HABANERA, A PORTRAIT OF A CUBAN FAMILY

Excerpt from the novel

Chapter 1

The Havana cemetery was my first playground. Ponciano Querejeta, my maternal grandfather, liked to stroll by the graves and to read under the palm trees. He often sat on a bench and sang in his baritone voice. His favorite tune came from the Spanish zarzuela Los Gavilanes: “Oh, mi aldea…cuánto el alma se recrea al volverte a contemplar.” (Oh, my village… my soul cheers up when I see you again.) No wonder the few people we met looked at him funny.

The cemetery smelled of grass, rotten leaves and damp earth. Our usual companions were an elderly guy named Amenodoro, a clandestine flower vendor and some mourners in black. “Hola, Ponciano,” Amenodoro always said when we passed by. “Have a good time.”

My grandfather had showed me our family’s tomb, where a sad-looking angel spread its marble wings over the deceased Querejetas. “This mausoleum looks just like one in the Père-Lachaise,” Ponciano said. He had lived in Paris during his youth and was a hardcore Francophile. “It’s worth several thousand pesos. Someday I’ll be buried here. And so will you, Dolorcitas.”

“That’s cool,” I answered, not really sure of what “buried” meant.

The only thing I didn’t like was to be called Dolorcitas when my name was Longina. But I had already learned that my grandfather, a cranky, tall and lean old man, didn’t act the way other people did. I didn’t mind it, though. At that time I was closer to him than to anybody else. And I thought of the cemetery as the most fun-filled place in Havana, even better than the Guanabo beach and LeninPark.

My father, Papucho, said that I had no business running around a graveyard. “Why don’t you take Longina to an amusement park instead?” he asked Ponciano.

“I’d rather spend time on sacred soil,” my grandfather replied.

“What’s sacred about decomposing bodies?”

My grandma scolded Papucho, “Hey, show more respect to the dead!”

“Respect? That graveyard strolling is sickening.”

But Papucho was the last monkey in the family zoo. He had neither voice nor vote. Ponciano ignored him and our visits to the cemetery continued.

We would sit near a grave covered with fresh flowers, candles and bananas tied with blue ribbons. The tomb belonged to Amelia La Milagrosa and her family. My grandfather knew the story of its fleshless tenants and cheerfully shared it with me.

Amelia, a young woman who had died during childbirth in 1901, was buried with her stillborn son at her feet. Five years later their bodies were found intact, the baby nestled in his mother’s arms. Journalists wrote about them in El Mundo and La Marina, the most important Cuban newspapers before the revolution. Soon stories sprouted like the grass around their grave. Amelia’s influence had saved a child from typhus. She had healed a paralyzed girl. Her devotees called her The Miracle Woman and a priest spoke of canonizing her.

Ponciano didn’t believe in miracles but was convinced that mother and child, or at least Amelia, had been buried alive. The topic intrigued me. What happened when people were buried alive? Was it…uncomfortable? Were they ever rescued? “I will tell you someday,” he promised. “Edgar Allan Poe wrote a few stories about that.”

I invented a game called funeral party. Pretending that our backyard was the cemetery, I would take a doll to her grave while the other dolls followed and chanted, Oh, mi aldea…cuánto el alma se recrea al volverte a contemplar. My grandma frowned when she saw me engrossed in it. She shook her head and called me a quirky girl, but didn’t intervene until the night I woke up crying because La Milagrosa had come for me.

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