This story is by Matt Stelzer and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“…Cuba.” She repeated.
Her father, caught off guard, “What about Cuba?”
“Tell me about Cuba.” She pressed.
“Why now?” He continued packing the box with his wife’s knick-knacks and framed photos.
“I found your cigar box.”
“Dear, we’re putting away your mother’s things. Now is not a good time.”
“There’s never a good time, Dad! You’re ninety-two. You aren’t going to outlive whatever demons you brought from Cuba.”
She put the old cigar box on the dresser and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Dad, Mom’s been gone a month. She insisted you tell me about Cuba. Not the sunny beaches, palm trees, marimba music, touristy stuff. Tell me about December 28th – all of it! …You promised her.”
“There is nothing to be gained in knowing the details.”
“Dad, all my life you and Mom celebrated that anniversary. I know it’s the day you and Mom fled Cuba – leaving everything behind. You lost everything, except each other.…But I know demons hitched a ride on that boat. I know they tormented Mom so much she could not tell me. Mom wanted you to tell me after she was gone. …Exorcize those demons, Dad! … Tell me everything.”
“Dear, there are times the truth is best left hidden.”
“Dad, I’m a mature woman. I love you and Mom. I’ve known the depth of your love all my life. Any demons from the past can’t change that.”
She tapped the worn cigar box, “I’ve never seen what’s inside. It’s been a forbidden topic and always under lock and key.”
She smiled, “I know there are cigars in there. The ritual on that anniversary was always the same; You in a Guayabera shirt, Mom in a brightly colored Rumba dress, Mojito cocktails, dinner of Lechon Asado with Arroz y Frijoles. You and Mom would smoke a cigar after dinner then dance to Salsa and Danzón music. The cigars were these from Cordoba y Cáceres, Mom’s family’s cigar factory and plantation, the one the government confiscated.”
She put an arm around his shoulder, “That anniversary always left you both sad and distant. I know it involves some bad memories. … Get that off your conscience, Dad. Time to confess…. I’m half Cuban but 100% Havana-stubborn, as Mom liked to say. I insist.”
He had aged so much lately. He was frail.
“Dad, I believe Mom suffered because she did not have closure from events in her past. She didn’t want that to continue with you … or with me.”
“It’s not me I worry about. It’s you.”
“Dad, I have a wonderful life. I love you and Mom; the past can’t change that!”
He sat down heavily, legs giving out. He felt alone.
She sat next to him on the bed and patted his knee, “Why don’t we start with what’s in the cigar box?”
“It’s more a Pandora’s Box.”
“Dad! I know so little of Mom’s family history. All I know is her family had the best cigar factory and tobacco plantations in Cuba for generations. Her family died in the revolution. You and Mom escaped by boat and the government confiscated the land and properties.”
“That’s all you need to know.”
“Dad, Mom was tormented by those events. I know you are too. …So, let’s just start with this cigar box.”
“That’s a cigar case and a humidor. Your grandfather had that made for me as a wedding gift.”
“Where’s the key?”
“Taped to the inside of your mother’s bible.” He pointed to a drawer by the bed.
She turned the key in the lock. His resistance faded, exhausted by decades of secrets. She lifted the cover revealing a humidor with two cigars, and a small drawer. She handed him a cigar and took one herself, both sniffed the fine cigars.
“Ahh,” His smile immediate. “My boss, when he assigned me the job, said the best cigars in the world are rolled on the naked thighs of virgins in Cuba. He may have exaggerated the process, but not the quality.”
“These are the only cigars left, Dad.”
“Ah, the last of Cordoba y Cáceres. … We thought we would be back within a couple of years. We were sure that spawn of the devil and his rebels would not last.”
“Dad, you’ve been celebrating that anniversary for 60 years!”
“It’s not a celebration. It’s an observance.”
He rolled the cigar between his fingers; his experienced eye inspecting the roll like a jeweler a diamond.
“I was a Jersey boy. The company sent me to Cuba to source the best cigars. Cuba and your mother – love at first sight for both.”
“Mom said it was the golden age of Cuba.”
“Cuba, then. … How to describe it? … I’d say it was where angels went to vacation. There was no place better than Viñales.”
“That’s where the family’s tobacco plantations were, right?”
“Yes. Cubans took pleasure in the bounties of life. The beauty and pleasure permeated your being; lush fields of vivid green, fertile red soil, cane cutters singing during harvest, silky white beaches, music stimulated the soul, food praised the senses, the weather a daily caress. Even time moved at a relaxed pace. It was a magical place and time. … Then Narciso came.”
There were tremors in his voice.
“Narciso Benavidez showed up at the plantation as a teenager, barefoot and angry. He was a fatherless child – a mestizo – the son of a hundred patrons of the cheapest whorehouse. Your grandfather helped him, gave him work, sent him to the university, paid his expenses. But Narciso was obsessed with your mother. She embodied every fantasy that got him out of the gutter. She refused his interest and advances. That scarred him. He became one of Castro’s top lieutenants.”
He pointed to the drawer in the cigar case. “There’s a document in there.”
She pulled out a folded document, aged and faded, the creases worn. “It’s a birth certificate.”
“You had a sister before you. Her name was Lucero.”
She put her hand to her heart, “Oh, God! …I’ll have to process this later, … a little at a time – don’t stop – keep going!”
He was trancelike, replaying a worn narrative, emotion washed out.
“December 28th was your sister’s birthday. She was three. We had a big party. The other plantation owners from Viñales were there, and their families.”
He went silent, gathered strength, and continued.
“Narciso and his rebels showed up. They locked me up in the pump house. I guess as a Yanqui they had different plans for me.
His voice sped up.
“They shot everyone; plantation owners, wives, families … even the children.”
Emotion caught in his throat. He rubbed his eyes.
“It was an orgy of purging pent-up resentment and rage – pure evil!”
She was numb.
“I broke out of the pump house. The bodies were on the lawn, blood on the magnolias. The savages were feasting on the food and birthday cake.”
His fingers curled into fists.
“I found your mother in the house. Narciso had raped and beaten her. She was near death.”
“I got her to the boathouse. We fled. I had to keep her from jumping overboard.”
“Dad, … all these years. I never knew.”
“I’m done with secrets. Your mom knew half the story, the whole story would have killed her.”
“Your sister wasn’t killed. It was her cousin. There was so much blood, … bodies mangled.”
Her eyes questioned.
“Narciso took her. He raised her as his own. He became head of the Ministry of Reconciliation and nationalized the tobacco plantations and factories. Now she’s an avid communist and high in the party. She took over as Minister when Narciso retired.”
“Mom never knew?”
“No. It would have killed her to know her daughter was raised to mirror Narciso. … There’s more.”
“I don’t know if I can handle any more.”
“I don’t know if telling you is the right thing, but I want no more secrets.”
She looked long at her father, then nodded.
“Narciso raped your mother. … She became pregnant. … Narciso is your father.”
She struggled to speak. She fumbled for breath, and words.
“Oh, God, … Dad! Oh, … God!”
He embraced her.
“Oh, God! … Dad, … He raised your daughter, and you raised his!”
She hugged him tightly, he hugged her back – a kaleidoscope of emotions and images crowded in.
“…I have to process this a little at a time. I don’t know what to say.”
He had nothing left unsaid.
She took a deep breath and gave him a sad smile, “… I don’t know if I should call you a victim, hero, or survivor.”
“I’m all of those, … call me Cuba.”