Please keep in mind that this is a fictionalized retelling of what occurred during the course of a year. For a true account of key incidents, from my perspective, you may want to read my Oct. 24, 2010, blog post entitled "Even in paradise there can be strife." In the short story below, I have changed the time line, people (not just names) and other details. For example, the woman who was actually with me in October is not the Helga character in my story - not in any way!
I decided to post this piece of fiction because it was inspired by my experiences in Cuba. My hope is that it will help readers to see my beloved Cuban landscape with more depth or dimension, and to remember that people are people, no matter where they live. There are both good and bad individuals everywhere - Cuba, Canada and Katmandu.
Rust and Blood
A rusted Russian tractor lurches along the rutted road. It is pulling a fully loaded wagon, overflowing with bodies. Arms dangle beyond the low wooden sides. Feet poke out randomly through the slats. This is a common, necessary form of transportation in rural Cuba.
It’s a typical Saturday and the farmer at the wheel is providing his fellow campesinos with a ride to town. Local bands will be performing in the park as the afternoon blends into evening and, for these hard-working families, it is the highlight of the week, a reprieve from daily woes. Despite the dust being kicked up by the tractor’s knobby tires, the people look remarkably clean and fresh. They are smiling and trying to talk above the rattle and clang of the ancient machinery. Children jostle and tickle each other, swaying to the familiar rhythm of the ride.
The farmer’s family is at the front of the wagon, their preferred position, and his esposa calls out, now and then, for him to slow down. “Pedro, despacio, por favor!” He does, now and then, but always speeds up again when the road is momentarily smooth. Anticipation fuels the momentum; he knows they are eager to get to town and he wants to be a good bus driver so they will be generous in their gratitude – as much as they can afford to be – and will remember him kindly when they are buying beer beside the park.
Pedro has just shifted into a higher gear and his tractor-bus is picking up a little speed. His wife sighs and shakes her head. The wind ruffles her hair as she runs clean, calloused fingers through the hair of her toddler, who is perched beside her on the front lip of the wagon. The boy is remarkably fair-skinned, with light brown curls and dancing green eyes. When he was born, her friends teased her about having a turista hidden in the pig shed. She would just laugh and wink, not needing to explain the genetic influence in their shared heritage. Most Cubans have mixed blood but not in equal parts; some are more Spanish in their looks, other more African, Caribbean or Taino native.
Mother and son grip the wooden rail to steady themselves as the tractor rolls along. Smiling proudly, Pedro turns in his seat to wave at his beautiful son. The boy reaches a small hand into the air to wave back and, at that precise moment, the front right wheel of the tractor slips off the edge of the ragged pavement, causing everyone to heave abruptly sideways. The boy loses his balance and tips forward. His mother, who has been holding loosely to his shoulder, tries to tight her grasp but he slips away and drops beneath the grinding wheels of the heavy wagon.
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My friends and I hear about the incident that evening, when we arrive for the weekly street party. The first band is already playing. People are dancing. Some, who know the family, sit to one side, shaking their heads and talking intermittently, trying to reassure themselves that Pedro and his wife will recover. It was nobody’s fault. They have other, older children and, before long, there will be grandchildren to preoccupy them. Despite this death, life goes on. It is like that everywhere; the push-pull of existence is universal.
We are soon caught up by the music. Some of us sway and swirl, as best we can, amusing the locals who have danced to this beat since they were children. My feet can’t seem to find the right rhythm, so I content myself with observation. I wander along the periphery of the crowd, admiring the dancers and watching the Cubanos flirt, which they do as deftly as salsa. When the beer I have been nursing has been drained, I circle around the park toward the only bar. It’s time to sit for a bit.
I glance around the crowded bar as I settle onto a stool. At the far end of the low-walled room – essentially a covered patio – I see two men having an animated discussion near the door to the kitchen. I recognize the taller one, Isbel, and quickly turn my back to the scene, hoping he won’t notice me before my beer arrives and I can escape. I’m not afraid of him; I just don’t feel like becoming ensnared in a tedious conversation that drips with innuendo and not-so-subtle hints that he would like me to do more than merely buy him a beer. I’m not sure if he would be considered a jinetero but I could easily imagine him to be a user of women, given his flawless charm and muscle definition.
When Helga and I encountered him earlier in the week, while we were stranded in town and desperately trying to find transportation, he went out of his way to be helpful. He flexed his muscles and charm, tried our patience a little, got some free beer but, ultimately, he came through by convincing an acquaintance of his to give us a ride back to the resort in his ’57 Chevy. Tattered upholstery aside, I was thrilled at the chance to travel in such a classic car and immediately claimed the shotgun position, leaving poor Helga to the sweaty clutches of our new friend in the back seat. She rolled her eyes at me and patted his hand, dissuading it from creeping around her shoulders, as we began cruising down the highway.
My enjoyment was short-lived, however, when our shiny green chariot stalled, started, then stalled again and again. At first, the owner was able to bump-start it by coasting down a small hill and popping the clutch. Va-rroom! The second time, the highway was too flat for that, so we all got out and pushed, me in my flip-flops and Helga in her platform heels. The Chev started again but was not happy, and neither was the driver. He tilted his ear toward the spastically chugging engine and shook his head. No promises. He made eye contact with his compañero via the rear view mirror and raised the palm of his right hand skyward. Isbel leaned forward, mumbled something and patted his shoulder encouragingly. We were only about halfway from Pilón to the resort.
When she stalled the third time, he hoisted the hood and began tinkering. No use trying to push again. I tried to be helpful; he tried not to swear. He used all the tricks I’d learned during my days of driving marginal vehicles, as well as a few more. Nada. We waited. One car went by, completely full. The occupants waved. We waited some more, seeking the minimal shade of the sole roadside tree. There’s not a lot of traffic in this part of rural Granma in the afternoon, and it was far too hot to walk the remaining 6-8 km.
Eventually, a second car appeared, going in the wrong direction but Isbel gallantly flagged it down anyway. He chatted briefly with the driver and I assumed he was asking the man to send someone else to help us. Instead, to my surprise, the man’s family – wife and two niños – piled out of their decrepit Lada and removed a futon that had somehow been stuffed into the back seat. They placed the mattress on top of the Chevy and, with gracious resignation, climbed in to wait while the patriarch turned their car around and motioned for us to get in.
Isbel held the back door open for Helga and crawled in beside her. I ended up in the front again, next to the nonchalant driver, observing how alarmingly loose the steering seemed to be and trying not to watch the pavement flashing through the holes in the floor. Would we make it back to the resort in one piece? Our rescuer wrestled with the steering wheel while simultaneously trying to tune the reluctant radio. Every time he hit a bump – an unavoidable malady of Cuban roads – he lost the station. Gamely, he kept trying to get some music playing.
He finally gave up and clicked it off as we turned into the resort’s long driveway. A brown-clad guard emerged from the gatehouse and stood, arms crossed, at the main intersection. Isbel and the driver were Cuban and, therefore, not allowed on the property unless they had specific business or were paid guests of a tourist. Isbel had stayed at the resort with his Canadian girlfriend the previous week, he’d explained, which is why he recognized us in town and had introduced himself.
As Helga and I got out of the Lada, we profusely thanked our heroes and discreetly pressed some pesos into their hands. Isbel blew kisses as they drove off, calling, “See you at the street dance – manaña!” We just waved and smiled. By that point, we were not interested in anything more than cool showers. Tomorrow seemed too far off to plan.
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I had not expected, nor intended, to see Isbel again but there he is at the other end of the bar, all fired up about something. I slouch down behind another patron at the counter while I wait to be served. To my relief, my beer arrives and I slip out, returning to the relative security of friends from the resort who are relaxing and enjoying the park scene.
Most of the other tourists have given up trying to dance and are content to sit and people-watch with me, as the band plays on. Helga had opted out of attending the street dance but, even though I was a little tired, I had let my arm be gently twisted to join the group because I wanted to absorb more of the local culture. This evening, our small party includes some staff from the resort, which makes it more fun. Their friends from town intermittently wander by our bench and are politely introduced. I don’t understand much Spanish but I can tell from the tone and body language that most of the conversation is just amiable chitchat.
It’s a sticky-warm evening and, when the band finally takes a break, I’m ready for another cold beer and a stroll. Alberto, an entertainer at the resort, is too. I’m glad for his company as we head back to the only watering hole near the park, the same bar where I avoided Isbel earlier. As we walk, we hear a siren in the distance. “Could be anything,” Beto says, shrugging it off. But, when the wailing ambulance comes closer and abruptly stops on the street ahead of us, adjacent to the bar, he looks concerned. We move through the thickening crowd, curious but apprehensive. Two white Ladas topped with flashing blue lights zoom up, veering behind the bar. Beto takes my arm protectively and asks a passing amigo what’s going on.
The man is agitated. He speaks very fast, gesturing aggressively. I don’t understand the words but I can tell he’s making a stabbing motion. Alberto confirms this, explaining in English, in between getting details in Spanish. “There was a fight in the bar...one guy grabbed a big knife from the kitchen and stabbed the other.” Then his jaw drops and he shakes his head. “No!” It’s the same in either language but, now, he has switched to Spanish and is speaking rapidly with his friend. I hear “familia” and “por que?” The informant spins an index finger near his temple, the universal sign for crazy.
His friend moves on and Beto turns to me. “Do you know Antonio, one of the regular bartenders at the resort?”
The name is familiar, so I nod, trying to pull up the appropriate face. “Was he involved?”
“No, it was his younger brother, Paco – he got stabbed! His wife is expecting their first child. Dios mío!” He shakes his head, eyes large. “They say he isn’t likely to live!” Shock mingles with sadness on his face. “Oh, my goodness,” he repeats, looking through me. “Dios mío.”
I touch his arm lightly. “Let’s get out of here.”
We have not been trying to move closer to the bar but the wave of the crowd has pushed us forward. Now, we find ourselves right in front, gaping like the others. The brightly lit interior draws our eyes. Police officers have pooled beside the kitchen entrance. As they move, examining the scene, I can see a splash of color on the far wall. It looks like rust but, in a heartbeat, I realize it is blood. Alberto sees it too and immediately pulls me away, to my relief.
To avoid fighting our way back through the crowd, we step into an alley beside the bar, hesitating while our eyes adjust to the darkness. Our nostrils are assaulted with the noxious smell of stale beer and piss. As our senses adjust, we are about to begin walking when, at the other end of the alley, the back door of the bar flies open, spilling light into the night. A pair of policemen hustle a handcuffed man outside, heading for one of their white Ladas, parked on the street at the end of the alley. They all have their backs to us but, as they roughly shove their charge into the rear seat, his face is briefly illuminated. During that sudden flash, I recognize Isbel.
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The bus ride back to the resort that night is calm and quiet, mainly because the drunks are tired out. My clutch of friends and a few others seem to be the only ones who know what happened at the bar. Only a handful of us know about the death of the child that morning. There’s no point in telling the rest. They are on holiday, nothing more; they don’t want to know about the push-pull of life going on around them.
A few days later, as we all melt into the seats of the airport lounge, one woman confides to me that she may not return to this resort, even though she doesn’t have any major complaints. “It was okay but, I don’t know, something was missing.” She struggles to put her finger on the reason for her disappointment. “The food was about the same as anywhere else in Cuba but, when I’ve been at other resorts, I had a lot more fun. The staff here seemed friendly and polite but, by the end of the week, they just weren’t very lively or enthusiastic about entertaining us.” I feel my face getting hot as she prattles on. “I mean, it’s their job to provide entertainment, right? That’s why they’re paid, isn’t it?”
My head is beginning to pound. I could tell her how little they’re actually paid. I could mention the two funerals that many staff weren’t able to attend because they had to work. “Maybe they were just tired,” I offer instead, and abruptly excuse myself to seek a washroom.
I keep thinking about the similarities between rust and blood.
– Jennifer R. Cressman
August 7, 2011