This is my translation of one of my Great Grandfather stories. He was a lawyer, a Judge, a poet and a writer. It is just a small example of the idiosyncrasies of my people in the ’50’s. Life was simpler and more beautiful. We still visit the mountains and the house where he wrote some of his stories. Hope you like it!
The Music of Bells
“C’mon old man!” I said to my dog, Jim. He was waiting for me in the front yard of my country house, wagging his tail impatiently, and eager to start our upcoming morning walk. And so, we both set off with no destination in mind: up the hill, jumping over stone fences, wading across brooks, and walking through the big squared plots of bright green pasture lands, so typical of the countryside.
I looked at a distance and my eyes suddenly stumbled upon the house of don Chico Guadamuz, standing at the flattened top of a hill. A patriarch of the surroundings, he was a wealthy man, very powerful and prestigious. His neighbors held him in high esteem as he was known to be an old fashioned Christian and a man of good judgment. I wished to say hello to the venerable old man, so I headed that way.
The climb uphill left us both panting. At that altitude the view was so great, that before entering my friend’s dwelling, I decided to take a moment to enjoy the landscape. Jim sat by my side with his pink tongue out, huffing and puffing like a bellow, so tired he was.
How long did I stand there, frozen: filling my lungs with the fragrant mountain breeze; ecstatic at the sight of a pristine and bright-blue Sunday sky? I do not know. It seemed as if the wind’s invisible hands had just polished it, just so I could see its splendorous shine… Time goes by unnoticed when the joyful spirit is drunk with the marvels of Nature.
Suddenly, I had the sensation a strange music sprouted from everywhere: it came down the sky, rose from earth, vibrated in the nearby hills… It sounded like the pealing of hundreds of silver bells breaking through the clarity of morning.
My dog, startled, jumped up and put his front paws on my chest. I could tell he was puzzled by look in his eyes. “Can you hear that too, Jim? What could it be?”
“It’s the bells of the hermitage, don Víctor Manuel!”
For a second I shuddered with terror, fearing I may be going mad. Was Jim talking to me? But I quickly calmed down when I saw don Chico’s kind face smiling at me from the corridor of his house. The venerable old man was there, dressed up in his best holydays attire. He wore a white shirt with a starched, button-down collar. In his head a wide-brimmed sombrero de pita fiber. A hand towel was wrapped around his neck, forming something like a ruffled collar upon which his tanned features rested, creased with wrinkles. His grey moustache added nobility to his face.
“Yes, don Víctor Manuel, it’s the bells of the distant hermitage. On the rare occasions when the wind blows in this direction, a strange acoustic effect is produced, and it sounds as if the pealing of the bells sprouted out of these mountains… If you’re not in a hurry please come in, and I will tell you a story while we both enjoy a cup of coffee.”
Within a few minutes, I was sitting down at my friend’s table. I noticed it was dressed with the tablecloth used only for when there were guests coming to visit. Placed upon it, were two fragrant cups of steaming-hot cafe con leche, as well as delicious pieces of pan casero that tempted my gluttony. So I sat there, in front of my friend, all ears and ready to listen to his words.
“I hope you enjoyed the pealing of those bells. To me, they have the charm of the pleasant memories of my youth… Those memories are so wonderful to taste when they brush our soul during our old age. Whenever I hear them, I go out to the corridor to listen to them, and I can’t help the tears coming to my eyes…
Alright, I’m going to tell you a little about my life. This is a story that will seem to you as an episode taken out of one of those novels you city folks like to read so much…
Most of these lands that belong to me now were once owned by don Manuel Pantoja, who was lord and master of all these sown fields. Don Manuel was a campesino the likes of which you can’t find nowadays: strong-willed, of reckless courage, amazingly strong, and with an untamable energy.
Sometimes he used to say: ‘Only God is capable of not letting me get what I want.’ That was his favorite phrase. Of course the things he wanted, such as increasing the size of his property through hard work or doing some construction work to help the neighborhood, never got in the way of his good old Christian morals. He was always a man of indisputable honesty.
He came into these mountains when they were nothing but gloomy lands, but he set out to become rich. With no other assets than the strength of his own arms he chopped down forests and cleaned the fields. After ten years he had built an enormous finca with pasture lands filled with cattle, beautiful sugar cane fields and rich coffee plantations.
I was a peón of don Manuel since I was fifteen. One day my mother, distressed by poverty, took me by the hand to his place: ‘Don Manuel, I bring you my son so you can make a man out of him. Anything you pay him will be very useful to us.’
The following morning at three a.m., don Manuel and I were already out on our way to the mountain to cut some wood. It was so cold I thought my bones were going to break. While standing in front of a thick and ancient oak tree, he put an axe in my hand and grabbed one for himself: ‘This giant must be on the floor before the sun comes out. Come on!’ And so, we started chopping.
Don Manuel believed all men ought to have the same energy God had given him, and he wasn’t touched at all by my childish weakness. ‘Your mother told me to make a man out of you, and I intend to do so, even if you die of exhaustion.’
Of course he kept his promise, because by the age of eighteen, I had the reputation of being the best peón of his fincas. The hard labor had turned me into a young man and given strength to my muscles. My spirit, however, hadn’t developed along with my body and on the inside I was still a child: timid, innocent and naive. I couldn’t bear to look at someone straight in the eye, and if a woman stared at me I turned as red as the flowers of a banana tree. It’s not like I was a coward; my patrón couldn’t have cowards working with him. Maybe all the misery and struggle my mother and I had endured when I was a child, was what made me feel less of a person and wouldn’t let me stand up straight and lift my head up. To me that was the greatest tragedy! A tragedy that was even greater due to the fact that to my disgrace, I had fallen in love with —guess who I had fallen for, don Víctor Manuel?— I had fallen for my patrón’s only daughter!
As naive as I was, I was still aware of the absurdity of that love. Rosalía
—that was the name of the woman I loved— was a rich young lady, and I was a poor peón with nothing else but the strength if his arms to help earn his daily bread. There was also the issue of our education. She’d finished primary school and had spent a few years going to a Catholic high school in the capital city. I barely knew how to read and write. I was only a humble, rustic and plain man of the area. To me, courting Rosalía was like wishing for a star to pin on my chest.
My suffering was only made worse by the indifference she had for me. She treated me just as she treated any other peón of the finca, or at least I hadn’t noticed any privilege or preference towards me. The truth is, whenever she looked at me, I lowered my head, almost instinctively, and stared at the floor until I felt my blood was about to gush out of my face, so chillado I was. Of course, when she wasn’t looking at me, I devoured her with my eyes.
Rumor spread that the son of a wealthy finquero of the vicinities had started visiting don Manuel’s home, and that he apparently wanted to court Rosalía. Jealousy started ripping up my heart and I felt sick with sadness. My mother, who didn’t know what was happening to me, asked me one day with great concern: ‘What’s wrong with you, Chico? You’ve been acting weird for a few days now. Why do you look so sad? Did something happen at the farm?’
‘No mama, don’t be scared; I’m an honest man, I must just be nervous…’
‘Thank God, son. You have lifted a weight off my shoulders. ‘I’d rather see you in a coffin, amidst four candles, than see you dishonored. Nervousness is a bad thing, but it can be cured. On Sunday you must go to the village, to don Manuel Flores’ pharmacy and you must get some medicine, they will tell you there which one works best for your ailment…’
I smiled because I knew what my ailment was; I knew it was one of those which, as people say, ‘can only be cured by a priest and a wedding.’
It turns out that my mother’s advice awakened an idea that had been dormant in my mind for a very long time; so long, I had almost forgotten about it. I had to get me some magic powders to help me win Rosalía’s love.
The person responsible for putting such ideas in my mind was the infamous Isaías Bermudez. He was a liar and dirty and boastful old man, who still saw himself as was a don Juan. During one of the usual afternoon chats at the town’s pulpería, I heard him say he had some secret magic powders, and that if you sprinkled the woman you loved with them, it would make her love you back. I was so naïve I believed such a thing could be possible, and my extreme shyness was the only reason why I didn’t go to Isaías and asked him about his secret.
But when my mother mentioned don Manuel Flores’ pharmacy, it occurred to me I could maybe find those powders there. Why not –I thought- if they sold all kinds of medicinal powders there?
* * *
On Sunday I went to the village and headed straight to the pharmacy. I stood by the door for a long time, because I thought if I asked for the magic powders I was going to reveal my secret. Oh well!, I said to myself, if I came all the way down here, I better deal with this at once! So I approached a young shop clerck and asked him: ‘Excuse me, do you have powders to make women fall in love?’
The salesperson’s name was Luis Saenz and with time he came to be a good friend of mine. But at that moment he looked at me with bewildered eyes: ‘Did you say powders to make women fall in love?’
‘Yes sir.’ I said firmly.
He went to the back where they filled prescriptions, and I heard muffled laughter and comments. Then he came back looking very serious: ‘Yes, we have the powders you need, but they’re very expensive.’
‘How much are they?’
‘Two hundred colones!’
I was stunned. That amount was more than my entire savings… Of course, it was impossible for me to get them. ‘If they’re that expensive I can’t buy them.’
The assistant, who was having a hard time trying not to laugh, told me: ‘Don’t worry about that, my friend. We won’t charge you anything unless the powders work. Besides, we can give you all the time you need to pay for them.’
‘If that’s the case, please give me an ounce.’
He took some white powder out of a jar, packed it and gave it to me. ‘Do you know how to use them? Look, what you have to do is you go to church and stand by the door, and when the woman you love is coming in, whoosh! You sprinkle her with them.
* * *
Next Sunday I had gone to church and was standing by the door waiting for the right moment to use my lucky charm. Suddenly I saw Rosalía coming with one of her girlfriends. My whole body shuddered with anxiety, one more minute of hesitation and I’d have fled, but it was too late now. Rosalía was walking by me and as soon as I had her back to my front, I sprinkled her with the powders. Her colorful shawl had now turned white. She stopped and gave me a deadly look, I never knew if it was from anger or amazement. Feeling like a criminal, all I could do was and leave in a hurry, feeling very ashamed.
I don’t remember much of the climb up the mountains from the downtown city of Heredia, for in my mind a whirlwind of feelings was churning. Rosalía was going to tell her father and he was going to fire me, I knew that for sure. I wasn’t so distressed about leaving don Manuel’s lands, even though I loved them as if they were mine. I had worked them and watered them with the sweat from my brow. I could earn a living anywhere else. But not seeing Rosalía ever again? That was devastating! I was so overcome with my affliction that I stopped at a side of the road, stumbled upon a tree, and cried like a baby under its shadow. ‘What a fool! How stupid I’ve been!’ I said as I punched my body in punishment.
I was so convinced don Manuel was at least going to give me an earful, that I pretended to be sick, hid myself at home, and didn’t go back to the finca for a couple days.
* * *
One morning, when I least expected it, someone called at the door. I heard the calling: upe! and next thing I see is Rosalía coming into the living room. I had all the intention of running away, but the surprise left me paralyzed. My mother wasn’t home because she’d gone to the river to wash clothes.
‘Y diay Chico! Aren’t you supposed to be in bed with a fever? My tata sends me to ask for your health…’
Without even daring to look at her, I answered: ‘Well…I’m feeling better now… I’m almost cured.’
‘We haven’t seen you by our place since Sunday, when you played that joke on me. Why did you decide to throw starch at me if you’ve always been so respectful?’
I was so ashamed I thought the house was going to fall down on me. Feeling like a man recently convicted of a crime, I stared at the floor and didn’t say a word.
‘For God’s sake Chico! Say something! Nobody is going to scold you!’
I looked up, and saw her looking so pretty… She wore her black hair in two braids, which enhanced her rosy features. Her big black eyes shined as if they were two suns. In her lips, her eternal kind smile was drawn. For an instant I dared to look directly at her face.
‘But what’s wrong with you Chico, have you lost your words?’
‘The thing is I’m not going back to the finca. I’m going to go work building the railway tracks, even if I catch a lot of bad fevers.’
‘But that’s nonsense. If my tata finds out, he’s going to get mad. Don’t be so ungrateful. He might have a bad temper, but he has only good things to say about you and he loves you like a son. Is it because somebody treated you with disdain back at home?’
I don’t know how I dared to blurt out the secret I’d been keeping for so long: ‘Rosalía, I suffer the misfortune of loving you and I know that is an insolence of mine. You’re the patrón’s daughter and I’m nothing but a poor peón without merits, unworthy of aiming so high. That’s why I did the silly thing with the starch. Rosalía, forgive me!’
Now it was she who lost her words for a few seconds that seemed like centuries to me. Her cheeks blushed. ‘If you’d told me Chico, you wouldn’t have had to act like a little kid at church. You are worthy of any woman’s love… even of mine. Many times I’ve thought that if were to marry I’d want to marry an honest and hardworking man, just like you.’ Having said that, she turned around and walked away.
I felt like the happiest man on earth! I followed her with my eyes until I could see her no more. At that very moment, I heard the music of bells that waved through the mountains. I’d never heard anything like it before. I went back inside, I was scared. Was I delirious? Was that a figment of my feverish mind?
My mother had an image of Christ our Lord, and I knelt down in front of it, with tears running down my eyes. I prayed: ‘Lord, please Lord, let all this be true! Let it not be a dream!’
* * *
And so the rich daughter of my patrón and the poor rustic man I was, ended up dating, and decided to get married. But the difficulties weren’t over for me, because to conquer happiness I still had one last battle to win, and it was one with my father in law. My father in law was a strong willed and grumpy man, and I had to go and ask him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. I think any man who’s ever had a task like mine would understand what I mean. But now that I knew my beautiful Rosalía loved me, I felt like I was even capable of talking to the devil in person.
One day, I went to don Manuel and told him. ‘Patrón, I’m here to confess something to you: I’m in love with your daughter and she’s in love with me. We want to get married if you give us your permission.’
Don Manuel was so surprised he didn’t have time to get angry. He looked at me from top to bottom, with a mocking smile on his lips. ‘Well, well well… So you’re trying to steal my daughter from me? Right! Aren’t my pesos what you’re really in love with?’
That harsh frankness of my father in law felt like a whiplash on my dignity. I don’t know where I got the courage to answer him: ‘Look don Manuel, I’ll respect your will if you don’t like me as a son in law, perhaps because I’m poor. I will leave these mountains and go to a place where I’d never see your daughter again. But understand that I don’t need your pesos now to make Rosalía happy, and I won’t need them later. You can be sure that if I marry her now, I will never ask any favors from you. You know I’m a hardworking man, and I can make your daughter very happy, even if we have to live in poverty.
I could tell my father in law liked my answer by the look on his face. ‘Well, Chico, thank goodness, because you know I loathe men who courtship girls only because they’re wealthy. You can get married, but do it as soon as possible, for I don’t have the time or patience to keep an eye on boyfriends. I will give you a little something to help you out so you can start your life together.’
‘Don Manuel —I told him once again— The only thing I want from you is permission to marry your daughter. I’ve saved a little to get married.’
‘It is my decision.’ The old man answered. ‘When you’re Rosalía’s husband you will be the man in charge, but in the mean time, I am the one to do so. I will go to the village tomorrow to transfer for her the small finca at the hill. You know the one I’m talking about, it’s not a big thing, but it will sure serve to prove a man worthy. Other than that small piece of land, I will give you nothing else, for I want to see if you’re capable of keeping your promises.’
* * *
Fifteen days later I married my patrón’s daughter without any fuss. Don Manuel wasn’t fond of big parties and I didn’t want to cause him any further expenses. The only celebration we had for my wedding was a delicious lunch my family served. In the afternoon, arm in arm with my wife and happier than a king, we moved to the small finca at the hill, the present of my wife’s father, where we had built a small house.
It was a magnificent February afternoon. At the distance the sun was setting and the ocean could be seen. The sky looked alight as if it was on fire. As we stood there on that hill to watch the sunset an oath sprouted from my heart: ‘Rosaila, as God is my witness, I will love you forever and I will do my best effort to make you happy,’ and for the first time, I dared to kiss her on her forehead.
That day the music of bells was also heard sprouting from the mountains.
* * *
The first two years of our marriage were very hard for both of us. I worked restlessly because I was adamant to not ask anything from my father in law. By three in the morning, regardless of the cold or rain, I was up in the mountain cutting wood for the saw mill. If I came home early, I went to till the land or sow my small plots until dusk. My wife also helped by raising chickens, fattening up pigs, and milking the few cows we had been able to purchase. Every week we did our math and saved our profit in a money box. I had only one debt to still worry about: the one with don Manuel Flores’ pharmacy for the magic powders.
Of course I no longer was the young man who once believed Isaías Bermudez’ lies. I will always be grateful with my wife for the fact she taught me and educated me, showing me everything she had learned through her years of schooling. She was my one great teacher: she made a real man out of the rustic boy I was. Maybe I wasn’t the smartest of all, but I was capable of interacting with educated people without talking a lot of nonsense.
Of course I was aware that the pharmacy clerks had pulled my leg, but since their joke brought me the wanted benefit, I still thought I was in debt with them.
One day I told Rosalía: ‘Let’s go down to the village so I can get rid of that debt.’
We arrived at the pharmacy and the very Luis Saenz came to help me. I said: ‘Do you remember me young lad?’
Don Luis stared at me. ‘Honestly, I have no idea who you are.’
How was he to remember me! Two years had gone by and the barefooted, shirtless campesino he saw once now appeared in front of him looking very elegant with his shoes, his cashmere jacket with corduroy lapels, a fine sombrero de pita fiber, a silk sash around his waist and an adorable woman in his arm.
‘Take a good look at me. I’m the campesino who once came here asking for some magic powders to help him win a woman’s love.’
I’ve never seen a look of amazement such as the one I saw that day in don Luis’ face. With eyes wide open he exclaimed: ‘They worked!’
‘Yes, sir, and here’s the living proof.’ I said, pointing to my wife.
‘I’m so sorry sir. It was a joke; the powders were nothing but starch.’
‘I know that now, but they were miraculous. They gave me the courage to achieve the impossible. I have a debt of honor with you, and I came here to cancel it today: here’s your money.’
‘I can’t take that money, sir. You don’t owe a thing to me or to the pharmacy.’
‘Well, in that case let’s say there’s no debt, but there is a lot of gratitude. Keep that money and go have a few beers.’
* * *
Time went by. Ten years later and with the help of God I was a wealthy man who had almost as much money as my father in law. I went through a few rough times though; I was once at the verge of losing everything. Bad people got my father in law involved in the purchase of a finca around the Guápiles region at that time when the building of the railway tracks was nothing but a cauldron boiling with disease. The fraud was so big that when my father in law realized what was going on, he was just about to go bankrupt. I went to see him and told him: ‘I owe you what I am today, for you taught me how to work. You now have my money available to help you get out of your hardships.’
The old man hugged me and cried. I was able to help him and he was able to recover, but I saved myself from bankruptcy by the skin of my teeth. But, I bet you’re getting tired of my long story… I just get so happy when I remember the years gone by… Forgive me if I’ve abused your patience.
“Go ahead, don Chico. I would gladly spend all day here listening to your stories.”
Alright, I’m just about to finish. I was married to my good Rosalía for fifty years. She gave me her youth, she gave me my sons, and she was the joy of my life.
On a morning like this one, I saw the life of my beloved come to an end, like the flame of a candle about to go out. After eight days watching over her by her bedside I finally closed her eyes…
I didn’t want to upset the boys with my tears, so I came outside to the corridor, and what a coincidence! Just like the day I got married, the day my wife entered this house, I heard how the fields vibrated with the music of bells. I felt comforted. My old lady had gone into heaven and God was giving me the good news!”
Don Chico remained silent for a few minutes, his eyes staring at a picture of doña Rosalía that hanged from a wall in the living room.
He looked back at me as he used one end of the towel around his neck to wipe away a tear that fell down his wrinkled cheek.
“Do you see now, don Víctor Manuel, why I come out to the corridor whenever I hear the bells peal?”
Villa Margarita, Los Angeles,
January 20th, 1952