by Germán Mora
People from the mountains have no business in the sea, Abuela Luisa cautioned once she learned about our plans to reach Miami on a boat. Her warnings grew more menacing after Pacho Ortega said he was going to build it with blueprints downloaded from the Internet. As the most experienced santera in Villa Hermosa, our hope was she might help us fend off the beasts of the sea during the voyage. She had taught us at an early age how to appease our Orishas, those faceless spirits who meandered aimlessly around the mountains, and whose appeasement, according to her and other santeras, had afforded us their protection. Our Orishas didn't seem to ask for much, and their tastes were peculiar. Abuela Luisa offered them green and black beads, along with fried plantains. I never believed in all that, of course, but who was I to say they didn't exist. Our spirits appeared to be benevolent and predictable, those of the sea were mysterious, capricious – at least to us and, it seemed, to Abuela Luisa, who instead of offering wisdom and expertise, dispensed ominous warnings about venturing into the sea and profound skepticism about our ability to engineer a functional boat that could safely carry twelve restless Cuban souls across the sea.
As Abuela Luisa kept pleading caution, Pacho kept scowling at me. I knew he’d never believed in the Orishas, scorning those who did. “The opium of Villa Hermosa,” he’d said in reference to santeria – the practice of invoking our spirits. Those were not his words though, he’d borrowed them from the teachers we’d had at school. Despite his misgivings, I’d persuaded him to listen to Abuela Luisa, who had seen it all. What I didn’t anticipate was her long tirade.
As soon as Abuela Luisa invoked the Orishas’s wrath, Pacho turned around and threw his arms in the air. He ripped the door
open and stormed out, without even saying goodbye. As the sunlight nudged through the door, bathing us with delight, Abuela Luisa reminded me that the Orishas couldn’t be left high and dry. From her harrowing look, I understood she was referring to the promise she and my mother had made to Chango. I wanted to ease her anguish, so I reached for her hands. “Abuela, I should be okay. I never asked Him for anything.”
After several miscarriages, my mother knew it was due to bad juju. Abuela Luisa arranged an offering, promising my mother’s first-born would become Chango’s bride. She added a clause in her plea, though: The offer stood so long as my mother had two more newborns. An easy promise, they’d thought, because my mother, Abuela Luisa, her mother, and her mother’s mother had all been first-borns. Obviously, they were shocked when I shattered that tradition. My mother thought I’d be in the clear with Chango because a boy couldn’t become a bride. Years later, after my two little sisters got baptized, Abuela Luisa paid us a visit to request what had been promised. My mother protested, but Abuela Luisa prepared me to become Chango’s priest – not quite a bride, but a santero. I was going to be consigned to the back room of Abuela Luisa’s house for a week, after which I was supposed to be reborn. The result was that I’m now scared of being alone, even though the ceremony never occurred. Once my father learned about it, he cursed Abuela Luisa and told me to forget all about becoming someone else’s priest, something I gladly did.
Abuela Luisa never forgot the promise they’d made. Every now and then, she had coaxed me into doing the initiation ceremony, but she stopped badgering me after Pacho and I became friends. “He’s bad news,” she once warned me, after peering into his brown eyes. “That boy’s cursed.” Since then, she had been pestering me about being bent by his wickedness.
Pacho and I met in school when we were in second or third grade in Ms. Ortiz’s class. She was a petite teacher with a loud voice, who was responsible for indoctrinating us into communism and who was fond of flogging us with a ruler for failing her exams. Sharing our fear of Ms. Ortiz should have served as a bond between Pacho and me, but it didn't. It was soccer, which we played every day. We complemented each other well. I was a lefty midfielder and Pacho was a righty. Abuela Luisa had said that we were like the two sides of a coffee bean – quite similar in appearance, joined at the hip by soccer, yet distinct: left was right, and right was wrong.
We grew closer in high school when our fathers were sent to prison in Baracoa, on the other side of the island: Pacho’s dad for crossing his communist comrades and my father for hiding coffee from the farm to sell it on the black market. Nobody in the family knew he was doing it; yet, nobody cared to ask where he got the money for the new television and stereo perched over a stand in our living room. His absence required someone to tend the farm and to take care of my two little sisters, and that someone became me once we learned that the government had sent an agent to snoop around to see if we were using the land.
It was during that time that I told Pacho about Abuela Luisa’s deal with Chango. I remember we were sitting on a rock next to a babbling brook, its water glinting with the bright mid-day sun. Pacho turned toward me after hearing my ordeal, and half-jokingly asked, “Have you been possessed?”
Orishas’ spirits have the ability of piercing through one’s head and taking over the initiated. “I don’t think so,” I replied with a sneer, “but I’ll let you know when they do.”
Pacho smirked, probably at the thought of me being possessed by anyone. I grabbed a flat rock from the ground and attempted to skip it across the brook, but it sank with a dull thud.
“See. That happened for pissing Him off,” said Pacho with a loud laugh. Once it languished, the air filled with the brook’s gargling murmur and the birds’ warm singing. He gazed at me and asked if I believe in the Them.
“I don’t,” I said, “but I respect them.”
“Americans don’t buy into that,” he said with certainty.
America had always been Pacho’s ideal, and Miami its crown jewel. Ever since we became friends, he had wanted to leave Villa Hermosa for Miami. Although our village sits in a valley, next to clear streams that roar during the rainy season and below mountain peaks dotted with coffee plantations surrounded by forests, Pacho was lured by the sparkle of Miami. He complained about how remote our village was, so leaving Villa Hermosa was a matter of existential importance to him. For Abuela Luisa, it was plain and simple temptation brought about by the chants of the paper spirits from beyond the sea. Pacho also hated how few options for work were available. Unlike me, he had no interest in farming. “Everything he touches withers right away,” Abuela Luisa declared with dread after seeing the dead oregano he had planted. Pacho, however, was good with tools, and started earning some food and money repairing old radios and clocks at first, and then car and tractor engines later.
A couple of years after graduating from school, Pacho and I were out in a patch of grass at the edge of town, smoking a cigar he had received for one of his repair jobs. It was one of those cloudy nights with the threat of fog spreading throughout the valley. Everything was rather quiet, a quietness interrupted only occasionally by barking dogs somewhere up the mountains. We were side by side leaning on a post when, without even blinking, Pacho announced that he wanted to leave Villa Hermosa for Havana to study engineering.
“You should come with me,” he said.
I turned to see him and asked, “Who will take care of the farm?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Why is that your problem, Miguel?”
“I have obligations.”
“If you're worried about your family, the government will help them with food rations.”
I shook my head as I took a short drag. The smoke didn't seep in so I let it out and passed the cigar to him. “The difference is that we're not in the Party.”
He sucked the warmth out of the cigar, let out a large puff of smoke, and, pointing at the mountain, asked, “Do you really want to spend your life picking coffee from that goddamned farm?”
I paused for a moment to consider his question. “I don't know.”
That was the truth. The idea of waking up every morning to look after the coffee trees was frightening, but so was not knowing what else I could do with my life. He stared at me, perhaps waiting for a better answer. I just repeated, “I don't know.”
He sighed, gave me the dying cigar, and walked away, but not before saying, “You better figure it out soon.”
I tried to smoke what was left, but the fog had already engulfed the valley. Once it reached me, it began to devour the fumes I was exhaling, like it wanted to trap me.
A few days later, Pacho came back to my house, telling me I could study agronomy to learn better ways to grow coffee and perhaps other crops. The government was eager to cultivate the next generation of agronomists, and despite my poor grades, my experience with coffee trees was apparently enough. I consulted with Abuela Luisa, but she was skeptical that the spirits of the mountains would give me permission. I rolled my eyes at hearing this, but I said nothing. I didn't want to upset her. She then leaned her delicate and trembling body forward, allowing her long, gray hair to cascade into a bowl that contained her artifacts of santeria – beads of different sizes and colors, feathers from different birds, and twigs and leaves of plants I didn't recognize. She placed them one by one on a nearby table, arranging them in strange geometric patterns: part circle, part pentagon, part triangle. She lit some dry leaves of tobacco and spread the smoke over the artifacts. When I asked her about the purpose of this, she responded, “The Orishas don’t want you to go to other lands. That will anger them.”
Her words shook me, and my limbs felt like branches of a tree quivering during a storm. Laying in my bed that evening, I heard the wind descending down the mountain, pushing against the trees and producing a low-pitched whistle that resonated through the forest. It bellowed what sounded like my name. I jumped out of bed wide-wake and stood by the window. I saw a haze floating over the farm. There was something familiar with the sight that felt both frightening and comforting. Abuela Luisa later told me that it was Chango’s spirit calling me to his side. I asked her what would happen if I refused to become His santero. She stood silent for a while, pondering my question. “Don’t test your fate,” she finally said with an unsettled expression.
Fearing the sound of that phrase made me wonder if my life had already been forlorn. That fear rooted itself even more deeply after receiving a rejection letter from the government a few weeks later. After hearing the news, Pacho left for Havana, having lost faith in me.
I didn't hear from Pacho for a few years, and I imagined I would never see him again, now that his mother had joined him in Havana. However, the calls of our Orishas appeared to have been strong, as Abuela Luisa would have put it, so much so that Pacho returned to Villa Hermosa seven years later. He acted as if he had just left, but his engineering degree, a few extra pounds on his belly, and a ridiculous mustache he claimed was in fashion in Havana betrayed him. He greeted me like nothing had changed, exhibiting the same gregariousness and certitude as when he’d left for Havana. He had returned, he told me, because he craved a better life in Miami, but none of his friends in Havana wished to go with him. Maybe, I thought, he believed there were more desperate souls in Villa Hermosa, willing to cross the sea for a dream.
“I learned how to build difficult things in college,” he told everyone in town who paid attention to him. “A boat, if you think about it, is easier to engineer than a road or a building, and I got some clever designs from others who made it to Miami. All we need is the frame of an old car and several old barrels.”
The next day, he pitched his plan to me with the same sincerity and optimism. I studied his face carefully, trying to discern whether the slight curling of his lips was a new mannerism or a hint of his true feelings about his plan.
“You may know how to build things, but you have never built a boat,” I said.
“Not yet,” he countered with a smile. “But I have blueprints. It's like following a recipe. It's something you learn in college… well, if you had gone to college.”
I stared at him, and his face was flat. His tone told me he was mad at me for not having gone with him.
“Except that you haven’t followed any recipe.” I said. “You might learn how to grow coffee in school, but it's not the same when you get your hands dirty planting those seeds. And I did learn that from a book.” For the first time, I felt I was able to respond with the same conviction that he had always exhibited.
“The offer still stands, Miguel,” Pacho said as he walked away, “and it would not be the same without you.”
A few weeks later I learned there were already nine people willing to grab onto Pacho's dream. Most of them were just fresh out of high school and with no prospects or skills. The exception was Mr. Maldonado, who had a wife, two kids, and a few dozen coffee trees. I didn't understand why he wanted to risk it all for a promise, but he was convinced it was the right decision, particularly after his wife had consulted with Abuela Luisa, who told her it was difficult to decipher the wishes of the Orishas. The only message Abuela Luisa was able to discern was that Mr. Maldonado now belonged to other spirits. His wife took it as evidence that those spirits were going to protect him.
A week later, on a sunny Tuesday, just before the market was about to open, Pacho came to see me at the farm. He was wearing a toothy smile and projecting an aura of enthusiasm that beamed across the coffee trees.
“We have space for two more people on the boat, and as a good friend, I saved you a spot,” he told me.
“Thank you,” I said. I gestured toward the farm and added, “But I have coffee beans to pick.”
His smile turned sour. He looked at me with an unsettled seriousness and said, “Miguel, you truly believe that you're going to make a living here? It's America! You can tend farms there too, and you'll get paid twenty, maybe fifty or sixty times more.”
“It may be, but this is my farm.”
He leaned in and whispered, “You and your family could be thrown out of here at any moment. You know how they can be.”
“I doubt they will,” I said, but I was thinking about how the government had taken our fathers from us. He squinted his eyes, and I understood he didn't buy my response. He was probably thinking the same thing.
“At least help us build it,” Pacho pleaded. “For old times’ sake?”
I paused and considered it for a second. What harm would it do, I thought, and I nodded.
The boat turned out to be the skeleton of a 1964 Chevy once painted navy blue but now faded and rusted like our mountains. Mr. Maldonado helped Pacho cut open the car, but we needed more than metal to make it float. The government had abandoned a mango plantation at the ridge that was behind Villa Hermosa after crops were lost year after year by the dense fog of the mountain. Abuela Luisa had cautioned the government officers about their project. “The fog is an Orisha wandering around the mountains,” she informed them, “and she is going to be unhappy with those mango trees.” The officers laughed at her at first, but left Villa Hermosa with a frown. Whether it was the Orisha or bad planning on the part of the central government, the vacated house in the middle of that plantation was useful for our cause. We salvaged the wood planks of the house to serve as the bottom of the boat and to reinforce its sides. Pacho and I searched in the nearby streams and abandoned farms for old barrels to be tied on all sides of the Chevy. Pacho promised the barrels would keep it afloat. It took us a month, but the boat was finally ready. However, it didn’t look like a vessel. Instead, it resembled a convertible with armed missiles on its sides. It was rickety, and we hoped it would survive its day-long journey from Villa Hermosa to the sea.
Pacho's family still had contacts within the Party, and his mother convinced the local chapter to let us borrow a tractor to carry the boat to the coast. Obviously, they didn't know its true purpose, but there was the issue of moving the boat down to the beach without being seen by government agents. Having already thought about this possibility, Pacho proposed to disassemble the boat, to hide the barrels inside the Chevy, and to replace the top of the car, holding it in place with chicken wire. In this way, it would look as though the tractor was pulling an old car in need of repair, a common sight in our province. Mr. Maldonado was the only one who knew how to drive a tractor, and Pacho went with him. The plan was for the rest of us to join them at the beach in two days to help them reassemble the boat and sail to America.
The day before the rest of the group was going to travel to the beach, my mother asked me if I would be joining him.
“I'm just helping,” I responded. “I have lots to do on the farm.”
“Mijo,” she said, using my nickname, “If you are looking after those coffee trees simply to take care of us, everyone will be better off if you are in America. The money that you could send us will be enough for us to live comfortably and move to Baracoa to be near your dad.”
I stared at her, processing for a moment what she'd just told me, and all that I was able to say, more out of reflex than out of deliberation, was, “That makes sense.”
However, my heart was telling me something else, something I couldn't immediately verbalize. That night as I lay awake considering my options, a dense fog settled over the mountains. I knew Pacho’s promises of earning more money in America were not appealing enough for me, but I feared I would lose him again and be left behind to regret my indecision. The next day, the fog was still there, preventing me from seeing the coffee trees that were blooming the day before with so many white flowers that it looked as if the plants were covered with hail. I waited until there was enough light for me to head over to Abuela Luisa's house, which rested far from a mule path, in a the middle of a forest patch. The dense fog made it difficult to follow the path up the mountain to her house. I took a wrong turn in the middle of the forest and ended up in an expansive field that was fallow, a field that looked as if it were devoid of possibilities. I felt a strange spark of electricity in the air, a rarity since there was no rain. The hair on the back of my neck rose in alarm, and I rapidly retraced my steps until I found the fork where I made the wrong turn. I veered onto the right path, ultimately reaching Abuela Luisa's house, its walls as washed and weathered as a dying guao tree.
After greeting me and letting me in, she asked, “Mijo, what brings you here this early?”
“I'm thinking of going to Miami with Pacho,” I replied, “but I wanted to get your blessing.”
“Miguel, there is only one blessing to get,” she said while pointing at the ceiling.
“I'm not interested in your spirits, Abuela.”
“You know my advice: Don't anger them.”
I took a deep breath. “Abuela, Pacho saved a spot for me on the boat, and my mother thinks I should go.”
“My daughter has always been fascinated by the paper spirits of other lands, but she forgot we don't belong to them.”
I grabbed her bony hand, leaned forward, and kissed it. I looked at her face, crisscrossed by deep gorges not unlike those cutting through our mountains, and asked her for her blessing. She obliged, more out of pity than out of certainty.
As I was walking downhill to my house, the fog was gradually dissipating, and once I was at home, I told my mother I was going to join Pacho and the others on the beach. I went to my room, and packed two shirts, two pairs of jeans, and some socks and underwear into a backpack. My mother handed me some toilet paper, my toothbrush, and ten dollars she had saved in case of an emergency. “You'll need it more than us,” she said. I hugged her, told her I loved her, and promised her I would bring her to Miami one day. My two little sisters ran toward me with tears on their sad faces. My mother had already told them, I thought. I knelt and wrapped each of them with one arm, and their faces sank into my shoulders.
“You're now in charge,” I told them. “Don't disappoint me.” I couldn't bear seeing their faces so I closed my eyes briefly. I kissed their heads and grabbed my backpack. I strode to the door, turned around, and said, “I'll miss you all.”
I ran to the village, where I met up with the rest of the group. We hopped in the 9 am bus, which was, as usual, one hour late. We didn't exchange words until we disembarked in Santa Clara for lunch. From there, we trekked through tobacco fields along paths that allowed us to escape the scrutiny of government agents. Just before dawn, we finally made it to the beach. The Chevy was out of sight, hidden by some shrubs, but Pacho and Mr. Maldonado were in plain view, laying shirtless on the beach like tourists with their protruding bellies pointing up.
We spent the entire evening reassembling the boat. We knew the government's vessels typically patrolled the coast during the daytime, so we waited until dawn to sail for Florida. Mr. Maldonado had an acquaintance in the nearby town, and through him, he was able to find us more food and water and a local santera. She offered to sacrifice a goat for us to satiate the spirits of the sea, but there was no money for that, so they settled for a chicken. I didn't want to witness the sacrifice, but everyone else in our group was convinced that all of us should be present to prevent a tragedy. The santera met with us near the beach, where she offered some prayers to Olokun, the most vengeful Orisha of the sea. The local santera appeared to be younger than Abuela Luisa and had deeper crevasses in her face. She grabbed the chicken by the neck with her left hand and cut across the chicken's jugular with a knife. Its blood spilled over the sand, and it looked as though the beach itself had been wounded. The santera then raised her hands in the air, still holding the dead chicken and blasted a growl like the cry of an injured dog. I glanced at Pacho, who was staring, almost without blinking, at the dead chicken. In school, we used to make fun of those rituals, calling them primitive, but seeing a sacrifice in its full display somehow made me tremble. The ocean waves came in and took the blood away. The santera waded into the sea and threw the chicken as far into the water as she could. She hoped the chicken was enough for us to get rid of any bad juju and for Olukum to let us pass through his domain. At that moment, I thought about engaging Pacho in some small conversation to distract us from the santera's words, but nothing came to mind, and it seemed he and everyone else had nothing of importance to say either.
We returned to the shrubs where the boat was hidden. We carried it to the beach, passing through palm trees that fenced the beach. It took the twelve of us to move it, a few feet at a time. When it was ready to be launched, it was already midnight, and a light fog was descending on the beach. There was no time for goodbyes. Everyone jumped on board but me. I paused for a second to reconsider, until Pacho yelled, “Miguel!” As I waded into the water, I heard the waves splashing against the sand, fighting the howling wind for control over the beach. I held onto what used to be the passenger's door and lifted myself up. Pacho grabbed me by my shirt and helped me leap into the boat. There was hardly any space left on board, but I managed to sit in the back. The roar from the beach echoed over the sea, and I heard my name being called by the wind, a sound that wrenched my soul. The air had an edge of electrical sharpness to it that told me something was wrong. I turned to have one more glance at the beach, showing ghosts of lush palm trees embraced by the fog. Under the moon's glow, they resembled the forests of my childhood. Pacho, who was now in the middle of the boat, asked me if I was okay. Our eyes briefly met, but then I looked past him at the expansive sea, bare and seemingly devoid of life that laid ahead of us, and a sense of purpose came over me: I needed to return; I belonged to the mountains. That idea gave me both comfort and fear. I glanced at Pacho, who must have been staring at me during those moments, and I noticed that his eyes had narrowed. He knew me well enough to see what was happening. He had the same look when I told him that I was not joining him in Havana. I simply mouthed, “I'm sorry.” I stood up, jumped into the water, and swam back to the shore. Once I was on the beach, I sat there, Buddha style, and watched them sail away. They all hollered, and I waved at them. I waited until the sky turned pink, and then I headed back home. As I walked, I remembered Abuela Luisa telling me that Pacho was cursed. I wanted to pray for him and the others, hoping our Orishas would help them, but I didn’t know how.
It has been seven months since they left, and we haven't heard from them. We all fear the worst. We all met in Mr. Maldonado's house a few days ago to support each other in our time of grief. Everyone wept, and so did I. Part of me still believes that they're still out there alive, and others feel that it's just a matter of time before they turn up somewhere in Florida. That's not the case for Abuela Luisa, who declared, “They’re gone. They belong to the spirits of the sea.”
Everyone in the house stared at her, motionless, and a smirk of disgust broached Ms. Maldonado's face. After a moment of consideration, they turned their sights away from Abuela Luisa and resumed their whispering and sobbing. After there were no more tears to shed, I accompanied Abuela Luisa back to her house, and on our way there, I told her that nobody seemed to believe her. She paused.
“Do you, Miguel?”
“I’m not sure,” I responded, “but I think so.”
We kept walking, and after a few steps she said, “I was like you at your age: full of hopes and doubts.” She stopped to look at the faint haze forming on top of the mountains. “But then I heard their calls, and after a while, I understood their wishes.” Her voice deepened. “It’s an honor to hear their voices.”
“On the boat,” I whispered, “I heard them.”
“Good!” she said. “Now you know what needs to be done.”
Germán Mora is an emerging fiction writer who is enrolled in the creative writing program at Goucher College, where he works as an environmental science professor. His work has appeared in Parhelion Literary Magazine and Dillydoun Review, among others