Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reference page for "Photos on the Walls"

(1) Largest pantheon in Cuba

(2) Havana’s Cemetery of Cristobal Colón, where Colombus’ remains are supposedly interred. See above photo (© hoyasmeg, flickr)

(3) Literally, "skinny girl".

(4) Cuban soft drink brand. See photo below (© roitberg, flickr)

(5) Folk saint interred in Havana’s Colon Cemetery; mother who died during childbirth and buried with son positioned at her feet; exhumed years later, her body was said to be intact and the child’s body nestled in her arms.

(6) Grave of Juana Martin, a domino fanatic said to have died with the double-three in her hand.

(7) “Sailors are we and on the sea we go” (song lyrics).

(8) Very fair-skinned black person, usually with kinky hair and African features.

(9) Literally, “wheat-colored person”.

(10) “one cent”

(11) People from the island's eastern provinces.

(12) English-speaking foreigners. See "The Cuban Triangle" for an explanation of the term's history.

(13) Cubans who attempt to cross the straits into Florida on makeshift rafts.

"Photos on the Walls" by Yoss

Yoss (real name: José Miguel Sánchez Gómez) is a writer of science fiction, erotica, humor and realist fiction as well as an anthologist, critic and essayist. He has published ten books ranging from novels to short story collections and has won numerous awards, including the Ernest Hemingway, Luis Rogelio Nogueras, Aquelarre, and Domingo Santos prizes, among others. Yoss has attended workshops and book conventions in various foreign countries and currently resides in Havana.


To the victims of exile...and insile.

The Sambo was the one that discovered her. It was about seven and he was making the rounds before doors closed when he saw her leave with the last mourners.

Right there she caught his eye. Even though the brown girls, thick girls and busty girls, elegant girls, and super-made-up girls all liked him and she was skinny and flat. Dressed in plain black, no heels, no exposed navel or cleavage, no belly pants, and with even her hair tucked up under a black handkerchief, almost a monk. She could pass for thirty or forty just as easily as twenty. Not much to look at…

Apparently, that afternoon the Sambo still hadn’t gotten any commitments from funeral sluts to go do dirty things on the pantheon of the Naturales de Ortigueira (1).
And the chick was the only one in the entourage younger than the pyramids. But even though he kept watching her for a sign that he could approach, he never got to; she didn’t even look at him.

The Sambo had a sixth sense for mourner chicks. As decent as they might have seemed or hidden as they might have been in a pack of relatives, as soon as he spotted them he knew if they were ripe for the picking. And then the rest was routine: offering to show them, alone, the tomb of their loved one if they calmed down and behaved, he eventually got his rocks off. Not just airhead widows like I thought at first, he also racked up one bombshell after another, above all those freaky sluts that came to search for skulls and bones and perform their satanic rituals between the graves. And since the Vulture always said it was all for one and one for all, sometimes he shared them.

I never took part in this action: women used up by other men kind of disgust me. I preferred to spend my hard-earned dough on street girls—what good was money if I didn’t? But the Vulture did every once in a while and said that they got pretty crazy.

It could have been the confusion of their loss, repression of their urges or a grudge against their unfortunate fate, or the desperation that they say makes some people feel like facing down cyclones, forest fires, or earthquakes.

Or most likely they just let themselves get drunk. Because the Sambo is uglier than voluntary work on the day of an Industriales playoff game; if before not even beggars would bother with him, no one would’ve guessed he would eat so much and so well when he started working in Colón (2).

And the Vulture...the Vulture is the Vulture, it’s not that he didn’t look good, he looked like he used to be a refined type, it wasn’t for pleasure that he almost became an ambassador, but now not even hydrochloric acid could get the stink of corpses off him, hence the nickname.

Everyone has their pride, and coming up empty-handed that afternoon had to have fucked with Sambo; the thing is, the image of that flaquita (3) dressed in black had become etched in his mind. So when he saw her again the next day with another entourage, by a whole other tomb, he was struck stone still.

That same night he told us about it. At first, we didn’t make a big deal out of it…after all, he’s always making up stories about strange lights and apparitions, as if you didn’t even know what a will-o’-the-wisp was. Of course, when he swore by his mother, dead and buried right here, we believed him. The Vulture shrugged his shoulders and said that for someone who has relatives die on them twice in a row, better to put it behind them instead of bringing it up again.

But the Sambo insisted that no, that wasn’t it. Yeah, she was close with her relatives, but she didn’t cry or anything; it occurred to him that the key lay elsewhere and it was pretty weird. Could it be she’s a necrophiliac? Right there we scared ourselves, because if some relative discovered a mussed-up cadaver, they’d put a hideous hex on us, like a year ago when that goddamn Crime Offensive sacked the people here before us.

Or worse yet, if she was in the same business as us with dresses, clothes and teeth? And definitely in combination with someone from outside; chicks never work alone on these things, apparently they make too big of an impression. Although the dead leave an impression on almost everyone. Starting with me, when I got here. Now, not so much, now I prefer them to the living. Yeah, they stink, and their odor sticks to you and doesn’t come off with anything, just ask the Vulture…but at least they’re good and quiet and don’t fuck with you.

Not to mention there weren’t enough beds for so many people nor cemeteries for so many scavengers. He had to watch her close, catch her soon as she made any strange moves, eventually she’d try to pull something.

When we started keeping guard, we saw right away the Sambo was right: there was something fishy going on. The chick showed up early every day for the first burials of the morning, at noon she cloistered herself in a dark corner to eat some bread and a Tukola(4) that she took out of her bag, and afterwards made laps through the graves until close. But she didn’t carry a flower vase or a wreath or nothing, never came back to the same vault, and that had us nervous because we couldn’t understand it.

We got to thinking that she could be undercover, preparing some kind of operation, and just in case, for a week we postponed the most dangerous shit—the pulling out of teeth—until dawn, even though she wouldn’t be around for all that at night.

The Vulture even talked about going to visit the previous Manager in Diosdado Penitentiary to see if he knew something about that chick, but that idea never took off: no one liked to rush what they knew was waiting for them sooner or later. Especially if you’d already been there, like us.

It wasn’t until fifteen days later that we realized what her deal was, and it was the Vulture that cracked the code. He’s not the Manager for nothing.

The chick was taking photos. Of the relatives, the coffins, everything. With one of those real little digital cameras that looks like a toy but costs a pretty penny. And she didn’t have authorization, a license or whatever, because she took advantage of whenever no one was looking and until then concealed it under her shawl.

That really freaked us out: a cop she wasn’t, but couldn’t she be Security, hunting someone they knew nothing about other than that he wouldn’t miss a certain grave? Thank goodness for the Sambo, who got that kind of paranoia out of our heads right away, even though he put it there in the first place: the State has those long-distance lenses so they can watch in comfort from far away, and they weren’t going to send in some crippled dove to hang around the cemetery all day, since if we had discovered anything we could make the first move and hunt her down. Besides, if they were behind someone, where were the dark ninjas with their show-window bodies to grab him? The Vulture said they’d better have someone with rifle with a long-range scope, and I said that for all we knew, skinny as the chick was, she was a Sixth Dan black belt. But the Sambo told us to go to hell and said we watched too many videos.

Basically, we relaxed. That same night we dug out four 18-carat gold teeth from someone that had been vice consul in I don’t know what African country, and nothing happened. And not even three days later we had gotten back to the old racket with the dresses and shoes. There’s just never enough money, and the streets are tough.

It wasn’t stealing, no. Stealing is stealing from the living. The dead don’t count. Yeah, everyone likes to bury their folks in their best. But at the end of the day, after they die it doesn’t do anyone any good and so many Christians walk around this island without sharp threads or half-decent shoes…

Same with the teeth and the clothes. The Vulture, who studied and all, said the word was “recycle”. I didn’t say anything, and it didn’t make much difference to the Sambo if at times he forgot to claim his portion; he was all about his funeral sluts and nothing else. He wanted it so bad it was like he’d never gotten laid; he said that skinny as he was and all he had had days with five or even six. Sometimes we’d give him shit about how while in the tank he must have been somebody’s bitch, which explained the determination in recuperating lost time as a man, but he got so serious and gripped the shovel with such anger that we changed the subject right away. Because everyone’s got their secrets and certain things you don’t play with.

She kept on coming. We named her the Photographer and got used to her, just like we got used to the constant commotion by the tomb of La Milagrosa (5) or to the foreigners that always wanted to see the tomb with the double-three domino (6). Live and let live. Marineros somos y en el mar andamos (7). She didn’t bother us, we didn’t get in her business. The only one that watched her was the Sambo. Little peeks, no more, but without speaking or touching, which violated what went down fifteen years earlier.

And her, always as if he didn’t even exist.

Me...well, we crossed paths a bunch of times. She liked to eat lunch sitting on the steps of the firefighters’ monument, and I’d take my siesta on the bench back there, where it’s well-shaded and the marble’s cool. But still, not a word.

Until the mortician business. It was Monday, the first burial the mother of a mulatto girl married to a well-off Italian, but they were short a few wreaths. They raised a huge stink, called the Manager and everything. The Vulture got there, real serious, soaked in cologne so they wouldn’t notice the stench of cadavers that always emanates from him when he has to deal with people of good standing, and he tried to smooth things over; folks, it’s not our responsibility, we’re very sorry and all that…motherfucker had the gift of gab, I’ll give him that.

But the mulata and Italian didn’t understand, so when they threatened to get police and a judge involved, the Vulture wisened up and sent me on a scooter to see what the hell happened with the goddamn wreaths.

I couldn’t have gone faster in a helicopter. Although they didn’t even tell me where they buried the old lady, I went straight to that fatass Cadalso from Chapel 2. If there’s anyone capable of stealing the bones of a dead man and selling them as fertilizer to his widow, it’s that potbellied jabao (8). He even sold, for five pesos, the names of the dead they were keeping vigil for to the people hoping to get a job at the Interests Office, years ago, when you had to know everything, up to and including the last name of the dead guy or else you couldn’t spend the night on the chapel sofa.

The bad part was, although he knew every trick in the book, Cadalso had no grand vision, didn’t think big. So he stays where he is, and look how many years it’s been. The Vulture always told him to watch his step, that if he fell he’d die of hunger, because it wouldn’t even occur to that cotton ball he had for a brain to eat grass, and that shithead laughed, beating his chest and everything like it was some kind of joke.

Of course it was him that screwed up with the wreaths. I ran the situation by him and he coughed them up pretty reluctantly. But it’s well known that you don’t mess with foreigners, since if they end up filing a complaint with the Embassy, they’ll buzz down and shit on all of us.

It was about seven in the morning and not a soul out on Calzada and K. I mentioned it to Cadalso while he helped me mount the wreaths on the scooter and he laughed, drying his sweat, because that jabao sweated like a pig.
“Yeah, it’s always pretty quiet here about now; even the Photographer left a little while ago, probably to take a bath.”

I stopped cold, speechless. And pretending to be nonchalant, I asked him who that was. Not the skinny trigueña(9), always dressed in black, with a handkerchief on her head?

It was her, all right. Turns out that night after night she went there and took photos half-concealed, most of the people there none the wiser. For the fatass jabao she was just another loonie, but as she was clean and didn’t get in anyone’s way or spark any scandals, sometimes he even kept coffee for her. And how long had she been coming for? Well…and he counted it out on his fingers: he had been there like eight years on Calzada and K, and before that was Toribio, who says that she came then, so at least since ’95.

Ten years? That did it: I had to go talk to her, come hell or high water.

Looking back now, I don’t really know why it happened. Since I left the joint I had had a few flings, sure, a man’s a man and after two years without a woman the savings pile up, but it never went through my head to really shack up with someone…nothing’s changed, and I’m still pissed off about what happened with Claudia, that fucking bitch.

But that flaquita intrigued me. One Friday afternoon I waited for her. When she came out, I lit a half-smoked cigarette and didn’t beat around the bush:
“Hi. I got to talk with you. They call me…”
“…the Puya,” she finished (10), looking right in my eyes. Hers were big, brown and kind of wet. Strange, but not ugly. I don’t know how I didn’t notice them before. “And you’ve worked here as a gravedigger for about a year. Want to come home with me?”

Just like that. The ugly chick from the cemetery, she gave it up? To me? The Sambo wouldn’t have accepted, he said that he was jaded now, that outside of Colón he wouldn’t be able to get it up even for Julia Roberts. Same with the Vulture: he didn’t go home with anyone since the machete blow they gave him in the neighborhood of Canal. They hunted him down in the house of a whore he went to see every now and then and he couldn’t denounce anyone because there was Mary Jane involved.

But I accepted. He who owes nothing fears nothing. Or he who owes everything to everyone gives equally to everyone.

We walked off together, not talking much. Her least of all. I asked her if she knew why they called me the Puya. She said she wondered but it didn’t matter to her, and that I liked. As to why she was taking me home if she barely knew me or if she was afraid I’d assault her, rape her or something like that, she didn’t even respond, all she did was shrug her shoulders like that didn’t matter either.

Or maybe she just trusted me. The Vulture said all the time that my face inspired confidence, that I seem like good people, incapable of harming a fly. Claudia must have thought that too, so she figured she’d fuck me over…and it damn well cost her.

She lived by Paseo and 17, in a corridor sunk way back inside. Havana isn’t what it was, even El Vedado’s filling up with tenements and bunkhouses. The Vulture was always going on about the orientales (11) that don’t stay on their own land, and right there the Sambo piped up that they’d have to set him on fire before he’d go back to Contramaestre, that out there the only future he had was as a beast of burden, that’s why he came to La Poma, to be a person.

“Don’t mind the mess,” she said when she opened the door of her little room. Every women I’ve known says the same thing when they invite you home for the first time. Claudia too.

She flicked on the lights.

The mess was the last thing I would have thought to notice. The room wasn’t anything from another world, nothing like those rooms up in high places but tiny: a bed (why it was lofted I don’t know, since it barely fit), a frayed wardrobe and a table with two chairs. No chest of drawers or mirror or nothing. The door we came in and one window.

And the photos. A ton of photos. Never had I seen so many in one place.

All of people in the cemetery or in the funeral parlor. The living dressed in black or normally but serious, with long faces, tearful and bearing handkerchiefs. Balancing themselves on the parlor chairs. On foot in sad groups of relatives at the side of the pantheon. Walking behind the hearse.

And the dead with closed eyes, calm, face up, with that tranquility and dignity they all seem to have even if, in life, they were hysterical lunatics at best.

But every corner of those four walls was filled with photos. They were yellowed from old age, in black and white, those taken with Orwo film blue-colored, new and shiny, digital computer-pressed. Also two or three pages of magazines, newspapers, most yellowed of all.

There were so many that they piled on top of each other, half covered-up, as if they were trying to climb to the highest point, up to the ceiling. And in two or three places they almost managed to.

She had sat down on the bed, with her legs joined close together, serious, as if she were hoping I’d stop flitting around her house.

“You preparing an exhibition or are they family of yours?” I asked her to say something, and soon as I opened my mouth I knew it was an idiotic question, but it was already done.

She got up and stroked the photos, almost with tenderness, without answering me. Then she opened the dresser with a tug. There were various cameras, from an old Russian Zenith to another big one, either Canon or Pentax, the type you can tell is good just by looking and that costs an arm and a leg.

“If I were you, I wouldn’t show this treasure to the first person that came to your house,” it occurred to me to say, and again I felt I was talking bullshit. “Someone might give you a crack to get ahold of those irons, you can tell they’re worth something.”

Nothing. Like I was talking with the people in the photos. She kept watching me, fixed, with those huge, wet eyes, a moment that seemed interminable, and finally she sighed and took the handkerchief off her head and let her hair fall. She had it down to her shoulders, shiny and extra black, like the mulatas with Chinese blood, but flecked here and there with grey.

“What a terrible housewife I am, I don’t even have coffee to offer you.” She sat down again on the bed, smiled, and it was like a smile glimpsed through a mosquito net: distant, opaque. “The truth is, I never eat here, you notice I don’t have a stove or refrigerator.”
“I didn’t come to drink coffee,” was the only thing I could say. I was uncomfortable and I wanted to leave; better yet, I wished I had never gone there with her.
But I had made my bed and now I had to lie in it.
“I already know why you came,” she sighed, pulling open her black blouse. A button popped off and rolled underneath the bed. She didn’t use a bra, didn’t need one. Fatass Cadalso had bigger tits than her.

The Vulture always joked about how a girlfriend without tits is more friend than girlfriend. But she wasn’t my girlfriend, and besides, she had big nipples and areolas, so dark they were almost purple.

I undid my belt.

It wasn’t a great lay. I don’t remember very well, or rather I don’t want to remember. None of the crazy shit the Sambo spent his life getting, chicks with shaved pussies who suck you off so good the sheets get stuck in your ass, who give you their ass even without asking for it and come five or six times before you blow your load. The Vulture said it was true but maybe the Sambo had gotten too much ass and it had gone to his head.

No. She was skinny and didn’t even take off all her clothes. Neither did she move much, or sweat, or scream or scratch. She was just there, closed her eyes and took it. Maybe that was why I took so long.

When we finished I lit a cigarette and lay there smoking, like in the movies.

“And now?” I said, but I was talking to myself.
“Now, whatever,” she answered quietly and curled up on the bed beside me.
I threw out the $64,000 question: “Tell me, why all these photos? All the nights in the parlor, all the days in the cemetery…when do you sleep? You don’t work? Your family sends you money?”
“I don’t sleep. I don’t work. I don’t have any family,” she said. She got up and started to get dressed. “You’d better go. You’re not what I thought you were, Puya.”
That set me off. It bugs me when people expect things from me without telling me. I grabbed her by the arm and shook her, shouting at her:
“And what the fuck did you expect? That I’d tear out your liver, leave you lying there and take off with all your cameras?”

She didn’t resist. She smiled.

That was the last straw. I let go of her and got dressed without saying anything, all pissed off. No woman was going to mess with me again, never. I swore that day, with each one of the fifteen punches I gave Claudia, to be better than that.

As I was leaving, my hand on the doorknob, I noticed a framed newspaper cutout, above the lock, Alone, with no other photos around it.

It was in English, and I don’t understand much of the yumas’ (12) language. I could only recognize the word “balseros ”, which was in Spanish (13). But there were two photos.

The first was one of those family classics, with well-dressed men and women around a table with a cake. A girl, nine or ten years old, blowing out the candles. In the other, the same girl crying and two huge blond policemen with dark glasses leading her away by her hands.

The girl was skinny and trigueña, with big, wet eyes.

Suddenly I understood why she took so many photos.

What do you say in situations like that? Nothing serves as relief or consolation or anything.

But at least I tried: “Forgive me. I didn’t know…”
“Elian was lucky, really,” she said as if to apologize, “At least his mother and grandmother stayed here.”
“When did they go? You were the only one that survived?” I asked, real quietly.
“The whole family. They fell off one by one, my mother last, after she tied me to the raft. I was alone on the sea for three days until the Coast Guard picked me up. In ’84,”—she sighed—“since no one had stayed in Cuba to claim me, they gave me citizenship right away. And in ’95, when I turned 21, I asked for repatriation. It wasn’t for me. But this…”
“This isn’t for you either, right?” I completed the idea.
“It’s like I stayed in the sea for good, between Cuba and Florida, without landing anywhere. Life is shit, right?” She sat back down and snapped at me, almost with fury: “Take a camera if you want, but if you don’t go right now I’m going to scream.”

I reached out my hand, grabbed the first camera I saw and left. What else was I going to do?

As always, my luck was bad luck. It had to be the Zenith. I couldn’t even get ten dollars for it.

Afterwards we crossed paths numerous times in Colón. Without talking, as if we didn’t know each other, as if that night had never existed.

Three months later I left behind the gravedigger gig and went to work making pizzas with my aunt’s neighbor. Right on time: the Vulture and the Sambo got nabbed about the same week I left. There’s no search that lasts forever and no fighter so slick they’ll never catch him. They gave them about ten years, the Vulture fifteen since he was the Manager.

Not long ago I heard they had raped and killed a chick that took photos in the cemetery. I thought it could be her and didn’t know whether to cry or be happy. But since she never told me her name, and anyway those things never come out in the newspapers or on the news here, I can’t be sure.

The pizza gig also fell through, and now I’m pedaling a bike-taxi in Chinatown. It gets me my dollars but every night I come home with swollen legs.

Life is shit, but it’s the only one there is. In the present, keep on pushing. Sometimes I’d like to see her again to tell her as much.

May 17, 2005

Translated by David Iaconangelo

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Alms" by Alejandro Zamora Montes

Alejandro Zamora Montes is a narrator currently living in Havana. He won the 2005 Letras Cubanas Award and was a finalist in the Internacional Minatura and Internacional Francisco Garzón Céspedes Contests, both in 2007.


Every dog in town awaited their collars allocated for alms. Many of them debated how the new gift should best be used. Some would wait until Christmas to show it off, others would put it on an altar and pay tribute to the god of the collars. There was even a Chihuahua delivering a moving speech about canine fidelity. From a nearby tree a one-eyed cat with thinning fur watched the spectacle. He mocked them silently and thought: Thank heaven I was born a cat, independent and nihilistic.

Translated by David Iaconangelo

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"The Pip" by Robert Arellano

Big Ass had the Pip. This is an ailment that attacks a chicken’s nostrils similarly to how a cold obstructs our noses. But unlike the common cold, it does not go away in two weeks; in fact, it is often fatal. The hen becomes morose, refuses to eat and of course stops laying eggs.

Now, Big Ass was the best layer we had and there was no way we could find a substitute for her. We had to cure in the month that was left or there was no way we could win the contest.

Father bought some drops, which were a specific cure for the Pip. Twice daily he started pouring them down Big Asses’ nostril. He assured me that the problem was solved, these drops would cure the illness. However, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to use other remedies as well. Therefore, I dropped fifty cents in the box by the altar to St. Jude and lit five candles. He is the patron Saint of the impossible problems. Might as well start at the top, I thought.

And then, of course, there was Cleo. I approached her with the problem—of which she was perfectly aware—and asked for her help. Oh yes, there is a sure cure, she told me, she had learned it from her grandmother. The only requirement was a red rooster. Using his red feathers she would rid Big Ass of the evil which was affecting his nostrils.

“Where are we going to get a red rooster?” I asked.
“You know perfectly well where you can get a red rooster.”
“Neighbor Gonzalez?” I cringed when I said this. I liked Gonzalez.
“That’s the one,” she said. “You’re small enough and thin enough to crawl under the fence.”
“But that would be stealing,” I complained.
“You’d be borrowing it so I could pluck a few red feathers from its tail.”
“Can’t I pluck the feather and bring him to you?”
“You must bring me the rooster so that I may perform the ceremony. It’s like a priest saying mass. He takes the bread and the wine and only he can say the magic words. Tonight I am the priest. I will carefully say the words of the incantation over the red feathers as I pull them from the rooster’s tail.”

I sneaked out of my room at eleven that night and walked with Cleo toward the pen in Gonzalez’ farm. I carried a small hood like the ones you put over a falcon’s head. I had no trouble catching the sleeping rooster and slipping the hood over his head. He made no noise as I crawled under the fence once more. My clothes were quite dirty by then, since it had rained that afternoon, but Cleo said she would wash them herself.

Red Rooster struggled fiercely as Cleo held him firmly and pulled the red feathers from his tail. With them she stroked the beak, head and body of Big Ass several times while mumbling some words which were as strange as the priest’s Latin.

“It is done,” she said. “Fat Ass will be alright. Here, put the rooster back in his pen.”

As I took the rooster in my hands I noticed that something was very wrong. His neck was limp and his head was hanging down.

“Cleo,” I said, scared. “He’s dead.”
She took a good look at the bird. “Yes, he is. If he hadn’t struggled so much he’d be alive. Let me have it, I’ll bury him in the morning. Red roosters must be buried.”
“I stole the rooster.” I was close to tears.
“You borrowed the rooster. Unfortunately, it died. That could happen to anyone, it’s not your fault.”
“But now I couldn’t return it.”
“Of course not. You can’t return a dead rooster to Gonzalez, that is not what you borrowed. You borrowed the rooster, remember. The fact that it died does not change your intentions. You merely borrowed it.”
“I have done something wrong to Gonzalez.”
“You borrowed it, forget about the death. That was an act of God.”

Something I felt like I was listening to Father Legal.

Big Ass got well.

"Arroz, Huevo, y Picadillo" by Robert Arellano

It’s so nice being young! You feel so free, so happy, so sure life will go on forever. It’s so sad to find out that youth lasts so little…

Well, I was very young at the time, seven years old, and it was my first formal contact with education. True, I had gone to kindergarten, but that was more like playing. Now I was attending classes in an imposing building downtown where the Jesuits had their elementary school.

Now I carried books around and even a notebook where I scribbled important things. I brought the school home with me, for I had homework to do.

Not only school came home with me but also a schoolmate now and then. My mother had encouraged me to bring home for lunch one of my new friends whenever I wanted, so I brought home my best friend, a kid I had known for almost two months.

He seemed to enjoy it, so a few weeks later I asked him to come for lunch again. After the dinner he said to me:
“This is quite a coincidence, last time I was here we had arroz, huevos, picadillo, harina y papas, and today we had arroz, huevo, picadillo, harina y…”
“Coincidence?” I interrupted. “We have that every day for lunch, doesn’t everybody have the same thing for lunch every day?”

"Stupid" by Robert Arellano

On Robert Arellano, by his nephew Bob:

"My uncle Roberto Arellano was born in Cuba in 1918. He went to a Jesuit School in Havana, and as a young man expressed interest in the priesthood. My grandmother Fefita Cano y Arellano forbade it, and subsequently refused to send my father, who was 10 years younger than his brother Roberto, to a Jesuit school so that they would not "brainwash" him. Roberto came to the U.S. for college and obtained a degree in Chemical Engineering from M.I.T. Soon after graduation, Roberto got a job at the Johns Hopkins University in the sciences as a lab assistant, but soon thereafter he changed his specialization to the humanities and creative writing. For three decades he taught at the the Johns Hopkins writing seminars. During his tenure at Hopkins, Roberto taught dozens of writing workshops, hosted the great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges during his several visiting-writer residencies, and co-produced student/faculty theater literally all over campus – I remember one adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” that had the audience walk en masse from green to green to encounter consecutive scenes. There is still a performance space at Hopkins that
was dedicated to him: the Arellano Theater."


I was very close to a small animal once, a rooster by the name of “Stupid”. That was the name by which I always knew him.

We lived in a farm not far from the big city where my father raised chickens. The laying hens and the mature roosters were in the back of the farm, in the front there were two padlocks, on the right were the young roosters and on the left the future laying hens.

I didn’t imagine it that way myself; on the right were the chickens (hens?) with the long combs and on the left those with the short combs. I was only seven and my knowledge of sex was very meager.

When I came home from school I was to feed the chickens. Our cook, Leopoldina, would give me two or three pounds of corn and I would throw it up in the air and all the chickens would scramble and try to eat as fast as they could, and the fastest eater got the most. This was a lot of fun.

One day while I was feeding the hens with the long combs, I noticed that one of them wasn’t scrambling like all the others for the corn. He just stood between my feet and ate all the corn that dropped from my hands. He was so stupid I had to be careful not to step on him. And so I named him “stupid”.

Our friendship grew as the days passed. By the time I arrived, Stupid was waiting for me right behind the door, I had to open it carefully so as not to knock him down. The other chickens were ten, fifteen feet away from me, Stupid was between my feet.

One day I came back from school and ran to greet Stupid, but Stupid wasn’t there. Not only wasn’t he there, but neither were the other five hundred or so of his companions. The whole yard was empty.

I ran to find Leo…where are the chickens? Another revolution?, I asked. I knew that revolutions, of which we had many, did horrible things.

No revolutions, she said, and she took me to my father. He carefully explained that most young roosters are sold, killed and eaten. I burst out crying, “You sold my rooster.” He was a kind man. “I tell you what,” he said, “from the next batch, which is a very good one, I’ll give you two of them all for yourself.”

I started to cry. This went on for some time, I wasn’t very good at most things but I was good at crying. After an hour, my father broke down. He called the man who was going to butcher the chickens, a friend of his, and we got in the car and drove to his place.

This man was also a good man. When he got there he looked at my tearful eyes and, opening the door where the roosters were, said to me: “You can have any two of the biggest ones you can find.”

I said: “I don’t want two chickens, I only want one, and it doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be stupid.”

He sort of laughed. “You can have as many stupid roosters as you…” then, looking at my face, he became serious. “If you can find Stupid, he’s yours.”

I knew I was going to find him. The room was small which meant that they were standing shoulder to shoulder, but even so they managed to stay away from me…until I heard a scream, a crow, whatever, and realized I was stepping on something, someone. I picked up Stupid and went triumphantly to my father and said, “Dad, this is Stupid.”

"The News" by Johan Moya Ramis

The emissary showed up at the tent out of breath, bursting into the Meeting. They’ve kidnapped her again! They’ve kidnapped her again!, he yelled in the midst of the warriors. We went silent, dismayed, not knowing what to say, some at the verge of tears. It had only been a few months since we returned from Troy.

- Translated by David Iaconangelo

"National Theater" by Johan Moya Ramis

Johan Ramis Moya began writing in 1999, sparked by romantic disillusionment and the death of his father. He received his first literary grant in 2006 for a book of stories titled "Post-History", and that same year won a spot in the short story collection "Internacional Dinosaurio" with "The News." The following year, "National Theater" was also published. In 2008 Johan was a finalist for the Gaceta de Cuba Short Story Prize, one of the island's most prestigious literary prizes, with the story "Anathema of the City". He now studies theology, works in the National Library as the donation coordinator, and is a fan of many English-language writers, including Hemingway, Carver, Bukowski, Pound, and Nabokov, among others.

"National Theater"

For Charles Bukowski

It had occurred to me to be a writer and I invited them all home: Cabrera Infante, Carpentier, Lezama, Virgilio, Severo Sarduí, Reinaldo Arenas, and some others. The noise from the hallway was impressive. I listened to them from the doorway, not daring to get involved with them. My folks were sitting in the living room watching the telenovelas.

When’s this going to be over?, asked my mother.
I need to hear what they’re saying, I responded.
But all they’re doing is bullshitting!, my father protested.

Virgilio poked his head through the doorway and winked at the old man, who shouted: That’s it! I didn’t raise my son to be a faggot!
Let me listen to the telenovela, for fuck’s sake! my mother yelled.

Into this entered Lezama, who walked into the kitchen and ate half a pan of chicharrones.

That poor man, said my mother. Before he goes, remind me to give him a dietary regimen, poor guy.
There’s someone out there that’s going to get us in trouble with the CDR, alerted my father.
That must be Reinaldo, I said. He’s a non-conformist, but harmless.
Who’s the guy that talks so mixed-up even he doesn’t know what he’s saying?, asked my mother.
Carpentier, I answered. Severo entered with a bored look on his face.
I need a telephone, he said.
What happened?
Reinaldo shot himself in the head.
And I just cleaned that doorway this morning!, my mother complained.
It’s your fault for consenting to all this, said my father, pointing at me. I said nothing. I got up and accompanied Severo to the phone booth on the corner.

- Translated by David Iaconangelo

"Look What Time It Is" by Juan Cueto-Roig

Ten bombs had exploded in various parts of the city. But this was long after Mario left his house. He didn’t hear about it because he was at the movies. At eleven that night, now in the street, he sensed something strange. The few passers-by, more serious and aloof than usual, moved quickly. At the bus stop, someone commented on what happened. Mario thought of his mother. He was her only son, and she became very nervous when these things happened. Now she would be worried.

“You know the dangers that youths face these days,” she always said, in vain, to dissuade him every time he went out at night.

He stopped the first bus that he saw coming. It wasn’t the one that passed by his house, but he decided he would transfer closer to his neighborhood.

He arrived at the place where he had to get off in order to change buses.

“Be careful, kid, it’s dangerous walking alone out on a night like this,” murmured the driver in a paternal tone.

The street was deserted. For the first time he felt fear. He was the only person on that corner. Suddenly, from the shadows, as if created by the night itself for the sole purpose of changing his fate, a cop approached him, slapped him in the face, and accused him of being one of the revolutionaries that had planted the bombs.

“You’re mistaken, sir, I was at the mall … at a movie.”
“In what theater? Bombs were also planted in theaters.”
“Not in the one I was in.”

The boy’s response infuriated the man.

Mario searched in his pocket for his ticket stub, not finding it.

“You live around here? What are you doing on this corner at this time?”
“Waiting for the bus … Look, here’s my transfer.” And he waved it in his hand like a flag of salvation.

The policeman snatched it from him and threw it on the ground. Then he beat him. While he bled profusely from the nose and an eye, the cop made him walk several blocks while he pointed his pistol at his back. A patrol car passed and the thug signaled to it. They threw Mario into the back seat and continued beating him.
His mother never slept until her son returned. That night he was later than usual. She looked at the clock. It was already 2:00 in the morning. And as if someone could hear her and respond with a reason that would calm her, she said, “Look what time it is and Mario still hasn’t returned.”

And several times a day, until the end of her life, in a voice that was almost a wail, she kept repeating, “Look what time it is and Mario still hasn’t returned.”

- Translated by Charles Iaconangelo

"The River" by Juan Cueto-Roig

We were two handsome princes. Rulers of all the lands that we could see from the high window, the watchtower that permitted us to separate allies from enemies. Covered wagons guided by loyal subjects provided the provisions for the besieged castle. Bandits positioned behind the trees waited for an opportune moment to strike. Camouflaged spies pretended to fish in the small river that irrigated our kingdom. Meanwhile, various women washed amidst the murmur of the waters and a flock of sheep grazed, indifferent to the plot being devised around them.

Now the river has disappeared. Still, this is the same room where he showed me to hold the thermometer to the light bulb to fake a fever, which would make it possible to stay in the clinic one extra day. His last day. Because he didn’t have to invent fevers or pains. He was so bad off he died the next morning.

They dressed him in his Sunday clothes and laid him out in the chapel. We filtered past the body that, according to rumors, had been stretched out. It was true: in death he grew two inches. The pink color had also disappeared from his cheeks. A rosary and his hands highlighted his paleness against the Prussian blue jacket of his uniform.

The following day the family arrived. They came from very far, from the other side of the country. As I had been the only witness to his death, the director steered me to the salon where his parents waited.

“He fell asleep after we went up to see the river,” was all that I could tell them. But they wanted to know more.
“Did he talk about me? Did he mention my name?” asked his mother.
“Did he complain?” questioned his father.
“No, after we went up to see the river he lay down, said good night to me and fell asleep,” I responded.

The worst part was having to leave him alone for the night in the chapel. Because he told me that what scared him the most was being left alone. That’s why he showed me how to hold the thermometer to the light bulb.

And now, what have I come to? What am I doing 40 years later in this room that is no longer what it was, just a warehouse full of boxes and junk? There is nothing to indicate that Paulino died between these four walls. By now, nobody remembers what happened here. I myself sometimes forget that the boy existed. Even the river has disappeared.

- Translated by Charles Iaconangelo

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"The Empty Niches" by Juan Cueto-Roig

Juan Cueto-Roig was born in Caibarién, Cuba. Exiled from the Island in 1966, he now resides in Miami. In 1996 he published "En la tarde, tarde" (Poetry) Editorial Sibi, Miami. In 2000, "Palabras en fila, en clase y en recreo" (Poetry), Editorial Verbum, Madrid. In 2002, "Ex-Cuetos" (Stories), Ediciones Universal, Miami. In 2004, "Hallarás lobregueces" (Stories), Editorial Ultragraphics, Miami and "En época de lilas" (Spanish translation of 44 poems by e. e. Cummings), Editorial Verbum, Madrid. In 2007, "Verycuetos" (Chronicles), Editorial El Almendro, Miami. In 2009, "Veintiún cuentos concisos" (Stories), Editorial Silueta, Miami.


"...and happily we slaughtered the gods."
- J.L. Borges

On the 20th of January in the year 2030 the heads of state of the world’s most powerful countries gathered in an extraordinary assembly of the UN. They had been urgently convened due to the religious wars that were breaking out in various regions of the world at the cost of millions of lives.

Suddenly, in the middle of the debates, The All Powerful appeared, and, after a moving speech in which he declared himself guilty for the imperfections and calamities of his Creation, announced his intention to commit suicide.

The crying and begging of those present were useless. It is well known that the pleas of men have rarely changed the designs of the Almighty.

After the great act was consummated, which by virtue of its supernatural nature none of the witnesses were able to describe precisely, a state of emptiness and helplessness overtook the members of the global community, which sunk into an eerie silence. Minutes later, cutting through the terror that the unusual event had provoked, the scarcely audible voice of the Secretary General ended the session.

The following day a committee was named with the purpose of redacting those statutes and amendments pertaining to a world orphaned from God. And unanimously the committee declared what had been ordered by The Great Suicide in his dramatic final speech: delete the divine clauses and references in the constitutions, oaths and official acts of the nations, along with any invocations to or praise of the Disappeared Creator.

The contending religions ended immediately, but the panic and insanity that the Divine Absence caused provoked bloody disturbances. And like a fire that spread and spread, an iconoclastic fury spread throughout the world.

Angry mobs invaded the estates of the Vatican and sacked them. When, hours later, the police succeeded in reinstating order, the Pope lay dead in a puddle of blood beside the cadavers of his guards.

The plundering and destruction of churches, temples, monasteries, pagodas, mosques, and synagogues became a popular pastime.

A wave of suicides amongst monks, healers, the beatified, the devout, Daughters of Mary and Gentlemen of Colón broke out in nations with the most deep-rooted Catholic traditions.

And where fundamentalist Muslims were the predominant faction, the immolations and killings decimated so much of the population that many of those nations ceased to exist, at least in the form that they had been created.

Afterwards, as if by magic, the violence stopped. And for ten generations there was peace in the Land – a peace unlike any other known by humanity.

But one day strange rumors began to spread. Someone was said to have seen some burning bushes floating in the sea. A crowd gathered and many put their faith in the miracle. Lost in the desert, a Bedouin followed the bright tail of a star that guided his caravan. And the tribe genuflected and gave thanks for the miracle. Two Croatian children drew the face of a being that appeared in the foliage of an olive tree. Various people opined that it was of an ancient deity. In a country of the Orient a stone idol leaked tears of blood.

So many extraordinary facts were reported that an investigation was ordered of what happened that 20th of January 2030.

As the witnesses of the divine suicide had already died, it was very difficult to verify. The books of acts and other documents were reviewed, and after endless discussions that lasted many months, an entire special session of the UN declared that the portentous event had been nothing more than a colossal fraud, a ruse of the members of the global assembly of the era in order to secure peace in the Land.

Once they signed the rigorous protocols, the people began to resuscitate their gods. Recently sculpted images came to occupy the niches that had remained vacant for decades, and the ancient sacred books that had been relegated to museums and libraries returned to their lecterns. And with rites and liturgies of great pomp, a new era of the world began.

A few years later, the heads of state of the main countries of the world met in an extraordinary assembly of the UN. They had been urgently convened due to the religious wars that broke out in various regions of the planet, at the cost of millions of lives.

- Translated by Charles Iaconangelo

Listo para hacer la zafra

Welcome to ZafraLit, the only online archive of contemporary short fiction from Cuba. Here you will find stories by many of the island's finest authors (some of whom currently live abroad), translated for your reading pleasure. Beholden to no political agenda, we are partisans only of the power and narrative possibilities of the short story.

I wish you all happy readings.

- David Iaconangelo, Editor.