At six AM María E went out to the veranda to sit in the cane rocker. Five minutes later, she was agreeably surprised by the way the sun rose, and she hoped that perhaps the spell would begin to lose its grip on her.
After trying all kinds of strategies, she had adopted the almost passive role of the defeated, and once her mother and her daughters were out of danger, she went out at six AM to sit in the rocker on the veranda and be prepared.
Surrounding herself with the plants, the garden, and the home to which her mother had brought her when she was newly born, forty-four years earlier, this felt to her like the only way of offering herself up without resistance, ready to be annihilated.
But now, seeing the melodious attitude with which the sun that day filtered through the branches of the pine tree, displaying both piety and permission, with tenuous, undulating rays, María E thought that San Alejo, Elegguá, or another one of the many invoked divinities might be sending her some kind of definitive comfort.
A year earlier, one boring Saturday afternoon, an unknown man going from door to door peddling meringue pastries with guava would have gone by unnoticed by María E if it had not happened that six hours later her daughters were rushed to the emergency ward of a hospital, gravely ill with symptoms of poisoning. All the kids in the neighborhood had samples of their body fluids analyzed, an investigation was launched of all official, clandestine, and aspiring candy and sweets sellers in the area, and nothing turned up that was in any way suspicious. Three days later, after giving science its due, María E went to see thesantera that one of the hospital porters had recommended. She was so much in demand that it wasn’t possible to see her, and although Maria E wasn’t entirely convinced that it would be effective, she felt fearful about leaving the waiting room, crowded with men and women waiting their turn.
María E’s fear was not only because something, someone, might take offense at her leaving before any consultation, but rather because of the possibility of some other something, some other someone, being furious about her choice. It wasn’t a moment to regret her longstanding atheism or to lament her never having had a moment of divine revelation, so she went back to the hospital to be with her daughters. She found them much better, smiling, and within a week, they both came home.
Two months later, just when the girls were going back to school and María E was chatting with her mother in the back patio, flames burst out suddenly in the two bedrooms located in the center of the house, rooms that were separated from the girls’ room, the grandmother’s room, and her own, by bathrooms that had been unusable for years.
She saw flames flaring up to the roof, coming through the windows and into the side passageway, along the lower walls of which beautiful purple bougainvilleas grew. Her mother, who couldn’t see the flames but was still alarmed, began to scream at the top of her lungs for help. María E, practical and clear-headed, heard her mother’s screams while she raced through the inside of the house, extinguishing the last of the flames. She soaked bedspreads and towels in water that, incredibly, was still running in the old bathroom taps, and managed to put out the fire. By the time her mother reached the rooms, moving slowly with her nearly three-hundred-pound bulk, resting her weight on two canes and complaining at every step because her heels ached, her knees creaked, she could hardly breathe, and because no one was responding to her cries for help, the rooms were damp, with puddles here and there where she’d smothered the flames, but nothing to indicate that a fire had just passed through. María E, with her arms heaped with bedspreads and towels, looked at her mother as if she were asking her for an explanation.
A long time before, doctors had warned her mother that her heart was going to give out any time now if she didn’t immediately give up her pernicious habit of smoking over forty cigarettes a day, if she didn’t give up reading her trashy romance novels, and if she kept insisting on complaining about everything, making use of any and all arguments to justify her sedentary life style. On their way out of the cardiologist’s office, María E told her she didn’t ever want to see her smoking again, or reading those trashy, stupid, frustrating romance novels written just for her, because who else would be interested. She finished up her sermon in fury, threatening to put her on a diet of fruit, vegetables, and cinnamon tea until she shrank down to the ideal weight for her height, her age, and her slow-moving pace through life.
Don’t worry yourself about all this, her mother answered. I promise you won’t see me smoking again, and I won’t talk to you about my books, but I’ll go on being fat and slow. Years ago I made up my mind to enjoy life to the fullest, without fretting about looking like a whale. If you’re really bothered by how I look, just tell me so and I’ll hide away in the extra bedrooms. When the day comes that the door frame glows in the dark, you’ll know that I’ve passed on, and the last favor I’ll ask of you will be to find enough earth to cover me.
María E managed to ask forgiveness, and after that she readied herself to resignedly await the predicted explosion of her mother’s heart.
Soon afterward, the girls discovered that their grandmother closed herself up several times a day in the bedrooms at the center of the house where, according to what they’d been told, the very first owners, the founding parents of the family, had lived and died in two separate beds.
They assumed that their grandmother was smoking and reading in there as often as she wished. When they told María E about it, she just told them to not talk about it because she didn’t think it was a good idea to interfere. Her mother was keeping her promise of not letting anyone see when she compulsively inhaled her forty Populares a day, or when she wept floods of tears rereading her tattered books that left her sunk in a melancholy drowsiness, endlessly lamenting.
The day of the fire, María E’s stare was based on the only possibility that occurred to her: some unextinguished cigarette butt that her mother must have carelessly dropped in one of her hideout rooms.
I don’t have anything to do with your imagined fire, dear. I commit my sins in those old bathrooms that have malfunctioning plumbing and no working fixtures, but the toilets are like Spanish thrones and they’re very comfortable. Sitting on the toilet in one bathroom, I smoke, and in the other, I read. And in the mirrored medicine chests, I hide the chocolates I steal from the girls, she said with suicidal sincerity. Look under the mattresses and check that my cigarettes and my books are still there, please, so I’ll know if I have to die right away.
María E was still puzzled by the fire that only she had seen appear and disappear, by the sudden functioning of the century-old bathroom plumbing, by looking out the windows and seeing the purple bougainvilleas climbing as thorny and irregular as ever, and finally, by her mother’s daring confessions. She did what her mother had asked; she checked that all her treasures were intact, and she came back to the patio, to hang the bedspreads and towels out to dry in the sun.
It was not even eight weeks later when the girls awakened in the middle of the night crying for María E in voices that barely seemed to come from living throats. We’re freezing, Mom, get us out of this freezer, said the girls through the frost that caked their lips. María E didn’t feel cold as she went into her daughters’ bedroom, even though she had only a thin robe on, but there was no doubt about it: the girls were freezing.
They were shivering with weakness, and bright scales of ice had formed all around their eyes, noses and ears. Their strange marmoreal pallor contrasted vividly with the violet hue of their lips and fingernails. Rigid, they turned glassy stares to their mother, who gazed at them petrified.
She reacted as fast as she could, she filled her bathtub with boiling hot water and put her daughters into it, as if they were immense codfish ready to be cleaned and scaled. It wasn’t the moment to ask questions or figure this out. Kneeling by the bathtub, she rubbed her daughters with the hot water, paying no attention to the stinging of her hands or the red blisters that began to appear on her fingers. The bathroom filled with steam until mother and daughters could no longer see each other, wrapped in the vapor of the improvised sauna. Despite the asphyxiating atmosphere, María E stayed beside the girls, breathing with difficulty but not stopping her rubbing, in her determination not to allow life to slip away from them. After a bit, it seemed to her that the coldness began to abate, and without knowing whose arm or leg was whose, she kept rubbing and began to feel that they were recovering elasticity and movement.
What’s happening to us? they suddenly asked, sitting up with the energy of newborn babies. Why is the bath so hot? What’s all this steam?
Without asking for answers, they hurried to get out and put their nightgowns on again, while María sat there, her mind blank, without the slightest lucid glimmer that would allow her to articulate even a word of explanation. When she finished airing out the bathroom, letting the water drain out, bandaging her scalded hands, she went back to the girls’ room without any explanation having occurred to her that she could give them. She found them sound asleep, and as she did every bedtime, she kissed each one. The next morning the girls ate breakfast happily before going off to school, without mentioning the night’s episode. María E’s hands were not red or stinging nor was there any trace of the blisters, so that when her mother got up, there was no way she could make her believe the story.
For María E, it was enough. She had never believed in anything she couldn’t see with her own eyes; her disbelief was not assuaged by stories of spiritist rituals, consecrations of invisible things, ghosts, elves, amulets, or witches’ spells, but she wasn’t willing to accept paralysis.
In times of ironclad beliefs, María E was no exception. Forming part of the crowd of those who never thought to question the direction or check on the road’s edges, she swam along in the center of the current, letting herself be carried along by the fat and happy comforts of normal people, of those in the middle, until her face took on a suspicious appearance of conformity. Separated from her family by circumstances of the times, the always unpostponable needs of others and by definitions with fancy names, she received an education that supposedly endowed her with successive eternal and fundamental achievements. She returned home only for the definitive farewells unrelated to any questions of belief. Demonstrating in a spontaneous way how profound was her philosophy, she buried her grandparents whom she had hardly known, a father who insisted that she “believe” without understanding himself, and some aunts whose names she didn’t even know. She refused to let her mother say anything to her about her cousins, who had committed the unforgivable sacrilege of not confiding in each other and who no longer saw each other.
Without explaining where she was heading or when, María E. convinced her mother of the various ways of dying that some chose, and of the compelling realities of the two of them left alone, with the luminous future that awaited them, without any need to be remembering the old days.
Fully committed to her mission of giving all without expecting anything in return, life was passing her by as if it had nothing to do with her.
Orion, the moon, and the other celestial marvels that fill the inverted bowl of the night sky came out and glowed while María E spent her nights under zinc roofs, standing guard over invaluable riches, essential for something as yet undefined.
Gigantic flowers, butterflies, rainbows that announce that the devil’s daughter is getting married paraded every day past the places where María E was filing secret reports that didn’t tolerate the slightest carelessness, lest they should provoke continental catastrophes.
Huge ocean waves, beaches of sand finer than salt and the calming happiness of breezes awaited María E summer after summer, but she prepared herself on land for last minute urgencies.
The most severe hurricane in centuries hit the city, devastating it on the very night when María E returned from fourteen months of war in unmentionable places, a battlefield that she had left with unexplainable joy.
Love reached her at an untimely moment, confused by the jumble of tasks and the list of other priorities. María E permitted it the fleeting luxury of letting herself be brushed by it, promising an afterward that never happened. She announced her state as a single mother as another way of demonstrating courage and the never failing strengths of which she was capable.
All of a sudden, everything began to spin around. A strange mixture of previously rejected ideas began to filter into the protected bubble of isolation where she tended to live, and she felt that, despite her wishes, she wasn’t going to manage to figure out whether she was spinning clockwise or counterclockwise. The experience she had just been part of, full of images and ghosts supposedly laid to rest behind her, was just too complicated for her, and admitting that she could not recover her lost compass, she returned to the house where she was born.
Without the energy to begin an apprenticeship in today’s world, and without knowing anyone interested in having her transmit her old-fashioned skills, she dedicated her entire energy to taking care of her daughters, her mother, and a yard full of plants she tended with enthusiasm.
Since then, as though living in an isolated limbo, she refused to take any interest in current events in her country or any other. She felt a certain amount of pity for her mother, who had let herself be carried off by her fanaticisms, a self-fulfillment of the arbitrary orders she’d used to issue in the old days.
Her romance novels, which tried to imitate the worst aspects of other even more decadent ones, her addiction to nicotine and chocolate, and her general indifference toward everything, were seen by María E as tolerable residue, once she understood the uselessness of her previous boundaries.
Long before that day when the sun filtered through the branches of the pine tree with tenuous, undulant rays, María E had gone with a friend to church. She thought the sculpted figures that watched over the temple walls were ridiculous, the corners looked dusty to her, the lights glaring, the roof pompous, the benches old-fashioned, the pleas for charity insulting, and the promises unbelievable. She waited for her friend to finish confession, and on the way home, she ran through the list of her disbeliefs.
As if her nearly forgotten theories of undebatable materialism had suddenly come back to her, she tried to get her friend to give up on the saints. They got into such a vigorous argument that the gestures and loud voices of each only differed from a street fight in subtle technicalities. Surrounded by a crowd of appalled spectators who had stopped traffic to watch the women’s energetic verbal battle, they ended by crying and hugging each other in order to forgive themselves for the insults they had ended screaming.
I beg you to at least not reject these papers, said the friend, putting two pristine envelopes into María E’s bag.
The Act of Exorcism of Satan and the Rebel Angels, published by order of Pope Leon XIII, was the first document María E. turned to when, after the poisoning and then freezing of the girls, with the fire in between, the house had filled with spider webs.
It happened on an afternoon when she was alone. María E, tangled in an immense net of clinging and elastic fibers, didn’t manage to get as far as the cactuses. Trying to not let herself be provoked, she moved slowly along the path lined with flowerpots, in an uphill battle against something she could not visualize. She felt trapped without being able to see the threads, managing only grotesque movements that reminded her of Guiñol marionettes. Every direction she tried to go from the house, the same thing happened. She found her mother immobilized in the central hallway of the house, a few hours later.
What on earth are you thinking about with a hose in your hand? her mother asked her as she hobbled past.
María E did not know what to answer. Suddenly recovering her freedom, she did not wish to alarm her with what seemed like an unbelievable fairytale.
She watered the cactuses, the Black Prince rosebushes and the spider plants before she shut herself into her room and figured out how her friend was trying to convince her that the world had a dark underside.
She read the prayer to Saint Michael Archangel and the 67th Psalm, finding it difficult to restrain the twinges of doubt that surged up in her. Just when she reached the last part of the exorcisms, she heard her daughters’ voices as they returned from school.
Not them, please, she begged no one without knowing how, hurrying to read out loud:
“God of the heavens, God of the earth, God of the angels, God of the archangels, God of the patriarchs, God of the prophets, God of the apostles, God of the martyrs, God of the confessors, God of the virgins, God who has the power to grant life after death, repose after work, because there is no other god before You, nor can there be any other than You yourself, Creator of all things visible and invisible, kingdom without end, humbly we beseech Your Glorious Majesty to deign to free us efficiently and keep us safe from all power, connection, lie and evil plot of the infernal spirits. For Christ Our Lord. So be it. Protect us from the evil plots of the devil, oh Lord.”
She repeated the words solemnly, over and over again, without being sure that all the gods were a single one, without believing that infernal spirits existed and possessed power, connections, lies and evildoing, but convinced of the urgency of protecting her daughters and her mother.
Several weeks later, she took the Prayer to Saint Alejo out of the second envelope, just as she was awakened by the rings of telephones she had never possessed, when she heard her father through the windows, and when all of a sudden the cousins who had emigrated more than three decades ago turned up on the doorstep.
She managed, through prayer, to ignore the phones and the cousins’ faces, but she kept listening to her father. Without really understanding it, she knew, from his gentle and pleasant voice, that it really was his voice speaking to her through the blinds.
The psychiatrists she consulted after the partial failure of the prayers stuffed her full of benzodiazepine until they themselves got depressed when they saw her coming, in order to tell them about a third eye watching her from the mirrors, about dense haze in the middle of the dining room, and about owls who came and perched at the foot of her bed.
Determined not to be defeated, she signed up for a Relaxation Therapy course, but she dropped out after the second session, when she was told that qualities that should be considered as negative states of the soul included uncertainty, lack of interest in immediate situations, and excessive concern for the wellbeing of others, all of them qualities central to the backbone of her vital energy, by now irreparable by unorthodox methods.
Behind her mother’s back a whole parade of santeras came through the house, experts in exorcisms. In a flood of body parts of toads and dried coconuts, María E bathed with dead mice, drank the urine of widowed goats, rubbed her breasts with fermented honey, and accepted Elegguá as the representative of the new religion where she was just getting her bearings, although she still dragged her feet on participating in real rituals, or on letting herself be crowned or recognized as a saint.
Equivalent to the niño de Atocha, Elegguá, that mischievous trail blazer who casually demands simple things like candies or that no one should whistle in closed spaces, persuaded and convinced María E just as Saint Alejo, first king of Alexandra, had earlier.
Saint Alejo, Saint Alejo, Saint Alejo: he has to be summoned three times. While Elegguá was with her when the living room ceiling descended so far that she could smell the hitherto unfamiliar odor of plaster, she’d rely on Saint Alejo when the veranda floor started undulating, and every time she dreamed that a stork was carrying off her daughters and her mother, both Elegguá and Saint Alejo would try to calm her.
Having achieved the unusual condition of not being a believer of anything specific, and of playing around with everything at the same time she was ignoring the fundamental principles of any basic faith, María E, confused as never before in her life, was lucid enough to send her daughters and mother off to her Catholic friend’s house, incapable of protecting them any longer.
They’re coming for me, she said at night without explaining who “they” might be or what they wanted. She went out to the veranda at six AM to sit in the cane rocker, but it’s not true that five minutes later she would be agreeably surprised. The collapse of the entire house did not allow her to really notice the tremendous delicacy with which the sun, displaying both piety and permission, filtered that day though the branches of the pine tree.
Adelaida Fernández de Juan (Laidi), a doctor of internal medicine, began her literary career in 1994 with the collection of short stories Dolly and Other African Tales. Since then, she has continued her creative writing and has participated in cultural life: she writes the column “From Chaos Emerges,” of Havana vignettes, on the website Cubacontemporánea; she writes reviews of recent Cuban and foreign publications for the digital journal La Jiribilla; and she organizes and directs the “Wednesday of Smiles” space at the Dulce María Loynaz Cultural Center. She has published ten volumes of narrative fiction, including Oh Vida [Oh Life] (1998), and Sucedió en Copperbelt [It Happened in Copperbelt] (2014), both winners of the Luis Felipe Rodríguez National Short Fiction Prize awarded by the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) in the year of their publication. “La hija de Darío” [Darío’s Daughter] won the Alejo Carpentier short story prize in 2005. Bésame Mucho [Kiss Me A Lot] (Banda Oriental in Montevideo, 2007) was one of the top ten books in Uruguay in the year of its publication;Universo y la lista [Universo and the List] (Editorial Matanzas, 2013) a personal anthology of humorous stories, and Será siempre [It Will Always Be] (Editorial Holguín, 2014). Among the prizes and awards won by Laidi, in addition to those mentioned above, are the Gran Premio Dinosaurio of 2014, given to “Naderías de hoy” [Today’s Trivia] in an international minicuento contest.
Mary G. Berg has taught Latin American literature at the University of Colorado Boulder, UCLA, Caltech, and Harvard. She is now a Resident Scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, and teaches translation at Harvard Extension. Her translations include three anthologies of recent Cuban fiction (Open Your Eyes and Soar, Cuba on the Edge, New Cuban Fiction), and poetry by Antonio Machado, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Clara Ronderos, and Carlota Caulfield. Her latest translations include Olga Orozco, A Talisman in the Darkness with Melanie Nicholson (2012), and Laidi Fernández de Juan, Bésame mucho and Other Stories (2013).