COLUMN FORTY-THREE, MARCH 1, 1999
(Copyright © 1999 Al Aronowitz)
He could have shouted Eureka!!! right then and there on that hot June Tuesday morning on the angular wooden table of the Hemeroteca on the National Library when, reading the most recent National Geographic issue---it took six months to arrive there---he found the obvious solution, so simple. He was readying an article about the flourishing Cuban gusanera in Miami, how they were transforming the city, and there was a full photo of a sort of unofficial museum on the Miami river, where the rickety boats that Cubans used to escape from Castro were moored as a reminder.
The first possibility that occurred to him was to hijack a trawler---in the chaos of Paco's death, he had concealed behind his books his Smith & Wesson, and a box with two dozen soft nosed bullets. But hijacking was too risky; it was regarded as piracy and punished with 30 years, el palito if it resulted in any injuries to the crew, and anyway he didn't want to actually shoot anyone. He opted for a raft, and to do it alone, keeping absolutely mum. Most of the salidas ilegales failed because too many people were involved, and somehow the plan leaked.
With the same meticulousness he applied to all his endeavors, he first researched the subject. El Químico always adhered to Alexander von Humboldt's dictum: "Simplification and order gives you the key to a whole new topic." He read classics like Alain Bombard's Voluntary Shipwrecked,Heyerdahl's The Kon Tiki Expedition, Steven Crane's The Open Boat and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, plus World War World II Navy stories and every account he could find about survival in the sea. Like the Chinaman who spent 72 days alone in a raft, and broke his teeth making a hook from a nail.
A little clue here, another there: most rafters died of shock and exposure. The best month to try was September: the sun didn't
What the body
needed the most
bite so much and, if there were no hurricanes around, the sea was like a plate, at its calmest. Paradoxically, what the body needed the most was salt: you could drink a whole gallon of water, and sweat it all straight away, it's the salt that prevents dehydration. That you can get enough liquid by sipping the lymph of fish cut a certain way. The nutritional value of plankton. That in extreme cases you could drink sea water, and thus prolong the agony for three, four days until the Malpighi corpuscles in the kidneys exploded. Trivia that would prove invaluable later on his odyssey.
He had an answer for the how, and for the when, the problem was the where. It took him two days searching to get the answer, reviewing all those yellowed index cards, and there it was, probably read by only half a dozen people: Afloramientos de Corrientes en la Costa Norte de Cuba, by a crazy guy that during all 1956 sent into the sea, from Pinar del Rio to Oriente, all along the narrow but long island, 16,000 sealed bottles with detailed instructions about how to locate their position and how to reach him. And it was pay dirt: during the months of August and September there was a secondary stream from outside Arroyo Bermejo beach, and which three miles into the sea entrunked directly with the Gulf Stream.
El Químico reconnoitered the beach twice. Not promising at all: the strategic Arrechabala refinery lay only three miles to the west in Santa Cruz harbor, and there a was borderguard watchtower right there where the afloramiento was supposed to flow. No doubt equipped with infrared TPs, searchlights, machineguns, a radio link with the coastguard: the works.
He returned to the library and found a big calendar for 1968---a year old---with the phases of the moon, so El Químico had to do the same calculations that plagued astronomers before the Incas and Mayas. He decided that the best day was a Saturday or Sunday at two or three in the morning, when the Interior Ministry conscripts up there would be bored, homesick, masturbating themselves and sleepy. The ideal weekend would be the 11th and 12th of September, when the moon wouldn't show.
He had a month and a half, so he then and there started a weird training and began his searches for the raft material, the most formidable task. He got up at seven in the morning and went and ran on the clay track of the nearby University Stadium. Only stopping at the Café Sport where his uncle Primitivo sold him two coffees as if he were a stranger. Every turn of the track he would stop to do 50 pushups. That took him until eleven, with the sun at its worst. Then he would go home, and have breakfast: four egg yolks in a glass of Viña 95 wine, a sherry-like local concoction.
Then, in the midst of the beheaded killer sun, he would spend four hours in jockey shorts, assimilating, in the most weird postures of Kriyah Yoga, the ultraviolet radiation. Afterwards, he would pump iron for an hour. Only then would he take a cold shower and cook himself his lunch: a bit of white rice from the communal pot and plenty of fried mackerel, oily and normally thrown at the four cats of the household. "Niño, te vas a convertir en bacalado. . ." protested Titina. He got bronzed like an Indian, even darker, but he knew exactly what he was doing: at first he sweat as a pig, but as the melanin developed and the skin hardened he sweat less and less. And he needed less lemonade from the fridge.
The logistic problems were more complicated: he needed six bus inner tires, and they had to be new: the patched punctures would not resist the salt water and the heat. So he approached first a faggot named Quesada, a black marketeer whom he knew from Amalia's bar. All he could get hold of were car inner tires: too small for El Químico's purposes. Then he invited home Santiaguito, the 43 bus driver---already eaten by a yet undiagnosed bone cancer. Over coffee, rum, and many platitudes El Químico explained what he needed.
"They can be gotten, but would cost you a lot of money. . ."
"I don't know, but I'll tell you tomorrow. Don't worry, I don't want a cut, the money would be for the mechanics. I can guess what you are up to. . ."
Next day Santiaguito called on the phone and said just:
"They only can get five, at 100 pesos each."
"It's a deal."
Next night he went to a secret tiro de lague in Jesús María and waited for El Bebo, mosongo of Congo Muñánga, whom he knew by reputation from the UMAP. El Químico drank a beer and waited for two hours. Marijuana smoke reeked all around the place. The man made his royal entrance past midnight, attired in red long sleeved shirt, bataholas de promesa, shining two-tone mecagüendez shoes and a couple of thick gold chains sparkling on the jet black skin of his neck. The owner of the tiro, a mulatto woman, talked to El Bebo and pointed at El Químico, alone in a rickety table by the corner.
The lithe black man sat down, clicked his fingers, and two icy cold Cristal beers appeared. El Químico submitted to many questions to assert his bona fides.
"I have a beautiful fuca for sale."
"Let's see it."
El Químico showed him the gun and the ammo.
"How much do you want?"
"Okey, I'll see another guy in Ataréis. . ." and El Quí:mico left his chair.
El Bebo held him by the wrist.
"Take it easy. 500. . ."
"550 and that's final."
"Only if it is clean."
El Químico explained the pedigree of the gun.
"So far as I know it has never been fired."
The black man assented, it made sense. He extracted from the pocket of his sackcloth pants a wad of 20 peso bills tied with a thick rubber band.
"Here's 300, I'll give you the rest tomorrow."
El Químico opened the chamber, loaded six bullets, and snapped it closed. He stuffed the remaining ammo on his shirt pockets.
"Then you get the gun tomorrow. And not here."
The revolver on the table was left trained casually.
For the first time El Bebo smiled, white teeth with a gold crown in an upper incisor sporting a tiny heart. He produced another wad, peeled out two blue 20 pesos Camilo notes.
"Here, you are a hard bargainer. . .560 cañas, you owe me ten, but forget it, here, count the astilla."
"No need," said El Químico, while tucking the wads in his jeans pockets. El Bebo's smile broadened.
"It's a beautiful gun, I have another fuca, but I'll keep this one for myself. As a matter of fact, had you insisted I would have paid the 600 jánes. . . What with the new law they are getting harder to get. . ."
There were about 20 people around, most of them black, but El Bebo was nonchalant. He weighed the gun in his palm, looked through the barrel at the fluorescent light, primed the hammer and made the cylinder spin, and then put it on his waistband. El Químico stood up and extended his right hand.
"Seat yourself down, it's early yet. Have another beer and a pan con bisté on me. . ."
El Químico refused the sandwich but accepted the beer.
They made small talk, and El Químico explained about the UMAP, and recounted Eleguá's execution, and without knowing
he'd never told
why, he explained about his suffering and subsequent release, something he'd never told anyone. The alcohol perhaps, but more likely a catharsis, a confession to an anonymous priest, someone you'll never see again.
"You may be a whitey, but I like you." With a Parker fountain, pen El Bebo wrote a phone number on a piece of brown paper.
"You can leave a message at this number: maybe I can help you in the future, one never knows. . ."
They shook hands and El Químico departed through the mean streets, a full moon and Van Gogh stars gyrating, splendid in the July sky. A beautiful night despite the stench and squalor of the black ghetto. There, the descendants of the slaves still dwelled and teemed, ten to a room, in those same falling apart 19th century houses, now quartered with plywood. Despite empty promises of the Communist revolution that those blacks would be living in apartments and driving their own cars ten years hence.
After the payment he got one by one the five new bus inner tires, his Icarus wings, fresh from the cardboard package, still covered with talcum. Then he stole from some parked cars five valve caps: double insurance. He also had a big piece of appropriate plywood and some tarpaulin. In the middle of the night, when the house was asleep, he inflated the tires and assembled the raft with thin strong ropes, the fifth tire serving as a prow. He practiced until he could do it with his eyes closed.
Now, how to get the raft, the water and other stuff to the beach. He didn't know anyone with a car, except Daniel, and he didn't want to get him in trouble. So the problem was to steal one. After long thoughts, he settled on the car owned by José Pardo, aka Mono Blanco: a green 1955 Ford V-8, kept on mint condition and the apple of José's bespectacled eyes.
The fateful Saturday came, and at midnight he pried open the Ford's door, yanked the ignition keyhole with a big screwdriver, connected the red and black thick copper wires, and jumpstarted the car. Tank almost full: great since he had no gas coupons. He turned around the block and stopped at his own house. He opened the courtyard door, rusted hinges screeching. He had forced it the night before. He had carefully inflated with a foot-airpump and sealed the inner tires, but they took over all the front and rear seats. So he fetched the crowbar and busted the trunk---poor Mono Blanco, he would get a heart attack. In the trunk, he stored the four plastic containers of water, one gallon each, and all the assorted junk for the trip contained in his faded Russian knapsack.
While he was loading the car, Rosario, in a faded pink bathrobe, came and watched in silence. She had just married a widowed man who had a grown daughter. He was a good man but much older than she, and the union seemed so far a success. Mutual friends had brought them together. She and El Quí:mico embraced:
"¿Mi hermano, tú te vas, verdá? [Emilito, you are going away, don't you?]"
"¿Orestes está despierto? [Orestes is awake?]"
"Sí, pero no te ocupes, ya hace tiempo que lo sospechábamos, y él no va a decir nada. Sólo que te cuides mi hermano. Voy a rezar por ti todos los días hasta que sepa que estás a salvo. . . [Yes, but don't worry, we have suspected for a time now, and he won't say anything. Only take care of yourself, my brother. I'm going to pray for you everyday until I know you are safe. . .]"
"No le digas nada a la Vieja, si pregunta dile que fui a Baracoa a casa de Blanyet. . . [If Mother asks where I am, just tell her that I went to Blanyet's house in Baracoa. . .]"
She strangled a sob, and he disengaged himself from the skinny arms. He finished loading the trunk, and left in the stolen jalopy. He didn't glance back to the house where had lived in all his life. He drove through the darkened streets until he arrived to the Malecón. Through the open window he breathed the smell of salt, iodine and kelp in the tropical night. He crossed the Bay Tunnel and took the Autopista del Mediodía. He left behind La Habana del Este, Bocaciega, Boca de Jaruco, Guanabo, Santa Fe, Santa María del Mar, Jibacoa. Yemayá, Ochún, Obatalá, Babalúú Ayé, Eleguá, Ochosí, Changó, Orula, Oyá, help me and protect me in my journey.
He turned to the left at Arroyo Bermejo entry, and proceeded slowly, carefully. He passed the closed and darkened Social Circle. With headlights off, he went through a rough track as far as the car could stand. The Poljot read 2:30 or so AM. Good: so far the time was right. Low ebb receding. He took the inner tires to the sand, and did the same with the other stuff. Three trips in all. Assembling the raft together was a piece of cake, an overkill. Tying the five pneumatics; laying over them the carefully drilled plywood plank and over it the three canvas hammocks sewn together with a big curved needle and waxed twine, all tied together. He dragged the contraption through the wet sand and it went afloat like a swan, strong and seaworthy.
He took off his clothes, threw them onboard, donned the veteran Champion mask and started swimming in a fast continuous crawl, pushing the raft toward the east, crossing 500 meters from the watchtower, expecting anytime the burst of the Browning
But the stings
machinegun to splash around. Once in a while he touched a gelatinous aguamala, but the stings were only a stimulus, like spurring a horse. It was a long time before he got a cramp and climbed into the raft and, moving precariously, put on his clothes again plus an old jacket, since it was getting very cold.
He checked the watch, kept inside a white plastic bag: 4:20: he had been swimming for two hours. He looked at the coast and it was dark and surprisingly distant. He was exhausted but elated. Now, there was nothing more he could do, but endure and suffer and resist. He downed six 100 mgs tablets of Amobarbital with a flask of cold coffee, checked and rechecked that everything was tied securely, and smoked a Popular, hiding the burning tip inside his army cap. Afterwards, he tied himself to the raft, and went to sleep upside down. With his right hand he tested the water, and it seemed to him that the raft was moving slowly but steadily. Good, was the last word he uttered before falling through a sleep without dreams.
It was the heat and the thirst that woke him up. He looked at the watch: 12:30, which meant he had slept ten hours in a row. The island was still clearly discernible on the horizon, but far away, 15 miles by El Químico's guess. Still inside the range of the Konsomol torpedo boats, which patrolled farther, up to 25 nautical miles, which Cuba illegally regarded as territorial waters. And there was always the chance of a Cuban fishing boat, whose crew would return him to hell. And he knew that he couldn't stand prison, that he'd rather be dead. So as a last resort, he carried around his neck, tied with a shoestring, a phial of Dipterex diluted in pure water. It was an organofosforic insecticide, cousin of Parathion, and as lethal and fast as cyanide.
From the knapsack he retrieved a pair of ancient but sharp Zeiss binoculars, and looked around all 360 degrees, then repeated the movement slowly, and only when he saw no ships did he allow himself to train the glasses on the island itself. He reckoned he was drifting northeastward at three knots, and was way beyond Havana province. He had been procrastinating, but he was desperate for a drink. He drank carefully: he got his aluminum army mug, and filled it with a bit of salt water, 10% of the mixture; then he added four spoonfuls of brown sugar, filled it up with water and drank the brackish liquid. He decided not to drink again until dusk. Instead he loaded his old Baby Champion, refurbished with thick rubber hoses from the "Calixto García."
Then he put on the leaking mask and dunked his head in the water, left hand manipulating the bait Eskimo style: a small purple wooden squid tied to a Nylon line, which wriggled convincingly. He waited for three hours. He could discern the flashing silver shapes of big fish down there in the depth, but feasting on more interesting morsels: a sardine mancha. The smaller predators, chased away by the bigshots that followed the blood trail, forced the small fry nearer the surface.
And then a five-pound vieja lora spotted the bait and went for it. In a second she was impaled on El Químico's little harpoon. Even hauled into the raft she took a long time dying, smothered under his body. But shit, was he hungry. He cut slices of fish with a sharp knife, and ate the flesh raw, with salt and a bit of vinegar, disgusting at first, but he had read somewhere that the Japanese relish sashimi. And most important, he had saved his dry food for another day. He cut one gill and baited it on the blue hook, attached to a 40 lb nylon line. He had about 60 brazas, and let go 20, weighed down with a spark plug.
Nothing more to do but wait, so he lay on his back, arms under his neck, his cap well down over his eyes, and did all he could do: think, remember, hate, and enjoy the immense pleasure of being freed from that inferno, even if in the long run it cost him his life. He coldly reckoned the odds of survival at 50-50, perhaps as low as 3 to 1. Life for life only, anyway. Once in a while he would splash with the mug the surface of the tires, against overheating by the fierce sun. Every cell of his body demanded water, but he fought the thirst until sundown. The fireball sank in the West, flaming like a Japanese flag. He downed six Phenobarbitals with the sugared water, and went to sleep fitfully, shivering in the cold and the dampness.
He was fully awake at 5 AM, still dark. He could notice that the raft was going faster, at 4 or 5 knots, and it pitched and rolled somehow. At dawn he noticed the deeper color of the increasingly choppy water, and decided he had left el Canto del Veril and entered the Gulf Stream itself.
The island was by now a low greenish silhouette on the horizon, under white cumulo-nimbus clouds. He opened a can of condensed milk, and drank half of it mixed with soft and sea water. With great difficulty he lit a Popular, the matches already wet despite keeping them inside the plastic bag. He searched around with the binoculars. Nothing in sight. He sighed with relief. By now he was outside the patrol area of the torpederas. Now it was up to him, how long he could resist until picked by a friendly ship: Russians and Bulgarians delivered the balseros back to the Cuban police. In the event of a sighting he would make signals with a mirror. If at night, he carried a flashlight, but he soon cast it away, the batteries eaten by the salty air.
That day at about midday the line became tense around his left foot, and he heaved only to retrieve a carajuelo, one of the most obnoxious fish in the Gulf, all covered in quills. It puffed like a toad. El Químico held the line at arm's length and let him die. Then he cut it up for bait, and threw the line again. And like that day after day, each one a single negative, a carbon copy. He saw not with alarm but with fatalism how he went through the first gallon of water, and then the second and started the third. He had still solid food: some crackers, half a bar of guava paste, and about one pound of brown sugar. The condensed milk he had finished drinking long ago.
He felt dirty, and his beard irked him. Amazing, but he hadn't take a crap in all this time, luckily. He donned the mask and gazed underwater: no fish following; not until the raft developed weeds and barnacles, and that could take a month. He recovered the line and tied a green plastic bait with a triple hook at the end, and let go the line 50 brazas, just ten remaining in the wooden yoyo. And then waited. The sea was getting choppier, and the color of the water got darker. He dozed until he felt the line go tense, gave a sharp twist to engage the hooks well, and began reeling in, hauling the fish underneath, a big one, by the way it fought. He carefully wound the line around the yoyo, and gained braza after braza, his hands cut by the nylon, sometimes letting go some to avoid breaking the tense line.
He regretted not
He prayed it wasn't a picúa; he wouldn't be able to handle all those teeth. In its frenzy, it could blow the raft. It took what seemed an eternity and all his strength to bring the wriggling fish alongside the raft. He regretted not having a wooden club to knock him out. So instead he stabbed it with the knife. Once the fish was on board he exulted: a 15- or 20-pound dorado, the tastiest of fish. Its iridescent blue and golden colors fast turning to dull silver.
He made several transversal cuts, 20 cms apart, and waited for 15 minutes until the wounds were full of a clear liquid, the lympha, and sucked it as if it were a cunt. He repeated the process on the other side, and only then he cut long fillets, seasoned them with salt and vinegar, and ate with relish the strong, tasty flesh. There's was plenty left. Once satiated, he cut the meat in long strips, held them on the water for several minutes, and spread them along the raft to dry in the scorching sun.
He had won a skirmish but not the battle. He didn't know how long he had been on the sea, he reckoned about two weeks, and didn't know what lay ahead. He had a small compass, courtesy from the days of Cinzano and his childhood, and he dead reckoned he was going northeastward. Despite his watches he hadn't seeing a single ship so far. And realized with apprehension that he was drifting away from the navigation routes, and that in five, at most seven days he would be outside the Gulf Stream and in plain Atlantic Ocean. Which meant death.
By then the matches were long gone, but he had still two whole packages of Populares, and from the bottom of his knapsack retrieved an ancient mechero de yesca from Machado's time. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, savoring the acrid smoke and the rush of nicotine direct to his brain, making him dizzy.
Things looked by now ominous, but that was no surprise. It was only to be expected. He had water for three, four days, and though he kept a permanent watch on the fishing line and spent hours on end with his head inside the water, Baby Champion on hand, he didn't catch any fish. He recovered the nets trailing 10 meters behind---two nylon stockings kept open by circles of clotheswire. He emptied them on his mug, and ate what little plankton they got. His greatest fear, the sharks, never materialized, he hadn't seen a single one so far.
The next four days went without a hitch, until he shook the last plastic gallon of water, and there was just a pint of foul water left. Despite his desperate, overwhelming thirst, he left it untouched. All that night he spent awake, smoking, thinking of death:
"I failed, and now I will see all of them, Agustín, el puro, Pachacho, grandmother. . ."
If there were an afterlife, which he doubted. But he didn't regret this adventure. He took his odds: 50-50, like playing your whole stack on red. Too bad if he lost. By then he was too weak to fish. He drank the last mug of unsugared brackish water, and went unconscious.
When he woke up, he employed all his left strength to scan the horizon with the binoculars. When he was completing the circle he saw two miles away the black hulk. He thought at first it was a hallucination, and closed his tired reddened eyes. But it was still there. It was four PM or so, the sun low on the eastern horizon, giving him a perfect angle. He took out the round shaving mirror and started signaling, until he couldn't lift his arms, and the sun was going down.
"Ahora que sea lo que Dios quiera," he thought, before slipping into a coma.
He never noticed when the small Colombian freighter, Charleston bound, picked him up. He was far gone, and the only word that came to his mind and lips was "agua." ##
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