The Way Out

By Emerio Medina
Translated by George Bert Henson

I

By then a lot of people were trying to leave the Island. A lot of people were making plans and calculations. They hunched over maps by night, plotting routes in the water, shut themselves up in their apartments, and talked about the trip and their new life. They’d spend their money on any kind of boat. They sold jewels and heirlooms in order to secretly buy a boat that would carry them away. Their entire savings went into a boat that would withstand the seas, an old dinghy or anything with a motor, or even a nameless and unpainted shell that would stay afloat long enough to be pushed along by the wind.

At night people would watch the sea. They lingered on the shore until late and watched the waves and foam break against the seawall. The bioluminescent glare blinded them. The waves broke with a roar of water that spoke of life in distant cities, of another life and other people, of other things and other ways, and people believed it. They talked about it with each other. They said that everything would change soon, that everything would be better in the future. They made sure that their money and jewelry were enough to buy a good boat and get far away from the privations and monotony of the Island.

People would watch the waves and the horizon. Beyond the horizon and the waves lay another life. People made their plans to leave. Whole families made plans. Parents and children. Girlfriends and boyfriends. They lit candles to saints and promised to be good. They promised to study and prepare for the new life that awaited them on the other side of the waves, on the horizon, in some distant spot, in an unknown place where only a well-made boat could take them.

Whole families watched the sea. Young and old people watched. Even those who were still growing watched it. They learned to watch from their parents and grandparents, in the streets and on the patios of their home, in the city’s parks. They grew up hearing the old folks’ conversations. They’d go to bed and pretend they were asleep, and then they could hear everything. They heard the stories about the sea and the moonless nights that were necessary for leaving. They’d go to sleep thinking about the sea. They’d get up and watch the sea in the morning. They’d watch while brushing their teeth, waiting for the night they’d go to the coast and see the ocean up close, the waves that broke against the stones in the wall, the horizon that promised a better life. They grew up watching the waves and the horizon, and watching the sea became their custom.

The city grew empty at night. There was no one in the streets or the parks. Neither the young or the old, or the children who wait for nightfall, playing with paper boats in the rain puddles, blowing on them so they reach the shore faster, correcting their course with their finger, and cursing them with their children’s curses when the boats sank in the puddles’ dirty water. The whole city was moving to the shore. People couldn’t talk about anything but the sea. They knew the routes in the water like the streets of the city, long, straight routes that opened paths in the waves, long watery highways that the people knew by heart and traced in the sand with their hands. They cooked over campfires improvised with rocks from the shore. They ate their meager food talking about the sea. They made love among the rocks and the sand, waiting for the right moment. “The appropriate moment,” they told each other. The good weather of a calm sea and cloudless night that would allow a safe crossing.

And there were calm and stormy seas. There were seas as deep as the great ocean, and seas whose depth was clear and close, and dark seas with storms and dangerous waves, and seas with hungry sharks, better seas and worse seas, and quiet, still seas, and perfect seas for leaving. But the moment for leaving never came.

They waited for a long time. Their eyes and their will wore down keeping watch on the coast. They grew weary of the tossing seas and tired of waiting. They returned home and went on living as before, with their big and small problems, with their joys and privations, with their everyday things, and their same old things, and their sleeplessness because of the conversation of someone close who wasn’t resigned to stay on the Island. They settled for their nostalgia for another life and their plans kept in secret, their illusions broken on the rocks of the coast and their dead hopes, absorbed like impossible dreams, concealed in the brief gesture of sighing in the window on the calm nights with gentle breeze.


Then someone spoke about Nowhere.

They learned of it by way of a coded message.

Someone who had cousins on the other side of the sea.

Someone said that big boats would get you to Nowhere.

And Nowhere was far from the city.

Nowhere was far away, and it wasn’t on the maps.

Only the saints knew where it was.

And then the saints spoke.


Somewhere on the coast lay Nowhere, past the dry woods and the badlands, past the dangers and the poisonous guao plants. But the guao and the danger weren’t able to hold the people. There were few who knew because it was all kept secret. From somewhere someone recommended discretion. Word of it could only be passed among those closest, plans spoken without revealing the place, without saying the exact route, without mentioning the names of the guides and the contacts, or the obligatory stopping points along the way, or the best dates, or most convenient days.

Brothers could be told because they were brothers, and also close cousins, if they deserved it. Parents and children, girlfriends and wives could be told. But they were made to promise not to tell anyone. They were made to swear on their mother and on their saints. They were made to believe that their luck would turn bad if they said too much.

Whole families took the road to Nowhere. Families left with their young and their old. But they were few because someone cautioned discretion. They left at night so as not to reveal the secret. They’d say they were going to spend a few days in the countryside, and they disappeared from the city. Morning broke without the usual noises of dawn, without the laughter of the young or the discussion of the elders, without the groaning of the old or the barking of the dogs. Over time the houses were left silent and empty, the parks were silent too, the stores deserted, the streets dirty and dark. Over time the city grew empty.


II

The man wasn’t too old. We saw him jump nimbly over ditches and slopes and walk effortlessly among weeds and guaos as only a man who was not too old could do. Then he stopped at the woods’ edge and looked at us for a moment.

Something about him didn’t match with what we thought a guide should be. We couldn’t figure out what it was at first, and it made us uncomfortable. At the time we were a little nervous, and the fear made our skin begin to sweat.

We were far from the city. Just about everything was strange to us. Anything could be a hidden danger. We had heard loads of stories about people who left the Island and it ended bad. And in the woods anything could happen. We weren’t used to the surprises the woods might hold for us, or the dense shadows where danger lurked, or the ultimate reliability of someone we didn’t know.

When the man walked up, we saw that his eyes were too big. He was a not-too-old man whose eyes were too big.

He had eyes like almonds, or like glowing balls. They were eyes like the eyes of a deer, round and brilliant like the eyes of a deer should be. We had never seen a deer up close, but there was something of a wild animal in the man’s overly big eyes, something akin to immense open windows, like only big deerlike eyes could be.

The man came very close. He looked at our backpacks and our clothes, our shoes and our skin. Then he smelled our breath and touched our faces.

It must’ve been the man we were looking for. It had to be him. They had alerted us to the size of his eyes. They had given us his address and his name. But we didn’t expect to find a man with such big eyes, eyes like almonds or like glowing balls.

We handed him the paper.

The man made a gesture indicating that he didn’t need it.

“I was waiting for you,” he said, and entered the woods.

He moved nimbly through the vegetation. He dodged the brambles and the shade of the poisonous guao. He asked us to do the same. He showed us how to leap over gullies, slopes and deep trenches. He stretched with the ease of wild animals and leapt over the ditches with the lightness of a deer. But he kept his back to us all along the way. He turned around only when we’d fallen far behind, when we’d gotten hung up on the thorns of the brambles and the thorns pierced our clothes and reached the skin. The pricks on our legs hurt us, but we didn’t cry out. They’d told us that we couldn’t scream. We had to endure everything without complaining, without attending to the pricks or broken legs in the ditches in the ground.

The man stopped and waited for us when the ditches were too deep, or we took too long to jump them, picking the right moment to jump. We held our breath in the final second making sure that we didn’t break a leg. The man stopped and watched us. He just watched us. He’d turn and show us his too-big eyes, his enormous deerlike eyes that shone beneath the sun like opaque lanterns, like picture windows, or like insect traps that opened and closed when he blinked.

And we followed him, no matter how hard it was, no matter how difficult it was to keep going, even if we feared breaking a leg jumping over the ditches, and even if the sinister shade of the guaos frightened us and we felt its imaginary brush against our skin.

We knew all those terrible stories. We knew of people who were covered with burns because they weren’t aware of the danger that dwelled in the plants and didn’t mind the shade. They were people who didn’t know those secrets, refined people from the city who were scarred forever. They’d had to abandon their journey because of the swelling in their face and arms, because they’d broken a leg in an unseen ditch in the ground. The ditches hidden among the dry weeds. Sometimes they were deep, and sometimes people paused to rest in the shade of a guao without knowing that the shade would burn them. Their face and neck would swell, and the people didn’t know that it was from sitting in the shade. They ran into the guaos without knowing the danger, without anyone to warn them about the plants’ shade and the ditches hidden among the weeds.

But that didn’t happen to us.

We walked carefully because the man showed us how to. He showed us how to keep away from the poisonous guao and its shade. Perhaps he did it because he saw how young we were. Perhaps he did it exactly because of that, because we were city people, or because we were so young and didn’t know the dangers of the woods.

And in fact we had never strayed far from the streets. We didn’t know the secrets of the woods. We were refined people from the city who couldn’t find a solution so we decided to look for a way out.


III

It was Lizandra and me. We were very young then. We were too young. We lived in the city with the urgencies and pressures of the moment, but we didn’t know each other. I had no way of knowing that Lizandra even existed, nor did Lizandra know who I was.

We met by chance. It was one of those afternoons when it was pouring in the street. People were running to anyplace that had a roof to escape the rain. I think it rained that day so we could meet. Now I’m sure that it rained that afternoon for that reason. Now I can believe anything. Now we’re here and we’re not concerned about the things from before. We’re not interested in things from back then, things from when we walked around alone in the parks and the streets and we lived in the city without knowing each another.

Beneath the corner roof was Lizandra. She laughed at me because when I got there my clothes were soaked. The rain was dripping from my head, and Lizandra liked that. The water was running down my face, and Lizandra laughed at me. She laughed that laugh of hers that made her seem so special. Not a lot of people could laugh that way. And I laughed a little too. I laughed at myself, and Lizandra liked that I did.

That rainy afternoon we became friends.

We started going out in the city together, to the parks filled with people, and to the clubs where young people danced. We went to parties and to the shore too, to the plazas and the stores when it was necessary, to parades and to wakes when there was nothing else to do. We went wherever people would be.

We liked to listen to the discussions in the parks, the cry of the street peddlers hawking brooms, candy, and water. The shouts of jealous husbands and their wives in the tenements. The news of a robbery. The number of victims in an accident. The weather reports that warned of hurricanes and rain. The agony of the buses, and the lines at the market, and the brawls in the corner bodegas when there was rice and canned meat.

We liked to watch people. We’d listen to them speak of elopements and plans. We listened to parents scold their children over shoes that wore out, over money squandered on colored fish and saints’ beads that someone was selling in school, over virginities lost too soon, over tattoos gotten without permission, over girlfriends who ran off with someone else without a convincing reason, over the music that was too loud late at night, over the strange words that they’d learned at a concert, over the movie they saw and the song that spoke of things foreign to their parents, over being hungry when it wasn’t mealtime and having strange friends, over clothes that were too short or lips that were painted black, over piercings in the skin and metal or stone earrings, over the pearl in their tongue and the leather wristband, over the bead necklace and pants that showed their pelvis.


IV

When evening had passed, the man asked if we were tired. He helped us unload our backpacks and put away our things. He suggested we cut the bread and meat into small pieces. He recommended we not drink a lot of water so our bodies would get used to doing without. He watched us prepare the food, but he refused to eat with us.

He went off toward a pool in the woods and stayed there, away from us, watching us in his strange way, bewildering us with his deerlike eyes. We saw them glow in the dark and thought terrible things. Such big eyes glowing in the night made us think of evil. Such big eyes could only foretell disaster. We knew the stories that people used to tell in the city. We heard about machete attacks and bodies dismembered, hopelessly bloodied and mutilated by guides in the woods. And that night we couldn’t sleep, thinking of the guide’s eyes. We thought about the evil that his eyes concealed, about what could happen to Lizandra and me, about what could happen to both of us in the deserted woods.

But the night went by and nothing bad happened. The only thing we felt was the sleep in our eyes and the fatigue in our legs and back. The man told us to massage our thighs and shoulders and eat a big breakfast, and bathe in the pool to get rid of the fatigue. He said it would be good to bathe at that hour even if it seemed strange, even if the water seemed cold and the dark bottom of the pool frightened us. The black water was visible at the bottom. We were afraid to enter the deep pool at that hour. We tried to say that we were fine and didn’t need a bath. We said it was better that we hurry up and keep going, but the man laughed and said we had time to swim in the pool and to relax. We should let the water soak into the skin so it would stay fresh, so the sun wouldn’t punish us too much along the trip that lay ahead. We responded that we were fine like we were, without bathing, without getting into the dark pool, but the man insisted.

“Sure, it’s no hotel pool,” he said. “When you all make it to the Spot, you’ll feel a lot better.”

“Will it be long?” I asked from the water.

“It’s a three-day walk to the Spot. Three days and three nights,” the man said as he walked away.


V

Lizandra was the first to speak of the Spot.

When we were in the street, she spoke of the Spot.

When we returned from a party that didn’t take place because there weren’t enough people.

When we grew tired of walking around the city.

When we looked desperately for a place to go.

When we no longer had anyone to talk to because the city had become empty.

When all we talked about were the people who had gone and the friends we no longer saw.

When we were fed up with retracing the streets and stores and the deserted plazas, thinking we could hear the laugher of a child, or the groan of an old man, or the shout of a jealous husband in some tenement where no one lived anymore, or the simple voice of a hawker peddling his candy and brooms and water, or the parents complaining about worn-out shoes.

When we lost hope because we no longer heard news about stealing, or the number of victims in an accident, or the weather forecast predicting a hurricane, or the misery of public transportation.

When we could no longer live in the city because there was no air for us in the empty parks.

When the dogs without owners came over to us, wagging their tales and licking our hands and legs.

When something inside us broke because we heard music somewhere and we ran to that spot, hoping that someone was looking for us, and we were surprised and frustrated because the music was coming out of an electronic system that someone had programmed for a special event.

When all we could find in the city were people who had been mutilated during a failed attempt to escape, and the very old who couldn’t leave when they had the chance because they couldn’t decide or didn’t have the money.

That’s when Lizandra found the nerve to talk to me about the Spot.

“The Spot is the only hope,” Lizandra said that evening, looking far away over the woods, looking toward a remote place that was on the other side of the chaparrals and the guao plants.

The Spot was a safe place on the coast where you could wait for the big boats. The Spot was three days away. Three days by foot among dangerous chaparrals and poisonous guaos and the ditches and the parched woods that led to the coast.

“It’s the safest way,” Lizandra had said.

But getting to the Spot wouldn’t be so easy. It required knowing where it was and how to get there. There were people who set off on their own, people who disappeared from the city one night, only to find out later that they had set out for the Spot without a guide. Their letters never arrived and they were never heard from again. And there were people who came back because they couldn’t find the precise route. They returned with broken legs, with dislocated shoulders, their eyes eaten by mosquitoes and the sun, their faces and necks swollen and their skin burned by guaos. After a while they recovered and they tried again. Something in them died, but they made another attempt. They said the Spot was the safest way, and also the cheapest.

We talked about it a lot before deciding. We checked everything out. We asked around. We talked to the old people and to the mutilated ones who knew about such things, and the old people and the mutilated suggested we pack bread and meat. They said the Spot was the safest and cheapest way.


VI

The man made his way through the guaos with ease. He dodged the leaves and the shade of the plants. He told us to be calm, as calm as we could be. He told us about swollen bodies and severe wounds on the skin of careless people, about people who rushed and developed allergies like deep burns that left scars forever, or people who fell into a ditch and broke legs and arms, and other people who weren’t careful with the brambles and ended up with infections because of the thorns and mosquitoes. He explained everything without turning around. He kept his back to us all along the way. He looked with his deerlike eyes and waited for us.

By then we were no longer afraid. We’d grown accustomed to the man’s deerlike eyes. He’d won us over with his deep, distant stare and his serene and measured voice that warned us of any danger and explained the best way to do things during the trip, to negotiate the obstacles and bathe in the forest pools to keep our skin fresh and our senses clear.

We began to feel safe and confident despite the sun and the mosquitoes, despite the dangerous trenches and the slopes, despite the stories we’d heard with horrible endings, and swollen bodies that appeared in the woods, bodies of men and of children, bodies of people who died in the attempt, of desperate boys who couldn’t find the safest way, or girls who had been dragged by someone who left them to their luck because they couldn’t walk fast enough through the brambles.

During the second night we slept better. We saw the big deerlike eyes glowing in the darkness, but their brightness no longer bothered us. It was a pleasant luminescence that indicated the presence of someone necessary. The inoffensive blinking of windows continued all night and made us feel safe and confident, shielded from a tragic accident in the woods, so far from the city and from the streets.

“Why don’t you sleep together?” the man asked.

Lizandra was still taking her turn in the pool. I had gotten out of the water, and I looked for the man to talk.

I told him that we weren’t a couple. And it was true. We weren’t even boyfriend and girlfriend.

“Maybe you are,” the man said and walked away.

At the time I didn’t understand what he meant. I didn’t understand it at the time or later. I understand it a little now, but I don’t worry too much about it. I didn’t understand then, and it didn’t bother me. I couldn’t worry about it then, or look for the meaning hidden in the words. I thought only about the time Lizandra and I spent in the city.


VII

One time we spent the whole day on the coast. There were a lot of people watching the sea. They talked about plans, about leaving, about everything people can talk about. And we talked too. We talked about the plans we had. We talked about plans and much more. But we never talked about us. There, among the people who were watching the sea, we never talked about us. We didn’t need to. Now I think that we never needed to. We didn’t before or after.

Lizandra never led me to believe that she was interested in me. We were fine as friends. We were able to go anywhere without complicating our relationship or worrying about the things that worry people. And I never dared suggest anything more. It was okay as it was. It was okay for both of us, even if it seemed strange to others. It might have seemed strange that we weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend. It might have seemed strange to others, but not to us.


VIII

During the third night we talked to the man a while. We felt safe and were able to talk. We felt good. The three of us sat next to the stream and talked a bit. We talked about the stuff of life, about people and city things. We talked about ourselves too, about why we were going, about what we were looking for, and what we hoped to find.

I said we had grown tired of things the way they were, of the same old routine, and the same old things, of the same empty life and the lack of hope. And Lizandra shook her head and said the same thing I did.

The man looked at us with his big deerlike eyes. There was a hint of the hidden nobility of an animal in them, a hint of the tenderness that lived in the woods, a hint of human tenderness too. There was a bit of that mixture, and I liked that. I believe now that human tenderness can exist everywhere, even if it doesn’t seem like it. I can now believe what I never believed before.

“Yes,” the man said. “The same old thing grows tiresome. It can do that. It’s inevitable.”

“Aren’t you tired of the same old thing,” Lizandra said.

“A little tired, sure,” the man said. “A little tired, but just a little. Not enough to leave this place.”

Then I asked why he didn’t go ahead and leave with us.

“No,” the man said. “My life is here, even if it’s always the same.”

But the blinking of his deerlike eyes said something else. What he said might be true, or could be a lie. Maybe he was just unsure, and it was hard for him to open up to us. Maybe he thought we were too young and we’d never understand anything. Maybe that was it.

“We have family there,” Lizandra said. “You can go with us. We’ll help you. We’ll vouch for you.”

“No,” said the man. “A lot of people go and then regret it. My life is here, even if it’s always the same.”


IX

We had promised to never regret anything ever. Not regret anything ever, no matter what, or feel regret, for good or for bad. We had promised it watching people in the park, the discussions, and the everyday things. We saw people who did things that later weighed on them, ordinary people who made a mistake and then couldn’t find a solution, simple people who spent their lives asking for forgiveness, forgiving themselves deep down inside, carrying their mistakes around like shackles, which they dragged behind them all their lives without ever being able to shed them. They suffered with it without ever being able to do anything else. During hard times, they regretted everything they did. They were people who couldn’t find a way to move on, so they went on dragging their shackles, only to make more mistakes.

“You have to promise something right now. Promise me that you’ll never regret anything ever,” Lizandra said that day.

And I promised.

“Promise me you’ll never regret having met me,” she said.

And I promised to say it only if she promised too.

“I promise,” she said.

And that’s how we did it. Both of us promised. We promised watching the people in the park, watching the children and the old people, watching the things that people did and later regretted.


X

On the fourth day we arrived at the Spot. The man stopped and waited for us. He waited without turning around, without appearing happy or excited, without taking his eyes off the beach that lay ahead, without being bothered by the wind that blew hard from the sea or feeling encouraged by the taste of the salty air.

It was a deserted beach that bore no sign of man, an estuary left to its luck on the other side of the woods and the chaparrals, on the other side of the guao trees and danger, on the other side of the echoes of the city and the bodies swollen by the sun. It was a piece of sea that licked the sand with gentle oil-soaked waves. A dim and happy sun seemed to hang in a soft sky.

At the sight of the Spot, Lizandra and I took each other’s hand.

We shook the fatigue from our muscles and our bones.

We felt free from the ditches and shades.

“You’re here now,” said the man. “All you have to do is wait. You must always look toward the horizon. There, above the waves. You must watch at night and by day. In the rain, or in the sun. The big boats will appear over there. Wave a cloth in the air when you see them. Wave it hard, fearlessly, and the boats will come over here.”

The man looked at us for the last time with his big deerlike eyes. He said goodbye and disappeared into the woods. He disappeared behind the dangerous chaparrals and the sinister shade of the guaos. He didn’t look too old. He didn’t move among the ditches and the slopes with the slowness with which an old man should move.

Lizandra and I were alone at the Spot.

For days we watched the sea. The horizon was clear. Its taut line broke only in the evening’s tall waves, when a random seagull flew low, or a flying fish leapt suddenly into the blue.

Lizandra and I spent a long time watching the sea.

We fell in love watching the sea.

We made love watching the sea.

And watching the sea our eyes started to grow.

And when our eyes were as big as only the big eyes of a deer could be, Lizandra and I saw the people.

They were there, next to where we were, but they didn’t look at us.

They had big glowing eyes like the eyes of a deer, eyes like almonds, or like glowing balls.

They were refined people from the city who talked about the same things as always. We heard again the laughter of children, the groaning of old men, the hawking of brooms, of candy, and of water. We were gladdened by the shouts of jealous husbands, the commotion of boys and girls, the plans of people, and the dogs without owners.

Then Lizandra laughed again. She laughed that laugh that made her seem so special. And I also laughed. I laughed that way that Lizandra liked. I laughed the way I hadn’t laughed in a long time, and Lizandra liked that I did.


XI

One day the big boats appeared on the horizon. It was already too late.


Emerio Medina is the author of two award-winning short story collections, La bota sobre el toro muerto, which won the Casa de Américas prize, and Café bajo sombrillas junto al Sena, which won the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists prize. He currently lives in Mayarí, Holguin, Cuba.

George Bert Henson is a translator of contemporary Spanish prose. His translations include works by some of Latin America’s and Spain’s most notable writers, including Sergio Pitol, Elena Poniatowska, Andrés Neuman, Claudia Salazar, Miguel Barnet, and Leonardo Padura, and have appeared variously in Words Without Borders, Buenos Aires Review, Bomb, Asymptote, The Kenyon Review, and World Literature Today, where he is a contributing editor. His translations of Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight and The Journey were published this year by Deep Vellum Publishing. George teaches in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Translation Studies. He holds a PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas.