By Gabriel García Márquez
Translated by Lean Franco
The train came out of a shifting corridor of bright, red rock and rushed on across the unending regular lines of the banana plantations. The air turned damp and there was no sea- breeze. A stifling cloud of smoke blew in through the carriage window. Along the narrow road that ran parallel to the railway line were ox-carts loaded with green hands of bananas. By the side of the road, in unexpected clearings, were offices with electric fans, red-brick barracks and houses with white chairs and tables on terraces among dusty palm trees and rose bushes. It was eleven in the morning and the heat had not yet become intense.
`You'd better close the window,' the woman said. 'You'll get soot in your hair.'
The girl tried to pull the blind down but it was jammed with rust. They were the only passengers in the meagre, third-class carriage. Since the engine smoke was still coming in through the window, the girl abandoned her seat and put her things there instead—a plastic bag containing food and a bunch of flowers wrapped in newspaper. She sat down again away from the window and opposite her mother. Both were dressed from head to foot in shabby mourning.
The girl was twelve and she was travelling for the first time. The woman looked too old to be her mother for her eyelids were blue- veined and her small, soft, formless body was clothed in a dress that looked as if it had been cut for a priest. She rode with her back firmly braced against the seat and her two hands clasping a cracked patent-leather hand- bag. She had the unaffected serenity of one accustomed to poverty. At twelve, it began to get hot. The train stopped for ten minutes to take on water at a wayside station. Outside, in the mysterious silence of the plantations, the shade had a clean look. But the stale air of the coach smelt of untanned leather. The train did not get up speed again. It stopped at two identical towns of brightly painted wooden houses. The woman's head dropped and she sank into a stupor. The girl took off her shoes. Afterwards, she went to the toilet and put the bunch of faded flowers into water.
When she got back to her seat, her mother was waiting with food. She gave her a piece of cheese, half a roll of maize bread and a sweet biscuit. She took the same portions for herself out of the plastic bag. While they were eating, the train slowly crossed an iron bridge and, without stopping, passed a town just like the previous two except that in this one there was a crowd in the main square. A band played cheerful music under the oppressive sun. On the other side of the town, the plantation came to an end and there was a drought-cracked plain.
The woman stopped eating.
Tut your shoes on,' she said. The girl looked outside. She could see nothing but the empty plain over which the train had begun to gather speed once more. She put the last piece of biscuit into her pocket and drew her shoes on quickly. Her mother handed her the comb.
'Comb your hair,' she said.
The train started to whistle as the girl combed her hair. The woman dried the sweat around her neck and with her fingers wiped the dirt from her face. When the girl had finished combing her hair, the train was passing the first houses of a town that was bigger and sadder than the others.
`If you want to do anything, you'll have to do it now,' said the woman. 'Later on, you mustn't drink water even if you're dying of thirst. And you mustn't cry whatever you do.'
The girl nodded her head. Through the win- dow blew a dry burning wind and its sound mingled with the whistle of the engine and the din of the ancient wagon. The woman put the rest of the food in the plastic bag and this into her handbag. For a moment, a total image of the town on a luminous August Tuesday shone reflected in the window. The girl wrapped the flowers in the wet newspaper and, drawing back from the window, watched her mother closely. The older woman iooked back calmly. The train stopped whistling and slowed down. A short time later, it stopped.
There was nobody in the station. At the other side of the road, where it was shaded by almond trees, only the billiard saloon was open. The town floated in heat. The woman and girl got down from the train and walked through the deserted station where the paving stones bad begun to crack open under the pressure of the weeds. They crossed over to the shady side of the street.
It was nearly two o'clock. At this hour, the entire town was sleeping, overcome by somnolence. Shops, public offices, the school had been closed since eleven and would not open again until just before four when the train came back on its return journey. The houses which, for the most part, were exactly like those built on the banana plantations had closed doors and drawn blinds. Some of them were so hot inside that their occupants were eating lunch in the yard. Other people had dragged chairs into the shade of the almond trees and were sleeping in the street.
Keeping to the shadow of the trees, the
women and girl went through the town with- out disturbing its sleep. They made directly for the priest's house. The woman scraped her nail against the wire mesh of the doorway and waited for a moment. Then she scraped again. Inside an electric fan was humming. She could not hear footsteps, and could barely make out the soft creak of a door. Then, soon after- wards they heard a cautious voice from very near the wire mesh.
The woman tried to look through the mesh. 'I want the priest,' she said.
'He's already gone to bed.'
`It's urgent,' the woman insisted.
Her voice was quiet but firm. Noiselessly the door was opened a little and there appeared a plump, elderly woman with a very pale skin and iron-grey hair. Her eyes looked too small behind the thick glass of her spectacles.
`Come in,' she said, opening the door wide.
They went into a room impregnated with the stale smell of flowers. The woman led them to a wooden bench and told them to sit down. The girl did so but her mother went on stand- ing, absent-mindedly, with her bag clasped between her hands. They could hear nothing over the sound of the electric fan.
The woman of the house appeared at the back door.
'He says to come back after three o'clock,' she said in a very low voice. 'He only went to bed five minutes ago.'
The train leaves at half past three, the woman said. She had answered briefly and directly but the evenness of her voice bid many shades of meaning. For the first time, the woman of the house smiled.
`Very well,' she said.
When the door closed again, the woman sat down next to her daughter. The narrow waiting room was bare, tidy and clean. At the other side of a wooden rail that divided the room was a plain work-table covered with oil cloth and on the table an ancient typewriter and a vase of flowers. Behind these were the parish records. A spinster's hand was evident in the neat arrangement.
The door opened again and this time the priest appeared, cleaning his glasses with a handkerchief. It was only when he put them on that it became obvious that he was the brother of the woman who had opened the door.
`What can I do for you?'
`I want the keys to the cemetery; the woman said.
The girl sat with the flowers on her lap and her feet crossed underneath the chair. The priest looked first at her, then at the woman, then through the wire mesh of the window towards the brilliant, cloudless sky.
'In this heat?' he said. 'You could have waited for the sun to go down; The woman shook her head in silence. The priest went to the other side of the rail and took a bound exercise book, a pen and an inkwell out of the clipboard. Then he sat down at the table. The hair on his hands made up for the lack of it on his head.
`Whose grave are you -going to visit?' be asked.
`Carlos Centeno's,' the woman replied. `Whose?'
'Carlos Centeno's,' the woman repeated. The priest still could not understand.
'He was the burglar they killed here a week ago,' the woman said without altering the tone of her voice. 'I am his mother.'
The priest stared at her. She returned his gaze steadily with a tranquil self-control that made him blush. He bent his head and wrote. He questioned the woman as he filled up the form and she replied without hesitating, giving precise details as if she were reading. The priest began sweating. The girl unbuttoned the strap of her left shoe, slipped it off her heel which she rested against the chair rail. She did the same with her right shoe.
It had all happened a few blocks away, a week ago at three o'clock on Monday morning. Over the noise of the drizzle, Rebecca, a lonely widow who lived in a house full of odds and ends, heard someone trying to force the street door from outside. She got up, groped in the wardrobe for an ancient revolver that had not been used since the days of Colonel Aureliano Buendia and went into the living-room without switching on the light. She guided herself not so much by the noise in the lock as by a terror that had grown in her during twenty-eight years of solitude, and in her imagination she visualised not only the place where the door stood but the exact height of the lock. She seized the weapon with both hands, closed her eyes and pressed the trigger. Immediately after the shot, nothing was to be heard except the murmur of rain on the zinc roof. Then she heard a tiny, metallic thud on the cement pavement and a very soft, peaceful and terribly tired voice which said, 'Oh, mother.' The man who was found dead in front of the house with his nose shattered was wearing a coloured striped flannel shirt, ordinary trousers held up by a rope instead of a belt, and was barefoot. Nobody in the town knew him.
`So he was called Carlos Centeno,' murmured the priest when he had finished writing.
`Centeno Ayala,' said the woman. 'He was the only boy.' The priest went over to the cupboard. Hang- ing on a nail inside the door were two big, rusty keys. They were just as the child had imagined Saint Peter's keys, and the mother when she was a child and probably the priest also had imagined them to be like this. He took them down, put them on the open book which he held on the top of the rail and, watching the woman, he pointed his finger at a place on the written page.
The woman scribbled her name, holding her bag under one armpit. The girl picked up the flowers and, dragging her shoes, she went over to the table and observed her mother attentively.
The priest sighed.
'Did you never try to get him to go straight?' When she had finished signing, the woman replied, 'He was a very good man.'
The priest looked first at the woman, then at the child and realised with a sort of pious astonishment that they were not going to cry. The woman's expression was unchanged.
'I told him never to steal from people who were in need, and he took notice of me. But when he was a boxer, he was laid up in bed for three days with the battering they gave him.'
'They had to take all his teeth out,' the girl said.
'That's right,' the woman echoed. 'Every mouthful I ate in those days tasted of the battering they gave my son on Saturday nights.'
'The will of God passeth all understanding,' said' the priest. But he said it without conviction, for his experience had made him some- what sceptical and besides it was hot. He told them to keep their heads covered so as not to get sunstroke. And he was already yawning and almost asleep as he explained how they were to find Carlos Centeno's grave. When they returned, there would be no need to knock. They should just slip the key under the door with a contribution to the church funds if they had any money. The woman listened to the instructions carefully but did not smile as she thanked him.
Even before opening the door, the priest realised that there were people outside, their noses pressed against the wire mesh. A crowd of children scattered as the door was opened wide. Usually at this time, there was nobody in the street. Now there were not only children. There were groups of people under the almond trees. The priest examined the street which was shimmering in the heat and then, realising what had happened, he closed the door again.
`Wait a minute,' he said, without looking at the woman. His sister appeared at the back door wearing a black jacket over a nightdress and with her hair flowing loose on her shoulders. She stared at the priest in silence.
`What is it?' he asked.
'People have found out,' his sister muttered. 'They'd better leave by the back yard,' said the priest.
'It won't make any difference,' said his sister. 'Everybody in town is at the windows.'
Until then the woman did not seem to have understood. She tried to peer into the street through the wire mesh. Then she took the flowers from the girl and went towards the door. The girl followed.
'Wait until the sun goes down,' said the priest.
`You'll melt,' the sister said, without moving from the back of the room. 'If you wait, I'll lend you a sunshade.'
'No thank you,' the woman replied. 'We'll be all right.'
And taking the girl's hand, she went out into the street.