Islands: All of Them Ancestors

excerpt

 Jorge trains his gaze on the broad seat back in front of him, evens his breath to match its seams avoids looking at the fatigues and muzzles patrolling the aisle. They will not stay long on the plane only the officials in polished shoes and ironed khaki will remain strategically among the rows. They watch the passengers with suspicion, a pen in hand, sights eager. Jorge is sweating in the only coat he has ever owned. Feels the blanket lining he paid a tailor to sew in chafe at his prickled nerves. It’s the heat. It’s his first time ever on a plane. It’s the quiet word hidden behind each passenger’s teeth.

The woman next to Jorge could easily be his younger sister. Her dark hair pulled back against the swelling in her eyes. She bites the insider corner of her lip. Her slender fingertips draw across the worn edge of her linen skirt. Jorge turns away, adjusts his feet, stares until intimately familiar with the curtain track above the rounded window. Six metal clasps hang a tweed curtain. “Seis,” Jorge repeats. Counting like when he was a boy behind his desk at La Salem. “Seis, doce, diez y ocho, viente y cuatro,” he counts higher as the plane lifts farther from the ground.

No one speaks on the flight. The woman next to him whimpers softly beneath the propeller’s droning. Jorge scans the adjacent seats, glances at her face only briefly then takes her hand in reassurance. “Listen,” he whispers, “get a hold of yourself sister. They can still send us back.” She looks up from her lap finally drawn out of herself to notice Jorge for the first time. His pleading expression sobers her into the present moment. She expands her ribs and draws her wet lashes together. The shuddering mutes and it is back to silence, each rigid body an island against the tide.

In the oval Jorge watches storm clouds gathering, their bright cumulous doting the expanse of blue. He escapes into the unfolding sky, back to the rocking tip of oars. That first solo row past the swampy edges of the tibets. Where it was just him in a wooden boat with the taraya at his ankles. Propelled only by his senses and the repetitive pull of his shoulders in unison. What called him to a place was just the feel of the water the insistence in his legs to stand. The taraya’s weight was familiar in Jorge’s grasp. He learned how and where to twist the fibers into knots. He remembered the mangrove-dyed strands boiling in a pot over driftwood flames. Then after how the ochre net cast into turquoise. Each throw was an act of faith. How he centered himself, draped the cordage over wrist, propelled the waited ends, trusting the middle pull to bring back all the edges.

***

When Jorge is a boy in Cueto his world is six blocks wide. He walks the paved road to La Salem Elementary. He memorizes lines of Martí and adds fractions. At noon his sandaled feet compete for a faster time to the house. At the dining room table he is chastised for swinging his legs under the chair and picking at his food until he is release to sit by the radio with the volume low. During siesta Jorge never sleeps. When his parents retire to their room he collects rubber band ammunition. On car rides he hangs his skinny arms from the back window and latches a rubber band to his thumb and index. He launches attacks at each passing horse causing the animal to rear and the rider to scramble.

He wanders through the neighborhood looking for empties to exchange for pesos for coconut sweets. He scours garages with cracked hinges and slightly ajar frames. Until the neighborhood is picked clean and Jorge eyes the back of a restaurant porch where he vaults over spiny succulents and a concrete half wall. There is also the incident with a thin linear saw he tests on a young banana tree. To Jorge’s surprise the teeth eat through trunk and foliage downing the arbor and nearly clipping the neighboring roof. And while he lays flat against the greenery he hears the flapping of angry chanclas and raised voices and puzzlement.

His mischief punctuates an otherwise predictable routine. In the mornings before school he climbs the ladder for the backyard water tank. He pumps the metal handle to start the flow of water into the house. He watches his mother light the charcoal stove, bring water to a boil, make coffee through a tapered cloth sock. Each day they switch breakfasts between eggs, which he likes, and oatmeal that his sister prefers. His mother is indifferent to the alternating pouts of her children and insists on clean plates regardless.

Once a week its Jorge’s job to kill a chicken for dinner, which he zigzag chases, grabs and swings by the neck. On Fridays he goes with Pedro to the Arab club to watch the fights on the only TV in town. Pedro’s mother makes them empanadas with fresh yoghurt and ground meat rolled in grape leaves. Every chance he gets Jorge moves furniture in his sister’s dollhouse just to make her mad and challenges anyone willing to a marble rematch. Sometimes his mother sends him to the dry goods store. The one with the horse hitch out front where they scoop beans from a sack. Inevitably Jorge forgets to pay for the groceries with the coins in his pocket and is sent running back before the family reputation is altered. In the evenings his mother plays monopoly or checkers with the kids until her novel insists on a quiet retreat to the living room armchair.  

Jorge’s father is rarely home, traveling often for work. His arrival marks a shift in temperature, a deference, and seriousness not otherwise present. There is never yelling. Never open hostility in front of the children, but rather a sullen polarity. An oppositional under toe pulling at the house until it finally gets unbearable and his mother gathers them both and heads for San Luis.

Jorge packs his suitcase, a pouch of shooters, and his winning top with its sharpened tip. He plays final matches crouched in front of the house. He sends the prized top spinning from the coiled string and raging into the opponent’s shaky piece. After he stuffs the last army figurines into his pockets and grabs his handball, he shuffles behind his mother and sister on the walk to the train depot. His mother wears a straight lined cotton dress, one hand around a suitcase, the other grasping his sister. Jorge manages with both hands to waggle the brass-latched suitcase all the way to the railway platform. Then they wait on the wooden boardwalk under the corrugated tin roof in the gathering heat.

Jorge likes the train, looks forward to the thrill of passing scenery, the palms and damp rusty soil, elbowing his sister from the view. The conductor knows he likes the chicken sandwich and calls out his order as he punches the ticket.

Eating out is a treat reserved only for monthly haircut Sundays when he meets his father in town. On those days he waits at the barbershop where the guajiros spit tobacco from the porch and lean against the stucco like bulls with an itch. They never say much and Jorge prefers to scurry in to the tiled room to the metal chair that pumps upwards and face a mirrored counter with jars holding combs in mint liquid. He watches the ceiling fans whisk in futility and stiffens in his seat. There is something about the emission of cigar smoke, the decaying teeth, the firmness of the guajiros baked grip that Jorge recognizes as both intimate and unsettling.

When his father collects him they go across the street. It is the only occasion Jorge sets foot in the cafe for an orange juice and a biscochito. He always promises himself to chew slowly, savor the bright pulp in his mouth, but the flavors refuse patience and Jorge leaves trying to hold the memory of taste. Then he walks with his father to the double matinee. His father’s gait is lanky, unattached, draws his shoulders outward with indifference. There is a formality to the ritual. As though his father knows only how to be with his son in the darkness and flicker of a back to back thriller.

His father is often a distant source of severity, an outlying star in the familial constellation. His mother is the center. His sister a survivable annoyance and the moves between his father and grandparent’s house just another seasonal rhythm, predictable as afternoon rains.  

The single indignity of his grandparents in San Luis is the one room schoolhouse. How can he be expected to concentrate looking at the back of his sister’s ribboned pigtails? The teacher fumbles around the chalkboard and Jorge grows restless. He throws paper, does homework as the lecture meanders, and tries to tame his impatience. And when the teacher kicks him out on a Monday afternoon, and because Jorge had bitten his friend Pedro once when he was very angry, his mother sends him to boxing class in a neighbor’s garage.

It is more shed than garage with a pull up front door. It’s a box of sweat and rusting attachments from the tropical down pours and reused gloves. The canvas bag hangs at an angle and looks as worn out around the seams as the teacher does around the face. He had been an amateur fighter with failed ambition. His cheeks are all angles, his pitch a gripping hustle. He barks and prods then demands attention. So when Jorge tugs at the gloves and squares off to the bag he lets loose a fury, punishing the rocking lump for all he cannot answer.

***

Jorge closes his eyes then opens them just as suddenly. He fights the muscles in his stomach lurching to heave. He levels sights on the waters below, submerges himself into curvatures of indigo reef and emerald motion. He lets the mechanical engine whir envelope his head. The flight to Bermuda takes an hour and every minute is ticking in his pulse.

He starts with the hours rolling into each other just before the string of planes, the final checkpoint and the guards opening his flimsy cardboard suitcase. Their uncareful hands rummaging his allowable three shirts, three pants, three pairs of socks, three underwear.

In the Santiago airport Jorge watches his parent’s expressions and commits them to memory. His mother’s horned rimmed glasses and increasing streak of white hair, her elegant silver dress with a thin red belt at her center. His father’s painted smirk, the purposeful crease in his straight navy tie. The rounded watch on his sister’s left wrist. Her cropped hair and the joyful ease now absent from her face. His fidgety twin Godsons in their matching guyaberas both eager for what the three kings will bring them in the coming days.

Jorge moves between sides, two clusters of family. When his father’s newest mistress and several children were known there was nothing left for his parents to say. So his father moved to Palma Soriano, his hometown. Left his municipal judgeship to take over the family legal practice. His mother and sister came to live with the maternal grandparents in Santiago de Cuba.

Without a mountain range between them his parents are uneasy. In the airport, Jorge’s oversized leather shoes crease with each step back and forth. His father shakes his hand and pats his shoulder. Only embracing Jorge a single time before he must leave. His mother cups his cheeks holding him close, embraces for several minutes before watching him go. The family looks then away. They goodbye hidden in the open, grieve the people standing before them, silently graveyard their hearts.

***

The post office in San Luis is always peeling. The white wash on the clapboard exterior buckles and yields to the daily sticky torrents. Jorge likes to run his fingers alongside the rough patches sometimes tearing at a loose contour. His grandparents have run the post office for as long as he can remember. After breakfast his grandfather walks from the back house around to the sunken patio alongside the fence to unlock the office side door. The single room has three service windows that open on to an elevated sidewalk protected by the building’s overhanging roof. At lunchtime he sends the postal staff women home, clacking shut the side door and again retreating to the back residence.

As a toddler Jorge was often placed on the tile floor below the front counter in the office. Even then he was observant, curious, and easily fervored to compulsive temptation. So when the opportunity of scissors landed on the floor and the women employees in skirts and heels graced past, he sat in waiting. With both hands around an implement loop, he paused until the gray skirts lingered then lifted the sharps up to slice into the fabric. By the end of the day every postal matron had vertical shreds and Jorge’s reputation for trouble began.

Jorge’s curiosity and excessive energy often grows to mischief. They become experiments in the physics of temptation and escape, a chronicle of the workings of possibility. So when Jorge is asked to sort packages after school he takes note of the size and density of each arriving parcel. Mrs. Dominguez receives a large twined box at least every other week. Mr. Perdomo gets three shipments every month ranging from palm to coffee tin size always postmarked Havana. At first he only shakes the boxes, listening for a shift in contents, making guesses based on weight.

Then a ripped corner offers a plausible excuse so during the afternoon rush, Jorge disappears to the back shed with the box in hand. Moving from the tear he pries open the paper covering. At first there is just newspaper, a pressed shirt, but then he finds chocolates wrapped in thin wax paper. In the semi darkness of the wooden shed he unwraps his glorious find and a twinge of satisfaction widens across his face.

After several weeks the shed is near full and the door is harder to close. And then there are the residents complaining that a package from this relative or that suitor never arrives. Jorge knows he must stop, that his mother’s pink slipper will likely slap against his backside the minute she finds out. His grandfather will probably get in a few shakes too.

His last attempt is a flat envelope addressed to a classmate who hoards comic books. Jorge stuffs the parcel at the back waistband of his pants and pulls his shirt over the top. He goes through the dark blue drape separating the back sorting area from the front counter. He edges through the row of clerks along the counter. He opens the employee only half gate and walks out past the customers on queue. But his grandfather notices and already suspects. Unaware, Jorge scurries out the glass front door along the side of the building, takes note of a warped section of paint he should pick at later, and turns sharply hugging the building as if it could offer protection. Taking a speedy beeline to the shed, Jorge toggles the metal latch open with a click. He pulls the slatted wood door in short bursts so as not to dislodge any box remnants shoved inside. Jorge can no longer fit inside the shed with the evidence and so begins tearing the cardboard standing at the entry.

His grandfather’s yell pierces his fixation and promptly he is lead by the ear and forced to hand over the limited editions. There are some words amidst the cursing but Jorge pays no attention to the meaning instead prepares himself for his mother’s wrath. In addition to the whacks with a slipper he is forced to spend the entire next day, a Saturday, in his pajamas sitting on his bed. His feet are not to touch the floor and when he lays on his back, whistling to the ceiling, his mother hovers in his doorway, “no singing, no whistling, no happiness during punishment!”

To stay out of trouble Jorge takes his siestas amid the citrus grove on the leaning slope behind the post office residence. With a stack of National Geographic, Jorge marvels at the impossibilities of planets, snow capped peaks, and angular skyscrapers.

Some afternoons his grandfather emerges from the porch with a netting mask and smoking can. The wooden stacks and colonies become his new fixation. He watches the colony cloud and fury, engage in unpredictable lines of gathering flight. But merely watching does not satiate his desire to interact. So Jorge builds a small pile of half rotting oranges from the grove surrounding the hive. Then he crouches next to his citrus ammunition. With anticipation building he hurls two right-handed blows before taking off toward the house. The colony zips quickly forward from the circular opening but only a single bee inspected behind the hive. By then Jorge is already in motion up the stairs and toward the back door. With nose inches from the windowpane he watches the furious stinger knock and buzz and swell.

It is an image that comes to Jorge years later in High School when the city itself felt like a simmering hive and Jorge must decide whether to provoke or run.

***

In Santiago any young man on the street after dark becomes suspect. Batista’s microhondas drive unmarked dusty cars. They scour the avenues in units of three: one army, one navy, one air force. If Jorge spots a uniform during his high school commute he crosses the street looking down. On the rare occasions Jorge drives his father’s car, he never passes a microhonda instead he drives excessively slow or pulls completely off the road. At night the uniforms grab three random men from the street, the offenders are blindfolded, driven beyond the city and then shot in the head.

Occasionally mid lesson the La Salle high school church bells ring in urgent discord. The metallic echo sounds for nearby uniforms on the hunt, for bombings and shootings. Desk legs scrape against the ceramic floor. Feet scuffle to the second floor open hallway to look down on the broad courtyard below. The head master gestures wildly from the middle of the ground floor plaza. Like a heron among the weeds he prods the boys to run faster. They become a tide of narrow shoulders bleeding out into the city. The blue shirts and ties tear through opposite blocks, comingling and spreading apart through the avenues and bus lines.

For safety Jorge is sent to live with a cousin’s family outside the city for the summer break. He borrows their car at four am to fish before his cousin leaves to a refinery accounting job. In the predawn drive Jorge listens to the wheels rut against the final unpaved stretch. He greets the marigold horizon standing on the cement half wall where stream and ocean meet. With a hand line at the convergence of waters Jorge baits the hook. He knows the glistening Jiguaguas cross every morning from the mouth of the creek toward the waves. Jorge stills on the concrete ledge, waits for the blushing light to crown the sky, for the glassy scales to dart past. He reels in three or four fish daily, keeps the floppy catch in an empty coffee can on the passenger seat floor. Rolls the windows down for his drive back. Later he brushes the scales raw, cuts below the gills and cleans the interior. Leaves the tender papaya cuts to be fried at dinner. 

In the afternoons Jorge rides his bike back and forth along the dirt road between the front porch and the first chain link gate. Jorge loses himself in the peddling, watches the bell humped cows graze in the distance. Jorge circles back and rides again marking time in rubber tracks. He pedals another turn only then noticing an unfamiliar line approaching.

The uniforms patrol the highway between Santiago and Siboney Beach but never this close to the farm. Jorge’s first impulse is to abandon the bike, to sprint until exhausted and then push on farther. But he knows running will only cause suspicion. Jorge wobbles the spokes forward toward the tank, armored car, and pair of military trucks. The two open seaters brim with uniforms perched in every opening. Their automatics salute the overhead glare, their trigger fingers poise. Jorge feels them at his back when he turns around from the chain link, knows every barrel is trained on him. With ten feet to the porch steps the uniforms open fire. Jorge leaps off the bike. He scrambles on all fours into a dirt hole next to the Framboyan tree. The shots riddle the canopy, tatter branches, drop orange blossoms until debris scatters Jorge’s huddled body.

Jorge stays curled in the ground. His chest pounding for breath, his ankles tuck and frozen. He waits the uniforms out. He remains hidden until the voices stop, the engines grind and both machinery and men steer back to the road.

For two days Jorge refuses to leave the house. He alternates between reading on the narrow metal cot and kneeling on a wooden chair by the window to look out. The tree and prima’s nerves are the only markers of incident. He studies the blushing spread of leaves, the tree’s umbrella curvature reaching far from the trunk.

He thinks of his tío Luis. How the man spent four days in a tree to escape Machado’s arms. His tío never shied away from speaking his mind, a man who loved the land, read plants like unfolding libraries, and rubbed soil through his fingers. For those days in the tree tío Luis fell in love with tía Carmen. He longed for her voice singing at the base of the trunk. Imagined reaching for her espresso curls while they sat together on the sand at dusk. Instead their exchange was hushed daily glimpses. Carmen’s songs leap upwards from the roots. Luis pausing with the bucket partly to watch Carmen and partly to ensure no one followed her. He slid the rope down slowly. She removed soiled dishes from the pale and his now empty tin. From her basket she offered a bowl of rice with chicken, fried plantains, a canteen of water. Luis lifted the nourishment one hand over the other. And without exchanging a word Carmen’s singing lingers in the distance while her frame disappears from view. Luis strains to hear every last resonant syllable and thinks of her delicate fingers as he ties his chest to the tree before falling asleep.

            It was tío Luis who always saw a political shift coming. Like an approaching hurricane he could call the threatening path. On his solo excursions into the mountains and jungles he met men with beards and ideas. He spoke of their intrusion “I have seen many,” he’d say “but it’s not tranquility they are after”. 

***