The story contains the three elements of the title of the collection: love, madness, and death. A couple, deeply in love, marry and have children. Their four sons all sicken and are reduced to a state of idiocy because of congenital disease. They later have a daughter who is healthy and normal, but this child is butchered by her four brothers. The narrator focuses on a particular moment in time, the day before the tragedy occurs.
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All day long the four idiot sons of the Mazzini-Ferraz marriage sat on the bench beside the patio. Their tongues dangled out between their lips, their eyes stared vacantly, and their mouths hung open as they turned their heads.
The mud patio was closed to the west by a wall of bricks. The bench was parallel to the wall, about five feet away, and there they sat motionless with their eyes fixed on the bricks.
As the sun set and began to hide itself behind the wall, the idiots rejoiced. The blinding light called their attention at first, little by little their eyes lit up; at last they laughed stupidly, congested with the same anxious hilarity, they looked at the sun with bestial joy as if it were a meal. Other times, aligned on the bench, they spent whole hours humming in imitation of the electric trolley-line.
The loud noises dried their inertia and they would run around the patio biting their tongues and mooing. Yet they were almost always stuck in a somber lethargy of idiocy, they spent the whole day seated on the bench with their legs hanging down motionless, their pants soaked in saliva.
The oldest child was twelve and the youngest eight. In their dirty and disheveled appearance the absolute lack of maternal care could easily be noticed. After three months of marriage, Mazzini and Berta were beginning to familiarize themselves with the love of a man and woman and husband and wife toward a more vital future: a son. What speaks more of the love between two young lovers than the honored consecration of love, freed from the vile egoism of a mutual love without end; and what could be worse for that same love than to be without any possible hope of renewal?
At least this is how the Mazzini-Berta household felt, and when their first son arrived after fourteen months of marriage; they believed their happiness was complete. The child grew up beautiful and radiant until he reached a year and a half. But one night, in the twentieth month he shook with terrible convulsions, the next morning he no longer recognized his parents.
The doctor examined him with professional care that was visibly looking for the cause of such a horrible disease hidden in the lives of the parents. After a few days the paralyzed limbs of the child recovered their movement; but the intelligence, the soul, even instinct itself had left him entirely.
The child stayed profoundly a bubbling idiot, limp, dead to the world on the knees of his mother. He could get better. Educate yourself on all that his idiocy will allow him, but no further. In respect to the mother, there is a lung that cannot breathe well. Have her examined thoroughly. With his heart destroyed with remorse, Mazzini doubled his love for his son, the little idiot child was now paying for the excesses of his grandfather. Likewise, he had to console, to relentlessly hold Berta, wounded by the most profound failure of a young marriage.
Naturally, the marriage put all of their love into the hope for another child. And so a son was born, his health and gleaming smile resurrected their extinguished future.
Yet after eighteen months the convulsions that took the firstborn child began to repeat themselves, and the following morning their second child awoke an idiot. This time the parents fell into complete despair. It had been their blood, their love that was cursed! It had been their love above everything else. He was 28 and she was 22, yet all their passionate tenderness had not succeeded in creating a single atom of an ordinary existence. Yet this second disaster sprouted new flames of a dying love, an insane longing to redeem, once and for all, the sanctity of their love.
Twins were born, and bit by bit the history of the two older sons began to repeat itself. Yet behind their immense bitterness Mazzini and Berta maintained a great compassion for their four sons. They pulled from oblivion their deepest animal instincts, not from their souls, more as instinct itself now abandoned. The twins could not swallow, move about or even sit up.
Finally they learned to walk, yet they crashed against everything, not even realizing the obstacles existed. When they were bathed they mooed until their faces flushed with blood.
They came alive only to eat or when they saw brilliant colors or heard the clap of thunder. In these moments they laughed with radiant bestial frenzy, their tongues flying about as rivers of saliva ran from their mouths. They learned, in time, certain imitative faculties; but could grasp nothing more.
With the twins, the deadly line of descent had seemed to reach its conclusion. After three years, Mazzini and Berta were seized by a burning desire for a new child, trusting that the time elapsed between births would placate the disease. Their desires would not be fulfilled.
And in this burning longing, and its lack of fulfillment, the pair grew bitter. Up until this moment each one had taken responsibility for their own part of the misery of their sons; but the hopelessness of redemption for the four idiot sons born to them finally created an imperious necessity to blame the other, which is the specific patrimony of inferior hearts.
It began with the change of pronouns: your sons. Behind the insult laid an insidious atmosphere of blame and guilt. That was the first fight, and many were to follow. Yet in their inevitable reconciliations their souls united with doubled fury and a yearning for a new child.
From this, a girl was born. They lived in anguish for two years with a cautious eye of distress over the child, always expecting another disaster.
Yet nothing happened. So naturally, the parents began to place all their love and contentment onto their daughter, who took advantage of their indulgence to grow spoiled and ill-behaved. Even though in the later years Berta continued to care for her sons, the birth of Bertita made her forget almost completely her four sons. The mere thought of them horrified her, as if they had been some atrocious act she had been forced to perform.
Even Mazzini treated them in such a way, just to a lesser degree. Even through all of this, peace had not yet reached their hearts.
The bile had accumulated long enough to the point where the venom in the viscera could spill from the slightest touch. Since the first poisoned dispute, all respect had been lost between the pair; and if there is one thing which a man feels with cruel intention, once begun, is the complete humiliation of another person. Before, they had shared a mutual fault for their ill begotten kin; now that success had arrived, each one attributed the success to themselves and felt with more certainty the infamy of having their four idiot sons forced upon them by the other.
With this prevailing attitude, there was no possible cure for the four idiot sons. The servant dressed them, gave them food, laid them down, all with visible brutality. They almost never bathed. They spent the whole day sitting in the patio, void of any motherly love. Bertita turned four years old and that night, as a result of the sweets that her parents were incapable of denying her, their young child came down with a chill and a fever.
The fear of seeing her die or remain in a state of stupor opened once again that eternal wound. They did not speak for three hours and the motive was, as usual, the loud, strong steps of Mazzini. Hear that? I would have had children like the rest of the world. Those are your sons, all four of them. Ask him, ask the doctor who has more blame for the meningitis of your sons; my father or your rotten lung, you viper.
They went on like this with each confrontation more violent than the last until a moan from Bertita sealed their lips. By early in the morning her indigestion had disappeared, and as it inevitably occurs with all young marriages that have felt an intense love at one time or another, their reconciliation arrived, and was all the more effusive from the infamy of their offenses. A splendid day dawned and as Berta got up she spat out blood.
The emotions from the terrible night before were, without a doubt, responsible for her condition. Mazzini took her in his arms for a long while as she wept desperately, neither one dared to utter a word.
At ten the decided they would go into town after having lunch. Time was running short; they ordered their servant to slaughter one of the chickens. The brilliant day pulled the four idiots onto their bench. As the servant decapitated and bledthe chicken parsimoniously Berta had learned from her mother this trick to conserve the freshness of the meat , she thought she felt something breathing behind her.
She turned and saw the four idiots, their shoulders stuck one to the other as they looked stupefied upon the operation. Berta rushed in. She never wanted them stepping foot in the kitchen. Even in these times of full forgiveness, forgetfulness, and reconquered happiness could she avoid such a horrid sight!
Because, naturally, with an intensified rapture of love for her husband and daughter, the more irritated her humor became towards the monsters. Throw them out! Throw them out, I tell you. After lunch everyone left. Maria, the servant, left for Buenos Aires and the happy couple and Bertita went for a walk around the neighborhood.
As the sun began to set the family returned home; but Berta stayed outside a moment to say hello to the neighbors who lived across the street. Their daughter quickly escaped into the house.
Meanwhile, the four idiots had not moved all day from their bench. The sun had already begun to move toward the wall, hiding itself from view; and yet they continued to sit, staring at the bricks, more inert than ever. Suddenly something broke between their gaze and the blank wall. Their sister, exhausted after five hours of paternal love, wanted to see something on her own account.
She paused and thoughtfully watched the crest of the sun dip behind the wall. She wanted to climb up, of this there was no doubt.
The Decapitated Chicken (La Gallina Degollada) by Horacio Quiroga, 1917