No One Writes to the Colonel
Gabriel García Márquez
Translated by Zach Powell
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
The Colonel took the lid off the coffee can and realized that there was no more than a teaspoon. He took the pot off the stove, poured half the water onto the earthen floor, and scraped the inside of the can into the pot with a spoon until he got the last flecks of coffee dust mixed with rust.
While he waited for the infusion to boil, seated next to the baked clay oven with an attitude of trusting and innocent expectation, the Colonel had a feeling like poisonous mushrooms and lilies were growing in his guts. It was October. A difficult morning to cope with, even for a man like him who had survived so many mornings like it. For fifty-six years–since the end of the last civil war–the Colonel had done nothing but wait. October was one of the few things that came.
His wife lifted the mosquito net when she saw him come into the bedroom with the coffee. That night she had suffered an asthma attack and now was pushing through a state of drowsiness. But she got up to accept the cup.
“What about you?” she said.
“I already had mine,” lied the Colonel. “We still had a big tablespoon left.”
Then the ringing started. The Colonel had forgotten about the funeral. While his wife drank her coffee, he took down the hammock by one side and rolled it up to the other behind the door. His wife thought about the dead man.
“He was born in 1922,” she said. “Exactly a month after our son. April 7.”
She continued sipping her coffee in the breaks between her gravelly breaths. She was a woman put together mostly from white gristle over a bent, inflexible dorsal bone. Her troubled breathing made her ask in the tone of a statement. When she finished her coffee, she was still thinking about the dead man.
“It must be horrible to be buried in October,” she said. But her husband wasn’t paying attention. He opened the window. October had set itself up in the patio. Contemplating the vegetation that exploded everywhere in intense greens, and the tiny homes of earthworms in the mud, the Colonel again felt the ill-fated month in his intestines.
“I’m freezing,” he said.
“It’s the winter,” his wife replied. “Ever since it started raining, I’ve been telling you to sleep with your socks on.”
“I have been for the last week.”
It rained slowly but without pauses. The Colonel would have preferred to wrap himself up in a wool blanket and get back into the hammock. But the insistence of the broken bells reminded him of the funeral. “It’s October,” he murmured, and walked towards the middle of the room. Only then did he remember the rooster tied to the foot of the bed. It was a fighting rooster.
After taking the coffee cup to the kitchen, he wound a pendulum clock mounted in a carved wooden frame in the living room. Unlike the bedroom, too small for an asthmatic to breathe, the living room was large, with four rocking chairs around a little table with a tablecloth and a plaster cat. On the wall opposite the clock was a picture of a woman in tulle surrounded by various angels on a boat heavy with roses.
It was 7:20 when he stopped winding the clock. Then he took the rooster to the chicken, tied it to one of the legs of the stove, changed the water in his jar and put a handful of corn next to it. A group of children came through a gap in the fence. They sat around the rooster in silent contemplation.
“Don’t keep looking at that animal,” the Colonel said. “Roosters get used up if you watch them too much.”
The children didn’t move. One of them began playing the chords of a popular song on a harmonica. “Don’t play today,” the Colonel told him. “There’s someone dead in town.” The boy put the instrument back in his pants pocket and the Colonel went back to his room to get dressed for the funeral.
His white suit hadn’t been ironed because of his wife’s asthma. Thus the Colonel had to choose the old black linen suit that he’d worn on his wedding, and only special occasions since. With difficulty he found it in the bottom of his trunk, wrapped in newspaper and protected against moths by little balls of naphthalene. Laying on the bed, his wife continued thinking about the dead man.
“He must’ve found Augustín by now,” she said. “Maybe he won’t tell him about the state we’ve been in since he died.”
“They’re talking about roosters right now,” said the Colonel.
He found an ancient, enormous umbrella in the trunk. His wife had won it in a raffle designed to collect funds for the Colonel’s party. That same night they went to an outdoor gala that had gone on despite the rain. The Colonel, his wife, and their son Augustín–who was eight years old then–stayed there until the end, seated under the umbrella. Now Agustín was dead and the bright satin lining had been destroyed by the moths.
“Look at what’s become of this circus clown’s umbrella,” the Colonel said with one of his old turns of phrase. He opened the mysterious system of metal rods over his head. “Now it’s only fit to count the stars.”
He smiled. But his wife didn’t make the effort to look at the umbrella. “Everything’s like that,” she murmured. “We’re rotting alive.” And she closed her eyes to think more intensely about the dead man.
After shaving by feel–he hadn’t had a mirror in some time–the Colonel got dressed in silence. The pants, almost as tight-fitting as his long underwear, closed at the ankle with slipknots, were held at his waist with two tongues of the same fabric as the pants themselves that passed through two golden buckles sewn on at kidney height. He didn’t wear a belt. His shirt, the color of old cardboard, hard like it as well, was closed by a copper button that also served to hold up the false collar. But the collar was broken, so the Colonel gave up on a tie.
He did each thing as if it were a transcendental act. The bones in his hands were lined with a bright, taught skin, spotted from pinta just like the skin on his neck. Before putting on his patent-leather boots, he scraped off the mud embedded in the seams. His wife saw him at that moment, dressed like on their wedding day. It was only then that she realized how much her husband had aged.
“You’re done up for quite the event,” she said.
“A funeral is an event,” the Colonel said. “It’s the first death from natural causes that we’ve had in many years.”
It stopped raining after nine. The Colonel was about to leave when his wife grabbed the sleeve of his jacket.
“Comb your hair,” she said.
He tried to subdue the steel-colored bristles with a leather comb. But it was useless.
“I must look like a parrot,” he said.
His wife looked at him. She didn’t think so. The Colonel didn’t look like a parrot. He was a dry man, of solid bones jointed with bolts and nails. It was only the vitality in his eyes that prevented him from looking like he was preserved in formaldehyde.
“You look good,” she admitted, and added as her husband was leaving the room: “Ask the doctor if he’d like to come over for some hot water.”
They lived on the edge of the village, in a house with a palm roof and walls of chipped lime. It was still humid, but not raining. The Colonel went down towards the plaza via an alley lined with houses crowded together. When he came out onto the central street he suffered a shock. Everywhere he looked, the village was carpeted in flowers. Seated in the doors of the houses, women dressed in black awaited the funeral.
In the plaza the drizzle started again. The owner of the pool hall saw the Colonel from the door of his establishment and yelled with open arms: “Colonel, wait and I’ll give you an umbrella.”
The Colonel answered without turning his head. “Thank you, but I’m fine.”
The dead man had not yet come out. The men–dressed in white with black ties–talked in the doorway under their umbrellas. One of them saw the Colonel jumping over puddles in the plaza.
“Come under here,” he yelled. He made room under his umbrella.
“Thank you,” said the Colonel.
But he didn’t accept the invitation. He went straight into the house to give his condolences to the dead man’s mother. The first thing he perceived was the smell of many different flowers. Then the heat. The Colonel tried to open a path through the crowd blocking the bedroom. But someone put a hand in his back and pushed him across the room through a gallery of perplexed faces to where he found–deep and enlarged–the nostrils of the dead man.
There was the dead man’s mother, shooing flies away from the coffin with a fan of braided palm leaves. Other women dressed in black contemplated the cadaver with the same expression one would use when looking at a river’s current. Suddenly there was a voice in the back of the room. The Colonel moved past a woman, and saw the profile of the dead man’s mother and put a hand on her shoulder. He clenched his teeth.
“My sincerest condolences,” he said.
She didn’t move her head. She opened her mouth and let out a cry. The Colonel gave a start. He felt himself pushed against the body by a misshapen mass that broke out in quivering shriek. He tried to support himself with his hands but couldn’t find the wall. There were other bodies in its place. Someone said in his ear, slowly, with a soft voice, “Careful, Colonel.” He turned his head and saw the dead man. But the Colonel didn’t recognize him, because the man was hard and dynamic and he seemed as surprised as the Colonel, wrapped in white cloth and with a trumpet in his hands. When the Colonel raised his head to find air above the yelling he saw the covered box jolting towards the door on a slope of flowers that tore against the walls. He was sweating. His joints hurt. One moment later he knew that he was in the street because the drizzle battered his eyelids and someone grabbed his arm and said, “Hurry, they’re waiting for you.”
It was don Sabas, the godfather of his dead son, the only leader of his party to escape political persecution and continue living in the village.
“Thank you,” said the Colonel, and walked in silence under the umbrella. The band began the funeral march. The Colonel noticed that there was no trumpet, and was certain for the first time that the dead man was dead.
“The poor thing,” he murmured.
Don Sabas cleared his throat. He was holding the umbrella with his left hand, the handle almost at head height since he was shorter than the Colonel. The two men started talking when the procession left the plaza. Don Sabas turned his disconsolate face towards the Colonel and said, “How’s the rooster?”
“He’s still here,” the Colonel answered.
Then they heard a shout: “Where are you going with that body?”
The Colonel raised his gaze. He saw the mayor in the balcony of the police station in a reflective pose. He was in shirt and underwear, with puffy and unshaven cheeks. The band stopped the funeral march. A moment later the Colonel recognized the voice of Father Ángel conversing by shouts with the mayor. He deciphered their conversation through the crackling of rain on the umbrellas.
“Well?” asked don Sabas.
“Well nothing,” the Colonel answered. “It’s that the procession can’t go past the police station.”
“I had forgotten!” don Sabas exclaimed. “I always forget that we’re under martial law.”
“But it’s not a rebellion,” the Colonel said. “Just a poor dead musician.”
The group changed direction. In the lower neighborhoods, the women watched it pass biting their nails in silence. But then they came out into the middle of the street and let loose cheers of praise, gratitude, and farewell, like they thought the dead man was listening from inside his coffin. The Colonel felt bad once they were in the cemetery. When don Sabas pushed him towards the wall in order to make room for the men that were carrying the casket, he turned his smiling face towards the Colonel, but met a hard expression.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
The Colonel sighed. “It’s October.”
They went back via the same street. The rain had stopped. The sky turned deep, into an intense blue. It won’t rain anymore, the Colonel thought, and he felt better, but remained lost in thought. Don Sabas interrupted.
“Go see the doctor.”
“I’m not sick,” the Colonel said. “It’s that in October I feel like I have creatures in my guts.”
“Ah,” don Sabas said. And he said good-bye at the door of his house, a new building with two floors, with windows of forged iron. The Colonel went towards his own, eager to get out of his formal clothes. This done, he went back out to the corner store to buy a jar of coffee and half a pound of corn for the rooster.
The Colonel took care of the rooster despite the fact that he would’ve preferred to spend Thursday in his hammock. It hadn’t stopped raining for days. Over the course of the week, the flora broke out in his intestines. He spent nights awake, tormented by the whistling breaths of the asthmatic. But October offered a truce on Friday afternoon. Friends of Augusín–journeyman tailors, like he had been, and fanatics for cockfights–took that opportunity to check out the rooster. It was in good shape.
The Colonel returned to his room once he was alone in the house with his wife. She had recovered.
“What did they say?” she asked.
“They were enthusiastic,” the Colonel told her. “They’re all eager to bet on him.”
“I don’t know what they see in such an ugly rooster,” his wife said. “To me he looks like a freak: his head is too small for his feet.”
“They say he’s the best in the Department,” the Colonel replied. “He’s worth like fifty pesos.”
He was certain that this justified his determination to keep the rooster, inheritance from a son who was blown away nine months earlier at the cockfights for passing out information on the sly.
“It’s an expensive dream,” his wife said. “When the corn runs out, we’ll have to feed him our own livers.”
The Colonel thought for the whole time it took him to find his drill pants in the wardrobe.
“It’s just for a few months,” he said. “For certain there’ll be fights in January. After that we can sell him for the best price.”
The pants hadn’t been ironed. His wife put them over the stove with two irons heated on the fire.
“Why the rush to go out?” she asked.
“I had forgotten that it’s Friday,” she said when she returned to the room. The Colonel was dressed except for his pants. She looked at his shoes.
“Those shoes are ready to be thrown out,” she said. “Keep putting on the leather ones.”
The Colonel was devastated.
“They look like an orphan’s shoes,” he protested. “Every time I wear them I feel like a fugitive from an orphanage.”
“We’re orphans of our son,” his wife said.
Once more, she convinced him. The Colonel went to the door before the boat whistles. Patent-leather boots, white pants without creases, and a shirt without false collar, closed at the top with the copper button. He watched the working of the boats from the store owned by Moses the Syrian. The passengers disembarked in rough shape after eight hours in the same position. The same as always: traveling merchants and people from the village that had traveled the week before and now returned to their routines.
The last was the mail boat. The Colonel watched it dock with agonizing disquiet. On the roof, tied to the smokestacks and protected with waxed silk, he saw the mail bag. Fifteen years of waiting had sharpened his intuition. The rooster had sharpened his anxiety. From the moment the mailman got on the boat and while he untied the bag and threw it on his back, the Colonel had him in sight.
He followed him down the street that ran parallel to the port, a labyrinth of stores and shacks with merchandise of all colors on display. Every time he did it, the Colonel experienced an anxiety totally distinct from but as pressing as terror. The doctor was awaiting the newspapers in the post office.
“My wife wants to know if we should throw hot water in the house, doctor,” the Colonel told him.
He was a young doctor with a head covered in glossy ringlets. There was something incredible in the perfection of his teeth. He asked after the asthmatic’s health. The Colonel provided him a detailed report without losing track of the movements of the postman distributing letters into the corresponding slots. His lackadaisical way of doing it exasperated the Colonel.
The doctor took his mail along with a packet of newspapers. He put to one side the fliers of scientific propaganda. Then he skimmed the personal letters. Meanwhile, the postman distributed the mail among the recipients who were present. The Colonel watched the box that corresponded to him in the alphabet. An air mail envelope with blue borders increased his nervous tension.
The doctor broke the seal on the newspapers. He read the important news while the Colonel–gaze fixed on his mailbox–waited for the mailman to stop in front of it. But he didn’t. The doctor interrupted his reading. He looked at the Colonel. Then he looked at the mailman sitting in front of the telegraph, and then again at the Colonel.
“Let’s go,” he said.
The postman didn’t raise his head. “Nothing for the Colonel,” he said.
The Colonel was embarrassed. “I wasn’t waiting for anything,” he lied. He gave the doctor a child-like look. “No one writes to me.”
They returned in silence. The doctor was focused on the newspaper. The Colonel walked in his usual way, which looked like someone retracing their steps in search of a lost coin. It was a bright afternoon. The almond trees in the plaza let free their last rotten leaves. It was starting to grow dark when they got to the door of the doctor’s office.
“What’s the news?” asked the Colonel.
The doctor gave him various newspapers.
“No one knows,” he said. “It’s hard to read between the lines of what they’re allowed to print.”
The Colonel read the headlines. International news. Above, four columns of a story about the nationalization of the Suez canal. The first page was almost totally occupied by invitations to a funeral.
“There’s no hope of elections,” the Colonel said.
“Don’t be silly, Colonel,” the doctor said. “We’re too old to be waiting for messiahs.”
The Colonel tried to give the newspapers back, but the doctor refused.
“Take them home,” he said. “Read them tonight and bring them back tomorrow.”
A little after 7:00, the tower rang with the bells of the film censor. Father Ángel used this means to communicate the movie’s moral classification in accordance with the classified list that he received every month in the mail. The Colonel’s wife counted twelve rings.
“Bad for everyone,” she said. “It’s been a year now that all the movies have been bad for everyone.”
She lowed the cover of the mosquito net and murmured, “The world is corrupt.” But the Colonel made no reply. Before retiring he tied the rooster to the foot of the bed. He closed up the house and sprayed insecticide in the bedroom. Then he put the lamp on the floor, hung up his hammock and laid down to read the newspapers.
He read them in chronological order and from the first page to the last, even the ads. At eleven came the klaxon announcing the curfew. The Colonel finished reading a half hour later, opened the patio door onto the impenetrable night, and peed against a support post, harassed by mosquitoes. His wife was awake when he returned to the room.
“They didn’t say anything about veterans?” she asked.
“Nothing,” said the Colonel. He put out the lamp before getting in his hammock. “At first they at least published the list of new pensioners. But it’s been five years since they said anything.”
It started raining after midnight. The Colonel fell asleep but awoke a moment later, alarmed by his intestines. He noticed a leak somewhere in the house. Wrapped in a wool blanket up to his head he tried to find the leak in darkness. A line of cold sweat ran down his spine. He had a fever. He felt like he was floating on ripples in a pond of gelatin. Someone spoke. The Colonel responded from his revolutionary’s cot.
“Who are you talking to?” his wife asked.
“With the Englishman disguised as a tiger who appeared in Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s camp,” the Colonel answered. He turned in his hammock, boiling with fever. “He was the Duke of Marlborough.”
At dawn, the Colonel was dyspeptic. At the second bell for Mass he jumped from his hammock and into a murky reality, stirred up by the crowing of the rooster. His head was still spinning in rings. He felt nauseous. He went out to the patio and headed towards the outhouse through the slight murmuring and gloomy smells of winter. The inside of the little wooden room with a zinc roof was saturated with the ammonia smell of the lavatory. When the Colonel raised the lid, out surged a vapor of triangular flies.
It was a false alarm. Squatting on the platform of raw planks he experienced the discomfort of frustrated desire. The pressure was replaced with a deaf pain in his digestive tract. “There’s no doubt,” he murmured. “This always happens to me in October.” And he took on his air of trusting and innocent expectation until the mushrooms in his guts calmed down. Then he returned to his room for the rooster.
“You were delirious from the fever last night,” said his wife.
She had started putting the room in order, recovered from a week of attacks. The Colonel made an effort to remember.
“It wasn’t a fever,” he lied. “It was another dream about spiderwebs.”
As always happened, his wife surged with energy brought out by her attacks. Over the course of the morning she turned the house around. She moved everything except the clock and the picture of the girl. She was so light and flexible that when she went around with her velveteen slippers and her black dress entirely closed she seemed to have enough energy to pass through the walls. But before twelve she had recovered her density, her human weight. In the bed she was an emptiness. Now, moving between the pots of ferns and begonias, her presence overflowed the house.
“If Agustín’s year were up, I would sing,” she said, while she went around the stove where she was boiling slices of everything edible the tropical earth could produce.
“If you want to sing, sing,” said the Colonel. “It’s good for the bile.”
The doctor came after lunch. The Colonel and his wife were drinking coffee in the kitchen when the doctor pushed open the door and yelled, “Are my patients dead?”
The Colonel stood to receive him.
“So it seems, doctor,” he said, heading towards the sitting room. “I’ve always said that your watch keeps time with the buzzards.”
His wife went to their room to get ready for the examination. The doctor stayed in the sitting room with the Colonel. Despite the heat, his impeccable linen suit exhaled with fresh breath. When the Colonel’s wife announced that she was ready, the doctor handed the Colonel three pages inside an envelope. He went into the bedroom, saying, “That’s what the newspapers from yesterday didn’t say.”
The Colonel had thought as much. It was a synthesis of recent national events, printed by mimeograph for clandestine circulation. Revelations about the state of the armed resistance in the interior of the country. He felt beaten. Ten years of secret reports had not taught him that no news was more surprising than next month’s. He had finished reading when the doctor returned.
“This patient is healthier than I am,” he said. “With asthma like that I’d expect to live a hundred years.”
The Colonel looked at him solemnly. He handed back the envelope without a word, but the doctor refused it.
“Pass it around,” he said quietly.
The Colonel put the envelope in his pants pocket. His wife came out of the room, saying, “One of these days I’m going to die, and I’m taking you to Hell with me, doctor.” The doctor responded with his usual tooth enamel. He turned a chair towards the table and took from his bag various bottles of free samples. The Colonel’s wife passed by towards the kitchen.
“Wait a moment and I’ll heat up some coffee.”
“No, thank you,” said the doctor. He wrote the dose on a form. “I totally refuse to give you the chance to poison me.”
She laughed from the kitchen. When he finished writing, the doctor read the prescription aloud since he knew that no one could read his handwriting. The Colonel tried to pay attention. On returning from the kitchen, his wife saw on his face the ravages of the night before.
“This morning he had a fever,” she said, referring to her husband. “He spent like two hours spouting nonsense about the civil war.”
The Colonel started.
“It wasn’t a fever,” he insisted, recovering his composure. “Also,” he said, “the day that I feel sick I won’t put myself in anyone’s hands. I’ll toss myself in the trash.”
He went to the bedroom to find the newspapers.
“Thank you for the flower,” said the doctor.
They walked together towards the plaza. The air was dry. The tar on the streets began to melt in the heat. When the doctor said good-bye, the Colonel asked him under his voice, with clenched teeth, “How much do we owe you, doctor?”
“Nothing for now,” said the doctor, and he gave the Colonel a slap on the back. “I’ll give you a nice fat bill when that rooster wins.”
The Colonel headed for the tailor’s to take the secret letter to Augustín’s friends. It was his only refuge since his compatriots had died or been exiled from the village, and he had become a solitary man with no occupation but awaiting the mail every Friday.
The heat of the afternoon stimulated his wife’s energy. Sitting among the begonias in the hallway next to a box of worn-out clothes, she once more performed the eternal miracle of pulling new garments out of nothing. She made collars from sleeves and cuffs from fabric from the back and perfectly square patches even with scraps of a different color. A cicada filled the patio with its call. The sun went on. But she did not see it setting over the begonias. She only raised her head on nightfall when the Colonel returned to the house. Then she grabbed her neck with both hands and cracked her knuckles. “My brain is stiff as a board.”
“It’s always been that way,” said the Colonel, but then he saw his wife’s body entirely covered in scraps of color. “You look like a woodpecker.”
“I have to be half woodpecker to dress you,” she said. She held out a shirt made from three different colors, except for the collar and cuffs, which were the same. “At the carnival, you’ll have to be satisfied with just taking off your jacket.”
She was interrupted by the bells marking six o’clock. “The angel of the Lord announced Mary,” she prayed aloud, heading for the bedroom with the clothes. The Colonel talked with the children who had come to watch the rooster after school. Then he remembered that there wasn’t any corn for the next day, and he went to the bedroom to ask his wife for money.
“I don’t think we have more than fifty cents left,” she said.
She kept their money under the mattress, knotted in the corner of a handkerchief. It was a product of Agustín’s sewing machine. For nine months they had been saving that money cent by cent, sharing it between their own needs and those of the rooster. Now there were only two 20-cent coins and one 10-cent.
“Buy a pound of corn,” his wife said. “With the change, buy tomorrow’s coffee and four ounces of cheese.”
“And a golden elephant we can hang on the door,” the Colonel continued. “Just the corn costs forty-two.”
They thought a moment. “The rooster is an animal and so he can wait,” his wife said at first. But her husband’s expression obligated her to reconsider. The Colonel sat down on the bed, elbows on his knees, jingling the coins in his hands.
“It’s not for me,” he said after a moment. “If it were up to me I’d make a chicken stew tonight. Fifty cents of indigestion would be really good.” He paused to swat a mosquito on his neck. Then he followed his wife around the room with his eyes.
“What worries me is that those poor boys are saving...”
His wife started thinking. She did a complete lap of the room with the bug spray. The Colonel noticed something unreal in her attitude, as if she was summoning the spirits of the house in order to consult with them. Finally she put the spray on the little mantel with the prints, and fixed her caramel-colored eyes on the caramel-colored eyes of the Colonel.
“Buy the corn,” she said. “God knows how we’ll manage for ourselves.”
“It’s the miracle of the multiplying bread loves,” the Colonel said every time that they sat down at the table over the following week. With her astonishing ability to put together, sew up, and mend, his wife seemed to have discovered the key to sustaining the household in the void. October prolonged its truce. Humidity was replaced by drowsiness. Comforted by the copper-colored sun, his wife assigned three afternoons to her laborious hairstyle.
“Now the High Mass has begun,” said the Colonel the afternoon that she untangled the long blue strands with a gap-toothed comb. The second afternoon, sitting on the patio with a white sheet on her lap, she used her finest comb to take out the nits that had proliferated during the crisis. Finally she washed her head with lavender water, waited until it dried, and rolled up her hair in two turns held with a barrette. The Colonel waited. That night, wide-awake in his hammock, he agonized for hours over the fate of the rooster. But on Wednesday he weighed it, and it was in shape.
That same afternoon, when Augustín’s friends left the house telling cheerful stories about the rooster’s victory, the Colonel felt in shape too. His wife cut his hair. “You’ve taken twenty years off me,” he said, examining his head with his hands. His wife thought he was right.
“When I’m healthy I’m capable of raising the dead,” she said.
But her conviction lasted only a few hours. There was nothing left in the house to sell, except the clock and the picture. Thursday night, in a last-ditch effort, she voiced her anxiety about their situation.
“Don’t worry,” the Colonel consoled her. “The mail comes tomorrow.”
The next day he waited for the mail boat in front of the doctor’s office.
“The airplane is a marvellous thing,” the Colonel said, his eyes fixed on the mail bag. “They say it can get to Europe in one night.”
“That’s true,” the doctor said, fanning himself with a magazine. The Colonel found the mail man in a group that was awaiting the finish of the docking in order to jump onto the boat. The first jumped. The captain received a sealed envelope. Then he went onto the roof. The mail bag was tied between two oil drums.
“But it still has its dangers,” the Colonel said. He lost sight of the postman, but regained it among the colored bottles at the softdrink cart. “Progress isn’t free.”
“Even now it’s safer than a boat,” the doctor said. “At twenty thousand feet it can fly over storms.”
“Twenty thousand feet,” repeated the Colonel, perplexed, without understanding the number.
The doctor perked up. He smoothed out the magazine with both hands until it was totally immobile. “There’s a perfect balance,” he said.
But the Colonel was focused on the postman. He watched him drink something pink-foamed with the bottle in his left hand. He held the mailbag in his right.
“Plus, there are ships at anchor in permanent contact with nighttime airplanes,” the doctor continued. “With so many precautions it’s safer than a boat.”
The Colonel looked at him.
“Of course,” he said. “It must be like a rug.”
The mailman headed directly towards them. The Colonel moved backwards, proplled by an irresistable anxiety while trying to make out the name written on the sealed envelope. The mailman opened his bag. He handed the doctor the bundle of newspapers. Then he tore open the envelope with the private correspondence, verified the postage, and read the names on each letter. The doctor opened the newspapers.
“Still the issue with the Suez,” he said, reading the headlines. “The West is losing ground.”
The Colonel didn’t read the titles. He made an effort to calm his stomach. “Because of the censorship, newspapers only talk about Europe,” he said. “The best thing would be for the Europeans to come here and for us to go to Europe. That way everyone would know what happens in their own country.”
“For Europeans, South America is a man with a moustache, a guitar, and a revolver,” the doctor said, laughing across the newspaper. “They don’t understand the problem.”
The postman gave the doctor his letters. He put the rest in his bag and closed it. The doctor began reading a couple personal letters. But before tearing the envelopes he looked at the Colonel. Then to the mailman.
“Nothing for the Colonel?”
The Colonel felt terror. The mailman threw the bag on his shoulder, descended the platform, and replied without turning his head. “No one writes to the Colonel.”
Against his usual custom, the Colonel didn’t head straight home. He had coffee in the tailor’s shop while Agustín’s coworkers leafed through the newspapers.
He felt cheated. He would’ve preferred to stay there until the following Friday so that he didn’t have to go before his wife empty-handed. But when the tailor’s closed he had to face reality. His wife was waiting for him.
“Nothing?” she asked.
“Nothing,” responded the Colonel.
The following Friday he returned to the boats. And like every Friday, he returned home without the hoped-for letter.
“We’ve waited enough,” his wife told him that night. “You have to have the patience of an ox to wait for a letter for fifteen years.”
The Colonel got in his hammock to read the newspapers.
“We just have to wait our turn,” he said. “Our number is one thousand eight hundred twenty-three.”
“We’ve been waiting sp ;pmg, that number has come up twice in the lottery,” replied his wife.
The Colonel read, as always, from the first page to the last, including the ads. But this time he couldn’t concentrate. While reading he thought about his veteran’s pension. Nineteen years earlier, when Congress passed the law, there began an eight-year process of proving his eligibility. It took six years more to get himself on the rolls. That was the last letter the Colonel had received.
He finished after curfew. When he went to put out the lamp he realized his wife was still awake.
“Do you still have that clipping?”
She thought a moment. “Yes. It should be with the other papers.”
She left the mosquito net, and from the wardrobe pulled out a wooden chest with a packet of letters, ordered by date and held together with a rubber band. She found an ad from a law firm that promised quick results on war pensions.
“In the time I’ve been telling you to change lawyers, we’ve also had the time to waste the money,” she said, handing her husband the newspaper clipping. “We don’t get anything out of being put in a box like they do with the Indians.”
The Colonel read the clipping dated two years earlier. He put it in the pocket of his shirt that was hung behind the door.
“The problem is that for a change of lawyer you need money.”
“Enough of that,” his wife decided. “We’ll write to them and say that they can take out whatever it costs from the pension that they get. That’s the only way they’ll do anything.”
So it was that, Saturday afternoon, the Colonel went to visit his lawyer. He found him lying lazily in his hammock. He was a gigantic black man with nothing but his canines in his upper jaw. He put his feet in slippers with wooden soles and opened his office window over a dusty pianola with papers stuffed into the space for the rollers: clippings from the “Official Diary” stuck with putty in old accounting notebooks and a dissheveled collection of bulletins from the Comptroller. The pianola without keys served also as desk. The lawyer sat down in a rocking chair. The Colonel set out his concern before revealing the purpose of his visit.
“I explained that this wouldn’t be a thing of a few days,” the lawyer said when the Colonel paused. He was overwhelmed with the heat. He forced his chair forward and fanned himself with a propaganda poster.
“My agents write me frequently to tell me there’s no reason to worry.”
“You’ve been saying that for fifteen years,” replied the Colonel. “This is starting to sound like the story of the capon.”
The lawyer gave him a graphic description of the administrative vagaries. His seat was too narrow for his elderly rear. “It was easier fifteen years ago,” he said. “Back then there was a municipal veterans’ association made up of elements of both parties.” He filled his lungs with sweltering air and pronounced the words like he had just invented them: “There’s strength in numbers.”
“Not in this case,” said the Colonel, for the first time realizing his solitude. “All of my compatriots died waiting for the mail.”
The lawyer was unmoved. “The law was passed too late,” he said. “Not everyone was as lucky as you, to be a Colonel at twenty. Moreover, no special allocation was included, and so the government has had to pass stopgap measures in the meantime.”
Always the same story. Every time the Colonel heard it, he felt a blind resentment. “This isn’t charity,” he said. “It’s not about doing us a favor. We broke our bodies to save the Republic.”
The lawyer spread his arms. “That’s true, Colonel,” he said. “Human ingratitude is without limit.”
The Colonel knew that story too. He had begun hearing it the day after the Treaty of Neerlandia when the government promised travel expenses and indemnities for two hundred officers of the revolution. Camped around the gigantic ceiba in Neerlandia, a revolutionary battalion made up largely of truant adolescents had waited for three months. Then they went home by their own means and there continued waiting. Almost sixty years later the Colonel was still waiting.
Energized by the memories he took on an air of transcendence. He put his right hand on his right thigh–pure bones wrapped with nerves–and murmured: “Well, I’ve decided to make a decision.”
“What do you mean?”
“To change lawyers.”
A duck followed by some yellow ducklings entered the office. The lawyer got up to get them out. “As you wish, Colonel,” he said, shooing the animals. “As you wish. If I could perform miracles, I wouldn’t be living in his corral.” He put a wooden fenceboard in the doorway to the patio and returned to his seat.
“My son worked all his life,” said the Colonel. “I have a mortgage on my house. The law for retirement has been a lifelong pension for lawyers.”
“Not for me,” the lawyer protested. “The last cent has been spent on due diligence.”
The Colonel began to worry that he had been unfair.
“That’s what I meant to say,” he corrected himself. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “This heat could rust the screws in your head.”
A moment later, the lawyer went around the office looking for the Colonel’s power of attorney. The sun advanced towards the middle of the plain room, built from unplaned boards. After looking everywhere without success, the lawyer got down on all fours, sighing with exasperation, and grabbed a roll of papers under the pianola.
“Here it is.”
He gave the Colonel a piece of paper with a seal. “I have to write my agents to tell them to annul the copies,” he added. The Colonel blew off the dust and put it in his shirt pocket.
“Tear it up yourself,” said the lawyer.
“No,” responded the Colonel. “That’s twenty years of memories.”
Then he waited for the lawyer to resume his search. But he didn’t. He went to the hammock to dry off his sweat. From there he looked at the Colonel through the shimmering air.
“I need the documents too,” the Colonel said.
“The proof of eligibility.”
The lawyer opened his arms. “That is totally impossible, Colonel.”
The Colonel was alarmed. As treasurer for the revolution in the area around Macondo, he had made a trying six-day journey with the civil war’s funds in two trunks tied to the back of a mule. He got to the camp at Neerlandia, dragging the mule, which had already starved to death, half an hour before the treaty was signed. Colonel Aureliano Buendía–supreme commander of the revolutionary forces on the Atlantic coast–gave him a receipt for the funds and included the two trunks in the inventory of surrender.
“They’re of incalcuable value,” said the Colonel. “There’s a receipt written in Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s own hand.”
“I agree,” said the lawyer. “But those documents have passed through thousands upon thousands of hands and thousands upon thousands of offices until they arrived at who knows what departments in the Ministry of War.”
“Documents of that type couldn’t pass unnoticed by any official,” said the Colonel.
“But in the last fifteen years, the officials have changed,” explained the lawyer. “Think on the fact that there have been seven presidents and that every president changed his cabinet at least ten times and every minister changed his employees at least a hundred.”
“But no one would’ve taken them home,” said the Colonel. “Every new official would’ve found them in their place.”
The lawyer grew frustrated.
“In addition, if those papers come out of the Ministry now, you’ll have to be resubmitted to the rolls all over.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said the Colonel.
“It could be a matter of centuries.”
“It doesn’t matter. Someone who’s waited a long time can wait a short one.”
He carried a pad of lined paper, a pen, the inkwell, and a blotter to the sitting room table, leaving the door open in case he had to ask his wife anything. She was saying the rosary.
He wrote with a calm diligence, the hand with the pen on the blotter, his back straight to aid his breathing, as he had been taught at school. The heat became intolerable in the closed room. A drop of sweat fell on the letter. The Colonel dried it with the blotter. Then he tried to erase the words that had smeared, but he left a smudge. He did not lose hope. He wrote an asterisk and added in the margin: “acquired rights.” Then he read the whole paragraph.
“What day was I added to the rolls?”
His wife did not interrupt her prayer to think. “August 12, 1949.”
A moment later it began to rain. The Colonel filled a page with large scribblings, a little child-like, the same that they taught him in the public school in Manaure. He filled a second sheet half-way, then signed.
He read the letter to his wife. She approved each sentence with her head. When he finished reading, the Colonel closed the envelope and put out the lamp.
“You could ask someone to type it for you.”
“No,” responded the Colonel. “I’m tired of asking for favors.”
For half an hour he listened to the rain against the leaves of the roof. The village began to submerge in the downpour. After the curfew, a dripping began somewhere in the house.
“This has been a long time coming,” said his wife. “It’s always better to make yourself understood directly.”
“It’s never too late,” said the Colonel, awaiting the dripping. “It could be that it’s all taken care of when the mortgage is paid off.”
“There’re two years left,” said his wife.
He lit the lamp to find the leak in the sitting room. He put the rooster’s can under it and returned to the bedroom, followed by the metallic noise of water in the empty can.
“It’s possible that with the interest, it could be paid off before January,” he said, convincing himself. “Then Augustín’s year will be up and we can go to the movies.”
She laughed quietly. “I don’t even remember the cartoons,” she said. The Colonel tried to see her through the mosquito net.
“When was the last time you went to the movies?”
“In 1931,” she said. “They were playing The Dead Man’s Will.”
“Was there a fight?”
“We never found out. The storm ended when the ghost was trying to steal the girl’s necklace.”
The sound of the rain lulled them to sleep. The Colonel felt slightly unwell in his intestines. But he didn’t worry. He was about to survive another October. He wrapped himself in a wool blanket and for a moment heard the deep breathing of his wife–far away–sailing in another dream. Then he spoke, fully awake.
His wife woke up. “Who are you talking to?”
“No one,” said the Colonel. “I was thinking that in the meeting in Macondo, we were right when we told Colonel Aureliano Buendía not to surrender. That was what cost us everything.”
It rained the whole week. On November 2–against the Colonel’s wishes–his wife took flowers to Augustín’s grave. She came back from the graveyard with another asthma attack. It was a hard week. Harder than the four weeks of October that the Colonel hadn’t thought he’d survive. The doctor came to see her, and he left the room yelling: “With asthma like that, I’d expect to bury the whole town.” But he spoke to the Colonel separately and prescribed a special regimen.
The Colonel also suffered a relapse. He spent hours in the outhouse, sweating ice, feeling like the flora in his guts were rotting and falling apart. “It’s winter,” he repeated to himself without losing hope. “It’ll all be different when it stops raining.” And he really believed it, sure that he would still be alive in the moment that the letter came.
It was his turn to handle the household. He had to grit his teeth over and over to ask for credit in the nearby stores. “It’s just until next week,” he would say, without knowing himself if it were true. “It’s just a little bit that should’ve come Friday.”
When she came out of the crisis, his wife was shocked.
“You’re skin and bones,” she said.
“I’m getting myself ready for sale,” said the Colonel. “I’m already promised to a clarinet factory.”
But in reality he was barely held together by the hope of the letter. Exhausted, worn out from sleeplessness, he couldn’t handle both their needs and those of the rooster. In the second half of November, he thought the animal would die after two days without corn. Then he remembered a handful of beans he had put above the stove in July. He opened the pods and gave the rooster a jar of dry seeds.
“Come here,” his wife said.
“Just a moment,” responded the Colonel, watching the rooster’s reaction. “For real hunger there’s no bad food.”
He found his wife trying to sit up on the bed. Her ravaged body exhaled a vapor of medicinal herbs. She spoke her words, one by one, with calculated precision.
“Get rid of that rooster this instant.”
The Colonel had predicted this moment. He had been waiting for it since the afternoon they’d blown away his son and he’d decided to keep the rooster. He’d had time enough to think.
“It’s not worth it,” he said. “The fight is in three months and then we can sell it for a better price.”
“It’s not a question of money,” said his wife. “When the children come, tell them to take it and do whatever they want with it.”
“It’s for Agustín,” said the Colonel with a prepared argument. “Imagine the expression he’d have had when he came to tell us about his rooster winning.”
His wife had thought about their son.
“Those damned roosters are why he died,” she yelled. “If he’d stayed home on January 3 he wouldn’t have met his evil hour.”
She pointed an emaciated finger at the door and shouted, “I saw it coming when he left with the rooster under his arm. I told him not to go looking for an evil hour in the cockfights and he grinned at me and said, ‘Hush, this afternoon we’re going to be drowning in money.’”
She stopped in exhaustion. The Colonel pushed her softly against her pillow. His eyes encountered others exactly like them. “Try not to move,” he said, feeling the syllables in his own lungs. His wife fell into a momentary stupor. She closed her eyes. When she opened them again her breathing seemed calmer.
“It’s about the situation we’re in,” she said. “It’s a sin to take the food from our mouths to toss it to a rooster.”
The Colonel dried her forehead with the sheet.
“No one dies in three months.”
“And meanwhile, what are we going to eat?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said the Colonel. “But if we were going to starve, we would’ve already.”
The rooster was perfectly alive in front of the empty can. When he saw the Colonel he emitted a gutural monologue, almost human, and threw back his head. The Colonel gave him a companionable smile.
“Life is hard, comrade.”
He went out to the street. He wandered the town in siesta, without thinking about anything, not even trying to convince himself that his problems didn’t have a solution. He walked down streets he’d forgotten until he found himself worn out. Then he returned home. His wife heard him come in and called him to the bedroom.
She answered without looking at him.
“We could sell the clock.”
The Colonel had thought about that.
“I’m sure that Álvaro would give you forty pesos right away,” his wife said. “Remember how readily he bought the sowing machine.” She was referring to the tailor that Agustín had worked for.
“I could talk to him in the morning,” conceded the Colonel.
“Tomorrow nothing,” she said. “Take him the clock right now, put it on the table, and say to him: ‘Álvaro, I’ve brought this clock for you to buy.’ He’ll understand right away.”
The Colonel felt disgraced.
“It’s like carrying around the Holy Sepulcher,” he protested. “If I walk around with a piece like that, I’ll end up in one of Rafael Escalona’s songs.”
But this time too his wife convinced him. She took down the clock herself, wrapped it in newspaper and put it in his hands.
“Don’t come back without the forty pesos,” she said.
The Colonel headed for the tailor’s with the package under his arm. He found Agustín’s coworkers sitting in the doorway. One of them offered him a seat. They complicated his plans.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’m not staying.”
Álvaro came out of the shop. He hung a piece of wet drill on a wire running between two posts in the hallway. He was a boy of hard, angular features, and wide-open eyes. He too invited the Colonel to sit. The Colonel felt encouraged. He put a stool against the doorframe and sat down to wait for Álvaro to be alone before making his proposal. Suddenly he realized he was surrounded by secretive faces.
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” he said.
They protested. One leaned towards him and said, in a voice that was barely audible, “Agustín wrote.”
The Colonel looked at the deserted street.
“What’d he say?”
“The same as always.”
They gave him the secret letter. The Colonel put it away in his pants pocket. Then he sat in silence, drumming on his bundle until he realized that someone had noticed it. He waited in suspense.
“What do you have there, Colonel?”
The Colonel avoided Germán’s penetrating gaze.
“Nothing,” he lied. “I’m just taking the clock to the German for him to fix.”
“Don’t be silly, Colonel,” said Germán, trying to take the bundle. “Wait a moment and I’ll look at it.”
The Colonel resisted. He didn’t say anything, but his eyelids turned purple. The others insisted.
“Let go, Colonel. He knows about machinery.”
“I just don’t want to bother him.”
“It’s no bother,” argued Germán. He grabbed the clock. “The German will charge you ten pesos and leave it as it is.”
He went into the shop with the clock. Álvaro was using a sewing machine. In the back, under a guitar hung on a nail, a girl was punching buttons. There was a sign nailed above the guitar: “Talk of politics is prohibited.” The Colonel felt useless. He put his feet on a rung of the stool.
He started. “Without cursing,” he said.
Alfonso adjusted his glasses on his nose in order to get a better look at the Colonel’s boots.
“It’s your shoes,” he said. “You’re wearing some goddamn new shoes.”
“But you can say it without cursing,” said the Colonel, and showed the soles of his patent-leather boots. “These monsters are forty years old and this is the first time they’ve heard a bad word.”
“Got it!” yelled Germán from inside, in time with the chiming of the clock.
In the adjoining house, a women banged on the dividing wall and yelled, “Stop with the guitar, Agustín hasn’t had his year yet.”
A guffaw broke out.
“It’s a clock.”
Germán came out with the package.
“It was nothing,” he said. “If you want, I can go home with you and hang it level.”
The Colonel refused the offer.
“How much do I owe you?”
“Don’t worry about it, Colonel,” answered Germán as he took his place in the group. “In January the rooster will pay.”
The Colonel found then the moment he had been waiting for.
“I’d like to propose something,” he said.
“I’ll give you the rooster.” He looked at each face in turn. “I’ll give the rooster to all of you.”
Germán looked at him perplexedly.
“I’m getting too old for all that,” the Colonel continued. He added a convincing severity to his voice. “It’s too much responsibility for me. For days now I’ve been thinking that animal is dying.”
“Don’t worry, Colonel,” said Alfonso. “It’s that right now the rooster’s growing feathers. He has a fever in his quills.”
“Next month he’ll be fine,” Germán agreed.
“Even so, I don’t want it,” said the Colonel.
Germán speared him with his eyes.
“Think about it, Colonel,” he insisted. “What’s important is that it’s you who enters Augustín’s rooster in the fight.”
The Colonel thought about it. “I know,” he said. “That’s why I’ve kept him for as long as I have.” He gritted his teeth and steeled himself to continue. “The problem is that there’re three months to go.”
It was Germán who understood.
“If that’s all it is, there’s no problem,” he said.
And he set out his plan. The others accepted. At nightfall, when he entered the house with the package under his arm, the Colonel’s wife felt dispirited.
“Nothing?” she asked.
“Nothing,” the Colonel responded. “But now it doesn’t matter. The boys are going to take care of feeding the rooster.”
“Wait a moment and I’ll give you an umbrella, friend.”
Don Sabas opened a wardrobe built into the wall of his office. He met a jumbled interior, riding boots jammed together with stirrups, reins, and an aluminum cube full of spurs. Hung in the upper part were half a dozen umbrellas and a woman’s parasol. The Colonel thought of the results of a catastrophe.
“Thank you, friend,” he said, leaning in the window. “I’d have preferred to wait until it stopped raining.”
Don Sabas didn’t close the wardrobe. He sat at his desk inside the orbit of the electric fan. Then he took from a drawer a hyperdermic needle wrapped in cotton. The Colonel considered the lead-colored almond trees through the rain. It was a deserted afternoon.
“The rain is different from this window,” he said. “It’s like it’s raining in another town.”
“Rain is rain wherever,” replied don Sabas. He set the syringe to boil on the desk’s glass top. “This is a shit town.”
The Colonel shrugged. He walked deeper into the office: a room of green stone with furniture upholstered in bright colors. At the rear, piled haphazardly, were bags of salt, skins of honey, and saddles. Don Sabas followed him with an empty gaze.
“I wouldn’t think the same thing in your place,” said the Colonel.
He sat with his legs crossed, his calm gaze fixed on the man bent over the desk. A small man, voluminous but of weak flesh, with a frog-like sadness in his eyes.
“Take yourself to the doctor,” said don Sabas. “You’ve been gloomy since the funeral.”
The Colonel raised his head.
“I’m perfectly fine,” he said.
Don Sabas waited until the syringe boiled. “Would that I could say the same,” he lamented. “You can eat anything.” He looked at the hairy backs of his hands, sprinkled with brown moles. He wore a ring of black stone next to his wedding band.
“True,” the Colonel admitted.
Don Sabas called to his wife through the door that connected his office with the rest of the house. Then he started into a pained explanation of his own dietary regimen. He took a little jar from his shirt pocket, and put a white pill the size of a pea on his desk.
“It’s torture having to take this everywhere,” he said. “It’s like carrying your own death in your pocket.”
The Colonel went over to the desk. He examined the pill in the palm of his hand until don Sabas invited him to taste it.
“It’s for sweetening coffee,” he explained. “It’s sugar, but without sugar.”
“Of course,” said the Colonel, his saliva impregnated with a sad sweetness. “It’s like ringing without bells.”
After his wife gave him the injection, Don Sabas leaned on his desk with his head in his hands. The Colonel didn’t know what to do with his own body. Don Sabas’ wife disconnected the electric fan, put it over the strongbox, and then went to the wardrobe.
“Umbrellas have to do with death,” she said.
The Colonel didn’t pay her any mind. He had left his house at four with the purpose of waiting for the mail, but the rain obligated him to seek refuge in don Sabas’ office. It was still raining when the boats docked.
“Everyone says that death is a woman,” don Sabas’ wife was saying. She was large, taller than her husband, with a hairy wart on her upper lip. Her way of speaking was like the buzzing of the electric fan. “But it doesn’t seem like a woman to me,” she said.
She closed the wardrobe and turned to look at the Colonel. “I think it’s an aniaml with paws.”
“It’s possible,” the Colonel admitted. “Sometimes very strange things happen.”
He thought about the mailman jumping from the boat with a rubber raincoat. It had been a month since he’d changed lawyers. He had a right to be awaiting a response. Don Sabas’ wife continued talking about death until she noticed the Colonel’s preoccupied expression.
“My friend,” she said. “You need a hobby.”
The Colonel came back to himself.
“That’s true,” he lied. “I’m thinking that it’s already five o’clock and I haven’t given the rooster his injection.”
She was confused. “An injection for a rooster as if it were a human being?” she yelled. “That’s sacrilige.”
Don Sabas could not stand any more. He raised his stuffed-up face.
“Close your mouth for one moment,” he ordered his wife. She raised her hands to her mouth. “You’ve spent half an hour bothering my friend here with your nonsense.”
“Not at all,” the Colonel protested.
She slammed the door. Don Sabas dried his neck with a lavender-scented handkerchief. The Colonel went to the window. It was still raining implacably. A chicken with large yellow feet was making its way across the deserted plaza.
“Are you really injecting the rooster?”
“It’s true,” said the Colonel. “Training starts next week.”
“It’s reckless,” said don Sabas. “You’re not really the type for that kind of thing.”
“I know,” said the Colonel. “But that’s not enough reason to wring its neck.”
“Such idiotic stubornness,” said don Sabas, going to the window. The Colonel heard a breath like a bellows. His friend’s eyes were full of pity.
“Listen to my advice, my friend,” said don Sabas. “Sell that rooster before it’s too late.”
“It’s never too late for anything,” said the Colonel.
“Don’t be unreasonable,” don Sabas insisted. “It’s a win-win. On one hand, you get rid of this headache, and meanwhile you can put nine hundred pesos in your pocket.”
“Nine hundred pesos!” the Colonel exclaimed.
“Nine hundred pesos.”
The Colonel imagined the amount.
“Do you really think someone would give that much for the rooster?”
“It’s not a question of thinking,” responded don Sabas. “I’m absolutely certain.”
It was the largest number that the Colonel had had in his mind since he’d returned the Revolution’s funds. When he left don Sabas’ office, he felt a great twisting in his guts, but he knew that this time it wasn’t from the weather. At the post office, he went directly to the mailman.
“I’m waiting for an urgent letter,” he said. “By air mail.”
The postman looked at the lettered boxes. When he finished, he put his hands on the appropriate letter but didn’t say anything. He wiped his palms and gave the Colonel a significant look.
“It must’ve come today for sure,” said the Colonel.
The mailman shrugged.
“The only thing that comes for sure is death, Colonel.”
His wife received the Colonel with a plate of mazamorra. He ate it in silence with long pauses between each spoonful. Seated across from him, his wife realized that something had changed in the house.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“I’m thinking about the employee my pension depends on,” lied the Colonel. “Within fifty years we’ll be calmly under the dirt while that poor man will be waiting for his own retirement every Friday.”
“A bad sign,” said his wife. “It means that you’ve started to give up.” She continued with her own mazamorra. But a moment later, she realized that her husband was still preoccupied.
“For now, you should just enjoy the mazamorra.”
“It’s really good,” said the Colonel. “Where’d it come from?”
“From the rooster,” answered his wife. “The boys brought it so much corn, that it decided to share with us. Such is life.”
“So it is,” the Colonel sighed. “Life is the best thing yet invented.”
He looked at the rooster, tied to the leg of the oven and this time it seemed like a different animal. His wife looked at it too.
“I had to run those boys out with a stick this afternoon,” she said. “They brought an old hen to breed with the rooster.”
“It’s not the first time,” the Colonel said. “They used to do the same thing in other villages with Colonel Aureliano Buendía. They brought him girls to breed.”
His wife celebrated recent events. The rooster made a gutteral sound that reached the hallway like an unintelligible human conversation. “Sometimes I think that animal is going to talk,” she said. The Colonel looked back to her.
“It’s a golden rooster,” he said. He made mental calculations while he slurped a spoonful of mazamorra. “He’ll feed us for three years.”
“You can’t eat hope,” his wife said.
“You can’t eat it, but it nourishes,” replied the Colonel. “It’s like my friend Sabas’ miracle pills.”
He slept poorly that night, trying to get all the numbers out of his head. At lunch the following day, his wife served two plates of mazamorra and ate her own with her head down, without saying a word. The Colonel felt himself infected with a somber mood.
“Nothing,” his wife said.
He had the impression that this time it was her turn to lie. He tried to console her, but she persisted.
“It’s nothing unusual,” she said. “I’m thinking that it’ll be two months since the funeral and I haven’t offered my condolences.”
So she went to do so that night. The Colonel went with her to the dead man’s house and then headed for the movie theater, drawn by the music from the loudspeakers. Sitting at the door of his office, Father Ángel was keeping track of who went to the show despite his twelve warnings. The throngs of lights, the raucous music, and the yelling of children offered a physical resistence in the sector. One of the children threated the Colonel with a shotgun made from a stick.
“How’s the rooster, Colonel?” he said with an authoritative voice.
The Colonel put up his hands. “He’s fine.”
A four-color poster took up an entire wall of the theater: Midnight Virgin. It was a woman in an evening gown with her leg exposed to the thigh. The Colonel continued wandering outside until thunder and lightning broke out in the distance. Then he went back to his wife.
She was not in the dead man’s house, or their own. The Colonel guessed that there was little time before curfew, but the clock had stopped. He waited, feeling the storm advance on the village. He had decided to go back out when his wife came home.
He took the rooster to the bedroom. His wife changed and went to have some water in the sitting room at the same time that the Colonel had finished winding the clock and was waiting for the curfew siren to set the time.
“Where were you?” asked the Colonel.
“Around,” his wife answered. She put her glass in the basin without looking at her husband and went back to the bedroom. “No one thought it was going to rain so soon.”
The Colonel didn’t make any reply. When the curfew siren sounded, he set the clock to eleven, closed the glass, and put the chair back in place. He found his wife saying the rosary.
“You haven’t answered any of my questions,” said the Colonel.
“Where were you?”
“I was around, chatting,” she said. “It’s been so long since I’ve left the house.”
The Colonel hung up his hammock. He closed up the house and fumigated the room. Then he put the lamp of the floor and got in.
“I understand,” he said sadly. “The worst thing about a bad situation is that it makes one tell lies.”
His wife let out a deep breath.
“I was at Father Ángel’s,” she said. “I went to ask him for a loan on our wedding rings.”
“And what’d he say?”
“That it’s a sin to bargain with sacred things.”
She continued from within the mosquito netting. “I’ve been trying to sell the clock for two days,” she said. “No one’s interested because they’re selling modern clocks with light-up numbers on installments. You can see the time in the dark.”
The Colonel realized that forty years of shared life, shared hunger, and shared suffering had not been enough to know his wife. He felt like something had also gotten old in love.
“No one wants the picture, either,” she said. “Almost everyone has the same one. I went as far as the Turks.”
The Colonel felt bitter.
“So now everyone knows that we’re starving.”
“I’m tired,” said his wife. “No one knows our problems. Sometimes I’ve put rocks on the stove so that our neighbors don’t know that we’ve gone days without lighting it.”
The Colonel felt offended.
“That’s true humiliation,” he said.
His wife left the mosquito net and went to the hammock. “I’m ready to do away with the complaining and contemplating in his house,” she said. Her voice began to cloud with rage. “I’m up to my ears in resignation and dignity.”
The Colonel didn’t move a muscle.
“Twenty years of waiting for the unicorns that you promised after every election and of all that we had one son,” she said. “Nothing more than a dead son.”
The Colonel was used to this kind of recrimination.
“We do our duty,” he said.
“And they do their duty of making a thousand pesos a month in the Senate the last twenty years,” she replied. “Here we have our friend Sabas with a two-story house that’s not big enough to hold all his money, a man who came to town selling medicine with a snake wrapped around his neck.”
“But he’s dying of diabetes,” said the Colonel.
“And you’re dying of hunger,” said his wife. “So that you can convince yourself not to eat your pride.”
A bolt of lightning interrupted her. The thunder tore through the house, entered the bedroom and went around under the bed like a horde of rocks. The Colonel’s wife jumped for the mosquito net in search of her rosary.
The Colonel smiled.
“This is what happens when you don’t mind your tongue,” he said. “I keep telling you that God is on my side.”
But in truth he felt embittered. A moment later he put out the light and fell into thought in the darkness broken up by lightning. He remembered Macondo. The Colonel had waited ten years for the promises of Neerlandia to be fulfilled. In the drowsiness of his siesta he had seen the arrival of a yellow, dusty train with men, women, and animal suffocating from heat, filling the cars to the roof. It was the banana rush. Within twenty-four hours the town had been transformed. “I’m going,” the Colonel had said then. “The smell of bananas messes up my intestines.” He left Macondo on the outbound train on Wednesday, June 27, 1906 at 2:18pm. He needed half a century to realize that he had not had a moment’s rest since the surrender at Neerlandia.
He opened his eyes.
“There’s no need to think about it any more,” he said.
“The question of the rooster,” said the Colonel. “Tomorrow I’ll sell it to my friend Sabas for nine hundred pesos.”
The cries of gilded animals penetrated the window, mixed with the shouts of don Sabas.
“If he doesn’t come in ten minutes, I’m going,” the Colonel promised himself, after two hours of waiting. But he waited another twenty minutes. He was about to leave when don Sabas came into the office, followed by a group of workers. He passed in front of the Colonel several times without seeing him. He only noticed him when the workers had gone.
“Are you waiting for me?”
“Yes,” said the Colonel. “But if you’re busy I can come back later.”
Don Sabas didn’t hear him, as he was already on the other side of the door. “I’ll be right back,” he said.
It was a stifling midday. The office shimmered with the rumbling in the street. Wrecked by the heat, the Colonel closed his eyes involuntarily and immediately started dreaming of his wife. Don Sabas’ wife tiptoed in.
“Don’t wake up,” she said. “I’m going to close the blinds because this office is an inferno.”
The Colonel followed her with a completely innocent gaze. She spoke to him in the darkness once she’d closed the window.
“Do you dream often?”
“Sometimes,” responded the Colonel, embarassed for having fallen asleep. “I almost always dream that I’m wrapped up in spiderwebs.”
“I have nightmares every night,” the woman said. “Now I just want to know who those unknown people are that we meet in our dreams.”
She plugged in the electric fan. “Last week a woman appeared to me at the head of my bed,” she said. “I was brave enough to ask her who she was, and she answered: ‘I’m the woman who died twelve years ago in this room.’”
“The house was only built two years ago,” said the Colonel.
“That’s true,” the woman said. “That means that even the dead can make mistakes.”
The buzzing of the electric fan solidified the darkness. The Colonel felt impatient, tormented by sleepiness and this rambling woman who went straight from dreams to the mystery of reincarnation. He was waiting for a pause in order to take his leave when don Sabas entered the office along with his foreman.
“I’ve heated your soup four times,” his wife told him.
“Heat it ten times if you want,” said don Sabas. “But don’t try my patience right now.”
He opened his strongbox and gave his foreman a roll of bills together with a series of instructions. The foreman opened the blinds to count the money. Don Sabas saw the Colonel on the other side of the office but did not react. He continued talking to the foreman. The Colonel stood up when the two men were getting ready to leave the office again. Don Sabas stopped before opening the door.
“What is it you’re offering?”
The Colonel noticed that the foreman was looking at him. “Nothing,” he said. “I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Tell me quick, whatever it is,” said don Sabas. “I haven’t a moment to lose.”
He stayed with his hand on the doorknob. The Colonel felt the five longest seconds of his life go by. He gritted his teeth.
“It’s about the rooster,” he mumbled.
Then don Sabas took his hand off the door. “About the rooster,” he repeated with a smile, and pushed the foreman towards the corridor. “The world is falling to pieces and my friend here is worried about that rooster.”
Then, to the Colonel: “Alright. I’ll be right back.”
The Colonel remained immobile the middle of the office until he could no longer hear the two men’s footsteps in the hallway. Then he went out to walk around the village, which was paralyzed by the Sunday siesta. No one was in the tailor’s. The doctor’s office was closed. No one was purusing the merchandise in the Syrians’ tens. The river was a sheet of steel. A man was sleeping on the dock, on top of four oil drums, his face protected from the sun by a hat. The Colonel headed for home with the certainty that he was the only moving thing in town.
His wife was waiting for him with a complete lunch.
“I made a promise to pay first thing tomorrow morning,” she explained.
During lunch the Colonel recounted the events of the last three hours. She listened to him impatiently.
“It’s that you lack character,” she said. “You went in there like you were asking for a lemon when you should have gone with your head high, taken him aside, and said, ‘I’ve decided to sell you the rooster.’”
“Life is a breeze to hear you tell it,” said the Colonel.
She took on a demeanor of energy. That morning she had put the house in order and she was dressed as she never had been, with the shoes she’d been married in, a rubber apron and a cloth tied around her head with knots at both ears. “You don’t have the least sense for business,” she said. “When you’re going to sell something, you’ve got to act the same as you do when you’re buying.”
The Colonel discovered something amusing in her appearance.
“Stay just like that,” he interrupted with a smile. “You look like the little man on the Quaker oats box.”
She took the cloth off her head.
“I’m being serious,” she said. “I’ll take the rooster to him myself right now and you can try to stop me all you want, but I’ll be back in half an hour with the nine hundred pesos.”
“The numbers have gone to your head,” said the Colonel. “You’ve already started to bet on the rooster.”
It was a struggle to dissuade her. She had dedicated the morning to mentally organizing their lives for three years without the agony of Fridays. She prepared the house to receive the nine hundred pesos. She made a list of the essentials that they lacked, without forgetting a new pair of shoes for the Colonel. She designated a place in the bedroom for a mirror. The momentary frustration of her plans produced a confused feeling of shame and resentment.
She took a short siesta. When she got up, the Colonel was sitting on the patio.
“Now what are you doing?” she asked.
“Thinking,” said the Colonel.
“Then the problem’s solved. We can count on having the money within fifty years.”
But in reality the Colonel had decided to sell the rooster that very afternoon. He thought about don Sabas, alone in his office, preparing himself in front of the electric fan for his daily injection. The Colonel could already hear his answers.
“Take the rooster,” his wife recommended to him when she left. “Being face-to-face will work miracles.”
The Colonel was opposed. She followed him to the front door with a desperate anxiety.
“It doesn’t matter if the whole Army is in his office,” she said. “Take him by the arm and don’t let go until he gives you nine hundred pesos.”
“They’re going to think we’re preparing an assault.”
She didn’t heed him. “Remember that you are the owner of the rooster,” she insisted. “Remember that it’s you who is doing him the favor.”
Don Sabas was with the doctor in his bedroom. “Now’s your chance,” don Sabas’ wife said to the Colonel. “The doctor is getting him ready to go to the country house and he won’t be back until Thursday.” The Colonel debated between two opposing forces: despite his determination to sell the rooster, he would rather have been an hour later so as not to have actually found don Sabas.
“I can wait,” he said.
But his wife insisted. She took him to the bedroom where her husband was sitting in their palatial bed, in his underwear, his colorless eyes fixed on the doctor. The Colonel waited until the doctor heated a glass tube with the patient’s urine, smelled the vapor, and make an approving signal to don Sabas.
“They’ll have to shoot him,” the doctor said to the Colonel. “Diabetes is too slow to do away with the rich.”
“You’ve done all you can with your damned insulin injections,” said don Sabas, and bounced on his flabby rear. “But I’m a tough egg to crack.”
Then to the Colonel: “Come on, my friend. When I went out to look for you this afternoon, I couldn’t even find your hat.”
“I don’t wear one so that I don’t have to take it off for anybody.”
Don Sabas started getting dressed. The doctor put a glass tube with a blood sample in his jacket pocket. Then he put his bag in order. The Colonel though that he was getting ready to leave.
“If I were in your shoes, I’d give my friend here a bill of a hundred thousand pesos, doctor,” said the Colonel. “That way you wouldn’t be so busy.”
“I’ve already made that proposal, only with a million,” the doctor said. “Poverty is the best remedy for diabetes.”
“Thank you for the prescription,” said don Sabas, trying to cram his voluminous side into his riding pants. “But I won’t accept in order to protect you from the calamity of being rich.” The doctor saw his own teeth reflected in the nickel-plated closure of his bag. He looked at his watch without showing any sign of impatience. Once don Sabas was putting his boots on, he turned to the Colonel, but it was bad timing.
“Well, my friend, what’s going on with the rooster?”
The Colonel realized that the doctor was also listening to his answer. He gritted his teeth.
“Nothing,” he murmured. “I’ve come to sell it to you.”
Don Sabas finished putting on his boots.
“Great,” he said, without emotion. “That’s the most sensible thing you could do.”
“I’m too old for this kind of trouble,” the Colonel explained in the face of the doctor’s impenetrable expression. “If I were twenty years younger, it would be different.”
“You’ll always be twenty years younger,” replied the doctor.
The Colonel took a breath. He waited for don Sabas to say something more, but he didn’t. Don Sabas put on a leather jacket with a zipper and got ready to leave the room.
“If you’d rather, we can talk next week,” said the Colonel.
“I was going to say that,” said don Sabas. “I have a client who might give you four hundred pesos. But we’d have to wait until Thursday.”
“How much?” said the doctor.
“Four hundred pesos.”
“I’ve heard that it’s worth a lot more,” said the doctor.
“You had talked to me about nine hundred pesos,” said the Colonel, buoyed by the doctor’s confusion. “It’s the best rooster in the whole department.”
Don Sabas responded to the doctor. “Any other time, I would’ve given a thousand,” he explained. “But right now, no one is letting go of a good rooster. There’s always the risk that they end up shot at the fights.”
He turned to the Colonel with exaggerated grief. “That’s what I wanted to tell you.”
The Colonel nodded his head. “Alright,” he said.
He followed the other down the corredor. The doctor stayed in the sitting room, summoned by don Sabas’ wife so that he could give her a remedy “for those things that suddenly befall one but one doesn’t know what they are.” The Colonel waited for don Sabas in his office. Don Sabas opened his strongbox, put money in all his pockets and held out four bills to the Colonel.
“Here’s sixty pesos,” he said. “When you sell the rooster we’ll settle our accounts.”
The Colonel accompanied the doctor through the bazaar around the port that was beginning to revive with the coolness of the evening. A barge laden with sugarcane was coming downstream. The Colonel noticed an uncharacteric withdrawal.
“And how are you, doctor?”
The doctor shrugged. “Fine,” he said. “I think I need to see a doctor.”
“It’s winter,” said the Colonel. “For me, it takes apart my insides.”
The doctor looked at him with an expression totally empty of professional interest. One after another, he greeted each of the Syrians seated at the doors of their shops. In the doorway of the doctor’s office, the Colonel expressed his opinion about selling the rooster.
“I couldn’t do anything else,” he explained. “That animal feeds on human flesh.”
“The only animal that feeds on human flesh is don Sabas,” said the doctor. “I’m certain that he’ll resell the rooster for nine hundred pesos.”
“You think so?”
“I’m sure of it,” said the doctor. “It’s as profitable as his famous ‘patriotic pact’ with the mayor.”
The Colonel hesitated to believe it. “He made that pact to save his own skin,” he said. “It’s why he was able to stay in town.”
“And why he was able to buy everything owned by his own compatriots that were expelled at half-price,” the doctor replied. He knocked on the door, not having found his keys in his pockets. Then he faced the Colonel’s incredulity.
“Don’t be naive,” he said. “Don Sabas is much more concerned with money than his own skin.”
The Colonel’s wife went shopping that night. He accompanied her as far as the Syrians’ shops, ruminating on the doctor’s revelation.
“Go find the boys and tell them that the rooster’s been sold,” his wife told him. “Don’t leave them with false hope.”
“The rooster won’t be sold until don Sabas returns,” responded the Colonel.
They found Álvaro playing roulette in the pool hall. The place was boiling Sunday nights. The heat seemed even more intense thanks to the vibration of the radio at full volume. The Colonel occupied himself with the brightly-colored numbers painted on a large rubber sheet hung on the wall and illuminated by a gas latern on a box in the middle of the table. Álvaro persisted in losing on twenty-three. Watching the game from over his shoulder, the Colonel noticed that eleven came up four times in nine spins.
“Bet on eleven,” he whispered in Álvaro’s ear. “It’s the one that comes up the most.”
Álvaro examined the wallhanging. He didn’t bet on the next spin. He took some money out of his pants pocket, and with it a sheet of paper. He gave it to the Colonel under the table.
“From Agustín,” he said.
The Colonel put the secret note in his pocket. Álvaro placed a large bet on eleven.
“Start slowly,” said the Colonel.
“It could be a good hunch,” replied Álvaro. A group of nearby players took their bets from other numbers and put them on eleven after the multicolored wheel had already begun to spin. The Colonel felt pressed in. For the first time he felt the fascination, the excitement, and the bitterness of gambling.
It came up five.
“Sorry,” said the Colonel abashed, and he followed the little wooden rake that scraped up Álvaro’s money with an irresistible feeling of guilt. “That’s what I get for sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong.”
Álvaro smiled without looking.
“Don’t worry about it, Colonel. Trust in love.”
Suddenly the trumpets playing the mambo were interrupted. The players dispersed with their hands in the air. The Colonel felt at his back the click–dry, articulate, and cold–of a rifle being cocked. He realized that he had gotten caught up in a police raid with the secret note in his pocket. He turned halfway without raising his hands. Then he saw close, for the first time in his life, the man who had shot his son. He was facing the Colonel with the barrel of his rifle against the Colonel’s side. He was small, Indian-looking, with leathery skin, and he gave off a child-like stench. The Colonel gritted his teeth and softly pushed the rifle barrel away with two fingers.
“Excuse me,” he said.
He faced two small, round, bat-like eyes. In an instant he felt drunk by those eyes, ground up, digested, and immediately expelled.
“Go ahead, Colonel.”
He didn’t need to open a window to identify December. He discovered it in his bones when he was chopping up fruit in the kitchen for the rooster’s breakfast. Then he opened the door and the sight of the patio confirmed his intuition. It was a marvellous patio, with grass and trees and the little outhouse floating in the brightness, a millimeter off the ground.
His wife stayed in bed until nine. When she appeared in the kitchen, the Colonel had already put the house in order and was talking with the children around the rooster.
She had to wind her way around to get to the stove.
“Get out from underfoot!” she shouted. She gave a somber glance towards the animal. “I can’t wait until this stormcrow is out of here.”
The Colonel considered his wife’s mood as regards to the rooster. Nothing warranted anger. He was ready for training. His neck and bare, purple thighs, his little bit of comb, the animaal had acquired a slight figure, a vulnerable air.
“Go to the window and forget about the rooster,” said the Colonel when the children had gone. “It’s a morning fit for a painting.”
She went to the window but her face did not show any emotion. “I’d like to plant the roses,” she said on coming back to the stove. The Colonel hung up the mirror on a post to shave.
“If you want to plant them, do it,” he said.
He tried to connect his movements with those of the image in the mirror.
“The pigs eat them,” his wife said.
“Even better,” said the Colonel. “Pigs fattened on roses must be really good.”
He looked for his wife in the mirror and realized that her expression was unchanged. By the gleam of the fire her face seemed to be modeled in the same material as the stove. Without realizing, his eyes fixed on her, the Colonel continued shaving by touch like he had been doing for many years. His wife thought for a long silence.
“I don’t want to plant them,” she said.
“Alright,” said the Colonel. “Then don’t plant them.”
He felt good. December had run off the flora from his guts. He had a setback that morning trying to put on his new shoes. But after trying several times he realized that it was pointless, and so he put on his patent-leather boots. His wife noticed the change.
“If you don’t put on the new ones you’ll never break them in,” she said.
“They’re shoes for a cripple,” the Colonel protested. “They should sell shoes that have been worn for a month.”
He went out, stimulated by the feeling that the letter would arrive that afternoon. Since it wasn’t yet time for the boats to arrive, he waited for don Sabas in his office.
But they told him that don Sabas wouldn’t return until Monday. The Colonel was not disappointed despite not having foreseen this delay. “Sooner or later he has to come,” he said to himself, and headed for the port; it was an incredible moment, still unblemished.
“It should be December all year,” he murmured, sitting in the shop owned by Moses the Syrian. “I feel like I’m made of glass.”
Moses the Syrian had to make an effort to translate this idea to his almost-forgotten Arabic. He was a calm Middle-Easterner, covered up to his head in smooth, grooved skin, with the slow movements of someone suffocating. He always seemed to have just been rescued from the water.
“So it was before,” he said. “If it was like that now, I’d be 897 years old. And you?”
“Seventy-five,” said the Colonel, following the mailman with his eyes. It was only then that he noticed the circus. He recognized the tattered tent on the roof of the mail boat among a mountain of colored objects. For an instant he lost sight of the postman to look for wild animals among the boxes crowded together on the other boats. He couldn’t find any.
“It’s a circus,” he said. “The first one in ten years.”
Moses the Syrian confirmed this. He spoke with his wife in a mixture of Arabic and Spanish. She responded from the back room. He made some comment to himself and then translated his worry to the Colonel.
“Hide your cat, Colonel. The children will steal it to sell it to the circus.”
The Colonel went back to watching the mailman. “It’s not an animal circus,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter,” replied the Syrian. “The acrobats eat cats so they won’t break any bones.”
The Colonel followed the mailman through the shops at the port to the plaza. There he was surprised by the turbulent clamor of the cockfights. Someone, in passing, said something about his rooster. It was only then that he realized that it was the day to start his training.
He went through the post office. A moment later he was submerged in the turbulent atmosphere of the cockfights. He saw his rooster in the middle of the path, alone, defenseless, his spurs wrapped in cloth, with fear evident in the shaking of his feet. His adversary was a sad, ash-gray rooster.
The Colonel did not feel any emotion. There was a succession of equal assaults. An instant mash of feathers and feet and necks in the middle of rowdy cheering. Thrown against the boards of the ring, the opponent did a flip and returned to the attack. His rooster did not attack. He deflected every attack and landed back exactly in the same spot. But now his feet weren’t shaking.
Germán jumped over the barrier, held the rooster up in both hands and showed it to the public in the stands. There was a frenetic explosion of applause and shouts. The Colonel noted the disconnect between the enthusiasm of the crowd and the intensity of the scene. It seemed like a farce in which, voluntarily and consciously, the roosters were participating as well.
He examined the circular stands, propelled by a somewhat scornful curiosity. An exultant crowd plunged down the stands towards the ring. The Colonel observed the confusion of faces: warm, anxious, and terribly alive. They were new people. All the new people of the town. He relived–like an omen–a moment erased from the edge of his memory. Then he jumped the barricade, forced his way through the crowd concentrated in the ring and faced the calm eyes of Germán. They looked at each other without blinking.
“Good afternoon, Colonel.”
The Colonel took the rooster. “Good afternoon,” he mumbled. He didn’t say anything else because he was shaken by the hot, deep fluttering of the animal. He thought he had never had something so alive in his hands.
“You weren’t at home,” said Germán, confused.
A new round of applause interrupted him. The Colonel felt intimidated. He started to force a path again, without looking at anyone, bewildered by the applause and shouting, and went out onto the street with the rooster under his arm.
The whole town–the people from below–came out to see him pass, followed by the schoolchildren. A giant black man had climbed onto a table and with a snake around his neck was selling medicine without a license in one corner of the plaza. Coming back from the port, a huge group had stopped to listen to his announcement. But when the Colonel passed with the rooster, their attention shifted to him. The road to his house had never been this long.
He had no regrets. For a long time, the town had been lying in a type of stupor, ravaged by ten years of history. That afternoon–another Friday with no letter–the people had woken up. The Colonel remembered another time. He saw himself with his wife and his son attending, under an umbrella, a show that wasn’t interrupted despite the rain. He remembered the leaders of his party, dressed to the nines, fanning themselves on his patio in time with the music. He almost relived even the painful resonance of the bass drum in his intestines.
He crossed the street parallel to the river and there too found the tumultuous masses from the long-ago election days. They were watching the circus unload. From inside an urn shop, a woman shouted something to do with the rooster. He continued, mesmerized, to his house, still hearing voices everywhere, like the scraps of applause from the cockfight were following him.
At the door, he spoke to the children.
“Everyone home,” he said. “Anyone inside will get my belt until they’re gone.”
He pushed the door handle and went straight to the kitchen. His wife came suffocating out of the bedroom.
“They took it by force,” she yelled. “I told them that the rooster wouldn’t leave this house while I lived.” The Colonel tied the rooster to the leg of the stove. He changed the water in its jar, followed by the frantic voice of his wife.
“They said they’d take it over our dead bodies,” she said. “They said the rooster wasn’t ours, but belonged to the whole town.”
Only when he’d finished with the rooster did the Colonel face his wife’s unhinged face. He realized without surprise that it didn’t produce either regret or compassion.
“They did the right thing,” he said calmly. Then, searching his pockets, he added with a sort of bottomless sweetness: “The rooster won’t sell.”
She followed him to the bedroom. She felt him to be completely human, but intangible, like she was seeing him on a movie screen. The Colonel took a roll of bills from the wardrobe, combined it with what he had in his pockets, counted the total, and put them all back in the wardrobe.
“Here’s twenty-nine pesos to pay back don Sabas,” he said. “The rest will be paid when my pension comes.”
“And if it doesn’t come?” his wife asked.
“But if it doesn’t.”
“Then he won’t get paid.”
He found his new shoes under the bed. He went back to the wardrobe for the cardboard box, cleaned the soles with a cloth, and put the shoes in the box, just as his wife had brought them Sunday night. She didn’t move.
“Take back the shoes,” said the Colonel. “That’s thirteen pesos more for my friend.”
“They won’t take them,” she said.
“They have to,” replied the Colonel. “I’ve only put them on twice.”
“The Turks don’t understand things like that,” said his wife.
“They have to understand.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Then they don’t.”
They went to bed without eating. The Colonel waited until his wife finished saying the rosary to put out the light. But he couldn’t sleep. He heard the bells of the film censor, and almost right behind–three hours behind–the curfew. His wife’s rocky breathing was worsened by the icy air of dawn. The Colonel still had his eyes open with she spoke with a soothing, conciliatory voice.
“Try to think sense,” she said. “Talk with don Sabas tomorrow.”
“He won’t be back until Monday.”
“Even better,” said his wife. “You’ll have three days to recover.”
“There’s nothing to recover from,” said the Colonel.
The thick air of October had been replaced by a calm coolness. The Colonel recognized December again via the schedule of the stone-curlews. When it was two o’clock, he still hadn’t been able to sleep. But he knew his wife was still awake too. He tried to shift position in his hammock.
“You’re up,” said his wife.
She thought a moment. “We’re not in a fit state to do this,” she said. “Think about how much four hundred pesos all at once is.”
“My pension will come soon,” said the Colonel.
“You’ve been saying the same thing for fifteen years.”
“That’s why,” said the Colonel, “it can’t be much longer.”
She was silent. But when she spoke again, the Colonel felt like no time had passed.
“I feel like that money will never come,” she said.
“And if it doesn’t come?”
He found no voice with which to answer. On the rooster’s first crow, he stumbled over reality, but he was able to drown himself again in a deep sleep, safe, without remorse. When he woke up, the sun was already high in the sky. He wife was sleeping. The Colonel repeated, methodically, two hours late, his morning routine, and woke up his wife without having breakfast.
She got up, inscrutable. They greeted each other and went to have breakfast in silence. The Colonel slurped a mug of black coffee along with a piece of cheese and a sweet bread. He spent the whole morning at the tailor’s. At one, he went back to the house and found his wife sewing among the begonias.
“It’s lunchtime,” he siad.
“There’s no lunch,” said his wife.
He shrugged. He tried to fix the openings in the fence so that the children wouldn’t come into the kitchen. When he returned to the corridor the table was set.
Over the course of lunch, the Colonel realized that his wife was forcing herself not to cry. The certainty alarmed him. He knew his wife’s character, naturally tough, and toughened that much more by years of hardship. The death of their son had not brought out a single tear.
He fixed her with a reproaching look. She bit her lip, dried her eyes with her sleeve, and kept eating.
“You’re inconsiderate,” she said.
The Colonel didn’t speak.
“You’re flighty, stubborn, and inconsiderate,” she repeated. She crossed her cutlery over her plate, but immediately changed their position out of superstition. “A whole life of eating dirt only for it to turn out now that I deserve less consideration than a rooster.”
“It’s different,” said the Colonel.
“It’s the same,” replied his wife. “You should’ve realized that I’m dying, that what I have isn’t some sickness, it’s my death-throes.”
The Colonel didn’t speak until he’d finished eating.
“If the doctor could guarantee that selling the rooster would cure your asthma, I’d do it straight away,” he said. “But if not, no.”
That afternoon, he took the rooster to the fights. On returning, he found his wife on the edge of an attack. She went down the hall, her hair loose down her back, her arms open, searching for air over the whistling of her lungs. She was there until early evening. Then she went to bed without a word to her husband.
She prayed until a little after curfew. Then the Colonel went to put out the light. But she stopped him.
“I don’t want to die in the dark,” she said.
The Colonel left the lamp on the floor. He started to feel worn out. He wanted to forget it all, to sleep forty-four days at once and wake up on January 20 at three in the afternoon, in the cockfight in the moment of releasing the rooster. But he felt threatened by his wife’s being awake.
“It’s the same story as always,” she began a moment later. “We stay hungry so that others can eat. It’s the same story for forty years.”
The Colonel remained silent until his wife paused to ask him if he was still awake. He said he was. His wife continued in a light, flowing, implacable tone.
“Everyone will earn something from the rooster, except us. We’re the only ones without a cent to bet.”
“The owner of the rooster has a right to twenty percent.”
“You also had a right to a post when you set out to break your back in the elections,” she replied. “You also had a right to your veteran’s pension after risking your neck in the civil war. Now everyone has their life set and you’re starving to death, totally alone.”
“I’m not alone,” said the Colonel.
He tried to explain something, but sleep took him. His wife kept talking until she realized he was asleep. Then she went out of the mosquito net and went through the sitting room in the darkness. There she kept talking. The Colonel called for her at dawn. She appeared in the doorway, spectral, lit from behind by the almost-extinguished lamp. She put it out before getting into the mosquito net. But she continued talking.
“We’re going to do something,” the Colonel interrupted.
“The only thing to do is sell the rooster,” said his wife.
“We could sell the clock, too.”
“No one will buy it.”
“Tomorrow I’ll try to get Álvaro to give me forty pesos.”
“Then we’ll sell the picture.”
When his wife started to speak again, it was from outside the mosquito net. The Colonel smelled her breath, full of medicinal herbs.
“No one will buy it,” she said.
“We’ll see,” said the Colonel softly, without any change in his voice. “Now go to sleep. If we can’t sell anything tomorrow, we’ll think of something else.”
He tried to keep his eyes open, but sleep overcame him. He fell to the bottom of a substance without time and without space, where his wife’s words had a different meaning. But an instant later he felt himself being shaken by the shoulder.
The Colonel didn’t know if he heard those words before or after he fell asleep. Daylight was breaking. The window was outlined in the green light of Sunday. He thought he had a fever. His eyes were burning and he had to make a great effort to come back to himself.
“What can we do if we can’t sell anything?” repeated his wife.
“Then it’ll be January 20,” said the Colonel, fully awake. “They’ll pay twenty percent that afternoon.”
“If the rooster wins,” said his wife. “But if it loses? It hasn’t occurred to you that the rooster could lose.”
“It’s a rooster that can’t lose.”
“But supposing it does.”
“We still have forty-five days to think about that,” said the Colonel.
His wife was infuriated.
“And meanwhile what will we eat?” she asked, and grabbed the Colonel by the collar of his nightshirt. She shook him vigorously.
“Tell me, what will we eat?”
The Colonel had needed seventy-five years–the seventy-five years of his life, moment by moment–to come to this moment. He felt pure, clear, invincible at the moment he answered: