I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Author’s Warning to the Reader
This novel is based on events that occurred in the recent past in Cuba. The characters are real, the names fictitious. The descriptions of Afro-Cuban religious practices are authentic. A glossary is provided at the back of this novel with explanations and definitions of some of the religious words and concepts found in the story.
Several years ago, I was given access to the police files of a case that was deeply tied to believers in the three African-rooted religions practiced in Cuba: Regla de Osha, also calledSantería; Regìa Mayombe, usually called Palo Monte; and the Abakuá Secret Society. Weeks of research on the case and on these religions resulted in a one-hour television program for a police series watched by most Cubans.
I became convinced that the story warranted a book focused on the complex world of the believers in these religions, whose behavior is very influenced by the oracles they consult. For several years I continued conducting field research for a novel that would someday be written. During this time, extraordinary facts about the case were unveiled, which drew me in even further.
As time passed, this increasingly became a search for some of the basic clues to the idiosyncrasies of the Cuban people, and in many ways a search for keys to self-understanding. During this quest, I witnessed incidents and events that could not yet be explained by science.
I strongly discourage the reader from using, on your own, any of the conjurations, curses, magic work, maledictions or divination methods found in this book. I also want to state that I cannot be held responsible in any way for the results that may ensue from such use. This should be made clear to anyone who reads this book.
Havana, August 2003
The Chinese Cemetery
Entering through a portal with Chinese inscriptions, a visitor finds a road some 80 yards long that divides Havana’s Chinese cemetery into two equal parts. Occupying scarcely a quarter of a city block, the entire graveyard can be captured in a single glance, including the surrounding greenish-gray wall, intensely cracked and seemingly about to crumble. The wall is shoulder-high, and passersby peering over it often notice something odd about the crosses, aligned in accordance with the sun’s movement across the sky, each with its back to another. The Chinese cemetery lies alongside the broad Calle 26, always agitated with vehicles and noise, in the heart of Vedado, a neighborhood inhabited by over one hundred thousand people; but anyone entering the cemetery immediately feels that he or she has escaped from the city.
* * *
The grave digger slowed his movements to regulate the sweat streaming down his face, clouding his thick eyeglasses. He paused in his work hoeing weeds around a tomb to observe a tall, blond, bearded visitor who had just arrived. The newcomer stopped a few meters inside the gate, glancing around until he sighted the inquiring gaze of the grave digger, who dropped his hoe and walked toward him with alacrity, relieved for the excuse to interrupt his exhausting labor.
“You’re Cancio!” the visitor exclaimed, smiling, showing strong white teeth. He then jabbed the grave digger in the center of the chest with a forefinger at the same time that he threw an arm over his shoulders, seemingly impervious to the stench of sweat and the vapor rising from the laborer’s body, hot from the sun and physical activity.
Trapped in the embrace, the grave digger responded, “Atyour orders!”
“Cancio, I heard about the theft of the Chinaman from a friend of yours here in the neighborhood—Pepe Pérez. He said, ’You’ve got to hear Cancio’s story. Go see him, and tell him I sent you.’” The visitor winked broadly. “You know the guy I mean?”
“That’s the one!”
Cancio led the tall visitor along the road toward the rear of the cemetery. Small houses shaped like pagodas held the ossuaries—the bones of the dead—and each dwelling belonged to a Chinese society. The grave digger pointed to a tomb in which another Chinaman had been buried for over 20 years. “And he’s still in perfect condition,” he said, “except where the cockroaches’ve eaten him around the ears and nose.”
As they arrived at a back entrance to the cemetery, sealed by an iron gate, Cancio reached his arm through the bars and pointed to a spot just outside the grounds. “They left the truck parked there, beside that pile of grass. There wasn’t any moon that night. They arrived near dawn. They cut the padlock with a fretsaw. The lock wasn’t very big, but it was a good one. The next mornin’ I saw it lyin’ there on the ground, but I didn’t touch it. The police took it as evidence of burglary—that’s what the technician called it—and to see if it had any fingerprints. The chain had disappeared, and it was a good chain, too—been there Lord knows how long. They still haven’t brought me another padlock and chain, so I had to use that piece of barbed wire to seal the gate.”
The grave digger spoke in short spurts interspersed with asthmatic wheezing, occasionally spitting out a sticky, greenish fluid onto the grass.
“A veteran two-pack-a-day smoker!” exclaimed the visitor, giving him three smart blows on the back. The grave digger, left breathless for several seconds, merely nodded.
“Where was the stolen Chinaman buried?”
“In the niches.” The grave digger turned and pointed a finger toward another area, coughing up ammunition for another shot of phlegm.
The blond man stared at the still-pointing finger of the grave digger, extraordinarily thick and curved. “What happened to that finger, Cancio?”
“The lid of a tomb fell on it. Anyway, they carried off that Chinaman still fresh in the ground, you might say. The cement hadn’t even hardened. When the burial procession arrived here, it was pourin’ rain. In summer, they should bury everyone early in the mornin’, since it always rains in the afternoon. I waited awhile for it to clear up a little, but it was still comin’ down pretty hard when I started to close the tomb. I covered it with a piece of nylon afterward, but the mixture of sand and cement must’ve stayed pretty wet.”
They walked on to the niche where Rafael Cuan had been interred. The tall, blond man knelt down to look inside the empty enclosure, then confirmed with a gesture that the coffin was not there. The grave digger used the time to pull a large, dirty handkerchief from his pocket and pass it over his face and the lenses of his glasses, managing to smear them uniformly.
“The night watchman said he didn’t see or hear anyone. But after things calmed down a little, the administration transferred him to Colón cemetery. I guess the police figured that this is just a little place and no matter how dark it was that night, he had to’ve seen or heard somethin’. A deaf person would’ve heard the ruckus of them takin’ the coffin out of the niche and cuttin’ that padlock … I think the poor guy lost his nerve. This place is pretty spooky at night, ’specially with the bats. “
“Bats?” The visitor raised his eyebrows.
“They scare the pants off you all night long. They say the tormented souls of the chinos buried here take possession of those critters and use ‘em to fly from one side to another, like ridin’ horseback. I don’t put much store in that, but I respect it. That watchman was a good compañero. The one they’ve put in his place now …” The grave digger shook his head and tipped an imaginary bottle to his lips. “The binges he goes on ev’ry night with cookin’ alcohol!”
As they walked back toward the entrance, the blond man noted that the crosses were wider toward the ends, the cause of the strange impression he had received upon his first glance at the place.
“Me, now, I’m always alert,” Cancio continued. “As soon as anyone arrives, I ask who he is, what his business here is, and what he wants. You can spot family members a mile away. That’s the advantage of workin’ in the Chinese cemetery. But other kinds of people come here, too. The worst are the ones that hang around to see if they can carry off bones.”
Cancio nodded solemnly. “They’re Paleros, or come sent by ‘em. They use ’em for their witchcraft. I don’t let ‘em out of my sight when they come pretendin’ to be lookin’ for a certain tomb. The first funny move and I throw ’em out. Some of ’em ask me for permission to take earth from the four corners of the cemetery, and I let ’em do that. But bones, noway!”
“Where did they enter from?”
“Climbed over that wall. Since the ground was still wet, the police had a party makin’ molds of their footprints. There were three of ’em.”
“Why did they climb over the wall if they cut the padlock and opened the gate?”
Cancio opened his mouth, then closed it again, but the visitor didn’t allow him time for much consideration of the question.
“Have you personally seen anything suspicious?”
“Well, I didn’t remember it that day because you get confused with all the hullabaloo all of a sudden—the police in here with their cars, dogs smelling around everywhere and everybody askin’ the same thing. Anyway, about a week later, I remembered somethin’ and called the police right away. A big young fella came. A lieutenant, he said. He asked me a lot of questions, like he was tryin’ to catch me up. You know how some of these young fellas are nowadays … think everythin’ has to be learned from books.”
“Tell me what you remembered.”
“About two weeks before they stole the Chinaman, I was workin’ over there on that side when a guy entered on a bicycle—a young white guy. He stopped in front of me and said, Tío, every time I pass by here, I think of visiting this cemetery, but I never have time.’ Then he asked if it was true that chinos are buried standin’ up. I told him in this cemetery we bury ‘em lyin’ down and face up. He stood there awhile, watchin’ me work, then he asked if they still bring many legitimate Chinamen to be buried here. That smelled sort of funny to me, and I asked what a legitimate Chinaman was. He said, Tío, a Chinaman from China, one of the original ones, the real ones, not one crossed with a black.’ Then I stopped what I was doin’ and asked him straight out, ‘Just what are you lookin’ for, anyway?’ Then he got on his bicycle and said, ‘Nothing, tío, don’t get your hack up, I’m just leaving,’ and he went pedalin’ away.”
“Cancio, did you notice anything unusual about that man?”
“Really, I don’t remember very well what he looked like. Young, white—well, Cuban-white … you know how they say, the one not mixed with Congolese is mixed with Carabali! Now that I think of it, he had a matchstick in his mouth with the head outside and he talked to me like this, with his mouth closed.” The grave digger imitated the unknown man’s way of speaking. “I told the lieutenant, but he didn’t pay any attention. He thinks he knows everythin’ and that I invented the guy. What good would that do me? You tell me, what would I gain with that?”
“With the match head outside?”
“Sí, with the match’s head outside.” He repeated the imitation.
“You haven’t seen him again?”
“A few days ago, a man walked past on the sidewalk outside and, I don’t know why, but I had an idea that it was that same fella. But no, I don’t really remember him well enough to say for sure that it was him.”
The visitor and the grave digger had almost reached the entrance portico and stopped before the cemetery office, a small building with a flat, thick concrete roof.
“Cancio, how did you let them build this ugly office in such a pretty cemetery?”
The grave digger grinned, uncertain how to answer, still perturbed by the visitor’s instant familiarity from the moment he had entered the cemetery.
“They ought to dynamite this junk pile with whoever built it inside … and whoever ordered it built, too.” The man’s tone gave the impression that he was about to set to work on the project at that very moment. Hands on hips, he turned suddenly to the grave digger. “And couldn’t it have been a family member that took him away?”
Cancio shook his head. “These people are really respectful of their dead. Why would they take him away?”
“You don’t know ‘em. They even bring ’em food on the Chinese All Souls’ Day.” He smiled, having found a convincing argument. “They bring ’em what they most liked: chop suey, chilied shrimp, even roast pork. These chinos really know how to cook!” Cancio swallowed, as if his mouth was watering. “They used to leave the food there, and some people from around here would come and eat it. Now, they just leave it awhile and then take it away. I guess these ain’t times to be sharin’ food with the dead.”
“How do you know they entered near dawn? The watchman swore he didn’t hear or see anything. Did he tell you that? Come on, Cancio, just between you and me.”
After a moment of doubt, the grave digger nodded guiltily, as if revealing something improper. He accompanied the visitor out to the sidewalk, eager to continue being interrogated, to keep talking about the theft of the Chinese cadaver, the most important event in his life at the moment.
The grave digger asked the visitor’s name, but the blond man didn’t answer, seemingly lost in thought. He cast a last glance back into the cemetery and, after patting Cancio on the shoulder absentmindedly, walked off in the direction of Calle 23, leaving the grave digger perplexed. From his first gesture, when he had entered and beckoned with an air of authority, Cancio had taken him for a policeman, one of the many that had made him repeat the story. After speaking with the man for a bit, he had figured the man was just a friend of someone from the neighborhood, maybe one of those whose gardens he took care of after finishing his work shift at the cemetery. Now he realized that he should have asked who the man was before he told him anything. Maybe that was a mistake. And to top it all off, he was now quite sure he’d never heard of anyone named Pepe Pérez!
Just in case, he decided that he should report the visit to the police, since it suddenly seemed very suspicious. And that would probably provoke more questioning, a search for fingerprints on anything the man might have touched and footprints in the places where he walked. There would also be another horrible session with the technician who made the verbal portraits, tormenting him with questions—if the chin was more pointed, the forehead wider or narrower, the mouth this way or that way—until his head was swimming and he couldn’t sleep for several nights, trying to remember … remember … remember.
Anguished, the grave digger watched the man as he walked away, trying to engrave the face in his memory. Almost a block away, the tall, blond man with the blue eyes turned, smiled like a child who had just played a prank, and lifted an arm in a farewell gesture, as if reading the thoughts of the grave digger, who was now completely destabilized and convinced that he had committed a serious error. The incident could even cost him a transfer to the Colón cemetery, where many people are buried every day—not like the peaceful Chinese cemetery, where a cadaver is brought in only every now and then. His gaze remained fixed on the stranger to see if he got into a vehicle, with the idea of describing it to the police. But the man continued on foot until he disappeared, turning on Calle 25 toward Marianao. Disconsolate, the grave digger went back to weeding the tombs.
Translated from the Spanish by Marjorie Moore.
Marjorie Moore, an American, moved to Cuba in 1950 with her husband, a Cuban businessman. In the early 1960’s, she began teaching at a leading Cuban medical university where she headed the postgraduate English department and teacher training program for many years. She holds a PhD in pedagogy and is the author of several books.
—Arnaldo Correa was born in the Escambray Mountains, Cuba in 1935. In 1966, he published his first book of short stories, which were praised by Fidel Castro. Correa is considered one of the three founders of the Cuban crime-fiction genre. He studied mining engineering at the University of Alabama, and traveled extensively through the United States in the 1950’s. He has worked on the development projects in Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, and Mozambique. Spy’s Fate (Akashic, 2002) was his first novel in English translation. He currently lives in Havana.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee