Como un Fantasma (Like a Ghost)

With her coat pulled around her in a hug, Miela walks through the market, her path criss-crossed by streaks of pale sunshine that slip in between the open stalls. Picking up plantains, smelling lemons, caressing mangoes, Miela dreams shrimp-colored houses and sighing blue water. Thinks of her grandfather, her abuelito, and how they walked together to market, long ago, her hand swallowed up in his.

She wills herself not to remember the taste of avocados, like crushed green velvet across her tongue. Alligator pears, her grandfather called them, as he slit their gnarled hides with a perfect motion of hand and knife. That time is just a dream to her now, here in the cold and dark of this far-away place.

“Venga, venga, niña,” her grandfather calls to her, his voice echoing through the vast kitchen. He listens, hearing muffled thuds as she pounds down the stairs, arrows through the swinging door that leads from the hallway into the kitchen.  Quick-fast, the slap of her tiny bare feet across the bright blue tiles, then into her grandfather’s embrace.

“Abuelito, Abuelito!” she cries, hugging as much of him as her five-year-old arms can reach around. “Good morning, Grampa,” she says into the collar of his shirt as he lifts her up against his chest. His mustache tickles her forehead, catching in her dark curls.    

“Si, si, niña,” he sing-songs in his gravelly voice, bouncing her up to sit more firmly in the crook of his arm. He looks closely at her face, squinting.  “Someone went to bed with a dirty face last night, eh, little girl?  I wonder who that could be…” Shakes his head, sighing.

Alone now, wandering the aisles of a different city market in a different country, Miela still smells the same ripe, the same wet, the same salty tingle in the air around her.  Commercial Street market—so crowded, so noisy, so full of reds and greens and golds.  People move around her, ebbing and flowing in private tides, as unaware of her as she chooses to be of them. The sun, pale and stingy so far north, can’t warm her so she cuddles deeper into her coat.

Miela shifts the net bag she carries over her left arm; the weight of oranges and limes bites into her skin. She knows her grandfather would have insisted on carrying the bag, even when his hands ached from the change in weather that blows in ahead of the hurricanes. How her grandfather would have hated this city, she thinks, with its cold and its winds that blow the memory of warm out of your heart.

“My face wasn’t dirty last night, Abuelito,” Miela assures her grandfather, on eye level with him. “I think La Llorona did it. I heard her crying last night. I was scared until Mami came in to sit with me.”

The crying woman, they call her—La Llorona, crying for those who will never return. Here on the island, parents once used such stories to frighten their children, keeping them home and in bed at night. Now, the crying woman weeps instead for all the watched and wanted men, imprisoned for the passion of their beliefs. “You can push a man so far,” they are fond of saying in Havana, “but a dictator not at all…”

Her grandfather watches Miela, but her eyes tell him she does not guess that it is her mother who weeps in the night. Miela is still untouched by the weight of her father’s absence; she has never even seen the man whose name she carries.

“You have his eyes,” Mami likes to tell her, “like the golden raisins Abuelito buys for you in the market.”

Miela can’t understand why her mami is always so strict, so guarded, so sad. Why she sits, looking out her window toward the sea every night, not seeming to notice Miela hovering in the doorway. “Night, Mami,” she whispers, always hoping her mother will turn and notice her. Miela wishes the crying woman and the soldiers with all their questions would just leave her mami in peace.

Miela pauses in front of one of the many produce stands that dot the market, rubbing at the red marks the bag made on her wrist. All around her, people are choosing and shouting and bargaining in different languages. Miela focuses on the selection of greens in front of her, trying to guess what she will use for the next few days.

“A pound of the mesclun mix,” she requests, raising her voice so the stall-keeper can hear her over the sea of sounds on every side. Miela watches the woman thrust great bunches of the mixed greens into a crumpled paper bag, then toss the whole thing into the swaying scales that hang from a hook overhead.

The woman eyes the needle, not giving it a chance to settle before she shouts, “Close enough—next?” and turns to the heavy-set man jockeying for a position behind Miela. A teenager working in the stall plucks the bag out of the scales and grins at Miela. He points to a hand-lettered sign stapled to the mesclun bin, then raises four fingers, shaking them back and forth.

“Four dollars,” he says, “special for you, no?”

Miela rests her bag down between her feet and begins to fish in her pocket for some money. She drags out some rumpled bills and a handful of coins. It takes three singles and most of her change. Just enough left to make a phone call. You never could tell what might happen, her grandfather and her mami used to warn her. Miela drops the money in the boy’s outstretched hand and he gives her the salad she’s chosen. She stoops, tucking the sack of greens into her net bag, on top of the oranges.

“Gracias,” the boy calls after her as Miela straightens up and walks away. She can feel the weight of his eyes on her, making her uneasy until she is swallowed up by the waves of the crowd. Miela can’t readily place his accent; there are too many to keep up with any more.  Down here, in the Havanita section of the city, you can hear everything from Cubano slang to Tex-Mex Spanglish in any given block.

She dreams of the real Havana with its old stone streets and frowning colonial facades, all rising from the midst of an island as green as the sea that laps its shores. How grown-up she felt there, tasting tiny, steaming sips of her grandfather’s cafe con leche. Miela can’t help smiling; after all these years, she still prefers her coffee to be little more than steamed cream and sugar.

The room behind the bar is tiny, dark, pungent with generations of old cigars. It is filled with men, mostly gray-haired, like her grandfather. Miela is blinded by the darkness for a moment, after the brilliant afternoon sun. Somewhere in the smoke, someone is murmuring through the tangles of a plaintive guitar. Her grandfather squeezes her shoulder, urging her forward.  She’s relieved to be out of sight of all the soldiers that lounge around the buildings and sit in their jeeps, watching.

“Don Huberto!” someone cries as Miela’s grandfather appears in the doorway.  Other voices join in the greeting; he is an intimate of this private place. Miela nearly loses sight of him for a moment as the sea of light shirts, open at the throat, and worn brown hands open to swallow him. He resurfaces to catch Miela’s arm and guide her to a seat.

“Aye, Cabrito—una bebida dulce para la nieta,” Miela’s grandfather shouts to a man half-hidden behind the long bar. “Something sweet for my granddaughter.”

He disappears again for a time into the murmur of voices, becoming one of many. Miela sips slowly at the cup someone has handed her, pleased that the man served her something grown up for a change. After all, she is nearly 12 now. The coffee is sweet, and she savors the thick sugar feel of it in her mouth. The cup itself is tiny, doll-sized almost, and she sees that some of the men have more than a dozen stacked in front of them on their tables. Miela closes her eyes against the smoke, pretending she is a film star in some dim cabaret. She hears the men around her talking, arguing with her grandfather.

“Crazy!” one of them shouts. “Worse than a madman—you are as good as dead! First it was your idiot son-in-law that couldn’t keep his mouth closed—soon it will be you!”

Miela opens one eye, sees nothing. She supposes they are talking about her father again.  Men are never at peace unless they are at war, her mami has told her, her gaze never wavering from her window that looks out in the direction of the prison where she hopes Miela’s father is still alive.

Drifting with her memories, Miela doesn’t notice that an elderly gentleman has halted at a seafood stall right in front of her. His back is turned to the crowd as he stops to examine a pile of glassy-eyed yellowtails. Miela stumbles against him, and he lurches forward, plunging his hands down in the crushed ice and melting water that surrounds the fish.

“Perdoneme, senor,” she begins, flustered, reaching out to the man, hoping she can make it better, somehow. Her bag of oranges and limes and mesclun swing forward with the motion, bumping the man in the stomach as he turns.

“Boof!” he says, or something like it, as the bag catches him squarely in his little pot belly. Miela drops her hands, unsure of what to do with them, and the bag swings back and forth like a pendulum. The man looks at her for a moment, then begins shaking his hands. The cuffs of his coat are soaked with dirty, fishy water, and a few loose scales cling to the gray hair on the backs of his wrists.

“Are you all right?” Miela asks him, in English. She doesn’t know if the man will understand either of her languages; the Spanish that comes first without thought, or the English that follows when she is more in control. People are still streaming around them on both sides, but only the selection of dead fish seems to pay any attention, staring with fixed eyes as Miela struggles for words and the man flaps his sleeves.

He begins to laugh, catching Miela by surprise. She had expected him to be angry, to lash out at her for her clumsiness. Her face warms a little; she wants to respond to this man’s light-hearted acceptance of the situation. His hands, his whole body—shake, shake, shake—he laughs and the sound seems to run right out of his sleeves down to his fishy coat cuffs.

“I did not expect to fish here, in the market,” the man says, his face turning red from his laughter. He gives his hands a final, finishing shake, then reaches into his coat for a handkerchief. He scrubs at his hands with the cloth, keeping one corner clean to wipe his eyes after he removes all the scales from his wrists and fingers. He tucks the soiled handkerchief out of sight in his coat pocket, then looks at Miela, looking at him.

It is something in his face that makes Miela hesitate. He is very like her grandfather, somehow, in the droop of his grizzled mustache and the faint gold wink of a tooth behind his parted lips. Like the old suit jacket he wears, this man is all frayed seams and shiny places and best-worn-for-better until it’s worn out. Miela devours the sight of him, like a ghost she has not seen in years. From long habit, her hand goes to the button she wears like a charm on the chain around her neck.

With faint weeping and lips of cold marble—La Llorona has come for her at last, to take her from her mami. “There will be no peace for those who weep,” she warns Miela, wailing, trailing the ragged shrouds of spent storms behind her. 

Miela strains away from her until La Llorona is nothing more than salt tears crying against the window and shrieking wind through the shutters. 

A hand shakes Miela, pulling her back from the dark edge of dreaming. There is no light, but Miela knows it is her grandfather leaning over her bed.

“Levantete, niña,” he commands, shaking Miela harder. “Wake up Miela. Wake up.” His voice is low, urgent. She resists for a moment more, then opens her eyes. Before she can speak, her grandfather brushes two fingers across her mouth to silence her, leaving the taste of cold, oily kerosene on her lips.

Fumbling in the darkness, her grandfather catches at her hands and pulls her, stumbling in his wake, down the dark staircase and out through the kitchen. He is careful not to let the door swing back against the wall. On bare feet they skiff softly over the tile, over the concrete patio, and out into the packed sand surrounding the house.

Miela looks back, not sure yet if she is awake or asleep. Her grandfather tightens his grip, urging her along. The air hums with the threat of a coming storm and Miela’s heart jerks and flutters in her throat like a fish caught in a net.

“Where is Mami?” Miela demands in a whisper, trying not to be afraid of the answer. “Why isn’t she coming with us, Abuelito?”

The man with the fishy coat cuffs looks puzzled, sensing that Miela is far away from him for a moment. “Miss? Is there trouble for you? There is no trouble here for me,” he assures her. “See?” he holds his hands up toward his nose, sniffing them.  “Fishing is good for the soul.”

He does not answer her questions, but walks faster, keeping a loose course among the palms that border the beach. Miela twists out of her grandfather’s grip to look back at the house. There is a light in Mami’s window and it flickers, licking up toward the roofline.

Just ahead, a thick rind of lemon-colored moon lights dark shapes gathered in the water. White foam breaks around them, pulls back, breaks again. Her grandfather is practically running now, and she hears his breathing like the steam launch that brings foreign tourists to the shops along the marina.

Closer, Miela sees that the shapes are people, struggling to push a long, low boat out against the tide. There is no sound of voices, only the splashing and sighing of the water.  Miela is uneasy, knowing how the sand shelves away without warning on this stretch of beach, making it impossible to swim here because of the hidden current that doubles under on itself.

Her grandfather stops, catching Miela by her shoulders, steadying them both. “Your mami is gone,” he gasps, the rising wind tearing his voice away, spinning it out to sea. “Word came that your father was no more, Miela, and she went to be with him.” He seems to hesitate over the next words, and the weight of them drives his knees to the sand. “Do you understand me? Your Mami chose to free herself from this life, niña, with her own hands.”

He looks up at Miela, searching her face, his lips forming “Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, nos orele ahora y por la hora de nuestro muerto.”

Miela touches the smudge of soot that darkens his cheek, bowing her head to his; madonna and child standing motionless between the storm and the sea.

“Holy Mary,” she intones in the swirling strands of her grandfather’s hair, “pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”

Miela understands that Mami is peaceful now, safe at last with the man she would not live without. A tragic accident, with all its questions answered in the ashes of the house—at least in the eyes of the church and the neighbors. There will be nothing left to keep Miela and her grandfather anchored to this place now but the consecrated ground of their memories. 

Miela has forgotten the boat, but it inches forward, bit by bit, until one swell seems to lift it–suddenly, the strain is gone and the boat floats free. Miela’s grandfather rises from his knees, calling out to those on board.  He plunges in to the tide, pulling Miela after him.

Dark, blood-warm, the water rushes to her knees, soaks the hem of her nightgown, rocks her with its force. Her grandfather catches her around the waist, supporting her through the next wave. Miela feels the enormous strength of its greedy lips, trying to suck her away from him. She cries out, but her mouth fills with warm sea. Her grandfather stumbles, steps out into nothing, still pushing Miela ahead of him. The world is all burning salt and the rush of water that rips them apart, leaving Miela with nothing more than a button from her grandfather’s shirt.

Hands reach into the sea, tangling in fistfuls of Miela’s hair, pulling her up from the darkness and into the boat.

Miela can almost see the thoughts crossing the old man’s mind as he starts to edge away from her. Is it drugs? he probably wonders. Perhaps she is one of these dreadful young people that distracts an old man in order to thieve his wallet? Miela is aware that he is furtively feeling his pocket; she hopes, for his sake, that the familiar shape is there to comfort him. She senses his reluctance to have any trouble with her—an odd-seeming girl with the pasa dorada eyes, like the golden raisins her grandfather used to buy in the market. She turns the shirt button over and over on its chain.

The days at sea, the wailing and vomiting, the final dull acceptance of a world turned to deep water—these things are as a dream to Miela, then and now. One of the lucky ones, the Miami authorities called her, because a distant relative of her father’s lived in New York and the woman and her husband were willing to take Miela. One of the lucky ones. 

Her new life has been a long stretch of unknown, years of forgetting, of being gently reminded that she is safe, that the past is behind her, that she is a very lucky girl. She looks at the man whose hands she inadvertently forced into the pile of fish—

“I’m so sorry,” Miela says, her hand coming to rest lightly on the older man’s arm, detaining him even as he shrinks away from her. She smiles without seeing him. “I had forgotten how much I needed avocados. Thank you for reminding me.”

Her hand drops from his sleeve and she slips into the fast-flowing human current that winds through the market.     

     

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