As part of our series on Cuban-American authors, we present an excerpt from a work in progress by Enrique Flores-Galbis, author of the novel 90 Miles to Havana.
One last trip to the well.
I grew up in a house of stories—shared memories, recounted with passion and intensity by those afraid that if they didn’t get their accounts across, the worlds and lives they left behind would disappear, and they would be truly dispossessed.
As a writer I have drawn from these exile stories and benefited from the longing and beauty of their telling, especially those told by my grandmother.
Abuela was the voice of our house. During the day she would sit in her room with the door open. This way, she could track the comings and goings of our large, unruly family, and then broadcast her narratives into the open space at the center of our tall house.
At four in the afternoon she brewed her coffee, rich and strong—the old school way. An old jelly jar, with an embossed design of grape leaves caught the drops of the black liquid oozing from the bottom of the cloth funnel. Stirring two tiny spoonfuls of sugar into her espresso cup she would murmur, “Just enough to sweeten the ninety miles I have to cross,” and then go to her room and close the door.
She would sit in her chair, cup hovering, staring out over the tops of the bare winter trees and then leave. Her body might have been slowly rocking in the chair, but she was gone— she had left the room.
Abuela was a dreamer. She could transcend her self-imposed double exile in Connecticut and return to her home on Obispo street, in Old Havana, at will.
One day, before she closed her door, I asked her, “Abuela, where do you go when you leave?”
Sensing that I was vaguely aware of her travels, she smiled and said, “Havana, of course. Where else would I go?”
It was about this time that our daily ritual of coffee, stories, and my induction into the legion of exile dreamers began.
Abuela’s stories always started at the large carved doors of her house on Obispo St. and most of them took place on the same day, the day before her world changed. A sip of coffee, a sigh, and she would begin to describe the doors, the blaring light on the buildings, the hushed blue shadows, and the smell from the chocolate shop on the corner. Each detail, a new strand she would weave into her delicate bridge of words. I listened patiently, closely, until the words disappeared, until only their echoes, the images, remained. And then I too crossed the ninety miles of dark water on her bridge of words.
This, the last story she told me, explained her beginnings as a dreamer and led me to the realization that she was just one of many exiles who dreamed their way back to Havana every day.
“The gallego carpenter carved little cat-like creatures among the leaves and berries at the bottom of the doors where only a child would notice. Those big doors opened into a courtyard paved with smooth grey stones, dug up from the Bay of Biscayne and brought as ballast on the first ships. I always kept my windows open so that I could feel the eternal chill of the grey stones and hear the watery song of the fountain in the middle of the courtyard.
“Every day I was left all alone in that room for my afternoon siesta. I never told anyone before, but as long as I can remember, I wished I had a twin, a girl twin, someone I could whisper my secrets to. Then one day she appeared in my siesta dream. I don’t know how it happened, but there she was, just as real as you are right now. The next day I waited for her, but she did not come back.
“Now I was lonelier than ever before, but determined to bring her back. After all, if I dreamed her once I was sure that I could dream her again. So, one siesta at a time, I began to recreate her, to will her back from my memory.
“I don’t remember how long it took or how old I was when I fully willed her into being, but I do remember the first time she entered my room, she brought the songs of the caged birds as a gift.
“We would lie side by side, barely creasing starched pillowcases, holding hands as we slipped out of this world. In that hour of underwater quiet we were free to roam to places unthinkable at any other time. We tore down walls and burst through gates erected to keep a young girl’s imagination cloistered and safe. We created new worlds and then tossed them back and forth until one of us succeeded in fleshing out a vivid scenario, always reserving a place for the other on our dream stage.
“One day, as I walked to my room for my siesta, there was a loud knock on the big doors. I stopped by the fountain.
“The cook, irritated by the interruption, stepped out of the kitchen and stomped across the courtyard. He nudged the door open only a crack, ready to dismiss the beggar or vendor that had so rudely disturbed his preparation of the evening meal.
“The cook hesitated and then took a step back. As the door swung open, the afternoon light sliced into the shady courtyard. Then the cook, a haughty, serious man, did something that I had never seen him do before. He bowed deeply as a small woman, not much older than myself, walked boldly past him. She stopped at the very tip of the shaft of light as if she wanted me to look at her— to see her fully.
“She had high cheekbones and very small dark eyes. Her sun-darkened skin was a rich ochre, the color of the earth in Matanzas. She seemed to be a perfectly balanced mixture of every race that had ever set foot in the Caribbean.
“She slowly stepped toward me and began to recite details from my secret dream lives, descriptions of places my twin and I had traveled to, places only an intimate of our dreams would know.
“’Have we met?’ I asked.
“ ‘Yes, in your siestas. You left a window open,’ she said in a soft conspiratorial tone.
“I immediately understood what she meant. My dreams were open and inviting. I always left room for my twin and, I realized, they were open to all dreamers.
“It didn’t take me long to see that Uva was my guardian-angel. She had come to teach me about the art of dreams, as she called it, always insisting on the importance of her calling, because shared dreams have the power to affect reality.
“Over time the numbers of dreamers grew, but in exile our once sweet dream turned into a bitter, dark cloud casting its half century shadow on our island.
“Now there are not many of us left and I’m too tired to carry on.
“It is time for this dream to end, so that the new one can begin.”
Good bye, Abuela.
Enrique Flores Galbis is a painter, teacher, lecturer, and novelist. He immigrated to the United States from Cuba at age nine. As a writer, he is best known for the Pura Belpré Honor Book 90 Miles to Havana. His first novel, Raining Sardines, (Roaring Brook Press 2007), a recipient of America’s Award Author Honors. Learn more about his art and writing on his professional website. Go here to view an illustrated reading by the author from his award-winning novel.