Authors: Chantel Acevedo
Early in the mornings, when the darkness withdrew slowly from the sky, and the weak streetlamps dimmed one by one, Aldo AlarcÃ³n would come knocking on Lulu's door. “I remember this,” she would tell me, “because you had not yet learned to sleep through the nights and I would stay up to wait for the dawn, staring out the window. As soon as the sun broke the horizon, like a fresh egg cracked open, the captain's knock would sound.”
“Perhaps you'd like to take a walk with me?” Aldo AlarcÃ³n would ask, and my mother would nod. The captain would close the door softly, allowing her to dress herself and me, and then she would emerge, freshly scrubbed somehow, and perfumed, too, as if in that tiny inn room was a secret, unseen bathtub for her ablutions. The truth was, my mother always looked this wayâclean, her face never shiny, her skin sweet-smelling.
At the start of day, Havana always seemed cloaked in mystery. The buildings, men setting up wares, women bustling children to school, suggested only the starkness of form, and not the rich details of that old city. This way and that, the captain and Lulu strolled. They would stop at a small bakery, and he would buy her warm bread and cafÃ© con leche. He would watch her eat in silence, nodding every so often as she swallowed. Lulu said she felt a kinship with pigs and cows in those daysâhow it must have felt to be fed, fattened, the sound of a knife being sharpened in the distance making the food taste sour.
Not that Aldo AlarcÃ³n meant to kill Luluâhe wanted her for himself, and hoped that food and small gifts would turn her heart. It was the small death of his presence every day that Lulu feared. After all, she and AgustÃn had been among the Cuban rebels for so long that now the Spanish seemed to her unreal people. They were monsters with sharp claws in her dreams; men and women with terrible breath and rattling bundles of chains in their arms. What were dreams but the mind's way of preparing one for the day? So, Lulu hated the captain because he was Spanish, and because he, in turn, hated the Cuban rebels.
Every day, Lulu would swallow the last bite of bread, which she'd roll in her coffee cup, and ask, “When will AgustÃn be released?”
She asked it quietly, demurely.
He would respond heatedly, his hands flying to his jaw to rub the tension there. Lulu imagined claws at the ends of his fingers.
“The struggle for âindependence,'” he'd say, sneering at the word, “is over. Where is MacÃ©o, that upstart negro? They offered him thirty ounces of gold and he ran. Where is MartÃ? Your great heroes? Cowards, run out of the island. Cuba belongs to Spain. It's been so since Columbus.”
“MacÃ©o never took the money,” Lulu said.
“CÃ¡llate,” AlarcÃ³n said, ending the conversation.
Lulu would sit and stare at her hands. Antonio MacÃ©o, that great general, was a name the rebels murmured reverently. And JosÃ© MartÃ, the poet, had put their hearts into words, into lyric and song. But it was trueâboth men had been exiled after the war. In a way, it gave her hope. If such men as MacÃ©o and MartÃ had been spared, perhaps a nobody like AgustÃn would not have to go before the executioner.
Just then, a very dark-skinned man trundled by them, his cart filled with malangas still dusty from the ground. He nodded sharply at Lulu, then returned his eyes to his viands. “He wouldn't have dared look at you in the old days,” Aldo AlarcÃ³n said, gripping Lulu's hand as if trying to reassure her. “The negros are getting too bold.”
“Even the Americans have outlawed slavery,” Lulu said. “Decades ago.”
“Gracias a DiÃ³s this isn't America,” AlarcÃ³n said drily.
“When will AgustÃn be released?” she would ask again.
“Didn't I answer you already?”
“Aldo. Call me Aldo. I don't know when he'll be released. When he has paid for his crimes, I suppose,” the captain would say, rising and helping Lulu to her feet.
This happened nearly every morning that Aldo AlarcÃ³n's ship was in port. On the mornings when he was at sea, sailing the
around the island, or back and forth from New York City to Havana, Lulu was free to explore Havana on her own. Sometimes, she would go to the prison, stand before its faÃ§ade, and peer at all the barred windows, hoping AgustÃn would send her a sign. And sometimes he would, thrusting his hand through the bars and waving. Or, at least, Lulu assumed that it was AgustÃn's hand. She couldn't be sure. Other days, she would spend the morning knitting baby clothes for me with Fernanda, who was always full of chatter and gossip. Meanwhile, Julio Reyes would watch from behind the inn's front desk, chewing his bottom lip or massaging his neck, his eyes never straying too far from Lulu.
Nights, Julio Reyes would tap gently on Lulu's door, and she would let him in. “Forget the war,” he whispered to her on that first night. “Forget the d-dead you've seen. Forget that this is not really a inn for you but a kind of p-prison.”
“I cannot forget what freedom tastes like. I have savored it. The Spanish are monsters, I can't forget that either,” she had said. “And AgustÃn, he lives still,” she had told Julio, though the gentle inn owner ran a finger slowly over her knuckles. In this way, AgustÃn was losing his definition in her mind's eye.
“No, you cannot forget any of it,” he agreed.
My mother and I spent the next fourteen years at the inn, prisoners of Aldo AlarcÃ³n. As I grew, I learned to read and write during quiet lessons with my mother, wherein she bound my left hand with a scarf so that I might not use it, saying, “We compose our letters with our right hand. It's only proper.” She taught me to sew, making sure I knew that it was bad luck to attach the left sleeve on a dress before the right. In the kitchen of the inn, I learned to quarter a rabbit. Julio Reyes pulled my baby teeth when they came loose, and took the best-shaped one and set it like a gem in a small gold ring, which I had outgrown by the time I was ten.
Some nights, when the inn was empty, Lulu would let me sleep in an unoccupied room, and I imagined I was a Spanish infanta, one of the beautiful, golden girls in a painting in the lobby of the inn, which I stared at often. “It isn't an authentic painting,” Fernanda said to me once, but I had no idea what she meant. I touched the canvas just to make sure and found it to be as real as my own skin. On other nights, I pretended that the noises coming from Lulu's room were the sounds of a zoo at night, though I'd never been to one after dark, nor in daylight. I imagined the grievances of lions, or the snoring of a rhinoceros, or the clawing of a baboon trying to break free from his cage. Sometimes Aldo AlarcÃ³n came to the inn at night, and on those occasions the zoo in my head was dangerous and swarmy, an appalling prison. When it was just usâLulu and Julio Reyes in my mother's room, and I, like a little infanta in her own quartersâthe zoo sounded different. There was the soft padding of a gazelle's light feet on rushes, or the sighing of rabbits in a warm warren, and other tender noises rising like balloons.
Such was my life at the inn, and on that day when Fernanda came pounding up the stairs with two important messagesâthat a revolution had begun outside of Santiago de Cuba, and that AgustÃn was freeâJulio Reyes was there, sleeping in the bed with my mother, while I watched the sky go from black to purple to pink to blue.
Julio Reyes always left my mother's room before the streetlamps began to extinguish themselves at dawn, one after another, like a promenade of lights in reverse.
he women sit in silence when I finish speaking. If not for the persistent whine of the wind outside, it would feel as if we were inside some cave, or a monstrous creature has swallowed us all. Anticipation blooms in my chest. I've always prided myself on my ability to tell a story. Hadn't the men at the cigar factory showered me with affection? Now, I am ready for itâthe praise I am accustomed to.
But I've forgotten about Mireya, who is the first to make a sound. First, she coughs a little, then, she stands, smoothing her housedress with lean hands that resemble stiff palm fronds. They flutter and she touches her glasses as she struggles to get the words out. “How could you do such a thing to your mother?”
The smile on my face fades. I feel it go, feel my face freeze in a strange grimace. “I'm not sure what you mean,” I say.
“She's your mother,” Mireya says angrily. “And you air her shameful past as if it were a ten-cent novel.” Mireya trembles all over. She fingers a locket that dangles between her breasts, and I imagine that inside is a Victorian picture of Mireya's own mother, who, no doubt, was free of all sin.
“Can't you tell us a beautiful story? One with hope?” Mireya stares hard at me. I've trespassed against her, not just because of the history between us, but through the story. Here is a woman incapable of any more sorrow than what life has already doled out. Lulu's tragic past has pushed her too far.
“We're on the brink of drowning here, or being blown away, and this is what we have to listen to?” Mireya asks the other women, looking at each of them wildly. The storm has done this, I think to myself. It's made us all a little crazy. Even now, the sound of the wind pounds in my ears. Drafts snake in and scratch my skin.
“Doesn't anyone have a less shameful story to tell?” Mireya asks at last, slumping onto the bed. A puff of cat hair and dust rise around her.
For a moment, the women stare at Mireya, then turn to me. But I'm remembering Lulu again, how she told me the story first. She had said there were names for women like her, who had loved as she had loved. She recited them for meâputa, sucia, descarada, sinvergÃ¼enza. She'd listed them slowly, watching as I mouthed the words, getting the shape of them right. Then, she'd said, “None of those are my name, MarÃa Sirena. I am a decent person. As are you, no matter who you love.” I'd needed that advice at the moment, when the world had turned against me for loving a man I wasn't supposed to.
I am about to say something along these lines to the women when Estrella and Noraida start to laugh. Noraida has twirled a lock of her dyed-red hair around her finger so tightly that the tip of it is red, too, turning purple by the second.
“Sit down, Mireya, you righteous cow. Don't you know? These aren't real stories,” Estrella says.
Noraida releases her finger from her hair and points it, now blue-tipped, at Mireya. “It was her
to tell stories like that. She's good, isn't she?”
“I know what she is,” Mireya says. Of course she does. I told her about my work as a lector when we first met. But the stories? Those I kept to myself. Why color our friendship with that sad history? Better that my friends know me as a new creature, without a past. Now, it doesn't matter. Mireya and I are no longer friends. Let her know the truth. Let her know it all, I think.
A wave of vertigo comes upon me. I am dreaming. I'm certain of it. It's happening again, getting lost in a dream or a memory, like I did downstairs when I would have sworn I'd been surrounded by the governor's old slaves. I feel myself listing a little to the right, like I'm on a ship in rough water.
Susana is at my side at once, straightening me. “Â¿MarÃa Sirena, estÃ¡s bien?” she whispers. I shake my head.
“A ten-cent novel, like Mireya said,” Noraida says brightly, though it feels as if I'm hearing her from a great distance. The room is spinning now, and outside, the lightning slaps the sky.
The stories are as true as this room, as the storm outside, as the sharp edge of Mayito's framed picture in my pocket. I want to say this, but there are other words shaping themselves on my tongue, other pictures crowding my headâof a charred building and of footprints in blood.
Noraida has settled herself on a shabby divan at the foot of the bed, turning her back on Mireya, who is now chewing the nail of her left thumb, her cheeks red from embarrassment or rage, I cannot tell.
Now, she takes aim at me. “I bet I know how this one ends. The gentle innkeeper, Julio Reyes, kills the bastard Aldo AlarcÃ³n, doesn't he? Then he sweeps Lulu off her feet and they run away together,” she says. “That's the way of romances. They're all like that,” she says.
“Finish the story,” Noraida demands. Outside, the faint sound of a siren disturbs our room. Noraida turns towards the sound, biting her bottom lip and squinting. The siren stops mid-blare, and Noraida leans back in her chair. “Go on then,” she says to me, and the rest of the women lean forward, like palms in a strong wind. But only Susana speaks. With a hint of sadness in her voice she asks, “So, what's your real name?”
When I begin again, it is as if I am no longer doing the speaking. It's like I'm there again, sitting in the tall chair in the cigar factory, holding a book in my hand from which I do not read. But this time, I tell a part of the story I'd never meant to tell.
omeone threw open the door to Lulu's room. Both Lulu and Julio Reyes sat up in bed at once, terror in their eyes. But it was only Fernanda, and her forehead was shiny with sweat, her chest heaving.
“They've done it. There's been a revolt in Baire!” Fernanda cried, not caring a bit about her uncle's bare chest under those thin blankets.
“Baire?” Lulu whispered. My mother had grown up there, a village just fifty miles from Santiago de Cuba.
“Casualties?” she asked, thinking of old friends perhaps, but Julio Reyes had spoken, too, asking, “What else has been reported?” so that Fernanda did not hear Lulu's question.
“They say MacÃ©o and MartÃ are back!” Fernanda said, clapping her hands. Just as quickly, her face darkened. “But you must turn her out at once, TÃo Julio. There's been a prison break. Her husband is surely on his way here,” she said.
“Thank you, Fernanda. Give us a moment, please. Take MarÃa Sirena with you.” Fernanda pulled me up by my arms and dragged me away from the room. Though I was fourteen years old, I still shared a room with Lulu. A small trundle bed had been put in by the window for me. Fernanda had pulled me out of bed, and I was still drowsy.