A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings
Al tercer día de lluvia habían matado tantos cangrejos dentro de la casa, que Pelayo tuvo que atravesar su patio anegado para tirarlos al mar, pues el niño recién nacido había pasado la noche con calenturas y se pensaba que era causa de la pestilencia. El mundo estaba triste desde el martes. El cielo y el mar eran una misma cosa de ceniza, y las arenas de la playa, que en marzo fulguraban como polvo de lumbre, se habían convertido en un caldo de lodo y mariscos podridos. La luz era tan mansa al mediodía, que cuando Pelayo regresaba a la casa después de haber tirado los cangrejos, le costó trabajo ver qué era lo que se movía y se quejaba en el fondo del patio. Tuvo que acercarse mucho para descubrir que era un hombre viejo, que estaba tumbado boca abajo en el lodazal, y a pesar de sus grandes esfuerzos no podía levantarse, porque se lo impedían sus enormes alas.
Asustado por aquella pesadilla, Pelayo corrió en busca de Elisenda, su mujer, que estaba poniéndole compresas al niño enfermo, y la llevó hasta el fondo del patio. Ambos observaron el cuerpo caído con un callado estupor. Estaba vestido como un trapero. Le quedaban apenas unas hilachas descoloridas en el cráneo pelado y muy pocos dientes en la boca, y su lastimosa condición de bisabuelo ensopado lo había desprovisto de toda grandeza. Sus alas de gallinazo grande, sucias y medio desplumadas, estaban encalladas para siempre en el lodazal. Tanto lo observaron, y con tanta atención, que Pelayo y Elisenda se sobrepusieron muy pronto del asombro y acabaron por encontrarlo familiar. Entonces se atrevieron a hablarle, y él les contestó en un dialecto incomprensible pero con una buena voz de navegante. Fue así como pasaron por alto el inconveniente de las alas, y concluyeron con muy buen juicio que era un náufrago solitario de alguna nave extranjera abatida por el temporal. Sin embargo, llamaron para que lo viera a una vecina que sabía todas las cosas de la vida y la muerte, y a ella le bastó con una mirada para sacarlos del error.
— Es un ángel –les dijo—. Seguro que venía por el niño, pero el pobre está tan viejo que lo ha tumbado la lluvia.
Al día siguiente todo el mundo sabía que en casa de Pelayo tenían cautivo un ángel de carne y hueso. Contra el criterio de la vecina sabia, para quien los ángeles de estos tiempos eran sobrevivientes fugitivos de una conspiración celestial, no habían tenido corazón para matarlo a palos. Pelayo estuvo vigilándolo toda la tarde desde la cocina, armado con un garrote de alguacil, y antes de acostarse lo sacó a rastras del lodazal y lo encerró con las gallinas en el gallinero alumbrado. A media noche, cuando terminó la lluvia, Pelayo y Elisenda seguían matando cangrejos. Poco después el niño despertó sin fiebre y con deseos de comer. Entonces se sintieron magnánimos y decidieron poner al ángel en una balsa con agua dulce y provisiones para tres días, y abandonarlo a su suerte en altamar. Pero cuando salieron al patio con las primeras luces, encontraron a todo el vecindario frente al gallinero, retozando con el ángel sin la menor devoción y echándole cosas de comer por los huecos de las alambradas, como si no fuera una criatura sobrenatural sino un animal de circo.
El padre Gonzaga llegó antes de las siete alarmado por la desproporción de la noticia. A esa hora ya habían acudido curiosos menos frívolos que los del amanecer, y habían hecho toda clase de conjeturas sobre el porvenir del cautivo. Los más simples pensaban que sería nombrado alcalde del mundo. Otros, de espíritu más áspero, suponían que sería ascendido a general de cinco estrellas para que ganara todas las guerras. Algunos visionarios esperaban que fuera conservado como semental para implantar en la tierra una estirpe de hombres alados y sabios que se hicieran cargo del Universo. Pero el padre Gonzaga, antes de ser cura, había sido leñador macizo. Asomado a las alambradas repasó un instante su catecismo, y todavía pidió que le abrieran la puerta para examinar de cerca de aquel varón de lástima que más parecía una enorme gallina decrépita entre las gallinas absortas. Estaba echado en un rincón, secándose al sol las alas extendidas, entre las cáscaras de fruta y las sobras de desayunos que le habían tirado los madrugadores. Ajeno a las impertinencias del mundo, apenas si levantó sus ojos de anticuario y murmuró algo en su dialecto cuando el padre Gonzaga entró en el gallinero y le dio los buenos días en latín. El párroco tuvo la primera sospecha de impostura al comprobar que no entendía la lengua de Dios ni sabía saludar a sus ministros. Luego observó que visto de cerca resultaba demasiado humano: tenía un insoportable olor de intemperie, el revés de las alas sembrado de algas parasitarias y las plumas mayores maltratadas por vientos terrestres, y nada de su naturaleza miserable estaba de acuerdo con la egregia dignidad de los ángeles. Entonces abandonó el gallinero, y con un breve sermón previno a los curiosos contra los riesgos de la ingenuidad. Les recordó que el demonio tenía la mala costumbre de recurrir a artificios de carnaval para confundir a los incautos. Argumentó que si las alas no eran el elemento esencial para determinar las diferencias entre un gavilán y un aeroplano, mucho menos podían serlo para reconocer a los ángeles. Sin embargo, prometió escribir una carta a su obispo, para que éste escribiera otra al Sumo Pontífice, de modo que el veredicto final viniera de los tribunales más altos.
Su prudencia cayó en corazones estériles. La noticia del ángel cautivo se divulgó con tanta rapidez, que al cabo de pocas horas había en el patio un alboroto de mercado, y tuvieron que llevar la tropa con bayonetas para espantar el tumulto que ya estaba a punto de tumbar la casa. Elisenda, con el espinazo torcido de tanto barrer basura de feria, tuvo entonces la buena idea de tapiar el patio y cobrar cinco centavos por la entrada para ver al ángel.
Vinieron curiosos hasta de la Martinica. Vino una feria ambulante con un acróbata volador, que pasó zumbando varias veces por encima de la muchedumbre, pero nadie le hizo caso porque sus alas no eran de ángel sino de murciélago sideral. Vinieron en busca de salud los enfermos más desdichados del Caribe: una pobre mujer que desde niña estaba contando los latidos de su corazón y ya no le alcanzaban los números, un jamaicano que no podía dormir porque lo atormentaba el ruido de las estrellas, un sonámbulo que se levantaba de noche a deshacer dormido las cosas que había hecho despierto, y muchos otros de menor gravedad. En medio de aquel desorden de naufragio que hacía temblar la tierra, Pelayo y Elisenda estaban felices de cansancio, porque en menos de una semana atiborraron de plata los dormitorios, y todavía la fila de peregrinos que esperaban su turno para entrar llegaba hasta el otro lado del horizonte.
El ángel era el único que no participaba de su propio acontecimiento. El tiempo se le iba buscando acomodo en su nido prestado, aturdido por el calor de infierno de las lámparas de aceite y las velas de sacrificio que le arrimaban a las alambradas. Al principio trataron de que comiera cristales de alcanfor, que, de acuerdo con la sabiduría de la vecina sabia, era el alimento específico de los ángeles. Pero él los despreciaba, como despreció sin probarlos los almuerzos papales que le llevaban los penitentes, y nunca se supo si fue por ángel o por viejo que terminó comiendo nada más que papillas de berenjena. Su única virtud sobrenatural parecía ser la paciencia. Sobre todo en los primeros tiempos, cuando le picoteaban las gallinas en busca de los parásitos estelares que proliferaban en sus alas, y los baldados le arrancaban plumas para tocarse con ellas sus defectos, y hasta los más piadosos le tiraban piedras tratando de que se levantara para verlo de cuerpo entero. La única vez que consiguieron alterarlo fue cuando le abrasaron el costado con un hierro de marcar novillos, porque llevaba tantas horas de estar inmóvil que lo creyeron muerto. Despertó sobresaltado, despotricando en lengua hermética y con los ojos en lágrimas, y dio un par de aletazos que provocaron un remolino de estiércol de gallinero y polvo lunar, y un ventarrón de pánico que no parecía de este mundo. Aunque muchos creyeron que su reacción no había sido de rabia sino de dolor, desde entonces se cuidaron de no molestarlo, porque la mayoría entendió que su pasividad no era la de un héroe en uso de buen retiro sino la de un cataclismo en reposo.
El padre Gonzaga se enfrentó a la frivolidad de la muchedumbre con fórmulas de inspiración doméstica, mientras le llegaba un juicio terminante sobre la naturaleza del cautivo. Pero el correo de Roma había perdido la noción de la urgencia. El tiempo se les iba en averiguar si el convicto tenía ombligo, si su dialecto tenía algo que ver con el arameo, si podía caber muchas veces en la punta de un alfiler, o si no sería simplemente un noruego con alas. Aquellas cartas de parsimonia habrían ido y venido hasta el fin de los siglos, si un acontecimiento providencial no hubiera puesto término a las tribulaciones del párroco.
Sucedió que por esos días, entre muchas otras atracciones de las ferias errantes del Caribe, llevaron al pueblo el espectáculo triste de la mujer que se había convertido en araña por desobedecer a sus padres. La entrada para verla no sólo costaba menos que la entrada para ver al ángel, sino que permitían hacerle toda clase de preguntas sobre su absurda condición, y examinarla al derecho y al revés, de modo que nadie pusiera en duda la verdad del horror. Era una tarántula espantosa del tamaño de un carnero y con la cabeza de una doncella triste. Pero lo más desgarrador no era su figura de disparate, sino la sincera aflicción con que contaba los pormenores de su desgracia: siendo casi una niña se había escapado de la casa de sus padres para ir a un baile, y cuando regresaba por el bosque después de haber bailado toda la noche sin permiso, un trueno pavoroso abrió el cielo en dos mitades, y por aquella grieta salió el relámpago de azufre que la convirtió en araña. Su único alimento eran las bolitas de carne molida que las almas caritativas quisieran echarle en la boca. Semejante espectáculo, cargado de tanta verdad humana y de tan temible escarmiento, tenía que derrotar sin proponérselo al de un ángel despectivo que apenas si se dignaba mirar a los mortales. Además los escasos milagros que se le atribuían al ángel revelaban un cierto desorden mental, como el del ciego que no recobró la visión pero le salieron tres dientes nuevos, y el del paralítico que no pudo andar pero estuvo a punto de ganarse la lotería, y el del leproso a quien le nacieron girasoles en las heridas. Aquellos milagros de consolación que más bien parecían entretenimientos de burla, habían quebrantado ya la reputación del ángel cuando la mujer convertida en araña terminó de aniquilarla. Fue así como el padre Gonzaga se curó para siempre del insomnio, y el patio de Pelayo volvió a quedar tan solitario como en los tiempos en que llovió tres días y los cangrejos caminaban por los dormitorios.
Los dueños de la casa no tuvieron nada que lamentar. Con el dinero recaudado construyeron una mansión de dos plantas, con balcones y jardines, y con sardineles muy altos para que no se metieran los cangrejos del invierno, y con barras de hierro en las ventanas para que no se metieran los ángeles. Pelayo estableció además un criadero de conejos muy cerca del pueblo y renunció para siempre a su mal empleo de alguacil, y Elisenda se compró unas zapatillas satinadas de tacones altos y muchos vestidos de seda tornasol, de los que usaban las señoras más codiciadas en los domingos de aquellos tiempos. El gallinero fue lo único que no mereció atención. Si alguna vez lo lavaron con creolina y quemaron las lágrimas de mirra en su interior, no fue por hacerle honor al ángel, sino por conjurar la pestilencia de muladar que ya andaba como un fantasma por todas partes y estaba volviendo vieja la casa nueva. Al principio, cuando el niño aprendió a caminar, se cuidaron de que no estuviera cerca del gallinero. Pero luego se fueron olvidando del temor y acostumbrándose a la peste, y antes de que el niño mudara los dientes se había metido a jugar dentro del gallinero, cuyas alambradas podridas se caían a pedazos. El ángel no fue menos displicente con él que con el resto de los mortales, pero soportaba las infamias más ingeniosas con una mansedumbre de perro sin ilusiones. Ambos contrajeron la varicela al mismo tiempo. El médico que atendió al niño no resistió la tentación de auscultar al ángel, y encontró tantos soplos en el corazón y tantos ruidos en los riñones, que no le pareció posible que estuviera vivo. Lo que más le asombró, sin embargo, fue la lógica de sus alas. Resultaban tan naturales en aquel organismo completamente humano, que no podía entender por qué no las tenían también los otros hombres.
Cuando el niño fue a la escuela, hacía mucho tiempo que el sol y la lluvia habían desbaratado el gallinero. El ángel andaba arrastrándose por acá y por allá como un moribundo sin dueño. Lo sacaban a escobazos de un dormitorio y un momento después lo encontraban en la cocina. Parecía estar en tantos lugares al mismo tiempo, que llegaron a pensar que se desdoblaba, que se repetía a sí mismo por toda la casa, y la exasperada Elisenda gritaba fuera de quicio que era una desgracia vivir en aquel infierno lleno de ángeles. Apenas si podía comer, sus ojos de anticuario se le habían vuelto tan turbios que andaba tropezando con los horcones, y ya no le quedaban sino las cánulas peladas de las últimas plumas. Pelayo le echó encima una manta y le hizo la caridad de dejarlo dormir en el cobertizo, y sólo entonces advirtieron que pasaba la noche con calenturas delirantes en trabalenguas de noruego viejo. Fue esa una de las pocas veces en que se alarmaron, porque pensaban que se iba a morir, y ni siquiera la vecina sabia había podido decirles qué se hacía con los ángeles muertos.
Sin embargo, no sólo sobrevivió a su peor invierno, sino que pareció mejor con los primeros soles. Se quedó inmóvil muchos días en el rincón más apartado del patio, donde nadie lo viera, y a principios de diciembre empezaron a nacerle en las alas unas plumas grandes y duras, plumas de pajarraco viejo, que más bien parecían un nuevo percance de la decrepitud. Pero él debía conocer la razón de estos cambios, porque se cuidaba muy bien de que nadie los notara, y de que nadie oyera las canciones de navegantes que a veces cantaba bajo las estrellas. Una mañana, Elisenda estaba cortando rebanadas de cebolla para el almuerzo, cuando un viento que parecía de alta mar se metió en la cocina. Entonces se asomó por la ventana, y sorprendió al ángel en las primeras tentativas del vuelo. Eran tan torpes, que abrió con las uñas un surco de arado en las hortalizas y estuvo a punto de desbaratar el cobertizo con aquellos aletazos indignos que resbalaban en la luz y no encontraban asidero en el aire. Pero logró ganar altura. Elisenda exhaló un suspiro de descanso, por ella y por él, cuando lo vio pasar por encima de las últimas casas, sustentándose de cualquier modo con un azaroso aleteo de buitre senil. Siguió viéndolo hasta cuando acabó de cortar la cebolla, y siguió viéndolo hasta cuando ya no era posible que lo pudiera ver, porque entonces ya no era un estorbo en su vida, sino un punto imaginario en el horizonte del mar.
On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench. The world had been sad since Tuesday. Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish. The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what it was that was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard. He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.
Frightened by that nightmare, Pelayo ran to get Elisenda, his wife, who was putting compresses on the sick child, and he took her to the rear of the courtyard. They both looked at the fallen body with a mute stupor. He was dressed like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather took away any sense of grandeur he might have had. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud. They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar. Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice. That was how they skipped over the inconvenience of the wings and quite intelligently concluded that he was a lonely castaway from some foreign ship wrecked by the storm. And yet, they called in a neighbor woman who knew everything about life and death to see him, and all she needed was one look to show them their mistake.
“He’s an angel,” she told them. “He must have been coming for the child, but the poor fellow is so old that the rain knocked him down.”
On the following day everyone knew that a flesh-and-blood angel was held captive in Pelayo’s house. Against the judgment of the wise neighbor woman, for whom angels in those times were the fugitive survivors of a celestial conspiracy, they did not have the heart to club him to death. Pelayo watched over him all afternoon from the kitchen, armed with his bailiff’s club, and before going to bed he dragged him out of the mud and locked him up with the hens in the wire chicken coop. In the middle of the night, when the rain stopped, Pelayo and Elisenda were still killing crabs. A short time afterward the child woke up without a fever and with a desire to eat. Then they felt magnanimous and decided to put the angel on a raft with fresh water and provisions for three days and leave him to his fate on the high seas. But when they went out into the courtyard with the first light of dawn, they found the whole neighborhood in front of the chicken coop having fun with the angel, without the slightest reverence, tossing him things to eat through the openings in the wire as if he weren’t a supernatural creature but a circus animal.
Father Gonzaga arrived before seven o’clock, alarmed at the strange news. By that time onlookers less frivolous than those at dawn had already arrived and they were making all kinds of conjectures concerning the captive’s future. The simplest among them thought that he should be named mayor of the world. Others of sterner mind felt that he should be promoted to the rank of five-star general in order to win all wars. Some visionaries hoped that he could be put to stud in order to implant the earth a race of winged wise men who could take charge of the universe. But Father Gonzaga, before becoming a priest, had been a robust woodcutter. Standing by the wire, he reviewed his catechism in an instant and asked them to open the door so that he could take a close look at that pitiful man who looked more like a huge decrepit hen among the fascinated chickens. He was lying in the corner drying his open wings in the sunlight among the fruit peels and breakfast leftovers that the early risers had thrown him. Alien to the impertinences of the world, he only lifted his antiquarian eyes and murmured something in his dialect when Father Gonzaga went into the chicken coop and said good morning to him in Latin. The parish priest had his first suspicion of an imposter when he saw that he did not understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers. Then he noticed that seen close up he was much too human: he had an unbearable smell of the outdoors, the back side of his wings was strewn with parasites and his main feathers had been mistreated by terrestrial winds, and nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels. Then he came out of the chicken coop and in a brief sermon warned the curious against the risks of being ingenuous. He reminded them that the devil had the bad habit of making use of carnival tricks in order to confuse the unwary. He argued that if wings were not the essential element in determining the different between a hawk and an airplane, they were even less so in the recognition of angels. Nevertheless, he promised to write a letter to his bishop so that the latter would write his primate so that the latter would write to the Supreme Pontiff in order to get the final verdict from the highest courts.
His prudence fell on sterile hearts. The news of the captive angel spread with such rapidity that after a few hours the courtyard had the bustle of a marketplace and they had to call in troops with fixed bayonets to disperse the mob that was about to knock the house down. Elisenda, her spine all twisted from sweeping up so much marketplace trash, then got the idea of fencing in the yard and charging five cents admission to see the angel.
The curious came from far away. A traveling carnival arrived with a flying acrobat who buzzed over the crowd several times, but no one paid any attention to him because his wings were not those of an angel but, rather, those of a sidereal bat. The most unfortunate invalids on earth came in search of health: a poor woman who since childhood has been counting her heartbeats and had run out of numbers; a Portuguese man who couldn’t sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him; a sleepwalker who got up at night to undo the things he had done while awake; and many others with less serious ailments. In the midst of that shipwreck disorder that made the earth tremble, Pelayo and Elisenda were happy with fatigue, for in less than a week they had crammed their rooms with money and the line of pilgrims waiting their turn to enter still reached beyond the horizon.
The angel was the only one who took no part in his own act. He spent his time trying to get comfortable in his borrowed nest, befuddled by the hellish heat of the oil lamps and sacramental candles that had been placed along the wire. At first they tried to make him eat some mothballs, which, according to the wisdom of the wise neighbor woman, were the food prescribed for angels. But he turned them down, just as he turned down the papal lunches that the pentinents brought him, and they never found out whether it was because he was an angel or because he was an old man that in the end ate nothing but eggplant mush. His only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience. Especially during the first days, when the hens pecked at him, searching for the stellar parasites that proliferated in his wings, and the cripples pulled out feathers to touch their defective parts with, and even the most merciful threw stones at him, trying to get him to rise so they could see him standing. The only time they succeeded in arousing him was when they burned his side with an iron for branding steers, for he had been motionless for so many hours that they thought he was dead. He awoke with a start, ranting in his hermetic language and with tears in his eyes, and he flapped his wings a couple of times, which brought on a whirlwind of chicken dung and lunar dust and a gale of panic that did not seem to be of this world. Although many thought that his reaction had not been one of rage but of pain, from then on they were careful not to annoy him, because the majority understood that his passivity was not that of a hero taking his ease but that of a cataclysm in repose.
Father Gonzaga held back the crowd’s frivolity with formulas of maidservant inspiration while awaiting the arrival of a final judgment on the nature of the captive. But the mail from Rome showed no sense of urgency. They spent their time finding out if the prisoner had a navel, if his dialect had any connection with Aramaic, how many times he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn’t just a Norwegian with wings. Those meager letters might have come and gone until the end of time if a providential event had not put and end to the priest’s tribulations.
It so happened that during those days, among so many other carnival attractions, there arrived in the town the traveling show of the woman who had been changed into a spider for having disobeyed her parents. The admission to see her was not only less than the admission to see the angel, but people were permitted to ask her all manner of questions about her absurd state and to examine her up and down so that no one would ever doubt the truth of her horror. She was a frightful tarantula the size of a ram and with the head of a sad maiden. What was most heartrending, however, was not her outlandish shape but the sincere affliction with which she recounted the details of her misfortune. While still practically a child she had sneaked out of her parents’ house to go to a dance, and while she was coming back through the woods after having danced all night without permission, a fearful thunderclap rent the sky in two and through the crack came the lightning bolt of brimstone that changed her into a spider. Her only nourishment came from the meatballs that charitable souls chose to toss into her mouth. A spectacle like that, full of so much human truth and with such a fearful lesson, was bound to defeat without even trying that of a haughty angel who scarcely deigned to look at mortals. Besides, the few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, like the blind man who didn’t recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn’t get to walk but almost won the lottery, and the leper whose sores sprouted sunflowers. Those consolation miracles, which were more like mocking fun, had already ruined the angel’s reputation when the woman who had been changed into a spider finally crushed him completely. That was how Father Gonzaga was cured forever of his insomnia and Pelayo’s courtyard went back to being as empty as during the time it had rained for three days and crabs walked through the bedrooms.
The owners of the house had no reason to lament. With the money they saved they built a two-story mansion with balconies and gardens and high netting so that crabs wouldn’t get in during the winter, and with iron bars on the windows so that angels wouldn’t get in. Pelayo also set up a rabbit warren close to town and gave up his job as a bailiff for good, and Elisenda bought some satin pumps with high heels and many dresses of iridescent silk, the kind worn on Sunday by the most desirable women in those times. The chicken coop was the only thing that didn’t receive any attention. If they washed it down with creolin and burned tears of myrrh inside it every so often, it was not in homage to the angel but to drive away the dungheap stench that still hung everywhere like a ghost and was turning the new house into an old one. At first, when the child learned to walk, they were careful that he not get too close to the chicken coop. But then they began to lose their fears and got used to the smell, and before they child got his second teeth he’d gone inside the chicken coop to play, where the wires were falling apart. The angel was no less standoffish with him than with the other mortals, but he tolerated the most ingenious infamies with the patience of a dog who had no illusions. They both came down with the chicken pox at the same time. The doctor who took care of the child couldn’t resist the temptation to listen to the angel’s heart, and he found so much whistling in the heart and so many sounds in his kidneys that it seemed impossible for him to be alive. What surprised him most, however, was the logic of his wings. They seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too.
When the child began school it had been some time since the sun and rain had caused the collapse of the chicken coop. The angel went dragging himself about here and there like a stray dying man. They would drive him out of the bedroom with a broom and a moment later find him in the kitchen. He seemed to be in so many places at the same time that they grew to think that he’d be duplicated, that he was reproducing himself all through the house, and the exasperated and unhinged Elisenda shouted that it was awful living in that hell full of angels. He could scarcely eat and his antiquarian eyes had also become so foggy that he went about bumping into posts. All he had left were the bare cannulae of his last feathers. Pelayo threw a blanket over him and extended him the charity of letting him sleep in the shed, and only then did they notice that he had a temperature at night, and was delirious with the tongue twisters of an old Norwegian. That was one of the few times they became alarmed, for they thought he was going to die and not even the wise neighbor woman had been able to tell them what to do with dead angels.
And yet he not only survived his worst winter, but seemed improved with the first sunny days. He remained motionless for several days in the farthest corner of the courtyard, where no one would see him, and at the beginning of December some large, stiff feathers began to grow on his wings, the feathers of a scarecrow, which looked more like another misfortune of decreptitude. But he must have known the reason for those changes, for he was quite careful that no one should notice them, that no one should hear the sea chanteys that he sometimes sang under the stars. One morning Elisenda was cutting some bunches of onions for lunch when a wind that seemed to come from the high seas blew into the kitchen. Then she went to the window and caught the angel in his first attempts at flight. They were so clumsy that his fingernails opened a furrow in the vegetable patch and he was on the point of knocking the shed down with the ungainly flapping that slipped on the light and couldn’t get a grip on the air. But he did manage to gain altitude. Elisenda let out a sigh of relief, for herself and for him, when she watched him pass over the last houses, holding himself up in some way with the risky flapping of a senile vulture. She kept watching him even when she was through cutting the onions and she kept on watching until it was no longer possible for her to see him, because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.
One day, while killing crabs during a rainstorm that has lasted for several days, Pelayo discovers a homeless, disoriented old man in his courtyard who happens to have very large wings. The old man is filthy and apparently senile, and speaks an unintelligible language. After consulting a neighbor woman, Pelayo and his wife, Elisenda, conclude that the old man must be an angel who had tried to come and take their sick child to heaven. The neighbor woman tells Pelayo that he should club the angel to death, but Pelayo and Elisenda take pity on their visitor, especially after their child recovers.
Pelayo and Elisenda keep the old man in their chicken coop, and he soon begins to attract crowds of curious visitors. Father Gonzaga, the local priest, tells the people that the old man is probably not an angel because he’s shabby and doesn’t speak Latin. Father Gonzaga decides to ask his bishop for guidance.
Despite Father Gonzaga’s efforts, word of the old man’s existence soon spreads, and pilgrims come from all over to seek advice and healing from him. One woman comes because she’d been counting her heartbeats since childhood and couldn’t continue counting. An insomniac visits because he claims that the stars in the night sky are too noisy. The crowd eventually grows so large and disorderly with the sick and curious that Elisenda begins to charge admission. For the most part, the old man ignores the people, even when they pluck his feathers and throw stones at him to make him stand up. He becomes enraged, however, when the visitors sear him with a branding iron to see whether he’s still alive.
Father Gonzaga does his best to restrain the crowd, even as he waits for the Church’s opinion on the old man. The crowd starts to disperse when a traveling freak show arrives in the village. People flock to hear the story of the so-called spider woman, a woman who’d been transformed into a giant tarantula with the head of a woman after she’d disobeyed her parents. The sad tale of the spider woman is so popular that people quickly forget the old man, who’d performed only a few pointless semi-miracles for his pilgrims.
Pelayo and Elisenda have nevertheless grown quite wealthy from the admission fees Elisenda had charged. Pelayo quits his job and builds a new, larger house. The old man continues to stay with them, still in the chicken coop, for several years, as the little boy grows older. When the chicken coop eventually collapses, the old man moves into the adjacent shed, but he often wanders from room to room inside the house, much to Elisenda’s annoyance.
Just when Pelayo and Elisenda are convinced that the old man will soon die, he begins to regain his strength. His feathers grow back and he begins to sing sea chanteys (sailors’ songs) to himself at night. One day the old man stretches his wings and takes off into the air, and Elisenda watches him disappear over the horizon.
García Márquez’s literary reputation is inseparable from the term magical realism, a phrase that literary critics coined to describe the distinctive blend of fantasy and realism in his and many other Latin American authors’ work. Magical-realist fiction consists of mostly true-to-life narrative punctuated by moments of whimsical, often symbolic, fantasy described in the same matter-of-fact tone. Magical realism has become such an established form in Latin America partly because the style is strongly connected to the folkloric storytelling that’s still popular in rural communities. The genre, therefore, attempts to connect two traditions—the “low” folkloric and the “high” literary—into a seamless whole that embraces the extremes of Latin American culture. As the worldwide popularity of García Márquez’s writing testifies, it is a formula that resonates well with readers around the world.
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is one of the most well-known examples of the magical realist style, combining the homely details of Pelayo and Elisenda’s life with fantastic elements such as a flying man and a spider woman to create a tone of equal parts local-color story and fairy tale. From the beginning of the story, García Márquez’s style comes through in his unusual, almost fairy tale–like a description of the relentless rain: “The world had been sad since Tuesday.” There is a mingling of the fantastic and ordinary in all the descriptions, including the swarms of crabs that invade Pelayo and Elisenda’s home and the muddy sand of the beach that in the rainy grayness looks “like powdered light.” It is in this strange, highly textured, dreamlike setting that the old winged man appears, a living myth, who is nevertheless covered in lice and dressed in rags.
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” functions as a satirical piece that mocks both the Catholic Church and human nature in general. García Márquez criticizes the church through Father Gonzaga’s superiors in Rome, who seem to be in no hurry to discover the truth about the bedraggled, so-called angel. Instead, they ask Father Gonzaga to study the old man’s unintelligible dialect to see whether it has any relation to Aramaic, the language of Jesus. They also ask Gonzaga to determine how many times the old man can fit on the head of a pin, another dig at Catholicism referencing an arcane medieval theory once thought to prove God’s omnipotence. Their final conclusion that the old man with wings may, in fact, be a stranded Norwegian sailor only makes the church sound absurdly literal-minded and out of touch with even the most basic elements of reality. In the end, the church’s wait-and-see tactic pays off when the old man simply flies away—a rib from García Márquez implying that the “wisdom” of the church has never really been needed at all.
Such criticisms of the church are only part of García Márquez’s critique of human beings in general, who never seem to understand the greater significance of life. There is a narrowness of vision that afflicts everyone from the wise neighbor woman, with her unthinking know-it-all ways, to the kindly Father Gonzaga, who is desperate for a procedure to follow, to the crowds of onlookers and pilgrims with their selfish concerns. Elisenda too is more focused on keeping her kitchen and living room angel-free than on considering the odd beauty of her unwelcome guest. She, however, seems to have a moment of realization and almost of regret at the end of the story, when she watches the old man disappear from her life forever. Just as the proverbial lost hiker who can’t see the wilderness for the trees, García Márquez suggests that most people live their lives unaware of their significance in the world.
In a Nutshell
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a … very old man with enormous wings, and he’s landing in your backyard!
Okay, so it sounds like something out of a comic book. But that’s exactly the situation encountered by the characters in Gabriel García Márquez’s 1968 short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”: a busy family suddenly finds an old man who just happens to have huge wings crash-landed in their patio.
The family panics, naturally. Even if it is an angel, what in the world are you supposed to do with a dirty, apparently crazy angel who’s stuck in your backyard? They ask the local experts, including the town priest and a neighbor who thinks she knows everything about angels, but no one has any good advice. So, they do what any self-respecting procrastinators would do: ignore the problem until it goes away on its own.
And what, Shmoopers, is up with that?
This story is one of the clearest (and briefest) examples of magical realism. No, magical realism isn’t some kooky, postmodern magic show where the magician explains the tricks behind his illusions: it’s a literary genre in which extraordinary, even impossible events (like an old man with wings crash-landing in somebody’s yard) are taken to be ordinary by the characters within the story.
If you’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude (or checked out the Shmoop learning guide), you’ll know that Gárcia Márquez (nicknamed “Gabo”) is a master of the genre. He claimed that in Latin America, “magical realism” is just “realism,” because supernatural and strange things happen there all the time.
Well, we can’t comment on that. But we think the point of magical realism—or at least one of the points—is that, like a fable or an allegory or a parable, sometimes it’s easier to swallow a lesson if it’s told in a fanciful or indirect way. After all, we don’t want anyone lecturing us about being careful what you wish for. We’re a lot more likely to listen if the lesson comes along with a crazy story about angels and ordinary families—families who look a lot like us.
Why Should I Care?
Everyone believes in something, and everyone has a dream: winning a state championship in track and field, asking a cute guy to prom, or solving world hunger through meat cloning.
But when dreams come true, sometimes they’re not all we thought they were cracked up to be. Maybe no one remembers to treat you like a hero after you bring home the individual synchronized diving medal. Maybe that cute guy spends the entire evening talking to the head cheerleader. Maybe the cloned meat causes genetic disorders.
As C. S. Lewis reminds us, sometimes you don’t actually want dreams to come true.
In Gabriel Gárcia Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” the townspeople all believe in angels; they have no trouble accepting that that’s what the old winged man is. The problem is that this angel is not all goodness and light. In fact:
He can’t fly.
He speaks a language no one understands and doesn’t even understand the priest’s Latin.
He’s bald and almost toothless.
His wings are filthy.
Eventually, the family has to accept the fact that their idea of an angel has nothing to do with the reality of the poor, old castaway stinking up the yard. And we may not believe in angels, but we can all understand what it’s like to confront the ugly truth behind a cherished belief.
The Old Man
The old man, with his human body and unexpected wings, appears to be neither fully human nor fully surreal. On the one hand, the man seems human enough, surrounded as he is by filth, disease, infirmity, and squalor. He has a human reaction to the people who crowd around him and seek healing, remaining indifferent to their pleas and sometimes not even acknowledging their existence. When the doctor examines him, he is amazed that such an unhealthy man is still alive and is equally struck by how natural the old man’s wings seem to be. Such an unsurprised reaction essentially brings the “angel” down to earth, so any heavenly qualities the old man may have are completely obscured. However, the narrator seems to take the old man’s angelhood for granted, speaking of the “lunar dust” and “stellar parasites” on his wings, and the old man’s “consolation miracles,” such as causing sunflowers to sprout from a leper’s sores, seem genuinely supernatural. In the end, the old man’s true nature remains a mystery.
He’s a man of few (and incomprehensible) words. He could use a bath. And, oh, yeah, he’s got a gigantic pair of wings. Not too appealing, to say the least. (Something like this, maybe.) Let’s take a closer look at how he’s described:
He was dressed like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather had taken away any sense of grandeur he might have had. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud. (2)
You know what’s kind of interesting here? Look at the analogies and metaphors that Gárcia Márquez uses: he’s “like a ragpicker,” he’s in the state “of a drenched great-grandfather,” and he has “buzzard wings.” Ragpicker, great-grandfather, and buzzard: all things that are at the bottom of the heap. So to speak.
This description really drives home that this guy is basically the equivalent of the poor guy huddled under newspaper in front of the library holding a sign saying, “They’re coming for you.” Not very awe-inspiring; more like move-to-the-other-side-of-the-street-inspiring.
A Stranger Comes to Town
We know very little about the old man, but we know that he doesn’t speak Spanish (presumably the language of the village). He does seem to speak some Nordic dialect, maybe Norwegian, and sings sailor songs: “Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice” (2).
He’s one of the strangest strangers to ever come to town.
His foreignness causes almost all of the problems in the story. He can’t communicate with the townspeople, or explain himself. Besides that, he has no ties to anyone, so no one really feels responsible for treating him well.
The angel isn’t really a fully developed character. Since he never talks, never really does anything, and since we never get any insight into his motivations, we can’t really know much about him. But he does let everyone show their true colors. Who’s greedy? Who’s cruel? Who’s legalistic? The townspeople’s reactions to the angel reveal a lot about their characters.
A Guardian Angel?
There’s just one more person we want to think about. Could it be that this guy is really a guardian angel?
We don’t know what he wants or why he’s landed here, but he does seem to have a connection with Elisenda and Pelayo’s child. Think about it: the baby’s fever breaks when the angel lands, and he flies away when the child starts school several years later. We’re not talking halo and pretty pink dress, but this guy does seem to have a special connection to the kid.
Although Pelayo is kinder to the old man than the other villagers, he is certainly no paragon of compassion and charity. He doesn’t club the old man as the neighbor woman suggests, but he does pen the supposed angel in his chicken coop and charge admission to the crowds of curious sightseers. Pelayo is primarily concerned with his family and sick child and is content to leave the theoretical and theological speculations to Father Gonzaga. His decision to shelter the old man and take some responsibility for him, however, suggests that he isn’t as cold or heartless as he might seem. By allowing the old man to stay, Pelayo also invites mystery, wonder, and magic into his life.
Pelayo is the guy who finds the old man, in the middle of throwing drowned crabs out of his flooded courtyard. And check out the first thing he does:
Frightened by that nightmare, Pelayo ran to get Elisenda, his wife, who was putting compresses on the sick child, and he took her to the rear of the courtyard. They both looked at the fallen body with mute stupor. (2)
Elisenda seems to be the brains behind the operation of their marriage, and Pelayo just goes along with what she says—although he does reap the benefits. He quits his job to raise rabbits, and he gets to live in a nice “two-story mansion with balconies and gardens and high netting so that crabs wouldn’t get in during the winter.”
No more throwing crabs out in the middle of a rainstorm for this guy.
Good Guy/Bad Guy
Even though Pelayo doesn’t play much of a role in the story, he’s not entirely off the narrator’s hook. He may not have come up with the idea of letting people gawk at that angel for money, but he sure didn’t stop his wife.
There’s just one thing that redeems Pelayo: when the man loses the last of his feathers, Pelayo throws a blanket over him; and then lets him sleep in the shed. Sure, the narrator says ironically that Pelayo “extended him the charity of letting him sleep in the shed”—ironic because, come on, that’s not really charitable at all.
But, still, that’s about the only nice thing anyone ever does for the poor guy. We’ll take it.
Elisenda is a perfect match for her husband, Pelayo, being equally ordinary and concerned with practical matters. If anything, Elisenda is the more practical of the two because she suggests charging admission to see the “angel.” Despite the many material advantages the old man brings, Elisenda’s attitude toward him is primarily one of annoyance and exasperation. Once the old man’s usefulness as a roadside attraction dwindles, Elisenda sees him only as a nuisance. Indeed, the old man becomes so troublesome to her that she even refers to her new home—purchased with proceeds from exhibiting the old man—as a “hell full of angels.” The old man becomes so ordinary in Elisenda’s eyes that it isn’t until he finally flies away that she seems to see him for the wonder he is. Elisenda watches him fly away with wistfulness, as if finally realizing that something extraordinary has left her life forever.
You do not want to get between Elisenda and her satin pumps. She’s the wife of Pelayo, the man who finds the old man with wings, and boy does she earn her keep. So to speak.
Above all, Elisenda is a shrewd businesswoman—not to mention, ambitious. It’s her bright idea to start charging admission to see the old man/angel, and she and her family become rich, by their community’s standards, off of the earnings. And boy does she know how to spend that money:
“Elisenda bought some satin pumps with high heels and many dresses of iridescent silk, the kind worn on Sunday by the most desirable women in those times. The chicken coop was the only thing that didn’t receive any attention.” (11)
So, we know that Elisenda wants to appear desirable; she’s conscious of her appearance and how she’s perceived. And we also know that she’s pretty selfish, and she’s willing to use people around her to get ahead—especially if those people can be locked up in a chicken coop.
Hmm, it’s not looking too good for this lady.
No Handouts Here
So why does Elisenda gets such a bum rap? Well, she gives us insight into one way of treating things that are out of the ordinary—like the extremely old, the extremely poor, or the extremely weird. To her, the old man is just a nuisance once he’s outlived his monetary value. When he finally leaves, she’s relieved that the fantastic figure is tucked back into her imagination instead of messing up her kitchen.
In other words: materialistic, economically rational, and unimaginative. Can you imagine being married to her?
Okay, let’s play devil’s—or angel’s—advocate here and try to look at Elisenda from the other side. Right at the end of the story, the narrator describes her as “exasperated and unhinged.” What could possibly have made her come “unhinged”?
Well, when you think about it, it probably is pretty awful having this weird, creepy guy with wings dragging himself around your nice new house. All she wants is a normal life—a husband, a kid, a pretty silk dress—but instead she gets a featherless angel crash-landing in her backyard.
And would you really act any differently?
We know so little about this kid that we barely even know if it’s a boy or a girl (boy). He doesn’t even get a name. But we do get the sense that he has something important to do with the story: he’s running a fever as a newborn the day the old man arrives, and is seemingly miraculously cured by the next morning.
The child grows up with the presence of the old man, so, for him, having a winged human in the house probably seems natural. In fact, he treats the old man like he would an old, patient, pet dog. They’re kind of pals:
Before the child got his second teeth he’d gone inside the chicken coop to play, where the wires were falling apart. The angel was no less standoffish with him than with other mortals, but he tolerated the most ingenious infamies with the patience of a dog who had no illusions. They both came down with chicken pox at the same time. (11)
We can’t learn much about the child from this description, but we can learn a few things: he’s an ordinary kid who comes up with “ingenious infamies”—i.e., the equivalent of pulling the cat’s tail or trying to ride the dog—and he has some special connection to the man.
Eventually, the kid starts school. He heads out into the world to learn to be part of society. And this just so happens to coincide with the guardian angel’s dramatic exit from his life. Coincidence?
Maybe. We never get much information, and it’s hard to know what the angel would even be protecting the kid from. His cray-cray mom? His crab-killing dad? Dementors?
If he is a guardian angel, then people probably should have treated him a lot better, instead of like an angel of death or a sideshow freak. And if it’s a coincidence, well, they still probably could have been nicer to him, right?
One other question that remains unanswered: how is the child going to react to news that his pet has flown the coop?
The Neighbor Lady
It’s never good when your name is “the neighbor lady.” This woman may have the reputation for being the town’s wise woman, but she has some pretty crazy ideas about the old man.
How crazy? She’s the first one to say he’s an angel, but … her follow-up is to recommend killing him:
Against the judgment of the wise neighbor woman, for whom angels in those times were the fugitive survivors of a celestial conspiracy, they did not have the heart to club him to death. (4)
She also has the bright idea of feeding him mothballs, since she claims that’s what angels eat. The neighbor lady (unfortunately) serves as the voice of the people in this story. She’s religious, but not officially religious like the priest, so she’s the mouthpiece for all the semi-religious, wacky ideas that perfectly nice people come up with.
Such as, if you see something you don’t understand—kill it.
So what’s with this celestial conspiracy? Well, it probably has something to do with the idea that, back in the days before Adam and Eve snacked on that pesky apple, Satan led a band of rebel angels in a revolt against God.
Given the state of this angel, we have to say that it sounds plausible. Could the old man be not a guardian angel but a bad angel?
Or maybe the better question is—what difference does it make? What does it say about this neighbor lady that her first thought is “bad angel”? (Hint: probably nothing good.)
If this is the best that the local church has to offer, count us unimpressed. Father Gonzaga is alarmed by the arrival of the old man and wants to officially determine whether or not he’s an angel:
Standing by the wire, he reviewed his catechism in an instant and asked them to open the door so that he could take a close look at that pitiful man who looked more like a huge decrepit hen among the fascinated chickens. (5)
He tests the old man by speaking to him in Latin, and then writes a bunch of letters to the Pope in Rome, but he never does quite figure out whether to call the stranger an angel or not. He may have book-smarts, but he doesn’t have much imagination—or much true religious feeling.
Like the neighbor lady, he’s not a fully developed character so much as a representation of a particular way of looking at the world. And we sure can’t see much through his eyes.
THE COEXISTENCE OF CRUELTY AND COMPASSION
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” wryly examines the human response to those who are weak, dependent, and different. There are moments of striking cruelty and callousness throughout the story. After Elisenda and Pelayo’s child recovers from his illness, for example, the parents decide to put the old man to sea on a raft with provisions for three days rather than just killing him, a concession to the old man’s difficult situation but hardly a kind act. Once they discover that they can profit from showcasing him, however, Pelayo and Elisenda imprison him in a chicken coop outside, where strangers pelt him with stones, gawk at him, and even burn him with a branding iron.
Amidst the callousness and exploitation, moments of compassion are few and far between, although perhaps all the more significant for being so rare. Even though he is taken in only grudgingly, the old man eventually becomes part of Pelayo and Elisenda’s household. By the time the old man finally flies into the sunset, Elisenda, for all her fussing, sees him go with a twinge of regret. And it is the old man’s extreme patience with the villagers that ultimately transforms Pelayo’s and Elisenda’s lives. Seen in this light, the old man’s refusal to leave might be interpreted as an act of compassion to help the impoverished couple. García Márquez may have even intended to remind readers of the advice found in Hebrews 13:2 in the Bible: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Wings represent power, speed, and limitless freedom of motion. In the Christian tradition, angels are often represented as beautiful winged figures, and García Márquez plays off of this cultural symbolism because, ironically, the wings of the “angel” in the story convey only a sense of age and disease. Although the old man’s wings may be dirty, bedraggled, and bare, they are still magical enough to attract crowds of pilgrims and sightseers. When the village doctor examines the old man, he notices how naturally the wings fit in with the rest of his body. In fact, the doctor even wonders why everyone else doesn’t have wings as well. The ultimate effect is to suggest that the old man is both natural and supernatural at once, having the wings of a heavenly messenger but all the frailties of an earthly creature.
THE SPIDER WOMAN
The spider woman represents the fickleness with which many self-interested people approach their own faith. After hearing of the “angel,” hundreds of villagers flock to Pelayo’s house, motivated partly by faith but also to see him perform miracles—physical evidence that their faith is justified. Not surprisingly, the old man’s reputation wanes when he proves capable of performing only minor “consolation miracles.” Instead, the spectators flock to the spider woman, who tells a heart-wrenching story with a clear, easy-to-digest lesson in morality that contrasts sharply with the obscurity of the old man’s existence and purpose. Although no less strange than the winged old man, the spider woman is easier to understand and even pity. The old man, barely conscious in his filthy chicken coop, can’t match her appeal, even though some suspect that he came from the heavens. García Márquez strongly suggests that the pilgrims’ result-oriented faith isn’t really faith at all.
Pelayo and Elisenda’s newfound prosperity is the physical manifestation of the magic and wonder the old man brings to their lives. As the story opens, the couple lives in an almost comical state of poverty as swarms of crabs invade their home. Even worse, their young son is deathly ill. The old man, however, brings hundreds of pilgrims who don’t mind paying Pelayo and Elisenda a small fee for the privilege of seeing him. The proceeds bring Pelayo and Elisenda a new house, a new business, and more money than they know how to spend. This remarkable turn in fortune happens so gradually that Pelayo and Elisenda don’t really see how remarkable it is. Elisenda even refers to her new home as a “hell full of angels” once the old man is allowed inside after the chicken coop collapses.
Other quizlet not done