A story by Gabriel García Márquez
Senator Onésimo Sánchez had six months and eleven days to go before his death when he found the woman of his life. He met her in Rosal del Virrey, an illusory village which by night was the furtive wharf for smugglers’ ships, and yet it seemed in broad daylight the most useless inlet on the desert, looking out on an arid and directionless sea, so far removed from everything that no one would have suspected that someone capable of changing the destiny of anyone lived there. Even its name was a kind of joke, because the only rose in that village was being worn by Senator Onásimo Sánchez himself on the same afternoon that he met Laura Farina.
It was an unavoidable stop in the electoral campaign he made every four years. The carnival wagons had arrived in the morning. Then came the trucks with the rented Indians who were carried into the towns in order to enlarge the crowds at public ceremonies. Shortly before eleven o’clock, along with the music and rockets and jeeps of the retinue, the ministerial automobile the color of strawberry soda arrived. Senator Onésimo Sánchez was placid and weatherless inside the air-conditioned car, but as soon as he opened the door he was shaken by a gust of fire and his shirt of pure silk was soaked in a kind of light-colored soup, and he felt many years older and more alone than ever. In real life he had just turned forty-two, had been graduated from Göttingen with honors as a metallurgical engineer, and was an avid reader, although without much success, of badly translated Latin classics. He was married to a radiant German woman who had given him five children and they were all happy in their home, he the happiest of all until they told him, three months before, that he would be dead forever by next Christmas.
While the preparations for the public rally were being completed, the senator managed to have an hour alone in the house they had set aside for him to rest in. Before he lay down he put into a glass of drinking water the rose he had kept alive all across the desert, lunched on the diet cereals which he took with him so as to avoid the repeated portions of fried goat that were waiting for him during the rest of the day, and took several painkillers before the time prescribed so that he would have the remedy ahead of the pain. Then he put the electric fan close to the hammock and stretched out naked for fifteen minutes in the shadow of the rose, making a great effort at mental distraction so as not to think about death while he dozed. Except for the doctors, no one knew that he had been sentenced to a fixed term, for he had decided to endure his secret all alone, with no change in his life, not out of pride but out of shame.
He felt in full control of his free will when he appeared in public again at three in the afternoon, rested and clean, wearing a pair of coarse linen slacks and a floral shirt, and with his soul sustained by the anti-pain pills. Nevertheless, the erosion of death was much more pernicious than he had supposed, for as he went up onto the platform he felt a strange disdain for those who were fighting for the opportunity to shake his hand, and he didn’t feel sorry as he had at other times for the groups of barefoot Indians who could scarcely endure the hot saltpeter coals of the sterile little square. He silenced the applause with a wave of his hand, almost with rage, and he began to speak without gestures, his eyes fixed on the sea that was sighing with heat. His measured, deep voice had the quality of water in repose, but the speech that had been memorized and ground out so many times had not occurred to him as a means of telling the truth but rather as the opposite of a fatalistic pronouncement by Marcus Aurelius in the fourth book of his Meditations.
“We are here for the purpose of defeating nature,” he began, against all of his convictions. “We will no longer be foundlings in our own country, orphans of God in a realm of thirst and bad climate, exiles in our own land. We will be different people, ladies and gentlemen, we will be a great and happy people.”
There was a pattern to his circus. As he spoke, his aides threw clusters of paper birds into the air and the artificial creatures took on life, flew about the platform of planks, and went out to sea. At the same time, other men took some prop trees with felt leaves out of the wagons and planted them in the saltpeter soil behind the crowd. They finished by setting up a cardboard facade with makebelieve houses of red brick that had glass windows, and with it they covered the miserable shacks of real life.
The senator prolonged his speech with two quotations in Latin in order to give the farce more time. He promised rainmaking machines, portable breeders for livestock, the oils of happiness which would make vegetables grow in the saltpeter and clumps of pansies in the window boxes. When he saw that his world of fiction was all set up, he pointed to it. “That’s the way it will be for us, ladies and gentlemen,” he shouted. “Look! That’s the way it will be for us.”
The audience turned around. An ocean liner made of painted paper was passing behind the houses, and it was taller than the tallest houses in the artificial city. Only the senator himself noticed that since it had been set up and taken down and carried from one place to another, the superimposed cardboard town had also been eaten away by the terrible climate and that it was almost as poor and dusty as Rosal del Virrey.
For the first time in twelve years, Nelson Farina didn’t go to greet the senator. He listened to the speech from his hammock amidst the remains of his siesta, under the cool bower of a house of unplaned boards which he had built with the same pharmacist’s hands with which he had drawn and quartered his first wife. He had escaped from Devil’s Island and appeared in Rosal del Virrey on a ship loaded with innocent macaws, with a beautiful and blasphemous black woman he had found in Paramaribo and by whom he had a daughter. The woman died of natural causes a short while later, and she didn’t suffer the fate of the other, whose pieces had fertilized her own cauliflower patch, but was buried whole and with her Dutch name in the local cemetery. The daughter had inherited her color and her figure along with her father’s yellow and astonished eyes, and he had good reason to imagine that he was rearing the most beautiful woman in the world.
Ever since he had first met Senator Onésimo Sánchez during his first electoral campaign, Nelson Farina had begged for his help in getting a false identity card which would place him beyond the reach of the law. The senator, in a friendly but firm way, had refused. Nelson Farina never gave up, and for several years, every time he found the chance, he would repeat his request with a different recourse. But always he received the same answer. Therefore on this visit he remained in his hammock, condemned to rot alive in that burning den of buccaneers. When he heard the final applause, he lifted his head and, looking over the boards of the fence, he saw the back side of the farce: the props for the buildings, the framework of the trees, the hidden illusionists who were pushing the ocean liner along. He spat without rancor.
“Merde,” he said. “C'est le Blacamàn de la politique. ”
After the speech, as was customary, the senator took a walk through the streets of the town in the midst of the music and the rockets and besieged by the townspeople, who told him their troubles. The senator listened to them good-naturedly, and he always found some way to console everybody without having to do them any difficult favors. A woman up on the roof of a house with her six youngest children managed to make herself heard over the uproar and the fireworks.
“I’m not asking for much, Senator,” she said. “Just a donkey to haul water from Hanged Man’s Well.”
The senator noticed the six thin children. “What became of your husband?” he asked.
“He went to find his fortune on the island of Aruba,” the woman answered good-humoredly, “and what he found was a foreign woman, the kind that put diamonds in their teeth.”
The answer brought on a roar of laughter.
“All right,” the senator decided, “you’ll get your donkey.”
A short while later an aide of his brought a good pack donkey to the woman’s house, and on the rump it had a campaign slogan written in indelible paint so that no one would ever forget that it was a gift from the senator.
Along the short stretch of street he made other smaller gestures, and he even gave a spoonful of medicine to a sick man who had had his bed brought to the door of his house so he could see him pass. At the last corner, through the boards of the fence, he saw Nelson Farina in his hammock, looking ashen and gloomy, but, nonetheless, the senator greeted him, with no show of affection:
“Hello, how are you?”
Nelson Farina turned in his hammock and soaked him in the sad amber of his look.
“Moi, vous savez, ” he said.
His daughter came out into the yard when she heard the greeting. She was wearing a cheap, faded guajiro Indian robe, her head was decorated with colored bows, and her face was painted as protection against the sun, but even in that state of disrepair it was possible to imagine that there had never been another so beautiful in the whole world. The senator was left breathless. “I’ll be damned!” he breathed in surprise. “The Lord does the craziest things!”
That night Nelson Farina dressed his daughter up in her best clothes and sent her to the senator. Two guards armed with rifles who were nodding from the heat in the borrowed house ordered her to wait on the only chair in the vestibule.
The senator was in the next room meeting with the important people of Rosal del Virrey, whom he had gathered together in order to sing for them the truths he had left out of his speeches. They looked so much like the ones he always met in every town in the desert that even the senator himself was sick and tired of that perpetual same nightly session. His shirt was soaked with sweat and he was trying to dry it on his body with the hot breeze from an electric fan that was buzzing like a horsefly in the heavy heat of the room.
“We, of course, can’t eat paper birds,” he said. “You and I know that the day there are trees and flowers in this heap of goat dung, the day there are shad instead of worms in the water holes, that day neither you nor I will have anything to do here, do I make myself clear?”
No one answered. While he was speaking, the senator had torn a sheet off the calendar and fashioned a paper butterfly out of it with his hands. He tossed it into the air current coming from the fan with no particular aim and the butterfly flew about the room and then went out through the half-open door. The senator went on speaking with a control aided by the complicity of death.
“Therefore,” he said, “I don’t have to repeat to you what you already know too well: that my reelection is a better piece of business for you than it is for me, because I’m fed up with stagnant water and Indian sweat, while you people, on the other hand, make your living from it.”
Laura Farina saw the paper butterfly come out. Only she saw it because the guards in the vestibule had fallen asleep on the steps, hugging their rifles. After a few turns, the large lithographed butterfly unfolded completely, flattened against the wall, and remained stuck there. Laura Farina tried to pull it off with her nails. One of the guards, who woke up with the applause from the next room, noticed her vain attempt.
“It won’t come off,” he said sleepily. “It’s painted on the wall.”
Laura Farina sat down again when the men began to come out of the meeting. The senator stood in the door of the room with his hand on the latch, and he noticed Laura Farina only when the vestibule was empty.
“What are you doing here?”
“C’est de la part de mon père,” she said.
The senator understood. He scrutinized the sleeping guards, then he scrutinized Laura Farina, whose unusual beauty was even more demanding than his pain, and he resolved then that death had made his decision for him.
“Come in,” he told her.
Laura Farina was struck dumb standing in the doorway to the room: thousands of banknotes were floating in the air, flapping like the butterfly. But the senator turned off the fan and the bills were left without air and alighted on the objects in the room.
“You see,” he smiled, “even shit can fly.”
Laura Farina sat down on a schoolboy’s stool. Her skin was smooth and firm with the same color and the same solar density as crude oil, her hair was the mane of a young mare, and her huge eyes were brighter than the light. The senator followed the thread of her look and finally found the rose that had been tarnished by the saltpeter,
“It’s a rose,” he said.
“Yes,” she said with a trace of perplexity, “I learned what they were in Riohacha.”
The senator sat down on an army cot, talking about roses as he unbuttoned his shirt. On the side where he imagined his heart to be inside his chest he had a corsair’s tattoo of a heart pierced by an arrow. He threw the soaked shirt to the floor and asked Laura Farina to help him off with his boots.
She kneeled down facing the cot. The senator continued to scrutinize her, thoughtfully, and while she was untying the laces he wondered which one of them would end up with the bad luck of that encounter.
“You’re just a child,” he said.
“Don’t you believe it,” she said. “I’ll be nineteen in April.”
The senator became interested.
“The eleventh,” she said.
The senator felt better. “We’re both Aries,” he said. And, smiling, he added:
“It’s the sign of solitude.”
Laura Farina wasn’t paying attention because she didn’t know what to do with the boots. The senator, for his part, didn’t know what to do with Laura Farina, because he wasn’t used to sudden love affairs, and besides, he knew that the one at hand had its origins in indignity. Just to have some time to think, he held Laura Farina tightly between his knees, embraced her about the waist, and lay down on his back on the cot. Then he realized that she was naked under her dress, for her body gave off the dark fragrance of an animal of the woods, but her heart was frightened and her skin disturbed by a glacial sweat.
“No one loves us,” he sighed.
Laura Farina tried to say something, but there was only enough air for her to breathe. He laid her down beside him to help her; he put out the light and the room was in the shadow of the rose. She abandoned herself to the mercies of her fate. The senator caressed her slowly, seeking her with his hand, barely touching her, but where he expected to find her, he came across something iron that was in the way.
“What have you got there?”
“A padlock,” she said.
“What in hell . . . !” the senator said furiously and asked what he knew only too well. “Where’s the key?”
Laura Farina gave a breath of relief.
“My papa has it,” she answered. “He told me to tell you to send one of your people to get it and to send along with him a written promise that you’ll straighten out his situation.”
The senator grew tense. “Frog bastard,” he murmured indignantly. Then he closed his eyes in order to relax, and he met himself in the darkness. Remember, he remembered, that whether it’s you or someone else, it won’t be long before you ‘ll be dead and it won’t be long before your name won’t even be left.
He waited for the shudder to pass.
“Tell me one thing,” he asked then. “What have you heard about me?”
“Do you want the honest-to-God truth?”
“The honest-to-God truth.”
“Well,” Laura Farina ventured, “they say you’re worse than the rest because you’re different.”
The senator didn’t get upset. He remained silent for a long time with his eyes closed, and when he opened them again he seemed to have returned from his most hidden instincts.
“Oh, what the hell,” he decided, “tell your son of a bitch of a father that I’ll straighten out his situation.”
“If you want, I can go get the key myself,” Laura Farina said.
The senator held her back.
“Forget about the key,” he said, “and sleep a while with me. It’s good to be with someone when you’re so alone.”
Then she laid his head on her shoulder, her eyes fixed on the rose. The senator held her about the waist, sank his face into woods animal armpit, and gave in to terror. Six months and eleven days later he would die in that same position, degraded and repudiated because of the public scandal with Laura Farina, and weeping with rage at dying without her.
Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa.