A Story from the Collection
Adios, Happy Homeland
Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea. He had stopped fishing years ago, but he had not stopped coming to the beach. In his day it had been only about the fishing. The rocky shore covered in skiffs. Now it was different. The fish had disappeared, and the beach was for leaving. He stood on the deck of the La Terraza, next to Papa’s bronze head, and stared out over the shore. Not yet 7 a.m. and already they were gathering.
Earlier that morning, in a different city, the boy was woken by his mother. That’s how it is for children: they are always being acted upon. They are woken and fed and they are walked to school, where they are then, for eight long hours, taught how to be. Children are slaves of other voices. They have not yet mastered the first person singular and are always at the blunt end of someone else’s dream.
So the boy was woken early that morning by his mother, whom he, naturally, adored. She was his sun and his moon, his waking and his sleeping. And that Monday morning in November when she shook him awake , her face was the first thing he saw, luminous by the wan light of early morning. Or, as he would have said it had we given him the chance to speak: her face looked pretty and soft in the dark. She smelled of soap. And when she kissed him, he reached up with his thin arms to hang on her neck.
She told him to hurry, that the others were waiting. And school? No school. Later, in Miami. Miami. People were always talking about Miami. He had asked his father about it. They were standing outside together beneath a mango tree that had not given fruit that year. His father had turned him to face the smell of the ocean and pointed up, through the leaves. “Miami is that way.”
So Miami was some place in the sky, behind the clouds. Curious. If he had religious training, he might have thought Miami was in heaven, with Papa Dios. His mother thought that and so did many others. But he didn’t know about things like heaven or God. Miami was just a cloud city beyond sight. Some place that hovered over the waters and that’s where they were going. They were going on a ship. His mother had told him all about it, preparing. And when he asked how they would get to the clouds, she had laughed.
The boy and his mother lived in Matanzas, a province in Cuba that writers love because it means The Killings and it gives them the chance to comment about how bloody this bloody awful land is. And it’s true. If it were in a book, you couldn’t say the boy lived in Matanzas because it would be too ridiculous. But he did. Truth is the strangest thing you’ll ever know.
That morning though, the morning the boy was awakened before dawn, Matanzas was at peace. The only sound was of roosters crowing in the distance and the air through the open windows was cool and nice. He was happy and snuggled closer to his mother. Don’t go back to sleep, son. You need to get dressed. She was warm, so warm. Hurry, boy, hurry.
A man he didn’t know picked them up by the monument to the bicycle in Cardenas. His mother thought this was funny. We’re going to peddle all the way to Miami, she said. There were already others in the truck, each of them with a small bundle. They laughed also. The boy knew some of them. He worried that the ship would be too heavy with all these people, and they would not be able to lift into the clouds. He wanted to tug at his mother to tell her, but he didn’t want her to laugh at him again in front of the others . So he leaned against her thigh and closed his eyes as the truck bumped along the empty road in the dark.
It was still dark when they arrived in Cojimar. Others had arrived before them. Some were taking their coffee at La Terraza, which every morning opened earlier and earlier. It had once been a famous bar for the tourists: its black bean soup had been featured in a European travel guide and for six months, La Terraza had more Spanish and Dutch backpackers than they could feed. These days, though, most of the traffic was in the curious and the foolhardy.
The old man stood on the deck and nodded at the boy and his mother. The mother ordered water, saying it was for the boy, but the old man understood and made her a coffee as well. He brought the boy a guava pastry. When the mother said she didn’t have money, the old man held up his hand.
“I have my own,” he said. “I know.”
The boy thanked him, but did not eat the pastry. The old man looked at the boy and then at the mother.
“He is young,” the old man said.
“Six, almost seven,” said the mother. “He is small for his age.”
“Too small for that long journey,” the old man said. He saw something in the boy’s eyes.
“We are only going fishing,” the mother said.
“All the same, the boy is young and fragile and the sea is deep and rough.”
“It is a short fishing trip,” the woman said, pulling the boy close to her. “Don’t bring the evil eye down on us.”
“Go with God,” the old man said.
At the water’s edge, the boy had tried to run back . No, no, no, that ship cannot fly! The others laughing. The boy hated these kinds of jokes that he couldn’t understand. The boy ran almost as far as La Terraza. The old man, watching, took a step down onto the rocky beach. But one of the men from the raft caught up with the boy and held him aloft. His legs kicked and the old man thought he looked like a sad little crab.
“That ship cannot fly!” the boy screamed into the sky.
The old man realized that the boy could not swim. He took another step toward the shore, but the man already had the boy on the raft. Twice, the boy tried to jump out and a crowd from La Terraza gathered to watch.
“What some people do for money.”
“Endanger yourself if you want, but don’t be selfish with the children.”
“Look there! He’s jumped out.”
“That poor boy.”
“The boy has jumped.”
The old man did not see this, but the raft was too far out now for him to be able to count its passengers. Besides, he could not remember how many had boarded on the shore.
Dawn had come, but brought with it little light. The sky was low and gray. The sea was dark. A few young men swam out, but were turned back by the waves. For a while it seemed there would be no more launchings, but after an hour, the first raft went out into the rough sea. And then another and another. They had come this far. And if others judged it safe....
The old man spent the rest of the morning writing down orders in his notebook and watching out over the sea. In the afternoon, the clouds shifted inland. The sea calmed. The old man was taking an order for black beans when the second shout went out.
Body in the surf.
The old man put his pad and pen in his pocket and hurried down to the shore. He was old and did not move quickly. So by the time he got to the water’s edge, a crowd had already gathered. He strained to see past them. In the water, about 20 meters out, something dark moved and bobbed.
The boy, the old man said quietly. The boy jumped.
Some men were already in the water. The strongest of them swam almost to the body, but was pushed back by the current. He returned to the shore, panting. I saw the body, it’s the boy. A shout went up. A boat, a boat! The young men ran to the harbor to ask for help. Only the old man stayed behind. He waited, watching the dark bobbing and knowing that all was already lost.
The others were a long time in returning. Later, it emerged, that the police would not grant them a rescue boat – the illegal activities of Cojimar being well documented by the indifferent but cruel authority. But it was just as well. For as the old man waited on the shore, the current brought the body closer and closer. The man waded in to his knees to receive it. It had been many years since he had felt the sting of sea water and the sensation took him back to his youth. With what vitality he had met life, with what hope he had pushed out every morning from the shore, the stars still brilliant in the firmament.
One last wave carried the body high and, in retreating, laid it on the sand. The old man pushed out of the water as quickly as he could. The body lay sideways on the shore, its highest point rising and falling as with breath. The man’s heart caught in his throat.
Now he was running to the body that was not, in fact a body. My Lord, the old man said. For at his feet, tangled with seaweed and moss, was a giant jellyfish, the likes of which had never been seen in Cojimar. It was almost exactly the size of a small boy caught inside a balloon. Its iridescent yellow body expanded and contracted in the breeze. The man watched it for a moment. The others were fast approaching. He had only a moment. The old man felt in his pocket for the pen. He mumbled an old prayer. And in one swift stroke all that was left of the jellyfish was a withered yellow film, which the next wave carried back out to sea.
fiction poetry "fact" photography