Friday, June 09, 2006



It is nightfall; we have walked far. We are tired. We come to the intersection of paths, the crossroads, at El Sordo. We are on the flatlands that are north of our hill refuge. These flatlands are too close, much too close to the Batista garrison town of Guisa.

Our rebel group leader, Amelio Mojena, tells us to wait and rest.

There is a partial moon; in the ghostlike fuzzy light of Caraya, we can see strange amorphous shapes all around us. It is a surrealistic panorama. Nothing looks solid and real as in the day. Reason fades with dark and exhaustion. Superstition rules; Taíno hupía spirits of the dead roam; they, the belief is, are the flitting bats overhead and the bat-sized ghost moths flitting between the stems of bushes and trees pollinating the oddest of plants.

Shadows seem as permanent as rocks, rocks as soft as shadows. A hole in the road can be a shadow; a shadow becomes a deep pit. It is quiet. Crickets hold still and silent at our passage. They do not chirp again until long after we pass. Our ears sharpen; our hearing is acute. Slight noises carry for miles. No dogs are barking, not even in the far, far distance.

The shapes take forms we slowly learn to recognize. We find ourselves at our destination. We can see the machine shop of Miguel Ángel Calvo, a middle-aged, but still lean, Spanish immigrant.

The dark form of the building, its walls are corrugated aluminum roofing, sits among the shadows of great hunks of heavy logging machinery. All around are randomly strewn massive logs of varied precious tropical wood.

Most of these logs come from the Sierra. These once densely forested lands have too long been selectively deforested by the removal of these precious woods, and now are being cleared of all trees by both squatters and owners to plant coffee.

Only the great Ceiba, the Kapok, --the sacred tree of life, illegal to cut, with wood far too light and of quite poor quality-- and the Royal Palm --symbol of Cuba, provider of food and shelter-- are spared the saw and axe.

The Ceiba is not only sacred to Afro-Cuban religions, but also to the Taíno. This immense tree spreads its kapok silk cotton bound seed, mythical cu-buyá. Bursting from its pods, the buyá, in Cuba as in Zuanía the Amazonian ancestral land of the Taíno, the sacred, brown and white, down cotton sperm of life, comes floating down.

The vital fluff of buyá flies far from the Ceiba’s immense two hundred feet height. Its seed is tropical summer snow. This seed has crossed the Atlantic between Africa and Brazil, lofting on the winds. Buyá called kapok in floatation jackets was life saver for WWII sailors abandoning torpedoed ships sunk in the chill North Atlantic.

Yagua, the Taíno name for the royal palm, is revered by Afro-Cuban religions as the abode of the Chango, the lecherous Orisha god of thunder. When Saint Barbara became Christian, her legend relates, her father chopped off her head with his sword, only to be struck down by lightening. From this, St. Barbara became patron of artillerymen, miners, artillery or anything else that explodes or thunders. Thus, Chango’s believers worship him in guise of sword carrying Santa Bárbara.

This Afro-Cuban mythology is far less strong in these Taíno influenced mountains. I do not believe in such, not even when the fronds of the Royal Palm fall. Then the yagua, the common name of now given only to the huge frond’s flat petiole, not as in the Taíno tradition the whole palm tree, slaps the ground very hard, making a loud noise as if in thunder.

Palms and Ceibas are alive and thus not here. This is a log-yard.

Here all trees are dead. Each log, fruit of the rape of these forests, is a cabinetmaker’s wet dream, and thus a precious commodity. Yet the logs lie here stripped of most bark as if without value. The imperfect bent forms of naturally grown trees are unidentifiable in the dark.

The log yard is as sad as an abattoir, corpses lying dismembered; trunks, limbs and crotches scattered on the ground. This is the end of the Taína dryads of the once mighty forest that centuries ago covered most of the Island.

Here lies Majagua the mother of water, Baría who fed the bees, Caoba-mahogani carrier of the spirits of the dead. Jigüey tree persona of the mischievous and lecherous black dwarf Jigüe demon lies still and wooden as is his phallic want. Each log is a symbol of the loss of rainforest and of beauty.

I recall, from the days before this war came.

Wandering high in the mountains, I hear the sounds of double handled saws in shaded forests. Men pour sweat pulling at the saw handles above and below the logs suspended upon crude scaffolds over highly sloping ground of leaf mold and forest litter.

They are making planks by hand. The myriad scents of saw dust from perfumed tropical trees and odors of disturbed forest loam and duff invade the perturbed air to mingle with the sharp, musky, pungency of sweating men.

Down in the foothills at La Casa de los Generales, there are other sounds and odors. Faintly first from miles away, we hear the clanging peals and popping sounds before we see the animals. Although still out of sight, as they near we hear growing louder, the clear cadence of the sequentially differing tones from the mules’ metal neck bells and the pistol cracks of the long snapping látigo whips of the muleskinners driving them.

I remember the wood arriving at the lower farm of Entre Ríos:

The sound of bells comes near; each bell sounds a different tone. The in pealing scales rise and fall in crudely clanging octaves. Mules are coming in free, not tethered. They arrive in arrias, in droves of nine or eighteen animals to a muleskinner, trotting down the mountains carrying the thick rough planks.

The mules have big ears furry like a beaver pelt inside, small tidy black metal-shod hooves, thin tails and manes, slim legs, and plump bellies. The mules are brown, fuzzy-hairy and ugly, with a few faded stripes on their haunches as if an almost erased zebras. They stink of their ammonia-rich sweat. The wood is slightly damp with tropical rain and the resins of the sap still stick to hands.

The mule trains, coming from our Sierra heights at Los Números, they will unload by the Casa de Alto under and around the Indian almond tree at the batey of the La Casa de Los Generales. We clear the way and wait.

My mind returns to this century


The House of the Generals is gone now; once sat atop cliff above a deep black lagoon. Yet still seeing it in my mind, I look out west north west and down to where once the plains began. The years have past; the waters trapped enslaved behind a great dam covers all now.

And then my memories come back:

Closer still, we can hear the even drumming of the energy conserving rhythm of mule-hoof trot. The mules’ trot beat is counter-pointed by irregular paced ringing of horseshoe steel striking, sparking on rock, or thudding on dirt.

Passing through pasture, the burdened beasts try to stray and graze. The willing, but thin, overworked, foam-mouthed, horses that the skinners ride, shepherd the wayward, willful mules back to their course.

A snap of a látigo, exploding like a shot ahead, halts an escaping animal. Then a tightening of the bridle gives a touch of bit control to slow their horses as the errant mule heads back to the string.

Except for the Asturiano, the ex-Spanish cavalryman, who always rode erect, by the end of the day the other mule skinners ride askew. Their pelvises tilted sideways, they slouched sideways in irregular ways, riding interchanging variously their posture on their seats. Sometimes they have one knee raised, the other leg extended, or one leg looped over saddle horn, leaning back; sometimes to spare their tired, and beaten parts, they leaning forward.

The skinners’ yarey palm frond plaited hats have side-brims pinned rakishly to crown to keep the wind from lifting them. The Asturian wears a kaki brown felt cavalry hat. His hat is molded brim straight, crown dented in four precisely regularly spaced places coming to a blunt point on top, and held by a plaited leather thong to his very, firm and very protruding Spanish chin. His hat although smaller looks much, but not quite. like those of the Guardia Rural.

It was as if where this proud Asturian rode, Cuba still belonged to Spain. The other skinners, often some of the Taíno Ramos, perhaps Luis Ramos, the dandy of his clan, were much merrier and far more Cuban.

Most of the time the whips are at rest; their work-worn slim wooden handles are held vertically down against the outside of the riders’ long booted legs. The ends of the látigo trail after the riders’ horses leaving thin line tracks on the ground.

From time to time, the skinners’ whips are raised slowly up and back.

Suddenly, the whips are brought sharply for and down. The tip of whip snaps just above the ground behind some tardy mule’s back-legs, or over air above an animal’s head.

The skinners occasionally squeeze their high riding-boot clad calves, this motion presses in their cruel star-spurs to so very lightly rowel their mounts back bellies. Their harried tired but still obedient mounts speed forward suddenly.

As the mules arrived at the Batey of Casa de los Generales, they are herded into a group. Sometimes, the beasts stand one, rear leg raised, slightly wiggling their long ears. Then in a few minutes slightly, rested they start to move around impatiently until they are taken to the mud-splattered yellow concrete walls of the warehouse almacén, or the lean-to shed on the east wall of the Casa de Alto for unloading.

The animals move milling around impatiently, as they wait for unloading of the heavy thick planks. We watch out so as not to be kicked or hit by the planks. The mules’ pack saddles are well sweated aparejos packs of dirty white canvas, filled to cushioned coarse plumpness with straw. The packs have protruding X’s of the crossed wood saddle tree that hold on their burdens by straps of wide canvas. And they stink of old horse sweat.

The mules carry four planks to an animal. The planks are raised high at the front of the pack, above the heads of the beast; and low and tied together aside and below the animals’ tails. The cut boards show the streaky blue venations of hibiscus mahoe or the smooth, soft, yellow of aromatic Spanish cedar. The wood still has bark on its edges.

The aparejos are mountain-rigged. They have perchera breast straps across the animals’ chests, cinches fore and aft of the animals’ stout bellies, and batícola around the root of their tails. There are thin ropes tied with skilled quick release knots, to firmly hold to the planks to the aparejos during transport, and quickly release the rough cut and during unloading.

The dark red-brown of the caoba mahogany and the glossy brown center, edged with yellow of the jigüe demon’s tree, are even then rare and almost mere memories. Nobody remembers the thin, black dense planks of ebony. Ebony is already the stuff of legend, carefully guarded precious fragments used, sparingly, to pin the tops of fine tables down.

Memories shift in time and space:

I am no longer at La Casa de Los Generales. Here at El Sordo there are no mule trains. Now I am with Mojena’s guerrilla band we have just moved to a fresh and dangerous new territory, in that troubled Spring of 1958. Here at this mill, as the logs testified, trucks brought in wood without first cutting the planks by hand.

Here no mules come to unload. Only trucks carry logs for this mill. The trucks have driven the perilous dirt cuts high above the steep sided hills and the great cliffs, sometime they had needed to winched themselves up mountain sides.

This is not family land. We are far closer to Guisa and the Batista soldiers. Here it is not safe.

At the edges of our night vision, the grotesque shadows of some huge, surviving, trees loom from the living forested hills that somehow still exist nearby. The hills' vertical sides form a wall to our north. A patch of hill rock gleams dull white.

Another rock face is whiter and glossier. A great cave mouth at the base of the nearest hill is velvet in rich purple darkness. Yet, we cannot smell the nitrates and sharp ammonia stench of the cave bats' guano, where we rested the night yesterday, or was it a few days ago. My sense of time is altered by exhaustion. We are a little too far away from that cave for these odors. The dust of the road is much too close and stirred up by our feet, confuses our noses.

The open-sided shed containing Calvo’s machine shop is in deepest shadow. Mojena is somewhere inside the shed listening, gathering information that Calvo has collected from our wide net of supporters. Such is the secret task of the Asturian muleskinner and others.

Sentry duty is important, for we cannot forget we are still too near Guisa and the Batista soldiers. Mojena and the Calvo talk for hours. We are fighting fatigue.

In a groggy and dull sort of way, we still realize that this place is even more dangerous than we first thought. We could be attacked along any of the three roads of this intersection. I am too tired to be fully afraid, the others rest in place.

I am told by Mojena to stand guard while the others rest.

Exhausted, our adrenaline generated fear has drained us. The receptors in our muscles and our brain cells do not respond any more to adrenaline’s chemical whip.

There is a heavy US army-surplus truck almost but not quite a Diamond T 969A, used to haul logs, parked at the edge of the road. The truck is the kind with a hood that slopes sharply forward from the vertical, squared double-paned metal-framed windshield.

The truck’s windshield looks like a pair of heavy, square-lensed, horn-rimmed spectacles. The headlights, protected by strong grills on the fenders, like flared nostrils on either side of the huge Roman nose of the hood.

As I stare dully at it, in the strange light, the front of the truck becomes a Groucho Marx mask. Too tired, I do not even smile.

It is the drier here than in the mountains. There is road dust, red with iron oxides, on the windshield and all over the truck. There is a winch on the heavy front bumper.

The winch drum holds the coiled, twisted wire strands of a dull metal cable wound tight. The cable is tied down with its end piece: a heavy, flat, but thick and ridged metal hook. The hook is painted, perhaps red, for these hooks usually are this color.

It is hard to distinguish the hook’s color in the dark. No matter for me because I am, like many of my ancestors, red-green colorblind. The paint is flaking away, and the blunt tip of the winch's hook is completely free of paint. The raw metal of the winch tip gleams slightly and strangely in the moonlight.

The dirt of the road is dry, hard, and not even rutted where the truck stands on its six massive tires. Two front tires support the engine; four in the back carry the weight of the strong metal-bound planks of the flatbed used to carry the logs.

As I keep guard, I sit and rest perhaps on a log. I do not feel the weight of my .410 shotgun.

As I rest, some fatigue goes away, replaced with apprehension and fear. The lactic acid of my calf muscle’s sharp pain is re-metabolized; my legs hurt less. Now I can feel the pain from my road-beaten feet, and the pull on my shoulder muscles from my pack.

I look down each of the three directions of crossroad. Each road extends into darkness. I think “the machine shop at El Sordo is a very exposed place.”

My adrenal glands sitting over my kidneys, beneath the raised hackles of the hairs on my back, find a little more fear juice to pump into my blood. My overburdened adrenaline sensors on my brain cells’ membranes wake a little. My mind’s fog lifts a little.

With increasing apprehension, I think of our precarious position. Thinking too much is, as always, my weakness. What if a Batista scouting patrol comes passing by.

My mind’s eye is now sharp, and the images are vivid. Such patrols are usually armed with real war weapons. To me weapons are not mere names, objects, or war tools, but animated, almost living, devil things. Somehow the existence of such devils is acceptable to the Catholic in me.

We know the Batista forces have far better weapons than us, hard-hitting .45 Thompson submachine guns, and deadly accurate long range 30.06 Garands. We begin to hear rumors that Batista has recently acquired different weapons. We think these are US M-14s. In reality they are fast firing, double-triggered, .30 caliber automatic San Cristobals carbines.

We have none of such weapons ourselves. We have no such fiendish devils to be our protectors. All these steel demons are our enemies; they are the weapons of the armies of the enemy; they are tools of the hosts of hell.

Here, on the constant horror of such open ground, no archangels ride at our side. We only have the support of our frail Jigüe water goblins. With such impish light spirits: mere revolvers, shotguns and .22 rifles, we are absurdly outmatched. The crawling fingers of less rational, panic-laced with terror dance down my spines, begining to replace the previous more respectful, more cogent, useful fear.

I look at the big, thick tires of the truck; the tread is new; the tread pattern is cut in heavy blocks of rubber. Big metal hubs, and heavy rubber tread with the strength of hati, the rubber tree of Zuanía, makes me think that the tires can stop bullets.

The voice of irrational terror in my mind tells me that standing guard in the open, standing up is exposed -- dangerous. Standing without cover is an invitation to death.

The deep shade beneath the truck beckons with a siren song of safety, protection, and cover to hide behind. This is US made steel; this is all powerful.

I crawl under the truck, under the safest part, under the engine. Comforting, bullet stopping, heavy engine metal protects me from above. I smell the duller odor of engine oil and sharp stink of gasoline. I look out under the winch, the winch hook at the top of my vision. I can see everything.

What a great place to "stand" guard I think. “I am really smart,” my far too prideful mind tells that this is so. “I am safe” my nerves console me with bad advice. The dirt is hard but not that bad. There is a layer of soft dust on top. I am used to sleeping on the ground by now: this is comfortable.

Adrenaline fades. My physiology rebalances itself for rest. Fatigue returns. My neck is tired. My head droops onto my arms. “I am still awake” my prideful mind falsely whispers. “Even if my eyes close I can still hear everything” my mind's voice informs me. The dry smell of the dust tickles the inside of my nostrils.

I dream dull, then vivid dreams. Suddenly, I wake with a start; sleeping on sentry duty can be punished with death. Yes, death by firing squad can be the penalty. The thought brings new terror, new adrenaline. I am awake. Carefully, I look around.

Nobody has noticed. Mojena does not know I slept. The soldiers do not come. “We are safe! We are safe! The Batista soldiers did not come!” My half-delirious mind rejoices in careful silence. I am safe. Nobody saw me sleeping. I must not tell anybody. If I value my life this must never be told....

Larry Daley copyright 1998, revised 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005. 2006


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