Authors: Chantel Acevedo
“Ay,” I cried out, swatting at Fernanda.
“Be quiet!” Fernanda had urged me. “You're so much trouble sometimes.” Fernanda was a hard girl, toughened by work in the inn, life without a mother, and having no siblings at all. No young man had ever looked at her twice. She was twenty-six and practically ran the inn. What would she do were it to fall to ruin? Enter the convent? Fernanda was a young woman without choices, and it had made her rigid, her face frozen in a bitter expression nearly all of the time.
But she was also a gossip, and when I pressed my ear against the door to my mother's room, Fernanda had followed suit, and so we heard what we should not have.
“Mi vida,” Julio Reyes was saying to Lulu, and Lulu had murmured something, then began sobbing.
“AgustÃn is not the man for me. He is my husband, but he was a brute. I married too young, too young,” she was saying between gulps of air.
“Then we run away t-together. Tonight, we leave Havana, leave this w-war. I will bar the front door in case AgustÃn tries to f-find you.”
“And MarÃa Sirena?” Lulu asked. My heart soared at hearing my name in my mother's mouth. She had not forgotten me.
“Of course. She is like my daughter, too.”
Then, there was silence. There had been no mention of Fernanda's name, no one to form the syllables of it in her mouth. She'd been hoping to hear it, of course. A simple “F-fernanda” from her uncle's twisted tongue would have been enough to keep her from doing what she did.
But he had said nothing, and the sounds that followed were wet and revolting. Fernanda slipped away without a word. I watched her go for a moment, then decided to follow her from a distance.
“I will not go to a convent!” Fernanda said to herself out loud, and I heard her. The two of us stumbled as we made our way down the busy streetsâFernanda, because she was distraught, and I, because Havana was unfamiliar to me. I was not allowed out alone without Lulu or AlarcÃ³n. We were prisoners as much as my father was. AlarcÃ³n made sure of it. Once, when Lulu and I had left in the middle of a cool night, AlarcÃ³n had met us at the train station, a cigar in his hand. He pointed the glowing red tip at us and it was as if the devil himself had spied on us, binding us to him.
“Do you think I'm stupid? That you aren't watched like a prize, mi amor?” he asked my mother, and pinched her hard on the arm, just above the elbow. “I love you so very much, Illuminada,” he kept saying as he walked us back to the inn, pinching her harder and harder every so often, so that her arm would be black and blue by the morning. That was the last time we tried to leave. I spent most days in the inn with Lulu, who taught me to read and write and recite poetry. My childhood slipped by quietly, muffled by the warm wood walls of the inn's lobby, and made interesting by the many guests that streamed in and out on a daily basis. I learned a bit of German from a beautiful pianist who'd come to tour Havana. Many Americans came and went, and the little English I spoke was accented like theirs. It was as good an education as a girl could wish for when imprisoned.
Now, the city was a maelstrom of bodies, and I was a shy thing, still wearing little girl clothes, though the bodices of my dresses felt tighter by the day. I had not yet had a monthly bleeding, and Lulu treated me like a child. So, I acted the part. NaÃ¯ve and vulnerable, I followed Fernanda through that hot maze of a city because I suspected she was up to no good.
There were people everywhere. Spanish police barked orders at everyone, warning that the prisoners were among them. But the people knew better than to pay it any mind. Most of the jailed, they knew, were Cuban rebels. This was cause for celebration. And so, music poured out of the inns and homes, despite the occasional gunshot or shout from a Spanish officer.
Fernanda led me up a sharp hill. The harbor came into view. There, docked and surrounded by dazed-looking sailors, was the
, Aldo AlarcÃ³n's ship.
Fernanda ran down the hill towards the ship and onto the dock. Aldo AlarcÃ³n was standing on the bow, his eyes squinting against the brightness of the horizon. His back was to the city as he faced the open sea. It was as if he did not hear the gunshots at all. I hid behind a wooden container that smelled of fish. From there, I could hear and see everything.
“Â¡CapitÃ¡n!” Fernanda called out to Aldo AlarcÃ³n. The captain turned at once, and when he saw Fernanda, he blanched.
He leaned heavily over the railing of the ship. I bit my tongue hard. I'd hoped for a second that the man would tumble and break his neck, but I chastised myself for the thought. Once, I had told my mother that Aldo AlarcÃ³n deserved to die, and Lulu had warned me never to wish ill on any person, no matter how awful he was. “That is what the Spanish do, and they will lose this island as a consequence. You will see.”
“Is my Illuminada safe?” he shouted down.
“No,” Fernanda lied. “Her husband is coming for her and she's afraid.”
“I'll kill him!” the captain said, his hand going to the gun at his side.
“She asked me to come for you. So that you might rescue her,” Fernanda said.
Aldo AlarcÃ³n's eyes widened. He pushed himself off the railing and nearly tumbled down the plank in excitement.
“Did she? Did she? She asked for me?” he demanded once on the dock, and Fernanda nodded gravely.
“Here, take this,” she said, putting a heavy iron key in the palm of the captain's hand. “There is a back door to the inn, one we never use but is always locked. Let yourself in, rescue Illuminada, and take her away from my uncle and me. We want nothing to do with her.”
Aldo AlarcÃ³n raised an eyebrow. “The daughter you can keep,” he said, took the key, and turned towards his ship.
“Don't forget!” Fernanda called to him. “Come as soon as you can. And bring your gun!”
Aldo AlarcÃ³n waved the iron key in the air, dismissing Fernanda.
I crouched behind the box and took several deep breaths. It was no use. I burst into sobs. I cried for as long as it took Fernanda to disappear down the cobblestone road and get lost among the people on the street. My sobs made my whole body shake, and were the kind of cries only children can manage without hurting themselves. Even so, it felt as if my chest were being torn in two.
I could picture the inn and the street it was on, but I had no idea how to get there. The Havana streets were complex, and unnumbered, and an address was of no use to me. What I did know was that if Aldo AlarcÃ³n was going to the inn today of all days, someone was going to get hurt.
I must have wept for an hour. No one stopped to help me. Perhaps I looked like one of those raggedy orphan children of which there were so many in Havana in those days. But I was wearing shoes. Nice, polished shoes of black charrÃ³l that Julio Reyes had bought me for Christmas. Someone should have noticed those, I remember thinking to myself at the time. I was not a girl set adrift. I was loved! And my mamÃ¡ needed me. Who would sleep near her on cold nights? Who would twirl the ends of her long hair so that the tips fell into small ringlets? To whom would she whisper stories of the sea, of a mermaid that rose from the depths to name me? We weren't complete without one another, Lulu and I.
With these thoughts in mind, I stood and turned and surveyed the place where I was. To the left was the Cathedral of San Francisco de Asis.
Before me, the tall, gray convent rose in gothic spires to the sky. The apse hung long and low over the bay, and the bells started to chime loudly, making my ears hurt. I scanned the street before me. Fernanda had gone left at the intersection, I was sure of it. But we'd taken so many turns getting to the ship that I had no idea where the inn could be.
I asked three people walking past if they knew of the Reyes Inn, but they had a wild look in their eyes, and when I approached them, they'd flinched.
“Get somewhere safe, girl,” one of the women had said, fanning herself with a rickety fan and hurrying off.
“I'm trying to,” I called after her, but she did not turn around. No one I asked seemed to know in which direction to point me. One had said, “Go north.” Another had suggested I go south.
I scuttled along the street, sticking close to buildings and keeping my nose in the air. Every so often I'd stop a stranger and ask, “The Reyes Inn?” but it was no use. Either I was ignored, or the person did not know of the place. I began to wonder if my life had been a dream, that there was no inn, that I was only a shadow of a girl, without substance. My nostrils flickered as I ran past a taxidermy shop. Shiny marlins hung in the windows, their blue scales picking up the afternoon light. Beneath them sat what I thought was a jaguar, or panther, one paw in the air as if waiting for a handshake. The whole place smelled of iron and, strangely, treacle. A few blocks further, I pinched my nose against the stench of horse manure, piled halfway up the wall of a building. Two brown horses clopped their hooves in place, the black carriages shiny behind them. Two more blocks and the light began to fade. Havana seemed a grayer place at once. Five policemen pounded past me. I shouted to them, “I'm lost! Help me find the inn!” but they did not seem to hear me.
So, I followed them.
Three more blocks and the policemen slowed. They'd reached the prison, and halted, their mouths open. I opened my mouth, too. A part of the prison's faÃ§ade had been blown off, and I could see the cells where men once slept. It was as if someone had taken a giant butter knife and sliced the walls away.
“PapÃ¡,” I whispered, for I knew my father was being kept in that prison. I had stood in that very spot with Lulu, where she commanded me to wave at the windows, not knowing which one held my father. “What if a murderer is watching me?” I had asked, and she'd pulled my hair and told me not to be ridiculous. Now I saw how one of the cells had watercolor paintings of yellow daisies on the walls. I had drawn them, each one, on paper I'd borrowed from the front desk of the inn. Lulu had mailed them to my father at the prison. Scores of my drawings flapped lazily in the breeze now coming through that comfortless room.
I cast down my eyes. There, on the pavement, were a dozen dead men in prison uniforms. Some had died in the blast. Their arms and legs stuck out like spider limbs. Others bore dark, wet holes in their foreheads, chests, and necks. Gunshots, I knew somehow, though I'd never seen such wounds before. I thought, surely one of these men is my father. I'd seen only one tintype of him, but it was a blurry, ruined picture. My eyes settled on a slender man who died with his eyes open, terrified and beseeching. His hands lay palm up. His graceful fingers were curled into a claw. I seemed to recognize his noseâjutting out beyond a weak jawâand there was something about the hazel color of his eyes, with specks of yellow on green, that resembled mine. I had drifted
close to the bodies.
I was yanked away from the scene by the collar. It was one of those policemen whom I had followed to the scene. “Â¡A tÃº casa!” he yelled at me ferociously, a bit of spit leaving his mouth, making him look more like a wild dog than a man.
“The Reyes Inn?” I asked him, surprised to find my voice worked. “Where is the inn by the bakery? The one that makes the cinnamon cakes, seÃ±or. Julio Reyes's inn?” I rattled off what I knew quickly, afraid that the policemen would turn away from me.
“Two blocks that way,” he said, pointing towards the sunset.
I ran, taking one last look at the man, who might be my father, there on the ground, and I realized that the sight of him like that would dwell in my mind forever.
The doors of the inn were locked, as were the windows. Even so, I hugged myself in joy. Sooner or later, Lulu would have to leave the inn, and I would be outside, waiting for her. There was even the smell of the bakery in the air to keep me company. I took giant whiffs of it, and my growling stomach settled a bit.
That's just about the time I heard my mother's voice, thin but sharp, like a blade: “I'll tear your hair out!”
“Â¡MamÃ¡!” I shouted, and clawed at the front door until my knuckles were all scraped. I kicked at the door once, twice, then, on my third kick, I heard a gunshot. I thought of the prisoners at once. I didn't know it then, but I was steeling myself for what might have happened inside. The memory of those dead prisoners gave me strength, for they had faced their deaths with open eyes, and I would not flinch from it.
I ran around the building, trying all the doors as I went. Looking up, I spotted the small window that led to the kitchens. The smell of chicken and riceâlast night's dinnerâstill lingered around the place. An old crate served as a step, and I pulled myself through the window, scuffing my charrÃ³l shoes and tearing my stockings. Once inside, I could no longer hear Lulu, but I knew where she was.
I ran through the kitchen and burst out into the lobby. It was dark. The lamps were not lit, though the acrid smell of kerosene rested in the air. The lights, then, had been turned down recently. I slowed, listening for Lulu upstairs. It was frighteningly quiet, except for a rhythmic, muffled sort of sound, as if a horse were galloping very, very far off in the distance. For some reason, I closed my eyes against the darkness. Feeling safer that way, I felt the floor with my toe and made some progress. That's when I tripped on something large and warm.
A moan sounded through the lobby. “SeÃ±or Reyes,” I said, bending down and feeling for the man with my hands. My fingers found his ankle, then his knee. He moaned again when I touched a bit of torn fabric on his arm soaked in something wet and sticky.
“Lulu,” Julio Reyes croaked. “He has Lulu.” I felt his heavy hands on my shoulders, and he pressed down on me as he raised himself up. It felt as if he might kill me with his weight, but I stifled my cries.
“I can go get help,” I said. “Where are the other guests?” I asked. The inn was sometimes full with guests. Other times, it was like a haunted place, and we were the souls trapped inside.