‘I am not staying, I am going to Havana with titi Silvina, and I am not coming back’ - the girl insisted for the tenth time, staring defiantly up at her mother, who swayed imperceptibly on the balls of her feet, her fair skinned face splotched red with fury, ice blue eyes burning in the shimmering sunlight of late afternoon.
The hush of deep impasse descended over the group standing in the clearing in front of the thatched roof hut. The soft pawing of the horse, the hot breeze teasing the trees and the drone of the crickets poured into the silence. Jose, the girl’s father, stout and laconic, a rough straw hat shading his impassive face, stood closest to the mother, looking at the reins in his deeply tanned rough hands. On the bench of the crude two wheeled carriage, Silvina contemplated the impossible, allowing the girl to come with her would be unspeakable treason. Yet her blood burned with yearning for the child – so beautiful in her precocious arrogance and unyielding selfishness, a mass of tight curls framing her defiant face.
‘Marina, Leonor could just come with me to Havana for a couple of weeks’ – Silvina said after a few heartbeats, her words overloud in the wake of the deep strained silence, beads of sweat forming on her upper lip. – ‘I don’t mind, she would be no bother at all’.
Marina stared up at her sister Silvina with undisguised hatred, the recurring nightmare rising unbidden, a deep dark velvet nothingness where she walks with her children, holding her hand in a chain, and Silvina emerges from the dark mist in front of her, her womb exposed red and raw, circled by a wreath of thorns like a dime store Sacred Heart of Jesus print. Suppressing the urge to sign herself, she picked up the parasol, suddenly aware that the sun was now shining on her unprotected neck. The battle was lost now that Silvina had agreed – she retreated back into herself as the blood drained from her cheeks in surrender.
‘Fine, fine’ - She said and immediately turned away, grabbing the toddlers and trying to make her exit as dignified as possible. As she crossed the threshold into the dark coolness of the hut, she heard the soft hoof-falls of the horse, the creaking of the carriage and the excited chattering of Leonor as her husband led her and Silvina away to the train station. She looked at the two toddlers staring up at her unsure of what had just happened and collapsed to the floor, her sobs of rage and despair like the sudden outset of madness.
Leonor knew the clock was soon to strike midnight, she could feel it in the change in the grownups conversation, they were getting very loud again, people going to and fro, pots banging, more noise than there had been since they had given up looking for her. She knew they were never going to find her, there was barely room for her as she sat cross-legged, balanced on the broad foot pedal below the sewing machine, camouflaged by the cover that titi Silvina had made just a couple of months ago. This was her favorite hiding place in this house that she had completely taken over as her domain.
The arrival in Havana had been miraculous after the long clanking ride on the ancient steam train, the locomotive straining at the slightest grade and filling the compartments with soot anytime they opened the windows for some relief from the heat. Coming out of the station into a wall of urban noise and color, eyes widened by the shock, she struggled to remain composed though each magical sight almost made her yelp with shock and fear. Was that a real chino in silk pajamas and a long braid down his back? She had seen a motorcar or two before but now there were dozens of them weaving in between the horse drawn wagons, expelling smoke and mechanical noises as they sped along. She still expected that if she squinted she could almost see the invisible team of horses pulling them. Titi Silvina had bought her a granizado from a street vendor who had shaved it from a dripping block of ice and then poured sirop de tamarindo on it. Now in the carriage drawn by the most beautiful white horses she had ever seen, she could not comprehend how the vendor had made the ice, did he gather it when it rained down in the winter in small pieces and then put a bunch together? The cold on her mouth burnt but didn’t burn as she greedily ate more and more, liquid dripping down the sides of her mouth. The city drifted by as they rode through narrow streets choked with vendors and commerce and broad avenues framed by palm trees and centennial caobas with spreading leafy canopies big enough to hold entire armies under them.
Titi Silvina’s colonial house was in Habana Vieja and Leonor took possession of it from the first day, specially the spaces that were open only to her. The adults had no idea what hid behind the ornate wooden armoires and in the dark backs of closets: entire families of lizards, spiders with yellow legs, tiny city mice with button black eyes, all the small animals that came to replace the chicks and piglets she had left behind. Just as she had done with the chicks, suffocating them as she rolled over in her bed where she had laid them to sleep, her urban wild menagerie would routinely suffer from her unthinking cruelty as she attempted to turn them into her playthings.
On the seemingly endless hot afternoons, as the adults slept off the midday supper, she would lie on her back on the cool black and white marble tiled floors and pretend that the ceiling was the floor and she could walk around the ornate colonial chandeliers that impossibly stood erect by their chains, the sounds of the house changed and amplified by the floor. She specially liked titi’s sewing room – the bolts of cloth, the special scissors with serrated edges, the countless spools of thread that shamed any rainbow in their profusion of colors, the wonderfully mechanical pedal powered Singer - her favorite hiding place when she could not get her way.
This was where she had hidden to soak in her fury when titi Silvina refused to go and talk to that colored girl’s parents, the one that had stolen her name.
‘It is my name and she stole it!’ – She had screamed at Silvina, veins popping shockingly in her young neck with the ugliness of adulthood, Silvina getting a flash of Marina when they were both little.
‘Mi amor, you are not the only girl called Leonor, she stole nothing from you, she just has your same name’
‘She is a dirty negrita! She smells funny! She is just horrible! She can’t have my name! Its mine mine mine!’ – Leonor screamed, stamping her feet.
‘This girl will be the death of me’ – Silvina thought to herself. Leonor was more than the handful she had expected and was so disagreeable that the maid swore that the milk would sour if Leonor spent any time in the kitchen and regularly shooed her out into the patio. The nuns at the school had wondered aloud to her, not entirely in jest that the child seemed possessed by demons, her cruelty and disregard for the other children was such. Silvina would always make excuses for her, but the truth was plain as the noon sun, the child was incorrigible and stubborn as an ox. No amount of bribes, cajoling, argument, punishment or even thwacks with the belt delivered at least once by her husband when she was not around, could break her. She never, ever let her frustration show, much less mentioned it in her responses to Marina’s interminable stream of correspondence as the weeks of Leonor’s stay stretched into months.
‘She is doing so well in the school that it would be a crime to take her out’ – Silvina would write - ‘The trip would be injudicious now that hurricane season has started’ – She would complain, stubbornly unwilling to admit her error, hoping against hope that the child would come around.
Leonor could hear her mother’s voice amongst the hubbub of preparations for the arrival of the New Year’s. The banging of pots meant the adults were getting ready to throw water off the balcony after midnight. Mami had once explained to her that throwing water out of the house at midnight on New Year’s cleansed the house of the evils of the year.
‘Like starting with a clean slate’ – Mami had said.
Earlier that evening before the guests had arrived from the interior she had been stealing food from the table brimming with New Year goodies: turrones in all their varieties, some of them nougats soft or chewy, others so hard they could break your teeth if you were not careful, some still in the small wooden coffins that they got shipped in from Spain, coarse fruity membrillo and guayaba paste, thick blocks of white criollo cheese so fresh it would squeak against your teeth, a cornucopia of hazelnuts and walnuts, sweet dates that always made her feel like an Arabian princess in an oasis. Now they would be adding the grapes to a large platter, carefully separating them into bunches of twelve, one for each month of the year, to be eaten one for every stroke of the clock. Leonor could feel her resolve ebbing. It would be worth it to have to see her mother if only just to greedily shove the plump grapes into her mouth.
Silvina was the only one to see Leonor sneak into the gracious salon in the front of the house and under the buffet table. She did not say anything or tell anybody. Marina and Jose had arrived just a few hours before, Jose as usual looking uncomfortable in his city finery no doubt forced upon him by Marina, providing no satisfaction to either. Marina had been cool with her and did not press when told that Leonor was nowhere to be found. Somebody had opened a new bottle of rum and everybody was looking a bit flusher, even she felt the blossoming of the rum in her bodice, its heat warming against the chill of the December night coming through the open balcony doors.
The ornate mantle clock started to strike twelve, followed almost immediately by the cathedral bells and all the other Havana churches echoing through the night. She picked up the platter of grapes and started circulating amongst the guests and as she turned back to the table Leonor was there waiting for hers.
‘Leonor, your mami is here, you need to go give her a big kiss’ – Silvina implored
Leonor did not respond, she just stood there eating the grapes one by one, unnoticed by all the adults who were now grabbing at the pots and pans that had previously been filled with water, loudly laughing and joking, water splashing as they made their way to the balcony. A few stragglers had been caught on the street and as they ran for the safety of the arcaded pavilions in the narrow street, the revelers in the balconies made great sport of trying to hit them with their pots of water, the streets already drenched by the sudden downpour, laughter and jeers echoing down the colonial canyon.
Leonor could not resist the temptation and grabbed the last pot, as she threw it over the railing and turned around to get some more, Marina was right behind her, empty pot in hand, forgotten at her side, tears streaming silently down her cheeks before resolving into wracking sobs as she fell to her knees and embraced Leonor.
‘Amor mio! I have missed you so much! Please come back with mami!’ – Marina managed to choke out.
It took a few interminable seconds for Leonor to put her arms around her mom – staring directly at Silvina as she evenly told her mother – ‘I’ll come back with you mami’.