Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

  • OVER the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur
  • and among the camellias and butterflies we saw the berlin from stirring days, the wagon from the time of the plague, the coach from the year of the comet, the hearse from progress in order, the sleep-walking limousine of the first century of peace,
  • battlefield disorder of the kitchens
  • and through the numerous windows we saw the broad and sleeping animal that was the city, still innocent of the historic Monday that was beginning to come to life, and beyond the city, up to the horizon, we saw the dead craters of harsh moon ash on the endless plain where the sea had been1
  • and one January afternoon we had seen a cow contemplating the sunset from the presidential balcony, just imagine, a cow on the balcony of the nation, what an awful thing, what a shitty country, and all sorts of conjectures were made about how it was possible for a cow to get onto a balcony since everybody knew that cows can’t climb stairs, and even less carpeted ones, so in the end we never knew if we had really seen it or whether we had been spending an afternoon on the main square and as we strolled along had dreamed that we had seen a cow on the presidential balcony where nothing had been seen or would ever be seen again for many years until dawn last Friday when the first vultures began to arrive
  • watching the passage of the lights of ships along the fickle topaz sea which in those days of glory was still beneath his window
  • Dauntless adulators who proclaimed him the corrector of earthquakes, eclipses, leap years and other errors of God
  • The clock in the tower should not strike twelve at twelve o’clock but two times so that life would seem longer
  • he had become resigned forever to live a destiny that was not his, even though he did not do it out of greed or conviction but because he had exchanged his life for his in the lifetime job of official impostor with a nominal salary of fifty pesos a month and the advantage of living like a king without the calamity of being one, what more could you ask?
  • in this business of men if you fall, you fall
  • a nation is the best thing that was ever invented, mother, he would sigh, but he never waited for the answer from the only person in the world who dared scold him for the rancid onion smell of his armpits
  • That floating calmness shattered its hull suddenly at a cockpit on a faraway plain when a bloodthirsty cock tore the head off his adversary and ate it, pecking at it before an audience that was maddened by blood and a drunken brass band that celebrated the horror with festive music, and he was the only one who spotted the evil omen, and he sensed that it was so clear and so imminent that he secretly ordered his escort to arrest one of the musicians, that one, the one playing the tuba, and, indeed, they found a sawed-off shotgun on him and under torture he confessed that he had planned to shoot him during the confusion as the people left
  • and they went like fugitives through forgotten rooms
  • he himself did not realize that his fierce struggle to exist twice was feeding the contrary suspicion that he was existing less and less
  • but not even his mother was shown the inside of his sighs
  • Years before one night of bad moods he had proposed to Patricio Aragonés that they gamble their lives on heads or tails, heads you die, tails I die, but Patricio Aragonés made him see that they would both meet death in a tie because all corns had both their faces on both sides,
  • When the cataclysm had passed he still heard the distant music of the windless afternoon,
  • calling for the unity of all against the despotism of centuries so that they could divide up among themselves the booty of his death, so absorbed in the depths of greed that no one noticed the appearance of the unburied president who gave a single blow with the palm of his hand on the table, and shouted aha! and that was all he had to do, for when he lifted his hand from the table the stampede of panic was over and all that was left in the room were the overflowing ashtrays, the coffee mugs, the chairs flung on the floor
  • and then he folded his right arm to serve as a pillow and fell asleep at once, more alone than ever
  • and he ordered a free school established in each province to teach sweeping where the pupils fanaticized by the presidential stimulus went on to sweep the streets after having swept their houses and then the nearby highways and roads so that piles of trash were carried back and forth from one province to another without anyone’s knowing what to do with it
  • but the more certain the rumors of his death seemed, he would appear even more alive and authoritarian at the least expected moment to impose other unforeseen directions to out destiny
  • Although all trace of his origins had disappeared from the texts, it was thought that he was a man of the upland plains because of his immense appetite for power, the nature of his government, his mournful bearing, the inconceivable evil of a heart which had sold the sea to a foreign power and condemned us to live facing this limitless plain of harsh lunar dust where the bottomless sunsets pain us in our souls
  • exclaimed aloud in front of the whole diplomatic corps that if I’d known my son was going to be president of the republic I’d have sent him to school
  • they wrapped up the rubber cisterns with the sterile water sent from their country so that they would not be eaten up inside by the water worms of our streams, they took their white hospitals apart, dynamited their barracks so that no one would know how they were constructed
  • nor did he hurry over as before to share the best secrets of power with her, and he had changed so much since the times of the marines that to Bendición Alvarado he seemed to be older than she, to have left her behind in time, she heard him stumble over words, his concept of reality became entangled, sometimes he drooled, and she was struck with the compassion that was not a mother’s but a daughter’s
  • barely blinked when they came to him with the news general sir that General Narciso Lopez had shoved a dynamite stick up his ass and blown his guts out over the shame of his unconquerable pederasty
  • and lay down on the floor face down, his right arm serving as a pillow
  • and he seemed fascinated by the sight of the mortal enemy who appeared on the platform of the coach in his denim suit with no insignia, without weapons, older and more remote as if it had been a hundred years since we saw each other general
  • because of the constant noise of the projects begun that were proclaimed at their start as the greatest in the world and yet were never completed
  • the civilian ministers he detested so much but whom he had appointed once more for convenience and whom he listened to as they argued over matters of state amidst the scandal of roosters chasing after the hens in the courtyard
  • was Manuela Sanchez who went across the room without opening the locks because she came and went as was her will by passing through the walls, Manuela Sanchez of my evil hour
  • replaced the flowers that had spent the night in the vases with last night’s flowers
  • perverse civil servants who found hens laying Monday’s eggs while yesterday’s were still in the file drawers
  • he walked back and forth in the reception room with the unsolvable anxiety of a perpetual president with a fishbone driven through his soul
  • and for the first time in his long life of a volatile lover he turned his instincts loose, he lingered over details, he brought out sighs from the basest of women
  • he’d waited in the burning shadows of the entranceway without knowing whether the evil air he was breathing was perverted by the glare of the sun or by anxiety
  • when he saw her appear at the rear door like the image of a dream reflected in the mirror of another dream
  • his baggy linen suit as if there were nobody inside
  • my ever-loving general giving off crap through his mouth and laws through his poop
  • she’d been moved without leaving her house into a district full of strangers
  • but the only thing they could come up with in their calculations was a total eclipse of the sun for Wednesday of next week at four in the afternoon general sir, and he accepted it, all right, and it was such a true night in the middle of the day that the stars lit up, flowers closed, hens went to roost, and animals sought shelter with their best premonitory instincts
  • there it is, queen, it’s your eclipse, but Manuela Sanchez did not answer, she did not touch his hand, she was not breathing, she seemed so unreal that he could not resist his urge and he stretched out his hand in the darkness to touch her hand, but he could not find it, he looked for it with the tips of his fingers in the place where her smell had been, but he did not find it either, he kept on looking for it through the enormous house with both hands, waving his arms about with the open eyes of a sleepwalker in the shadows, wondering with grief where can you be Manuela Sanchez of my misfortune as I seek you and cannot find you in the unfortunate night of your eclipse, where can your inclement hand be, your rose, he swam like a diver lost in a pool of invisible waters in whose reaches he found floating the prehistoric crayfish of the galvanometers, the crabs of the musical clocks, the lobsters of your machines of illusory trades, but on the contrary he did not even find the licorice breath of your lungs, and as the darkness of the
  • his right arm folded under his head to serve as a pillow, and at an indefinite age somewhere between 107 and 232 years.
  • because in those days there was nothing contrary in everyday life no matter how insignificant which did not have as much importance for him as the gravest matter of state
  • and looked for me with his fingers where I wasn’t
  • left games half finished for no visible reason depressed by the sudden revelation that everyone ended up finding his place in the world, everyone except him
  • but suddenly he awoke with a start, who’s there, he shouted, it was his own heart oppressed by the strange silence of the cocks at dawn, he felt that the ship of the universe had reached some port while he was asleep, he was floating in a soup of steam, the animals of earth and sky who had the faculty to glimpse death beyond the clumsy omens and best-founded sciences of men were mute with terror, there was no more air, time was changing direction
  • it was impossible to do away with such a quantity of life without leaving a trace of horror that would travel around the world
  • a commission from the League of Nations came and overturned the most hidden stones in the country and questioned all the people they wanted to and how they wanted to with such minute detail that Bendición Alvarado was to ask who were those intruders dressed like spiritualists who came into her house looking for two thousand children under the beds, in her sewing basket, in her paintbrush jars
  • take the children out of their hiding place in the jungle and carry them off in the opposite direction to the provinces of perpetual rain where there were no treasonous winds to spread their voices
  • for them to be transferred from the shady Novembers of putrefaction to the Februaries of horizontal days so that no one would know when they were
  • trying to tame the rage of another love without love
  • when the three officers who carried out the crime came to attention before him with news general sir that his order had been carried out, he promoted them two grades and decorated them with the medal of loyalty, but then he had them shot without honors as common criminals because there were orders that can be given but which cannot be carried out, God damn it, poor children
  • Experiences as harsh as that confirmed his very ancient certainty that the most feared enemy is within oneself in the confidence of the heart, that the very men he was arming and raising up so that they would support his regime will end up sooner or later spitting in the hand that feeds them, he wiped them out with one stroke, he took others out of nowhere
  • they were the ones who taught me the secret of maintaining parallel services to stir up distractive rivalries among the military, they invented for me the office of state security, the general investigation agency, the national department of public order, and so many other messes that I couldn’t even remember them myself, identical organisms that he made look different in order to rule with more relaxation in the midst of the storm making them believe that some were being watched by others
  • he had to concede to the bravest officers even against his own will because it was impossible for him to maintain himself without them but also with them, condemned forever to live breathing the same air which asphyxiated him
  • he locked himself up until death in the run-down palace from whose highest windows we were now watching with tight hearts the same gloomy sunset that he must have seen so many times from his throne of illusions2
  • we attributed the senile characteristics of tortoises and the habits of elephants to him
  • in bars we told the story that someone had announced to the cabinet that he had died and that they had asked each other in fright who’s going to tell him, ha, ha, ha
  • when he thought that the birds in his cages were losing their voices from so much singing and he fed them his own honey so they would sing louder, he fed them Cantorina with an eyedropper, he sang them songs from a different age, bright January moon, he sang, for he had not realized that it was not the birds who were losing the strength of their voices but that it was he who was hearing less and less
  • His only contacts with the reality of this world were by then a few scattered scraps of his largest memories, only they kept him alive after he had been despoiled of the affairs of state and stayed swimming in a state of innocence in the limbo of power, only then did he confront the devastating winds of his excessive years when he wandered at dusk through the deserted building, hid in the darkened offices, tore the margins off ledgers and in his florid hand wrote on them the remaining residue of the last memories that preserved him from death
  • he wrote down the few things he remembered to make sure that he would never forget them, Leticia Nazareno, he wrote, my only and legitimate spouse who had taught him to read and write in the ripeness of his old age
  • all he could manage was to remember her naked at two in the afternoon under the flour-haze light of the mosquito netting, he remembered the slow repose of your soft and pale body surrounded by the hum of the electric fan, he felt your living teats your smell of a bitch in heat, the corrosive humors of your ferocious novice nun hands that curdled milk and rusted gold and withered flowers, but they were good hands for love, because only she had reached the inconceivable triumph of take your boots off so you don’t soil my Brabant sheets, and he took them off, take off your saber, and your truss, and your leggings take everything off my love I can’t feel you, and he took everything off for you as he had never done before and would never do again for any woman after Leticia Nazareno, my only and legitimate love, he sighed, he wrote down the signs on the yellowed ledger margins that he rolled like cigarettes and hid in the most unlikely chinks in the house where only he would be able to find them to remember who he was himself
  • and only a circus fortuneteller noticed that the newborn baby had no lines on the palm of his hand and that meant he had been born to be a king
  • monarch had become invisible, bleeding with rage in the wicker rocking chair while his mother of my soul Bendición Alvarado was going through those wastelands of heat and misery inside a coffin full of sawdust and chopped ice so that her body would not rot more than it had in life
  • given a bad birth three times thanks to the artifices of national history which had entangled the threads of reality so that no one would be able to decipher the secret of his origins
  • why in hell do women do things as if they were inventing them
  • he participated alone for nights on end in the secret outflow of her body, he breathed in her smell of a mountain bitch that grew warmer with the passage of months, the moss of her womb sprouted
  • she shocked him by begging him to take off his boots they were dirtying my Brabant sheets and he took them off as best he could, taffe off your leggings, and pants, and the truss, take it all off my life I can’t feel you, until he himself didn’t know when he was left as only his mother had known him in the light
  • we powdered his face with starch to hide the burlap repairs and paraffin stuffing that we had to use to restore the face that had been pecked away by dungheap birds
  • We were defenseless against that evidence, compromised by a pestilential corpse that we were incapable of replacing in the world because he had refused in his senile insistence to take any decision concerning the destiny of the nation after he was gone
  • take that chair away from over there and put it over there, and they should put it back where it had been in order to satisfy in that minute way the warm embers of his enormous addiction to giving orders
  • he had built the railroad to the upland plains to put an end to the infamy of mules terrified by the edges of precipices
  • he pointed out to us the mark of a boot in the mud, look, he said, it’s his footprint, we were petrified as we looked at the imprint of a large, coarse sole which had the splendor and the dominion in repose and the stench of old mange of the track of a tiger accustomed to solitude, and in that footprint we saw the power
  • they enjoyed the sun as it was broken up through the perpetual waters, they took pleasure in the pole star tangled in the branches, they scrutinized
  • but the only advice he gave him was never issue an order unless you’re sure it’s going to be carried out
  • we felt the invisible presence that watched over our destiny so that it would not be altered by the disorder of poetry, he regulated love, he decided the intensity and term of death
  • how is it possible for this Indian to write something so beautiful with the same hand that he wipes his ass with
  • mortally wounded by the unavoidable conviction that Leticia Nazareno’s life did not depend on God’s will then but on the wisdom with which he could manage to preserve it from a threat that sooner or later would irremediably be fulfilled, damn it
  • wondering in confusion whether killing the dogs might not be killing Leticia Nazareno and the child who were inside them all over again
  • he tried to make me take some spoonfuls of candlewax to plug up the leaks in my memory
  • he read Leticia Nazareno everywhere without being able to understand how anyone could be so unhappy to have left that flow of written sighs
  • he was waiting for his moment rocking with rage in the hammock in the shade of the tutelary ceiba tree
  • he had the courage to tell me that I was only a military man out of convenience, because military men are just the opposite of you, general, they’re men of quick and easy ambition, they like command better than power and they’re not in the service of something but of someone
  • where am I that I can’t find myself
  • I am the government after all, but Saenz de la Barra explained to him impassively that you aren’t the government, general, you are the power
  • he was walking in the dark dragging his thick feet of a captive monarch past the darkened mirrors
  • he saw a patrol of soldiers erasing a sign recently painted with a broad brush on a wall and he asked what it had said and they answered eternal glory to the maker of the new nation although he knew it was a lie, of course, if not they wouldn’t have been erasing it, God damn it
  • that man doesn’t even trust mirrors
  • I gave them what they asked of me and bought everything they wanted to sell me not because he was soft-hearted as his mother Bendición Aîvarado said but because a person needed an iron liver to refuse a favor to someone who was singing his praises
  • he searched in his heart for the burden of hatred he’d tried to keep alive until his death and all he found were the ashes of a wounded pride which was no longer worth maintaining
  • this country isn’t worth a plug nickel, except for the sea, of course, which was diaphanous and succulent and all it needed was a flame underneath to cook the great clam chowder of the universe in its own crater
  • they tried to convince our soldiers that the nation is a business and that the sense of honor is a bother invented by the government so that soldiers would fight for free
  • the lepers pearled with dew who rose up as he passed the stubble of the first rosebushes to implore the salt of health from his hands
  • life convinced him more and more that the long years of power don’t bring any two days that are just alike
  • although a thorough examination had revealed that his arteries had turned to glass, he had beachsand sediment in his kidneys, and his heart was cracked from a lack of love, so the old physician took refuge behind the shield of old comradeship to tell him that it’s time now to hand over the tools general sir, at least decide in whose hands you’re going to leave us, he told him, save us from being orphaned, but he asked him with surprise who told him I’m thinking about dying, my dear doctor, let other people die, God damn it, and he finished in a joking vein that two nights ago I saw myself on television and I looked better than ever, like a fighting bull, he said, dying with laughter, because he had seen himself in a fog, nodding with sleep in front of the screen, and with his head wrapped in a wet towel in accordance with the habits of his more recent nights of solitude
  • there was no punishment more humiliating or less deserved for a man than betrayal by his own body,
  • they had treated him so badly that if he hadn’t been an enemy he is now
  • he saw himself one by one fourteen generals walking with a lamp repeated in the dark mirrors
  • he discovered in the course of his uncountable years that a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth
  • he had arrived without surprise at the ignominious fiction of commanding without power, of being exalted without glory and of being obeyed without authority when he became convinced in the trail of yellow leaves of his autumn that he had never been master of all his power
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