In this short story, Abilio Estévez's narrator wades into reminiscences of the murky, weed-choked waters of his adolescence in Cuba and an indelible experience with an older friend.
This is the story of a small happiness that, for some inexplicable reason, occurred the day I turned sixteen. Now, after such a long time, I can’t be sure if what took place had anything to do with my birthday. In any case it undoubtedly was a Sunday, gray and humid, because I went to the lagoon only on Sundays; further, winter was finally shaking the branches of the nearly leafless mango trees, the aralejo trees, the cedars, with its light northern winds, as it always did when my birthday was approaching, releasing its first misty rains, an uncertain drizzle that dissipated like a fog before landing to earth. Winter’s timid arrival heightened the excitement of the Sunday trips. The winter was so sudden and so fleeting, its presence transformed the landscape, as if we’d suddenly awoken in a different place entirely, as if, after so much sun, the country was not our country but a distant region of hideaways, storm clouds, glimmers, and shadows. And that ephemeral illusion, like any illusion, added pleasure to already pleasureable Sundays.
To get to the lagoon I usually took the eleven o’clock train. I say “train” because it traveled on rails and because it must have been one once, and because we continued calling it a train with that stubborn determination to maintain the nobility of things and times past. In reality I’m talking about two decrepit passenger cars, nearly roofless and lacking windowpanes, pulled by an ancient locomotive that, if it wasn’t a steam engine, gave the impression of one with the inexplicable trail of white smoke it left behind. It wasn’t the only train that crossed through my town, but it was the only one that made the zigzagging journey from Marianao to Guanajay, traversing the most remote villages (El Guatao, Corralillo, La Matilde, La Fautina), reaching Vereda Nueva and beyond, and the only one, moreover, that stopped not only in every town (and was accordingly dubbed “the ice cream truck”) but at each and every station, lost or illusory though they might seem. It passed by twice, departing at ten or eleven in the morning and returning at four or five in the afternoon. It never stopped exactly at the station, but a little ahead, practically at my front door. Maringo B., the conductor, was a friend of the family and always came down to share a pot of coffee. Thanks to Maringo B., I was able to make those trips, completely alone and at ease, all the way to the lagoon in search of güin reeds for my cages. Maringo B. made the trips peaceful, trouble free.
I should mention, with all humility, that in my town (and even among many of the surrounding towns) no one made cages like me. I’d learned from my grandfather, and I’d learned well. Not just well, extraordinarily well. Even better than my grandfather, if I could believe what I heard from people who knew him. In my hands the güin reed held no mysteries. I must be honest and confess that never, since that time, have I seen any birdcages like mine. It’s also true that they hardly exist anymore; it’s a lost art, like many other things that disappear from this carefree, dizzying, distracted world we’re living in. Like every art, cage-making required not only skill with my hands but also a blend of fretfulness and serenity, of confident apprehension, with my stubborn patience, with the tenseness of my reasoning and the balance of my imagination. In any case, they were admirable constructions, I know. Magnificent even. They rose with delicate skill, almost miraculously. Tiny castles for mockingbirds, finches, canaries, and goldfinches. Palaces that I first “saw” with eyes closed, always lying on the cold tile floor of my house or on the moist grass in the yard near the septic tank, and that later my hands were charged with turning into something tangible, crafting, with expertise that surprised even me, the pliable slender fibers.
Regarding what we called, grandiosely, “the lagoon” . . . it was nothing of the sort. A little no-name pond, not far from the real lagoon, Ariguanabo, where I found the best güin, the straightest, the most sturdy yet malleable I would ever find.
Usually, the train was full of families in their Sunday best, traveling from one town to another to get together with other families, to eat, drink, give thanks, and celebrate the day of rest. They knew me. They greeted me. When we got to the crossing at El Anón Farms, Maringo B. would slow the train and wave good-bye to me with his gray engineer’s cap. I'd leap jubilantly down the red road, with my backpack on my shoulder. The families would tell me good-bye too, with the delicious melancholy that Sundays tend to provoke, especially when trains are involved. I'd wave my arms with the strange delight that jumping from a train tends to inspire on any given Sunday out in the country. “Good-bye, good-bye,” I would yell. And I’d continue down a path only Igor and I knew, through spaces where the brush became less tangled. A path we ourselves surely cleared, which descended through brambles and sicklebushes on a gentle decline to the lagoon covered with water hyacinths, tucked in among those small, stiff reeds we called güin. I’d approach and feel the lagoon water on my skin. My sweat wasn’t sweat but an omen. In the middle of the oppressive silence of the forest, one could hear a scratching of leaves, the leap of a toad, an avocado, too tender and too green, that the wind threw into the lily pads. And the scent of the water would hit with the same intensity as that scent of September downpours plunging to the dry earth yearning for storms. And I would sense the sweet, gratifying taste that moistened my lips.
I usually sat down on the trunk of a fallen palm tree. It was essential to become immersed in the respiration of the lagoon before starting to cut the güin. Above all, one had to allow the silence to penetrate with full dignity and, of course, had to know with precision the proper way to cut the small reeds. It wasn’t something just anyone could do. If it was cut poorly, it dried poorly, lost its firmness, folded like a dead stalk, and was no longer useful for cages or anything else. I sat, too, to wait for Igor to arrive from Cayo La Rosa, where he spent the weekends at his grandparents’ house. He would come walking, or running, because my friend didn’t walk, he always ran, and he had the most powerful legs for running I’d ever seen. Besides, to get to the lagoon, from anywhere, there were no uncomplicated routes for bicycles or mule carts. In the afternoons, with the güin necessary for the week’s work, we would go together to El Anón crossing and wait for the train to pass with Maringo B. and his gray cap, and we’d sit satisfied between the families returning with their bags full of mangoes and a weariness completely distinct from the everyday kind: the comical burden of armchairs, jokes, laughter, meals, beer, rum, and endless games of dominoes.
That Sunday in January, however, when I (finally) turned sixteen years old, the day’s events didn’t follow their usual course. Naturally, I wasn’t capable of understanding then. The present, very often, takes its definitive shape in the past, so that only now, after so many years, do I feel certain we hadn’t woken up to an average Sunday. Although even today I still don’t know for certain if its being my birthday was or was not connected to the things that occurred. Minor details, small signs, I would say, took place starting early that morning, like Maringo B. not coming down to have coffee, for example, and with what could be taken for rudeness letting my mother bring the coffee to the locomotive. I saw them talking in hushed tones, with a concentration that felt unsettling. My father came in from the fields, his clothes dry despite the misty rain. His machete was missing from his belt too. He joined my mother for a moment, and I saw him talking to the engineer with the same deliberateness. Also, the train was empty. Well, almost empty. There was a traveling scissors-sharpening man sitting on a faraway seat in the back car. When I approached, to sit across from him, I saw he was an old black man of uncertain age. It seemed to me that like all black men with white hair and gaunt, he could just as easily be one hundred as he could be seventy. He wore a sleeveless white T-shirt with gold snaps at the neck and linen pants rolled up to the knee. I was struck by how clean his clothes were, astonishingly clean, an impeccable white, and by the fresh scent he gave off, of flowers and lemongrass, that reached me with more strength than the smell of the bay trees wet with mist. The immaculate clothing was at odds with his bare feet, which were like hardened leather and covered in dirt. Next to him, a fraying woven balsa fan, a small bag, and the big blue grinding wheel mounted on a crank, which is, together with the pan flute, the universal instrument of scissors sharpeners. He didn’t respond when I waved. He didn’t move. He didn’t even blink. After a few seconds I felt the courage to look directly at him, and I noticed his eyes looked opaque, erased and pupilless, as if they had been formed from a mixture of glass and ash.
When we got to El Anón crossing, the train slowed down. Maringo B. did not wave good-bye with his gray cap. I stepped off the train with a feeling that was hard to describe, as if everything I was doing on the Sunday of my sixteenth birthday was routine and, even so, happening for the first time. The path to the lagoon, I should mention, was the same one as usual, but more humid, more green, less stifling, though with the same brambles and sicklebushes, the identical rejoicing of sparrows and parakeets, and the inevitable prophecy of the water with its lily pads and the earthy smell I loved so much. I sat down on the trunk of the fallen palm tree. Something told me I should wait a while longer for Igor to show and for the precise moment to cut the güin reeds.
Igor arrived a little after noon, looking tired and sad. I’m unsure if “tired and sad” are the precise words. In any case, it was certainly not the Igor I knew and needed: the one who was always smiling, strong, impatient, friendly, ready for anything that meant “springing into action.” He was two years older than I, and he made me see life through his exhilaration and his strength. And despite being only eighteen, Igor was a grown man, tall, light-complected, almost blond, seemingly built of steel cables. There was a noticeable contradiction between his powerful body and his soft gaze, clear and cheerful, with green eyes that seemed wise beyond their years. He knew no discouragement. And above all, he cut the güin like no one else, even if he lacked the patience necessary to create anything out of those yellowish stalks. He would eye my cages with amazement, as if they were acts of magic. I admired his confidence, his kindness, and his strength. He admired my concentration, my dedication, and my skill. But the Igor that arrived that Sunday was somewhat distant. He was smiling, like always, and yet not smiling like always. His eyes had darkened; they had lost, in a sense, their warm elation or their wisdom. Even his dominating body showed uncommon weariness. I asked him what was wrong. He stayed silent a long while before responding that he didn’t know, that something must be going on but he wasn’t sure what, maybe it had to do with the day, the drizzle, the muddy road, or having skipped breakfast, he didn’t know, honestly he didn’t. I reminded him it was my birthday. He threw himself on top of me, smiling, pretending to beat me up, and even that game, so routine, lacked substance, authenticity. We stayed lying on the grass, without talking, looking at the reddish gray sky, the branches of the aralejo trees, the fragility of the raindrops disappearing between the dark green leaves.
I entered the water feeling apprehensive and cold. Nakedness proved ill-suited to the January day. The water, the soil with the appearance of water that is a lagoon, was even dirtier than usual, and looked as if covered by a layer of ice. My feet sank in the mire. They experienced the unpleasant contact with sludge, oily rocks, and the roots of the water hyacinths. I walked toward the center of the lagoon as if pushing a heavy obstacle. For a time the water lost its immobility. It moved, though only in my immediate surroundings, in tiny waves that promptly disappeared. From the bottom rose an odor of moss, of cave, of darkness, of rotting plants. I’d have sworn the lily pads made way for my steps. I sensed what seemed like enormous rocks falling into the water and supposed they were frogs and toads. I knew that swimming there was impossible, yet I tried it. My body sank among the green leaves. I managed to close my eyes. I returned to the surface with the inevitable sensation that I was emerging not from water but from earth. I breathed deeply. I looked high above. I thought I saw a white bird passing over. I imagined I should return to the edge. Instead, I waded deeper. The water covered my chest. My eyes were level with the water hyacinths. There was no lack of beauty on that green surface, where white flowers opened, surrounded by the defiant güin reeds on the banks. I realized that from there the world looked different, as if it were sheltered by cathedral ceilings. I called out. I strained to hear an echo that didn’t come. From the high branches of the aralejo trees fell slow, black leaves. Except for those falling leaves and the distant, brief barking of a dog, it was as if I'd found myself in a painted landscape, as if I were the motionless figure on a gigantic canvas. I think, in that instant, I imagined things, more things than I am able now to recall. I imagined, for example, a round cage, topped with a wide green dome of güin. I imagined music for that cage, music new to me. I imagined a silver bird, metal, immobile, with its wings open. I imagined the cage on a crystal terrace, and that the landscape beyond appeared white, white as snow, or at least how I then imagined whiteness and snow. I imagined Igor there, on that terrace next to me. I closed my eyes with the hope that what I had imagined would not be undone. Closing my eyes caused me to take a step where one did not exist. The water of lagoons does not permit false steps. It wasn’t a step so much as a flawed movement. As if I were walking on air, in the sky. Lagoons resemble the air, the sky. I lost the bottom. The slippery sensation of the rocks disappeared; the plants at the bottom were gone. Without opening my eyes, I kicked my feet to stay afloat. As I was not in the ocean, nor on land, my action was fruitless. I realized something was pulling me down. Attempting to resist that pull, desperate and instinctive, my feet found roots, vines, the long stems of the lily pads. Something tied itself to my left leg and pushed toward the bottom. Uncertainty, or more precisely, fear. Perhaps I opened my eyes. Perhaps I discovered only confusion and opened my arms. As if in the sky, as if trying to fly. And, of course, just as I would have been unable to fly in the sky, I couldn’t in the lagoon either, or anywhere else. These are things one learns quickly, that simply become known without having to be learned. The water conquered me with a speed that was, simultaneously, a peculiar slowness. And it wasn’t a sinking into water, clearly, but into mire. I’m certain it surprised me the way time seemed to stop. I’m certain I stopped breathing during that eternity.
The arms lifted me, held me under my shoulders, carried me to the güin reeds on the banks. When I opened my eyes with a long sigh, Igor was over me, pushing on my abdomen, opening my arms, pressing his mouth to mine, attempting to transmit the vitality of his breath to me. When he saw me responding, he held still watchfully; his green eyes, locked to mine and wide with disbelief, gradually recovered their cheerfulness and their wisdom. He soon sighed, smiling in a way I will never forget. A smile just shy of bursting into roaring laughter. He hurled a few curses and hugged me and again pressed his lips to mine to give me his breath. I pulled him tight against me and closed my eyes. I’m not sure how much time passed before he jumped up. From where I lay, I saw him as he was in that moment, a giant. We both were covered in mud and plants. Anyone observing the lagoon landscape from afar would not have discovered us; we were indistinguisible from one another and from everything surrounding us, vegetation, water, dirt, all of which I feel and taste even now. Igor’s saliva was inside me, Igor’s breath inside my body, inside my breath, and that, I confess, made me extraordinarily happy.
We got dressed unhurriedly, without looking at each other, almost without realizing what we were doing. I didn’t notice whether it continued drizzling, nor did it matter to me. As might be expected, we did not gather the güin reeds for my cages. We sat next to each other on the fallen palm trunk, and we held hands. I think we were looking at the water hyacinths and the water lilies, and I think we were looking at nothing. Or at least nothing that was there in the pond that, with so much enthusiasm, we called “the lagoon.”
We returned to town walking, or rather, balancing our way down the railroad tracks like a couple of kids. My raised right arm connected with Igor’s raised left arm, and despite my friend's being taller, with more developed extremities, we somehow found the exact angle to keep ourselves stable on the rails while making the long trip back home. We sang quietly as we walked, whispering: “Give me your calm stillness, spill out your water of peace over the fierce flame.” Long before we approached the first houses, the night had already fallen. A swift night, cold, without moons and without stars. The wind forcefully shook the branches of the aralejo trees. It wasn’t raining, or maybe it was, I can’t be sure. Most likely the drizzle had changed into a fog that erased the profiles of things. It was quite late when we reached the edge of town. The streetlights were off. Dark like the night, the town formed part of the night; they shared an identical silence. We knew the town wasn’t abandoned because we heard children crying and the voice of a woman trying to calm them, singing a lullaby. We heard the crow of roosters too, the town’s deranged roosters that crowed at all hours. At the door of my house, Igor slid his hand around my waist, drew me close to him. He didn’t kiss me, but I felt his breath, and that was better. His breath and the smell of his body, his warmth. With so much darkness, I couldn’t see the wisdom of his green eyes. However, his hand on my head revealed what his eyes held, everything he would have wanted to say and didn’t say. I don’t think he smiled either. My memory, though, sees him smiling. “See you tomorrow,” he said. Just that. Not that anything else was needed. I entered my house without making a sound, like a ghost. I suppose my parents were sleeping. The only life there seemed to emanate from the flame of a candle lit in front of an image of Saint Martín de Porres. I lay down on the floor, without undressing. The tiles were cold. The house smelled like flowers, but my clothes, my body, smelled of earth, of cave, of moss, of roots. I tried to sleep. Though with such elation it seemed impossible that I’d be able to close my eyes.
“La laguna” © Abilio Estévez. First published in Mañana hablarán de nosotros: Antología del cuento cubano (Editorial Dos Bigotes, 2015). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by David Lisenby. All rights reserved.