As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
This First Proof contains the short story “Traveling Fools.”
All the men on my father’s side of the family have been mad in one way or another. There was my great uncle Panchito, who joined the communist party in 1934, when it was a nothing party of dreamers, only to quit in 1965 when the party officially denied him permission to fly to the moon. He could have turned all those years of underground meetings and patriotic songs into something; he could have cashed in and finally helped his family. Instead, he spent the last years of his life writing angry letters to the Ministry for Travel and Culture, arguing that if the Russians could send a flea-bitten dog to space, certainly the Cubans ought to be able to send a loyal party monkey to the moon. His latter letters were scrupulously ignored. And he ended up dying in a rented room in his niece’s apartment, fighting her until the last for the right to his homemade rum. In the end, the party would not even allow him to be buried in the Patriot’s Cemetery.
There was a cousin named Severino who hanged himself from a banyan one spring morning after a passing traveler told him there was a buried treasure on the other side of the mountain. Severino, who’d never even traveled beyond the swamp. As a boy he’d been happy to sit out by a stream for hours and launch paper boats, waiting until one disappeared downstream before sending out the next one. The passing traveler was never seen or spoken of again until years later; miners discovered a silver vein hard against the mountain. The townspeople, in an act of remembering common to those times, named the mine after Severino. And, most recently, there was my grandfather Solomon, who, as an exile in Miami, one cool winter morning began digging a tunnel beneath the azaleas with the intention of surfacing someday in Havana.
* * *
The first two stories have been passed down through the family and I can’t vouch for the truth in them. The last one I saw with my own eyes, and I can tell you that nothing can match the image of a shirtless old man with a dream. He had it all planned out, my grandfather did, for he was a man who took great pride in logic and the scientific method. Before he even began to dig, he filled a great many notebooks with figures that explained precisely how many shovels of dirt it would take, how wide the hole should be, and how many years would have to pass before he finally broke through the sand on the other side. I was only eight years old then, but sometimes after school I helped him dig. My grandfather had barely made it under the property line when his project ended abruptly. It seems the neighbors had called the police to say the old man next door was digging what appeared to be a mass grave. It took some days to sort out the complications that followed. But my grandfather never recovered from his disappointment. He sank into a deep sadness that didn’t lift even after my father, also prone to making mathematical calculations, pointed out a mistake in his figures and said that it actually would have taken 16,742 years to dig to Havana.
But perhaps the most tragically brilliant of this mad lineage was Matias Padron, a third great-cousin of my father’s through marriage by way of his mother. The family connection is tenuous, but I feel a certain pride in claiming Matias, for his story has passed into the island lore of Cuba; his story is the story of all of us. Matias, so it is told, was not a very big man. This is also true of most of the men on my father’s side of the family. But unlike most of the men, who tend to make up in width for what they lack in height, Matias was slightly built all around. He was, it is well known, even smaller and thinner than his wife, who scandalously abused her advantage to keep Matias timid and soft-spoken at home. Matias didn’t seem to mind this and often played along good-naturedly, now and then repeating a favorite phrase he had heard about the greatness of a man being measured not from the ground to his head, but from the distance of his head to God. The literal-minded took this to be an even greater disadvantage. But Matias knew what he was talking about.
Since he had turned 18, Matias had been running the post office in Santiago de Cuba. By the time he was 40 years old, he had browsed 22 Christmas catalogs from El Encanto, leafed through dozens of Bohemias, and read several hundred letters of love, the great majority of which were not between husbands and wives. But the task that he adored above all the others was predicting the weather. In those years, the postmaster also ran the local telegraph service. This meant that the postmaster, in addition to being the telegrapher, was also a sort of informal meteorologist, as the telegraph, for the first time in the Caribbean, was being used to give advance warnings of storms developing offshore. All previous postmasters had taken the duty very seriously. But none had thrown themselves into it with anything approaching the passion that Matias brought.
Matias and his wife lived above the post office in a house that, according to tradition, was paid and kept up by the municipality. It was a large house, two stories, with a wide balcony that wrapped around all four sides. But as Matias and his wife had never had children, vast areas of the house remained dark and unused. In one such sealed room Matias established a small office. When he wasn’t below in the post office reading other people’s mail or receiving telegraphs about the latest world events, Matias was in his little office trying to predict the weather. He had all matter of instruments, barometers, thermometers. Probably, it wasn’t too different from the type of things amateurs keep the world over. But Matias’s secrecy about his room, even from his wife, soon led to talk in the town that Matias was an alchemist dealing in nefarious activities. It was the first chatter about Matias’s supposed eccentricity. And just because it prefigured the extraordinary act he was about to embark on, it doesn’t mean that it was necessarily a fair assessment. At that moment, Matias had truly developed a scientific interest in the weather. After all, not too many years had passed since a hurricane had devastated Varadero, cutting the narrow peninsula in half until both oceans met over the sand. Matias, I think, was trying to save Santiago from the next cataclysm. He ordered all manner of new equipment from New York and tore at the packages when they arrived weeks later. Soon he built an observation deck on the roof and in clear weather began sending up weather balloons. At first, the balloons didn’t carry anything—Matias merely used them to calculate wind speeds and air pressure. But as technology improved and radio transmitters began to gain wider currency, Matias arranged for bigger and bigger balloons that could carry ever more equipment. Soon he was launching balloons as big as oil drums carrying thermometers, barometers, humidity detectors all wired to a radio that could send the information back to Matias in his little room. Every Friday, he posted the results on the front door of the post office as well as an assessment of what the coming week’s weather was likely to be. He was right more often than he was wrong. And forgiving a few lapses, when, for example, he announced that yesterday “rain had been very heavy” (something the townspeople could know well enough without consulting any instruments other than their memories) the people grew to respect his forecasts.
Cuba had prospered in those years and along with it, Santiago, as well as Matias. The memory of hunger was fading. Children grew healthy. Matias entered middle age in the prime of health. Even the hurricanes that had assaulted Cuba the previous decade seemed to ease and everyone everywhere seemed content, as if the more malevolent workings of the world had finally passed them by. Matias continued to go into his office every afternoon, and every Friday he emerged with the following week’s forecast. And, of course, he also continued to send up his ever more elaborate balloons. The weather was not always perfect, but it was predictable. Soon everyone knew the rains would come in August and the heaviest thunder would be reserved for the late afternoon, when the sun began to dip low in the sky. By October, the skies would clear and the blue days return. Winters were generally dry and pleasant.
Some nights, couples out for a walk noticed a dark figure above the post office Matias looking up into the sky. Otherwise, few people paid much attention to Matias or his forecasts anymore. They met him once a week, sometimes touched their fingers lightly to his when he handed them their mail and that was that. It seemed there was nothing left to fear.
* * *
There are eddies that develop in time, places where histories converge, and individuals caught inside the current find themselves suddenly unable to act for themselves. Perhaps this is what happened to Matias. Maybe everything that followed was as inevitable as history. There is really no other explanation for what came to pass—there was nothing in Matias’s character to suggest madness. Nothing in the days preceding the event gave anyone any reason to believe that Matias had suffered a sudden depression. The weather, moreover, had been pleasantly uneventful, with an abundance of bright days somewhat unusual for springtime.
And yet, the truth is this: One morning Matias was handing a stack of letters to Consuelo Perez and the next he was floating high above Santiago, his office chair dangling beneath four giant weather balloons with him in it.
* * *
Santiago had been the first city in Cuba to be linked by telegraph to the rest of the Caribbean. Santiago had been the first city to pioneer the use of observation balloons during war time. The telegraph had connected Cuba to the world, but in the end, the country learned it could not stand alone. Its prosperity and health were forever tethered to history and geography. Did Matias sense this? In those last years he had developed a habit of linking ideas until he’d convinced himself that there was an inherent logic running through the universe, governing even the impossible. When his own mind finally became untethered, where did it fly to?
His wife was the first to notice Matias had gone. She ran up to the observation deck and when she saw him just clearing the tops of the palms she began to shout at him, “You insolent madman, you flying fool!” Her shouting brought out a handful of people whose shouting brought out even more people. Soon the whole town was pointing at the sky where Matias floated, sometimes rising suddenly and sometimes hanging in the air, swaying from side to side just over the tree line, every second becoming a little bit smaller in the distance. A few of the men started off after him and, when they were directly under his path, began shouting instructions at him, in the venerable Cuban tradition: “Cut one of the balloons!” “Jump now, the fronds will break your fall!” “When you make it over the swamp let the helium out very slowly!” They continued to run and shout even after it became clear that Matias was not coming back. One of the men said that just when he was becoming so small that one could hardly make out his person, Matias glanced down at the others with a wide, white smile on his face. He was like a saint or a martyr, the man said. And for days, the man could talk of nothing else but Matias’s calm happy gaze as he floated away from Santiago forever.
Matias seemed to know right where he was going. All those years of tracing wind patterns had given him a pilot’s confidence. It was April, when the winds blow east to west. Before an hour was out he was a tiny speck out over the sea and then he was impossible to make out in the haze. After a while most of the people stopped searching the sky for Matias. A few gathered in silence outside the post office. Matilde locked herself in the house and didn’t emerge until the governor arrived two weeks later to take a report. Some days later, the police came for his papers. They carted off hundreds of notebooks filled with strange drawings and algebraic calculations. Among the more curious of his possessions was a stuffed owl and a rare Cuban tern preserved in a bottle of formaldehyde. Today, people in Cuba still say of an elusive fellow, “He vanished like Matias Padron.”
* * *
I think of Matias now and then. I am also a traveler. And nowadays after I’ve taken off my shoes and put them back on, after I’ve retrieved my naked laptop from the conveyor and had my purse rifled through, after I’ve emerged safely on the other side of the security cabal, I like to take a seat up close to the windows and watch the planes come and go. How generous of airport architects to design such large windows. And how good of the staff to keep them so clean and shiny. Coming upon these portals is like stumbling onto a new, intricate explanation of the possible.
I sit in one of the soft, functional chairs and watch the planes land and I watch them lift off from the earth. Each time it seems like a miracle. There are so many planes fly- ing in so many different directions that it is difficult to follow a single one. Too often, the flight path takes them beyond my line of vision. But now and then a plane will take off just so and fly straight out in view of all the airport, fly off to that point that everyone calls infinity but is really just the limit of our perception.
I’ll follow the plane until it is nothing and know that soon I will be on one just like it. And I wonder, do we still know what it’s like to dream about the other side of the mountain? At what point does one cross the crest of forgetting? And this is when I think of Matias, who breached the space of the known for nothing more than a glimpse of the white-blind city on the other side.
The issue of First Proof was funded in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Foundation.
Ana Menéndez is an author, most recently, of the novel The Last War, forthcoming in June from HarperCollins.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.