09 TWO ASSASSINS
09 TWO ASSASSINS
Perhaps as a good friend points out, killing in violent times is sometimes also considered a rite of passage. To the deep thinking innocent, killing as having sex for the first time, is viewed as difficult.
In reality, neither is difficult to the animal mind. What is really difficult is to be really civilized and to make love, while having sex, and to refrain from killing, when it is not justified. However, in those days and that place, things were far more basic, and more brutal. There I am a stranger in a different more openly primitive world.
In 1958, I am full of vigor and frustrated lust, yet young, innocent and very Catholic. I am full of inhibitions. I think that having a woman was not only forbidden by my faith, but that in the tropical island, this hot house of sensuality, the act itself is a skill beyond my ability.
There are two phrases in Spanish:
“!Que animal! ! Que bárbara!”
Strangely, in the Cuban vernacular of the time, they do not convey the same literal meaning in English:
”What an animal! What a barbarian!
In common use in
Rómulo Gallegos, living in similar milieu in
However, this interpretation of Gallegos, is perhaps a little innocent, since in the Venezuelan indigenous milieu, as in the related Cuban Taíno and Güajiro traditions such actions were traditional and accepted as such. Apparently Gallegos is unconsciously adapting these character traits from the Venezuelan myth of Uyara (María Leonza)
I do not use the term bárbara. To my overheated adolescent mind, I am sure that my lack of skill and knowledge will certainly fail to achieve the much wanted and dreamed of treasure. I am convinced that the breaching of the much wanted great gates of this earthly paradise is beyond my reach.
Wondering how the beginning of life is so complicated, I marvel how my friends find such a thing so easy, so natural, so matter of course.
In the early middle 1950s, still cloistered in boarding school, in Guanabacoa near
There in the private rooms beyond the high elaborately carved entrance door of the place, they are trained in the arts of physical love. These students, I think, must possess some special arcane knowledge that I am not privy to.
Growing older, I was to learn that having sex is not complex or even difficult. Sex is simple, straight forward, and direct. Even the dullest animals do it. Elaborate love making and sharing the magnificence of this pleasure is a far more human thing, but even that with time and practice becomes second nature.
In 1958, life teaches me a somewhat similar lesson about death.
Killing, for the criminally thoughtless, is just that: killing. Not comprehending nor understanding the consequence, like animals living for the moment, these criminals just do it.
There is no thought and not that much skill involved. Turning off a life for some is quite simple, a mere matter of performing the mechanics of murder and not thinking about it too much.
To this kind of a criminal or naive person, killing has no more importance than wringing the neck of a chicken to make a meal. The agonies of a dying human have, to them, the import of the desperate flopping of such a strangled chicken. If anything such is an amusement.
Like wild beasts, such criminals act fast. Their mental immaturity or pathologies do not hold them back in contemplation for even a micro-second, their direct unthinking brutality is swift, and thus effective and deadly. It is said that the difference between a killer who kills immediately and a normal person forced to kill is a mere three second lapse for reflection on necessity.
These criminals act like, Pototo and Pinocchio, the dogs with which we once hunted rats, killing, quickly, instinctively and without apparent conscious thought. These psychopaths exist everywhere; however, in some circumstance as in the Cuba of Batista and then Castro, these criminal assassins have sanction, sanctuary and power. Even we guerrillas fear them, or we become as them
My memories take me to first to the
In certain situations of war, the only thing that stops most of us from this crime is not the act of killing itself, but our thoughts and our conscience.
Then, my memories jump back a perhaps two years earlier:
Thin, short, and dark brown, a bald shining scalp steadily replacing tight curled buffalo hair, Father Pastor Gonzales, is a priest of the teaching Escolapios Order of my elite secondary school, where I boarded near
‘War is one thing; murder is another!’ While this old reformed revolutionary had held our rapt attention with his aura, his fame, and character, Father Gonzales made this distinction. Tales of his deeds as part of the ABC in the revolutions of the 1930s had been whispered among us. He had even been a Minister of Education in some government of those turbulent times, before he took to the cloth.
Later, I would learn that in the original Hebrew, the Torah, the book of Exodus, made the distinction far earlier. In the Torah, the sixth commandment reads, unlike the Saint James Bible or the Baltimore Catechism, “thou shalt not murder,” not “thou shalt not kill.”
In the middle of April of 1958, late in the day, I wake alone and unarmed. I am on a dirt path of the lower western slopes of Los Números, on the eastern wall of that ancient limestone encrusted caldera. I begin to remember.
Less than a week after I had joined the rebels in Arroyón, Batista soldiers had raided our camp. Everybody had dispersed. It had taken a day for us to regroup. We had not eaten for well over 24 hours.
As we abandon that vulnerable camp, and climb out of the
The other rebels stop and tried to encourage me, but my body has "hit the wall" and hit it hard. As I know now, it was not lack of will or lack of strength, my liver had no glycogen left to make sugar to power my muscles. Then, in that strange flexible time of memory, I am ashamed of my weakness.
Lying exhausted on the ground, I had handed up to the others Aunt Rosie's long barreled .38 caliber Police Special Colt. This is the gun that Nicia had found for me when she told me of my "denuncia"; after she told me that I had been betrayed by a relative to the Batista soldiers, and that I must flee or die. I had the handed up the .410 bolt action shotgun the rebels had given me.
Committing my fearful Catholic soul to G-d, I lay down to sleep on the ground. I am not sure whose land I am. It could have been the
My memories are not clear now:
I might have been on Lot Two, the plantation belonging to Uncle Rafael, the
Where I am does not matter. Although I had sleep on the main path no enemy came. No Batista cásquito soldier passed that way, so I survive.
I wake hours later. Things are different. In sleep, my body's fat reserves were broken down to re-supply my liver with the quick energy of glycogen. My muscles again have reserves of strength.
By now I make made my way up the mountain lot by lot, Números Uno, Dos, Cuatro. Número Tres, out of sequence, is located closest to Guamá. This land, Lot Three, comprises that first rise of deeply forested white rocks that I had past before joining the rebels in Arroyón. This holding, was not chosen by lottery. Aunt Muñeca, with the consent of all her siblings, had been given the lowest one, the one in the Guamá homestead, where most probably the 1500 era north encomienda of Guamayabón. This way Aunt Muñeca’s could join her land to that of her first cousin and beloved, hardworking, but unfaithful and heavy drinking, cattle-man husband Levarbo Ramírez.
Muñeca means doll; her real name was Lucía, but nobody called her that. She and Levarbo would die in Bayamo, prematurely aged, diabetic, blind, and in poverty, stripped of their lands by Castro’s thieving minions. I have heard that the plan is to make it a tourist center now. Tití, Taíno for a tiny minnow, one of their daughters, is or was in jail in
I count my way up the Números, the land of numbered lots. I went through the young coffee groves and plantings of corn and beans to Número Cinco, Lot Number Five, El Salto, the plantation of Uncle Marcos.
I was now on the top of the ridge, which included Uncle Marcus's poor pasture-land overgrown with ferns and horsetail. Here, in the constant wind and cold mists, Dr. Fajardo’s cattle had (it is said) starved and died, and Uncle Marcus had played a flute while his two Taína mistresses, those two daughters of Tenazas, took care of his house and his needs.
Apparently, education in animal husbandry at
So there was no help for me. I was on a long flat topped ridge, the top of the east side of the ancient crater. After the steep climb, there was very little more to climb. Lining the muddy road ahead were remnants of rain forest, a thin sparse line of bohío huts, a few impoverished wooden stores, and new coffee plants in lemon-grass-edged fields. Shade trees for the coffee were too small to be noticed. Cut forest giants lay dead and rotting all around.
I went on past where the ridge branched west to Lot Six, Número Seis. This was “Mamibón,” Aunt Manuela's land. Aunt Manuela had married Norman Henderson, a classically trained musician son a strange union.
“!Viva Garibaldi y los que pelearon con el!”
“Long live Garibaldi and those who fought with him!”
José Norman wrote many songs, including one with catchy music called “Cuban Pete,” which once had been quite popular, and even now is heard occasionally. The fact that the song’s Cuban Pete was really the spirit of
MJ was now in
Memories sharpen, and come into vivid focus:
Further along the ridge, below the great crag of Peña Prieta, is lot Número Siete, “El Rosario” my mother's land. Below and southwest of the crag, below the twist of a crooked ridge, sits Brother Lionel’s wooden house. Lionel is still building. Wood, boards and two by fours are everywhere. The floor is still hard-packed dirt. Lionel takes me in and gives me food, and I saw his little daughter Ana Elsa for the first time. That night I rest comfortably and replete.
Lionel and I talk discussing my best options for survival. We agree I must return to the rebels. In the morning, he tells me where the rest of my rebel band had fled and he gives directions to get there.
Going southeast next day I go up towards Peña Prieta, crossing on the narrow path, atop and between two cliffs of the increasingly high ridge of Los Números. I go to lot Number Eight: “El Guaraguao,” Uncle Calixto Mario's land.
I do not know that René Cuervo had taken this route on his unknowing way to execution.
In my memories I still have two Uncle Calixtos. Calixto Mario, was the elder, Grandfather’s child. Calixto Mario was the son of a country woman, who was somehow related to Nicia. His mother, I do not know her name, lived north of Guisa in a place called “El Horno” on the plains of the Cauto.
El Horno, a tiny place then, is east of Bayamo, just off the Central highway; and it is where the strategic road to Guisa begins. I think that grandfather did not cut off that relationship immediately because I remember grandmother scowling as we passed that place, fifty years or so after Calixto Mario was born.
When Grandfather married, his wife, Rafaela Petronila, daughter of Don Benjamín Ramírez and Manuela Enamorado, agreed to adopt Calixto Mario, and later one of her eight children, was named a second Calixto. He was known as Calixto Leonel.
Then, Calixto Mario is a lawyer and thin. Calixto Leonel is short as were most of us; he has receding curly black hair, and although strong is quite stout despite the efforts of his wife, Aunt Aida “The Dragon Lady.” Aunt Aida made him walk the pastures and diet, to some limited effect. His political career was not very successful. After Batista fell, Uncle Calixto Leonel, more clearly than most, knew what was coming, and he and Aunt Aida and their daughter fled
Uncle Calixto Leonel’s PhD thesis “El Negro en la Narrativa Cubana” was published in 1973. He became a Professor in
Aunt Aida, Uncle Calixto Leonel’s wife, is from the state of
Both Calixtos favor, or at least tolerate, Batista, and they are disliked by most of the family for that.
Looking back, their choice was merely a desperately hard choice, seeking the lesser of two evils.
Calixto Mario’s wife, Helena de La Guardia, is gentle and refined and mostly an urban dweller of the Havana Country Club set. She sometimes, at the Casa de los Generales, ran a little school for Güajiro children gathered underneath a spreading ateje tree adorned with her collection of native black orchids.
As mentioned previously Uncle Calixto Mario’s youngest son is a fighter pilot in the Batista air force, and so their family stays away from here in the relative safety of
Aunt Helena, was not related, the family tells, to Colonel Mambí Angel de La Guardia
Memory fades into reflection, into present day reflection:
Luckily, like most of humanity I cannot do murder. Thank G-d that when offered the opportunity to do this horror, I always declined. Many on both sides of the “War against Batista” in the Sierra Maestra did not make this distinction. What follows are two narrations about two such assassins.
I go walking on to the east, going down across the watershed divide, out of Los Números, towards the upper
Lorente’s camp is on a rocky rise just above the river. My escopeteros group lead by Mojena is there. Mojena is glad to see me, and gives me back my bolt action .410 gauge shotgun. Mojena keeps the fine revolver of Aunt Rosita and I do not begrudge him this.
That night, we sleep on the pounded earth floor of a wood-plank sided building. As he shows us the place, Lorente insists we stay inside. The fleas bite, we slap, and scratch. Disgusted, we say we prefer to go outside.
Lorente is summoned back. He comes towards us, striding on his long legs; as usual he is suspicious and very cautious. It is obvious he does not want us wandering around his camp at night, and again insists:
“You are my guests, and you should stay inside.”
We swat fleas and wait inside, most of us unable to sleep.
In a dark corner of the hut, a large, tall man lies sleeping, ignoring the biting fleas. In a sign of his utter exhaustion, or because fears that he may have run suddenly, his wide rubber tire soled cloth shoes his alpargatas, are still on his feet.
Dawn finally came, and we rush down to the
We scrub ourselves almost sore, how I do not remember how, perhaps with soap perhaps with rags and gravel. We wash out our clothes repeatedly, beating them on smooth boulders, until even the very thought of a flea is gone.
After all of us had finished bathing, rid of the fleas, we relax, and sit on slab-sided boulders to dry naked in the sun. As we dry, we start to talk to the large, tall, man.
The large, tall man tells us what he had done the day before. Like the times he had done it before, the mechanics of the act were horrifying in their simplicity. He says brief words to the effect:
“I walked into Guisa.”
“I sought out the chivato, the informer.”
“I walked up to him.”
“I shot him in the face with a revolver. and I ran.”
It was that simple, a life is ended as if turning off a lamp at the click of switch. I chill at the significance of the assassin’s words.
I image how it happened:
The assassin flees. He runs along miles and miles of dirt road. He hurries past the sawmill at El Sordo. He runs along the ridge road of Pueblo Nuevo. He follows the laja rock bedded road southward and goes downhill on it past the guinea grass pastures of Teófilo Espinosa, well-known as the most talkative merchant in Guisa.
Once on the
In 1873 Maceo Osorio helped depose first Cuban President in Arms Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. This was perhaps a necessary step since Céspedes was a great man and a disastrously poor military leader.
His tactics were hurtful. Céspedes had concentrated and mislead the Mambí forces. The Cubans were losing battles and their unprotected families were being hunted down by the Spanish forces of the evil Count of Valmaceda and murdered.
Both of my great-grandfathers, Don Benjamín and Calixto, were involved in this nasty, legal and necessary business of removing the president. Most histories blame them for this. However, their actions led to better leadership and renewed success of the rebellion.
Wandering without much protection, Emancipator President Céspedes, said to have been betrayed by one of his liberated slaves, was surprised by Spanish. The Spanish troops killed him in 1874, at a place just over a mountain valley or so to the east. Before he died, Céspedes, wrote nasty things in his diary about Calixto’s lover, my great-grandmother Leonela Enamorado. He seemed he wanted pay back.
My family’s oral histories say that ex-President Céspedes died because of his carelessness. He was not alert; he did not hear the Spanish soldiers come. These histories say the impeached President was caught climbing out of the window of the house of a mistress when he was killed. Formal histories tell very little of this except to insist that the women of the house were old.
What ever story is true, according to his diaries, in the short time he lived after being deposed, Céspedes never forgave Don Benjamín. However, before he died, athletic, agile, and urbane, Céspedes may have also taken delicious revenge on countrified Don Benjamín.
Céspedes’s diary records abundant meetings with a certain Manuelita. That is interesting since my other maternal great-grand mother, Leonela’s sister, Manuela was better known as Doña Lica short for Doña Manuelita. Manuelita may have been the only lady of nobility and stature in the area. And she, Manuelita, was Don Benjamín’s wife.
Los Horneros was a wild place, where until very few years before 1958 the bandit, “King of the Hills of the Sierra” Edesio Hernandez had held court for visiting politicians.
Memories of those days come back: And now, Edesio is dead, and his son or nephew is with our band of guerrillas.
One can be sure that Lorente’s assassin does not know or care about these bits of history. For this assassin, it seems, did not know or care about much else either. Contrary to popular literature, most assassins are dull men who live lives of action with little thought. Thus, here at Los Horneros where, the
The assassin goes further and further south, following the
Deep in the Sierra, safe among the tranquil beauty of green trees and boulders of the upper
The river murmurs and the birds fly by in tranquility. Nothing seems amiss.
Not knowing what to make of the assassin, we busy ourselves with our own lethal endeavors. We watch, and we learn how the Lorente’s armorer does his work.
The armorer made the shotgun-launched, handmade sheet-metal covered, grenades, the kind we called “satélites.” He shows us how to convert old Krag-Jorgensen 30.40 rifles, to shoot the then standard 30.06 ammunition. The old rifle, has a steel ammunition box on the right side; lipped with a tang as a thumb hold, and spring-loaded so after opening it and replacing the ammunition fired, it snaps back.
Looking at the black pitted steel of the old rifle’s ammunition box made me think. This accurate, yet clumsy, weapon of death, a Krag rifle left from the 1898 Spanish-Cuban-American War, has survived almost all of its original owners, illuminated the fragility of life, and the inevitability of death.
The guilessness and murderous readiness to kill of Lorente's assassin is overwhelming and contagious. We are being corrupted too. Life is cheap; this is war.
Everybody called him Merengue, as in beaten eggs or the erotic Latin American dance. He crossed Lote Número Siete, Lot Number Seven, on the lower road. He rode his small, piebald horse across the steep pasture with its African grasses: pángola and guinea that grew on this patch of land between young coffee groves.
I had planted that pángola grass by hand, inserting rhizome after hundreds of cut rhizomes runners, into the steep slope. I had dug slots one at a time in the clay earth with a mocha or guámpara, a flat-tipped stub, the shortened remains of an old well used machete. In each slot I place one rhizome, pushing the grass into the clay, I cover it with dirt, and press the dirt down hard to make sure the new roots will have good contact. Pángola grass grows fast. Soon my infant niece Ana Elsa would have milk from the cows that grazed on its sprouts.
I was not there, Lionel saw what happened and this is how he remembers it:
The pasture is unheeded for life is grass the proverb says, and here the errand is murder. Merengue passes by uncaring and not noticing the presence of mere grass. On his right, on his downhill side, is the crooked estribo, the ridge where my brother, Lionel then lives. Lionel, Ana Elsa’s devoted father had worked hard to build this wooden house and to make it his home. Nearby to Merengue’s left, sides vertical and huge, is the castle-like La Peña Prieta, the dark crag, peaked, reaching far skywards northeast above his head.
Merengue, Emerejildo Elias, was a Batistiano, that is a supporter of the dictator of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar. Merengue, who is a shopkeeper, liked to be called "el sargento.” He rides carrying a message of death.
Water, stolen from passing clouds by Peña Prieta, gushes from the lower sides of the crag. Springs burst, as if rod struck by Moses, from the rock, forming at least seven steep, almost vertical streams. Merengue rides easily across the thin streams of fast flowing, chillingly cold, iron-flavored water.
It was this source of water that a few years ago had nourished the lost cloud forest of giant trees. Here Lionel, MJ and I had seen the tall tree ferns and the feral sour orange trees from
The pigs’ ancestors had been Spanish; perros jíbaros, were descended from the wild hunting dogs from times before. These hounds’ ancestors had helped man hunt the mammoths of the Behring Straits and destroy the last giant ground sloths and giant rodents of the newly discovered island.
The Taínos fleeing the cruel slashing swords of the Spanish, the escaped black slaves, the Cimarrón, hiding behind the logs of their fortified palenques, and the Mambises rebelling against
The hutia (jutía) the “giant rat” once seen in country fairs in the
Giant foot-long shrews, the almiquí were even closer to extinction. Strange night beasts, these almiquí, bad-tempered, venom-toothed, spike-haired, they live hunting insects and small creatures in the pockets of cuabal tree swamps in these heights.
The giant sloth is gone, eight hundred or more years ago. Perhaps, their red-haired ghosts, sloth hupía, hide by day in musty smelling crevices of Peña Prieta and wander only in night’s darkness.
Merengue thought nothing of this. Like his rebel counterpart assassin, he is not aware, he does no know, or care to know.
Merengue has a simple, lethal goal. He wants, more than anything else, to be a real sergeant in Batista’s Army. He dislikes being forced to have to work for a living; he wants to wear a clean-impressive uniform, to carry lethal shining weapons, and glory in the power of giving terror and making public death. He is on his way to prove that he is worthy by taking the life of another man.
His horse, carefully stepping up from the rocks of the stream-bed, reaches the other side, sliding slightly on the slippery red clay of the road. Far beneath him, to his right if he had cared to look, he could have seen the headwater stream of the misnamed Bayamito, on the near side at the bottom, where the white soil was not very fertile.
Below by that stream, in poor soil is where even tough yellow bushes, “café de los pobres,” the coffee tree of the poor, can barely grow. This space of mabuya yuke, cursed white soil, between white rock outcroppings, faces up to open sky from east to west; no mountain sides shade here; there is full sun all day, This heat and bright reflected light from the karst rocks makes the area "muy bravo," too harsh, for good coffee.
Rising beyond the “Bayamito” to the south and west are the endless tiers of undulated-wavy-edged, glossy-leafed, good Arabica coffee trees. They grow in tidy rectangular groves on the wet, north side of the main ridge of the Sierra Maestra.
The cayos de monte, the residual islands of primeval Cuban high rainforest stand alone. Aloof, the ancient trees dwarf their alien coffee tree conquerors from the far land of the cruel warlike Yemenites, the rain-blessed Arabia Feliz.
Merengue did not see these sights either. I don’t think assassins daydream. He could not guess that in years to come Cubans would also die in
Merengue rides on to lot Number Eight. He is at a place where the main ridge of Los Números turns up higher and bends to the southeast, shielding from view the deep gorge of the upper
In the distance, Lionel can see Merengue meets his prey, a small, black man. The small black man has been enticed by his need for a weapon, the necessary credential to become a rebel. Merengue and the small black man argue. They wave their arms in aggressive display.
Then the small black man jumps very high and falls. The sound of three, four shots reaches up towards La Peña Prieta. They are far way. Echoes bounce adding to the popping of distant gunshots reaching Lionel’s ears. The noise, although disturbing in mountain stillness, delayed and weakened by distance, is almost an afterthought of the actions observed.
Merengue returned the way he had come, unknown to him, the Fates noting his actions had already cut his thread-- his crime was witnessed by too many, and he was soon to die.
The Che Guevara, a kindred soul of greater ruthlessness and ability to kill, will soon wait for him. The Che will kill Merengue. Rather than make a grave big enough to fit him, the Che would order Merengue’s legs cut off before having him thrown in.
The Che, too, would die like that, in a dismal place in far
These assassins worship in cult of Canaima. In a perverse way they believe as Norbert Fuentes, citing the lives of Hemingway and Malraux, that men who kill can be beautiful. They serve their masters willingly. They enjoy the acts of wanton killing that corrupt the mind, devalue life and ultimately destroy the murderer. When violent death comes to them as to Antonio de La Guardia and once escopetero Arnaldo Ochoa, they often welcome it in submission in an almost sexual fashion. These are the assassins, reaching from the brotherly hate of "broedertwis" through the fratricidal struggle of “Bruderkämpfen,” to Canaima’s crime of Cain. They leave perversely excited as if they were to enter the great door at
Larry Daley copyright 1996, revised 1997, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006