21 SOUR ORANGES
21 SOUR ORANGES
It was late summer in 1958, in
In the Minas del Frío training camp, we were strafed and rocketed every time the usual heavy cloud cover lifted. We had trenches and underground tunnels where we hid when strafed. Some, like me stayed in the open trenches, not the tunnels fearing slow death by suffocation in a tunnel collapse more than a quick death by machine gun fire.
Yet, at the time I spent there, I saw no casualties. The planes fired only by day. They seemed to hit the galvanized corrugated metal roof of the building where we slept by night, causing misery in the constant rains. Their rockets blew off the tops of the high trees surrounding the camp.
All this I recall, as if freeze-framed in still images, or short clips of video. At night, it is strange in that unnaturally frigid flat-topped plateau among the rocketed broken-branched giant forest trees.
When the moon is bright, it lights the remnants of coffee and banana plantings, the tree-ferns, our crude rifle range and protected tunnels. That meandering chill, chill, stream flows slowly as silver water and black shadows through oxbows over the top of the plateau.
By day, all is red with iron oxides of the mud that was the ground and above that smeared everywhere. When dark, we can hear the tubercular coughing. We watch with dull accepting curiosity tinged with very little fear as the occasional malarial rebels suffer their trembles and shakes.
The rain keeps dripping through the .50 caliber holes in the galvanized roof of our shelter beneath the broken trees, the rain drops splattering onto the oiled or plasticized table cloths we use to cover our hammocks. The ache of our jungle sores on our legs and feet, a mere steady background pain almost like a tingle, is too constant to notice, but we hear the cold winds blow.
We practice drill marching; to save ammunition we dry-fire at targets. Rations are so very small, mostly a tablespoon of meat and a few boiled root crops. Not ready to give up, I say I would die rather than leave, and I mean it. The cooks believe me and in pity let me clean the pots and eat the scrapings of burnt food.
Fragments of conversations remain in memory recalling the illusions of that time. There was my yearning for a Cuban democracy, prosperous and free of fear, and a career in science. There was the religious fervor for communism of the Aldo Santamaría, the commander of the training camp brother of one tortured to death by Batista after the Moncada attack.
I remember well, how Santamaría would talk, on the wooden veranda of his headquarters, futilely seeking my conversion to his atheist faith. Aldo’s sister Haydee, was also strong in that faith, to the point of betraying non-communist leader Frank País to our enemies
Primitivo Tamayo, was a son of our Taína laundry woman Conchita Ramos’ and Juan Tamayo a Black man who was a carbonero, one who earned his living making charcoal. He had joined the rebels with another group, perhaps that of Desiderio Alarcón. Primitivo was convinced then that Castro would give him the land he would never get. And above all, were the shared ambitions to military rank.
Image follows image. My worse jungle sore eats a hole on my ankle, on the outside between anklebone, and heel, at a place where the coarse leather of my boots rub against my skin. To help the sore heal, I cut away my boots and throw them away. I am barefoot.
Captain Orlando Rodríguez Puertas gives me his spare boots, boots so long and large I have to stuff the toes with paper to wear them. The British Embassy, somehow sends another set of glasses with a Jamaican who somehow gets through the lines, but it was the food he brings that makes me most grateful.
As we lay awake at night in our hammocks. Waiting for hunger to yield to exhausted sleep, I ponder the reasons why the roof holes that strafing .30 caliber bullets have made do not let in the rain, but .50 caliber bullet holes drip water on us. Theories of roof pitch and water viscosity chase each other in my head. The sick cough on tubercular dreams and that night’s one or two malaria victims suffer their trembling chills. I stuff wood shavings into my hammock and I sleep warmer than most.
The new volunteers from the flat lands come and go in droves not able to stand the hardship. We, the proud Escopeteros have said either we die or we get real guns to fight; and so we stay, and shiver, and hunger in our sleep. Still I almost as sick as the worst, sicken more having drunk under orders to test the stream for chemical warfare from a strange dropped bomb.
Apparently at Comandante Santamaría’s orders, I am taken to drink the gray colored water and eat the water- cress there. The cress has a sharp taste. I sicken from the bad water; I will contract dysentery; but not die young. I will outlive the Comandante.
The smell of oranges always brings to me thoughts of our Great Independence Leader José Martí words "con el tiempo las amarguras viejas se vuelven dulce mile;" “With time bitterness past becomes sweet memory.”
Memories remain of the sweet smell of the bitter, sour oranges, naranjas agrías that the great Mambí Maceo, Gomez and Marti also had eaten in after their 1895 landing. We 1950's rebels ate, or tried to eat, them in the mountains.
My carnivore and warrior ancestors have given me the blessing and the curse of chemist John Dalton. Only at dawn’s instant do I see reds and greens. In the day I see as a hunting beast, no green of grass, no red of blood. At night all is a symphony of grey and black and white.
The glory of colors is lost, but for the yellow of the guamí guey the sun and the blue of turey sky. In the plains and forests, all details of my prey are apparent. They are revealed to me. I, to my enemies, lie hidden, clad in dirty tattered olive-gray, masked by green among the vegetation.
Here where, sour oranges fall, their sounds are rarely heard by man. They lay on the ground under the high trunks of the forest grown trees. As I walk through the rainforest, I see them everywhere.
They fall to rot, bitter unwanted fruit. Amid the beams and flecks of light coming though the deep jade darkness between the tall skinny trunks of the bearing trees, the colors of the fallen fruit are beautiful.
First is their orange color, looking yellow to those color-blind like me. It is as if discarded hard-used tennis balls, not fruit, nest atop the dun and grey of forest litter.
The good smell of fresh orange peel, and the pleasant, alcoholic ester, ferment odor of rotting fruit fills the air. As the rot proceeds, a white advancing edge leads the spread of green penicillin over orange fallen fruit. At the end a soft, fermented, green-gray, wrinkled, ball is all that remains. The dead and decomposing fruits’ component elements are returned to the earth.
The sour orange trees are not from seedlings of the sweet orange that the Spanish planted to carry as refreshment by travelers, and hunters who drank their juice to quench their thirst. The sour oranges are progeny of seedlings of sour orange rootstock once bore the grafted sweet orange trees.
The sour orange tree was once mere bearer, once slave of the sweet, domesticated fruit. The strength of wildness broke free. Apparently the trees’ root stock sprouted to overgrew its more civilized scion. Then it set the seed that was to live naturalized in the Cuban woods. The bitter sour fruit is eaten only by wild pigs, and desperate Taíno, Cimarrón and Mambí fugitives.
As it is eaten this food of desperation, releases more seed to be scattered further grow more sour orange trees. Wild groves of sour oranges were found throughout the forest of the Números and other parts of the Sierra Maestra and other mountains of old Oriente province.
These sour orange trees mark the path of man and fleeing pig and the re-conquest of plantings by the rainforest. A rainforest has returned here, growing more diverse with offspring of imported trees. The forest is healing as each wave of forest fugitives invaders die and or leave, their little conuco gardens and
The native trees return. First ant protected and opportunistic, the big leafed, hollow stemmed, yagruma trees grow straight, fast and tall, among the weedy gardens, then fall, to let the true rainforest return. Marti thought the yagruma leaf useful to treat battle wounds.
We, like Antonio Maceo's expedition in 1895, ate the wild sour oranges as a last resource. One day as a line of porters, we walk on the dry packed soil of a thin trail on top of a grassy, sunlit, little, hill south, and below, the western edge of the main ridge of the Maestra.
We smell the fragrant odor of oranges, the perfume of real sweet oranges. We eat, so hungry we ignore, for this was a cultivated tree, the potential death penalty for theft of the draconian Ley de La Sierra; the law which would consume its author Sorí Marin.
They were good sweet fruit and our officers looked the other way. They needed our all our bodies and our strength to carry the rare heavy load of meat back up to the high cloud forest and damp, cold, spooky, mists of Las Minas del Frío.
Secretly, I ate the raw meat as the cattle were slaughtered in a bush gully at the bottom of a slope. As the butchers killed, I begged to eat little chunks, the meat was warm and rubbery, I chewed and swallowed. It gave me strength.
THE CHURCH OF THE SPIRITS
To the church of the spirits we went. We, the sick ones, had come out of the mountains, out of the mists and cold of that strange muddy plateau of Las Minas de Frío.
Comandante Santamaría decided enough was enough; he sent the healthy ones with Capitan Orlando Rodríguez Puerta and Column Six to harass the traffic on the
We start down, going down our calf muscles do not pain us, the green grass, the now blue, not gray sky, and the warmth of the bright sun revives us. That night we sleep under a real roof, an arching wood ribbed roof, of a Centro Espiritista. It was a Church of the Spirits, a round or strangely-polygonal domed structure with one great room, a building sitting alone, absolutely alone, among the endless empty pastures among rolling hills.
In the Church of the Spirits we sleep warm for the first time. Despite our hidden night terrors and quietly whispered fears, for many of us are merely untaught country, Güajiro and Montuno boys, the spirits did not visit us. We sleep well and we are warm.
At the recovery camp at La Magdalena, by the tranquil river of that name is free of trees. In this open and exposed land, the sun helps heal our sick bodies. We sleep in good wooden houses under roofs that keep out the rain.
Yet that healthy place causes us constant dread from fear of an air attack. The officers dig a great shelter under some trees, and cover it with layers of tree trunks and dirt. We are too far. We dig a cave in a raised riverbank, but the bombers never come until after we leave to fight on the plains.
I miss the great trees that sheltered us from death. Perhaps knowing how trees shelter the oppressed is why, as means of repressing rebellion, so many of the great trees of the Cuban plains have been felled by this present Cuban tyranny. This tyranny has added aboricide to its long list of crimes.
Yet now as if in vengeance for the death of the felled plains giants, the Dichrostachys African thorn, the marabu, spreads fast. The thorn advances unstoppable through the drying plains of
Orlando Rodríguez Puertas will become general in Castro’s armies, and member of the central committee of the Communist Party. We are enemies now.
Larry Daley copyright@1997, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006