(Published in Prism International – Winner of the Creative Non-Fiction Award 2008)

Saturday, 30th December 2007

I walked along the Malecón towards the Hotel Rusa. The ocean was a brilliant turquoise, waves crashing over the rocks, sending spume flying. Flecks of it stung me and dried immediately, leaving my skin salty, sticky. This was not the grand curving Malecón of Havana. I was at the other end of the Caimán, the alligator which sweeps down from its northern tail in Pinar del Rio to the hungry snout of Baracoa, surrounded by mountainous jungle and, to the north, the flat-topped rock of El Yunque, a brooding presence shrouded with clouds – a sinister child dressed for a fiesta.

I saw something bobbing on the cresting waves, sucked in and thrown out repeatedly. I couldn’t tell if it was a pig or a dog; a piñata with rigid legs and inflated body. I remembered a dead dog I’d seen years ago, swollen like a balloon, the memory of it in my nostrils. I watched the creature for a while, waited for it to come ashore on the ragged tearing rocks that separated the ocean from the sea wall, but the waves threw and pulled with a great sucking sound, keeping the dead thing at a teasing distance.

He was late. I sat in the bar. The little round tables were dark brown, the bar a long slab of darkness. I looked up at the television suspended from the ceiling in the corner. The hotel receptionist slouched on a bar stool watching the afternoon tele-novela. No soap operas in Cuba. The only propaganda is revolutionary. Every morning I listened to Radio Rebelde which broadcast old speeches by Fidel while we all waited for him to die. When I asked about him people were silent as though struck dumb by the possibility of change. The Comandante is recuperating. He will come back. Cuba hung by a thread, every pipe springing a leak, every chunk of masonry cracked and crumbling, gashes at intervals on the streets where the inner workings of the town’s water system were revealed. The whole island was suspended in the grip of imminent death, as though a large hand squeezed its throat.

The days leading to my brother’s death still fresh, I remembered how me and my sisters had planned for his final days, not realizing that we were living them. Impossible to believe in death. It had been impossible.

On the wall next to the television hung a portrait of La Rusa, a pale-skinned beauty of the Flapper era, an opera singer married to a wealthy New Yorker. She’d been famous in Baracoa for her support of the Revolution and for her elegant hotel on the Malecón with its sun-bleached ochre exterior and a handful of rooms looking out to sea. Until La Farola was built in the 60’s, a curving highway through formidable terrain, the only approach to Baracoa had been by sea. They say that Che Guevara stayed at La Rusa, Camilo Cienfuegos, perhaps even Fidel.

“The woman in the novela looks like La Rusa in the painting,” I said, “Her pale skin, her blonde hair …”

The receptionist gave a slow nod, a twitch at the corner of her mouth. I’d become accustomed to the restraint of Cuban employees. It was like a kind of glazed absence, especially evident in the frigidly air-conditioned dollar stores where stony-faced women went through the motions of service while queues of shoppers grew longer, jostling for space. I recognized that state from my own childhood; a paralysis that occurs when every energetic impulse is blocked, until the body becomes a closed system housing a fugitive spirit. In Cuba there seemed a lack of incentive for people stuck in the same make-work jobs for twenty or thirty years at a subsistence salary; that, and perhaps lack of protein, lack of possibility to imagine a world beyond the back of the Caimán.

When Onaldo arrived finally in a bici-taxi, he seemed surprised to find me there. “I was at your house,” he said accusingly.

“But Onaldo, we arranged to meet here, didn’t we?”

He asked for money to pay the bici-boy and when he came back he was looking at his watch. Another rushed afternoon meeting. We ordered two beers and while we waited for the barman to bring them, I gave him a bundle of Chinese temple papers I’d sewn into a book for him, with a poem for Añno Nuevo. The papers were red and gold, the ink a startling blue. Onaldo read the poem slowly. A man of words himself – sometimes poetic, sometimes archival – he recorded the history of Baracoa, its folklore and customs, from the mouths of a dying generation. He was, however, a man of few words. He used them all on paper, and even his books were small and thin. But there was a richness to his body that hinted at the wealth held within, packed into the secret of his dark skin. Onaldo’s body had been my home since our first encounter, the solidity of him, the changing hue of his skin from dark to brown to ruddy gold. He read my poem carefully and, ever the editor, corrected one of the words. Other than that, not much but a slow nod of appreciation. Then he picked up a book that lay on the table; Santería: African Magic in Latin America. The cover was red and bore an oval image of Christ crucified, a rooster, a ladder, a snake. Circling the egg were likenesses of the major orishas – Changó, Oshún, Yemayá, Obatalá, Elegguá, Oggún – each doubled with a Catholic saint; originally a ruse to disguise the true religion of the Africans brought to the Americas as slaves. Onaldo frowned as he leafed through the book, his glasses resting on the bridge of his nose. He couldn’t read English but I’d often found him poring over one of my books, holding it in his pale-palmed hands, staring at the words as though he might absorb the sense of them by an effort of will and handling. I showed him the illustrations – black and white photos of processions in Havana in honor of Yemayá and Osh n, of animal offerings, ritual objects and talismans used to cast spells and protect the home, grainy photographs of santeros possessed by their orishas. I’d been reading about possession when Onaldo arrived, about the initiation ceremony called asiento where the saints mount their initiates and ride them. I thought of Fidel who’d been known in his younger days as El Caballo – the horse; presumably a reference to his sexual potency. But I’d also read that Fidel owed his success to the blessing of the Babalawos, the high priests of Santeriá, and I wondered if it was indeed he who was mounted and ridden by the African deities who thus held him in a position of power, concealing their own powers, as Celia Sanchez had concealed herself in Fidel’s huge shadow while she called the shots. It is a well-kept secret amongst the Cuban people that the Revolution was led by Celia, a gentle woman from Media Luna. It was Celia who determined to oust Batista when a child who’s birth she had witnessed – her father was a doctor and she had often assisted him – was raped to death in Havana by American mafiosos. It was Celia who gathered troops and ammunition in the Sierra Maestra, and when Fidel, Che, Cienfuegos and their men arrived from Mexico in the famous yacht, the Granma, she chose Fidel as their leader. But he never made a decision without her. She always had the last word until her death in 1980.

Onaldo began to speak rapidly and my mind raced to keep up. We volleyed words, back and forth and as I spoke he glanced again at his watch. Only an hour until he had to return to work. We’d wasted precious time with the misunderstanding about our rendez-vous. I felt his impatience with my slow Spanish as he broke in again, all the while touching me, holding my arm and releasing it, punctuating his words. At first I’d thought him unique, but now I saw his gestures and heard his intonations everywhere – an entire island of people in lingual and gestural harmony, contained in a bell jar.

“Yarisel needs new clothes for Año Nuevo,” he said, “She was crying last night. She has nothing to wear for the fiesta . . .”

I’d heard the same story many times in the past few days. Something in me kicked and I said, “If I could be included in your life, if I could get to know your grand-daughter, feel free to visit in your house, then of course . . . You know I want to help, Onaldo, but I feel used.”

His response was rapid, his dark eyes flashing unforgettably, then he was on his feet, hovering in the doorway as I paid the bill. We went outside and stood on the sidewalk in awkward silence.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said finally. “We will forget about this.” Then he leaned down to kiss my cheek, and we parted.

I walked back along the Malecón, and because I was on the other side of the street I forgot to look for the swollen creature tossing there.

I turned onto Calle Moncada and entered the bright house where I rented a room. The front wall was yellow ochre and on it were inscribed the names of my hosts – Erminda Léon and Hernándo Puentes – with a painted palm, la palma real, the symbol of Cuba. I had an office in back of the house where I worked in the cool early mornings with only the sound of the pigs grunting from their pens. Sometimes Onaldo visited me there in the afternoons. I stopped in the kitchen to talk with Erminda, hiding behind the brightness which came so easily to me in Spanish, a new language which made me feel like a child again, light and innocent. Every morning we greeted each other in the courtyard in our white nightgowns. A wrought iron gate led off my bedroom and I would open the wooden shutters, unlock the gate from the inside and step out to embrace Erminda. We would look up at the sky where often clouds gathered, threatening rain, but on this morning the sky had been a clear blue. I told her about the dog-pig and Erminda laughed.

“Just a dead animal,” she said and teased me about my refusal to eat the pig they’d killed for her grandson’s birthday. There was to be a fiesta for him the next day – new year’s eve. The pig had screamed horribly, a piercing sound which had faded gradually as it bled to death.

As we stood by the kitchen table talking, a woman entered, grim-faced, but unmistakably related.

“Ah, another sister,” I said.

There were fifteen in Erminda’s family, and as I got to know them, a warm and inclusive clan, I joked that I was #16, an honorary sister.

“Alina,” Erminda said, and embraced her sister in that gentle way she had, laying her head on Alina’s shoulder. Then everything changed. There were some rapid words, too fast for me to understand. I saw several women clustering in the doorway. I saw Erminda recoil, her arms flying in the air, then collapsing around her head.

Esta muy grave, Erminda,” – it’s very serious – Alina said, her voice expressionless.

“¡No, no, Dios mio, no!” she wailed, and the women moved to surround her.

I slipped into my room and closed the door. I sat on the bed and picked up my Spanish grammar book. Yo normalmente me despierto a las seis. Wailing sounds from the kitchen, from the sala, more people entering the house, many voices rising and falling. Entonces, yo me levanto a las seis y me bano. I should go to her. Something is terribly wrong. But there are too many people and I don’t understand. ¿A qué hora se acuestan los ninos? I read the words over and over, nothing making sense. In my throat a bird beat its wings, trying to escape. I smelled the swollen dog.

“Karinita?” Erminda’s voice at the door.

“Erminda, what is it? What’s happened?”

“My nephew is dead, an accident . . . ”

I thought it was a niece, confusing my genders once again.

“No, no, Pedro Iván, my nephew who works in Moa for the Canadian mining company. He fell from the balcony of his apartment.”

Erminda had talked about this man almost every day, worried about his drinking. He was like a son. She’d raised him since he was four, when his mother, Erminda’s sister, had died in childbirth.

“I was expecting him. He always comes for Año Nuevo.”

I held Erminda, but she was stiff and unyielding. “When someone dies in Canada we light a candle for their soul,” I said, “And place their photo near to it.”

Erminda rustled in the drawer of the kitchen dresser and turned to me. In her arthritic fingers she held a black and white photo of a twelve-year-old boy. His face was solemn and he wore a Russian school uniform with a loose tie around his neck. I lit one of the candles I’d brought from Canada. I remembered buying the box of scented candles, thinking they’d make a good gift for someone, never thinking of this light flickering on a dead boy’s face as the aroma of ginger and lemon filled the room. Erminda began talking with that animation that often signals a state of shock. She kept on talking as Alina entered from the sala and sat in the kitchen rocker. Then her brother Francisco came, a tall handsome man, his body stiff and awkward in the women’s kitchen as he leaned down to kiss Erminda. I slipped, past the women sitting in the front room, out onto the street.

It was late as I approached the funeral parlour. I’d been walking for hours. Earlier the dim streets had been lit by flickering television screens, everyone watching la novela. I’d seen a large woman, her hair braided in a circle on her crown, knitting in front of the screen, a fat baby girl wobbling on pudgy legs, clinging to the woman’s knees. From every open doorway a room was revealed – a gleaming motorcycle leaning against the wall, a long corridor leading to a tiled kitchen with a faded blue refrigerator, an old woman rocking, children playing, Christmas trees with lights still blinking – lives spilling onto the street. Some homes were dark holes boarded with broken planks. Dogs patrolled the rooftops, snarling at me as I passed, setting up a chain of barking. When I’d passed the Casa de la Trova I’d glanced in to see if Onaldo was there, wondering if he was still angry. I’d wanted to join the dancers and lose myself in the piercing trill of the clarinet, the rhythm of la musica tradicional. Swivel-hipped men danced as they breathed, effortlessly, dark hands on white skin, bodies snaking and pressing as they guided tattooed foreigners around the tight dance floor. I’d walked on, the music filling my mind, until I’d found myself on a corner, recognition creeping in slowly as I’d looked up at the spiral staircase ascending into the emptiness of Onaldo’s collapsed balcony. The rubble was piled on the sidewalk and the downstairs neighbor was sweeping the ruins of her patio. From the upstairs window an irregular blue pulsing had signalled the changing images on a television screen. I’d heard voices in dialogue – perhaps a movie on the DVD player I’d bought him. I paced the block, always returning to the shadows, staring up into the impossibility of our own dialogue. Finally the patterning changed and I heard Fidel’s voice. He was talking about refrigerators, giving detailed statistics; it was the same speech I’d heard him deliver in the Plaza of the Revolution when Chavez had visited Havana a year ago. I imagined the old man’s long finger stabbing the air with each statistic, his youthful passion grown pedantic. I imagined Onaldo’s face locked on the screen, the curve of his upper lip, his glowing skin.

The funeral parlour was next door to Miriam Zoila’s house. I’d seen her sitting in the open doorway every night as I walked home, a hibiscus flower in her hair, the lights of a tiny Christmas tree blinking behind her. Her parlour was a hive of light with golden walls. She was a handsome woman who had two children by Erminda’s son, Hernandito. Everyone seemed connected in Baracoa, but the order was breaking down. The mouth of the alligator, after years of hunger, now fed on foreign visitors and their influence. Miriam Zoila’s daughter had an Italian lover twice her age. He came four times a year loaded with gifts, but he couldn’t marry her because he had a wife and children in Italy. Zenia wore hand-made shoes with stiletto heels, her nails were immaculately polished, her clothing tight and revealing. She’d quit her job in order to be available for Stefano. Each time he came he brought her a startling array of nail polishes so she had begun offering manicures to alleviate her boredom.

As I walked past the funeral parlour light spilled from the double doors, open to the street where people clustered like guests at a dance waiting for the music to begin. Women sat inside, heads tilted in conversation. A white-tiled cafeteria with the inevitable ham and cheese sandwiches on display separated Miriam Zoila’s house from the funeral parlour. The prospect of food so close to death turned my stomach. I wondered if Erminda was there. I wanted to cross the street and look for her, to join in the wake and bathe in the flood of light, but I walked past slowly, careful not to stare, and turned the corner to my house.

The funeral was arranged for four in the afternoon of the next day. The birthday lunch had been cancelled. “We’ll have it tomorrow for new year’s day,” Erminda said. “We must eat the pig.” She was trembling, her shoulders hunched, her brow furrowed and anxious, as though she could prevent Iván’s fall with her worrying. I held her hand and talked to her, trying to bring her back from that strange zone of magical possibility.

“You must eat something, Erminda. Have some bread with a slice of cheese, or a plate of rice and beans,” but she shook her head and went to sit at the funeral parlour. She would stay there all day, until it was time for the procession to the cemetery. I sat on the front terrace waiting for Onaldo. He came at noon. “There’s been a tragedy in our house,” I said, and he listened while I told him, the death holding us, banishing our discord.

We walked over to the funeral parlour where the women sat inside on stiff, high-backed chairs, talking and wringing their hands, while the men stood out front, all zipped up. I looked for Erminda while Onaldo greeted people, shook hands, kissed the women’s damp cheeks. In the back of the parlour, dense with mourners, was the casket. It seemed so small, so narrow and inconspicuous. All the women were gathered there, the sisters and aunts and cousins, clustered around Iván’s head. Erminda called to me and Onaldo and reached out her arms to us.

Mira, mira,” she said urgently, “How beautiful his face, not even damaged, his hair, his skin . . . ”

The casket was closed except for a sheet of glass covering his face. Onaldo stood on one side, looking directly down at Iván, while I leaned over from the other side, grasping Erminda’s hand. I saw the startling whiteness of his skin, like marble against a shock of black hair and his moustache. I remembered our brother lying on the hospital trestle, his beauty taking my breath away. I wanted to look and look at Iván, the communion with death never enough for me, but the blood family was gathered at his head, jewels in the crown of his death, and I felt myself an intruder.

I wondered if it was suicide. No-one had said that word, but I’d heard the story of his father, a combatiente and loyal member of el Partido, who had been accused by the police of attempting to sell a television. His body had been found in the kitchen with the television set on the table, a note stuck to the screen. I did not intend to sell this television. I was minding it for my neighbour. He had stabbed himself many times in the chest, then slashed his throat. No-one spoke of the blood, only of the television and the terrible accusation the police had made against a man whose life had been devoted to a Revolution which strove to resist the marketplace.

Suicides are different from accidental deaths. The death of my brother haunted me, but I knew the power of his dying, the peace and completion of that surety. It is we, the survivors, who suffer our inability to understand such willingness to let go of the world. I stared down at Pedro Iván’s face beneath the glass and wondered what his final expression had been before his face had been set into repose.

I woke suddenly, the alarm pulling me from a dream where Onaldo was calling to me down a long corridor. He’d gone back to work, saying he would return in the afternoon to walk with me in the funeral procession. I dressed quickly and arrived in time to see the coffin being carried to the hearse. The roof of the car was piled with red and orange-petalled flowers. I hung back, looking for Onaldo, and felt the ocean trembling in my throat, the dead dog jiggling. I saw Erminda finally, standing behind the hearse with her daughter, Idita, their backs rounded as they walked, oh so slowly, hands pressed against the crawling hearse, heads bent, pushing. It was the gesture of Erminda’s sweeping, her endless washing and scrubbing, pushing and pulling, the gesture of a lifetime of domestic toil. The procession snaked behind them, curving round potholes filled with filthy water and stretches of sidewalk gaping like broken-toothed mouths.

The cemetery was high above the town. As we approached the tower at the cemetery gates I stopped looking for Onaldo. The procession came to a halt and everyone stood around as the despedida de duelos was spoken for the family, acknowledging the life of Pedro Iván, his achievements, the eternal love of his family. When the speech was over many of the mourners slipped away, back to their homes, while the hearse crept forward with the family through the gates of the sprawling cemetery where generations of Baracoans lay clustered in close communion under marble slabs topped with crosses and heavy-winged angels. There was one angel in particular which towered over all the others; despite an androgynous form, she seemed quintessentially female. She had huge wings which, despite their heaviness, gave me the feeling that she could be lifted by the wind and carried by the power of those wings high above the town, swooping down to the shore of the ocean.

I saw the ocean in the distance, a streak of aquamarine, the sky pure blue with banks of engorged cloud on the horizon. I picked up a small stone from the well-trodden path and held it in my palm, smooth. Sunday, the eve of a new year.

The men set to work opening the tomb where Erminda’s parents had been interred with their daughter. After thirty-seven years Pedro Iván was to be reunited finally with his mother. The coffin was lowered into the tomb on long ropes, the men struggling with the weight of it, their muscles bulging dangerously. A terrible wail split the air, and it was seconds before I realized it was Erminda, her hands flying once again above her bowed head, grieving as her dead sister would have done had she been alive. Hernandito and Francisco took her arms and walked her away from the grave. They sat with her on the edge of another grave at a distance from Pedro Iván. Idita joined them, her face like a stone.

Pedro Iván’s friend, Pancho, mixed a pile of cement in the middle of the path. He spaded three shovelfuls into a bucket which was passed, hand by hand, down the line to a rake-thin man in a loose shirt standing inside the grave. He tipped the cement onto the coffin, beginning at the head, covering that face under the glass, and levelled it out with a spatula. Only his head and shoulders were visible as he worked, like a baby struggling to come into the world. He continued until the cement was finished, the coffin covered, then he climbed out. But before it was done Erminda and Idita began to walk down the sloping path to the cemetery gates, Idita’s sons on either side, a line of blood linked. I followed them and after a while, without looking back, Idita reached for my hand. We walked together, arms linked, then she slipped back, the boys dropped away and I walked alone with Erminda, supporting her, through the cemetery gates where Oya, the Yoruba goddess of death and rebirth, holds sway as Keeper of the Cemetery and guide to the spirits of the dead. I turned then and looked at the angel. That’s her, I thought, that’s where she resides.

Erminda kicked off her shoes and curled into the kitchen rocker. I relit the candle and picked up the photo of Pedro Iván. Holding it between my fingers, I asked, “What was he like?”

As Erminda began, a flood of words, I replaced the photo behind the flickering candle and leaned forward to listen. Behind her words was a bright-eyed grief too fresh yet to know itself. I remembered my last reading, before Onaldo had arrived at La Rusa, about the law of similarity pertaining to sympathetic magic; the contagion of an inexplicable attraction between objects which have been in contact and continue to affect each other long after physical contact has been broken. Erminda was on her feet now, searching in the drawer amongst the photos. She’d remembered something, a small stone in the palm of her hand, a face painted there, the mouth a flower of faded red petals.

“He painted it at school,” she said, “when he was seven years old, and he gave it to me for my birthday.”

I unfolded my fingers and gave her the warm stone from the palm of my hand. “Put this with it,” I said, “A gift from Oya.”

The family began to arrive from the cemetery; Idita, Hernandito, Alina, Francisco, old Nando, his voice gruff. Erminda, still clasping her stone, went into the sala to greet them. I watched the candle fade and splutter, drowning in its pool of wax. I picked it up and poured the wax into the palm of my hand where it burned, gathering all my senses. As the wax cooled and set I exhaled and set the candle, burning brightly now, back in its saucer. I blinked my wet lashes and felt the ocean subside in my throat. Then I turned and entered my room, closed the door behind me, sat on my bed and molded the warm amber wax. It smelled of ginger and lemon. As I worked a familiar form began to emerge; high cheek-bones, broad nostrils, ears flat to the head, heavy-lidded eyes, strong teeth pushing the mouth forward. A disembodied head, carrying all the force of his powerful body, had emerged, unbidden, from my burning hands.

I went out later to walk on the Malecón, half expecting to see the dog-pig floating, but there was nothing visible in the darkening ocean. I looked up into the sky, bruised deep red with the promise of a better day. I walked the entire length of the Malecón and when I returned, at the very end of that day, the end of the year, I saw him standing at the corner of Calle Moncada. My hand went automatically to my mouth and I smelled the warmth of my own waxen palm.