Friday, June 16, 2006



In those times in the early and middle 1950s, before the war grew worse, Desiderio drank often with Uncle Joe Hatswell. Both men loved to coax along their liquor with lots of talk and food. Uncle Joe was Aunt Betina’s tall blond English husband. Joe, veteran of the Normandy Landing in WWII, and a painter of landscapes, was father to first cousins, Madelyne, Michael and Garry.

We always called her “Aunty Teenie”, not Aunt Betina the name which she preferred for formal occasions, nor Victoria which was her proper birth name. Aunty Teenie was baptized Victoria to commemorate the then very recent 1917 military triumph against the Liberales at Victoria de las Tunas in the Chambelona War. Victoria, which always brings to mind the very proper 19th Century Queen of England and Empress of India, was far too staid a name for her. We always called her Aunty Tina or Aunty Teenie, for she was happy, short, plump and energetic. That name suited her perfectly.

The same year, 1917, Aunt Teenie was born, grandfather under the name Calixto Enamorado, published his prize winning novel “Tiempos Heroicos. Persecución.” In this book in barely disguised form, grandfather recounts tales of family history during the 1868-1878 War, and tells of events that occurred then in the same mountainous area that is described here.

As mentioned before, in this war it was then widely supposed, but never proven, that the Liberales were supported by secret agents of the German government of the Keiser. The Liberales naturally enough had a different view maintaining that they had been cheated out of the previous election, a view of reality sustained to this day by the Castro government.

The operation at Victoria de las Tunas had involved a Conservador Cavalry column commanded by grandfather who held his final Mambí rank of Brigadier General. Family legend states that at the beginning of that war Grandfather, who also was a member of the Conservative Party in the Cuban House of Representatives and “El Babo” or the leader or protector of the local part Siboney güajiros, rode out at the head of his column his jet black half Taíno hair gleaming under his hat. When he returned from this Chambelona War at age 43 his hair was graying. When questioned by concerned family the truth came out, apparently being half Taíno was not enough and Grandfather, who had been secretly dyeing his hair, had not brought his hair dye along in battle.

This was not the first military victory involving grandfather at that once “plaza fuerte,” a city-fortress in Spanish military terminology. He had participated under his father’s orders at the far more significant victory of the Cuban independence forces in almost exactly twenty years before in August 1897. Then my Grandfather was called, and referred to himself as Calixto Enamorado, commanded the Avispa Regiment. He was recorded in official military records as commended for his leadership skills and reckless bravery and promoted to colonel, by his father Calixto Garcia-Iñiguez. Yet in these war reports he still was not officially recognized as his father’s son.

Back to the 1950s

At that time, in the middle and late 1950’s before the war against Batista began, Teenie and Joe had a store in the coffee groves of Cacaíto, which was on a mountain saddle halfway down the western slope of the ancient extinct volcano. This place was on a less commonly used trail between the valleys of Arroyón and that of Bayamo.

The land and groves around the store belonged to great-aunt Aurora, as her part of the inheritance from Don Benjamín. We called that inheritance the Ros’s land, or more specifically to distinguish it from the Ros’s other holdings on higher ground, El Rocío, the land of the morning dew. The specific spot where the store was found was called El Cacaíto, which means the place of the little cocoa (chocolate)-tree, but then I told you this before.

El Cacaíto was a lonely place, and Tennie and Joe were non-judgmental free spirits. Thus, they always heartily welcomed guests who ever they might be.

Desiderio Alarcón, who for long years had roamed those hills, was a frequent, and appreciated, visitor. Joe, in his terrible, but very enthusiastic Spanish, and his visitor talked and swapped stories. Joe talked of his war and of the times in India where he had been stationed after WWII. His visitor talked of the mountain life here in Cuba.

Desiderio, it was rumored with some consistency, had been a bandit in those times when even bandits respected the family. Thus, he, safe in the wild surroundings, made a superb drinking partner, with plenty of wild tales to tell. He was thin, not tall, not short, but agile, young, very dark and buffalo haired, with a shine of sharp uneducated intelligence, in his bright eyes.

Then the war began. At the time of this account, the April 1958 general strike had failed. Batista had not fallen, he had not even wobbled, but he was angry. As the tide of resistance ebbs, Batista’s forces seek bloody revenge at such defiance.

He, Desiderio Alarcón, was leading a group of Escopeteros of the anti-Batista resistance in the foothills of the Sierra near Cacaíto between the Guamá and the Bayamo river watersheds. This poorly armed group, who's best weapon was an old Winchester .44 carbine, would very soon have the good fortune of performing an almost perfect ambush; but before that happened it seemed that all was lost.

Days before the ambush, Desiderio was depressed over the failure of the April strike against Batista. This may or may not relate to ties to the July 26 Militia now led by Daniel. Desiderio far too intelligent not to know that his cause was in jeopardy was worried. Once, my brother Lionel had loaned Desiderio his best horse, a white and elegant Cuban pacer. Thus, Desiderio sought council, with my brother Lionel, for whom he had worked for at one time.

Lionel told Desiderio, something that he already knew but did not quite grasp rationally. Desiderio was not only poor, black, and a former bandit, but he also did not have influential or friends. Our family elders who had frequently brokered such surrenders were already overextended and could not help.

Uncle Joe and Aunt Teeny, like Uncle Calixto Leonel, seeking to ride out the coming storm of blood had taken in refuge in urban Bayamo. Thus, even my brother and I, family males of battle age, were no longer able to seek such protection; we too were alone. Hearing his own thoughts from Lionel and realizing that to surrender was to die, Desiderio decided to fight.

The site Desiderio’s Escopeteros chose for action was the ford of the Jigüe on the Camino Real. This Bayamo River crossing was near Cacaíto, and immediately south and upriver from the little collection of shops including the well stocked "Tienda de Rufino,” some houses, a bakery and a cockfight arena that comprised the prosperous "caserio", the hamlet of El Corojo. I have described the place before, but here are some more details needed to describe this action.

In Cuba many rural places are named after the Taíno names of trees. The "caserio" was one of about twenty in Cuba named after the hairy stemmed Corojo palm. This palm bears a very hard hard-shelled fruit an inch in diameter, yellow when ripe outside, oily white inside. These good tasting corojo nuts are considered symbolic of a difficult task with rewarding results. Antonio Maceo, dark like Desiderio, was the greatest 29th century cavalry general of the Cuba Wars of Independence. Maceo once said when facing a similar seemingly impossible task, “the time has come to crack the corojo nut.”

Here at the southern edge of the Corojo hamlet, the north running Bayamo River reaches the base of a steep cliff. This cliff is the great El Farallón de Ensueños, the cliff of dreams, at the south face of the Loma de la Viuda de Agüero. The first historic mention of Agüero I know of is Francisco de Agüero son in law of Gonzalo Guzmán who received an Encomienda as overlord of the Taínos of Cacique Guamayabón chief of these lands from Guzmán between 1528 and 1531. Thus the Viuda de Agüero was most probably Agüero widow Ana de Bazán who after some litigation inherited the Spanish title to these lands and its few remaining native peoples in 1529.

Apparently these Taínos had joined in palenque settlements on the eastern slopes of these ridges above Arroyón and the Guamá river roughly below Cacaíto by the early 1800. Here a few miles away on west side of the Bayamo valley at the high rock face of cliff of dreams, that river runs past fallen rocks the size of small apartment buildings. Then the Bayamo River turns east.

Running strong, fast and clear over its boulder strewn bed the river speeds over what are, in times of river peace, mild rapids. It runs past where the Camino Real ford on towards the deep cool water of the lava rock lined Las Lajas pools.

The large size of the boulders, sitting silent like a myriad of island in the riverbed, gives mute testimony to the river's enormous strength in the decidedly un-peaceful creciente floods. At Las Lajas pools where the river runs into the east, laja cliffs of northern part of the western ridge of the volcano blocks its way. This blockage, while temporarily calming its rush, forces the river to again turn to the north. Down stream from here the river flows slowly through the deep darker waters of these pools.

By Las Lajas’ deep pools some years back in the early 1950s my brother, MJ and I had been bathing at the southern end. As we dried in the sun on the hot laja rocks we had had glimpsed something, something well tanned and moving rhythmically. We realize later it was the Corojo Village school’s schoolteacher and a companion. She, enthralled by the burning passion and beauty of her youth, was naked, clasped and impaled by her lover on a west bank pebbled and sandy by the next rapids north. Then, was still a time of peace, but in the very air there was the reckless excitement that comes with approach of a war.

The teacher’s, nude light brown skin had glistened in the bright sun-light; and her long dark hair swung free down her back. There she stood unashamed making energetic and vocally satisfying vertical love to her swain of the moment, who had wooed her with offers of wood to build a school.

It was perhaps 1954, for it was a time of peace in the area, and we were young and callow. Cousin MJ, brother Lionel and I then had soaped and washed and then been swimming nude in late afternoon as was our daily custom. We watched from a distance at a place where a stream that had broken a gully in the low cliff that bordered the river. I was straining my eyes since my glasses had broken. Neck deep into the water we peered from behind a protrusion of the ancient lava flow. The couple did not notice us, until as the magnificent lovemaking ended we could not help but burst into applause.

When we got back to La Casa de los Generales, Aunt Aida, our very proper dragon-lady, had already heard of this. We were rebuked, and told never to swim without bathing trunks again. Of course that would violate custom, but aunt “dragon lady” did not know or care about that we were supposed to be members of a respected family, and must behave as such, at least in public. I do not know if this woman teacher was Nancy Milanés the one who witnessed the arrests during the Oro de Guisa massacre on October 11, 1957, about a month after the first attack on Pino del Agua. The trial is widely believed to have resulted in the conviction and execution of the wrong person.

Now, the teacher and her companion of that afternoon were long gone, thus as the convoy approached the sands by the pools were empty of man and woman kind. For this all locals knew that here, in this place of passion and life, there was soon to be one of the periodic visits of violent death that had for a century had marred its beauty.

The shallows of the river are the playground of biajaca fish who know nothing of the wars of men, for the fish have troubles of their own. Every so often I would see a female biajaca, dressed in her warning stripes that tell she is defending her nest and her cloud of tiny brood, ready to chase off other fish with a savage attack.

The largemouth bass fingerlings make long ripples on the still waters as their swift hunting charges into the shallows, dispersing the rapid moving schools of small silver and blue guajacones. A waiting white, elegant, garza, heron, fishing bird, stalks its prey on long legs. The miso, a water-snake, its brightly patterned back coiled, waits its meal from under the boulders of the shallows.

On the north, down river of the Jigüe ford, just past where the cliff of dreams dies a field of boulders stretches speckled and hot. The boulder field is divided by the Camino Real, which going south emerges from the Corojo hamlet as a cool shaded smooth dirt road locked between fences of barbed wire and living, júpiter tree, fence posts.

The imposing steeply rising, guinea grass covered, Loma de La Viuda looks down on the road. As the road reaches the boulder field the enclosing fences end; the road becomes open and un-shaded, as the packed dirt highway approaches the Jigüe Ford over gravel and buried boulders.

This is the Royal Road, El Camino Real, the Bayamo Valley’s river road. The was so much death and so much horror here in the later half 19th century in the time of the evil Count of Alameda and the Ten Year War. Then the screams of innocents dying had mixed with lows and bellows of wild bulls fighting their way through thick bush at this very place.

There is nothing to be seen on this part of the road now. Yet, to the south the powerful sound of army truck motors of a Batista Army convoy heading to re-supply mountain strong points began to echo off the hills, the riverbed boulders, and the hard bed rock beneath the valley floor. The sounds draws closer to the "Paso del Jigüe". The "casquitos" are clearly heading south, up the Bayamo River valley.

The convoy’s route runs through the widely dispersed houses of Las Mantecas Hamlet. And on and up towards the known battle grounds, the ravine road of the El Banqueo del Oro, towards Pino del Agua, and the high ridges and narrow valleys of the main ridge of "La Sierra Maestra" the ream of an ancient Taíno Cacique then called Macaca Otaoao.

The Batista soldiers are not yet quite on alert, the day is warm, the road still flat threads its way cross and crossing the vegas, the meadows, of the Bayamo valley. The army prepared, but not really ready, does not really anticipate action here because until now this war has been in the mountains.

An officer, Lieutenant “Blanco” of the Guisa Garrison trying to impress the still friendly locals, and especially the local women, is riding, his shirt off, on the left fore fender of the truck, his Thompson sub-machine gun, cocked, and ready. The convoy reaches the open boulder field where it drives towards the ford still out of effective shotgun range. The trucks’ low-pitched rumbling sound sounds powerful and menacing.

The first truck enters the water of the ford. The trucks tires make waves in clear water that crashes against the tidy line of high stepping-stones of the ford. The pitch of the sound of the motor of the first truck becomes higher, almost a nasal whine as the truck fights against the strength of the flowing river water. Lieutenant Blanco constantly re-balances his body on the fender as the first truck’s wheels hit rocks underwater.

The other side of river is not as calm as it appears. Desiderio’s rebels hidden by the thick clumps of young guásima trees that grow on the ridge of boulders wait in growing terror and excitement. Behind the rebels lies the madre vieja, the old, dry riverbed of past years.

The madre vieja is on the south side of the ridge separated from the present bed of the river where the waters flowed now. It is barely covered by thinly wiry grass like the sparse head fuzz of a balding newborn. Far more important in war, this dry river-bed is without cover.

Desiderio Alarcón and his fearful group wait hidden on the ridge. The rebel Escopeteros know they must do damage and stop the first truck. The rebels must block the convoy before it passes by the ridge and goes by the dry bed where their escape route is laid out.

If the trucks get past the chosen ambush site at the Jigüe Ford, all is over for the rebels. This is because if the soldiers get past here, then the army convoy will leave the Camino Real and go down the side road. They will go past the house of thin Humberto Naranjo and his fare stronger wife and past the low corrugated metal roof of gentle Mr. Flores’ joinery and carpentry shop.

There the soldiers will stop, under the shade of the great mahogany tree, in the middle of the dusty slightly rutted road that crossed the dry bed of the madre vieja. There, before reaching Antonio Jerónimo's untidy, little, precious wood lumber mill and the orderly and precise buildings of Aurora Ramirez de Ros's finca "El Roció" the soldiers, the casquitos, will set up their kill zone. From there the Batista soldiers will kneel under the cover of the slightly sunken road. From there they will fire to kill.

All this will happen if the convoy is not halted in the waters of the ford, and Desiderio and his men will die. If the trucks are not stopped, at the river, and the soldiers reach this vantage point, the casquitos can and will shoot the rebels down, as if in target practice. For in front of the fleeing rebels there would be nearly half a mile of treeless, buried boulder strewn madre vieja.

The boulders of the madre vieja are too deeply buried to provide cover and too easy to trip on. To the south nearer hills of El Roció are blocked by low, but steep, cliffs. The Escopeteros of Desiderio Alarcón must on pain of sure death, avoid being caught here under the fire of the casquitos.

Only after crossing this open space can the rebels escape and disappear to the north east. They must first reach and then climb up a crack in the cliff, where over eons a tiny intermittent stream has dug a gulley which leads up the hill to the lava bedded road. Here the road goes up and over the west ridge to Paso Caimanes. Following this road Desiderio’s men can escape to the Guamá Valley and the safety of the mountain complex of Los Números.

Desiderio’s men think of their weak weapons, mainly single shot shot guns, one of which was the tiny, but accurate, .410 gauge. Now their thoughts vanished because the enemy, the Batista soldiers, are now too near. There is no time for thinking; even fear takes too much time. The Escopeteros merely react.

The fender riding casquito lieutenant, Blanco says something, then his face recoils as it is hit by a .410 blast into his eyes. Blanco and his Thompson submachine gun fall in the water. A casquito tries to throw a grenade from the truck and he is hit by pellets from a 16 gauge. The grenade goes off in the truck, the truck stops, weapons and casquitos in the water. One M1 Garand rifle is falls to the river bottom of the ford.

The first truck of the convoy has stopped at the narrowest place the upstream exit of the ford. The other trucks can not pass. By the time, the soldiers react enough to the spray bushy ridge with intense fire. The Batista soldiers are too slow to set up the kill zone under the mahogany tree on the road across the madre vieja. By this time Desiderio and his men are not there, they have fled running as fast as they can.

The rebel Escopeteros run desperately east down the old dry riverbed, the old madre vieja. They scramble across the tiny stream and through the crack in the cliff, by the deep water of Las Lajas pools. They run up the gully and across the poor low grass of the fields above the cliff. They slip through the wire between the live fence-posts to the Barrenos on old road that crosses Paso Caimanes to reach the Hacienda Guamá, and safety.

The raised bank between the river and the old riverbed that had blocked the casquitos fire, while the rebels ran across the bare madre vieja is now behind them to the west. The eastern cliffs above Las Lajas pools block the Batista soldiers’ fire now.

An old man -he must have been deaf since somehow not realizing what was going on- is riding his horse up the hill towards Paso Caimanes. Two rebels leap towards the horse and rider. Suddenly there are three people, all very frightened, on that poor horse.

The horse struggles with its heavy load on the uncertain footing of ancient lava flows that covered that part of the road, as it rises towards the ridge that gives on the Guamá Valley. As Desiderio and his men flee and they began to tire, they began to have time to fear and they are now terrified, but they are all alive and not wounded.

The casquitos recover their discipline and keep on the road towards the mountains. They move slowly now on foot with the slowly trucks following them. A spotter plane, an avioneta, is flying in circles around the valley. The soldiers, still going south, have their left shoulders towards the hill saddle that is mentioned before is called Cacaíto the place of the small chocolate, cacao, tree.

From the top of a bush covered and partially forested cliff on the east side of the valley, just below Cacaíto there is the sound of gun fire. Two of another group of escopeteros, la Gente de Mojena, have begun to fire at the spotter plane with shot guns, a .410 and a 16 gauge, one "pop" and one "boom" at each pass. Mojena’s Escopeteros are trying to distract the casquitos, to keep them from pursuing Desiderio’s fleeing men.

Mojena’s men know their shotguns can do nothing to the plane. The pilot, his ears dulled by the droning engine, does not know what he is targeted by shotguns, so thinking he is under rifle fire the pilot takes the threat seriously.

The avioneta, as it circles the valley, and passes by the cliff returns fire with its .30 caliber Browning belt fed machinegun. To do this the plane must tilting its wing upward. The pilot tilts the wing, the gunner fires, but hits nothing.

As the light plane circles again, the two escopeteros of the Gente de Mojena, can see the soldiers walking on the Royal Road. The Batista soldiers are advancing south looking sideways to the east pointing, but not firing, their rifles at the cliff since it is too far for effective fire.

However, by their rigid body posture it is easy to see that the casquitos are afraid, perhaps, for the first time outside the imposing high mountains of the Sierra. Death is beginning to trickle down from the mountains to the plains.

It was a friend, the to-be-suicide, and I in a heavily tree shaded old coffee plantation on a dip in the rise of the Cacaíto ridge. We had been nice and safe until it occurred to me to distract the spotter plane with the .410 and a single shot 16 gauge from the top of a eastern cliff overlooking the Bayamo valley. Luckily, the machine gunner in the spotter plane thinks we were in some deep woods nearby to the south, not in the scraggly cover of some bushes where we really are hiding.

Mojena our group leader is gone; he always had these mysterious errands. Since Mojena was not a cowardly leader like Lorente, when he took frequent leave we guess he must have willing women behind each hill. I had been left in charge of our group.

We are sitting peaceably and safe out of sight of the Bayamo valley among the dense tree shaded coffee groves, near where Uncle Joe and Aunty Teeny had their shop in Cacaíto. Then we hear the sounds of the fire fight north and below us at the Jigüe Ford.

I decided I must do something; what something I do not know. I order the group to go cautiously towards the Bayamo valley. At first the other Escopeteros do what I said, then the sounds of fire-fight grow intense, and the whole group begins to walk slower. They, unlike I, know what we are getting into. Still doubt descends like a damp rag on what is left of all our courage. They, unlike I, know better than to get involved in such a situation.

The others do not care to do anything right now especially walk out of tree cover of these hills, towards the open fields of the valley floor. They slow; they stop and wait while still under the protection of the Cacaíto’s trees.

I get behind the group, point my bolt action .410 shotgun at them, and ordered them on. They do this bashfully and with caution, until we all too soon realized all of this is stupid, so tell them to stop. Still under the trees shading the coffee, I pass them by, waved them to the back and tell them to wait. The future suicide and I go on.

The rest of the group leaves in hurried relief scuttling back up the hill to the safety of heights of the Cacaíto. I had always been strange to them and at times like this they fear my lack of sanity as much as they fear the casquitos.

The rate of firing increases becoming so intense that even we two stupid ones hesitate, and we take a side path to a place above a cliff overlooking the Bayamo River Valley. Then we see the plane which is flying around this part of the valley at about same height as the place where we are. We take cover and begin to fire at the flying object.

We fire when the plane passes at near our cliff top position. And we fired again when the plane circled past again. This goes on repeatedly in a kind of idiot, formal, 18th century dance where everybody takes turns to do their assigned parts.

We wait our turn lying down under the scraggly bushes. Then the spotter plane with its high raised wings and its motor whining a lot, but moving slowly comes near. It sometimes glides upwards then drops as it crosses the thermals up-currents from the hot pastures below. Then we wait, as subjective time expands endlessly, for it to pass by cliff top where we lie in hiding.

The avioneta spotter plane does not cut through air like a powerful war plane; it flies like a graceful big bird lifting on thermals through the sky. The avioneta flies like an aura, the name by which we call -the turkey vultures in Cuba. The word I understand is ancient Taíno.

The auras finger feather tip wings, beautiful and wide spread in a shallow v, soaring to rise with only the slightest rocking motion. And yet they lift upwards so high as to disappear from human view.

These birds once they land and perch usually on fence posts, their aspect changes completely; they become clumsy most ugly birds wrapped in dirty chocolate brown feathers as if they were dark robed bow headed corrupt monks plotting evil. Their heads in excessive tonsure are bald, flushed red, ugly and wrinkled like turkeys. Auras eat carrion and are considered emblems of death.

Thus, soaring like an aura hunting for dead meat, the avioneta circles. It goes around above this part of the valley and comes near the cliff top. As it comes near we fire still lying prone on the edge of the cliff.

I fired a plane length ahead, and a few feet above the avioneta even though, I knew we can never hurt it at this distance. “Boom!” goes the 16 gauge, “pop” goes the .410.

The first time this happens we get no response. However, when the avioneta circles again, and we fire again the plane warns us by tipping its left wing up.

This wing tilting is not for our benefit, but is done so the gunner firing his weapon through a window just forward of the wing and behind the pilot would not accidentally chop the plane's wing off. Then the .30 caliber machine gun in the spotter plane chatters loudly to fills some nearby woods with lead (copper jacketed of course) and the whole valley with echoing noise.

The plane circles around going south, west, north, east and south again. Each time the plane circles, it crosses twice, once going west and then again going east, the speckled boulder fields of the clear fast running Bayamo River flood plain.

Strangely, it is a scene of almost serene beauty. The light plane flying almost soaring and gliding, going up the beautiful, lush, green valley, above the rain trees and the Spanish cedars, the guava bushes and the guinea grass.

The plane flies north on the other side, the west side of the valley across the Bayamo River. It flies past, dwarfed by the immense cliff, by the side of the Farallón de Ensueños, the cliff of enchanted dreams, on the side of the Loma la Viuda de Agüero, the hill of the Widow of Agüero.

The mad man in his caged bohío in the batey compound of the Viuda de Agüero hears it and makes the sounds part of his violent madness. The civilians keep to their houses and lay down on the floors in fear and apprehension.

Yet again the plane flies by gracefully. I view the world in a completely trance-like focused state. Fear was gone lost in intensity of purpose, time expands, seconds pass like minutes, and the need to live are all that their is in life.

All too is the lethal beauty of the plane flying slowly. Now it was still going north and becoming smaller and more distant against the green of the hills and mountains and blue and white of a slightly clouded sky. I relax the intensity of my focus.

My thoughts of the past intrude into my concentration. Estrellita, Nicias sister, is a Ramos, and Osvaldo’s Taína mistress. Osvaldo had fought his brother Enrique for Estrellita. She, Estrellita, that sensual, brown skinned, secret woman, is Osvaldo’s embodiment of his love to that beautiful land, his tie to the land of his ancestors.

Osvaldo then pleasant and strong but already somewhat overweight, exudes power, in Estrellita’s eyes, his manners, and kindness, and especially money trump a man’s good looks. Thus she spurns the more handsome brother Enrique. Enrique has left to makes his life anew in Venezuela and married and prospering there forgetting his loss of love.

Oscar has stayed in Cuba close to Estrellita. Before the war against Batista, Estrellita, her name means little star, was kept safe from the disapproving eyes of Osvaldo’s mother. Estrellita liver off family land, to the West of the Bayamo River and South of the Farrallón de Ensueños, in a house of precious woods and strong metal roof that, Osvaldo had built. Estrellita lived there awhile, although as the war against Batista intensifies, Osvaldo has to move to the relative safety of the more tranquil cities.

Estrellita had lived apart because Aurora, that was Osvaldo’s mother’s name, was a formidable, stout matron. Aurora always dressed in black, in the formal Spanish fashion, even her dinning room chairs were rigidly upright, formal and uncomfortable. She acted the part of lady of the manor, and moral arbiter of all, and she was scary.

Years before we as children feared her and her little yappy dog, far more that the two gigantic guard dogs, OGPU and Gestapo that the Ros’s had. We knew that, despite their horrible names, those two dogs liked us, and would play with us. Grand Aunt Aurora’s the little yappy dog would ineffectually bite our ankles if we got near him.

Now back in the intense reality of 1958, that plane turns to the south as it approached us on the east side of the river. The plane is now growing larger.

The plane is flying over the great, mahogany tree, above the madre vieja, where Desiderio’s men had fled so recently. It is flying east of the short grass of conical rabbit hill, where the Ros’ TV antenna stood tall proclaiming the Cousin Osvaldo Ros’s prosperity and his careful attention to the advanced technology of the day.

Quickly my thoughts leave the past and my sharp focus on the present returns. Getting near and in our eyes larger the plane flies over Antonio Jerónimo Jiménez untidy rusty metal roofed precious wood saw mill. It flies over Antonio Jerónimo’s, old flat bed truck that took him on so many adventures seeking logs of precious wood and the close attention of those generous women who admired his trim, tidy and handsome virility.

The plane flies over the Ros's immaculate wooden clap boarded blue house, with its carefully ordered rectangular white coffee drying secadero aprons, and tidy fruit orchards and carefully cut lawns.

The plane passed the cliff, all thoughts of family vanished, all the intensity of my mind was on our hopeless aim. Our shots must be above and one length before the plane. Of course, it did no good. The plane was now going away. It was flying above Uncle Calixto Mario's yellow Jigüe wood beamed new house at the foot of the Cacaíto hill a little a very little south of where we were.

Each time the spotter plane flew way, perhaps, each time a little further way from the cliff, I thought of my strange relatives. Then I did not realize the war had come with well-concealed hate and secret vengeance. I was to be the last of my family in this valley. The Ros’s land below reflected Osvaldo’s ordered part of existence, the side he showed Antonio his formal, stiff, respectable Spanish father. Osvaldo’s Cuban life of passion, was only shown over the mountains with Estrellita.

I though quickly about my family, every one of my relatives was different. The elder Ros' my Grand-Uncle Antonio Ros and Grand-Aunt Aurora Ramírez had spent too much time in England. There they lived, and among the potted ferns, the gleaming wood paneled rooms of the tall elegant Cuban Consulate on Liverpool’s on the then upper class Princess street. There in Liverpools the Ros’s had watched the elegant “Green Goddess” double decker trams go by on their shiny rails, sparks flying in the night as the tram’s boom took electricity from the high wires.

There in Liverpool the Ros had become much too obsessively formal, tidy and concerned with convention. Their eldest son Osvaldo had to hide his love of life from them, their middle son was in exile. Their youngest Oscar was formal like them, but a very practical engineer, had designed the road improvements to this very Camino Real.

Antonio Jerónimo Jiménez cared much less about order, even less about propriety, and he, a Jiménez, shot much better than any mere Ros. Uncle Norman a classically trained musician, composer of "Cuban Pete", rumba-band leader and public speaker had run a store on the Jigüe flood plane almost just below, but a little to the south, of my high cliff. All of them my relatives, all different, all eccentric in a many different ways, that is except perhaps Uncle Calixto Mario who was very sober attorney, but after all he had too for the nature of his birth was irregular, and out of wed lock. Now all were gone from that place.

Again the avioneta returns. The plane is getting bigger in our eyes. It now flies south over Uncle Norman's butchering slab and general store. It is almost to the cliff where we wait. We are completely focused again all thoughts but war are gone.

I then did not realize that things would change so drastically as they did. The 1962 Hurricane Flora, with fighting high winds and endless heavy, heavy, rain against trees and rock, would deluge the Sierra Maestra with massive rain for days on end. Flora, a dread messenger of the Taína Lady of the Winds, would in hundred year record crecientes rape the valleys to the bed rock with great floods of boulder filled roiling rivers. Flora dragged boulders to cover the old lava flows of Lajas, the place we had watched the teacher’s passion was no more.

Then thirty five years later the Corojo dam, a massive concrete monument to a tyrant seeking immortality, would cover the Camino Real and the graves of the dead. The dam would destroy all the work of generations.

The dam would rip Uncle Marcos from his beloved land, the beloved hills and valleys that gave him so much joy and witnessed so much of his physical love of life. The dam would send Uncle Marcos de Guisa, to die many years later with Nicia and his wife and son in attendance. His son would never recover the jeep that Castro stole and then put in the Guisa museum.

That was the future. Now the beautiful deadly valley was, as yet, unspoiled and in one of its many cycles of war and death. The spotter plane continued to circle fired at us at each turn. Eventually after about three or four cycles the plane’s gunner got wise and machinegun fire much more accurate and closer.

The gunner now had fair idea where we were. The bullets came much too close for our liking and we had to stop firing. We tried lie down even lower, breathing out to make our deep mountain people chests thinner.

We now exist in Qualibou, the Carib place of death. The fellow guerrilla with me is marked for violent death, and I must try to keep him alive.

Now my friend does what I tell him to, and we find ourselves lying as flat as pancakes, while the gunner finishes killing the scraggly bushes above our heads. As we cease firing, the plane loses interest in us and left to circle to spot for resistance in other hill places around the valley. My friend, the future suicide (he has a name I cannot let my self remember still), and I are glad to observe that these places are much further away.

Then the soldiers begin to walk up the valley road perhaps about a half mile away from the cliff, all looking sideways and pointing their weapons at our position, their vulnerable trucks follow at a slow, walking, pace. The soldiers’ posture still seemed so frightened despite all their weapons, and their air support.

We realize that they too are afraid.

When the convoy went down, from the mountains, that night, our group’s leader Mojena, to add insult to injury, waited until the last truck passed stepped out into the road. Hidden by darkness Mojena emptied his little .25 caliber pistol into the back of the last truck and got the hell out of there.

The Batista officers must have thought they were facing a real threat because later they set up a whole operation to take the Cacaíto ridge. They caught nobody, for Desiderio’s men fought them off and melted away with no casualties to either side. And yet the Casquitos, abandoned and nearly lost a 1919 belt fed Browning machine gun for the escopetero who saw it dismounted thought it was broken, and thus did not carry it off. The machine gun was recovered when by the Batista troops as they left.

Elegy To A Baker

Next day the Ford of the Jigüe was tranquil once more, the brightly colored fish could be seen moving in clear swift moving water once again. There was a difference now, beneath the clear water, on the speckled pebbles of the bottom, between the smooth boulders of the stepping stones, the dark metal and brown wood of a Garand.

The Garand was the US army M1, semiautomatic rifle, the best war rifle of its time. The gun’s barrel was seemingly doubled, as if an old over and under elephant rifle, by the long tube of its gas activated re-cocking device.

The soldiers had not seen it in the water as they came down that night; they were too worried about a second ambush, and spooked by that little bit of pistol fire they knew we were around. The soldiers rested that night in the Corojo.

Very early next morning on his way to work a baker crossing the ford saw the rifle lying in the water of the Jigüe ford. This was no ordinary ford, Jigüe has two meanings one is the tree of precious yellow wood, the other takes its name from the ancient, fear inspiring, fever bringing, Taíno water demon. A demon who makes his presence manifest as a breath of fear, a sudden chill reaching to ones bones, as one nears river water evaporating in the heat of noon.

The Baker felt the coldness of the water as he stepped in to pick up the rifle, but the evaporating chill of the Jigüe is not felt at dawn. For that a strong sun is needed. He received no warning from the water demon. In lethal innocence and without much thought he picked it up and returned it to the Casquitos in the "caserío del Corojo," the hamlet, of the Corojo. This, unfortunately for the Baker, did not go unobserved.

We Escopeteros as our profession indicates are armed mainly with shotguns, most of which are single shot birding guns. This meant having to remain hiding in wait before making contact with the casquitos at perhaps ten to twenty five paces. We have to fire and then run desperately, fleeing before the casquitos can respond with their vastly superior weapons and firepower.

This Garand rifle is a dream beyond lust for Escopeteros. Such a rifle meant all changed, fear decreased and life and long term survival was now possible. We could, with such a gun, snipe at far placed machine gunners; we could have shot at exposed sentries. We could have hit low flying spotter planes that now terrorize us.

Now if the casquitos spot an ambush and cut off retreat, all is lost because the Batista’s murderous soldiers take no prisoners. The Garand, a highly accurate semiautomatic rifle, would have allowed effective contact at a distance, and sure escape since no one could flee as fast and as far as a desperate Escopetero. Now this magical weapon, that should have been ours as loot of war, is lost again to Batista’s men.

Mojena got his orders, I do not know from whom, but he did not tell me where he was going, and did not include me in the group that went. Since Mojena was a good man he may have felt if there was an objection, and he knew I would object; then he, with his conscience re-awakened, might not have the will to carry out his orders.

Mojena led that many league night march, unknowingly following the route taken some 90 years before by the Count of Valmaseda with similar, but more massive, intent. The Evil Count’s killings are very vividly described in grandfather’s book.

They the escopeteros of Mojena crossed the River Guamá at Paso Caimanes, the ghosts of the not so long dead crocodiles, were with them as they step almost falling into the, cutting side, the male side, the aggressive side of the river. Here on this eastside of the river, the strong current is cutting into an old sandbank and this side of the ford has a sandy bottom.

At this east side of the ford, the water reaches up way past a tall man’s waist, and in the deepest part, near the cutting edge of the stream, the water is chest high.

Some miles upstream, the Guamá River spends some of its course underground in hidden caves of luminous white karst rock. The river rushes towards a mountain buttress at the foot of the lowest ridge of Los Números to find a horizontal slit of white rock and pour its waters in it. Later the river emerges tamed and slow from white rocks deep inside, the water emerging as in the suppressed terrifying memories of luminous pelvic bones squeezing one’s innocent infant skull in dreams reliving birth trauma, and the gasps one instinctively recalls making that day when each one of us desperately sought that first breath of life.

This river, although not large, is somehow sacred, takes the indigenous name Guamá or principal river or the river of the chiefs, as it do other streams in Venezuela and Brazil. This Guamá River, after running under forested cliffs for most of those miles, had reaching the ford still cold. It carries the primordial fluids of the dankly sexual mystery of the Jigüe and of life.

The dark strong moving water feels chill. The water washes over their warm feet and their feet tighten to feel looser in their boots. When each escopetero in turn takes their next step they stumbled into the much deeper hole where the end cutting edge of the river had dug away the sand.

The cold water fills their trousers, and each in turn, as they sink lower, feel the sharp shock as the cold water touches their genitals, like the gelid dead hand of maiden drowned in seduction by a Jigüe. Each escopeteros gasps quietly as each passes that spot. The watery hand chills them and makes their scrota contract, gathering their testicles in wrinkled small balls close to their abdomens, the sudden shock adds to the dread at what they were to do.

They move further in and the water rises to their chests. As they sink in the deepest part of the ford, the Escopeteros raise their weapons and ammunition high to keep them dry.

Emerging from the shallow end on to the boulders and pebbled deposit accepting side, the female side, of the river the Escopeteros wet and chilled in the night air, leave a wide trail of water.

The trail of water diminishes after a couple of hundred yards, the water stops dripping so much, making fewer and quieter noises as it falls off their clothes. The water track narrows to a few streaks, to spaced trickles, to intermittent droplets like end leavings of male urination and then completely disappears. The escopeteros leave the boulder field of the flood plain and reach the sandy dirt surface part of the road.

Then the Escopeteros, dressed mostly in gray, now a little warmer began moving rapidly without sound. They fade into the night and disappeared into the shadows as they travel between the júpiter trees, the living fence posts on either side of that road.

This is the road, the road through the Barrenos that separates the lands of "El Roció" the Grand Aunt Aurora’s land and "Entre Rios." Entre Ríos is the land where La Casa de los Generales stands. The pastures to the north east, are part of the 1,300 acres of land that Grandfather had bought so not to go land-less into his marriage to Grandmother, Rafaela. Sisters Aurora and Rafaela and their two other siblings inherited about 5,000 acres each of mountain forest. Rafaela’s children divide this land nine ways to make the lots of Los Números, and each of her grandchildren would receive even less.

On that road in Spring 1958, by dim star light the Escopeteros travel in haste. They can see the shadows of the continual cropped tops of those júpiter trees that form the fences. The tops of the trees bulged in rough spheres with the scar callus had formed to heal the trees wounds where the branches had been lopped. New branches had sprouted from the large head like calluses.

The barbwire strands extend sideways from the posts are like multiple, thin insect legs. The trees and their shadows look like lines of ghosts of gigantic big headed ant soldiers standing vertically on either side of the road. The new branches protrude from the callus seem like fearful antennae as in some Halloween fright mask. These shadowy ghost insect solders stand at attention waiting. These trees seem to know that they are to serve an evil purpose.

Mojena’s carefully spaced line of Escopeteros begin to climb west on the road bed now ancient lava rock, up the hill. At this place the Barrenos, among the night shadows, theycan see far. On the left is a high cliff over the Guamá side, on the right the pastures and then the woods that extended to the heights of Cacaíto. This place is called the Barrenos because here the road passes through where a ridge was cleaved by holes that were drilled (barrenado) into the rock to set explosive charges. The escopeteros reach the crest of the Barrenos at the watershed divide and begin the walk down.

Now descending into the Bayamo Valley, the Escopeteros de Mojena go down the road, over bedrock. They turn where the Bayamo River's Las Lajas pools, too deep to ford, block the way of the road and force the road’s route to turn. The escopeteros then head north following the road. Then, they again turn west to cross the Bayamo at Paso de Lajas.

Mojena and his men near the ford. But this again is at night, so as they ford the river the presence of the Jigüe demon is only felt by the cold pull of the water currents. The fast moving water, feels chill, as it washes their already wet feet.

Little pebbles move in their shoes hurting their feet but the pain is ignored. This ford is not deep and so above their knees their trouser, already damp from the previous crossing gets no wetter.

They walk towards the few houses, the few casas of the Caserío del Corojo under the tall thick, rough barked, trunks of Rufino's Spanish cedar trees. This has again become the land of gods of death, the land of Qualibou.

They walk towards the bakery. Bread is rising the smell of yeast comes from the pans on the wooden table and comes through the door open to the night. The always polite Escopeteros knock before entering. They are coming for the Baker. They are coming for “Beto Largo,” for this baker was tall, and slender. His father was Spanish, perhaps one of the Bozas, probably Adalberto Boza. The Baker showed his ancestry. He looked Spanish, slightly balding in front although he was not yet 30 and had lots of hair on his arms. This contrasted with thick black hair head of hair and thinly haired arms of the crypto-Taíno Güajiro-Montuno country folk. The Baker did not offer much resistance.

On lava flows of the road to Guamá, haunted by the ghosts of the Gamboa rebels killed there by Batista’s men in 1933, the Baker walks his last walk. He reaches the selected júpiter tree. He pleads. He struggles against the noose, choking and kicking empty un-supporting air. It is a seemingly endless useless struggle against a certain fate. Mojena in an act of mercy shoots the hanging man in the face with his shotgun.

The baker’s tall thin body now hangs still from the júpiter tree by the edge of hard rock road. Blood drips from the dead Baker’s face wounds onto the ground. His penis is erect. Beto Boza is dead.

The disturbed group of Escopeteros walk back, they cross the Guamá River, and go up the Guamá Valley, to where the river swings in a wide curve below the mountains of Los Números. There among Teofilo Espinosa’s pastures at Los Horneros. They take the rocky ridge road that road the crest of the hills of Pueblo Nuevo. They cross, the little hill streams, the Guisa River, on the far road to camp. They are back safe, but very disturbed for they know fully now that they are truly in the land of Qualibou.

When they got to back to the camp by the mouth of that Guisa river Canyon above the Sordo they do not sleep. They talk endlessly. The Escopeteros horror at what they had seen and done is clear from the way they will not stop talking about it.

From this obsessive talk I learned with sorrow and regret how the Baker died. He, Beto Largo, had worked for Uncle Calixto Leonel, I knew who he was, and this account is his only memorial.

Larry Daley, copyright 1996 revised 1997, 2002, 2003, and 2005, 2006.

Scientific names:

The spiny corojo palm known in Puerto Rico as the corozo palm is Acrocomia media O.F. Cook (see Little and Wadsworth, 1964)

Jupiter trees, are species of Glyceridia, used for living fence posts (see Allen and Allen, 1981). These trees, by strong tradition are grown from large branches cut and planted in the dark of the moon. The trees’ flowers are edible, but the leaves and bark are used for traditional rat poison. Thus the tree is also called mata ratón, or killer of rats.

Sabicú or Jigüe tree, is Lysiloma latisiliqua. Its cabinet grade wood is glossy brown and yellow streaked. The tree, a legume with a thick tatter barked trunk, is one of the most valuable of the many sources of precious woods found or once found in Cuba (see Allen and Allen, 1981; Fors, 1956; Zayas, 1917).

The aura, that flying eater of the dead, is Cathartes aura, (see Garrido and Kirkconnel, 2000; Zayas, 1917).


Post a Comment

<< Home