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  • Writer's pictureAnca

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

Updated: 6 days ago

"Un señor muy viejo con alas enormes" by Gabriel García Márquez (an original translation from Spanish)

On the third day of rain, so many crabs had been killed inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his flooded courtyard to throw them into the sea. The newborn baby had spent the night with a fever, and they thought it was caused by the stench. The world had been sad since Tuesday. The sky and the sea were one and the same as ash, and the sands of the beach, which in March gleamed like dust of fire, had turned into a broth of mud and rotten shellfish. The light was so gentle at noon, that when Pelayo returned home after throwing the crabs, he had trouble seeing what was moving and groaning at the bottom of the courtyard. He had to get closer to discover that it was an old man, lying face down in the muck, unable to get up despite his efforts because his enormous wings were hindering him.

AI generated tropical scenery with mountain and trees

Terrified by this nightmare, Pelayo ran in search of Elisenda, his wife, who was putting compresses on the sick child, and led her to the bottom of the courtyard. They both looked at the fallen body with silent astonishment. He was dressed like a ragpicker with barely a few faded rags on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of drenched great-grandfather had deprived him of all greatness. His wings of a large vulture, dirty and half plucked, were forever stranded in the mire. They observed him so much, and with such attention, that Pelayo and Elisenda soon overcame the amazement and ended up finding him familiar. Then they dared to speak to him, and he replied to them in an incomprehensible dialect but with a good voice of a sailor. Thus they overlooked the inconvenience of the wings, and concluded with very good judgment that he was a solitary shipwrecked man from some foreign ship battered by the storm. However, they called for a neighbour who knew all about life and death, and with a single glance, she set their error right.

“He is an angel” - she told them. “Surely he came for the child, but poor thing is so old that the rain knocked him down.”

The next day everyone knew that in Pelayo's house they had a captive angel of flesh and bone. Against the judgment of the wise neighbour, for whom the angels of these times were fugitive survivors of a celestial conspiracy, they had not had the heart to beat him to death. Pelayo watched over him all afternoon from the kitchen, armed with a constable's club, and before going to bed he dragged him out of the mire and locked him with the chickens in the lit henhouse. At midnight, when the rain ended, Pelayo and Elisenda were still killing crabs. Shortly after, the child woke up without fever and with appetite. Then they felt magnanimous and decided to put the angel on a raft with fresh water and provisions for three days, and abandon him to his fate at sea. But when they went out to the courtyard with the first light, they found the entire neighbourhood in front of the henhouse, frolicking with the angel without the slightest devotion and throwing food through the holes in the wire, as if he were not a supernatural creature but a circus animal.

Father Gonzaga arrived before seven alarmed by the disproportion of the news. At that time, less frivolous spectators than those of dawn had gathered, making all kinds of speculations about the future of the captive. The simplest thought that he would be named mayor of the world. Others, with a rougher spirit, supposed that he would be promoted to a five-star general so that he could win all wars. Some visionaries hoped that he would be kept as a stallion to implant on earth a lineage of winged and wise men who would take charge of the Universe. But Father Gonzaga, before becoming a priest, had been a sturdy woodcutter. Peering through the wire fences, he reviewed his catechism for a moment, and asked them to open the door to examine closely that pitiful man who looked more like a huge decrepit chicken among the other chickens. He lay in a corner, drying his wings extended in the sun, among the fruit peels and breakfast leftovers thrown at him by the early visitors. Oblivious to the world's impertinence, he barely lifted his antiquarian eyes and murmured something in his dialect when Father Gonzaga entered the henhouse and greeted him in Latin. The parish priest had the first suspicion he might be an impostor when he did not understand the language of God or knew how to greet his ministers. Then he noticed that seen up close, he was too human: he had an unbearable smell of the outdoors, the undersides of his wings were covered with parasitic algae and the larger feathers were battered by earthly winds, and  nothing about his miserable nature matched the noble dignity of angels. Then he left the henhouse, and with a brief sermon he warned the curious against the risks of naivety. He reminded them that the devil had the bad habit of resorting to carnival tricks to confuse the unwary. He argued that if wings were not the essential element to distinguish between a hawk and an airplane, much less could they be to recognize angels. However, he promised to write a letter to his bishop, so that he would write another to the Supreme Pontiff, so that the final verdict would come from the highest courts.

His prudence fell on sterile hearts. The news of the captive angel spread so quickly, that after a few hours there was a marketplace commotion in the courtyard, and they had to bring the troops with bayonets to scare away the crowd that was about to knock down the house. Elisenda, with her back twisted from sweeping trash from all the visitors,  then had the good idea of ​​boarding up the courtyard and charging five cents for entry to see the angel.

statue of man with wings fallen over a city

Curious people came from as far as Martinique. A traveling fair came with a flying acrobat, who buzzed over the crowd several times, but nobody paid attention to him because his wings were not angelic but of a bat. The most unfortunate patients from the Caribbean came in search of health: a poor woman who had been counting her heartbeats since childhood and no longer had enough beats left, a Jamaican who could not sleep because he was tormented by the noise of the stars, a sleepwalker who got up at night to undo in his sleep the things he had done awake, and many others of lesser seriousness. In the midst of that shipwreck disorder that made the earth tremble, Pelayo and Elisenda were happy with fatigue, because in less than a week they had filled the bedrooms with silver, and still the line of pilgrims waiting for their turn to enter reached the other side of the horizon.

The angel was the only one who did not participate in his own event. Time slipped away from him seeking refuge in his current nest, bewildered by the infernal heat of the oil lamps and sacrificial candles brought to him at the wire fences. At first they tried to feed him camphor crystals, which, according to the wise neighbour, were the food of angels. But he scorned them, as he scorned without trying them the papal lunches brought to him by the penitents, and it was never known whether it was because of being an angel or an old man that he ended up eating nothing but eggplant mush. His only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience. Especially in the early days, when the chickens pecked at him in search of the stellar parasites that proliferated on his wings, and the cripples plucked feathers to touch their defects, and even the most pious threw stones trying to make him rise to see him in full. The only time they managed to upset him was when they burned his side with a branding iron, because he had been motionless for so many hours that they thought he was dead. He woke up startled, ranting in a hermetic language and with tears in his eyes, and gave a couple of flaps that caused a whirlwind of chicken dung and lunar dust, and a panic gust that seemed out of this world. Although many believed that his reaction had not been of rage but of pain, since then they took care not to bother him, because most understood that his passivity was not that of a retired hero but that of a cataclysm at rest.

Father Gonzaga faced the frivolity of the crowd with formulas of domestic inspiration, while he received a final judgment on the nature of the captive. But the mail from Rome had lost the sense of urgency. Time was spent finding out if the convict had a navel, if his dialect had anything to do with Aramaic, whether he could fit many times on the tip of a pin, or whether he would not simply be a Norwegian with wings. Those letters of parsimony would have come and gone until the end of time, if a providential event had not put an end to the priest's tribulations. 

It so happened that in those days, among many other attractions of the wandering fairs of the Caribbean, they brought to the town the sad spectacle of the woman who had become a spider for disobeying her parents. The entrance to see her not only cost less than the entrance to see the angel but also allowed all kinds of questions about her absurd condition, and to examine her inside out, so that no one would doubt the truth of the horror. She was a terrifying tarantula the size of a ram with the head of a sad maiden. But the most heartbreaking thing was not her figure of absurdity, but the sincere affliction with which she recounted the details of her misfortune: as a child, she had run away from her parents' house to go to a dance, and when she returned through the forest after having danced all night without permission, a thunderbolt split the sky in two, and through that fissure came the sulphur lightning that turned her into a spider. Her only food was the meatballs that charitable souls would throw into her mouth. Such a spectacle, loaded with so much human truth and such a terrible warning, had to defeat unintentionally that of a disdainful angel who barely deigned to look at mortals. Besides, the few miracles attributed to the angel revealed a certain mental disorder, like that of the blind man who did not regain his sight but grew three new teeth, and the paralytic who could not walk but was on the verge of winning the lottery, and the leper who grew sunflowers in his wounds. Those consolation miracles that rather seemed like mockery entertainments had already broken the angel's reputation when the woman turned into a spider finished annihilating it. T Those consolation miracles that rather seemed like mocking entertainments had already undermined the angel's reputation when the woman turned spider finished annihilating it. That was how Father Gonzaga forever cured himself of insomnia, and Pelayo's yard became as lonely as it was in the times when it rained for three days and the crabs walked through the bedrooms.

The owners of the house had nothing to regret. With the money raised they built a two-story mansion, with balconies and gardens, and with very high sills so that the winter crabs would not get in, and with iron bars on the windows so that the angels would not get in. Pelayo also set up a rabbit farm very close to the town and resigned forever from his bad job as a constable, and Elisenda bought herself satin high-heeled slippers and many iridescent silk dresses, the ones worn by the most coveted ladies on the Sundays of those times. The henhouse was the only thing that did not deserve attention. If it was ever washed with creolin and burned with tears of myrrh inside, it was not to honour the angel but to ward off the stench of the manure heap that was already haunting the new house like a ghost. At first, when the child learned to walk, they made sure he stayed away from the henhouse. But then they forgot about the fear and got used to the stench, and before the child lost his baby teeth he had already gone in to play in the henhouse, whose rotten wire mesh was falling apart. The angel was no less indifferent to him than to the rest of mortals, but he endured the most ingenious infamies with the meekness of a disillusioned dog. Both contracted chickenpox at the same time. The doctor who attended the child could not resist the temptation to examine the angel, and found so many murmurs in his heart and so many noises in his kidneys, that it did not seem possible that he was alive. What surprised him most, however, was the logic of his wings. They were so natural on that completely human organism that he could not understand why other men did not have them either.

When the child went to school, it had been a long time since the sun and rain had demolished the henhouse. The angel was crawling here and there like an ownerless dying man. They kicked him out of one bedroom with brooms and a moment later found him in the kitchen. He seemed to be in so many places at once that they came to think he was splitting, repeating himself throughout the house, and the exasperated Elisenda shouted out of her wits that it was a disgrace to live in that hell full of angels. He could hardly eat; his antique eyes had become so cloudy that he stumbled over the posts, and only the bare shafts of the last feathers remained. Pelayo threw a blanket over him and charitably let him sleep in the shed, and only then did they notice that he spent the night with delirious fevers, speaking in old Norwegian tongue twisters. That was one of the few times they were alarmed, because they thought he was going to die, and not even the wise neighbour could tell them what to do with dead angels.

However, he not only survived his worst winter, but seemed better with the first suns. He remained motionless for many days in the farthest corner of the yard, where no one could see him, and in early December, large and hard feathers, feathers of an old bird, began to grow on his wings. But he must have known the reason for these changes because he took great care that no one noticed them, and that no one heard the sailor songs he sometimes sang under the stars. One morning, Elisenda was cutting slices of onion for lunch when a wind that seemed to come from the high seas blew into the kitchen. Then she looked out the window and caught the angel in the first attempts at flight. They were so clumsy that he plowed a furrow with his claws among the vegetables and almost demolished the shed with those unworthy flaps that slipped in the light and found no grip in the air. But he managed to gain altitude. Elisenda breathed a sigh of relief, for herself and for him, when she saw him pass over the last houses, sustaining himself in the air with a hazardous flap of an elderly vulture. She continued to watch him until she finished cutting the onion, and she continued to watch him until it was no longer possible for her to see him, because then he was no longer a hindrance in her life, but an imaginary point on the horizon of the sea.

birds flying against a cracked wall with a sun behind, ai generated


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