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Authors: Gabriel García Márquez,J. S. Bernstein

No One Writes to the Colonel

BOOK: No One Writes to the Colonel
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Gabriel García Márquez
 
NO ONE WRITES TO THE COLONEL
Translated by J. S. Bernstein
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gabriel García Márquez was born in Aracataca, Colombia, in 1927. He studied at the University of Bogotá and later worked as a reporter for the Colombian newspaper
El Espectador
and as a foreign correspondent in Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Caracas and New York. He is the author of several novels and collections of stories, including
Eyes of a Blue Dog
(1947),
Leaf Storm
(1955),
No One Writes to the Colonel
(1958),
In Evil Hour
(1962),
Big Mama’s Funeral
(1962),
One Hundred Years of Solitude
(1967),
Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories
(1972),
The Autumn of the Patriarch
(1975),
Chronicle of a Death Foretold
(1981),
Love in the Time of Cholera
(1985),
The General in His Labyrinth
(1989),
Strange Pilgrims
(1992),
Of Love and Other Demons
(1994) and
Memories of My Melancholy
Whores
(2005). Many of his books are published by Penguin. Gabriel García Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. He lives in Mexico City.

PENGUIN BOOKS

NO ONE WRITES TO THE COLONEL

‘A masterly picture of despair and optimism whose vivid alterations seem to characterize so much of Latin American life. He dazzles us with powerful effect’
New Statesman

‘Márquez writes in this lyrical, magical language that no one else can do’ Salman Rushdie

‘Of all the living authors known to me, only one is undoubtedly touched by genius: Gabriel
García Márquez’
Sunday Telegraph

‘The most important writer of fiction in any language’ Bill Clinton

‘An imaginative writer of genius, the topmost pinnacle of an entire generation of Latin American novelists of cathedral-like proportions’
Guardian

‘One of this century’s most evocative writers’ Anne Tyler

‘Márquez is a retailer of wonders’
Sunday Times

‘Sentence for sentence, there is hardly
another writer in the world so generous with incidental pleasures’
Independent

The colonel took the top off the coffee can and saw that there was only one little spoonful left. He removed the pot from the fire, poured half the water onto the earthen floor, and scraped the inside of the can with a knife until the last scrapings of the ground coffee, mixed with bits of rust, fell into the pot.

While he was waiting for it to boil, sitting next to the stone fireplace with
an attitude of confident and innocent expectation, the colonel experienced the feeling that fungus and poisonous lilies were taking root in his gut. It was October. A difficult morning to get through, even for a man like himself, who had survived so many mornings like this one. For nearly sixty years – since the end of the last civil war – the colonel had done nothing else but wait. October was
one of the few things which arrived.

His wife raised the mosquito netting when she saw him come into the bedroom with the coffee. The night before she had suffered an asthma attack, and now she was in a drowsy state. But she sat up to take the cup.

‘And you?’ she said.

‘I’ve had mine,’ the colonel lied. ‘There was still a big spoonful left.’

The bells began ringing at that moment. The colonel
had forgotten the funeral. While his wife was drinking her coffee, he unhooked the hammock at one end, and
rolled it up on the other, behind the door. The woman thought about the dead man.

‘He was born in 1922,’ she said. ‘Exactly a month after our son. April 7th.’

She continued sipping her coffee in the pauses of her gravelly breathing. She was scarcely more than a bit of white on an arched,
rigid spine. Her disturbed breathing made her put her questions as assertions. 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 paid no attention. He opened the window. October had moved in on the patio. Contemplating the vegetation, which was bursting out in intense greens, and the tiny mounds the
worms made in the mud, the colonel felt the sinister month again in his intestines.

‘I’m wet through to the bones,’ he said.

‘It’s winter,’ the woman replied. ‘Since it began raining I’ve been telling you to sleep with your socks on.’

‘I’ve been sleeping with them for a week.’

It rained gently but ceaselessly. The colonel would have preferred to wrap himself in a wool blanket and get back
into the hammock. But the insistence of the cracked bells reminded him about the funeral. ‘It’s October,’ he whispered, and walked toward the center of the room. Only then did he remember the rooster tied to the leg of the bed. It was a fighting cock.

After taking the cup into the kitchen, he wound the pendulum clock in its carved wooden case in the living room. Unlike the bedroom, which was
too narrow for an asthmatic’s breathing, the living room was large,
with four sturdy rockers around a little table with a cover and a plaster cat. On the wall opposite the clock, there was a picture of a woman dressed in tulle, surrounded by cupids in a boat laden with roses.

It was seven-twenty when he finished winding the clock. Then he took the rooster into the kitchen, tied it to a leg of
the stove, changed the water in the can, and put a handful of corn next to it. A group of children came in through a hole in the fence. They sat around the rooster, to watch it in silence.

‘Stop looking at that animal,’ said the colonel. ‘Roosters wear out if you look at them so much.’

The children didn’t move. One of them began playing the chords of a popular song on his harmonica. ‘Don’t play
that today,’ the colonel told him. ‘There’s been a death in town.’ The child put the instrument in his pants pocket, and the colonel went into the bedroom to dress for the funeral.

Because of his wife’s asthma, his white suit was not pressed. So he had to wear the old black suit which since his marriage he used only on special occasions. It took some effort to find it in the bottom of the trunk,
wrapped in newspapers and protected against moths with little balls of naphthalene. Stretched out in bed, the woman was still thinking about the dead man.

‘He must have met Agustín already,’ she said. ‘Maybe he won’t tell him about the situation we’ve been left in since his death.’

‘At this moment they’re probably talking roosters,’ said the colonel.

He found an enormous old umbrella in the
trunk. His wife had won it in a raffle held to collect funds for the
colonel’s party. That same night they had attended an outdoor show which was not interrupted despite the rain. The colonel, his wife, and their son, Agustín – who was then eight – watched the show until the end, seated under the umbrella. Now Agustín was dead, and the bright satin material had been eaten away by the moths.

‘Look what’s left of our circus clown’s umbrella,’ said the colonel with one of his old phrases. Above his head a mysterious system of little metal rods opened. ‘The only thing it’s good for now is to count the stars.’

He smiled. But the woman didn’t take the trouble to look at the umbrella. ‘Everything’s that way,’ she whispered. ‘We’re rotting alive.’ And she closed her eyes so she could concentrate
on the dead man.

After shaving himself by touch – since he’d lacked a mirror for a long time – the colonel dressed silently. His trousers, almost as tight on his legs as long underwear, closed at the ankles with slip-knotted drawstrings, were held up at the waist by two straps of the same material which passed through two gilt buckles sewn on at kidney height. He didn’t use a belt. His shirt,
the color of old Manila paper, and as stiff, fastened with a copper stud which served at the same time to hold the detachable collar. But the detachable collar was torn, so the colonel gave up on the idea of a tie.

He did each thing as if it were a transcendent act. The bones in his hands were covered by taut, translucent skin, with light spots like the skin on his neck. Before he put on his
patent-leather shoes, he scraped the dried mud from the stitching. His wife saw him at that moment, dressed as he was on their wedding day. Only then did she notice how much her husband had aged.

‘You
look as if you’re dressed for some special event,’ she said.

‘This burial is a special event,’ the colonel said. ‘It’s the first death from natural causes which we’ve had in many years.’

The weather
cleared up after nine. The colonel was getting ready to go out when his wife seized him by the sleeve of his coat.

‘Comb your hair,’ she said.

He tried to subdue his steel-colored, bristly hair with a bone comb. But it was a useless attempt.

‘I must look like a parrot,’ he said.

The woman examined him. She thought he didn’t. The colonel didn’t look like a parrot. He was a dry man, with solid
bones articulated as if with nuts and bolts. Because of the vitality in his eyes, it didn’t seem as if he were preserved in formalin.

‘You’re fine that way,’ she admitted, and added, when her husband was leaving the room: ‘Ask the doctor if we poured boiling water on him in this house.’

They lived at the edge of town, in a house with a palm-thatched roof and walls whose whitewash was flaking
off. The humidity kept up but the rain had stopped. The colonel went down toward the plaza along an alley with houses crowded in on each other. As he came out into the main street, he shivered. As far as the eye could see, the town was carpeted with flowers. Seated in their doorways, the women in black were waiting for the funeral.

In the plaza it began to drizzle again. The proprietor of the
pool hall saw the colonel from the door of his
place and shouted to him with open arms: ‘Colonel, wait, and I’ll lend you an umbrella!’

The colonel replied without turning around. ‘Thank you. I’m all right this way.’

The funeral procession hadn’t come out of church yet. The men – dressed in white with black ties – were talking in the low doorway under their umbrellas. One of them saw the colonel
jumping between the puddles in the plaza.

‘Get under here, friend!’ he shouted.

He made room under the umbrella.

‘Thanks, friend,’ said the colonel.

But he didn’t accept the invitation. He entered the house directly to give his condolences to the mother of the dead man. The first thing he perceived was the odor of many different flowers. Then the heat rose. The colonel tried to make his way
through the crowd which was jammed into the bedroom. But someone put a hand on his back, pushed him toward the back of the room through a gallery of perplexed faces to the spot where – deep and wide open – the nostrils of the dead man were found.

There was the dead man’s mother, shooing the flies away from the coffin with a plaited palm fan. Other women, dressed in black, contemplated the body
with the same expression with which one watches the current of a river. All at once a voice started up at the back of the room. The colonel put one woman aside, faced the profile of the dead man’s mother, and put a hand on her shoulder.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he said.

She didn’t turn her head. She opened her mouth and
let out a howl. The colonel started. He felt himself being pushed against the corpse
by a shapeless crowd which broke out in a quavering outcry. He looked for a firm support for his hands but couldn’t find the wall. There were other bodies in its place. Someone said in his ear, slowly, with a very gentle voice, ‘Careful, colonel.’ He spun his head around and was face to face with the dead man. But he didn’t recognize him because he was stiff and dynamic and seemed as disconcerted
as he, wrapped in white cloths and with his trumpet in his hands. When the colonel raised his head over the shouts, in search of air, he saw the closed box bouncing toward the door down a slope of flowers which disintegrated against the walls. He perspired. His joints ached. A moment later he knew he was in the street because the drizzle hurt his eyelids, and someone seized him by the arm and
said:

‘Hurry up, friend, I was waiting for you.’

It was Sabas, the godfather of his dead son, the only leader of his party who had escaped political persecution and had continued to live in town. ‘Thanks, friend,’ said the colonel, and walked in silence under the umbrella. The band struck up the funeral march. The colonel noticed the lack of a trumpet, and for the first time was certain that
the dead man was dead.

‘Poor man,’ he murmured.

Sabas cleared his throat. He held the umbrella in his left hand, the handle almost at the level of his head, since he was shorter than the colonel. They began to talk when the cortege left the plaza. Sabas turned toward the colonel then, his face disconsolate, and said: ‘Friend, what’s new with the rooster?’

‘He’s
still there,’ the colonel replied.

At that moment a shout was heard: ‘Where are they going with that dead man?’

The colonel raised his eyes. He saw the mayor on the balcony of the barracks in an expansive pose. He was dressed in his flannel underwear; his unshaven cheek was swollen. The musicians stopped the march. A moment later the colonel recognized Father Ángel’s voice shouting at the mayor. He made out their dialogue through
the drumming of the rain on the umbrella.

‘Well?’ asked Sabas.

‘Well nothing,’ the colonel replied. ‘The burial may not pass in front of the police barracks.’

‘I had forgotten,’ exclaimed Sabas. ‘I always forget that we are under martial law.’

‘But this isn’t a rebellion,’ the colonel said. ‘It’s a poor dead musician.’

The cortege changed direction. In the poor neighborhoods the women watched
it pass, biting their nails in silence. But then they came out into the middle of the street and sent up shouts of praise, gratitude, and farewell, as if they believed the dead man was listening to them inside the coffin. The colonel felt ill at the cemetery. When Sabas pushed him toward the wall to make way for the men who were carrying the dead man, he turned his smiling face toward him, but
met a rigid countenance.

‘What’s the matter, friend?’ Sabas asked.

The colonel sighed. ‘It’s October.’

They returned by the same street. It had cleared. The sky was deep, intensely blue. It won’t rain any more,
thought the colonel, and he felt better, but he was still dejected. Sabas interrupted his thoughts.

‘Have a doctor examine you.’

‘I’m not sick,’ the colonel said. ‘The trouble is that
in October I feel as if I had animals in my gut.’

Sabas went ‘Ah.’ He said goodbye at the door to his house, a new building, two stories high, with wrought-iron window gratings. The colonel headed for his home, anxious to take off his dress suit. He went out again a moment later to the store on the corner to buy a can of coffee and half a pound of corn for the rooster.

The colonel attended to
the rooster in spite of the fact that on Thursday he would have preferred to stay in his hammock. It didn’t clear for several days. During the course of the week, the flora in his belly blossomed. He spent several sleepless nights, tormented by the whistling of the asthmatic woman’s lungs. But October granted a truce on Friday afternoon. Agustín’s companions – workers from the tailor shop, as he
had been, and cockfight fanatics – took advantage of the occasion to examine the rooster. He was in good shape.

The colonel returned to the bedroom when he was left alone in the house with his wife. She had recovered.

‘What do they say?’ she asked.

‘Very enthusiastic,’ the colonel informed her. ‘Everyone is saving their money to bet on the rooster.’

‘I don’t know what they see in such an ugly
rooster,’ the woman said. ‘He looks like a freak to me; his head is too tiny for his feet.’

‘They say he’s the best in the district,’ the colonel answered. ‘He’s worth about fifty pesos.’

He
was sure that this argument justified his determination to keep the rooster, a legacy from their son who was shot down nine months before at the cockfights for distributing clandestine literature. ‘An expensive
illusion,’ she said. ‘When the corn is gone we’ll have to feed him on our own livers.’ The colonel took a good long time to think, while he was looking for his white ducks in the closet.

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