by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
THE cage was finished. Balthazar hung it under the eaves, from force of habit, and when he finished lunch everyone was already saying that it was the most beautiful cage in the world. So many people came to see it that a crowd formed in front of the house, and Balthazar had to take it down and close the shop.
“You have to shave,” Ursula, his wife, told him. “You look like a Capuchin.”
“It’s bad to shave after lunch,” said Balthazar.
He had two weeks’ growth, short, hard, and bristly hair like the mane of a mule, and the general expression of a frightened boy. But it was a false expression. In February he had been thirty; he had been living with Ursula for four years, without marrying her and without having children, and life had given him many reasons to be on guard, but none to be frightened. He did not even know that for some people the cage he had just made was the most beautiful one in the world. For him, accustomed to making cages since childhood, that had hardly been any more difficult a job than the others.
“Then, rest for a while,” said the woman. “With that beard you can’t show yourself anywhere.”
While he was resting, he had to get out of his hammock several times to show the cage to the neighbors. Ursula had not paid any attention to it until then. She was annoyed because her husband had neglected the work of his carpenter’s shop to devote himself entirely to the cage, and for two weeks he had slept poorly, turning over, and muttering incoherencies, and hadn’t thought of shaving. But her annoyance dissolved in the face of the finished cage. When Balthazar woke up from his nap, she had ironed his pants and a shirt; she had put them on a chair near the hammock, and had carried the cage to the dining table. She regarded it in silence.
“How much will you charge?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Balthazar answered. “I’m going to ask for thirty pesos to see if they’ll give me twenty.”
“Ask for fifty,” said Ursula, “You’ve lost a lot of sleep in these two weeks. Furthermore, it’s rather large. I think it’s the biggest cage I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Balthazar began to shave. “Do you think they’ll give me fifty pesos?”
“That’s nothing for Mr. Chepe Montiel, and the cage is worth it,” said Ursula. “You should ask for sixty.”
The house lay in a stifling shadow. It was the first week of April, and the heat seemed less bearable because of the chirping of the cicadas. When he finished dressing, Balthazar opened the door to the patio to cool off the house, and a group of children entered the dining room.
The news had spread. Doctor Octavio Giraldo, an old physician, happy with life but tired of his profession, thought about Balthazar’s cage while he was eating lunch with His invalid wife. On the inside terrace, where they put the table on hot days, there were many flowerpots and two cages with canaries. His wife liked birds, and she liked them so much that she hated cats because they could eat them up. Thinking about her, Doctor Giraldo went to see a patient that afternoon, and when he returned he went by Balthazar’s house to inspect the cage.
There were a lot of people in the dining room. On display on the table, the enormous dome of wire, with three stories inside, with passageways and compartments especially for eating and sleeping, and swings in the space set aside for the birds’ recreation — it seemed like a small-scale model of a gigantic ice factory. The doctor inspected it carefully, without touching it, thinking that in effect the cage was better than its own reputation, and much more beautiful than any he had ever dreamed of for his wife.
“This is a flight of the imagination,” he said. He sought out Balthazar among the group of people, and fixing his maternal eyes on him, added: “You would have been an extraordinary architect.”
Balthazar blushed. “Thank you,” he said.
“It’s true,” said the doctor. He was smoothly and delicately fat, like a woman who had been beautiful in her youth, and he had delicate hands. His voice seemed like that of a priest speaking Latin. “You wouldn’t even need to put birds in it,” he said, making the cage turn in front of the audience’s eyes, as if he were auctioning it off. “It would be enough to hang it in the trees so it could sing by itself.” He put it back on the table, thought a moment, looking at the cage, and said: “Fine, then I’ll take it.”
“It’s sold,” said Ursula.
“It belongs to the son of Mr. Chepe Montiel,” said Balthazar. “He ordered it specially.”
The doctor adopted a respectful attitude. “Did he give you the design?”
“No,” said Balthazar. “He said he wanted a large cage, like this one, for a pair of troupials.”
The doctor looked at the cage. “But this isn’t for troupials.”
“Of course it is, doctor,” said Balthazar, approaching the table. The children surrounded him. “The measurements are carefully calculated,” he said, pointing to the different compartments with his forefinger. Then he struck the dome with his knuckles, and the cage filled with resonant chords.
“It’s the strongest wire you can find, and each joint is soldered outside and in,” he said.
“It’s even big enough for a parrot,” interrupted one of the children.
“That it is,” said Balthazar.
The doctor turned his head. “Fine, but he didn’t give you the design,” he said. “He gave you no exact specifications, aside from making it a cage big enough for troupials. Isn’t that right?”
“That’s right,” said Balthazar.
“Then there’s no problem,” said the doctor. “One thing is a cage big enough for troupials, and another is this cage. There’s no proof that this is the one you were asked to make.”
“It’s this very one,” said Balthazar, confused. “That’s why I made it.”
The doctor made an impatient gesture.
“You could make another one,” said Ursula, looking at her husband. And then, to the doctor, “You’re not in any hurry.”
“I promised it to my wife for this afternoon,” said the doctor.
“I’m very sorry, doctor,” said Balthazar, “but I can’t sell you something that’s sold already.”
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. Drying the sweat from his neck with a handkerchief, he contemplated the cage silently, with a fixed gaze that never quite seemed to come into focus, as one does when one looks at a ship which is sailing away.
“How much did they pay you for it?”
Balthazar sought Ursula’s eyes without replying.
“Sixty pesos,” she said.
The doctor kept looking at the cage. “It’s very pretty,” he sighed. “Extremely pretty.” Then, moving toward the door, he began to fan himself energetically, smiling, and the trace of that episode disappeared forever from his memory.
“Montiel is very rich,” he said.
In truth, Jose Montiel was not as rich as he seemed, but he would have been capable of doing anything to become so. A few blocks away, in a house crammed with riding equipment, where no one had ever smelled a smell that couldn’t be sold, he remained indifferent to the news of the cage. His wife, tortured by an obsession with death, closed the doors and windows after lunch and lay for two hours with her eyes opened to the shadow of the room, while Jose Montiel took his siesta. The clamor of many voices surprised her there. Then, she opened the door to the living room and found a crowd in front of the house, and Balthazar with the cage in the middle of the crowd, dressed in white, freshly shaved, with that expression of decorous candor with which the poor approach the houses of the wealthy.
“What a marvelous thing,” Jose Montiel’s wife exclaimed, with a radiant expression, leading Balthazar inside. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” she said, and added, annoyed by the crowd which piled up at the door: “But bring it inside before they turn the living room into a grandstand.”
Balthazar was no stranger to Jose Montiel’s house. On different occasions, because of his skill and forthright way of dealing, he had been called in to do minor carpentry jobs. But he never felt at ease among the rich. He used to think about them, about their ugly and argumentative wives, about their tremendous surgical operations, and he always experienced a feeling of pity. When he entered their houses, he couldn’t move without dragging his feet.
“Is Pepe home?” he asked.
He had put the cage on the dining room table.
“He’s at school,” said Jose Montiel’s wife. “But he shouldn’t be long,” and she added: “Montiel is taking a bath.”
In reality, Jose Montiel had not had time to bathe. He was giving himself an urgent alcohol rub, in order to come out and see what was going on. He was such a cautious man that he slept without an electric fan, so he could watch over the noises of the house while he slept.
“Adelaide,” he shouted. “What’s going on?”
“Come and see what a marvelous thing,” his wife shouted.
Jose Montiel, obese and hairy, his towel draped around his neck, appeared at the bedroom window. “What is that?”
“Pepe’s cage,” said Balthazar.
His wife looked at him perplexedly. “Whose?”
“Pepe’s,” replied Balthazar. And then, turning toward Jose Montiel, “Pepe ordered it.”
Nothing happened at that instant, but Balthazar felt as if someone had just opened the bathroom door on him. Jose Montiel came out of the bedroom in his underwear. “Pepe,” he shouted.
“He’s not back,” whispered his wife, motionless.
Pepe appeared in the doorway. He was about twelve, and had the same curved eyelashes and was as quietly pathetic as his mother.
“Come here,” Jose Montiel said to him. “Did you order this?”
The child lowered his head. Grabbing him by the hair, Jose Montiel forced him to look him in the eye. “Answer me.”
The child bit his lip without replying.
“Montiel,” whispered his wife.
Jose Montiel let the child go and turned toward Balthazar in a fury. “Pin very sorry, Balthazar,” he said. “But you should have consulted me before going on. Only to you would it occur to contract with a minor.” As he spoke, his face recovered its serenity. He lifted the cage without looking at it and gave it to Balthazar. “Take it away at once, and try to sell it to whomever you can,” he said. “Above all, I beg you not to argue with me.” He patted him on the back, and explained: “The doctor has forbidden me to get angry.”
The child had remained motionless, without blinking, until Balthazar looked at him perplexedly, with the cage in his hand. Then Pepe emitted a guttural sound, like a dog’s growl, and threw himself on the floor screaming.
Jose Montiel looked at him unmoved, while the mother tried to pacify him. “Don’t even pick him up,” he said. “Let him break his head on the floor, and then put salt and lemon on it so he can rage to his heart’s content.” The child was shrieking tearlessly, while his mother held him by the wrists.
“Leave him alone,” Jose Montiel insisted.
Balthazar observed the child as he would have observed the death throes of a rabid animal. It was almost four o’clock. At that hour, at his house, Ursula was singing a very old song and cutting slices of onion.
“Pepe,” said Balthazar.
He approached the child, smiling, and held the cage out to him. The child jumped up, embraced the cage, which was almost as big as he was, and stood looking at Balthazar through the wirework, without knowing what to say. He hadn’t shed one tear.
“Balthazar,” said Jose Montiel softly. “I told you already to take it away.”
“Give it back,” the woman ordered the child.
“Keep it,” said Balthazar. And then, to Jose Montiel, “After all, that’s what I made it for.”
Jose Montiel followed him into the living room. “Don’t be foolish, Balthazar,” he was saying, blocking his path. “Take your piece of furniture home and don’t be silly. I have no intention of paying you a cent.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Balthazar. “I made it expressly as a gift for Pepe. I didn’t expect to charge anything for it.”
As Balthazar made his way through the spectators who were blocking the door, Jose Montiel was shouting in the middle of the living room. He was very pale, and his eyes were beginning to get red. “Idiot!” he was shouting. “Take your trinket out of here. The last thing we need is for some nobody to give orders in my house. Son of a bitch.”
In the pool hall, Balthazar was received with an ovation. Until that moment, he thought that he had made a better cage than the others, that he’d had to give it to the son of Jose Montiel so he wouldn’t keep crying, and that none of those things was particularly important. But then he realized that all of this had a certain importance for many people, and he felt a little excited.
“So, they gave you fifty pesos for the cage.”
“Sixty,” said Balthazar.
“Score one for you,” someone said. “You’re the only one who has managed to get that pile of money out of Mr. Chepc Montiel. We have to celebrate.”
They bought him a beer, and Balthazar responded with a round for everybody. Since it was the first time he had ever been out drinking, by dusk he was completely drunk, and he was talking about a fabulous project of a thousand cages, at sixty pesos each, and then of a million cages, until he had sixty million pesos. “We have to make a lot of things to sell to the rich before they die,” he was saying, blind drunk. “All of them are sick, and they’re going to die. They’re so screwed up they can’t even get angry anymore.” For two hours he was paying for the jukebox which played without interruption. Everybody toasted Balthazar’s health, good luck, and fortune, and the death of the rich, but at mealtime they left him alone in the pool hall.
Ursula had waited for him until eight, with a dish of fried meat covered with slices of onion. Someone told her that her husband was in the pool hall, delirious with happiness, buying beers for everyone, but she didn’t believe it, because Balthazar had never gotten drunk. When she went to bed, almost at midnight, Balthazar was in a lighted room where there were little tables, each with four chairs, and an outdoor dance floor, where the plovers were walking around. His face was smeared with rouge, and since he couldn’t take one more step, he thought he wanted to lie down with two women in the same bed. He had spent so much that he had had to leave his watch in pawn, with the promise to pay the next day. A moment later, spread-eagled in the street, he realized that his shoes were being taken off, but he didn’t want to abandon the happiest dream of his life. The women who passed on their way to five o’clock Mass didn’t dare look at him, thinking he was dead.
— Translated by J. S. Bernstein