken hellhole. She had spent an uncertain childhood plagued by malarial fevers, but, once cured, she was cured completely and forever, and with her health as strong as reinforced concrete she was able to celebrate her ninety-fifth birthday with eleven of her own children, and four of her husband's, and sixty-six grandchildren, seventy-three great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren. Not counting the ones nobody ever knew about.

Her name was Luisa Santiaga, and she was the third daughter of Colonel Nicolas Marquez Mejfa and his wife (and first cousin) Tranquilina Iguaran Cotes, whom we called Mina. Luisa Santiaga was born in Barrancas, in Colombia, on the banks of the Rancherfa River, on July 25,1905, when the family was recovering from the disaster of the civil wars, and two years after the Colonel, her father, had killed Medardo pacheco in a duel over a point of honor. Luisa, her first name, was in memory of her paternal grandmother, Luisa Mejia Vidal, who had died the month before her birth. Santiaga, her second name, was in honor of the apostle Santiago el Mayor, St. James the Greater, who was decapitated in Jerusalem. She kept the second name a secret, because it seemed masculine and ostentatious, until a faithless son revealed it in a novel.

Luisa Santiaga had the education typical of a well-bred Catholic girl, brought up by a family of happy sinners. Educated at the Colegio de la presentacion, in Santa Marta, she was a diligent student in all areas, except the music lessons imposed on her by a mother who couldn't conceive of a respectable senorita who was not an accomplished pianist. For three years, an obedient Luisa Santiaga attended her lessons, and then one day, overcome by the tedium of practicing every afternoon in the sultry heat of siesta time, she abandoned them. Nevertheless, the only virtue that would be of any use to her, in all of her twenty years, was the strength of her character when her family discovered she was madly in love with a young, proud telegraph op-erator from Aracataca. Her family had moved to Aracataca after the killing of Medardo pacheco.

The history of their forbidden love was one of the wonders of my youth. Having heard that history told so many times by my parents sometimes by both of them together, sometimes by each one alone it was almost intact in my mind when, at the age of twenty-three, I wrote my first novel, Leaf Storm, though I knew I still had much to learn about the art of writing novels. They were both excellent storytellers, happy in their recollections of their love, but they were also so impassioned in their accounts that when I was past fifty and had decided at last to use their story in Love in the Time of Cholera, I couldn't distinguish between life and poetry.

According to my mother's version, the two of them met at a wake for a child. She was singing in the courtyard with her friends, following the popular custom of singing love songs to pass the time through the nine nights of mourning for innocents. Out of nowhere, a man's voice joined the choir. All the girls turned to look at the man who was singing and were stunned by his good looks. He is the one we're going to marry, they chanted, and clapped their hands in unison. He did not, however, impress my mother. He was, she said, just another stranger. And he was. His name was Gabriel Eligio Garcia, and after having abandoned his medical and pharmaceutical studies in Cartagena de Indias, owing to a lack of funds, he'd found work in some of the nearby towns in the more mundane profession of telegraph operator. A photograph from that time shows him distinguished by the equivocal bearing of impoverished gentility. He wore a suit of dark taffeta, with a four-button jacket, very close-fitting, in the style of the day, and a high, stiff collar, wide tie, and flat-brimmed straw hat. He also wore fashionable round spectacles with thin wire frames. He had a reputation as a hard-living, womanizing bohemian, but he never had a cigarette or a glass of alcohol in his long life.

Although it was the first time my mother saw him, he had seen her the previous Sunday at eight o'clock Mass, guarded by her Aunt Francisca Simodosea Mejia. He had seen them again the following Tuesday, sewing beneath the almond trees near the front door to the family house. By the night of the wake, he had learned she was the daughter of Colonel Nicolas Marquez, to whom he was already bearing letters of introduction. After that night, she learned he was a bachelor, with a facility for falling in love, whose immediate local success arose from an inexhaustible gift for conversation, an ease in writing verse, a grace on the dance floor, and a predisposition for playing the violin with a sentimental flair. My mother told me that when you heard his playing in the small hours of the morning you felt an irresistible urge to weep. His calling card was After the Ball, a waltz of consummate romanticism that was an invariable feature of his serenades. These heartwarming talents, and his powerful charm, opened the doors of the Colonel's house and earned Gabriel Eligio a regular place at family lunches. Aunt Francisca adopted him without reservation when she learned that he had been born in Since, a town near her birthplace. At these gatherings, he entertained my mother with his proficiency in the arts of seduction, but it never occurred to her that such displays had any significance. On the contrary, their friendly relations were understood to be a pretense, meant to hide the secret love between him and a classmate of hers, and my mother even agreed to act as a godparent at their future wedding. (He took to calling her godmother and she called him godson.) It is easy, then, to imagine the extent of Luisa Santiaga's surprise when, one night at a dance, the bold telegraph operator took the flower from his buttonhole and handed it to her, saying, I give you my life in this rose.

There was, he told me many times, nothing spontaneous about the gesture; by then, after meeting many girls, he'd reached the conclusion that Luisa Santiaga was the one for him. She interpreted the rose as nothing more than one of the playful gallantries he used with her friends. In fact, at the end of the dance that evening she left the flower behind. And yet, while she'd had one secret suitor, a good friend and luckless poet whose ardent verses never succeeded in touching her heart, this rose disturbed her sleep and filled her with an inexplicable fury. In our first formal conversation about their love, when she already had a good number of children, she confessed, I couldn't sleep because I was angry thinking about him, but the fact that I was thinking about him made me even angrier, and the angrier I became the more I thought about him. For the rest of the week it was all she could do to endure the terror that she might see him and the torment that she might not. One afternoon, Aunt Francisca teased her with mischievous guile, as the two of them were sewing beneath the almond trees. They say somebody gave you a rose.

Luisa Santiaga was the last to know that the torments of her heart were already common knowledge.

In the numerous conversations I had with her and my father, together and separately, they agreed that their fulminating love had three decisive moments. The first was on a palm Sunday during High Mass. Luisa Santiaga was sitting with Aunt Francisca on a bench on the side of the Epistolary, when she recognized the sound of my father's flamenco heels clicking on the tiles of the floor, and he then passed so close to her that she felt the warm gust of a sentimental cologne. Aunt Francisca appeared not to have seen him, and he appeared not to have seen them. But the truth was that it had been premeditated, and he had been following them since they walked past the telegraph office. He stood beside the column closest to the door, so that he could see Luisa Santiaga from the back but she couldn't see him. After a few intense minutes, she could not bear the suspense and looked over her shoulder. Then she thought she would die of rage: there he was, looking at her, and their eyes met. It was exactly what I had planned, my father would say with pleasure when he repeated the story to me in his old age. My mother, on the other hand, never tired of saying that for three days she could not control her fury at falling into the trap.

The second moment was a letter he wrote to her. It was not the kind of letter she might have expected from a poet who played furtive serenades on his violin at dawn, but an imperious note demanding a reply before he travelled to Santa Marta the following week. She didn't answer it. She locked herself in her room, determined to kill this worm of love that was not leaving her enough air to breathe, until Aunt Francisca tried to convince her to give in before it was too late. Aunt Francisca told her the exemplary tale of Juventino Trillo, a suitor who stood guard every night, from seven o'clock until ten, under the balcony of his beloved, while every night she appeared above, hurling at him every insult she could think of, including a chamber-pot of urine, which, night after night, she emptied upon his head; Juventino would not be driven away, and after countless baptismal assaults she was moved by his self-sacrifice and invincible love and married him. The story of my parents did not reach those extremes.

The third moment was a grand wedding to which the two of them had been invited as patrons of honor. Luisa Santiaga could make no excuses the event was too important to her family. Gabriel Eligio had understood this and attended the celebration in the belief that anything could happen. When Luisa Santiaga saw him crossing the room with the obvious intention of asking her to dance the first dance, she could not control her heart. It was pounding so hard in my body that I couldn't tell if it was from anger or fear, she told me. He realized this and delivered a heavy-handed blow: You don't have to say yes, because your heart is saying it for you. Without a word, she turned and left him standing in the middle of the dance floor. My father understood this in his own way. It made me happy, he told me. When Luisa Santiaga was wakened before dawn by the strains of After the Ball, Gabriel Eligio's poisonous flattering waltz, she could not contain her rage. The first thing she did that morning was return all his gifts. This rejection, and the talk of her walking away from him at the wedding, was like so many feathers tossed into the air and lost forever; people assumed they had witnessed the inglorious end of a summer storm. The impression was strengthened when Luisa Santiaga suffered a recur-rence of the malarial fevers of her child-hood, and her mother took her away to recuperate in Manaure, an Edenic spot on the other side of the Sierra Nevada.

My mother and father both denied having any communication during those months, but this didn't seem credible, for when my mother returned, recovered from her ailments, she and my father also seemed to have recovered from their ear-lier apprehensions. My father said he went to meet her at the station because he had read the telegram in which Mina announced their return, and when Luisa Santiaga greeted him, by pressing his hand, he understood it to be something like a Masonic sign of love. She always denied this with the same blushing mod-esty she brought to her evocations of those years. But the truth is that from then on they were less reserved when seen together. All that was missing was an ending, which Aunt Francisca pro-vided the following week, while sewing among the begonia bushes: Your mother knows everything!

Luisa Santiaga always said it was her family's opposition that made her leap across the dikes of the torrent that had run, in secret, through her heart since the night she left her suitor standing in the middle of the dance floor. It was a bit-terly fought war. The Colonel tried to appear neutral, but he wasn't, as his wife, Mina, well knew. Everyone else thought that the opposition came from her, not him, when in reality it was inscribed in the tribal code that considers every suitor an interloper. This atavistic prejudice, whose embers still linger, has turned us into a vast family of men with their flies open and unmarried women with nu-merous children in the street.

Their friends were divided, for or against the lovers, according to age, and those who didn't have a settled position had one imposed by events. The young people became their enthusiastic accom-plices his above all, for he relished the position of being a sacrificial victim of social prejudices. Most of the adults, however, viewed Luisa Santiaga as the precious jewel of a rich and powerful family who was being courted by a parvenu telegraph operator, not for love but out of self-interest. And she, who had been obedient and submissive, confronted her opponents with the ferocity of a lioness who has just given birth. In the most corrosive of their many domestic disputes, Mina lost her temper and threatened her daughter with the bread knife. An impassive Luisa Santiaga stood her ground. Suddenly aware of the criminal implications of her wrath, Mina dropped the knife and screamed in horror, Oh, my God! And placed her hand on the hot coals of the stove in brutal repentance.

Among the powerful arguments against Gabriel Eligio was his status as the love child of an unmarried woman, who had given birth to him at the tender age of fourteen, after a casual misstep with a schoolteacher. Her name was Argemira Garcia paternina; she was a slender white girl with a joyous nature and a free spirit, who went on to have six more children, by three different fathers. She lived without a steady man in the town of Since, where she had been born, and used her wits to eke out a living for her offspring. Gabriel Eligio was a distinguished representative of that ragged breed. Since the age of sixteen he'd had five virgin lovers, as he revealed to my mother in an act of penitence on their wedding night, en route by river to Riohacha, aboard a hazardous schooner lashed by a squall. He confessed that with one of them, when he was eighteen and the telegraph operator in Achi, he'd had a son, Abelardo, who was almost three. With another, when he was twenty and the telegraph operator in Ayapel, he had a daughter, a few months old, whom he had never seen, named Carmen Rosa. He had promised the girl's mother that he would come back and marry her, and he had been intending to fulfill the commitment when his life changed course because of his love for Luisa Santiaga. He had acknowledged his son before a notary, and later he would do the same with his daughter, but these were no more than byzantine formalities without legal consequences. It is surprising that Colonel Marquez was so disquieted by this irregular conduct, when the Colonel himself had fathered, in addition to his three official children, nine more by different mothers, both before and after his marriage, and all of them were welcomed by his wife as if they were her own. It isn't possible for me to establish when I first heard these facts, but in any case the transgressions of my forebears didn't interest me in the slightest.

The family's opposition to Gabriel Eligio was even more ferocious because he was an active Conservative, a member of the party against which Colonel Nicolas Marquez had fought his wars. The peace declared by the Neerlandia and Wisconsin agreements was a tenuous one, and the government was still run by stony centralists; a good deal of time would pass before the Goths and the Liberals stopped baring their teeth at one another. perhaps Gabriel Eligio's conservatism resulted more from familial contagion than from ideological conviction, but for my mother's family it outweighed the other attributes of his good character, such as his lively intelligence and shoemaker's integrity.

For his whole life my father was much poorer than he seemed, and he always considered poverty the hateful enemy he could never accept and would never defeat. He endured the impediments to his love for Luisa Santiaga with the same courage and dignity, in the back room of the telegraph office in Aracataca, where he always kept a hammock for sleeping alone. Yet, beside it, he also had a bachelor's cot with well-oiled springs, for whatever else the night might offer him. At one time I felt tempted by his furtive hunter's ways, but life taught me that there is no more arid form of solitude, and I felt great compassion for him.

Until a few years before his death, he would tell a story of one of those difficult days, an occasion when he had gone with some friends to the Colonel's house, and all were invited to sit down except him. My mother's family denied the story and attributed it to my father's still-burning resentment, or at least to a false memory, but once, when my grandmother was almost a hundred years old, and dramatically evoking a time that she wasn't so much remembering as reliving, she let it slip. There's that poor man standing in the doorway of the living room, and Nicolasito hasn't asked him to sit down, she said with true regret. Always attentive to her dazzling revelations, I asked her who the man was, and her simple reply was Garcia, the one with the violin.

Amid so many absurdities, the most uncharacteristic was the revolver that my father bought to protect himself against what might happen when dealing with a retired warrior like Colonel Marquez. It was a venerable long-barrelled Smith & Wesson .38. Who knows how many previous owners it had and how many deaths it had caused? The only certainty is that he never fired it, not even as a warning or out of curiosity. Years later, his oldest children found it with its original five bullets, along with the violin of his serenades, in a cupboard full of useless trash.

Gabriel Eligio and Luisa Santiaga were not intimidated by the harshness of her family. At first they met on the sly, in the houses of friends, but after the circle closed completely around her their only communication was by letters sent through ingenious channels. When she was not permitted to attend parties where he might be a guest, they saw each other at a distance. But the repression became so severe that no one dared defy her mother's wrath, and the lovers disappeared from public view. When not even a crack was left open for furtive letters, they invented the stratagems of the shipwrecked. She managed to hide a greeting card in a dessert that someone had ordered for Gabriel Eligio's birthday, and he sent her false and innocuous telegrams with the real message in code or written in sympathetic ink; Aunt Francisca's complicity then became so evident, despite her categorical denials, that for the first time her authority in the house was affected, and she was allowed to accompany her niece only when they were sewing in the shade of the almond trees. Then Gabriel Eligio sent messages of love from the window of Dr. Antonio Barboza, whose house was across the way, using the manual telegraphy of deaf-mutes. Luisa Santiaga learned it so well that when her aunt's attention wandered she held intimate conversations with her sweetheart. It was only one of the countless tricks devised by Adriana Berdugo, Dr. Barboza's wife, a comadre of Luisa Santiaga's and her most inventive and daring accomplice.

These consoling devices would have been enough for the two of them to survive a slow fire, but then Gabriel Eligio received an alarming letter from Luisa Santiaga, which compelled him to start thinking in a strategic way. She had written in haste, on toilet paper, giving him the bad news that her parents had decided to take her away, back to Barrancas, stopping in each town along the way, as a cure for her love-sickness. It would not be the ordinary journey of one bad night, on the schooner to Riohacha; instead, they would follow the barbaric route along the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, on the backs of mules and in carts, through the vast region of padilla.

I would rather have died, my mother told me many years later. And she had in fact tried to die, locking her bedroom door and eating nothing but bread and water for three days, until she was overwhelmed by the reverential terror she felt for the Colonel. Gabriel Eligio realized the situation could go no further, and he made a decision that was just as extreme, although more manageable. He strode from Dr. Barboza's house, crossed the street to the shade of the almond trees, and stopped in front of the two frightened women, my mother and Aunt Francisca, who held their work in their laps.

please leave me alone for a moment with the young lady, he said to Aunt Francisca. I have something important to say to her that only she can hear.

What impertinence! her aunt replied. There's nothing having to do with her that I can't hear.

Then I won't say it, he said, but I warn you that you will be responsible for whatever happens.

Luisa Santiaga begged her aunt to leave them alone and assumed the risk. Then Gabriel Eligio expressed his view that she should make the trip with her parents, in the manner they chose and however long it might take, but only on the condition that she give her promise as a solemn oath that she would marry him. She was pleased to accept the proposal, and added, on her own account, that only death could prevent their marriage.

They had almost a year to demonstrate the seriousness of their promises, but neither one imagined how much it would cost them. The first part of Luisa Santiaga's journey, in a caravan of drovers, where she rode on the back of a mule along the precipices of the Sierra Nevada, took two weeks. Luisa Santiaga and her mother were accompanied by Chon, the maid without a name, who had been with the family since they left Barrancas in the aftermath of the duel in which the Colonel had killed Medardo pacheco. The Colonel knew all about the steep, rocky route, for he had left a trail of children there on the dissipated nights of his wars, but his wife had chosen it without knowing it, because of her unhappy memories of what it meant to travel by schooner. For my mother, who rode a mule for the first rime, it was a nightmare of brutal suns and ferocious downpours, her soul dangling by a thread because of the soporific air that rose from the gorges. Thoughts of an uncertain suitor, with his midnight clothes and his sunrise violin, seemed like tricks of the imagination. On the fourth day, feeling incapable of surviving, she warned her mother that she would throw herself over a cliff if they didn't return home. Tranquilina Iguaran Cotes, more frightened than her daughter, agreed. But the head mule driver showed her on the map that returning or continuing would take the same amount of time. Relief came in eleven days, when they saw, from the final cornice, the radiant plain of Valledupar.

Before the first stage was over, Gabriel Eligio secured a reliable way of communicating with his wandering love, thanks to the cooperation of the telegraph operators in the seven towns where she and her mother would stay before reaching Barrancas. And Luisa Santiaga made her own arrangements. The entire province was overflowing with people named Iguaran and Cotes, whose tribal consciousness had the strength of an impenetrable jungle, and she succeeded in bringing them over to her side. This allowed her to maintain a fevered correspondence with Gabriel Eligio from Valledupar, where she spent three months, until the end of the journey, almost a year later. She had only to pass by each town's telegraph office, where, with the complicity of her young, enthusiastic kinswomen, she could receive and respond to messages. The closemouthed Chon played an invaluable role because she carried the messages hidden in her clothes, without making Luisa Santiaga uneasy or offending her modesty, since the maid couldn't read or write, and would, in any case, die before revealing a secret.

Almost sixty years later, when I tried to reconstruct these episodes in Love in the Time of Cholera, I asked my father if in the professional jargon of telegraph operators there existed a specific word for linking one office to another. He didn't have to think about it: pegging in. The term is in the dictionary, but not this specific sense; I used it anyway, since the telegraph offices communicated by connecting a peg on a panel of telegraphic terminals. I never discussed it again with my father. But shortly before his death he was asked in a newspaper interview if he had ever wanted to write a novel, and he answered that he had stopped when I asked him about the verb pegging in, because he realized then that the novel I was writing was the same one he had been planning to write.

On that occasion he also recalled a dark fact that could have changed our lives. After six months of travelling, when my mother was in San Juan del Cesar, Gabriel Eligio was told in confidence that Luisa Santiaga's mother was preparing the way for the family's permanent return to Barrancas, provided that the rancor caused by the death of Medardo pacheco in his duel with the Colonel had healed. It seemed ludicrous, when the bad times were behind us, and the family, now in Aracataca, was enjoying the absolute imperium of the banana company, which was beginning to resemble a dream of the promised land. But it was also reasonable that the obstinacy of the family would lead them to sacrifice their own happiness if they could free their daughter from the talons of the hawk. Gabriel Eligio's immediate decision was to request a transfer to the telegraph office in Riohacha, some twenty leagues from Barrancas. The position wasn't available, but he was promised that his application would be kept in mind.

Luisa Santiaga could not confirm her mother's secret intentions, but she didn't dare deny them, either, for she had noticed that the closer Mina came to Barrancas, the more soulful and peaceable she seemed. Chon, who was everyone's confidante, gave her no clues. To get at the truth, Luisa Santiaga told her mother that she would love to stay in Barrancas and live there. Her mother had a moment's hesitation but said nothing, and the daughter was left with the impression that she had come very close to the secret. Troubled, she escaped into the destiny of the cards with a street Gypsy who didn't say anything about a future in Barrancas but did say there would be no obstacles to Luisa Santiaga's enjoying a long, happy life with a distant man she barely knew who would love her until death. The Gypsy's description of the man returned Luisa Santiaga's soul to her body, for the man described had many of the qualities she saw in her beloved. And the Gypsy also predicted, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that my mother would have six children with this man. I died of fright, my mother said the first time she told me this, not even imagining that the actual number of her children would be almost double that. The lovers both accepted the prediction with so much enthusiasm that their telegraphic correspondence stopped being a concert of fanciful declarations and became methodical, practical, and more intense than ever. They set dates, established means, and devoted their lives to their shared determination to marry without consulting anyone, wherever and however they met again.

Luisa Santiaga was so faithful to their commitment that in the town of Fonseca she didn't think it correct to attend a gala ball without her lover's consent. Gabriel Eligio was in the hammock sweating out a fever of a hundred and three when he heard the signal for an urgent incoming message. It was the telegraph operator in Fonseca. To guarantee absolute security, the operator asked who was at the other end of the line. More astonished than gratified, Gabriel Eligio transmitted an identifying phrase: Tell her I'm her godson. My mother recognized the password and stayed at the dance until seven in the morning, when she had to rush to change her clothes so she wouldn't be late for Mass.

In Barrancas, there was no trace of animosity toward the family. On the contrary, eighteen years after the unfortunate duel, a Christian spirit of forgiving and forgetting prevailed among the relatives of Medardo pacheco. His kinfolk gave Luisa Santiaga and her mother such an affectionate welcome that now it was Luisa Santiaga who thought about the possibility of returning to this mountain oasis, so different from the heat, the dust, the bloodthirsty Saturdays, and the headless ghosts of Aracataca. She managed to suggest this to Gabriel Eligio, provided that he obtained his transfer to Riohacha, and he agreed. However, she also learned around this time that the story of the family's move to Barrancas was unfounded; no one wanted it except Mina. This was established in a letter she had sent to her son Juan de Dios, after he wrote her, expressing his fears about returning to Barrancas before the twenty years required by the law of La Guajira had passed after the death of Medardo pacheco. (The law was also that an affront to one member of a family had to be paid for by all the males in the offending family.) For he remained so convinced of the inescapability of this law that half a century later he opposed his son Eduardo's joining the public-health service in Barrancas.

Despite all these fears, the knotty situation was untangled in the next three days. On the same Tuesday that Luisa Santiaga confirmed that Mina was not planning to move to Barrancas, Gabriel Eligio was informed that the position in Riohacha was now available owing to the sudden death of the telegraph operator there. The next day, Mina emptied the drawers in the pantry, looking for poultry shears, and happened to open a tin of English biscuits where her daughter had hidden her love telegrams. Mina's rage was so great that she managed to express only one of her celebrated insults: God forgives everything except disobedience. That weekend, they travelled to Riohacha and boarded the schooner to Santa Marta. Neither woman noticed the awful night of battering February gales: the mother was too devastated by defeat; the daughter, terrified, was too happy. Solid ground restored the composure Mina had lost when she discovered the letters. The next day, she returned alone to Aracataca on the seven o'clock train, and left Luisa Santiaga in Santa Marta under the protection of her son Juan de Dios, certain that she had rescued her daughter from the demons of love. The opposite was true: Gabriel Eligio would travel from Aracataca to Santa Marta to see Luisa Santiaga whenever he could. Uncle Juanito had resolved not to take sides, having been burned by hard experience, and at the moment of truth found himself trapped between adoration for his sister and respect for his parents, and took refuge in a formula characteristic of his proverbial goodness: he allowed the lovers to see each other outside his house, but never alone, and never with his knowledge. Dilia Caballero, his wife, who forgave but did not forget, devised for her sister-in-law the same infallible coincidences and strategies she had used to undermine the vigilance of her in-laws.

And so Gabriel Eligio and Luisa Santiaga began seeing each other in the houses of friends, and then risked appearances in public places that were not too crowded. And, in the end, they dared to talk through the window when Uncle Juanito was not at home, Luisa Santiaga in the living room, Gabriel Eligio on the street, faithful to their commitment not to see each other in the house. The window was made, it seemed, for the purpose of forbidden love, with Andalusian grillwork and a frame of climbing vines that featured an occasional dizzying breath of jasmine in the drowsy night. Uncle Juanito's wife had anticipated everything, including the use of certain complicit neighbors who whistled in code to alert the lovers to any imminent danger. One night, however, the precautions failed, and Uncle Juanito surrendered to the truth. His wife took advantage of the occasion to invite the lovers to sit in the living room with the windows open so they could share their love with the world. My mother never forgot her brother's sigh: What a relief!

At about this time Gabriel Eligio received his formal appointment to the telegraph office in Riohacha. Unsettled by another separation, my mother appealed to Monsignor pedro Espejo, the vicar of the diocese, in the hope that he would marry them without her parents' permission. The Monsignor had grown so renowned that many of the faithful confused the veneration they felt for him with saintliness, and some attended his Masses only to confirm that, at the moment of the Elevation, he rose several centimeters off the ground. When Luisa Santiaga asked for his help, he refused to interfere in the jurisdiction of a family so jealous of its privacy, but chose instead to find out in secret about my father's family, through the curia. The parish priest in Since ignored the liberties enjoyed by Argemira Garcia and replied with a benevolent formula: This is a respectable though not very devout family. Then the Monsignor spoke with the lovers, together and separately, and wrote a letter to the Colonel and Mina, in which he expressed his heartfelt certainty that there was no human power capable of suppressing this obdurate love. My grandparents, defeated by the power of God, agreed to turn a painful page, and they granted their son Juan de Dios full power to arrange the wedding in Santa Marta. They did not attend but sent Francisca Simodosea as matron of honor.

My parents married on June 11,1926, in the cathedral of Santa Marta, forty minutes late because the bride forgot the date and had to be awakened after eight o'clock in the morning. That same night they again boarded the fearful schooner, so that Gabriel Eligio could take possession of the telegraph office in Riohacha, and passed their first night together in chastity, defeated by seasickness.

My mother was so nostalgic about the house where she spent her honeymoon that her older children could have described it, room by room, as if we had lived there, and even today it continues to be one of my false memories. And yet the first time I actually went to Riohacha, not long before my sixtieth birthday, I was surprised that the telegraph operator's house had nothing to do with my memory. And the idyllic Riohacha I had carried in my heart since boyhood, with its saltpeter streets that went down to a sea of mud, was nothing more than the poignant fantasy of my imagination. In fact, now that I know Riohacha, I cannot visualize it as it is, but only as I con-structed it, stone by stone, without know-ing it, through my mother's memories.

Two months after the wedding, Juan de Dios received a telegram from my fa-ther announcing that Luisa Santiaga was pregnant. The news was passed on to Aracataca and shook the very founda-tions of the family house, where Mina had not yet recovered from her bitterness, and both she and the Colonel laid down their weapons so that the newlyweds would come back to stay with them. It wasn't easy. After a noble, reasoned resis-tance that lasted several months, Gabriel Eligio agreed to his wife's giving birth in her parents' house.

A short while later, my grandfa-ther greeted him at the train station with a sentence that was like a gold frame around the family's historical record: I am prepared to give you all the satisfac-tions that may be required. My grandmother renovated the bedroom that had been hers and installed my par-ents there. Over the course of the year, Gabriel Eligio gave up his worthy pro-fession of telegraph operator and de-voted his talent as an autodidact to a sci-ence on the decline: homeopathy. My grandfather, out of gratitude or remorse, arranged with the authorities for the street where we lived in Aracataca to bear the name it still has: Monsignor Espejo Avenue.

That was how the first of seven boys and four girls was born in Aracataca on March 6, 1927, in an unseasonable tor-rential downpour, while the sky of Taurus rose on the horizon. I was almost stran-gled by the umbilical cord, because the family midwife, Santos Villero, lost her mastery of her art at the worst moment. But Aunt Francisca lost even more, for she ran to the street door shouting, as if there were a fire, A boy! It's a boy! And then, as if sounding the alarm, A boy who's choking to death!

There was rum that the family assumed was not for celebrating but for rubbing on the newborn to revive him. Miss Juana de Freytes, a great Venezuelan lady who made a providential entrance into the bedroom, often told me that the most serious risk came not from the umbilical cord but from my mother's dangerous position on the bed. She corrected it in time, but it wasn't easy to revive me, and so Aunt Francisca poured the emergency baptismal water over me. I should have been named Olegario, the saint of the day, but nobody had the saints' calendar near at hand, and with a sense of urgency they gave me my father's first name, Gabriel, followed by Jose, for Joseph the Carpenter, because he was the patron saint of Aracataca and March was his month. Miss Juana de Freytes proposed a third name in memory of the general reconciliation achieved among families and friends with my arrival into the world, but in the formal rite of baptism, three years later, they forgot to include it: Gabriel Jose de la Concordia.


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