Some three years ago I was asked to edit the English language version of noted Cuban exile author Carlos Alberto Montaner‘s compact history of the Cuban people, The Cubans. The history–ranging from 1492 to possible future scenarios for the island–serves as a good foundation for understanding the island’s politics and people as we debate the U.S. role in its future. You can buy the Kindle version for $2.99
(The scene: Havana. The time: today. The characters: blocked and destitute Key West writer Con Martens; a young Ernest Hemingway, a.k.a. Nick Adams, sent from Writers Heaven to get Con back on track; Ricardo, a Cuban Navy scuba diver; his sister, Aurora.)
When the rain stopped they left the bar and walked back down the hill into Old Havana, the damp-smelling streets dark and quiet, the only light coming from open doorways and windows where an occasional electric fan turned. The fragrances of frying garlic and jasmine came on a sudden breeze from the sea. Distant thunder made Ricardo look up at the black sky.
“Rainy season. Showers are normal. But I am worried about a storm off Jamaica. But it should not strike until late tomorrow.”
“We’ll beat it out.”
At the bottom of the hill light fell onto the cobbled street from an old building where recorded music wafted out an open door and windows. Ricardo led them through the doorway to the right of which, inlaid in the stucco, a plaque read “Casa de Tango.”
An older woman in black silk dress, high heels, and costume jewelry showed them to a rustic table in a crowded cabaret. After they ordered more beer from her, Ricardo turned to Con. “How do you pass your time in the United States?”
“I write novels and help other writers.”
“One must always give back.”
“Y tú, Ricardo, what do you do?”
Ricardo flicked his eyes at Nick.
“Está bien,” Nick said. “We’re all comrades here.”
Ricardo turned back to Con. “I am an officer in the Cuban Navy.”
“On a big ship?”
“No. Special forces, like your Navy Seals.”
“You sound dangerous.”
“I could be if we had enemies other than ourselves. For now, the Navy employs me as a salvage diver.”
Three gray-haired men mounted a low stage where rested an upright bass, accordion, and guitar. The recorded music died, lights dimmed, and a single spotlight focused Con’s attention on the combo. At once they began playing a slow, rhythmic song. Soon the woman in the black dress stepped to the stage and began to sing, projecting a clear voice throughout the room without aid of a microphone. After a few seconds couples rose from their tables and gathered on the small dance floor before the bandstand. They moved to the music with sensual dignity, elegant and erect. An Argentine invention, the tango, Con knew. A way to dance out your eroticism and sadness, which fit Cuba. His beer tasted bittersweet and he felt like he had time-traveled to a purer place.
The song ended, the dancers applauded. After another song and more applause the old woman stepped forward bowing. She introduced the musicians and thanked the National Council for Culture for its support of traditional music and the Casa de Tango.
“Permit me to introduce the petite cantante with the big voice, Aurora Avila.”
Ricardo leaned toward Con as they clapped. “My sister.”
Sweeping from the dark wings of the cabaret in flowered skirt and black strapless top came a slender woman with curling black hair and flaring nostrils. She looked like a dark goddess, fluid and formidable. She bowed to acknowledge the applause and turned to the accordion player, who counted aloud, “Uno, dos, tres,” and the combo broke into a lilting Latin song. When she turned back and Con gazed upon her face fully for the first time, he started and felt his pulse quicken. For it was the woman from his dream, seemingly, the dark mermaid with Gulf Stream-blue eyes.
He sat hypnotized. Aurora: goddess of the dawn. Her voice came confident, strong, and penetrating. He felt it infecting and warming him like a fever, and told himself that he was a fool, that after all the beautiful women he’d known, here he was reacting like a schoolboy. But he couldn’t help it. He felt as if he’d been stung. Worse, it wasn’t honest lust but something weird and buzzy, as if he’d always carried an image of her inside him.
Others began again to dance. The previous singer came to their table and Nick rose to escort her onto the dance floor. But Con couldn’t take his eyes from Aurora, who sang of great passion, lost love, and loneliness. She moved near their table to touch Ricardo’s shoulder as she sang, and her scent, jasmine and musk, came to Con. On her pulsing throat he saw a necklace of cowrie shells. He watched as she moved away and sensed Ricardo’s eyes on him.
She sang three songs during which Con spoke not a word. Then she bowed and came to sit.
“Cantas más melodioso que los pájaros,” he said without calculation—you sing more sweetly than the birds.
“Gracias. But it is such old-fashioned music. Do you really like it?”
“En serio. Qué bella.”
Ricardo introduced first Con then Nick. When she heard the latter’s name, Con saw her tense.
Nick ordered beer all around. “This is the way Habana used to be: Clubs everywhere where you could hear good music and dance.”
Aurora turned to him. “Ricardo has told me of you, Señor Adams. I know why you have returned.”
Her brother reached across to lay a hand on hers. “No te preocupes, Aurora. It will be well.”
“Claro. I know this is right.” She returned her gaze to Nick. “But Ricardo is the only family I have.”
What with the surreality of Havana, being stung by Aurora, and sensing that Nick had been far less than forthcoming, Con felt at sea. He figured it showed, for Nick looked at him and said in English: “I’ll tell you everything, Conman, soon. I ain’t taking you where you don’t want to go.”
The four of them finished their beers and walked down the middle of the dark street, the other two men ahead, Con and Aurora following side-by-side. No cars passed. The night air lay warm and quiet around them.
“I have heard that Key West is beautiful.”
“Sí, in places. But noisier and more dangerous than Havana.”
“Here we have safe streets. There is that.”
At a dark corner Aurora led them through the doors of a decrepit hotel. Over the dim doorway embossed on the crumbling Italianate façade Con could read “Palacio Vienna.” Inside, a lone bulb hanging by its cord lit an unswept lobby where an ornate brass elevator cage, once no doubt an elegant conveyance, sat disused, the metal now pitted and covered with dust. They followed Aurora up a bare wooden staircase, paint long ago worn away, banister gone.
They ascended as if climbing circles of Hell. Water dripped from a broken skylight in the center of the build ing. In the hallways women sat and smoked disconsolately; men played cards, eyeing the foreigners with suspicion. Above, a child twirled about a wooden column where the banister had rotted or been looted, unconcerned with the possibility of dropping three floors to her death. Smells of garlic and dust rose to Con’s nostrils. All was gray except for the brightly colored cotton dresses and unitards of the smoking women.
On the third floor another group of shirtless men played cards at a low table. One sat up straight on his overturned plastic bucket when he saw them. He yelled at Aurora:
“¡Sácate! It is against regulations to carry yumas to your home. You will pay.”
Con looked to Nick. “‘Yumas’?”
“Foreigners. The guy’s likely the local Party snitch.”
The other card players joined in the admonition. Con heard “pepes,” Cuban for “johns.” Aurora ignored their taunts and kept climbing but Ricardo stopped to cast them a hard look and they quieted.
Nick leaned toward Con. “Orwell would love this.”
On the fourth floor Aurora stopped before a door secured by two padlocks. Soon she stepped through it and flipped on a light. A solitary room with cooking ring, kitchen table, and single bed. The artwork on the peeling walls consisted of pictures cut from magazines—the Alps, Paris, Madrid. Aurora turned to him.
“I have tried to grow plants but there is no sun.”
She offered them tea. While the water heated on the burner, Con overheard Ricardo question Aurora about her visit that day to the clinic. She nodded and laid a hand on his. “My health is good.”
Ricardo went to the narrow bed, bent and pulled from beneath it a black plastic sack. From it he withdrew long rolls of yellowed paper, which he spread on the table, us ing books as paperweights. The men bent over the top one, which, Con saw, was a nautical chart.
“Aquí, por ejemplo,” Ricardo said, pointing, “is a wreck we worked for two months, finding a number of Spanish coins before being ordered to another site. But the manifest indicates gold bars. They are still there.”
Con looked to Nick, who squinted at the chart. Now at last it was making sense. The human cargo they were to liberate came with charts that could lead to another Atocha. Treasure. Exactly what he needed.
When the tea was ready Ricardo pushed the charts aside. He and Nick sat on the only two chairs, whispering. Con sat beside Aurora on the bed as she gazed at the rolled charts on the table.
“You are close to your brother?”
“When our mother died he took care of me, ever since I was eight.”
“Y tu padre. ¿Dónde está?”
“Ricardo’s father died in prison. My father returned to Moscow. I did not know him.”
Con sipped his tea and studied her, feeling stirred by her nearness. She asked: “Do you know Cuba?”
“This is my first trip.”
“Havana is not Cuba. To know my country you must see the countryside.”
“I wish I had more time to do so.”
“You will return. When you do I will show it to you.”
Nick called, “Conman, bring me your backpack.” Con retrieved it from the floor beside him. Nick and Ricardo folded the charts flat and placed them inside.
They thanked Aurora for the tea, and Ricardo grabbed his raincoat. Con shook hands with Aurora, who stood on tiptoe to plant a kiss on either cheek, her scent again cutting through him.
“Buena suerte,” she whispered. “Vaya con dios.”
They found a taxi on the Malecón and dropped Ricardo a few blocks from his barracks. “Pues, hasta mañana,” Nick said. “As planned.”
Back at the Marina Hemingway Marcos lay curled on the dock before the Pilar’s gangway. Nick shook him, paid him, and sent him home in the cab. Once on board, Nick stowed the charts beneath the bunk below and on deck poured them each a shot of rum while Con opened two beers.
“You got the drift, Conman?”
“We’re taking him and the charts with us.”
“Should be easy.” Nick lowered himself into a deck-chair. “Tomorrow after dark we check through customs to head back. Tell them we’re having engine trouble and may stop to make repairs offshore if it acts up. Half mile out we throttle down at the channel marker that Ricardo has swum to. We pull him aboard—your job—while I watch for Commies and keep the Pilar purring. You stow him below with the charts. Once outside the twelve-mile limit we’re home free.”
Con moved his jaw laterally, taking it all in, feeling his blood run cold despite the rum and warm evening. He nodded. “And if we get caught?”
“Cubans would confiscate the Pilar and arrest me for smuggling.”
“Not to mention stealing government property.”
“But you get off the hook: Claim ignorance and I back you.”
“If they swallow it. Otherwise I land in the bote with you.”
“I can use you, Conman. But if you say ‘No,’ I won’t hold it against you. I wasn’t square upfront.”
Con paced the deck, eyes moving side to side. “Fucking A. Let’s see: five gees for five years in Cuban prison. You think I was that desperate?”
Nick looked at him. He opened his mouth to speak then checked himself. Finally he said: “You can find someone at the marina to run you back. Lots of American and Canuck boats off for the Keys every day.”
“Let me sleep on it while you count doubloons in your dreams.”
“Some treasure in it for you as well, Conman. But whatever you decide, I pay you the other four gees tomorrow.” Nick drank down the rum and chased it with beer. “Yet more to it than money. Particularly for Ricardo.”
“Neck’s in a noose. Tried to blow the whistle on politicos skimming treasure. But apparently The Beard’s helping himself as well. Nothing Ricardo can do. No free press, nothing. He’ll end up in prison if he stays.”
“So it’s a charity gig?”
Nick’s eyes shone in the cockpit light as he poured himself another rum. “No, Conman. I’m doing it for me and you. Trust me.”
“The Key West mantra, commonly translated as ‘bend over.’ What’s the Cuban phrase for that so I’ll know it when I get to prison?”
“Overdramatic, Conman. All will go well.”
“Yeah: ‘Trust me.’”
“One more thing.”
“Can’t wait to hear.”
“We’re running against American law too. But my lookout not yours. Even if we dodge the Cubans I could lose the boat on the other end if caught and pay a stiff fine. But I got it fixed.”
“U.S. Customs uses the honor system. Easy to slip in, drop cargo, then call Immigration. Ricardo lies low for a few days with Boosty then surrenders to the nearest cop, saying his boat sunk offshore, and asks for asylum.”
“Do pray, Conman. Órale.”
A warm, airless night, too hot to sleep below. Con pulled the mattress from the cabin bunk and placed it on deck portside, opposite Nick’s hammock.
He figured to lie awake half the night thinking on what to do. But after a long day of drinking, he was asleep within minutes, dreaming of tropical storms, confused waters, and the woman with the Gulf Stream-blue eyes.