One Hundred Years of Solitude - Chapter 18


   More than three years had passed since Santa Sofía de la Piedad had brought him the grammar when Aureliano 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. Aureliano 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 and 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 of her 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 of gilded cardboard, and the languid look of a person who wept in secret. Actually, ever since she had found it in Aureliano Segundo’s trunks, Fernanda had put on the moth-eaten 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 of her 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, Aureliano 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 her bedroom. One morning he went to light the fire as usual and on the extinguished ashes he found the food that he had left for her the day before. Then he looked into her 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 Jos?Arcadio arrived, he found her intact.