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Chapter 18

Aureli-ano DID NOT leave Melquíades' room for a long time. He learned by heart the fantastic legends of the crumbling books, the synthesis the studies of Hermann the Cripple, the notes on the science of demonology, the keys to the philosopher's stone, the Centuries of Nostradamus and his research concerning the plague, so that he reached adolescence without knowing a thing about his own time but with the basic knowledge of a medieval man. Any time that Santa Sofía de la Piedad would go into his room she would find him absorbed in his reading. At dawn she would bring him a mug of coffee without sugar and at noon a plate of rice slices of fried plantain, which were the only things eaten in the house since the death of Aureli-ano Segun-do. She saw that his hair was cut, picked off the nits, took in to his size the old clothing that she found in forgotten trunks, and when his mustache began to appear the brought him Colonel Aureli-ano Buendía's razor and the small gourd he had used as a shaving mug. None of the latter's children had looked so much like him, not even Aureli-ano José, particularly in respect to the prominent cheekbones and the firm and rather pitiless line of the lips. As had happened to úrsula with Aureli-ano Segun-do when the latter was studying in the room, Santa Sofía de la Piedad thought that Aureli-ano was talking to himself. Actually, he was talking to Melquíades. One burning noon, a short time after the death of the twins, against the light of the window he saw the gloomy old man with his crow's-wing hat like the materialization of a memory that had been in his head since long before he was born. Aureli-ano had finished classifying the alphabet of the parchments, so that when Melquíades asked him if he had discovered the language in which they had been written he did not hesitate to answer.
"Sanskrit," he said.
Melquíades revealed to him that his opportunities to return to the room were limited. But he would go in peace to the meadows of the ultimate death because Aureli-ano would have time to learn Sanskrit during the years remaining until the parchments became one hundred years old, when they could be deciphered. It was he who indicated to Aureli-ano that on the narrow street going down to the river, where dreams had been interpreted during the time of the banana company, a wise Catalonian had a bookstore where there was a Sanskrit primer, which would be eaten by the moths within six years if he did not hurry to buy it. For the first time in her long life Santa Sofía de la Piedad let a feeling show through, and it was a feeling of wonderment when Aureli-ano asked her to bring him the book that could be found between Jerusalem Delivered and Milton's poems on the extreme right-hand side of the second shelf of the bookcases. Since she could not read, she memorized what he had said and got some money by selling one of the seventeen little gold fishes left in the workshop, the whereabouts of which, after being hidden the night the soldiers searched the house, was known only by her and Aureli-ano.
Aureli-ano made progress in his studies of Sanskrit as Melquíades' visits became less and less frequent and he was more distant, fading away in the radiant light of noon. The last time that Aureli-ano sensed him he was only an invisible presence who murmured: "I died of fever on the sands of Singapore." The room then became vulnerable to dust, heat, termites, red ants, and moths, who would turn the wisdom of the parchments into sawdust.
There was no shortage of food in the house. The day after the death of Aureli-ano Segun-do, one of the friends who had brought the wreath with the irreverent inscription offered to pay Fernanda some money that he had owed her husband. After that every Wednesday a delivery boy brought a basket of food that was quite sufficient for a week. No one ever knew that those provisions were being sent by Petra Cotes with the idea that the continuing charity was a way humiliating the person who had humiliated her. Nevertheless, the rancor disappeared much sooner than she herself had expected, and then she continued sending the food out of pride and finally out of compassion. Several times, when she had no animals to raffle off and people lost interest in the lottery, she went without food so that Fernanda could have something to eat, and she continued fulfilling the pledge to herself until she saw Fernanda's funeral procession pass by.
For Santa Sofía de la Piedad the reduction in the number of inhabitants of the house should have meant the rest she deserved after more than half a century of work. Never a lament had been heard from that stealthy, impenetrable woman who had sown in the family the angelic seed of Remedios the Beauty and the mysterious solemnity of José Arcadio Segun-do; who dedicated a whole life of solitude and diligence to the rearing of children although she could barely remember whether they were her children or grandchildren, and who took care of Aureli-ano as if he had come out of her womb, not knowing herself that she was his great--grandmother. Only in a house like that was it conceivable for her always to sleep on a mat she laid out on the pantry floor in the midst of the nocturnal noise of the rats, and without telling anyone that one night she had awakened with the frightened feeling that someone was looking at her in the darkness and that it was a poisonous snake crawling over her stomach. She knew that if she had told úrsula, the latter would have made her sleep in her own bed, but those were times when no one was aware of anything unless it was shouted on the porch, because with the bustle of the bakery, the surprises of the war, the care of the children, there was not much room for thinking about other peoples happiness. -Petra Cotes whom she had never seen, was the only one who remembered her. She saw to it that she had a good pair of shoes for street wear, that she always had clothing, even during the times when the raffles were working only through some miracle. When Fernanda arrived at the house she had good reason to think that she was an ageless servant, even though she heard it said several times that she was her husband's mother it was so incredible that it took her longer to discover it than to forget it. Santa Sofía de la Piedad never seemed bothered by that lowly position. On the contrary, one had the impression that she liked to stay in the corners, without a pause, without a complaint, keeping clean and in order the immense house that she had lived in ever since adolescence and that, especially during the time of the banana company, was more like a barracks than a home. But when úrsula died the superhuman diligence of Santa Sofía de la Piedad, her tremendous capacity for work, began to fall apart. It was not only that she was old and exhausted, but overnight the house had plunged into a crisis of senility. A soft moss grew up the walls. When there was no longer a bare spot in the courtyard, the weeds broke through the cement the porch, breaking it like glass, and out of the cracks grew the same yellow flowers that úrsula had found in the glass with Melquíades' false teeth a century before. With neither the time nor the resources to halt the challenge of nature, Santa Sofía de la Piedad spent the day in the bedrooms driving out the lizards who would return at night. One morning she saw that the red ants had left the undermined foundations, crossed the garden, climbed up the railing, where the begonias had taken on an earthen color, and had penetrated into the heart of the house. She first tried to kill them with a broom, then with insecticides, and finally with lye, but the next day they were back in the same place, still passing by, tenacious and invincible. Fernanda, writing letters to her children, was not aware of the unchecked destructive attack. Santa Sofía de la Piedad continued struggling alone, fighting the weeds to stop them from getting into the kitchen, pulling from the walls the tassels of spider webs which were rebuilt in a few hours, scraping off the termites. But when she saw that Melquíades' room was also dusty and filled with cobwebs even though she swept and dusted three times a day, and that in spite of her furious cleaning it was threatened by the debris and the air of misery that had been foreseen only by Colonel Aureli-ano Buendía and the young officer, she realized that she was defeated. Then she put on her worn Sunday dress, some old shoes of úrsula's, and a pair of cotton stockings that Amaranta úrsula had given her, and she made a bundle out of the two or three changes of clothing that she had left.
"I give up," she said to Aureli-ano. "This is too much house for my poor bones."
Aureli-ano asked her where she was going and she made a vague sign, as if she did not have the slightest idea of her destination. She tried to be more precise, however, saying that she was going to spend her last years with a first cousin who lived in Riohacha. It was not a likely explanation. Since the death of her parents she had not had contact with anyone in town or received letters or messages, nor had she been heard to speak of any relatives. Aureli-ano gave her fourteen little gold fishes because she was determined to leave with only she had: one peso and twenty-five cents. From the window of the room he saw her cross the courtyard with her bundle of clothing, dragging her feet and bent over by her years, and he saw her reach hand through an opening in the main door and replace the bar after she had gone out. Nothing was ever heard of her again.
When she heard about the flight, Fernanda ranted for a whole day as she checked trunks, dressers, closets, item by item, to make sure that Santa Sofía de la Piedad had not made off with anything. She burned her fingers trying to light a fire for the first time in life and she had to ask Aureli-ano to do her the favor of showing her how to make coffee. Fernanda would find her breakfast ready when she arose and she would leave her room again only to get the meal that Aureli-ano had left covered on the embers for her, which she would carry to the table to eat on linen tablecloths and between candelabra, sitting at the solitary head of the table facing fifteen empty chairs. Even under those circumstances Aureli-ano and Fernanda did not share their solitude, but both continued living on their own, cleaning their respective rooms while the cobwebs fell like snow on the rose bushes, carpeted the beams, cushioned the walls. It was around that time that Fer-nanda got the impression that the house was filling up with elves. It was as if things, especially those for everyday use, had developed a faculty for changing location on their own. Fernanda would waste time looking for the shears that she was sure she had put on the bed and after turning everything upside down she would find them on a shelf in the kitchen, where she thought she had not been for four days. Suddenly there was no fork in the silver chest and she would find six on the altar and three in the washroom. That wandering about of things was even more exasperating when she sat down to write. The inkwell that she had placed at her right would be on the left, the blotter would be lost and she would find it two days later under her pillow, and the pages written to José Arcadio would get mixed up with those written to Amaranta úrsula, and she always had the feeling of mortification that she had put the letters in opposite envelopes, as in fact happened several times. On one occasion she lost her fountain pen. Two weeks later the mailman, who had found it in his bag, returned it. He had been going from house to house looking for its owner. At first she thought it was some business of the invisible doctors, like the disappearance of the pessaries, and she even started a letter to them begging them to leave her alone, but she had to interrupt it to do something and when she went back to her room she not only did not find the letter she had started but she had forgotten the reason for writing it. For a time she thought it was Aureli-ano. She began to spy on him, to put things in his path trying to catch him when he changed their location, but she was soon convinced that Aureli-ano never left Melquíades' room except to go to the kitchen or the toilet, and that he was not a man to play tricks. So in the end she believed that it was the mischief elves and she decided to secure everything in the place where she would use it. She tied the shears to the head of her bed with a long string. She tied the pen and the blotter to the leg of the table, and the glued the inkwell to the top of it to the right of the place where she normally wrote. The problems were not solved overnight, because a few hours after she had tied the string to the shears it was not long enough for her to cut with, as if the elves had shortened it. The same thing happened to her with the string to the pen and even with her own arm which after a short time of writing could not reach the inkwell. Neither Amaranta úrsula in Brussels nor José Arcadio in Rome ever heard about those insignificant misfortunes. Fernanda told them that she was happy and in reality she was, precisely because she felt free from any compromise, as if life were pulling her once more toward the world of her parents, where one did not suffer with day-to-day problems because they were solved beforehand in one's imagination. That endless correspondence made her lose sense of time, especially after Santa Sofía de la Piedad had left. She had been accustomed to keep track of the days, months, and years, using as points of reference the dates set for the return of her children. But when they changed their plans time and time again, the dates became confused, the periods were mislaid, and one day seemed so much like another that one could not feel them pass. Instead of becoming impatient, she felt a deep pleasure in the delay. It did not worry her that many years after announcing the eve of his final vows, José Arcadio was still saying that he was waiting to finish his studies in advanced theology in order to undertake those in diplomacy, because she understood how steep and paved with obstacles was the spiral stairway that led to the throne of Saint Peter. On the othand, her spirits rose with news that would have been insignificant for other people, such as the fact that her son had seen the Pope. She felt a similar pleasure when Amaranta úrsula wrote to tell her that studies would last longer than the time foreseen because her excellent grades had earned her privileges that her father had not taken into account in his calculations.
More than three years had passed since Santa Sofía de la Piedad had brought him the grammar when Aureli-ano succeeded in translating the first sheet. It was not a useless chore. but it was only a first step along a road whose length it was impossible to predict, because the text in Spanish did not mean anything: the lines were in code. Aureli-ano lacked the means to establish the keys that would permit him to dig them out, but since Melquíades had told him that the books he needed to get to the bottom of the parchments were in the wise Catalonian's store, he decided to speak to Fernanda so that she would let him get them. In the room devoured by rubble, whose unchecked proliferation had finally defeated it, he thought about the best way to frame the request, but when he found Fernanda taking her meal from the embers, which was his only chance to speak to her, the laboriously formulated request stuck in his throat he lost his voice. That was the only time that he watched her. He listened to her steps in the bedroom. He heard her on her way to the door to await the letters from her children and to give hers to the mailman, and he listened until late at night to the harsh, impassioned scratching pen on the paper before hearing the sound of the light switch and the murmur of her prayers in the darkness. Only then did he go to sleep, trusting that on the following day the awaited opportunity would come. He became so inspired with the idea that permission would be granted that one morning he cut his hair, which at that time reached down to his shoulders, shaved off his tangled beard, put on some tight-fitting pants and a shirt with an artificial collar that he had inherited from he did not know whom, and waited in the kitchen for Fernanda to get her breakfast. The woman of every day, the one with her head held high and with a stony gait, did not arrive, but an old woman of supernatural beauty with a yellowed ermine cape, a crown gilded cardboard, and the languid look of a person who wept in secret. Actually, ever since she had found it in Aureli-ano Segun-do's trunks, Fernanda had put on the motheaten queen's dress many times. Anyone who could have seen her in front of the mirror, in ecstasy over her own regal gestures, would have had reason to think that she was mad. But she was not. She had simply turned the royal regalia into a device for her memory. The first time that she put it on she could not help a knot from forming in her heart and her eyes filling with tears because at that moment she smelled once more the odor of shoe polish on the boots of the officer who came to get her at her house to make her a queen, and her soul brightened with the nostalgia of her lost dreams. She felt so old, so worn out, so far away from the best moments life that she even yearned for those that she remembered as the worst, and only then did she discover how much she missed the whiff of oregano on the porch and the smell of the roses at dusk, and even the bestial nature of the parvenus. Her heart of compressed ash, which had resisted the most telling blows of daily reality without strain, fell apart with the first waves of nostalgia. The need to feel sad was becoming a vice as the years eroded her. She became human in her solitude. Nevertheless, the morning on which she entered the kitchen and found a cup of coffee offered her by a pale and bony adolescent with a hallucinated glow in his eyes, the claws of ridicule tore at her. Not only did she refuse him permission, but from then on she carried the keys to the house in the pocket where she kept the unused pessaries. It was a useless precaution because if he had wanted to, Aureli-ano could have escaped and even returned to the house without being seen. But the prolonged captivity, the uncertainty of the world, the habit of obedience had dried up the seeds of rebellion in his heart. So that he went back to his enclosure, reading and rereading the parchments and listening until very late at night to Fernanda sobbing in bedroom. One morning he went to light the fire as usual on the extinguished ashes he found the food that he had left for her the day before. Then he looked into bedroom and saw her lying on the bed covered with the ermine cape, more beautiful than ever and with her skin turned into an ivory casing. Four months later, when José Arcadio arrived, he found her intact.


It............

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