La Viuda de Montiel

La Viuda de Montiel

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

When José Montiel died, everyone felt avenged except his widow; but it took several hours for everyone to believe that he had indeed died. Many continued to doubt it after seeing the corpse in the sweltering room, crammed along with pillows and linen sheets into a yellow coffin, with sides as rounded as a melon. He was very closely shaved, dressed in white, with patent-leather boots, and he looked so well that he had never seemed as alive as at that moment. It was the same Mr. Chepe Montiel as was present every Sunday at eight o’clock Mass, except that instead of his riding quirt he had a crucifix in his hands. It took screwing the lid on the coffin and walling him up in the showy family mausoleum for the whole town to become convinced that he wasn’t playing dead.


After the burial, the only thing that seemed incredible to everyone except his widow was that José Montiel had died a natural death. While everyone had been hoping he would be shot in the back in an ambush, his widow was certain she would see him die an old man in his bed, having confessed, and painlessly, like a modern-day saint. She was mistaken in only a few details. José Montiel died in his hammock, the second of August 1951, at two in the afternoon, as a result of a fit of anger, which the doctor had forbidden. But his wife also was hoping that the whole town would attend the funeral and that the house would be too small to hold all the flowers. Nevertheless only the member of his own party and of his religious brotherhood attended, and the only wreaths they received were those from the municipal government. His son, from his consular post in Germany, and his two daughters, from Paris, sent three-page telegrams. One could see that they had written them standing up, with the plentiful ink of the telegraph office, and that they had torn up many telegram forms before finding twenty dollars worth of words. None of them promised to come back. That night, at the age of sixty two, while crying on the pillow upon which the head of the man who had made her happy had rested, the widow of Montiel knew for the first time the taste of resentment. I'll lock myself up forever, she was thinking. For me, it is as if they had put me in the same box as José Montiel. I don't want to know anything more about this world.


She was sincere, that fragile woman, lacerated by superstition, married at twenty by her parents will to the only suitor they had allowed her to see at less than thirty feet; she had never been in direct contact with reality. Three days after they took her husbands body out of the house, she understood through her tears that she ought to pull herself together, but she could not find the direction of her new life. She had to begin at the beginning. Among the innumerable secrets José Montiel had taken with him to the grave was the combination of the safe. The Mayor took on the problem. He ordered the safe put in the patio, against the wall, and two policemen fired their rifles at the lock. All morning long the widow heard from the bedroom the muffled reports successively ordered by the Mayors shouts. That’s the last straw, she thought. Five years spent praying to God to end the shooting, and now I have to thank them for shooting in my house.


That day, she made a concerted effort to summon death, but no one replied. She was beginning to fall asleep when a tremendous explosion shook the foundations of the house. They had had to dynamite the safe.


Montel’s widow heaved a sigh. October was interminable with its swampy rains, and she felt lost, sailing without direction in the chaotic and fabulous hacienda of José Montiel. Mr. Carmichael, an old and diligent friend of the family, had taken charge of the estate. When at last she faced the concrete fact that her husband had died, Montel’s widow came out of the bedroom to take care of the house. She stripped it of all decoration, had the furniture covered in mourning colors, and put funeral ribbons on the portraits of the dead man, which hung on the walls. In the two months after the funeral, she had acquired the habit of biting her nails. One day her eyes reddened and swollen from crying so much she realized that Mr. Carmichael was entering the house with an open umbrella.


“Close that umbrella, Mr. Carmichael, she told him. After all the misfortune we've had, all we need is for you to come into the house with your umbrella open.”


Mr. Carmichael put the umbrella in the comer. He was an old Negro, with shiny skin, dressed in white, and with little slits made with a knife in his shoes to relieve the pressure of his bunions.


“Its only while its drying.”


For the first time since her husband died, the widow opened the window.


So much misfortune and, in addition, this winter, she murmured, biting her nails.


“It seems as though it will never clear up.”


“It wont clear up today or tomorrow,” said the executor. “Last night my bunions wouldn’t let me sleep.”


She trusted the atmospheric predictions of Mr. Carmichael’s bunions. She contemplated the desolate little plaza, the silent houses whose doors did not open to witness the funeral of José Montiel, and then she felt desperate, with her nails, with her limitless lands, and with the infinite number of obligations which she inherited from her husband and which she would never manage to understand.


“The world is all wrong”, she said, sobbing.


Those who visited her in those days had many reasons to think she had gone mad. But she was never more lucid than then. Since before the political slaughter began, she had spent the sad October mornings in front of the window in her room, sympathizing with the dead and thinking that if God had not rested on Sunday He would have had time to finish the world properly.


He should have used that day to tie up a few of the loose ends she used to say. After all, he had all eternity to rest. The only difference, after the death of her husband, was that then she had a concrete reason for harboring such dark thoughts.


Thus, while Montiel's widow ate herself up in desperation, Mr. Carmichael tried to prevent the shipwreck. Things weren't going well. Free of the threat of José Montiel, who had monopolized local business through terror, the town was taking reprisals.

Waiting for customers who never came, the milk went sour in the jugs lined up in the patio, and the honey spoiled in its combs, and the cheese fattened worms in the dark cabinets of the cheese house. In his mausoleum adorned with electric-light bulbs and imitation-marble archangels, José Montiel was paying for six years of murders and oppression. No one in the history of the country had got so rich in so short a time. When the first Mayor of the dictatorship arrived in town, José Montiel was a discreet partisan of all regimes who had spent half his life in his underwear seated in front of his rice mill. At one time he enjoyed a certain reputation as a lucky man, and a good believer, because he promised out loud to give the Church a life-size image of Saint Joseph if he won the lottery, and two weeks later he won himself a fat prize and kept his promise. The first time he was seen to wear shoes was when the new Mayor, a brutish, underhanded police sergeant, arrived with express orders to liquidate the opposition. José Montiel began by being his confidential informer.

That modest businessman, whose fat mans quiet humor never, awakened the least uneasiness, segregated his enemies into rich and poor. The police shot down the poor in the public square. The rich were given a period of twenty-four hours to get out of town. Planning the massacre, José Montiel was closeted together with the Mayor in his stifling office for days on end, while his wife was sympathizing with the dead. When the Mayor left the office, she would block her husband’s ways.


“That man is a murderer, she would tell him. Use your influence with the government to get them to take that beast away; he's not going to leave a single human being in town alive.”


And José Montiel, so busy those days, put her aside without looking at her, saying,


“Don’t be such afool.”  In reality, his business was not the killing of the poor but the expulsion of the rich. After the Mayor riddled their doors with gunfire and gave them their twenty-four hours to get out of town, José Montiel bought their lands and cattle from them for a price, which he himself set.


“Don’t be silly,” his wife told him. “You’ll ruin yourself helping them so that they won’t die of hunger

someplace else, and they will never thank you.”


And José Montiel, who now didn’t even have time to smile, brushed her aside, saying,


“Go to your kitchen and don’t bother me so much.”


At this rate, in less than a year the opposition was liquidated, and José Montiel was the richest and most powerful man in town. He sent his daughters to Paris, found a consular post in Germany for his son, and devoted himself to consolidating his empire. But he didn’t live to enjoy even six years of his outrageous wealth.

After the first anniversary of his death, the widow heard the stairs creak only with the arrival of bad news. Someone always came at dusk. Again the bandits, they used to say.  Yesterday they made off with a herd of fifty heifers. Motionless in her rocker, biting her nails, Montel’s widow fed on nothing but resentment.


“I told you, José Montiel,” she was saying, talking to herself. “This is an unappreciative town. You are still warm in your tomb the world has already turned their back on you.”


No one returned to the house.  The only human being that she saw in these interminable months without rain was the persevering Don Carmichael, who never entered the house with a closed umbrella.  Things did not get better.  Don Carmichael had written many letters to Montiel’s son.  He suggested to the son the convenience of being put at the head of negotiations and being permitted to have considerations about the well being of the widow.  He would always receive evasive responses.  Finally,  Jose Montiel’s son answered frankly that he didn’t want to return for fear that he would be shot.  Therefore, Don Carmichael went to the widow’s room to confess that he was leaving her in ruin.

 Her only contact with the world, since then, were the letters that she would write to her daughters at the end of the month.  “This is a damned town”, she would say.  “Stay there forever and don’t worry about me.  I am happy knowing that you are happy.”  Her daughters would alternate in answering her.  Their letters were always happy, and she could see that they were written in warm and well luminated places and the girls would see themselves repeated in many mirrors if they had stopped to think.  Neither of them wanted to return.


“Here is civilization,” they would say.  “There, however, is not a good medium for us.  It’s impossible to live in a country as wild where the people are assassinated over political questions.”  


Reading the letters, Montiel’s widow would feel better and approve each phrase in her head.


In certain occasions, her daughters talked of the meat market in Paris.  They would tell her that pink pigs were killed and hung whole in the door adorned with crowns and garlands of flowers.  At the end, a different letter would be added on by her daughters:


"Imagine! They put the biggest and prettiest carnation in the pig's ass."


Reading that phrase, for the first time in two years Montiel's widow smiled. She went up to her bedroom without turning out the lights in the house and, before lying down, turned the electric fan over against the wall. Then, from the night-table drawer she took some scissors, a can of Band-Aids, and a rosary, and she bandaged the nail of her right thumb, which was irritated by her biting. Then she began to pray, but at the second mystery she put the rosary into her left hand, because she couldn't feel the beads through the bandage. For a moment she heard the vibration of distant thunder. Then she fell asleep with her head bent on her breast. The hand with the rosary fell to her side, and then she saw Big Mama in the patio, with a white sheet and a comb in her lap, squashing lice with her thumbnails. She asked her:


"When am I going to die?"


Big Mama raised her head.


"When the tiredness begins in your arm."