History Will Absolve Us All
By Karen Alea
Ancient eggun spirits came long before Columbus saw the Silla de Gibara hillside. They dug into the mountain and moaned and waited for ones to attach to. But ones like Inez did not need to be searched out.
White sand. Trees that dip their fronds into the ocean and pop back up with coming storms. It is a poster hanging in some travel agency. The small house pictured in the foreground is quaint, from a nether time that people pay good money to see, take a picture of, but never live or die in. Inez lives in that house. And she will die there.
Two rooms are bound by stucco, painted blue on the outer walls and peach around the windows that hold no glass. Thin curtains, which appeared after Carmen grew too leggy for the skirt, flow like the tide, in and out of the house. A fishing village. A factory or two to keep the men alive. That is all that is left of the tidal town.
Five people commune in the small house. More had been before, but now share mounds of earth against the back fence of the wounded farm. There are chicken prints in the living area, the floor not much different from the hard ground in the yard. Two shelves stick out above a small washstand. The shelves hold four beer bottles, displayed like saint’s candles. The basin below holds a chunk of ice with a glass pitcher of milk wedged in beside it.
The poster moves. It is Inez tending to her chickens, and she has never traveled. Nor has she owned a poster or picture of any kind fit to put on a wall. She doesn’t even know that where she lives is dessert for the seasoned traveler. She is just hoping that one day her eyes won’t open as easily as they did today—four AM, to collect eggs, fetch water, clean laundry, pick cocoa beans, shuck sugarcane, mold bread loaves, kiss children, fix breakfast and then go to the bathroom in the little shack twenty feet away. No, she hopes for that day when her prayer to La Madre is heard and she can rest and someone else can live in this infertile spot on this tropical island in a blue ocean that is chasing her daughter away.
She dreamt of Che again last night. That it is he instead of Fidel and she wakes with a bit of hope in her mouth. Then she came to her surroundings, the things left undone. Inez imagines that Fidel has the same dream but does not wake happy.
It is that shamed pride that people have when they must live with something and they pretend it is their choice that the mended skirt that hangs crooked does not bother them. It is that way with those who stay behind.
She was just a child when she held her father’s damp hand and placed wildflowers at Che Guevara’s memorial. Pictures drape books and buildings across the country. Guapo, lovely, heartachingly young. But it is the photo of him with his eyes open, dead, staring at the ceiling of a hut somewhere in Bolivia that comes to her in the mornings when the light is fighting its way up.
Inez’s mother said that they were not going to go with uncle Miguel. She was six then and slept on a palette outside her parent’s door. Uncle Miguel slept on a palette next to the front door and Oma and Papi had the small room to the back. The biggest rooms always went to those who were responsible for producing family or money. She heard the talk that was going on inside her parent’s bedroom. They were usually quiet. It was not fighting, but pleading, a hurt-love voice that crept from under their door.
Inez turned her head and brushed the dirt-caked hair out of her eyes. Uncle Miguel was awake too. Soon he got up, his farming pants were still on, though his chest and feet were bare. He opened the door of the bedroom without knocking and was absorbed into the room. Her grandparents were in there too, and Inez thought how odd that she had the whole house to herself and her family was crammed into a room that fit only a bed and a crucifix.
Her grandparents and Uncle Miguel packed and left by plane early in 1960. There was crying and Inez’s mother seemed like she was second-guessing herself, clinging to Inez and whispering promises. Inez’s father went quiet and continued to do those tasks that no one ever thought of – road repairs and sweat farming—that held a world together.
Mother was happy when she got a letter from them. They were safe and had sent money that was all green. Inez’s parents joked that Oma, Papi, and Uncle Miguel were stars now. They lived in Hollywood. Hollywood, Florida. Mother said, “You will not get to keep that bed long, Inez. Enjoy it now before Papi comes home.” Inez believed it. The whole country believed that the winds were just blowing over their heads. They did not know it was stirring dust that would land and stick to the streets and cover them in gray.
At nineteen Inez married Lucien. She was not escaping her life. She did not know how to do that. If she were escaping, she would have married a boy she knew all her life, one that had been mean to her with marks on his face from an unforgiving adolescence.
Lucien was sweet. His parents had died and he was in his house with his brother. Without a woman, it was not respectful. Inez felt honored.
Those courting days were difficult. Inez was awkward and unknowing. They would spend hours talking about how they needed to stay pure, what their family would be like, where they would travel. She did not know that she should hold on to those awkward moments, that that was the last time she would see his eyes on her mouth, listening to her words.
Carmen will be leaving soon. Inez doesn’t know how soon, but she feels it is the next few days. Carmen and her father, Lucien, are plotting at night under the glow of a candle. They have occasional electricity, but it is his old ways, the ways of hiding when he was younger and the villagers gathered to talk about their escapes.
Carmen leaving for the States has always been a plan in Lucien’s mind. Even when she was born, twenty-one years prior, he talked about giving her a name that would blend in with American names. Carmen Miranda was too much of a Hollywood hit to ignore. He taught her the English he learned in college in Illinois. He had his plan from the first day. Inez supposes that is why she has always felt that Carmen is his. Even when she held Inez inside, the babe would kick for Lucien when he walked into the room. They had a tie that she did not share. They spoke their own language and had their own jokes.
Now the maps are spread on the table. They move their fingers over the mountains and the streams of the northern country and laugh a laugh that already sounds foreign. Inez feels young again, as when she lost her grandparents and uncle. She knows she should have more power over Carmen, but she was never hers. Inez was just the carrier, the surrogate for Lucien.
The two boys are theirs. His and hers. She knows this. They look at her and their eyes tell her everything. She sees the sickness of a winter flu coming or the shame of a lost schoolboy fight. She knows each mole on their skin, each cowlick of their hair. She sits them in her lap, although the baby is almost eleven.
“Will we visit Carmen when she is gone?” Jaime asked yesterday.
“She is just going for a little while.”
“But Papa said that once she goes, she cannot come back. Are we going to go see her?”
“Yes,” she tells him without thinking.
“I don’t know, Jaime. Papa and I will have to talk about it.” She distracts him with gathering his books from the table and setting it for dinner. Five plates, five forks, five spoons, three knives. Carmen will have more. Inez will have less.
Carmen is going to be given a passport and fly out of the country like a tourist. Lucien said he has it worked out with friends in Havana. Inez is afraid it will cost too much money, be too risky for Carmen. But he assures her that it is safe and that Miami is helping. On top of that, they do not have to pay any money. In fact, they will get money given to them for helping the American who will come to give her passport to Carmen.
All Cubans know this sort of thing happens, just as they know that a light glowing past midnight is someone building a raft, or engine, or getting news on a short-wave radio.
At first Inez wanted to know everything, lasso it all. But after a while she decided it was not going to do her any good. Carmen’s pursuits consist of books and figures. Carmen has no interest in cooking, sewing or trivial village things.
She is more than her mother’s Cuba. She is more than a woman sitting at a wooden bowl peeling layers off a cane stick and brushing flies away.
The days are marred with Carmen gone. Inez would look up from her cooking or hanging the sheets on the line and there would be Carmen, books under hand. Carmen would ask if she could go somewhere. Inez didn’t listen where. Gibara youth usually went to the center of town hoping that one day it would explode into the fashionable downtown of Havana or Santiago de Cuba. But all they had was a fish market and ration store. One building housed a medicine shop and doctor and sold materials for livestock such as feed and gate latches. But most everyone made their own feed here, and their own medicine. And that is a picture of a town that one has to get out of.
Carmen never had a boyfriend. She and her mother never talked like that, but Inez would have known if she had. She was a heady girl. She liked to read her books and listen to the radio until late at night. Her brothers had learned to turn off their ears and get to sleep far before she ever switched the dial off.
Inez felt closest to Carmen before the boys were born. It was before her adolescence, and she had not yet understood that her mother was a poor farmer’s wife. A large step below the poor farmer. In those days, when Carmen was naive, she used to play baby with her mother and let Inez hold her and pretend to change her cloth diaper and feed her baby food. Inez made a swaddle in her bed and laid Carmen down like an infant in a cradle and sang her soft songs until she laughed or fell asleep.
But with age grew brooding and Inez lost her baby twice. Once Manuel came and played the true role of the baby, Carmen lost interest and started spending more time outside with her father as he tended to their land or livestock.
Inez had told herself she would not do what her mother did, would not overlook her child for the household. She tried to sit with Carmen, talk to her about school and friends, but Carmen had a barrier up, an old one that started before anyone would expect a child to have one. All the things that Inez had hoped, to walk arm in arm down their road or to sit outside with bodega, talking about life, has been stolen from her.
The days without Carmen are not any emptier then when she was there. But now there is something crawling inside Inez. The day is planned out for her, her tasks to do. During the cleaning of the cement slab in front of the house, she feels something rise in her. She stands to look around and finds only silence to talk with. It is no more or no less than before Carmen left. But when Lucien walks by or comes home after being away, she does not feel the same nothing that she has for the last twenty years. She found comfort in that dull feeling.
Sadness came early after she began to lose that excitement over seeing him, the diffidence of being unknown to him and him to her. But after she drifted farther into life, that feeling gave way to non-feeling. A place where she co-existed and didn’t mind. It brought no happiness, but no grief. And with Carmen and the two boys, she had a land to live in that kept her occupied without needing Lucien in it at all. Now when she sees him, sometimes even just picturing him, she feels again. It isn’t shyness and love, but irritation. His feet leave marks on the floor; his skin a stench in her kitchen. His hair is thinning, his posture is losing its way, his left eye wilts with the heat and long days until it is shut by nightfall. And it would be a long time of thinking before Inez faces her feeling that she hates him. He has taken Carmen without her consent. Looked past her, done what he must and left Inez with no hope of ever lacing her arms through her daughter’s or making up for the things her mother had done wrong with her.
“Lucien. I’m going.” She picks up her towel and heads to the door. The boys are in the room doing homework. “I’m leaving, Lucien.”
He looks up from the newspaper and stares at her.
“Going to Imelia’s to do the cane,” she says.
“I know that,” he says and looks back at the paper.
“I may be late.”
She hates how his voice is different with her than with others, bored, annoyed at having to move his mouth.
“The boys need to be in bed soon. The bus is broken down and they have to walk in the morning.” Lucien does not respond.
Inez hits him with her towel; the one she sits on at Imelia’s to soften the ground. “What?” He looks up angry.
“I was talking,” she says. “You can look at me.”
“Here, I am looking at you. What?”
Why did you send her there? Why didn’t you ask me? I wanted to lace my hand through hers. I wanted to be at her wedding, her first date when she comes home after she falls in love and tell her that I loved her first. I want to hit you. I want you to know that I could have married other men. I could have married Roberto. I could be the wife of someone who has more money and more hair than you and be living in a house that does not fall apart when someone walks through it. She folds her towel and walks out the door, her boys not even lifting their heads to see her leave.
The road is dark, one she has walked down many times back and forth. She knows the edges of the dirt and how they form divots from the rains. She knows when she is going to be shaded from the moon by the Ceiba tree that died and has come back to life with no explanation. Her life exists in the up and down of this road from her house. The road that her children travel from school and that Lucien walks home on. She can’t make herself get off this road. It keeps her stuck to it as if there are walls to each side or she has blinders on her eyes. When she finishes at Imelia’s she will come back and turn her body into the mouth and it will pull her back home to the house that needs her but doesn’t see her.
Inez drops to the ground. She has to stop, to think. Her head is not a clear one. Her thoughts do not have practice moving through her mind in logical order. It is all feelings. She rubs the dirt half-mindedly as she tries to make a decision. She can follow this road back and forth forever until there is no walking left to be done or she can begin to feel. She doesn’t know what she will do if she allows herself emotion. She pictures Carmen, hard and beautiful, and she tries to feel sorrow, but only conjures anger. There is nothing left for her to do but get up. She walks towards town and whips her towel beside her. She cannot think. She will wait until the cool of the morning or tonight when she is around her friends. She will hear the cadence of their talk blending with her breathing and she will feel what she does every night when she is with them, that they are made of something more than what she is. That their blood rushes through them without having to be told to do so. This is where she is happy and this is where she is brave. She will wait until she hears them talking of husbands and crops, and she will think of Carmen and Lucien and hope that her blood mixes with theirs and she feels what it is like to be a woman with ideas and choices.
She doesn’t act like Carmen at all, this girl who is to be their savior. She has the American look; her walk is stiff, not swaying like Carmen’s. Of course, she doesn’t look like her either. Her hair is about three inches shorter and finer; her eyes have lightness to them. Her voice is proper. She has a good accent; she will be able to pull it off hiding in Havana, but not in Gibara.
Lucien takes her out to see the farm. He has befriended her easily. That is her similarity to Carmen.
Inez stands at the sink, nothing more than a hole at the bottom of a trough, a hose sticking through the outer wall. She birthed Carmen in this room; there on a cot they pulled beside the table. Her mother-in-law said it is not good to have a baby in the marriage bed. “It will scare your future unborn babies away.”
Inez cried and sweated in here, July heat. Twenty-seven hours later Carmen was here and Lucien took her. That was the connection. He kissed her and put her on Inez. She stared at her. Carmen was filmed over in her fluids, but Inez felt as if Lucien had reached out the door when she wasn’t looking and pulled in this baby Inez didn’t know.
She nursed her and took care of her, but it was a job, not maternal. She thought she must not have it in her, the motherly way. Her mother died when she was a teenager.
But seven years later Inez had Manuel and then two years after that, the baby, Jaime. It was different with them. They look in her eyes without looking away. They are thirteen and eleven now. She will not be here when they are grown. She can feel that. It resides in her head and sometimes in her chest.
This girl, the new Carmen, comes in and sits with Lucien around the same table where Carmen was given lessons. He is moving on in his work. His assignment changes from America to Cuba.
“There is a little radio in your room. You need to listen and start to sing the music. That is what people know as Cuban. You need to blend in; at least until we hear that Carmen is defected. You need to learn the words, if not just be able to hum the music. All Cubans hum or whistle.
“Now, Gabriella will meet you in Havana. She will set you up and get you anything you need.”
Inez doesn’t know this Gabriella. He has been planning things for a while that she did not know. She’s at peace thinking of Carmen arriving in America and walking through a gate to the arms of some good doers, but it may have been easier if she had gone on a raft. Lucien is risking a lot for Carmen and Inez realizes that it may be the other children who will have to pay.
“No one is going to find out,” Lucien reassures her. It has moved into evening, and they are tucked in the closet, the only room with a door. “She is leaving for Havana in the morning. No one has seen her, and Angelo is eating roast pig this week.”
That is his way of telling her that the Dirección General de Contra-Inteligencia will not find out. Angelo is the one closest to them that is part of the neighborhood committee that reports on any anti-revolutionary activities. In the old days, they were very strict. Lifetime friends would turn in their neighbors for meeting in groups of more than three or eating food that they had bought on the black market. But the fear of penury has exceeded the commitment. Most people can be bought off with a few extra dollars or some meat.
“When will we hear from Carmen? When will I know that she is OK?”
“I will talk with someone tomorrow. They will have heard and I will let you know. I’m sure it is all right. I am sure that it is more than all right. Carmen will be happy and we will be sent money, real money to go where we want,” he says, holding her, his arms barely remembering where to go.
Inez holds back tears and uses her strongest words to try and hurt him. “Go where? Go to America? We have never discussed that. We never even discussed Carmen going. I know what it will mean for her, but she is still my child. I am without my daughter.”
“You know she will be happier. We have been planning this for a long time. If we want to go to America, we will be able to sail there on a real boat that we can buy with money….”
“No one sails there, Lucien. People escape, and drift, and wash up corpses there. We are not going to go there like some rich vacationers.”
“No, but we can take a boat instead of a raft. We will make it. Francisco made it.”
“I don’t even want to talk about this.” She turns away from him in the small, thin-walled closet. “My daughter is gone, and I have a stranger sleeping here. Now you want to talk to me about leaving all I know and going to a country that I will not be able to return from. That may be your idea of freedom, but it is just switching prisons to me.”
She does not speak up frequently. She knows Lucien thinks everything she thinks or says is wrong, uneducated. He plays with the emotions. If she is warmed up enough to him he can persuade her that his way is right. He has been right many times, and this is what makes her so unsure about her gut. Inez was taught to listen to the pains in her stomach; they mean something is wrong. Pains in the head mean that life is going too fast. Pains in the legs mean that a sickness is coming. Her body has always been right. But more than once, Lucien has been able to get out of a problem that her body promised was coming.
Inez goes to the doctor, maybe every three months. They check the pains that move through her body, camping at different places, keeping her aware of all the parts that hurt. When she goes, she sees the pictures on the wall. They are old, yellowed pictures of cartoon babies in the mother’s womb. The baby grows in each picture. They didn’t have those pictures when she was pregnant with Carmen. Now they haunt her. They do not seem natural; they seem nefarious, like a bomb planted by an enemy, someone who wants to hurt her. She knows it sounds cruel. She did not feel this way with the other two.
The girl still sits at the table. He leaves Inez in the closet and goes to her. Lucien is talking in his manner that imitates confidence. He tries to prove he is someone. He is someone, here, in Gibara. But when he talks of Havana, or America, he shrinks to the size of their village. His position in life is everything to him and he cultivates it with each nod of his head and deepening sound of his voice.
“Speak softly. Your accent could be found out. The Spanish is fine. But speak softly. If someone can’t hear you, just repeat a word or two, not the whole sentence. The less you talk, the less you can get found out.”
“What would really happen to me?” the doe-eyed girl asks. “I am an American. I can just tell the truth if it comes to that. No one can keep me here.”
He tightens up, “No, no. You must give her time. If you tell anyone you are American without a passport, the secret police will be everywhere, following you. It could jeopardize my daughter’s future, her life. Alina escaped on a German passport. They know it happens. They will be on the lookout for anyone new. Please,” he moves closer to her, “whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you are American until you are contacted that it is time.”
She bites at a nail. They are manicured and a nice length, not used to working. But now her index finger is rubbing along her teeth and Inez sees forward to a few weeks from now and knows they will all be ruined. She’s glad. She was angry at those good-life nails the first time she saw them gripped onto her bag, entering the door.
Inez busies herself in the drawers and closets. Lucien gave her the assignment of getting some clothes together for the girl. The ones she brought were nice, not fancy, but the quality would not be seen being worn by someone from Gibara. She finds some thin tops and Lycra skirts in Carmen’s room. She packs those and some dresses. The girl has money to buy clothes from Havana when she gets there. She will be just like any other young girl released on the city that slowly adapts to its ways in look and voice.
Inez feels that her house is taken over by those she doesn’t know, and she just wants to get the evening over with, go to the next day and watch the girl leave. Inez goes to bed. She does not mean not to like her. She is nice to Inez, even gave a kiss on the cheek when they met. But she is someone who is helping to turn Inez’s life into more questions than answers, What of my daughter, is she safe, will I ever see her?
She lays in the dark; the wind starts to move off shore and whistles through the missing tiles on their roof. She listens so hard to that reassuring sound that she doesn’t hear the girl knock, creak open the door.
“Inez?” She steps into the dark blindly.
“Yes?” Inez sits up and adjusts the covers.
“I’m sorry to disrupt you. I hope you hadn’t fallen asleep yet.”
“No, I was … what can I get you?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing. I am fine. I have everything I need. I appreciate how you have watched after me.” She moves toward the bed and lightly touches it with her hand. Inez scoots over, and the girl takes it as a sign to sit.
“I’ll be leaving early in the morning, and I just wanted to say that I am glad I can help you out. I see how sad you look, and I am sure you are worried about Carmen.”
Inez starts to tear. She doesn’t want the girl to see her sadness, or her own surprise at it. But it was the closeness of her, the mention of Carmen, the softness of her care.
“America is wonderful,” the girl says. “She will like it. And when I return, I’ll meet up with her, and I’m sure we will be friends. How could we not?” She smiles. Her teeth make a horseshoe on the top, not like Carmen’s that are cut straight across. This girl will look young forever.
Inez doesn’t realize she is not responding to her. In her mind she is, but words don’t come.
“Well, I’ll let you go to sleep. Thank you again for the meals and everything. They were wonderful.” She gets up to leave and Inez wants to grab at her and have her lay beside her. She wants a daughter that is soft like her and knows when she is hurting and says she understands. But she lets her go. She’s mad that the girl is not hers, ashamed that she wants her.
Inez fixes some eggs from their chickens and boils some milk and powder for the girl’s breakfast. The girl looks like she hasn’t slept. Lucien looks as though he hasn’t either.
“You have the directions – the train, then take a car to…” Lucien begins.
“Yes. I’ve got it. Don’t worry. I will be fine.” She doesn’t look fine. She is not the wooden girl that Carmen is.
“I thought about what you asked me,” says Lucien. “Use your name. I mean…use our last name, but use Chalia instead of Carmen. I think you are right. It is one less thing that can get messed up. A name is important, and no one will question it.”
“Thanks. I think that would be easier.”
The boys, Manuel and Jaime, are off at their aunts for a few days. Lucien does not want them around, doesn’t want them to know what is going on. They are not too young, but they can be silly and tell things that Lucien likes to keep in the house. That is one decision that Inez is glad that Lucien made. She doesn’t want them to know anything either. They are already heavy with the knowledge that Carmen has gone away.
To Inez’s shame, she begins to look at this girl with admiration. She was going to Havana. Inez knows what the word Havana means to people, especially people out here. It is the place that you go when you are smart, or beautiful, or a con artist. It is where everything starts and everything finishes. Sophistication. But too many of them are too ashamed to go, too ashamed of what they would bring with them, how they would stick out and how they would fail. That is something Inez does not fear for this girl. She is a different type person than the rest are. She will make it.
Inez has not finished cleaning up the hotplate from breakfast before there is a knock on the door. It’s Oscar, her husband’s school friend. Lucien and Oscar grew up together and still play dominos and cards too often.
“Lucien? I didn’t see him in the barn,” he says. He has white hair and broad shoulders, and Inez is always reminded of that American writer who fished off their shores in the sixties.
“I thought that is where he was. Maybe he went into town. I’m not sure,” she tells him.
“Ah, I told him I would help him repair the plow, but I have to go see my mother in an hour.” Oscar looks at her for response. “Should I stay? Can I wait here?”
“Oh, yes. Here, sit.”
People, even old friends, ask questions like that. She is always surprised that they do not find her welcoming. She is not a harsh woman. It is her quiet that confounds them. No gossiping, no chit chatting. She was never like that.
“How is Lourdes?” she asks, though she knows by the talk in town.
“Good. She is fine. She is done with her schooling. She will still need to use a cane for a few months, but she can do the things she needs to.”
Oscar’s second daughter is just six months younger than Carmen. She was kicked by one of the horses that Oscar kept. Oscar and Lucien both landed on the idea of training then reselling horses in the mid-eighties. It brought in a little extra money, but was more of a hassle than a profit. After the accident, the horse was exiled to Lucien’s barn where he boasts he will break it.
“How is Carmen? Did she get off OK?” Oscar asks.
Inez doesn’t know what to say. They are supposed to tell people that she is in Havana visiting an aunt until they hear that she is settled in America. But this is Oscar. Lucien doesn’t make a move without him.
“Did she get there OK?” he asks.
“Yes. She did.”
“And how does she like it? Different from here, I am sure.”
“Oh, very different.”
“Well, it will be better for all of you. Good for you. I wished it were my girl. But I told Oscar that there are no hard feelings.”
Inez knows that he knows Carmen is not in Havana. He probably knew everything about her family before she did. But she doesn’t know what he is talking about. Why would Lourdes go instead of Carmen? She rarely knows what people are talking about. She is on the outside of issues and happenings. She smiles as if she is right along with them, but that is where her quietness comes in handy.
Oscar sits for a few more minutes. He brushes his hand on the wooden farm table, looking at the marks of the wood. He taps his fingers for a while, hums. Then hoists himself from the chair.
“OK. I will go. Just tell him that I can come tomorrow. Tell him not to run away from me. He owes me, anyway.” He approaches Inez. He has never been that close before and Inez is stunned into immobility. He senses her unease and leaves her space, puts his hand on her shoulder. “If it can’t be us, I am glad it is your family. Lucien is a brother to me.”
“Yes,” she smiles.
Before the door slams, Inez is in their bedroom, pulling at the back of the wardrobe where they hide things from the community police. She hasn’t used it for years, but noticed Lucien tucking into it recently.
She pulls out paper after paper, and her hands get wet with anxiety. Notes, letters, rations, a deed. She is a sluggish girl who never finished school, but this she understands. It explains why Lucien is finding such good deals on meat lately. Beef. Why was she so dumb? It explains why he is always in town and how he talks about them moving to a nicer place. He has never mentioned this before. He built this shabby house and was as proud of it as a car. But now he says he is applying for a place in town. All he ever wanted to be was a farmer and now he talks about relaxing. Ha. Relaxing. That is not a familiar word in Gibara.
It is there in front of her. There are ration cards with his name written on them — four times the usual amount that they receive every month. The deed to the house in town is included. The date applied for and the date approved is the same day. In Cuba, that is nothing less than an immaculate conception.
Then the letters. They’re short. No details given. But it is clear. They are government letters, sent from the Capitol. Carmen’s name is on them. One states that Carmen is the better choice due to Lucien being educated in the United States. His tutoring is invaluable to the “project”. Anger breeds in her. It is an alien feeling for her, but raw in its lack of use.
She isn’t mad at him. She is mad at herself. And then she is mad at Carmen. She is a stubborn one, but this? No, Lucien would have been the one to make Carmen believe this was the right thing to do
Sugarcane has used up Inez’s hands. Her father would hack it down and leave the stalks propped upright in a bowl of water leaning against their house. At seven, it was a bat, hard and large in her soft, unscarred fingers. Inez smacked a neighborhood boy’s back with one, juice staining in a slash on his linen school shirt. At eighteen, it was yielding, breakable, dripping juice in her cup like sweet words from Lucien. She boiled the juice until it frothed, mixed it with rice and flour and made bread that attracted men, flies, and Santeria orishas. At forty, it is brittle, the bones of it splitting and peeling. She pulls the horny leaves from it and tosses it in the bowl with Consuela, Imelia and Rosita’s. They will chop it and steam it and drip the juice on their cakes. They will put it through a press to nourish their children and will sell it to farmers and laborers too tired to make the long walk home without a syruped mouth.
Inez wants it to be a bat. Not for her to be young, but because she must hit again.
They sit together each evening, the four. Sixty, seventy stalks start the night. Imelia lights her cigar, wrapped by her own stained and cigar-shaped fingers. Old and widowed and happier than the others, Imelia tells the advice that she imagines they seek. Rosita is younger than them all. Two little boys, one wrapped in her skirt now.
“What is that man of yours doing tonight?” Imelia asks Rosita.
“You know that I don’t ask, old woman.”
“You don’t ask because you already know.” The cigar moves with the words as if it were a third lip. “He needs a whipping. That is what I say. I know his mama and that is what I told her and now I tell you.”
Rosita keeps her eyes on her work. She is not a timid girl, which is why Inez doesn’t know why she is still with her husband. She is so young.
“Don’t listen to me. I don’t know anything,” Imelia goes on. “You have two little children and he makes your third.”
“Enough, Imelia,” says Consuela.
“What? I can’t talk to my friends about their lives? I wish someone older and wiser— and more beautiful…” At this Imelia drops her cigar and laughs and rolls sideways onto the ground until she coughs and sputters brown juices. She up rights herself. “I wish someone told me about my husband before I buried him and walked away thinking, ‘God, I’m glad that is over with.’”
They are sitting on the ground of Imelia’s porch. It is nothing more than a division between the house and the ground with a roof overhead. The round woman lives on her rations. Consuela’s husband makes four dollars a month as the records keeper at the town hall. Rosita has the support of her parents-in-law. Inez feels the most fortunate with an ample amount of land and some livestock left.
“I don’t love him,” Rosita says suddenly. The other women remain silent. “I never have.”
Consuela puts down her cane, stands up and cleans the cane threads off her skirt. “Then why?” she asks.
“I love his parents.” She smiles and leaves the others no choice but to join her.
“You can live with me,” Consuela says.
“I’m just not done yet.” She goes back to her shucking.
The breeze comes to them in gusts, and Inez holds the scarf to her head each time it comes. It is the only scarf she has, and she treats it like a jewel. When it whips at her ears making the talk go in and out like waves, a thrill goes through her.
“How long will I stay?” she asks the wind. A question must be asked at the exact moment when it changes direction and must be completed before the gust is passed. She has only caught it twice in her life. But this time she had the question on her tongue for days. And when the change came it hit her mouth and pushed her lips open and pulled it from her.
Wind tells her to count the stalks in the bowl.
When she opens her eyes, after the wind has traveled to the other side of the trees, Rosita is grabbing six stalks, emptying the bowl, but puts back two. But the wind sees and Inez sees the bottom, the hole that drains the water out.
The women look at her. They feel the wind, and they know that she caught it. Inez never spoke of him to them, her unhappiness that he sent Carmen to America. It is Rosita they worry about, her bruises, and half front tooth.
“Go tomorrow,” Imelia whispers to Inez.
Inez picks up her skirt and runs to the house. The moon shifts behind the clouds that are spinning, winding the world up tight.
She must get rid of the eggun first. The dead has become her company, and her body feels pulled by it at night. It grabs onto her to take away sorrow. That is its job. He found her tears under the dirt years ago and sleeps beneath her bed waiting for the time she can leave the children and go with him.
Tonight she seizes their smallest chicken. She wraps it in the fullness of her skirt and sways heavily down two roads to the babalawo. He answers the door, sees the sacrifice chicken, and lets her in. Two hours later she walks past Lucien in their kitchen. There are spots of cleansing blood on her dress and he looks with unfocused eyes.
He does not notice the blood, or does not care.
The boys are on their pallets. She kisses each head with their new man smells and goes to her bed. The chicken is gone, Carmen is gone. No one waits under the bed and she is eager for morning.
Inez walks barefoot up the hill possessed. It is a path flattened by mules and bicycles. It leads to the hills where people escape for picnics or to start their long journey towards the next city of Holguín. The gravel marks the soles of her feet and one arch begins to bleed. Not from cuts, but from pressure. She looks down along the path as she marches. Her forehead produces a light sweat. She is crazed, weaving back and forth in the path looking from one brown-grassed edge to the other. In her mind she is dancing, the song that her mother sang to her coming into her from the grass blades beneath her feet. High upon the hill where the flowers play, a little girl lost her way. She asked a wolf, where do I stay? And the wolf took her home and there she lay.
She tramples over foliage, bending down once or twice to sniff or pull at the leaf of one or another. Her childbirth-worn body lighter than it has felt in a long time. She twists her head in a manic way, although in her mind she is graceful and slow. The plant she is looking for waves to her, just on the tip of the hill before the summit where you can see what is coming next. The yellow tips are a give-away and when she reaches for them she laughs as she notices a bald spot in the dirt next to them. Someone else is poisoning their husband too, she thinks and skips back down the path with the gravel tearing into her heels.
The house is dirty. Not to anyone’s eye but Inez’s. She knows what she has neglected so that she can think and plan. She worked from the end backwards. She will live with Imelia, or have Rosita move in with her. She will not be alone with the boys, they need a voice in the house and it may take years until hers surfaces. She considered going to be with Carmen. Having Carmen apply for a visa for them all and starting over. Everyone in an unfamiliar place with strange people should want their family close by. And this is where Inez consciously stops thinking. She will not contemplate that Carmen will not want her, that she did not want her while she was in her own house, or suckling from her breast. The girl did not want Inez, maybe because she was not all that Carmen wanted to be, but Inez knows that Carmen left too early to see who Inez really is. She will imagine that Carmen wants her mother, and Inez will spend scheduled nights crying over how she cannot risk leaving to go be with her only daughter.
Inez’s feet are filthy as she soaks the Thorneapple in a bowl of water. Her table is covered with bowls holding flour and sugarcane juice, evaporated milk and sliced guava. She is going to make a cake. Lucien eats everything she makes without comment. He doesn’t seem to think of food as a pleasure, but sustenance. And it is the only thing she ever thought she did well.
The Thorneapple is pretty. The stems are torn a bit with trampling along the path or bad weather, but the flowers are petite and potent. She takes a fork to the guava, mashing it into a paste with some water. It is only two in the afternoon, but she is going to be making two cakes. One for Lucien and the other for her and the boys. She doesn’t want to raise suspicion—in Lucien before eating it, or the town after he does. She will have his hidden in the back and slip it onto his plate as she serves the others.
Her hair slips piece by piece out from its tie on her neck and she waves it away like a pest between fork mashing. The boys will be home from school soon, and she wants one of the cakes out of the way. Sweat drips in her eye and stops her. She is stunned like a person with amnesia. Until now, she hasn’t taken account of what she looks like. She wipes the sweat from her eye with a dishtowel and goes to the mirror hanging by the bedroom. She takes her hair down quickly, smoothing it and arranging it like it has been everyday for the last twenty years. She scrubs the dirt off her right temple and her neck. She can’t recall where it came from and then remembers traveling the dirt path for the herb. Looking down at her clothes she runs to her room and changes, crumpling her soiled blouse and skirt into a ball and pushing it under the bed. There is blood on the floor. She bends down closer to see. Tiny dots of it sponged on, not dripped. She looks at the bottom of her feet and then sees the punctures from the gravel road. The dishrag is not getting them clean; she will need water and heads toward the kitchen when she hears Lucien’s voice. Then he appears in the doorway.
“I’m home. The boiler broke down again.”
“Can’t they fix it?” she asks.
“It happened this morning, they still can’t get it going. Said to go home and they will blow the whistle if it is fixed today.”
Inez is tempted to look at her feet, see how noticeable her life has become, but holds her head steady. Lucien is tired, his left eye starting its slow close.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“I am doing nothing.”
“Nothing with guava?” he motions towards the kitchen.
“Oh, for tonight. I am making cake and congri for dinner.”
“I’m going to see if Oscar is home. Then I’ll do the horses.”
“OK,” she answers.
He is gone and she looks at her feet and is astonished that he didn’t see the little trail of red dots going from the bedroom all the way to the front door.
The guava is mashed, but she cannot make two cakes with him around. She is mad. Mad at the boiler that breaks every week and at the way they fix it with foil and grease jars, nothing proper that will last, and how Lucien comes and goes in his life as he wants and she cannot even have time to herself to cook a poisoned cake. Her mind races at what else she can do with the Thorneapple that is still washing in the bowl. She could steep tea. She could make a salad and mix it in, but they never eat salad.
She cleans her feet quickly and puts on sandals. Then she kicks them off and replaces them with a pair of Lucien’s shoes. She takes two bowls out to the stable. The horses hear her coming, one moving his head toward the door for loving, the other rearing his head back. She had hated that horse, but now she looks into his eyes, black as a dead man’s, and puts down one of the bowls. He stares straight at her, not nodding down to see what she brought him. She picks the herb out of the water and throws it in with the sugarcane juice. This is the same horse that broke Oscar’s daughter, Lourdes’s, leg. He was found wild in the mountains and eats anything a hog will—slop and scraps. The Thorneapple and sugarcane juice won’t kill him, but she doesn’t want him dead. She finds herself bewildered that she ever thought him ugly. It was his strength that frightened her and now that she feels it in her, there is a familial draw to him. She reaches to stroke his nose and for the first time; he lets her. Maybe it was the first time she ever tried.
The boys come rambling in after school. Inez has finished making the cake, minus anything terrible in it, and they sit and eat it as a snack. She actually lets herself smile at something Manuel says and then sends them off to Imelia’s who she has already told to expect them. They pack up their homework and leave without any questions.
Lucien returns from Oscar’s and is in the barn by three-thirty. Inez hears the muffled yell as he tries to get the horse to calm down. She hears the movement of legs and tools, but nothing violent. Her head is at the door waiting to see Lucien exit. He doesn’t. By four she has pulled a dining chair to the door and sits behind it with her eyes on the barn. She imagines she hears whinnies of the horses, but thinks that it may be the wind. By seven o’clock she places the chair back in its place and walks across the dirt to the barn. Inside the door he lay with his leg twisted behind him and his head to one side. He is breathing, but not easily. His shirt is torn at the stomach and chest by pure force. She walks around the other side of him, for his neck must be broken, he did not turn it to see her.
The horse, which had downed the whole bowl of sugarcane juice and knocked it clear across the barn, twenty feet, is now asleep, snoring loudly. The other horse stares at Inez with the eyes she had the night she heard her parents and grandparents argued in their little bedroom.
Lucien focuses on Inez. She puts her hand gently on his chest to see if she can tell the injuries and he flinches slightly. His breathing makes his chest go up, but only on one side. His breaths are long, but barely productive. His eyes are bloodshot with the strain of the work and his left eye is almost closed.
He can’t talk, or won’t. But she knows it is because he can’t. His left arm is in front of his chest and as his eyes look at her he puts his fingers to her toe. She is wearing his shoes; black ones that he saves for community meetings and rallies. She knows what he is thinking.
“Because I wanted to know what it felt like,” she responds. His eyes look at her in question and then fear. She sits back onto the ground. At night, alone in bed, she will not regret what she did. She will still not be even. He had not just taken Carmen’s life away, but hers also. But she is not consumed with even scores. His breathing moves faster now and his eyes will him to talk, to get up, but he pitifully stays in his same splayed position.
“I wanted to know what it is like to give a life away.” His hand retracts from her side back to his chest, his mouth opens and she does not lean in to hear his last words. His mouth stays open and his right eye stays on her as he disappears.