13 IN THE STILL NIGHTS OF THE SIERRA
13 IN THE STILL NIGHTS OF THE SIERRA
Sleeping in hammock without falling out is a rapidly learned skill; and I rocking in this swaying womb, have now abandoned the discomfort of the ground. The advantages of this are many, for I have learned that one sleeps in a hammock because at night scorpions (painful but not deadly) and tarantulas roam on the ground; fleas do not usually leap this high, and bedbugs find it difficult to climb up. Awake, the hammock slightly swaying, I am thinking of my circumstance. Another rebel is on guard duty. I cannot sleep.
It is the kind of the night, when reality is distant and tenuous. Time’s arrow is bent gathered into knots, into nodes of memories and foreboding future. To the Taíno, on these nights, the bats flew as lost souls; for evil of mabuya is abroad. It is the time of Canaima when in stealth the vengeful carry out their slow cruel misdeeds.
Inside the bohío is warm with night heat of those asleep. Outside the open door, the air is dank with tropical dew; the odors hang heavy. Over the sweet smell of yesterday’s sun scorched grass-fed cattle dung, there is an overtone of fright in the slightest metallic overtones. From uphill where we butcher the cattle, comes a faint taste of the black pools of spilled and clotted blood of sacrificed cows, and the burning sharp stink of rotting flesh and hardened hairy hide.
In this still night in these foothills of the Sierra Maestra, the barking of domestic dogs and the crowing of roosters can be heard for miles.
Deeper into the Sierra Maestra, but not here, other dogs, wild dogs can be heard. These wild dogs are not the little, fat-bellied, oversexed sato alco the hamaca warming chihuahua-like dogs of the Taíno. These jíbaro wild dogs do not bark, not even in captivity; however they do have the most musical howl.
The jíbaro dogs, far larger than the domesticated sato alcos, howl their indigenous name “aón!” I had heard them in Los Números when the forest cover was more complete; I have even played with a tamed wild dog at the Casa de Los Generales, but here tonight, at our hidden camp above el Sordo, as much as my ears strain, I cannot hear, even faintly, that unforgettable prehistoric howl:
These larger dingo-like aón jíbaros, as those of the
In reflection, almost fifty years later, I still ponder sadly:
It seems there, on these hills near the plains, unlike at higher elevations, the long eerie howl of wild dogs is gone to time and distance. They are gone, as a thousand years before the Megalonychid sloths, the long clawed monsters that in probability the ancestors of these wild dogs had hunted, went before them. Yet against all rational hope, I wonder wishfully, perhaps some wild dogs have survived somewhere in
My thoughts return back in time to 1958:
The other guerrillas, the sentry on duty and the others who are sleeping peacefully never question such. They accept as perpetual reality the fact of these beasts existence. The jíbaro dogs are a natural part of their life. To them these animals are not on the plains only on the high mountains.
I hear the shrill, almost tinny and toy-like distant crows of tiny white dwarf roosters. These are the cries of the gallos enanos.
These birds and their quietly clucking hens rest safe high up in the large spreading limbs of the algarrobos, the giant rain trees of the potrero pastures. From inside their own cock-training bohío, comes the not-quite-so-shrill cry of the gamecocks, the gallos finos.
I think of this in my old age:
Cockfighting is clearly an old world cruelty more ancient than bloodthirsty Imperial Rome. Here in the
Although forbidden by U.S. General Leonard Wood and first Cuban President Estrada Palma, la lidia de gallos, has openly or secretly burned the souls of the islanders with its particular libidinous and bloodthirsty corruption. Some say in his old age Amelio Mojena breeds them now near Guisa. The Mexican, Francisco Tamayo Rodríguez, was once seen betting on them among those on the edge of law in
And my thoughts return to times before this war:
I remember the gallo de lidia from Uncle Levarbo’s training barn. These fighting cocks are young. The wattles under their killer beaks are not yet grown. On entry into their schloae gladiatoriae, what an Ancient Roman would call their training room, sunlight flashes suddenly from the opening door. Irises contracting from large and round to oval and far smaller, their beady yellow-red eyes are reptilian and evil. In their eyes, masked and unmasked by the upwards and downward movements of the thin veil of their nictitating third membrane, their pupils do dances of constant vigil. They are searching for enemies searching for danger, looking for a fight.
No opponent can seize them by their coxcombs, for their heads are razor shorn. This loose blood-red fleshy naked crest has been cropped to a stubby Mohawk. A secondary male characteristic has been removed in a certain sense they are pseudo-castrated.
Strong muscled thighs, shaved bare, are covered only with pinfeather stubble. Beneath the feathered glory of their varicolored plumed bodies, the cock’s strangely feminine thighs are displayed like the limbs of cheerleaders beneath ornate, miniscule skirts.
The muscles of the bared thighs of the gamecocks are trained and strong. Yet these thighs tremble with cold, adrenaline, and anticipation of the fight to the death.
The cock’s legs, unlike their thighs are thin, mere bone and cords of strong tendon. Their spurs are cut back to nubbins.
The nubbins wait the day of killing to be covered. They will be attached to man-made spurs as if artificial leg prosthesis of amputees.
Carved from the spur ivory of older larger roosters, the razor sharp killer spurs, are kept by their master in a little box. The box and its contents are guarded like bejeweled treasures.
These spurs are only placed on the animals minutes prior to combat. Then, once the spurs are mounted, the birds must be held careful. One slip and these spurs driven by the thrashing of nervous cock’s strong thighs can open veins on their owners’ arms.
Now still in training, the gallos finos are restrained in their barn or bohío. Each is tied by one leg, to their carefully spaced gladiatorial posts. If let loose they would fight each other. They would dance and leap on their long splayed clawed-toe dinosaur feet. Their killer beaks would give death, even as the birds themselves die.
Here in their own bohio or barn, tied down and imprisoned like Roman gladiators in their training schloae gladiatoriae, the roosters’ crow in futile challenges. They must know they cannot reach other and yet they strain their restraints to try to free themselves.
Inside ourguerrilla bohío, inside our own schloae gladiatoriae, the other rebels sleep soundly. They have their fears, but their night wraiths do not have my introspective intensity. They do not consciously imagine themselves as gamecocks waiting to fight the cock pit valla. It is said that Ulysses S. Grant’s ability to sleep soundly like my companions do, is what made him able to keep a clear mind in the pending horror of an eve of battle. I am not so lucky as they. My sleep is often restless.
The gamecock is the symbol of the Guajiro, the warrior like country folk of
Bull fighting was banned in the
Wars, and more vicious air planes, came again to
The large proud criollo roosters with their long horny spurs and dense heavy plumage awaken from their rest in their trees in the farmyards’ bateyes. They hear the sounds of distant dogs barking.
Massive feathered thighs shift and slip clumsily on roost branches. These roosters are heavily crested with floppy, crinkled and naked red fleshy. Matching great wattles hang as paired pseudo-testicles below the back of their beaks. They are free to mate as they wish.
Loudly these cock lords give warning of their dominion. The heavier, deeper tones of the gallos criollos, arise in the bateys in the valleys and bounce off the high forested hills.
The cock-crows usually grow more intense and frequently as, la madrugada, the dawn comes. At night bats, fast moving shadows above us fly against a star lit sky, and flit rapidly erratically across our view. When morning nears the bats return to their bone white caves in the Los Llanos Plateau. The bats have not yet left to rest and sleep the day. They are still flitting as the cocks crow continually.
The other rebels are mostly Güajiros. They used to the sound stir little in sleep when a cock crows occasionally throughout the night. This is different it is not morning. The birds should not be making noise. Something is moving out in the night, the birds’ cries are now frequent warnings.
The hens shift their feet and cluck softly to their young on their hidden ground refuges, or in their roosts. Too far from here to be hurd, the wild dogs howl in far high mountains. A nightrider, on the road through Pueblo Nuevo, and El Sordo stirs the sounds of the dogs as he passes each batey in turn. We pay attention this road ends in Guisa.
We too know, that the dogs are telling us that somebody is coming. The wind is cool and chill; the dew is on the grass. The pools of water on the road from yesterday’s rains are half silver, half shadow.
Yet now more experienced in war, we sense little danger for the sounds stay far away, and slowly fade. It is a single rider. His mission we do not know. However, we want no fight tonight, we will avoid the visitor and he us.
We all but the sentry sleep again. We have thin blankets over our heads and bodies for warmth and to ward off mosquitoes. Oiled tablecloths over the blankets keep out the rain that drips slowly through our own bohío’s roof.
Dawn comes again with more cock crows. We can see the light through the spaces the length of the blankets open weave. We get up before the sun. Our strength is back, restored by a nights rest in our coarse burlap sack hammocks
The full powerful stream, the splashing sounds, and the slightly gamy smell of urination of healthy male youth is heard and smelled. We are peeing among the low smooth scattered white limestone rock outcroppings throughout the clearing.
The air is cool and full of oxygen. Ramón's very dark skinned, buffalo haired and voluptuous sister has left. Of perhaps fifteen of us, she has serviced all but two.
Ramón her brother is ashamed of the depth of his sister's desires and her not so quiet moans last night. He ignores the whispers of gossiping appreciation of the other escopeteros. He says nothing now, but his silence betrays of his embarrassment.
I, the devout but still young Catholic feel, abstinence intensified. It was not even the idea of sloppy seconds that had held me back. After all she had approached me first, and I had sent her gently away.
My burning, gnawing regrets for forgoing carnal ecstasies are too now hid by silence. The ever-present fear of the sudden violent death all around keeps my faith true, at least for now.
My difference from the others is made more apparent. I have rejected this free gift of carnal communion. I did not partake of her as they did. I did not share in this feast of the flesh.
I am not the same as them, they know it. This makes difference. They dislike me for it.
They are as ethically free loving as their ancestral mothers the Taína. They know not that Catholics consider unsanctioned sex a grievous mortal sin, and sharing such an even more evil horror. Even if they did know, they would not care.
Somehow this difference makes them better soldiers, and I am less useful in war.
We start without breakfast. The grass is wet with dews, and the streams are ice cold. We, ignoring Gideon’s biblical wariness, dip our heads deeply into the iron tasting water before we cross the fords.
We avoid the unstable stepping-stones, for we could slip, and in falling, wet our weapons. We, instead, just slosh through the stream.
Out of the stream on the other side, our wet boots trail water. We wear boots with out socks, and the boots’ their unyielding stiffness cuts slightly and hurts the skin stretched over our ankle bones. Our wet pant legs rub together between our legs, and chap our thighs.
We walk the many miles on the hard packed soil of the hill paths. Our guns are balanced in our loosely, but so carefully dangling, right hands. Our weapons are part of ourselves, and thus weightless.
Our burdens are not part of us. They are heavy, but we are strong. We will walk far before the sun and the weight pulling on the shoulder cutting rope straps of our jute sack jolongo packs, slows our pace.
The sun rises and begins to warm our chilled bones. The deep shadows flee, first to hide in the dips in the road, then to fade almost entirely to the spaces below the trees.
The bright sunlight of the Cuban day, weak at first, then stronger and stronger until light floods everything washing colors to lighter shades. The spotter planes could come from behind any ridge now.
We are ready alert, but much less afraid than before, my companions for their reasons; me for mine.
Larry Daley copyright@1996 revised 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006.