Behind her, so close to her ear that only she could hear it in the tumult, she heard his voice:
“This is not the place for a crowned goddess.”
She turned her head and saw, a hand’s breadth from her eyes, those other glacial eyes, that livid face, those lips petrified with fear, just as she had seen them in the crowd at Midnight Mass the first time he was so close to her, but now, instead of the commotion of love, she felt the abyss of disenchantment. In an instant the magnitude of her own mistake was revealed to her, and she asked herself, appalled, how she could have nurtured such a chimera in her heart for so long and with so much ferocity. She just managed to think: My God, poor man! Florentino Ariza smiled, tried to say something, tried to follow her, but she erased him from her life with a wave of her hand.
“No, please,” she said to him. “Forget it.”
That afternoon, while her father was taking his siesta, she sent Gala Placidia with a two-line letter: “Today, when I saw you, I realized that what is between us is nothing more than an illusion.” The maid also returned his telegrams, his verses, his dry camellias, and asked him to send back her letters and gifts, Aunt Escolastica’s missal, the veins of leaves from her herbariums, the square centimeter of the habit of St. Peter Clavier, the saints’ medals, the braid of her fifteenth year tied with the silk ribbon of her school uniform. I n the days that followed, on the verge of madness, he wrote her countless desperate letters and besieged the maid to take them to her, but she obeyed her unequivocal instructions not to accept anything but the returned gifts. She insisted with so much zeal that Florentino Ariza sent them all back except the braid, which he would return only to Fermina Daza in person so they could talk, if just for a moment. But she refused. Fearing a decision fatal to her son, Transito Ariza swallowed her pride and asked Fermina Daza to grant her the favor of five minutes of her time, and Fermina Daza received her for a moment in the doorway of her house, not asking her to sit down, not asking her to come in, and without the slightest trace of weakening. Two days later, after an argument with his mother, Florentino Ariza took down from the wall of his room the stained-glass case where he displayed the braid as if it were a holy relic, and Transito Ariza herself returned it in the velvet box embroidered with gold thread. Florentino Ariza never had another opportunity to see or talk to Fermina Daza alone in the many chance encounters of their very long lives until fifty-one years and nine months and four days later, when he repeated his vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love on her first night as a widow.