Authors: Jay Cantor
“You don’t like cows?” Walter smiled, as he would have in the mountains many years ago, about to begin a story; somewhere in the past I heard his old voice say, there had been an important cow, an interesting cow. But he said no more. The smile was all that was left of the story, the smile and his ghostly voice.
“I don’t know much about cows. He knows a great deal. He’s really in love with it, his pastoral. He’s going to make himself Minister of Agriculture. He repeated that only the peasants understand the Revolution, understand it in
their being. The Revolution is in growing things, in crops, in grain, in cane, in cattle. The seasons are the rhythm of the Cuban Revolution. The people working the state farms are the base of the Revolution, the new proletariat.”
Walter laughed. “I remember when the rhythm of the revolution was the pachanga. Socialism with the pachanga.” His body shook in slow motion; each stage of his laugh was superimposed on another, a blur of forms. “And?” he said. His voice was very dry; he could hardly get the word out. His mouth had spittle around it, a lot of white foam. I lifted my arm from the table (a great effort it was, a great weight), and pointed. Walter narrowed his eyes at me, quizzically. “What?”
The foam disappeared. “Nothing.”
“And?” That ghostly sound; I always expected something else; I could not accommodate to it.
I drank some smoky tea, bringing my face close to the table. “And I said the Soviets wouldn’t protect us from the United States. They’d rubbed our faces in that in ’62. They’d made clowns of us. They’d abandoned us then and they had abandoned Vietnam to the most savage attack. They would abandon us again.”
“Abandon,” Walter rasped. “Forlorn word. Word from a love story. He said?”
“He didn’t say anything to that. He knew what I said was true. I had used his own phrases. He looked disappointed. I said that whatever we produced, still Cuba must have markets here, in Latin America. And it must have allies. It must break the encirclement, the blockade. And now was the right time. The Vietnamese had made an opportunity for us. Once begun, guerrilla warfare will spread throughout the continent. The United States cannot struggle here and in Asia. Our blow, now, will be decisive.”
Walter brought his hands from the table, and clapped them together twice, slowly. Delighted, or ironic. “And?” He put something to his mouth that looked like a handkerchief; he brought it away covered with blood. “What is that?” I said, horrified, pointing at his bloody hand. “Is your throat bleeding?” A sudden spasm of anxiety: his cancer had recurred.
Walter looked at me, as if I were crazy. “A piece of bread. With jam. Are you all right?”
“Oh.” I tried to pull myself back from that world. “Yes. It’s the asthma. I’m seeing things.” When I had gestured at his bread I had spilled tea all over my hand, my arm, my leg. I liked the sharp pain. But it turned lukewarm; the damp splotches here and there on my body annoyed me; they made me feel in fragments. I strained to remember what Walter and I had been talking about. I saw Fidel sitting stonily in a wooden desk chair. “He didn’t speak for
a while. We had thought these things, we had spoken these things to each other many times. My way was clear. In that silence I became even more certain. I wasn’t intimidated by his stillness; it didn’t cause me a moment’s doubt. I thought it pointless. He wanted to sidestep the issue; he wanted me to take back the truth I had spoken. But there’s no way to go back. Then he said, Argentina is impossible. The masses there still dream of Peron, there is no way to discredit a dream, the dream of a just king. Nothing could be done there until the matter of Peron was settled. I agreed. He said that Latin America was too nationalist for me to operate anywhere else but in Argentina. And the other parties wouldn’t support a guerrilla movement I led. They’d be terrified of me. I’d be condemned as an adventurer. They’d follow the Russian line. We could say what we would about their cowardice, we could rub their faces in their own shit. But they wouldn’t change. They were craven opportunists, and the Russians fed them. The Russians owned their balls, etc.”
“You said?” Walter sounded like a child who wanted more story—making allowances for a voice so very old it was not human but a tree’s.
“I said what he’s heard me say, what you have heard me say, a thousand times. Once we begin, the parties will have to support us or be swept away in the war. The Revolution must be continental, a struggle on many fronts. The imperialists will bleed from a hundred places. But he wasn’t listening. He was distracted inwardly, twirling the edges of his sideburns between his fingers. We stopped then, and smoked. He said, musingly, You must move slowly with bureaucrats, bring them along, neutralize them, until they don’t know what they’ve gotten into. He was coming round to my way of thinking. He was silent again. And we sat. Then he talked about guilt, and sacrifice, those things I’ve told you about already.”
Walter picked up a knife from beside his plate. He spread his other hand on the table, and poked the knife rapidly back and forth between his long thin fingers, into the wood of the table. He was like a shuttle. Was this a riddle about sacrifice? He was in a trance. I didn’t want to startle him, afraid he would jab himself. I asked softly, “Why are you poking yourself?”
“I’m not. You look awful.”
“An attack. It will pass.”
“Couldn’t you lie?”
Walter looked astonished. “I said you should lie down.”
“No. I’ll be all right. I want to tell you the rest. I want to know what you think.”
“What else did you say?”
“I said I’d consider his points. He said he’d think about what he could do
for me. There’s a great deal he could do, must do—financing, arrangements with other parties, propaganda. But it would anger many people. I should go away for a while, and think things through. I needed a rest after my trip. And I infuriate the Russians. It would be easier to operate if I were out of the way for a while. He grew angry. Fuck them, he said, they can go fuck themselves. But I wondered if he would prefer me … more obscure.”
Walter smiled. “No. He’s thinking of what to do with you. He knows there’s a use for everything. Especially a piece as valuable as you. He’s figuring what that use is. He’ll support you. It’s only your name that can unite the guerrillas on the continent. Yours or his. If you leave Cuba you will be the great rebel, the adventurer. He’ll be the stay-at-home, the housewife. That’s hard for him.” This was a very long speech for Ponco. There were flecks of blood around his mouth. Of jam, I mean. “But in the end he’ll back you. Once, in the mountains, when I first joined, Fidel said to me,
am all the names of rebellion in history.’ ”
I laughed gleefully.
Ponco stared at me. “Are horns growing from my head? Is milk pouring from my ears?”
“No. He said that to me, too. The first time we met, in a kitchen in Mexico. I thought he was crazy. I told him so.”
thought it was beautiful. I was sixteen. I’m that type. You see? He doesn’t
anything. He had held on to the remark for three years. It didn’t work for you. Okay. A middle-class doctor. Wrong sort. He had to find the right sort of character. He waits till he finds the right use for things. He knows how to wait.” His voice became raspier as he spoke, but he continued. “The Russians will be angry. One Vietnam is enough, they think. No one becomes too upset. The United States loses a little territory, but it gets rid of its crap. Two Vietnams! Unthinkable! But he will support you. Your arguments are good. And what kind of rebel is he if he is afraid? He’ll come round. You should work on your writing. It would be interesting to read.”
“I’ve lost the taste for reflection. I taught myself to think only of what must be done. I know now what must be done. Where do I begin?” We were two men speaking in whispers, in gasps, at a table, on an island in the ocean. It seemed funny to me, our weak voices, rasping, two breaths barely exhaled, in pain.
“At the beginning. Here. Once upon a time there was a prince on an enchanted island where prisoners changed into young Communists.” Ponco looked thin and nervous. His body bent over the table. It was my mother.
“You sound like my mother,” I said.
“You’re seeing things again.” He drew back from the table. “You know,
I’m jealous of your childhood. Stupid.” As he stood up he mimed crying, a silent waah. “No one to read me stories. No one knew how to read. No stories. I like stories. You should write me a story. Many people would like to know the story of your life.” He picked up his book from the chair by the door. “No more talking now. My voice hurts.”
I went in to lie down on my cot. Images floated before me, fully colored, and were replaced by other images, as in the moment before sleep. My mother reading to me at dinner. The smoky light of my childhood dining room that makes Ponco jealous. The dank and bad-smelling air that began when I began and that follows me everywhere. An attack. Careening down the hall of my parents’ house. The foot of my parents’ bed, where I have fallen.
When I was a child I choked on the air; I coughed; I tried to spit my pain out into my hands in hard knots of dark slippery sputum. My asthma began before my memory begins, and so I can never know its root. When my father and mother were arguing—and they often were, for they were both proud, spirited people—my father said that my asthma came from her, that it had come to me because my mother was a selfish woman, she cared for her pleasure more than she loved her own son. She had been careless with me. (She had to do whatever she wanted, had to go swimming when no one else would, when a storm was about to begin, when it was criminal to expose a child to the wind.) One overcast chilly day, when I was an infant, my mother had taken me to the yacht club (she despised the other members, but liked to have a private beach), so that she could play in the ocean.
Often when I was a child, hearing my father’s voice as they argued at the dinner table, I felt as if I were remembering that day. I saw my mother standing by the edge of the ocean, wearing a blue bathing suit that showed her long pale legs. Her red hair was entirely tucked up under a white rubber cap that made her features severe, strange to me—it wasn’t a woman’s face. Her muscles were taut. The water will be cold at first, a little painful, but it will open into her pleasure: she loves to swim. Her mouth was slightly open, but
not slack. Her face was intent, expectant, she was thinking of her pleasure. Her face was empty of thoughts of me! She turned from me and walked forward slowly, down the deserted shoreline, away from me, towards a sea that became dark cloud at the horizon. And then suddenly she vanished, diving into, swallowed up by, a wavering hand of green and white water, a huge angry wave.
She had left me covered on the sand, but I crawled from under my woolen blanket into a sharp wind. When she came out of the ocean I was blue and shaking, my arms and legs moving in grasping spasms, clutching air.
I had had my first attack.
Because she had been careless with me. Or so my father said when they argued (and they argued always before me: I was the point). And carried along for a moment by his strength, the self-righteous rage in his precise, his furious voice, I too became angry at her. There was a sickening haze around the electric lights. The night’s meat soured in my stomach.
She had abandoned me!
But this anger quickly became a bewilderment of tears in my throat, a clog in my chest, for I knew that my pain had no beginning; the thick impossible air had always been there; there had been no betrayal.
And in times of peace between them my father affirmed this, exonerated her: my asthma was not her, or anyone’s fault; no particular incident had anything to do with bringing it about; it would have begun sometime in any case; it was outside history; it was heredity; my body; fate. But she didn’t believe him then. She was a strong smart woman, but she bent without defense to that blow, never answering back; for she was as hard on herself as she was on others (and egotistical too: taking responsibility where she had none). She thought that truth was in anger always, and so in her husband’s accusation only, that any other explanation was a way of comforting her, letting her off, a lie. To her death she believed my pain had come from her, from her having indulged her love of the ocean that cold fall day. And often, watching her as she argued with him at the dinner table, I thought I saw that sad thought enter her; it was a hesitation when she was making one of her sharp witty caricatures; she glanced at me; a fear clouded the bright brown intelligence of her eyes, suddenly stilled the lovely O almost wicked vivacity of her face. She looked for a moment—my mother, Celia de la Serna Guevara!—as if she were cringing slightly. Her malicious remark would trail off into “… but still, I suppose he’s doing the best he can”—a kind inanity that was not her style at all.
So the terrain of my childhood was a place where I was menaced. My enemy, the air, might come at me at any time, turn suddenly heavy, bad.