On day 7 of my 30 day short story challenge I get into magical realism. *Rubs hands together* Eeeeexcellent…
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez
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.
The story begins with a man, Pelayo, throwing crabs out of the house after three nights of lashing rain have turned the beach into stew. It is then that he discovers a wingèd old man face down in the mud.
Pelayo and his wife Elisenda first tell their wise old neighbor of the creature, seeking her advice: she tells them that the angel was probably coming for their child, who was sick with fever, but was knocked down by the rain en route. She advises that they club the celestial being to death.
Pelayo and Elisenda, of course, haven’t the heart to do so. They lock him up in the chicken coop instead. The baby’s fever falls and its appetite returns; grateful, the happy couple decide they will set the angel out to sea with several days’ provisions.
But the husband and wife have second thoughts when the crowds begin to flock. Onlookers from far and wide treat the angel like a circus attraction, throwing scraps of food at it and provoking it to action. The priest visits and declares that his superiors must be consulted for instruction. The ill arrive en masse, diseased seeking miracles and cripples pulling the angel’s feathers and touching themselves with them so they might be healed, but the angel is an ancient, decrepit being and largely listless; even his miracles are sad and unsatisfactory. A leper’s sores do not heal but grow sunflowers, and a blind man does not regain sight but grows three new teeth.
Eventually people lose interest in the angel. But by such time as this Pelayo and Elisenda, who began charging admission, have earned a small fortune. With their savings they build a two story mansion, a rabbit warren, and Elisenda dresses in only the finest silks. The coop, in contrast, is left derelict: treated only with incense when the chicken dung becomes too putrid. The angel is ever their captive.
As time goes on (and the coop collapses with more bad weather) the infant grows into a child; the angel is adopted into the household: a blind, elderly creature, constantly stumbling into people and being in everyone’s way. He begins to run a fever at night; his wings are balding, in a state of miserable disrepair; he seems to be dying.
Then, when the worst of winter passes, the angel’s heath unexpectedly recovers and new feathers begin coming in. He tries to fly again and, though ungainly at first, eventually recovers and wings out to sea.
“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.” I just love this image.
Gabriel García Márquez is the king of magical realism. Crabs fill the house when it rains too much, a casual aside in this story is a young woman whom divinity turned to a spider, and everything about the angel is so real and tangible: his struggling in the mud. His molting, parasite-ridden wings. His unearthly patience and endurance for all the provoking—even a cattle brand (although he rises and gusts and shouts in foreign tongue at this). The “consolation” miracles (see: leper, blind man, and paralytic) are perhaps my favorite: twisted and broken, not unlike the majestic, aged creature which cast them.
I’m a little surprised that this tale is not more didactic: that it leaves the reader with no clear moral or instructive takeaway at the end. It’s just sort of an unusual, magical episode. That’s it. There are no consequences as the wise old neighbor or priest seemed to warn of: the child’s life is not taken, and none are bedeviled or tricked into something wicked. The angel is not vengeful toward his captors; he simply takes his freedom and leaves.
ragpicker: a person who collects and sells rags
ingenuous: innocent and unsuspecting
sidereal: of/related to the stars
befuddled: unable to think clearly
sacramental: related to religious ceremony; a sign of divine grace
penitent: a person who repents of sin/wrongdoings
hermetic: airtight; protected from outside influences
repose: temporary rest
tribulation: a cause or state of great suffering/trouble
deign: to do something that one considers to be beneath one’s dignity
standoffish: distant and cold; unfriendly