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One day, while killing crabs during a rainstorm that has lasted for several days, Pelayo discovers a homeless, disoriented old man in his courtyard who happens to have very large wings. The old man is filthy and apparently senile, and speaks an unintelligible language. After consulting a neighbor woman, Pelayo and his wife, Elisenda, conclude that the old man must be an angel who had tried to come and take their sick child to heaven. The neighbor woman tells Pelayo that he should club the angel to death, but Pelayo and Elisenda take pity on their visitor, especially after their child recovers.
Pelayo and Elisenda keep the old man in their chicken coop, and he soon begins to attract crowds of curious visitors. Father Gonzaga, the local priest, tells the people that the old man is probably not an angel because he’s shabby and doesn’t speak Latin. Father Gonzaga decides to ask his bishop for guidance.
Despite Father Gonzaga’s efforts, word of the old man’s existence soon spreads, and pilgrims come from all over to seek advice and healing from him. One woman comes because she’d been counting her heartbeats since childhood and couldn’t continue counting. An insomniac visits because he claims that the stars in the night sky are too noisy. The crowd eventually grows so large and disorderly with the sick and curious that Elisenda begins to charge admission. For the most part, the old man ignores the people, even when they pluck his feathers and throw stones at him to make him stand up. He becomes enraged, however, when the visitors sear him with a branding iron to see whether he’s still alive.
Father Gonzaga does his best to restrain the crowd, even as he waits for the Church’s opinion on the old man. The crowd starts to disperse when a traveling freak show arrives in the village. People flock to hear the story of the so-called spider woman, a woman who’d been transformed into a giant tarantula with the head of a woman after she’d disobeyed her parents. The sad tale of the spider woman is so popular that people quickly forget the old man, who’d performed only a few pointless semimiracles for his pilgrims.
Pelayo and Elisenda have nevertheless grown quite wealthy from the admission fees Elisenda had charged. Pelayo quits his job and builds a new, larger house. The old man continues to stay with them, still in the chicken coop, for several years, as the little boy grows older. When the chicken coop eventually collapses, the old man moves into the adjacent shed, but he often wanders from room to room inside the house, much to Elisenda’s annoyance.
Just when Pelayo and Elisenda are convinced that the old man will soon die, he begins to regain his strength. His feathers grow back and he begins to sing sea chanteys (sailors’ songs) to himself at night. One day the old man stretches his wings and takes off into the air, and Elisenda watches him disappear over the horizon.