“Rest in peace” were the pastor’s last words.
If that well-worn phrase, so shamelessly dramatic in the mouth of that figure, had ever held any meaning, it was at that exact moment, as the grave diggers nonchalantly lowered Ana’s coffin into the open grave. The certainty that life can be the worst hell, and that the remains of fear and pain were disappearing forever with that descent, overcame me with paltry relief. I wondered if I wasn’t in some way envious of my wife’s final passage toward silence, since being dead, totally and truly dead, for some can be the closest thing to a blessing from that God with whom Ana tried to involve me, without much success, in the last years of her difficult life.
As soon as the grave diggers finished moving over the stone and placed the wreaths of flowers our friends had brought on the grave, I turned and walked away, resolved to escape the hands patting my shoulder and the habitual expressions of condolence that we always feel obliged to offer. Because at that moment every other word in the world is superfluous: only the pastor’s well-worn formula had meaning and I didn’t want to lose it. Rest and peace: what Ana had finally attained and what I also asked for.
When I sat down inside the Pontiac to await Daniel’s arrival, I knew that I was about to pass out, and I was sure that if my friend didn’t remove me from the cemetery, I would have been unable to find the way back to my life. The September sun was burning the top of the car, but I didn’t feel up to moving to any other place. With what little strength I had left, I closed my eyes to control the vertigo of loss and fatigue while I felt the acidic sweat running down over my eyelids and cheeks, springing from my armpits, neck, arms. It was soaking my back scorched by the vinyl seat until it turned into a warm current that flowed down my legs in search of the cistern of my shoes. I wondered if that foul sweat and my deep exhaustion were not the prelude to my molecular disintegration, or at least the heart attack that would kill me in the next few minutes. It seemed to me that either could be an easy, even desirable solution, although frankly unfair: I didn’t have the right to force my friends to bear two funerals in three days.
“Are you ill, Iván?” Dany’s question, through the window, surprised me. “Holy shit, look at how much you’re sweating…”
“I want to leave … But I don’t know how, dammit…”
“We’re leaving, my friend, don’t worry. Wait a minute, let me give a few pesos to the grave diggers,” he said, my friend’s words transmitting a patent sense of life and reality that seemed strange to me, decidedly remote.
Once again I closed my eyes and remained motionless, sweating, until the car was set in motion. Only once the air coming through the window began to calm me down did I dare to raise my eyelids. Before leaving the cemetery, I was able to see the last row of tombs and mausoleums, eaten away by the sun, weather, and oblivion, as dead as their inhabitants, and—with or without any reason for doing so at that moment—I again asked myself why, amid so many possibilities, some faraway scientists had chosen my name specifically to baptize the ninth tropical storm of that season.
Although at this point in my life I’ve learned—or rather have been taught, and not in a very nice way—not to believe in chance, the coincidences were too many that led the meteorologists to decide, many months ahead of time, that they would call that storm “Ivan”—a masculine name starting with the ninth letter of the alphabet, in Spanish, that had never been used before for that purpose. The fetus of what would become Ivan was spawned by the meeting of ominous clouds in the vicinity of Cape Verde, but it wasn’t until a few days later, already baptized and converted into a hurricane with all of its properties, that it would rear its head in the Caribbean to place us in its ravenous sight … You’ll see why I think that I have reasons enough to believe that only twisted fate could have determined that that particular cyclone, one of history’s fiercest, would carry my name, just when another hurricane was closing in on my existence.
Even though it had been quite a long time—perhaps too long—since Ana and I had known that her end was decreed, the many years during which we dragged her illnesses had accustomed us to living with them. But the news that her osteoporosis—probably caused by the vitamin-deficient polyneuritis unleashed in the most difficult years of the crisis in the 1990s—had developed into bone cancer, had made us face the evidence of an end that was near, and given me the macabre proof that only a perverse fate could be responsible for burdening my wife specifically with that illness.
From the beginning of the year, Ana’s decline had accelerated, although it was in the middle of July, three months after the definitive diagnosis, that her final agony began. Although Gisela, Ana’s sister, came frequently to help me, I practically had to stop working to take care of my wife; and if we survived those months, it was thanks to the support of friends like Dany, Anselmo, or Frank the doctor, who frequently came through our small apartment in the neighborhood of Lawton to drop off some supplies drawn from the wretched harvests that, for their own subsistence, they managed to obtain in the most devious ways. More than once, Dany offered to come help me with Ana, but I rejected his overtures, since pain and misery are among the few things that, when shared, always multiply.
The scene we lived between the cracked walls of our apartment was as depressing as can be imagined, although the worst thing, under the circumstances, was the strange power with which Ana’s broken body clung to life, even against its owner’s will.
In the early days of September, when Hurricane Ivan, having reached its full potential, had just crossed the Atlantic and was nearing the island of Grenada, Ana had an unexpected period of lucidity and an unforeseen relief to her pain. As it had been her decision not to go to the hospital, a neighboring nurse and our friend Frank had taken over the task of providing her with intravenous fluids and the dose of morphine that kept her in a startling lethargy. Upon seeing that reaction, Frank warned me that this was the denouement and recommended that I give the patient only those foods that she asked for, not insisting on the intravenous fluids and, as long as she wasn’t complaining of pain, stopping all drugs to thus give her some final days of intelligence. Then, as if her life had returned to normal, an Ana with various broken bones and very open eyes became interested again in the world around her. With the television and radio on, she fixed her attention in an obsessive way on the path of the hurricane that had initiated its deathly dance devastating the island of Grenada, where it had left more than twenty dead. On many occasions throughout those days, my wife lectured me on the hurricane’s characteristics, one of the strongest in meteorological history, and attributed its elevated powers to the climate change the planet was undergoing, a mutation of nature that could do away with the human species if the necessary measures were not taken, she told me, completely convinced. That my dying wife was thinking of everyone else’s future only added to the pain I was already suffering.
While the storm neared Jamaica with the obvious intention of later penetrating eastern Cuba, Ana developed a sort of meteorological excitement capable of keeping her on constant alert, a tension she escaped only when sleep conquered her for two or three hours. All of her expectations were related to Ivan’s doings, with the number of dead it left in its path—one in Trinidad, five in Venezuela, another in Colombia, five more in Dominica, fifteen in Jamaica, she added, counting on her crooked fingers—and, above all, the calculations of what it would destroy if it penetrated Cuba through any of the points marked as possible trajectories deduced by the specialists. Ana experienced a kind of cosmic communication at the point of the symbiotic confluence of two bodies that know they are destined to consume themselves in the span of a few days, and I began to speculate whether the illness and the drugs had not made her crazy. I also thought that if the hurricane didn’t come through soon and Ana didn’t calm down, I would be the one who ended up going crazy.
The most critical period—for Ana and, logically, for each of the island’s inhabitants—occurred when Ivan, with sustained winds of approximately 150 miles per hour, began to pass over the seas to the south of Cuba. The hurricane was moving with a lazy arrogance, as if it were perversely choosing the point at which it would inevitably turn north and break the country in two, leaving an enormous wake of ruins and death. With bated breath and her senses clinging to the radio and the color television that a neighbor had lent us, a Bible near one hand and our dog Truco beneath the other, Ana cried, laughed, cursed, and prayed with a strength that was not her own. For more than forty-eight hours she remained in that state, watching Ivan’s careful approach as if her thoughts and prayers were indispensable to keeping the hurricane as far away as possible from the island, blocking it in that almost incredible westward path from which it couldn’t resolve to deviate to the north and flatten the country, as all historic, atmospheric, and planetary logic predicted.
The night of September 12, when information from satellites and radars and the unanimous opinion of meteorologists around the world were certain that Ivan would chart a course for the north and that with its battering gusts, gigantic waves, and rain squalls, it would rejoice in the final destruction of Havana, Ana asked me to remove from the wall of our room the dark, corroded wooden cross that twenty-seven years before the sea had given me—the driftwood cross—and place it at the foot of the bed. Then she begged me to make her a very hot hot chocolate and some toast with butter. If what was supposed to happen happened, that would be her last supper, because the battered ceiling of our apartment would not withstand the force of the hurricane, and she, it goes without saying, refused to move from there. After drinking the hot chocolate and nibbling a piece of toast, Ana asked me to lay the driftwood cross next to her and began to pray with her eyes fixed on the ceiling and on the wooden beams guaranteeing its balance and, perhaps, with her imagination devoted to playing out the images of the apocalypse lying in wait for the city.
The morning of September 14, the meteorologists announced a miracle: Ivan had turned toward the north at last, but it had done so so far to the west of the designated zone that it barely brushed the westernmost point of the island without causing any major damage. Apparently the hurricane had felt remorse for the many calamities piling up, and had steered away from us, convinced that its passing through our country would have been an excess of bad fate. Worn out by so much praying, with her stomach ravaged by lack of food, but satisfied by what she considered to be a personal victory, Ana fell asleep after hearing confirmation of that cosmic whim, and in the grimace that had become habitual on her lips there was something very much like a smile. Ana’s breathing, strained for so many days, was relaxed again and, along with her fingers caressing Truco’s wiry hair, was the only sign in the next two days that she was still alive.
On September 16, practically at nightfall, while the hurricane started to disintegrate on U.S. soil and to lose the already diminished force of its winds, Ana stopped caressing our dog and, a few minutes later, stopped breathing. She was at last resting, I’d like to think, in eternal peace.
In due time you will understand why this story, which is not the story of my life (although it also is), begins as it does. And although you still don’t know who I am or have any idea what I’m going to tell you, perhaps you will have understood something: Ana was a very important person to me. So much so that, to a large degree, it is because of her that this story exists—in black and white, I mean.
* * *
Ana crossed my path at one of those all so frequent times during which I was teetering on the edge of a precipice. The glorious Soviet Union had started its death rattle, and the lightning bolts of the crisis that would devastate the whole country in the 1990s were beginning to come down on us. It was predictable that one of the first consequences of the national debacle had been the closing, due to a lack of paper, ink, and electricity, of the veterinary medicine magazine where for ages I had worked as a proofreader. Just like dozens of press workers, from typesetters to editors, I had ended up in an artisans’ workshop where we were supposed to devote ourselves, for an indefinite period of time, to making macramé crafts and polished seed decorations that, everyone knew, no one would be able to or dare to buy. Three days into this new and useless destiny, without even having the decency to quit, I fled from that honeycomb of enraged and frustrated bees and, thanks to my friends the veterinarians whose texts I have reviewed so many times or even rewritten, I was able to start working shortly after as a sort of ubiquitous helper in the likewise poverty-stricken clinic of the University of Havana’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
Sometimes I am so overly suspicious that I come to wonder if that whole series of global, national, and personal decisions (they were even talking about “the end of history,” just when we had begun to have an idea about what the history of the twentieth century was) had as its only objective that I be the one who received, at the end of a rainy afternoon, the desperate and dripping young woman who, carrying a shaggy poodle in her arms, appeared at the clinic and begged me to save her dog, which was afflicted with an intestinal blockage. Since it was after four o’clock and the doctors had already left, I explained to the girl (she and the dog were trembling from the cold and, observing them, I felt my voice falter) that we couldn’t do anything. Then I saw her break into tears: her dog was dying, she said to me; the two veterinarians who had seen him didn’t have anesthesia to operate on him; and since there weren’t any buses in the city, she had come walking in the rain with her dog in her arms, and I had to do something, for the love of God. Something? I still ask myself how it’s possible that I dared to, or if in reality I was already wanting to dare to; but after explaining to the girl that I was not a veterinarian and asking her to write her petition on a piece of paper and sign it, thus freeing me of all responsibility, the dying Tato became my first surgical patient. If the God invoked by the girl had ever decided to protect a dog, it had to be that afternoon, since the operation—about which I had read so much and seen carried out more than once—was a success in practice.
Depending on how you look at it, Ana was the woman that I most needed or who was least advisable for me at that moment: fifteen years younger than me, too undemanding in the way of material things, horrible and wasteful as a cook, a passionate dog lover, and gifted with a strange sense of reality that made her go from the most eccentric ideas to the firmest and most rational decisions. From the beginning of our relationship she had the ability to make me feel like I had been looking for her for many, many years. That’s why I didn’t find it strange when, a few weeks into the calm and very satisfactory sexual relationship that began the first day I went to the house where Ana lived with a friend to give Tato an IV, the girl threw her belongings into two backpacks and, with her ration book, a box of books, and her nearly recovered poodle, moved into my damp and already peeling apartment in Lawton.
Besieged by hunger, blackouts, the devaluation of our salaries, and a transportation standstill—amid many other evils—Ana and I lived through a period of ecstasy. Our respective scrawniness, accentuated by the long trips we made on the Chinese bicycles that our workplaces had sold us, turned us into almost ethereal beings, a new species of mutants capable, nonetheless, of dedicating our remaining energies to making love, to talking for hours, and to reading like fiends—for Ana, poetry; for me, a return to novels after a long time without them. But they were also unreal years, lived in a dark and sluggish country, always hot, that was falling apart day by day without quite falling into the troglodytic primitiveness that threatened us. And they were years in which not even the most devastating scarcity was able to stamp out the joy that living together brought Ana and me, like the shipwrecked who tie themselves to one another to either jointly save themselves or perish together.
Apart from the hunger and the material shortcomings of all kinds that besieged us—although between us we considered them outside us and inevitable, and thus foreign to us—the only sadly personal episodes we experienced at that time were the revelation of the vitamin-deficient polyneuritis that Ana began to suffer from and, later on, the death of Tato at the age of sixteen. The loss of the poodle affected my wife so much that, a couple of weeks later, I tried to alleviate the situation by picking up a stray pup infected with mange, whom Ana immediately started to call “Truco” due to his ability to hide, and whom she fed with rations taken from our paltry survivors’ diet.
Ana and I had achieved a level of such rapport that, one night, under a blackout, with ill-contained hunger, unease, and heat (how was it possible that it was always so damned hot and that even the moon seemed to shed less light than before?)—as if I were just carrying out a natural need—I began to tell her the story of the meetings that, fourteen years before, I had had with that character whom I had always called, from the very day I met him, “the man who loved dogs.” Until that night on which, almost without prologue and as an outburst, I decided to tell Ana that story, I had never revealed to anyone the subject of my conversations with that man and, less still, my delayed, repressed, and often forgotten desire to write the story he had confided in me. So that she would have a better idea of how I’d been affected by the proximity to that figure and the dreadful story of hate, betrayal, and death that he’d given me, I even gave her some notes to read that many years before, from the ignorance I wallowed in at the time, and almost against my own will, I had not been able to keep myself from writing. She had barely finished reading them when Ana stared at me until the weight of her black eyes—those eyes that would always look like the most living thing of her body—began to berate me and she finally said, with appalling conviction, that she didn’t understand how it was possible that I, especially I, had not written a book about that story that God had put in my path. And looking into her eyes—those same eyes now being eaten by worms—I gave her the answer that had slipped away from me so many times, but the only one that, because it was Ana, I could give her:
“Fear kept me from writing it.”
Copyright © 2009 by Leonardo Padura
Translation copyright © 2014 by Anna Kushner