August 11, 2004

New Mango Interlude: The Legend of The Seed Man

[If you have no idea what this 7,700-word tale is about, read the post just above this one.]

[Rededication to Catherine King: wife, muse, sun, moon, and stars.]

by Jerome du Bois

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. -- Genesis 1:29, KJB

Abakuá will last in Cuba as long as there are drums. -- Ignacio Peneiro, Cuban composer, 1959.

My name is Shango,
I came to light a long time ago.
You should do your prayer,
I carry a double axe to threaten the liar.
-- Angélique Kidjo, "Shango, " 1996.

[Castro's hold over the Cubans] was not Caribbean Bonapartism. Rather it resembled the belief that so many had had a few years before in Clavelito, the miraculous broadcaster who cured disease by his voice; Cuba is a country where politics, magic and religion are neighboring provinces, sometimes without boundary lines. -- Hugh Thomas, Cuba: or, The Pursuit of Freedom, 1971/98, pp 1037-8.

Section One: From Beny Manach's Time Capsule, recorded on microcassette, dated February 2 -3, 2004, close to sunrise:

[Because of how the whole Seed Man story ended up -- not the way we expected -- we realized we needed this introduction. So I've inserted it here as Section One, even though I recorded it after Section Two. Now that we've got that straightened out . . . this is me, Benyamin Arcibaldo Manach, future space scientist, talking:]

I never got used to going out into the canefields to swing the machete, because that's where they found my dead mother, before I was a year old. Eight years later, rattling out there every morning in the rickety trucks, jammed rib-to-rib with every other skinny, sleepy kid in the province, I would sit upright with my eyes open, left hand gripping my canestick, right hand wrapped around the scabbard, ready for anything. Actually, I think I was born that way.

(My father said, when I was five and he finally sat me down and told me -- he knew the other kids would descend on me soon -- that it was like looking at someone through red netting. She was checkered red. She had run right into the sugarcane field, plunging, stumbling, twirling, just days before the burning, when the sturdy stalks held up their stiff green blades. "She might just as well have run into a threshing machine." Even later -- just a couple of years ago -- he told me that when he bent to examine her body, he saw she had made sure that her wrists had been opened. My father knew from experience that I would hear someday, and he knew from even more experience to be the first one there with the truth -- or the story.)

My mother was Irina Renkova Manach, a Russian Jewish nuclear physicist who was invaluable to the Revolution -- until the Berlin Wall fell, when everything else fell, and fell apart.

My father is Baltazar Mariano Roa, who was a colonel in a special unit of the Army which regulated the whole nuclear development program -- also invaluable. (This last was always a whisper and a rumor, my father said after it was all over. "'Nuclear development?!' We can't even harvest the fucking sugar cane!") That is how he met my mother.

They fell in love and got married. With Army priveleges, and other, darker connections having to do with Abakuá, my father had been able to preserve his family's estancia [small farm] in Santa Clara, and that's where they moved, both of them important enough to commute to the city for their work.

When I was born they buried the placenta that came with me in a bare, dark plot at a sunny corner of the house. The neighbors -- we didn't have many relatives -- brought gifts. Abuela Hocabed Hatuey -- Marta O'Gorman's grandmother -- carried over a small burlap bag heavy with a rich, dark, soil. She poured it over the placenta spot and worked it in vigorously with her fingers.

"It's a concentrate, kind of like a starter," she said. "Like vitamins."

"I know about the Chthona, Abuela. I'm very grateful. But I didn't plant anything there yet," my father said.

"You didn't?" asked Abuela Hocabed Hatuey.

"Well --"

Then the Soviets pulled a gigantic rug out from under Cuba, and suddenly my mother was worse than useless and my father teetered on the edge of persona non grata. Over the years, my father and I put more pieces together -- he's always been honest with me -- and we believe that a combination of post-partum depression, shock at the Soviet Union's collapse and betrayal, shame about my father's disgrace, which was contingent on her very existence . . . All these drove her into that field.

She told him she was going into town late one afternoon, and disappeared. He spent the night cruising Santa Clara, poking his head in everywhere he could think of. She had been very moody lately . . .

With the morning came the news: she had probably run into the field the night before. As he shuffled home from the sugarcane field -- he had refused a ride, he was just walking stunned, that tangled, red-check image clicking in his head -- he came around the corner of the house and saw, in the placenta plot, the stiff green curve of some tree shoot standing up right in the middle of it, the sunlight, as he stopped and stared, suddenly turning it into a short golden blade.

After a moment he bent down on one knee. It didn't look like a palm shoot. He got up and went to the shed, where he found chicken wire and pliers. He fashioned a dome-shaped protector for the new shoot, anchoring it with stones so no pest could get at this . . . whatever it was. And he, and we both, nurtured it, until soon we knew it was a mango tree. My earliest memories are of being held in my father's arms, standing in the sun for endless minutes, watching that mango tree grow. But where did the seed come from? Did Abuela Hocabed slip a seed into the soil with her massaging? But why hide it? We never asked, though; we just ate the delicious mangoes.

My father was "retired" from the Army and would have suffered a lot more if it had not been for Abakuá. "I'm not a criminal," he told me in his candid way when I finally brought up the name, whispered in the fields and the classrooms. "I escaped that part. Abakuá has evolved branches, which respect and avoid each other. I'm not going to tell you details. First, it's dangerous, but second, for you, my beloved Beny, it's irrelevant! Abakuá, no matter how evolved, is about the past. You, like your mother -- you're about the future."

Then he said, "The third thing is, now that everything's gone to hell and I'm a farmer and mechanic instead of an Army colonel -- well, Abakuá is still a shield for us, Beny. MININT won't come around. Not even Carlos Lage. I don't even know why, but I know it's true. That's why we can do what we do."

So my father kept his head down as a petty farmer, mechanic, and crude machinist, and I grew into a prodigy with a talent for engineering, and the mango tree became big and green and thick, and bursting with the sweetest fruit in Central Cuba. When we dug out the hidden basement after Marta's scalping, during the beginning of the Seed Pool Plan, we came across some of the mango tree roots. Father installed a foot-square, very thick glass window (salvaged from the nucelar program, I think) into the basement wall, so we could always see the roots there.

Section Two: From the Historical Diary of La Fuerza [Yasmani Oliva], February 2, 2004, recorded on microcassette, after midnight:

One problem with nautilus-like chambers is that their isolation fosters the illusion that each is alone and separate from the others. So it was with the intertwined histories of our families -- the Hatuey/O'Gormans, the Roa/Manachs, and the Olivas -- which Marta felt the need to correct. So she summoned Beny and myself -- but not Flash No More: why? -- to a late-night beach meeting at our usual spot. She wanted to tell us what she knew about the good soil -- the Chthona -- that had blessed our crops for so long, and about The Seed Man who came to visit her Abuela Hocabed at the end of March 1958, eight months before Ché's decisive rout of Batista in the Battle of Santa Clara, just south of her estancia.

Beny and I gathered some firewood on the walk to the beach, and had a good blaze going by the time Marta showed up. (Beny was going on about Mars -- "The Big Mango!" -- as usual.)

She sat down and began to make small talk about how dark it was that night. After a minute Beny asked, "Are we waiting for Erasmo?" (Flash No More).

Marta shook her head. "No."

Beny and I exchanged glances. We had never hid anything from one another before.

"I'm not going behind his back here, believe me," Marta said with a chuckle. "You'll see. This story . . . this history -- well, he's in it, or at least he knows it already. I think." She shrugged. "I just have to tell you."

She unzipped her backpack and took out two of her diaries, the upside-down Lenins. They were already bookmarked. She settled them in her lap and then stared into the fire for a few moments.

"Four years ago, the night I came home after being scalped, after my first . . . trance, Abuela Hocabed and my mother sat me down and told me who I am . . ." And she began to recite from her diary:

On the wall of the living room in the house where I live with my Abuela Hocabed and -- until she went to el Yuma [USA] three years ago -- my mother Magda, there hang seven portraits, no men, all women, all santeras of some kind. The first is drowned in shadow and a mere sketch: Abuela Prima, La Mujer Pionera. The other six are photographs.

This is the story that Abuela Hocabed told my mother, and repeated to me:

Abuela Prima never forgot that an island is the top of a mountain in a drowned world. All the air-life that escaped the rising water scrambled up the slopes, which became the shores. Some of the oldest, strongest, richest, and most complicated life retreated to the highest inland mountains, in the Southeast, where they intermingled to create a rich soil -- Chthona -- that Abuela Prima, the first human to discover it for hundreds of years, would use to nourish small parts of Villa Clara, creating rich and abundant crops.

Abuela Prima had travelled the sinuous length and narrow breadth of Cuba for years and years, searching to know every every plot, every field, every mountain, every patch of soil -- for food, for medicinal plants, and just to know as much as there was to know. Why else live? she asked herself.

It was the second new moon in March, 1868, and she was east of Sancti Spiritus, north of Zaza Lake, under the starlight in the thin woods above the Zaza River. As she straightened up from squatting and doing her business, she saw a mango tree, heavy with ripe fruit, glowing ten yards in front of her, that she hadn't seen while looking down to make a little clearing for herself. She approached the tree, reached out, and one of the fruits dropped right into her hand.

It was heavy, and so sweet-smelling she didn't bother to peel it, just sank her teeth in right through the skin. The first surprise was that the skin wasn't bitter; it was as sweet as the succulent, yellow-orange meat. So she stood there eating the mango like an apple, the juice running down to her elbows, round and round the mango, gobbling really, gobbling and gulping, until the second surprise: there was no seed, she ate and ate until all she saw were her yellow-stained hands, and felt in her stomach a kind of glowing ache.

Abuela Prima licked her hands, arms, and elbows clean, then groomed her face and licked her hands again. When she opened her eyes, another surprise: the mango tree was gone, and on the ground in front of it a yard-wide path of glowing green light began, the color of the the streaks she'd seen embedded in raw mountainsides. The path hovered an inch or so above the ground like a mist. It led East, toward the river. And suddenly it was as if the starlight was twice as bright.

Now, you might think Abuela Prima was frightened at these apparitions. But she had explored the island for sixty years. She had had long conversations with spirits of the Taino, who showed her medicinal plants; she had seen green lines before, thin as strings, darting in and out of foliage, sometimes shooting straight to the sky, though they had been no help to her. She had even run across pockets of primitive Indians, perhaps even the ropemakers, though she never asked their names, isolated in the highlands, who showed her other plants and other techniques of exploration. She had seen the moon stutter across the sky like a skipped white stone. She had had her senses crossed before, as well: sound as smell, sight as taste . . . So this was just a more forceful manifestation, she thought, of powers she had seen before . . .

She stepped onto the path. She was seventy-five years old, and her legs were stringy and skinny, but as her toes touched that phosphorescent green, energy filled her and she began to walk; and as she walked the drums began. She couldn't see them, but she could hear them, and more: with every beat the scent of gardenia bloomed around her. And as the perfume lifted into the night air, in rhythmic puffs, she could hear the sounds of soft trumpets, and strumming guitars, above her head. And insinuating flutes . . .

She sauntered to the music as she moved out of the rank of trees, through the scrub grass and down the slope to the river, where the glittering green path rolled down to the bank and then solidified, jutting out like a plank about ten feet over the river.

Abuela Prima could not hesitate; the insistent drums, the heady gardenia perfume, lifted her onto the path over the river, and she watched as it extended out before her, keeping pace with the drums, just a few feet above black moving water. In the water, churning on both sides of the path, she could see rank upon rank of fishes and eels, saluting like atavistic heralds, eyes gleaming silver just under the surface, treading water with gasping gills at the wonder of the passage above them, three hundred feet across the mumuring black water to the other bank of the Zaza River, where Abuela Prima moved on without a backward glance. She walked for a week through wonders, avoiding real people, following the green path.

She was never able, in many retellings, to recount every sight she saw, every wonder she experienced, but she remembered that many came from the music. The tobacco, for instance. She was walking across an open field when suddenly a wall of tobacco leaves, glorious and golden, appeared to her left, marching along with her in perfect rows and columns, each tip facing the same direction, before and behind her and high above her, fluttering softly, a moving wall of giant synchronized leaves, the aroma overpowering -- and then they all swiftly, as one, rolled up into tubes with a thousand soft sucking sounds, a grid wall of parallel tobacco tubes keeping pace with her, smoke puffing up in time to the drums, then the tubes unrolled with a thousand thunderous snapping sounds, a battalion of proud flags flapping. Only to repeat again, rolling and sucking, unrolling and snapping, marching for miles and miles and miles . . .

Often, as she marched along, fireballs appeared on both sides of the path, twice the size of a human head, just rolling, boiling, and bouncing like rounded chunks of lava, and after a few miles they would rise and darken, cool and crystallize, and join the other opalescent orbs that danced along in the air on the trumpet notes like little planets.

Abuela Prima knew the opal orbs, having seen them her whole life. They were the dead; at least one way the dead were, anyway. She had seen and known other ways they appeared. Perhaps the fireballs were the newly dead.

No way to tell all she saw! Oh, look, over here on the right, hovering over the Jimaguaya River, a giant basalt Taino zenu, a thirty-foot black column gently revolving, its intricately incised lines reflecting the green path in dancing millisecond arcs . . . the spirit of a hurricane, just waiting for the right weather.

Over here, days later, look: An army of ten thousand upon ten thousand amber bottles clinking along beside her on the ground, empty, clanking in ranks; when, from above, ten thousand upon ten thousand souls, male and female of all kinds, from peninsulars to Taino to Yoruba criollos to chinos to bozales, get sucked like smoke into the bottles' open mouths, where they crouch there gasping like doomed genies, liquifying, drowning in aguardiente [cane brandy], until the light changes and they all shoot out of the mouths of the brown bottles in golden geysers of freedom, shattering the vessels in the process. Her heart leaps as it never has before when she sees this fountaining curtain of gold, which falls like rain onto the curved glass shards, dissolving and resolving them into thousands of multihued people, who scatter to the four directions.

As she marched into the darkness at the base of the Sierra Maestra the music suddenly ceased for the first time, and the scent of gardenia dissipated. She kept walking, but slowed a little. Twenty yards in front and to her right, one of the pine trees dropped its branches, silently stripping itself from root to crown, the branches falling softly, until the faggots lay about its base, pitch-rich and packed tight. The pile caught fire and as the flames wrapped the tree she saw it was Chief Hatuey burning at the stake: so intense was the heat that he looked more flame than flesh, and she couldn't tell if she was hearing his screams or the crackling of his skin. She burned, too, but she didn't look away, though the tears on her face hissed away into steam; and as she stared she saw the moths approach, thousands of white moths drawn to the pyre, but not to die. Instead they created a fluttering cloud of themselves around the stake and then, astoundingly, they formed hovering ranks that described an outline of white radiating spikes, the large moths closest to the fire, the smallest furthest away, an incandescent corona. With every scream, the spikes rippled. The music suddenly rose, the drums insane, the violins scraping at incredible speed. The tree trembled, as if the heat was becoming unbearable, the moths scattered, and the tree uprooted itself and launched itself and its burden like a burning spear into the sky, stabbing the heart of the night and disappearing in a spiral of smoke.

A powerful flash to her left brought her eyes around. She kept moving. There was no time to take a breath. The drums dropped to a murmur, the violins unravelled to silence. She was now crossing a clearing toward the dense woods ringing the bases of the steep-fingered slopes of the Sierra Maestra -- she had some serious climbing to do soon -- but here, bobbing toward her like a low-rolling cloud just feet above the ground, a giant black rooster, proud and high and bridled like a horse, its feathers glittering like obsidian blades, drawing a huge golden volante with gardenia wound in all the wheelspokes; in its windows beautiful people holding up crystal goblets of amber liquid, laughing as they rolled by.

Close behind the coach came a formidable black coal train, filigreed in gold, unrolling and laying its tracks before it like an endless iron ladder, pulling its roiling plume of smoke and much else besides, some of which was inexplicable to her. After a dozen or so freight cars went by, bursting with cane, mango, platanos, sweet potato, another wooden car clattered by full of rifles. Then a flatcar, which supported nothing but a twenty-foot fragment of bloody brick wall, pocked with bulletholes. This was followed by another flatcar carrying six strange volantes in two ranks of three, each slabbed with iron and a big horizontal pipe. On their sides, strange letters painted, and a red star.

The red star appeared again on the cylindrical side of the shape on the next flatcar, which was itself so huge she couldn't see the end of it; it seemed to have two dozen wheels. On that massive flatcar was what seemed a rifle bullet exaggerated to gigantic proportions. Her stomach twisted as the red star grew brighter, its arms undulating uneasily, pulsing as the immense bullet rumbled by.

More freight cars followed, mostly empty, and then a run of confusing passenger cars, jammed with frenzied people, money flying through the windows and fluttering out behind, to land on . . . the biggest mango she had ever seen, big as a house, wobbling slightly on its flatcar as it rattled toward her. She could smell the overpowering aroma. Right behind the mango, on its own modest flatcar, was the caboose, and it looked like a mango seed made out of steel, standing on its edge, as if the mango had extruded it. But it wasn't a seed, it was . . . a kind of portable room, because it had circular windows and she could see someone inside, outlined in a green glow, hands moving in the air as if conducting music. Printed on the side she could read recognizable letters this time: CAS6 SACAGAWEA.

She watched as the whole parade headed toward the dark woods. Just before entering that black canopy, Abuela Prima saw the steel mango seed caboose detach itself from its flatcar, hover for a moment in the clearing, and then shoot in a catenary arc toward a tiny orange dot millions of miles away in the star-filled sky. Her heart soared with it.

She looked back down at the green path. It wound among the thickening tree trunks to a small clearing which ended at an almost vertical promontory of rock; the first little toe of the vertiginous Sierra Maestra.

She paused in the clearing. The green phosphorescent path ended right at the base. She looked up dubiously, and then cocked her head: once again, the music had dropped to silence. She waited, and a few breaths later a man's voice whispered in her ear, "Go."

Abuela Prima suddenly felt so light that when she lifted her foot to the granite slope it seemed to lift her whole frail body. She raised her arms, grabbed some scrub, and pulled: she floated up as if in water, as if rising from the bottom of a river, stroking here, pushing off there; she felt like that flying steel mango seed, or at least like a monkey climbing a tree. She floated, bobbed, and weaved up past the scrub, vines, and trees clinging to the mountain wall, and in no time at all she had reached a plateau. She floated up over the cliff and settled back to level ground again.

She tried to make sense of what she saw. About thirty yards in front of her was a slightly mounded circle of black earth about a hundred yards across, like the woolly head of a giant black man all but submerged in the earth; all around its edge, like a silver crown, was an ensemble of entities, whirling energies, forms, ghosts, people, and orbs, winking and pulsing and linked in a ring. She walked toward it, and the beings at the edge of the circle opened up for her to enter, keeping their distance.

Abuela Prima sank her feet into the black earth, which seemed to shoot energy right up her spine. Across the circle one of the orbs detached itself and sailed in the air in an arc toward her. It settled on the ground a polite distance away, a six-foot sphere of coruscating opalescence. It extruded a bulging bulb toward her, which burst in shower of pollen, opening into a giant pink star lily, five pearly petals peeling back, and from its hot saffron center emerged a naked woman with long black hair, who smoothly stepped down the curved foot petal of the lily until she stood before Abuela Prima. Golden pollen streaked her hair, her shoulders, her breasts.

With a big smile, she said, "Hail, Doña Pionera!" and the whole silver circle of beings shook with laughter. Abuela Prima looked around, unable to take in all the strange people, shapes, and creatures. They were all ghostly mercury outlines with constant internal movement like smoke in a bottle. Almost all the people she could discern were dressed as no one had for hundreds of years.

"This is Cuba," said the naked woman. "Death is emancipating, but where's there to go when there's work to do? Eden? We're there already! We don't go zooming around the cosmos. We stay here. We love it here. We want to help. Feel the soil? Go on, dig your toes in." She grinned again and started to massage her own feet. Abuela Prima did the same: it felt like bathing your feet in mud, the soil gripped like gentle fingers, but your feet didn't get wet and sticky. She looked down -- it was black, and thick, and rich, and ropy -- and began to swoon. The woman's voice brought her up short.

"Work to do first, Pionera."

"Who are you?" Abuela Prima interrupted.

"You can call me Chthona, which is the name of this special soil. Or you can call me Sacagawea."

"I've seen that name!"

"That's right, you saw Cuba, didn't you? All those visions, past and future, are here, in this soil. This soil is the best of the sweat and blood and semen and menses of the best souls who have lived here. Change is coming. Slavery is over. Glory and greed and despair are coming, and then . . . ugly times, when we will sacrifice our very children . . . and then glory again. We can't do much with this little patch of magic, but we can do something.

"Your feet now stand in the Sierra Maestra, and this Chthona is a lesson. A lesson in concentration, in density, in the power of the small, and in magic. Take this Chthona with you to nourish Villa Clara -- two bags full will last you a year; it's like yeast -- then come back. Bring your apprentice, so she can pass it on. And next year," Chthona said with a chuckle, "no magic path, now that you know the way. Bring your cart and donkey."

Abuela Prima said, "I will do it. But may I ask . . . ?" She gestured around her. "This is an impressive field, but Cuba is a big island . . . "

"Oh," said Chthona / Sacagawea, "this is not the only crown of Cuban chthona -- or, rather, this is not the only way we work -- and you're not the only guardian." She stepped up close to the old woman. "But you are one of them. Look here." She pointed to two burlap bags bulging with the black soil, separated by and bound to an ash pole laid across them. "Here's your burden." She gestured, and the pole lifted itself horizontally to Abuela Prima's shoulder height, bending slightly, the heavy bags swaying at each end of its arc.

Abuela Prima stepped forward under the ash pole. Sacagawea came up close, so close that their breath mixed. "Your journey home will be easy, at least most of the way. Just run, and float, and dream, and when you get home I'll make sure you have a fine surprise. Now go."

Abuela Prima turned and stepped to the edge of the cliff, and the heavy burlap bags seemed to turn into wings, and she floated down the steep slopes at the foothills of the Sierra Maestra, down through the dark green world, with a heart full of terror and wonder. When she reached level ground it was as Sacagawea said: a kind of dream, but cut like pieces of cloth, or like that time the moon skipped across the sky, so that she was not really surprised to find herself at twilight -- after a day? a week? -- outside her familiar little house at her modest estancia, with the sweet well, the busy goats in the far pen, the cow in the pasture, and the abundant garden. Gardenia perfumed the warm air. Home.

She climbed the porch and set the suddenly heavy bags down. She opened the door to her main room and shuffled inside. She felt seventy-five years old, but she turned and dragged the two bags inside -- fifty pounds worth -- and set them beside the open door. "Chthona," she said, massaging her aching back, and turned toward the bedroom, thinking of nothing -- not food, not a bath (hah! as if she could haul water now!) -- just sleep, when she heard a man's voice behind her.

"Hail, Doña Pionera!"

She whirled, as best she could, staggering. A tall, solid, red-brown man stood in the doorway, with tightly-curled brown hair standing out from his head, wearing only ragged, faded red pantaloons and a wide smile. He leaned in from the doorway with his arms outspread, his hands hidden. He glanced over at the two bags of Chthona, and back up at her. "Good work."

"Who are you? What do you know?"

"I followed you -- from the plateau."

She lowered her chin. "You followed me all the way?"

He nodded.

"And you didn't think to help?!"

He looked her up and down. "You were doing fine. And besides . . . I liked the way you looked, swaying that way."

Now she gave him, and her own skinny behind, an incredulous look. She opened her mouth, but he suddenly showed his hands, raising them in a placating gesture.

"You're thirsty. Let me get you some water," he said. "I'll be right back." And he clambered down the steps. She could hear him splashing over at the well. She sat down on a stool by the door, looking at the burlap bags.

He reappeared with her ceramic water jug and handed it to her, his big warm red hand gripping the handle of the frosty clay. She reached out and took it, and realized the water was clinking with ice. The jug was white with frost, the water was delicious, but how did it get so cold?

When she lowered the jug, she asked, "Where did you get the ice?"

"I made it," he said.

"Who are you?"

He stepped back outside and picked up something he had left there. He set it against the other side of the doorway, opposite the fat bags of Chthona soil.

It was a double-edged axe at least five feet long. Its gleaming steel blades rested with perfect balance on her living room floor planks, and its ebony handle rose like a stiff, thick, living, curving vine until it ended in a Y-shaped fork.

"Chango," she whispered. He approached her slowly, crouching as he came.

"You've had an adventure, and you're tired," he said. "And I've been following you for hundreds of miles, remember . . . " He smiled. "Don't you have something better than this stool to sit on? Wouldn't you like to lie down?"

And he reached out his warm hand and she let herself be lifted up and led to her bed. He lay her down on her back, told her to close her eyes, and the next thing she knew he was kneading her wrinkled, skinny feet. For a moment, red pain shot through her -- "Shhhh," he soothed -- and then the warmest, most liquid feeling of release she had ever experienced flooded through her from foot to head and back, and the sorrows and stabs and scars of seventy-five years turned green again -- it was the only way she could say it to herself -- and she opened her eyes. Her legs were on his lap, on his ragged red pantaloons, his hands working up and down her legs; he glanced up with a warm wide smile and she watched as her legs turned green -- yes, green as vines -- and then into vines and then back into legs she had not seen in half a century, supple and lithe. Before she could gasp, he spoke.

"Yo quiero exprime su frutas, Doña," he murmured.

"What, these empty dugs?" she laughed, looking down, and watched as her blouse swelled as if filling with twin mangoes. His big hands came to cover them. She leaned her head back and laughed, long, loud, and gratefully, and with every breath she became younger.

A few minutes later she heard him, down there tangled in her legs: "Raspadura," he whispered. [Crude sweet sugar.]

"Bramadero," she answered. [The sturdy central wooden post that stood as the measuring axis of the radius of a large ranch.]

Their night was long and eventful. In the morning he told her many things, then left, and she was seventy-five again; and the Chthona began to nourish the people of Villa Clara . . .

Marta closed her one upside-down Lenin diary and reached for the other one.

"Sacagawea," Beny whispered . . . He was looking up at Mars. "This is scary. I'm a scientist, but that sounded like a space capsule. How could she see that?"

I said, "Come on, Beny, we've heard some strange things from Marta these last four years. Aren't you used to time being twisted yet?"

Beny puffed up: "I'm a physicist, dude. Nothing surprises me."

"It isn't over," Marta said, holding up her other diary. We stoked the fire, and added our last branches, so she had enough light to read by. And she read:

Exactly ninety years later, on the last day of March, 1958, Hocabed Hatuey returned from the yearly Chthona pilgrimage, her two burlap bags swollen with the fertile black soil. She parked the cart and released the donkey, then went to fill the generator with the kerosene she had bought in Santa Clara. (Her apprentice santera was in school in Havana, so Hocabed closed the house for her week away.) She set the spark, wound and pulled the cord, and "the grey pig" (as she nicknamed it) muttered, sputtered, and grunted into precarious life. She gave it a pat. Her modest house emitted a faint hum. She stepped back away from the kerosene smell and inhaled deeply. Gardenia, plumeria, lilac . . . Home.

She climbed the side porch and opened the kitchen door, leaving it wide to air out the house. She felt for the pull cord in the middle of the kitchen, found it, and pulled gently. The overhead bulb bloomed wanly, like a tired smile. The small refrigerator, which held nothing but water now, shivered quietly, an outline of light leaking from its seams. The radio on the shelf was silent. She turned it on. Nothing. She fiddled with it, turning the dial, but nothing happened. She checked the outlet. It was fine. Mierda. Music would have been nice --

"Hail, Hocabed Hatuey!" said a man's voice behind her.

She whirled. How many times had she heard this story?! He was standing outside the doorway, smiling, clean-shaven, and so tall his wild shock of orange-red hair disappeared above the lintel. He was thin but strong, with long, flat planes of muscles, streaked with dirty sweat; and he was white and hard as a peeled tree. He leaned in from the doorway, his hair scraping the lintel, his hands hidden. He wore only faded denim dungarees, frayed around his bare heels.

She backed steadily up toward the knife drawer. Story or not, these were dangerous times. Santa Clara was filling with beards wearing green fatigues, and their followers. But then he looked past her and said "Music would be nice, wouldn't it?" and the radio whimpered, wobbled, and warbled into life. She stared at it, her mouth open, as it crooned out a rhumba-rhythm Spanish cover of Jay and the Americans' "This Magic Moment:"

This magic moment,
So different and so new,
Was like any other,
Until I kissed you.

Hocabed gave the man her raised eyebrows. He answered with a shrug and a sheepish smile, as if at the cliché, and then said, "May I come in?"

She could only nod. He stepped over the threshold and held what he carried out to both sides, parallel to his body with outstretched arms in a cruciform: in his left hand, a large burlap bag swelled to bursting with many rounded outlines, as if it was filled with avocados. It swayed slightly at the end of his extended arm, whose veins ran in swollen blue lines to his shoulder.

And then it happened:
It took me by surprise.
I knew that you felt it too,
By the look in your eyes.

In his extended right arm he held by the butt a double-bladed axe over four feet long, blades down, but that wasn't the amazing thing: it was made of one black material; it look like a slice of night that glittered with stars, from the scimitar tips of its curved black blades, up its strong, sinuous length, to its Y-shaped butt end. It wasn't obsidian, it wasn't ebony, it was something in between . . .

He leaned the axe against the wall, slid two fingers into the Y-fork, and said, "Something in between."

"If you can read my mind," she said, blushing, "then . . . ?"

"The name isn't important," he said, stepping closer. He was streaked with sweat and dirt, but he smelled of gardenia. He gestured to the swollen bag on the floor by the open door. "But the seeds are important." He straightened up and faced her.

"Change is coming again, Hocabed Hatuey. Ugly things. You know it's true. Before the new year, right here in Santa Clara, el chancho con l'estrella rosa en la cabeza [the pig with the red star on his head: Ché Guevara] will win the war for Fidel. And then a long strangulation of the spirit of Cuba. What I have for you may not seem like much, but it will bear much fruit, I promise you."

Sweeter than wine,
Softer than a summer night,
Everything I want to have,
Whenever I hold you tight . . .
This magic moment,
While your lips are close to mine,
Will last forever --
Forever till the end of time.

He smiled at the saccharine music, and so did she. "In that bag are very special mango seeds from the Chthona plateau, along with several hardwood seeds you need to cultivate also. After the war, find a secluded place nearby where you can grow these mango trees and these hardwoods. You'll know when to use them. Your daughter, and your granddaughter, will help you know."

She looked down. The music had ended. The refrigerator rocked nervously from foot to foot, humming quietly. "I have no children," she said. "Only an apprentice. And no man."

He pointed through the open archway into the living room, where the portraits of the previous santeras -- her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and aunts -- hung side by side. "Neither did they, for very long. Your men come, your men go. It's the burden of this wisdom; it's too powerful for most men. So, they come and they go."

He tilted his head. "What happened to the music?" He snapped his fingers melodramatically, several times, until they both began to giggle. Then the radio came to life again, this time in English -- which Hocabed understood -- with the most popular voice in the world at the time, Elvis Presley, his voice soaring as it never would again:

It's now or never,
come hold me tight.
Kiss me, my darling,
be mine tonight . . .
Tomorrow . . . will be . . . too late . . .
It's now or never,
My love won't wait.

When I first saw you,
with your smile so tender,
My heart was captured --
my soul surrendered . . .
I'd spend a lifetime
waiting for the right time;
Now that your near,
the time is here . . . at last.

She looked up at the pale tree-man, and then slipped around him, moving toward the open door, which she closed and locked. She then considered the axe and the bulging sack and said, "We need to put these in a safe place," and grabbed both of them without asking permission.

Just like a willow,
we would cry an ocean . . .
If we lost true love
and sweet devotion.
Your lips excite me,
let your arms invite me,
For who knows when
we'll meet again . . . this way.

She crossed the room toward him with the axe and the sack. She smiled up at him and said, "Follow me," and, carrying her prizes, led the tall, lumbering, pale stranger through the open archway, past the portraits in the living room, and into the warm quiet darkness of her bedroom.

Marta closed her diary. We all sat quietly for a minute or two. "That was my grandfather. My father -- well, you know how it is: men come, men go, so who cares if --"

"Marta," I interrupted, "it's okay, we all have someone gone."

She shook her head. "I know that. Never mind that. There's something else I wanted to talk about: Flash No More."

"What about him?" I was glad for the change of subject.

"Well. Have you ever touched him, for example?"

Beny and I exchanged glances. This was a serious question; Marta didn't play around. Come to think of it, although Beny and I had wrestled playfully many times, Erasmo . . . we shook our heads: no . . . hmmm.

Beny asked, "What are you talking about?"

"His skin changes," she said, her brows knit. "Look, I know you haven't noticed, but all these years, sitting around these fires at night, and lots of other times, I reached out and . . . my fingers seem to sink into smoke for like, an inch, until I touch his skin; he's always real warm, too. But he doesn't flinch, you know? He just looks over like -- what?"

"What, sister?" said a voice from beyond the fire, followed by a booming laugh. Flash No More, our friend Erasmo, his black skin clad in black clothes, stood against the sky and shoreline, only his eyes and teeth visible, the rest of his bulky body outlined by the star-filled sky. He sat down with us, casually, as he always had. In his left hand he held a burlap bag swollen with oval outlines.

"My friends," he said warmly, and stopped, clearing his throat. "My only friends," he said, and held out the bag. "I hope you don't mind, Beny, but I brought some mangoes from your tree."

Beny ("I'm a physicst, dude. Nothing surprises me.) said, "No problem, Chango. Where's your axe?"

Flash No More laughed, reached out his right arm and grabbed Beny by the neck, pulling him forward, and rubbed his very real forehead against Beny's. Then he sat back.

"The axe is for liars, right? No liars here. Besides, I have a new axe, Beny. This" -- he stuck out his tongue and tapped it twice -- "this is my axe now." He bent forward and blew long and hard until the fire got its second wind.

He turned to me. "Everything's on schedule for May, isn't it, Yasmani?"

"That's right. All the shipments and collections are in: printers, paper, cartridges, batteries, lighters, bottles. No snags. MININT is nowhere around. The remesa covers are sound, so far, from both my father and Marta's mother. My brothers tell us that the government is so hungry for dollars the inspectors are tripping over themselves to see who can out-corrupt the other."

"Then I think we should celebrate," said Flash No More, and rolled out four fat orange mangoes. We got out our pocketknives and scored the mangoes like bananas, peeling back the skin. We gobbled them down, then went over to the tidepool and washed up.

When we got back to the campfire Beny plopped down and said, "What a night!" He unbuckled his sandals -- made by a local cobbler and customized by Manach Surreptitious Industries -- took them off, turned them over, and fiddled with the soles. "I brought some of that other New Mango -- thank you, Yasmani -- because I had a suspicion this would be a special night." He set two oblong tins in the sand. He slid one open to reveal a pipe, and the other held four fat nuggets of golden marijuana.

As we passed the pipe around we reviewed our plans for the New Mango, and then, as these things go, Beny ended up staring up at Mars, I watched the endless waves break at the skirt of my beloved ocean, thinking of its teeming lives, Flash No More sat Buddha-style with his hands sunk to the wrists in the sand like some living stone carved from night, and Marta stared into the resurgent fire, blinking and nodding as if receiving messages.

Posted by Jerome at August 11, 2004 07:11 AM | TrackBack