Authors: Chantel Acevedo
214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright Â© 2015 by Chantel Acevedo
First publication 2015 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
El mantoÌn azul
, pastel painting by Soledad FernaÌndez
THE DISTANT MARVELS
For my mother, Marta,
and my grandmother, Maria Asela,
in gratitude for their strength
and for their love, which I surely felt before
I could even utter the words.
This Cuban woman, so beautiful, so heroic, so selfless,
a flower to be loved, a star to gaze upon, a shield to endure.
n unexpected envelope was delivered to me two months ago, on the first day of August. The package it came in bore the address of the University of Havana, Department of History in blue ink and a symmetrical print. My name was written in a different hand, and my address in yet another, as if the package had passed from person to person, each contributing some element to its outward appearance. Unnerved by all of those invisible hands, I left the package untouched all afternoon. But I could feel its presence, like fingers reaching into my purse, or trying to lift my skirt slowly. Accustomed to being alone, I began to feel that the package was an intrusion, and I could no longer stand it.
So, I opened it. Inside there was a pair of letters. The first, new and crisp, the blue ink rubbing off on my fingers, explained the second, which was old and crumbling.
it began, casually, impertinently, as if I were an old friend,
we believe this letter belongs to you. It has been housed in our archives, unopened, for many decades.
The letter, it was explained, was waylaid somehow at the turn of the century, had turned up in a collection of war-era correspondences sold at auction, and had been acquired by an alumnus of the university. An ingenious student, they wrote, had tracked me down as part of his thesis. And on it went, describing the historical effort to preserve what was most important, and find homes for the insignificant.
With one glance at the faded postal stamps, my heart began to pound.
I worked the brittle flap open, chips of paper falling like confetti. I pulled out an article from an American newspaper, so fragile that tiny parts of the paper crumbled to dust, etching out words and individual letters, as if the thing were censoring itself before my eyes. Another page, this one made of onion-skin, upon which a Spanish translation of the article had been written in delicate, old-fashioned penmanship, held my attention for a moment until a small square of stiff paper fluttered to the floor from within the envelope.
I bent down and saw that it was a picture of my little boy. My hands, holding the envelope and pages, curled into question marks, and then all of the contents of the package, those unwanted, insignificant things to the historians at the university, slipped to the floor.
That day, I sat on the floor and read the article again and again. I put the picture in my bra, close to my skin, until a corner of it bent, then, I wept for that small damage. I could not undo the crease, but I found a frame for the picture, one deep enough to contain not only the photo but also the article and its translation. I whispered the diminutive of his name, the only name I ever spoke to him, “Mayito,” and wondered at the way the envelope had found its way to MaisÃ, and my little cottage by the sea.
y next-door neighbor, Ada, treads through the sand wearing plastic sandals that flap against her hard heels. I hear her before I see her. She's come to my back porch to warn me of a storm in the Atlantic. It does not matter to Ada that I can see for myself the ferocious churn of the sky, like a black mouth opening and closing, and the white, teeth-like caps of the waves. She has a television, and has become the ears of the neighborhood, watching reporters all day, then, broadcasting the news from house to house. She says the storm began off the coast of Africa, that they named it HuracÃ¡n Flora, and that already, in Haiti, the sea itself had been wrenched away, revealing a sunken ship for a moment before the water came crashing back down. The storm is said to be bigger than all of Cuba, and Ada says I should be worried.
“You needn't have come,” I tell her, and point at the sky. “I don't need a television to tell me what's coming. Cobbled sky,” I say, but don't finish the old adageâ
cielo pedrado, piso mojado
. Cobbled sky, wet ground.
The pregnant clouds race one another in the sky. In the sand, blue crabs scuttle towards rocks, forcing themselves into nooks and crannies. Ada and I watch them for a moment from my back porch. The movement in the sky and on the ground is disorienting, and I feel a touch of vertigo.
“They're opening the old governor's mansion in Santiago to those of us on the coast. For safety's sake,” Ada says, reaching out her hand to me as if I would take it, come out of my chair, and abandon my house to the winds.
“Me quedo aquÃ,” I tell her, and face the sea again.
“What would BeatrÃz think?” she asks me, her mouth pursed.
My eyes prickle, and I blink them hard. “I haven't heard from her in weeks. She's an Habanera now, didn't you know?” A small crab makes its way towards my foot, as if it wants to get into the house. It opens a tiny, cobalt claw at me. First Ada's outstretched hand, then the crab's claw. I am besieged.
“DÃ©jame,” I say quietly. The roiling surf is calming. I feel right by the sea. “And besides,” I say then, completing my thoughts aloud. “I won't step foot in that mansion.”
Ada groans and sits beside me. The wicker couch creaks and the wind whips her skirt about. She is seventy-three, nine years younger than I. But nine years seem to be just enough to make a difference. Ada's ankles have not yet begun to swell just from sitting. She has not yet discovered the disquieting tendency to fall over for no good reason, as if the earth has tilted suddenly, playing a child's practical joke on her.
“BeatrÃz will come for you,” Ada insists.
“That is an old dream, Adita,” I say, and lay my hand over hers. My daughter is a woman of the city now, or so she says. She has become the kind of person who sets foot in a house and immediately begins to criticize it. “That old rug has holes in it, Mami,” or “Why don't you dye your hair?” Once, I asked if she was ashamed of me, and she waved her hands in the air as if performing a magic trick, and said nothing.
“It's coming here, to MaisÃ,” Ada says. “We must go.” She grips my hand hard, stands, and tugs, trying to lift me.
“DÃ©jame,” I say again, more forcefully this time.
“You want the sea to swallow you?” Ada yells. The crabs still at the sound for a moment, then resume their crawl across the beach.
“It might be preferable,” I say, and Ada's eyes film with tears. Were she to walk into my bedroom these days with the kind of confidence she bears when in my house, as if every room were hers as well, Ada would see the dozen unfilled doctor's prescriptions on my dresser. But she only searches my face for an explanation I do not give her.
Once more, I say, “DÃ©jame,” and this time, Ada leaves without a sound, though I can tell, by the way her arms are moving, that she is wiping her eyes.
Ada will be back, I know. She will take the time to pack up her cottage. Her daughter-in-law, Panchita, will come over with her grandsons, strapping boys with piercing blue eyes. Ada, who never brags about her great-grandchildren, knowing that it would hurt me, will shuffle behind the boys, touching them on the shoulders to get their attention, her eyes swallowing them up. They will load her valuable things into their car (for Ada's son, Miguel, owns a bright blue '57 Ford Fairlane that roars up and down the street, startling me each time), and drive west, keeping inland, getting as far as Matanzas, maybe. I will watch all of this from right here, this seat.
I plan on not moving at all.
f course, I have to leave my seat by the sea sometime. I feel hungry, and fire up the stove. I chop up a ripe plÃ¡tano and fry it in oil. There is day-old rice on the counter, which smells fishy, the way rice does after a few hours, but it is good to eat. I throw the rest of it out onto the beach, and the crabs, which are still mid-exodus, stop over the grains before trotting on. I can hear them under the house, scratching, digging, burrowing. I lie awake in bed listening to them.
I do not sleep that night, though it feels as if I'm dreaming. In truth, I'm merely remembering, and what I remember is a story my mother told me long ago about another storm.
Her name was Iluminada Alonso. Her friends in Santiago de Cuba called her, affectionately, Lulu. Lulu's water broke the morning of my birth, on a July day in 1881, on a ship named
that had left Boston Harbor two days earlier, bound for Cuba. The dribble of her fluids mingled with the seawater that had splashed on deck. She had not told anyone about her pains all night, thinking that if only she ignored them, they might go away. After all, Lulu did not want to give birth on a boat, so many miles from Cuba.
But there came a moment when my mother could no longer pretend.
At dawn, Lulu had climbed above deck, gasping for air. She'd gripped the handrail, felt the water between her legs, and cried out. The crew, unaccustomed to women onboard their vessel, and paralyzed by the idea of a pregnant woman, shouted among themselves, calling to my father, AgustÃn Alonso, who emerged from below deck with shaving cream still on his face. He saw Lulu on the deck, alone against the sea and darkening sky, and understood.
Lulu said that three marvelous things happened at my birth. When she told me the story, she looked out beyond my face, as if she were seeing them again, and as if she knew that the days when wondrous things happened without explanation belonged only in the past. The first marvel was a storm that came that morning, suddenly, and with few clouds feeding it. A mass of darkness, from which lightning flashed, and rain poured down, hung above the ship. But around the edges of that murky mass was the blue sky of summer, so the sun shone even as it rained, and the water glistened as it came down. People still say that when it rains and the sun is shining, the devil's daughter is giving birth. They believed it then, too, and this gave the sailors pause, so they dropped anchor and scurried below deck. Lulu said that her pains came and went with the lightning, as if the heavens were delivering something, as well.
She remembered AgustÃn arguing with the captain, a Spaniard, who raised the Spanish flag each morning on his ship. When has saw his wife in labor, AgustÃn had run to his trunk, dug out a crinkled flag, and thrust it in the face of the captain. “My child is Cuban, not Spanish,” he'd said. Lulu and AgustÃn had been in Boston that summer, meeting with leaders of Cuba's revolutionary movement. The flag was a new design, and meant a great deal to AgustÃn.
My father forced the flag into the captain's hands. It was roughly sewn, and made up of blue and white stripes, and a single star on a red field. The captain opened the flag, then crumpled it, and tried to shove it in his back pocket like a used handkerchief. “The authorities will hear ofâ” he began to say.
AgustÃn had no choice but to thrust his pistol under the captain's jaw.
Lulu remembered the sight of a skinny cabin boy climbing the mast without ropes, taking down the Spanish flag, and attaching Cuba's new colors above the sails.