Thursday, June 22, 2006



The time was summer of 1958, before we went to La Minas del Frio. The place was our Escopetero camp above El Sordo, south of Guisa, old Oriente Province, Cuba. It happened in an old storage bohío, just the thatched roof without walls, above the camp in an area of worn white karst rock, full of hidden hollows, cockpit country, they call it in Jamaica.

In Jamaica, not two hundred miles south of here, this is where the outlaws like to hide. Here, in this place in Cuba, the commonly circular cockpits as if hoof prints of titanic horses are sunken into the ground. They are covered with short very green grass and hidden interspersed among thick bush, rock outcroppings. It was on the highest slope of the hills nearby. All is pastoral and tranquil; the sky is blue with a few white clouds.

Here the karst rock covers the hills unlike other places of the Sierra where lava rock is exposed. Here, no matter how much it rains, here the water runs quickly through endless unexplored caverns down deep underground. In this karstic landscape rivers often run underground. Then the Guisa, and Guama Rivers could, for much this is now buried underwater by manmade lakes, lose so much water as to disappear in the dry season on part of their length leaving dry riverbed filled only during the rainy-season. Sometimes the rivers dive into open gaping caverns, and sometimes quietly sink through quick sand; then as it has never had been, the river’s waters are gone. Then just as suddenly the river reappears rushing out further along the riverbed. In the dry season, and in some places even during the rains, the lack of water can be a military handicap.

The first day we had gotten here, I had tried to use my water purifying tablets that Dad has sent me from Havana when I was younger and hiked a lot. The only surface water I could find other than the river, and the stream at El Sordo, was in a stagnant pool, in a lava rock hollow, inside a pasture. I dipped in the canteen that my Father had given me, and the water was thick with unpleasant materials and tadpoles.

Following the instructions, into the canteen went the tablets; after shaking up the mixture; I waited the time that was required. Then like an idiot, relying, on technology not on my instincts I drank, the foul treated water, all chlorine fumes, ferment, dead tadpoles and rot. The others did not drink; vague smiles playing on their faces they just watched me, their experimental guinea pig, with interest after all I, El Ingles, could be counted on to provide something new and interesting.

Drinking that water was a mistake; by next day I was so sick I did not know what I was doing. I was in a state of disorientation, it seems that the owner of the house where we were staying took me to some blurry, staggering, trip to a strange house with a strange garden; and there a curandero, a folk medicine practitioner treated me. It was like a dream, or was it a dream.

The curandero, was it a woman curandera, or my imagination --so sick it did not matter whether I would live or die, let alone be interested in the gender of the practitioner-- sat me down. Gently the Curandera, or whoever, made me sip from a chipped enamel coated tin mug, a warm ill smelling potion as black as ink. It tasted awful and it was hard to keep down. Someone told me, it was yerba buena, that could be a mint species or something entirely different botanically, but I drank, perhaps a few cups and soon it worked.

When I re-gained my strength, I would gladly help carry the clean water up from the rushing river far below. It was carried in two five gallon square cans, with their handles tied at either end of a pole. And the pole was carried fore and aft across my right shoulders. It was a massively hard work, the water alone weighed about eighty pounds, and I was forced to put down my load many times to rest. The only thing that kept me going up what seemed an endless hill was, pride and the thought of young woman of the house. She so easily carried this similar load when it was her turn. I liked her, and was not going to let her know how hard this was from me.

In the brush covered hills above the house, was another of our resources. All flesh is grass, or at least leaves. Black spotted on shorthaired white coats, goats browse the bushes, making noise as they moving around in the brush. The goats let loose more than just occasional farts in machinegun like burst of quiet “bruuup, bruuup, bruuups” as the animals ran, jumped and frolicked with each other. Their short tails wagged back and forth like a fast pendulum behind them, and their rabbit dung-like fecal pellets fall to the ground. Their movements compressed the goats’ guts to release little bursts of the gases, of that the primeval methane loving rumen bacteria of their stomachs generate. The bacteria do, what the goat itself can not, make sugars from the cellulose of the stems and leaves of the bushes. These were the milk goats that belonged to our host, our civilian supporter who arranged to feed us, and shared the meat of the many cows we ate that spring and summer.

Our host or his pretty, dark-haired, gray-eyed daughter, soon to be Machado’s lover, would milk the goats into a large chorizo, Spanish sausage, can, perhaps a quart or so at a time. The goat stood still in the short grass at the fence on the south edge of the pasture by the thatched kitchen, as it was milked. Our host’s daughter, her light thin semi-transparent summer dress above her knees, her slim strong brown calves supporting her, fully muscled thighs, her good firm buttock filling out the dress at the back, would crouch down low beside the goat. Watching her buttocks, gently bobbing up and down rising and falling keeping rhythm to the sounds of milking, I envied Machado his luck and regretted my devotedly Catholic scruples.

The rich, yellow, fat-filled, healthy milk shot out from the goats teats, first ringing loud as it hit metal on the sides and bottom of the can and then stilling to “sush sush sush” as the can filled. It amazed me, that such little skinny, albeit fat bellied, animals could produce so much milk. Then came my turn, I would help grind the fresh corn in a long handled metal grinder attached to a heavy table. The mushy yellow white corn oozing out between the round plates of the grinder would be boiled into porridge. Corn porridge with the goats’ milk, makes our fine and usual breakfast.

Sometimes if there was no beef, our host would use his penknife to kill and skin a goat. He would do it very fast. So fast, it seemed one moment the poor goat was standing there; then suddenly our host was taking a fresh goatskin to stretch out on a board, flesh side up, to cover with salt and ashes, and let dry. His knife moved so swiftly, that it was hard to follow. Death was quick for the goats.

We feared a raid on our camp in the trees near the canyon below or hosts house. Our camp was really too exposed. The Batista soldiers from Guisa might cross over the low round hills to our north quickly and quietly kill our hosts at their house higher up the hill, and then descend on us to kill us all in blazing firefight using their far superior weapons. The safety of our generous hosts worried us as much as we feared for ourselves.

We had tried a safer site. We had gone across the Guisa River, now below us, and climbed up the craggy white karst rock of the western side of the entrance to the canyon on the upper Guisa River. The family there had welcomed us also, and their land with its rising terrain, cliffs, coffee trees and position had made us feel more secure.

Yet, we found it uncomfortable to be with this family for they were mean. They had their own children, but they had gathered two others youngsters to serve them. The two little kids, a little pair of towheaded blond Isleño kids, whose birthparents came from the Canary Islands had been ‘adopted’ into this cruel family. We watched the mean mother, order the little kids to go to get water down in the canyon.

Then we watched what looked like a six year old girl and her little brother struggle up the far steeper trail on this side of the river with a bucket of water on a stick between them. It was perilous path, perhaps two hundred of feet of rise, we could see below as the kids little towheads shone in the sun. As the little kids struggled up the canyon wall on the zigzagging path between white rocks and dark green glossy leaved young coffee bushes we felt sad. Here among the beauty of the canyon walls, the pebbled bed and dark waters of the canyon floor this should not happen, it was just wrong.

We had not been staying near the mean family’s house a day when the final straw came. The mean mother kept fussed over own plump and lazy kids. She kept working the adopted kids. We felt terrible. These people made things worse, joked that the young Isleña girl child was to mate with the woman’s about three year old male infant child; with blatant pride the woman of the house displayed the infant’s priaptic organ, and made more crude lewd remarks.

This and worse went on all day, it seemed that these kids did all the work; more than adopted children, they were slaves. We escopeteros became quietly upset, we of course would be glad to get the water for the house, but it was clear that this alone was going to help these children.

We took care not offend for the parents, such mean people, might be ready to take money and inform on us. We could have had them tried, in the harsh rebels courts punished; but our position here, near Guisa, was always precarious and dependent on local support. There was another matter, these people seemed tied to the rebel infrastructure, and as such could get us into a lot of trouble. Mojena our group leader called us together; and we left right, then and there.

We were fuming and angry when we left; we worried about the children and could do nothing in the circumstance. We realized, in a dull and non-cognitive way, that while we might have been given by the war, a license to kill, we did not have the means to help these children. This loss of power shook our confidence and our luck began to change.

We return to relative war normalcy on the other side of the river, the others went on a patrol to Guisa. After our patrol was, apparently betrayed and certainly ambushed, he had come back seemingly unaffected yet more than usually quiet. As the day advanced, it was clear that the suicide to be was already walking wounded. I think, but I do not know for certain, that he had just been witness the death of his father, killed as an informer by our group.

All I know is that before that day’s patrol Mojena had sent me up to protect the suicide to be. I am to stay with him in that bohío on that highest place above the camp. There is nowhere to sit down. We take out our hammocks from our packs, and string them from the rafters. We sit in them as they sag above the floor to about three foot above the dirt floor. He is young, short broad shouldered, a Spaniard’s, a Gallego’s son, with brown, not black hair. He is accustomed to the life of a small town, yet his wide paddle like feet show he has walked barefoot too often. Mojena had to have special boots made for him. He is utterly fearless.

Rocking in his hammock, the suicide to be, begins to sing. He begins to sing sad and morose songs. He begins to sing the sad Mexican corridas, long, sung high pitched songs, punctuated with sad howls, and ballads of love and violent death.

I became anxious. He starts to play with the two revolvers he carries, I grabbed one and take it off him. He says nothing; and he keeps playing with the other gun. The other gun is a stupid, old, .38-short revolver of the kind, formerly used by cavalry where one hand must hold the reins. This gun would, at the release of a catch, “break” at the middle and eject the shells. The cartridge is not that powerful, and soon the US Cavalry, adapted as their standard short arm heavy .45 caliber revolvers, with their far more powerful ammunition. It may have been his father’s gun. I get ready to pounce and seize the revolver.

I am too slow. It is too late, he puts the gun in his mouth, and as I try to stop him, the weapon goes off. He must have been left-handed. The bullet goes downward into the right side of his neck it almost comes out and leaves a lump close to his carotid artery. The low powered cartridge did not have enough power to kill immediately. He does not die; he just lies in the hammock bleeding.

Mojena and the patrol are back, I rush down and yell what has happened. Mojena and the others rush up. We look at the wound; clearly we are in a dilemma. He will die if we do nothing yet we will be killed if we try to get him to Dr. Joaquin Bueno’s clinic in Guisa.

We carry him down to the kitchen of our host. Our host, his thin gray wife, and his daughter look on in quiet horror. We fellow Escopeteros gather round feel and we feel worse than useless. The suicide lies there, face up making horrible gasping sounds. I give the Mojena the other revolver and explain what happened.

We wait we ponder dark comes; we spend the night listening to the gurgling wound and the rapid desperate breathing, the painful heart wrenching sounds of a strong body dying. During the night we give up our hopes and wish him a better death, yet the suicide struggles to live. Finally, near dawn, it seems that the boy, because that is all what he is, will never reaches manhood. He chokes, he struggles, and we roll him over trying to drain the blood from his throat. Then choking and coughing, he finally dies. We bury him up on the hill among the goats, in stony soil, among the white rocks and the bushes. His specially built boots, soft and wide are buried with him. My memory still refuses to yield his name.

Larry Daley copyright@1997, revised 2000, 2002, 2006


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