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Icy Atlantic froth sprays his face whilst he walks along the beach at Baracoa. Behind him he feels the presence of the table mountain El Yunque; he had told his small nephew that this was a slumbering giant with its back turned to the Bay, forever petrified for drinking the honey it had meant to guard. His nephew’s eyes had lit up at the story which was at once transcribed into a scrappy school exercise book.
On the beach he watches couples on their dusk paseo, hand in hand, looking into each other’s hearts. He is wearing guilt like a conquistador’s crown but part of him feels light with the freedom of transgression. A curious feeling; this heaviness with wings. He desires to play his guitar now; an old tune from the farmlands comes to mind but for some weeks now two strings of his guitar have been curled up like young fern fronds. He has not removed them yet – it is too much like an acknowledgement.
Leaving the beach, he turns inland and walks.
He reaches the church now with the candy pink and stuccoed facade, scattered holes all over one side with messages on folded paper like medicine for the bullet wounds in the crumbling wall…a tradition started by children. One of those was his from last summer. Traces of Santeria.
He runs his hand against the cool of the limed mortar and hesitates before wandering in through the open doors. The old wooden fan is moving like a watermill in drought in the lofty chancel.
He wonders how it can be that this place of God could feel so much like home, even though he thinks religion is just an extension of culture, tradition; mas ou menos.
He notices the new plastic-covered cushions on the floor of the front row. Probably bought by the foreigner with the green eyes who pours everyone drinks on Tuesdays and sits outside his house on the street; ice chinking in the chipped glass.
He thinks that he prefers the loose weave of the old blue cotton ones which he and his brother poked straws into when they were small and everyone was singing – clandestine acts only seen by his great uncle. A kitten would stretch out on the fraying cushions below the fan; the priest had tied a red ribbon round her neck and would not let anyone eat her as she had chosen by her own free will to live in the grace of The Holy Spirit. Sometimes you could see the Spirit in her eyes when it was quiet and only if you were unflinching, we said.
The future had changed since meeting the English teacher last summer. She had cried without tears and promised to send him guitar strings from London – the three sets he received had been played to their death through the christenings, carnivals and funerals of the year…
He had loved her for being different. She was someone who asked why and how; cutting through plantations of ideas, but she also had a softness and was one who acquiesced to the crashing of life’s waves. She was not interested in chitter chatter or abstract politics. And she had been so generous in sending him a ticket – a ticket to London. He had never permitted himself that dream before, and now here it was like a cucurucho cone of shredded coconut and sugar laid before him on the most exquisite blue plate. His family would eat like military and he could complete his surgical training.
Suddenly he is pulled down by a strange gravity; he is heavy with his love for this place, this church, this city; the people – sharing handfuls of beans and surviving, scraping through with eyes dancing or skulls shining. He is in love with every tiny detail from the night sea breeze and mosquitoes to the noon perspiration on his student’s noses…the smell of wood-fire cooked pork…the jungle sunrise and birdsong.
He waits his turn at the confessional box, enters and kneels; lips touching mahogany vents. The scent of wood polish makes him a little high which is fitting.
“Padre, he pecado.”
He confesses first that he has a ticket to London; a privilege, a golden token of the elite. He is a doctor and this does not sit well, this specialness of one over others when all occupy the same mortal engines.
But he is not going. He is turning it down. His mother will kill him.