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Portrait in Sepia

Chapter One

I came into the world one Tuesday in the autumn of 1880, in San
Francisco, in the home of my maternal grandparents. While inside
that labyrinthine wood house my mother panted and pushed, her
valiant heart and desperate bones laboring to open a way out to me,
the savage life of the Chinese quarter was seething outside, with
its unforgettable aroma of exotic food, its deafening torrent of
shouted dialects, its inexhaustible swarms of human bees hurrying
back and forth. I was born in the early morning, but in Chinatown
the clocks obey no rules, and at that hour the market, the cart
traffic, the woeful barking of caged dogs awaiting the butcher's
cleaver, were beginning to heat up. I have come to know the details
of my birth rather late in life, but it would have been worse not
to discover them at all, they could have been lost forever in the
cracks and crannies of oblivion. There are so many secrets in my
family that I may never have time to unveil them all: truth is
short-lived, watered down by torrents of rain. My maternal
grandparents welcomed me with emotion -- even though according to
several witnesses I was ugly as sin -- and placed me at my mother's
breast, where I lay cuddled for a few minutes, the only ones I was
to have with her. Afterward my uncle Lucky blew his breath in my
face to pass his good luck on to me. His intention was generous and
the method infallible, because at least for these first thirty
years of my life, things have gone well. But careful! I don't want
to get ahead of myself. This is a long story, and it begins before
my birth; it requires patience in the telling and even more in the
listening. If I lose the thread along the way, don't despair,
because you can count on picking it up a few pages further on.
Since we have to begin at some date, let's make it 1862, and let's
say, to choose something at random, that the story begins with a
piece of furniture of unlikely proportions.

Paulina del Valle's bed was ordered from Florence the year
following the coronation of Victor Emmanuel, when in the new
kingdom of Italy the echoes of Garibaldi's cannon shots were still
reverberating. It crossed the ocean, dismantled, in a Genoese
vessel, was unloaded in New York in the midst of a bloody strike,
and was transferred to one of the steamships of the shipping line
of my paternal grandparents, the Rodriguez de Santa Cruzes,
Chileans residing in the United States. It was the task of Captain
John Sommers to receive the crates marked in Italian with a single
word: naiads. That robust English seaman, of whom all that
remains is a faded portrait and a leather trunk badly scuffed from
infinite sea journeys and filled with strange manuscripts, was my
great-grandfather, as I found out recently when my past finally
began to come clear after many years of mystery. I never met
Captain John Sommers, the father of Eliza Sommers, my maternal
grandmother, but from him I inherited a certain bent for wandering.
To that man of the sea, pure horizon and salt, fell the task of
transporting the Florentine bed in the hold of his ship to the
other side of the American continent. He had to make his way
through the Yankee blockade and Confederate attacks, sail to the
southern limits of the Atlantic, pass through the treacherous
waters of the Strait of Magellan, sail into the Pacific Ocean, and
then, after putting in briefly at several South American ports,
point the bow of his ship toward northern California, that
venerable land of gold. He had precise orders to open the crates on
the pier in San Francisco, supervise the ship's carpenter while he
assembled the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, taking care not to nick
the carvings, install the mattress and ruby-colored canopy, set the
whole construction on a cart, and dispatch it at a leisurely pace
to the heart of the city. The coachman was to make two complete
turns around Union Square, and another two -- while jingling a
little bell -- before the balcony of my grandfather's concubine,
before depositing it at its final destination, the home of Paulina
del Valle. This fanfaronade was to be performed in the midst of the
Civil War, when Yankee and Confederate armies were massacring each
other in the South and no one was in any mood for jokes or little
bells. John Sommers fulfilled the instructions cursing, because
during months of sailing that bed had come to symbolize what he
most detested about his job: the whims of his employer, Paulina del
Valle. When he saw the bed displayed on the cart, he sighed and
decided that that would be the last thing he would ever do for her.
He had spent twelve years following her orders and had reached the
limits of his patience. That bed still exists, intact. It is a
weighty dinosaur of polychrome wood; the headboard is presided over
by the god Neptune surrounded by foaming waves and undersea
creatures in bas-relief, and the foot, frolicking dolphins and
cavorting sirens. Within a few hours, half of San Francisco had the
opportunity to appreciate that Olympian bed. My grandfather's
amour, however, the one to whom the spectacle was dedicated, hid as
the cart went by, and then went by a second time with its little

"My triumph lasted about a minute," Paulina confessed to me many
years later, when I insisted on photographing the bed and knowing
all the details. "The joke backfired on me. I thought everyone
would make fun of Feliciano, but they turned it on me. I misjudged.
Who would have imagined such hypocrisy? In those days San Francisco
was a hornet's nest of corrupt politicians, bandits, and loose

Excerpted from PORTRAIT IN SEPIA © Copyright 2005 by
Isabel Allende. Reprinted with permission by Perennial, an imprint
of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

Portrait in Sepia
by by Isabel Allende

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060936363
  • ISBN-13: 9780060936365