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Cold Havana Ground

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A new mystery in hardcover from the godfather of Cuban Noir.

$22.95 $17.21

Excerpt from Cold Havana Ground

Author’s Warning to the Reader

This novel is based on events that occurred in the recent past in Cuba. The characters are real, the names fictitious. Descriptions of the Afro-Cuban religious practices are authentic. A glossary is provided at the back of this novel with explanations and definitions of some of the religious words and concepts found in the story.

Several years ago, I was given access to the police files of a case that was deeply tied to believers in the three African-rooted religions practiced in Cuba: Regla de Osha, also called Santería; Regla Mayombe, usually called Palo Monte; and the Abakuá Secret Society. Weeks of research on the case and on these religions resulted in a one-hour television program for a police series watched by most Cubans.

I became convinced that the story warranted a book focused on the complex world of the believers in these religions, whose behavior is very influenced by the oracles they consult. For several years I continued conducting field research for a novel that would someday be written. During this time, extraordinary facts about the case were unveiled, which drew me in even further.

As time passed, this increasingly became a search for some of the basic clues to the idiosyncrasies of the Cuban people, and in many ways a search for keys to self-understanding. During this quest, I witnessed incidents and events that could not yet be explained by science.

I strongly discourage the reader from using, on your own, any of the conjurations, curses, magic work, maledictions, or divination methods found in this book. I also want to state that I cannot be held responsible in any way for the results that may ensue from such use. This should be made clear to anyone who reads this book.

Yours truly,

Arnaldo Correa
Havana, August 2003

Chapter 1: “The Chinese Cemetery”

Entering through a portal with Chinese inscriptions, a visitor finds a road some eighty yards long that divides Havana’s Chinese cemetery into two equal parts. Occupying scarcely a quarter of a city block, the entire graveyard can be captured in a single glance, including the surrounding greenish-gray wall, intensely cracked and seemingly about to crumble. The wall is shoulder-high, and passersby peering over it often notice something odd about the crosses, aligned in accordance with the sun’s movement across the sky, each with its back to another. The Chinese cemetery lies alongside the broad Calle 26, always agitated with vehicles and noise, in the heart of Vedado, a neighborhood inhabited by over one hundred thousand people; but anyone entering the cemetery immediately feels that he or she has escaped from the city.

***

The grave digger slowed his movements to regulate the sweat streaming down his face, clouding his thick eyeglasses. He paused in his work hoeing weeds around a tomb to observe a tall, blond, bearded visitor who had just arrived. The newcomer stopped a few meters inside the gate, glancing about until he sighted the inquiring gaze of the grave digger, who dropped his hoe and walked toward him with alacrity, relieved for the excuse to interrupt his exhausting labor.

“You’re Cancio!” the visitor exclaimed, smiling, showing strong white teeth. He then jabbed the grave digger in the center of the chest with a forefinger at the same time that he threw an arm over his shoulders, seemingly impervious to the stench of sweat and the vapor rising from the laborer’s body, hot from the sun and physical activity.

Trapped in the embrace, the grave digger responded: “At your orders!”

“Cancio, I heard about the theft of the Chinaman from a friend of yours here in the neighborhood—Pepe Pérez. He said, ‘You’ve got to hear Cancio’s story. Go see him, and tell him I sent you.'” The visitor winked broadly. “You know the guy I mean?”

“Pepe Pérez?”

“That’s the one!”

Cancio led the tall visitor along the road toward the rear of the cemetery. Small houses shaped like pagodas held the ossuaries—the bones of the dead—and each dwelling belonged to a Chinese society. The grave digger pointed to a tomb in which another Chinaman had been buried for over twenty years. “And he’s still in perfect condition,” he said, “except where the cockroaches’ve eaten him around the ears and nose.”

As they arrived at a back entrance to the cemetery, sealed by an iron gate, Cancio reached his arm through the bars and pointed to a spot just outside the grounds. “They left the truck parked there, beside that pile of grass. There wasn’t any moon that night. They arrived near dawn. They cut the padlock with a fretsaw. The lock wasn’t very big, but it was a good one. The next mornin’ I saw it lyin’ there on the ground, but I didn’t touch it. The police took it as evidence of burglary . . . that’s what the technician called it . . . and to see if it had any fingerprints. The chain had disappeared, and it was a good chain, too . . . been there Lord knows how long. They still haven’t brought me another padlock and chain, so I had to use that piece of barbed wire to seal the gate.”

The grave digger spoke in short spurts interspersed with asthmatic wheezing, occasionally spitting out a sticky, greenish fluid onto the grass.

“A veteran two-pack-a-day smoker!” exclaimed the visitor, giving him three smart blows on the back. The grave digger, left breathless for several seconds, merely nodded.

“Where was the stolen Chinaman buried?”

“In the niches.” The grave digger turned and pointed a finger toward another area, coughing up ammunition for another shot of phlegm.

The blond man stared at the still-pointing finger of the grave digger, extraordinarily thick and curved. “What happened to that finger, Cancio?”

“The lid of a tomb fell on it. Anyway, they carried off that Chinaman still fresh in the ground, you might say. The cement hadn’t even hardened. When the burial procession arrived here, it was pourin’ rain. In summer, they should bury everyone early in the mornin’, since it always rains in the afternoon. I waited awhile for it to clear up a little, but it was still comin’ down pretty hard when I started to close the tomb. I covered it with a piece of nylon afterwards, but the mixture of sand and cement must’ve stayed pretty wet.”

They walked on to the niche where Rafael Cuan had been interred. The tall, blond man knelt down to look inside the empty enclosure, then confirmed with a gesture that the coffin was not there. The grave digger used the time to pull a large, dirty handkerchief from his pocket and pass it over his face and the lenses of his glasses, managing to smear them uniformly.

“The night watchman said he didn’t see or hear anyone. But after things calmed down a little, the administration transferred him to Colón cemetery. I guess the police figured that this is just a little place and no matter how dark it was that night, he had to’ve seen or heard somethin’. A deaf person would’ve heard the ruckus of them takin’ the coffin out of the niche and cuttin’ that padlock . . . I think the poor guy lost his nerve. This place is pretty spooky at night, ‘specially with the bats.”

“Bats?” The visitor raised his eyebrows.

“They scare the pants off you all night long. They say the tormented souls of the chinos buried here take possession of those critters and use ’em to fly from one side to another, like ridin’ horseback. I don’t put much store in that, but I respect it. That watchman was a good compañero. The one they’ve put in his place now . . .” The grave digger shook his head and tipped an imaginary bottle to his lips. “The binges he goes on ev’ry night with cookin’ alcohol!”

As they walked back toward the entrance, the blond man noted that the crosses were wider toward the ends, the cause of the strange impression he had received upon his first glance at the place.

“Me, now, I’m always alert,” Cancio continued. “As soon as anyone arrives, I ask who he is, what his business here is, and what he wants. You can spot family members a mile away. That’s the advantage of workin’ in the Chinese cemetery. But other kinds of people come here, too. The worst are the ones that hang around to see if they can carry off bones.”

“Bones?”

Cancio nodded solemnly. “They’re Paleros, or come sent by ’em. They use ’em for their witchcraft. I don’t let ’em out of my sight when they come pretendin’ to be lookin’ for a certain tomb. The first funny move and I throw ’em out. Some of ’em ask me for permission to take earth from the four corners of the cemetery, and I let ’em do that. But bones, no way!”

“Where did they enter from?”

“Climbed over that wall. Since the ground was still wet, the police had a party makin’ molds of their footprints. There were three of ’em.”

“Why did they climb over the wall if they cut the padlock and opened the gate?”

Cancio opened his mouth, then closed it again, but the visitor didn’t allow him time for much consideration of the question.

“Have you personally seen anything suspicious?”

“Well, I didn’t remember it that day because you get confused with all the hullabaloo all of a sudden . . . the police in here with their cars . . . dogs smelling around everywhere and everybody askin’ the same thing . . . Anyway, about a week later, I remembered somethin’ and called the police right away. A big young fella came. A lieutenant, he said. He asked me a lot of questions, like he was tryin’ to catch me up. You know how some of these young fellas are nowadays . . . think everythin’ has to be learned from books.”

“Tell me what you remembered.”

“About two weeks before they stole the Chinaman, I was workin’ over there on that side when a guy entered on a bicycle—a young white guy. He stopped in front of me and said, ‘Tío, every time I pass by here, I think of visiting this cemetery, but I never have time.’ Then he asked if it was true that chinos are buried standin’ up. I told him in this cemetery we bury ’em lyin’ down and face up. He stood there awhile, watchin’ me work, then he asked if they still bring many legitimate Chinamen to be buried here. That smelled sort of funny to me, and I asked what a legitimate Chinaman was. He said, ‘Tío, a Chinaman from China, one of the original ones, the real ones, not one crossed with a black.’ Then I stopped what I was doin’ and asked him straight out, ‘Just what are you lookin’ for, anyway?’ Then he got on his bicycle and said, ‘Nothing, tío, don’t get your hack up, I’m just leaving,’ and he went pedallin’ away.”

“Cancio, did you notice anything unusual about that man?”

“Really, I don’t remember very well what he looked like. Young, white—well, Cuban-white—you know how they say, the one not mixed with Congolese is mixed with Carabalí! Now that I think of it, he had a match-stick in his mouth with the head outside and he talked to me like this, with his mouth closed.” The grave digger imitated the unknown man’s way of speaking. “I told the lieutenant, but he didn’t pay any attention. He thinks he knows everythin’ and that I invented the guy. What good would that do me? You tell me, what would I gain with that?”

“With the match head outside?”

“Sí, with the match’s head outside.” He repeated the imitation.

“You haven’t seen him again?”

“A few days ago, a man walked past on the sidewalk outside and, I don’t know why, but I had an idea that it was that same fella. But no, I don’t really remember him well enough to say for sure that it was him.”

The visitor and the grave digger had almost reached the entrance portico and stopped before the cemetery office, a small building with a flat, thick concrete roof.

“Cancio, how did you let them build this ugly office in such a pretty cemetery?”

The grave digger grinned, uncertain how to answer, still perturbed by the visitor’s instant familiarity from the moment he had entered the cemetery.

“They ought to dynamite this junk pile with whoever built it inside . . . and whoever ordered it built, too.” The man’s tone gave the impression that he was about to set to work on the project at that very moment. Hands on hips, he turned suddenly to the grave digger. “And couldn’t it have been a family member that took him away?”

Cancio shook his head. “These people are really respectful of their dead. Why would they take him away?”

“Why not?”

“You don’t know ’em. They even bring ’em food on the Chinese All Souls’ Day.” He smiled, having found a convincing argument. “They bring ’em what they most liked: chop suey, chilied shrimp, even roast pork. These chinos really know how to cook!” Cancio swallowed, as if his mouth was watering. “They used to leave the food there, and some people from around here would come and eat it. Now, they just leave it awhile and then take it away. I guess these ain’t times to be sharin’ food with the dead.”

“How do you know they entered near dawn? The watchman swore he didn’t hear or see anything. Did he tell you that? Come on, Cancio, just between you and me.”

After a moment of doubt, the grave digger nodded guiltily, as if revealing something improper. He accompanied the visitor out to the sidewalk, eager to continue being interrogated, to keep talking about the theft of the Chinese cadaver, the most important event in his life at the moment.

The grave digger asked the visitor’s name, but the blond man didn’t answer, seemingly lost in thought. He cast a last glance back into the cemetery and, after patting Cancio on the shoulder absentmindedly, walked off in the direction of Calle 23, leaving the grave digger perplexed. From his first gesture, when he had entered and beckoned with an air of authority, Cancio had taken him for a policeman, one of the many that had made him repeat the story. After speaking with the man for a bit, he had figured the man was just a friend of someone from the neighborhood, maybe one of those whose gardens he took care of after finishing his work shift at the cemetery. Now he realized that he should have asked who the man was before he told him anything. Maybe that was a mistake. And to top it all off, he was now quite sure he’d never heard of anyone named Pepe Pérez!

Just in case, he decided that he should report the visit to the police, since it suddenly seemed very suspicious. And that would probably provoke more questioning, a search for fingerprints on anything the man might have touched and footprints in the places where he walked. There would also be another horrible session with the technician who made the verbal portraits, tormenting him with questions—if the chin was more pointed, the forehead wider or narrower, the mouth this way or that way—until his head was swimming and he couldn’t sleep for several nights, trying to remember . . . remember . . . remember.

Anguished, the grave digger watched the man as he walked away, trying to engrave the face in his memory. Almost a block away, the tall, blond man with the blue eyes turned, smiled like a child who had just played a prank, and lifted an arm in a farewell gesture, as if reading the thoughts of the grave digger, who was now completely destabilized and convinced that he had committed a grave error. The incident could even cost him a transfer to the Colón cemetery, where many people are buried every day—not like the peaceful Chinese cemetery, where a cadaver is brought in only every now and then. His gaze remained fixed on the stranger to see if he got into a vehicle, with the idea of describing it to the police. But the man continued on foot until he disappeared, turning on Calle 25 toward Marianao. Disconsolate, the grave digger went back to weeding the tombs.

The Santera

She awakened startled. She resisted the temptation to leave her bed and turn on the light. Instead, without opening her eyes, she remained taut, listening. She could hear only the hum of the air conditioner, isolating her from other nocturnal sounds. Gradually, she identified the cause of her sudden awakening: A presence was moving about the house, something indefinable but surely malignant.

She sat up on the right side of her bed and finally opened her eyes to look at the doll dressed in pink in the small castle resting on a shelf built into the wall at shoulder height. She stood up to observe her orisha madre more closely. At times, she detected slight variations in Yewá’s expression; this time, Yewá seemed to avoid her gaze. The crown of caurís, the symbol of Yewá Binoyé’s status as a princess in her human existence, was slightly askew. The pink necklaces shone strangely in the light of the permanently lit candle before her. The Santera detected no changes in the attributes of the orisha: neither in the small earthen jar where her nine smooth pebbles were kept nor in the human tibia wrapped with pink ribbons recalling that Yewá is the queen of cemeteries.

From a small plate in front of the little castle—similar to the one in which the orisha had lived, jealously guarded by her father before Shangó won the bet to seduce her—the Santera took four pieces of coconut meat. She passed her fingers over the floor and kissed the bit of dust collected on her fingertips. Then she prayed briefly, consulting Yewá: She wanted to know the nature of the presence in the house. She asked the question, rolled the pieces of coconut between her hands, and threw them from the height of her knees. They all fell with the meat upwards: Alafia, a letter indicating something positive and good. But she would have to repeat the throw. Alafia was not conclusive. She threw the pieces again and this time Eyife came out: two face down and two face up—the most definitive letter of the coconut oracles, an emphatic yes, confirming the first letter. There was nothing to fear.

In any event, she decided, she would look through the house and, while she was at it, urinate. The hall enveloped her in a kind of hot breath, full of emanations accumulated in the closed house. There the presence was much stronger. It came from the rear, from the kitchen, or, perhaps, the patio. It was not a sensation created by the spirit of an ordinary dead person. Nor did she feel that exalted sense that announced the arrival of the orishas. It was something different, a strange and threatening and, at the same time, very strong being with the power to penetrate the formidable defenses of the house.

Uncertain what to do, she stood in the hall outside her room. She glanced to her left and peered at the main entrance of the house and the living room, which was connected to a corridor from which other rooms branched out. The first of these, devoted to Regla de Osha, was where she held consultations for her godchildren and clients, surrounded by the altar presided over by Yemayá and by the basket with the soup tureens where she kept the essentials of Obatalá, Shangó, Yemayá, and Oshún. Before the altar, beside the chequerés and the agogó for summoning the orishas and asking for health and good luck, was a good supply of fruit and homemade sweets brought by her godchildren as offerings. Behind the door stood a small house of the warriors Elégguá, Oggún, and Ochosi. Safely placed, at head height, was her Osún, in the form of a bird.

The second room down the hall was her bedroom, where she kept her secret cult to Yewá. Five years before, she had installed an air conditioner that, even after it was turned off, kept the air fresh in the corners, in the wardrobe, and between the sheets. Next to her room was a bathroom, used only by her and her brother, and occasionally by close relatives and special friends. Everyone else used the toilet installed in the patio in place of the latrine from the times of their great-grandfather and grandfather.

Next to the bathroom was a big kitchen where huge quantities of food were prepared on feast days, when fowls, goats, and sheep were sacrificed. The kitchen was followed by a dining room, also spacious, which served as a waiting area for those who came to consult her brother. And this was the edge of the new section of the house—built with brick walls, tiled floors, and a wooden, red-tiled roof—that had replaced the old thatched wooden dwelling constructed early in the century by their great-grandfather, the second Lorenzo Bantú.

Beyond the dining room, two rooms from the original house had been preserved: a bedroom with a pale blue door where her brother slept, and the mumanso, the room of the nganga, that could only be entered from the patio. Here, her brother gave consultations, in the same spot where their grandfather and great-grandfather had done the same. This part of the house was constructed with the hardest wood from the Zapata swamp forests and lined with boards of royal palm. Only the roof had been altered. Under the rigorous supervision of the grandfather, the original palm-leaf thatch had been replaced by galvanized zinc, and below that had been built a false ceiling of exquisitely finished, tightly dovetailed wood, in strong contrast to the coarseness of the original construction.

Between the zinc roof and the false ceiling, a space remained in which the grandfather had kept many of his Palo Monte possessions and other relics inherited from his ancestors. The Santera had never figured out how to enter that secret place, although she was sure her brother Lorenzo knew. At times, late at night, she heard sounds coming from the secret room and drew near, trying to surprise Lorenzo. But no matter how silently she approached, the sounds ceased until she moved away again. This was one of three enigmas the old man had left his two grandchildren.

In the kitchen, she found an unwashed cup and felt extremely annoyed. Later she would recall that, at that moment, she had experienced a kind of fury difficult to contain. Why did Lorenzo do that? How much effort did it take to clean a cup? “Washing dishes is for women,” he would say, ignoring his sister’s need for cleanliness and order.

From a plastic container holding the henequen juice she used as a detergent, she withdrew a pad made of threads from the same plant and cleaned the cup carefully in the sink, rinsing it afterwards. As she set it aside, she saw that it was still not clean; something remained stuck to it. She took a little charcoal ash from a jar and scrubbed the cup again until she was satisfied.

As she entered the dining room, the presence felt stronger and nearer. What was it? With slight trepidation, she walked slowly to the pale blue door. Then she had no doubt; it was inside her brother’s room. Alarmed, she pressed her ear to the door. At first, she heard only Lorenzo’s evenly spaced snores. Then she perceived subtle changes, small gasps, until an almost imperceptible moaning began. Suddenly, she heard a piercing scream and the sound of the heavyset man, frightened and half-asleep, bolting up on the bed made of woven-wire springs and a thin mattress.

Startled, Lorenzo opened his eyes. He looked about him, momentarily bewildered, then saw the shadow of two feet under his door against a thin line of light from the lamp in the dining room that his sister insisted always remain lit.

“Who’s there?”

No response.

“Is it you?”

Silence.

Finally a calm voice answered: “You were saying something in your sleep. Is anything wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. Go back to bed.”

The shadow remained under the door awhile longer, then disappeared silently, letting the strip of light from the dining room bulb pass freely under the door again, exercising, as always, a hypnotic effect on him. The Nasakó’s eyelids closed and he immediately fell back to sleep.

Now that she knew her brother was being visited in his sleep by something, she returned to her room and sat down on the bed. It was definitely not the spirit of one of their ancestors; their presence never upset sleep unless they wanted to warn them of something important. Then she remembered how tenaciously the dirt had remained on the cup. That detail had some significance, she thought, but she couldn’t figure out what it might be.

Her brother’s scream was not a good omen. It had indicated surprise, fear. A foreign spirit—a malevolent one—was definitely working on her brother’s dreams. How was that possible, with all the protection he and the house had?

She closed her eyes and again saw the four pieces of coconut as they had fallen, two of them face up with the white meat palely reflected in the penumbra of her room, where the candlelight was fading rapidly. What was happening? Why those comforting letters? What was the significance of the coconut oracle’s deception? Why was Yewá avoiding her gaze?

She remained seated, puzzling out the situation. There were two factors, perhaps related, perhaps not: On the one hand, there was the misleading information of the oracle; on the other, the danger to her brother. Could this have something to do with the work he had done for Adrián, Pedro, and Mulo earlier that night? That work had to have been unusual because Lorenzo had waited until she was asleep. Her brother almost never worked with Palo outside of his regular hours. Whenever, very occasionally, he had to do something after midnight, he always warned her that strangers would be coming. So far, he had never dared to do anything important without first consulting her.

She suspected this was the explanation. That work had surely provoked an adverse reaction from some nkisi or nfumbe mayor which was now working on him. Palo Monte was like that. “Kindambazo goes, kindambazo comes,” their grandfather had repeatedly warned them, so that they would never lower their guard.

Her brother overestimated his knowledge of Palo Monte. He had been very young, almost a child, when their grandfather died, and he’d had no one, really, to teach him since. He’d had to guide himself by the fading copybooks the old man had dictated when his memory was already slipping.

There was no getting around it. That work late at night had to be the cause of the strange presence in the house. A piece of work turned backwards is always a serious problem. She had to find out what work her brother had done for Adrián; that was the key.



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