“A snake will break up a hen-house quicker than anything.”
William Faulkner, As I lay dying
Monte Oscuro, Las Jejiras, Manantiales.
Blanquizal, El Recreo, La Loma de Cué, Bocas, Aura…
Calderón, La Olleta, Arroyo Seco, Guardarraya, La Calera, La Resbalosa, Palmarito, Aguas Claras, La Aguada, La Aguada de los Mariños, Mayorquín…
These are the names of the fields I used to visit in my childhood with my parents, the fields of Cuban nothingness.
What is the Cuban nothingness?
It’s the stretch that spreads out before us when a small town that can be called Velasco or Delicias ends; when the dirt road begins and the mayal or mouse pineapple fields grow cutting the way; they grow thick like tongues of living fire, green and reddish until the thorns are roasted by the scorching sun and turn whitish like cotton trees.
The voles and field mice run among the twisted thorns, while the purple and silver jubos slide under. From the road, one can only hear the fur of the mice brushing against the toasted mayal bushes, as they dart in and out with the speed of a bullet.
That is Cuban nothingness.
Several miles of mayal and empty paddocks and those wagons carrying chives and yucca roots, brought from far away by men called Juan the Mute or Castillo, men with hair already turned orange from the hellish sun at one o’clock.
They make their progress while talking to the fleshy, noble oxen that pull the carts and wear rings on their slave muzzles.
They share with the oxen, in a low voice, the lucky number for that day:
“Thirty-three”, because they saw a turkey buzzard dive down the heights of El Huso; “ninety-five”, because a mangy dog barked at them by La Yaya.
My mother’s friends used to come to my house in Velasco from La Aguada and even farther away, from Los Güiros; they came loaded with strings of garlic and homemade cirguela and currant preserves that tasted smoked from the stove under the syrup.
They would come to town to buy leather shoes and flower-trimmed barrettes to wear on their hair. My mother’s friends would gather their hair in a ponytail and wear skirts printed in lilies and stars, and fill the kitchen with giggles and small talk, with gossip and wisps of soft cigarettes, and the smell of those perfumes called Camerata and Black Coral.
My mother’s friends were called Maritza, Dinorah, Margaret, and sometimes over coffee, they would talk about their dead parents, the backs of their first husbands, the brothers who went to the North, and their eyes painted seven times over with black Maja eyeliner would start melting the paint into their cheeks, until they became ice-cream eyes.
After you passed the carob tree, beyond the Mano River, and the iron bridge that was thin and wobbly like a tin bridge, there were yet more fields beyond, and one day we went to Arroyo Seco, to a quinceañera party where they slaughtered fifteen pigs and impaled them on fifteen spikes to roast them.
Halfway down the road, turning into the Guardarraya ravine, a man on a bicycle was looking at the dwellings on both sides: huts, shacks, small houses with vaulted roofs, a house with a concrete roof, and under a huge tree, he found the house he had been told about, “the one that is crumbling”.
The man dismounted from his bicycle and knocked on the door. A young woman opened it and said to him with great sorrow, ‘Come in.’
The young woman was the granddaughter of an old woman who came out of the kitchen shouting that she was not selling anything, that she would rather die. The man, who had come from far away to buy a coffee pot, asked, please, just to see it, before returning to the dirt and gravel road.
The old woman, knowing that the man was a doctor, nodded. And the granddaughter opened a small drawer, and took out the coffee pot wrapped in a cloth, six cups, and a tray, plus other items that she distributed on the floor like someone arranging rooks and chess horses following a memorized order. And the man who was my father, stammered as he said goodbye when he told the granddaughter and the old woman that what they had was valuable, very valuable: A gold coffee pot, with its cups and spoons!
It was the nineties. And the young Cubans were wandering around the countryside buying boxes of watches, spoons, and gold scraps to sell them for a slightly higher price in Santiago de Cuba, to survive.
In the early 2000s, maybe around 2004, my mother took me to a field called Calderón, about ten kilometers from the Mano River bridge, which separates my hometown from the grasslands. We were going to visit some friends, and we went in a horse-drawn cart.
In the house of those friends, two men and their mother, there was no electricity at the time, and they, and the other people who lived thereabouts, cooked with rough logs and drank water from small wells just a few rods deep with stone parapets.
The houses, all made of planks and guano, faced an ashen cemetery, which the sun bathed like a park.
The little tombs and the crosses, the red and yellow plastic flowers already melted down, the prayer books, everything was placed in the center of that field. And through the windows, you could only see that: death.
My mother’s friends had an attack dog with a tiger-striped coat. They called him Jaguar.
Piro, a fisherman who was a good friend of my father’s, took us fishing about twenty years ago in the lakes around Monte Oscuro. The lakes rather looked like puddles, so shallow that the reflected sky gave the impression of having fallen into them, of being there, under the mango trees in bloom. The fishing rods consisted of sticks with a thread well tied at the end that ended in a hook, and the lakes were so shallow, I tell you, that the salty-earth tasting tilapia fish could not hide, because the one you did not catch with the rod could be caught with your hands.
And it was like putting your hands in a mirror to catch a fish.
My brother Victor walks behind me. He will be about nineteen years old and me, about ten. Victor is skinny and has a Barrio Fino pullover from Daddy Yanqui that’s too big for him. He comes shouting at me to stop, to wait for him: “Kathy, Kathy…”, his shouting scares the small birds from the sown fields.
We are alone in the middle of a field called La Calera; we have just come from visiting his grandparents. The road is bathed by so much lime it looks like a veil, and the strong wind brings the smell of toilets and guavas. My brother shouts my name again and again, but I do not stop. I keep walking until I reach a stretch of the road where some skinny boys with scraped knees who came from Loras in a tractor are bathing in a sudden downpour while they chew freshly cut cane stems and laugh at us.
My brother no longer shouts my name because he is holding my hand. Now, all we have to do is wait for one of those trucks that come from Chaparra or Puerto Padre, beeping and spewing out clouds of smoke, to drop us off at the Velasco terminal, for two pesos each.
If there is something beautiful about the Cuban countryside, it is The Charade.
The numbers and their meaning, the people who play looking for luck. Although those who know best about it and have been lucky enough, say that whoever plays out of necessity is bound to lose out of obligation. It doesn’t matter. If you were a country child, you know that a cicada turns upside down and that the number of jumps the lighting bug makes is the children you are destined to have.
And you also know that in the charade number one means horse, two means butterfly, three is little boy, four is cat, five is nun, twenty-five is house, and thirty is penguin.
That seventy-one is river, nine is elephant and sixty is egg. And that if a hen bites you deep, you have to play sixty-five, without thinking twice, with everything you have.