The Vision

A map of cuba with the bay of pigs signaled

By Gaither Stewart

I don’t even know when it happened but my visual field is truly strange. Blurred. Limited. Narrow. It’s all so bizarre. And those shapeless and dark, white, green and blue phantoms fluttering down that tunnel. My tunnel. Dancing. Strange too, those dark dancers. Surely as rare a vision as the Drucina Championi butterfly at the top of the volcano Atatenango. Crazy recollection in such a moment. At 3796 meters protruding out of Guatemalan earth butterflies fluttering and dancing in the cold breeze. There for an instant before vanishing in a flash into the fire of red hot lava. Distorted phantasmal figures. Grotesque. Again, I try to blink. In vain. My eyes are as fixed as the absurd theater of white and green and blue contortionists appearing in and fading out of my tunnel vision. If they would only stop their jerking around like Italian marionettes so that I can concentrate on this ridiculous situation. But wait! What was that? Patience! It will return. A deformed red shape is drawing near. It’s hovering as if searching for my ghosts. Is it Death? That balloon figure with bulging eyes leaning toward me. It’s jabbering something, maybe about me to some other form somewhere outside my realm. I don’t get a word. Well, let them babble. I will ignore them. They can decide everything. It all matters so little now. In my fixed state I just have to stay focused on the identification of the few certainties passing through my still perceptive mind. Elimination of impossible variations, however, is hardly consoling progress. My distant past remains the complex element. How to deal with that past is the question. Once it had arrived in the guise of the present, dallied a short time, and was gone. Piff! Gone. Flying on the Caribbean winds. The only certainty is still Dunya … my world, Dunya. Her name too is as fixed as a name inscribed on a gravestone in the Père-Lachaise city of the dead. Since we were children she has been the one certainty on which I could count. Maybe she too is somewhere in the shadows lying outside of my tunnel. If so, she could step forward and explain what this is all about? This thing. The phantoms. The great red dot. This paralyzing tunnel I’m in. Holding such peculiar visions. The word massive hangs in the thickening white air. It’s like being the main character in a pesadilla. A pantomime in a nightmare. Magical happenings. A whisper. Am I? Am I anything at all? Have I ever been anything? Or, or, or, am I, maybe, already, dead?

If not for the remembrances! Or do the dead also remember? Now I can try. I have only time. Also when Dunya left I had time on my hands. That was when the turmoil began. She left home, left Santiago, left me behind. That is established. Abruptly she left for Europe. Only there could she “make it”. Make her career. In the tunnel I can see all my yesterdays. Dim, distorted, maybe unreal. Real was that Dunya was a ballerina. Since she was a child she was a ballerina. She had to dance. What could Santiago de Cuba offer the ballerina Dunya Betancourt? Nothing. Nothing at all. Havana offered little. Mexico, only the allure and the unknown. So it was to Europe. To Europe. And someday soon I would have to follow. Oh, I remember. Was memory my undoing? My greatest regret? Or is my real regret not missing the other present? The one always around me? The new in the past. Missing the revolution? Yes, the revolution. In this mysterious present in which our brief but myriad past keeps marching across and through, marching, marching through the tunnel of my mind’s eyes.

Do the white and green and blue phantoms not see it too? Don’t they see my memories marching? My unswerving eyes miss nothing, nothing within this narrow field of vision that is mine. The marching past, a potential past, a cortege headed by Dunya. Like Raskolnikov’s Dunya, compassionate Dunya. Criminal the one; compassionate the other.

To think that I was only twenty when I too left. Now I am … I am … How old am I? Peculiar, my age escapes my memory. Memory is a rover. Escapes time. But still alive. Still alive. But not in my time. Time is truly truant. Does time not live? Strange feeling, not knowing your age. Like not knowing your name. Anti-revolutionary convictions had no role in my departure. I had no such convictions. Not me! I, Rafael, was a believer. Had my family’s once vast agricultural lands not been confiscated by the corrupt Havana government for Yankee mafia companies? Seen in that light my departure was heroic. In order to play the hero in Dunya’s eyes … and to gain the esteem of my father who advised me that if I truly loved Dunya I had to fight for her. Go to Paris. Get a university degree there, find Dunya, bring her back home, join the revolution and restore our estate. Restore the sugarcane fields.

Again in the Latin American student dormitory in Paris I was torn between supporters of the revolution and anti-Fidelistas. My bravado self wanted to be with Fidel and Raul on board the Granma arriving from Mexico … Rafael de la Costa a national hero. How I wanted to be loved. And celebrated. No moping around the dormitory in Paris, a blanket around my shoulders in the winter and singing mournful exile songs. But internally I did sing, Cuando salì de Cuba … . I was not a refugee. Nor an exile. I was a revolutionary. Still, I had to have Dunya like before. The clamorous clash of desires. I remember. Sometimes, during Parisian winter nights, I liked to imagine myself leading an attack through the tight serried ranges and forbidding valleys of the guerrilla territory in the Sierra Maestra … while Dunya waited for me down in Santiago. Was her love not strong enough? The spectacular vistas over the plains below with the sugarcane fields and the macheteros in tattered linens and straw sombreros slashing left and right with their blunt-nosed machetes. All these memories: the familiar smells, the heat of the sun’s blinding rays, the warm wind caressing my face, a decades old Chrysler impervious to the mountainous terrain passing the single file of ragged revolutionaries. Upwards, ever upwards, Cuba’s highest peaks within fingertip distance. All these heights and volcanoes and rare mariposas. And as light fades in the mountains the warm lights of Santiago de Cuba beckon in the distance below where Dunya waited. A rose radiance colors the mountains and sunlight paints Santiago’s rooftops fiery red. Oh, the splendor, the magnificence of memories.

And for a moment, I see again the red roofs, I feel my breathing accelerate and the fever rise and I regret leaving Cuba. All Cubans think that way. But I have to keep it secret from the dancing white and the green and the blue phantoms in the tunnel.

In the reality of school days in Santiago I’d known I would’ve hated tramping around the mountains with the revolutionary fighters. I would see the vermillion of Santiago rooftops another time … from another perspective. Besides, most of those fighters would die there. And I didn’t want to die; I wanted to live my life to the fullest even though Dunya had mocked me. Always she’d mocked me … that I just wanted to be a hero … not become one. That I saw life only in the present in which I didn’t have to become anything, while only slowly, slowly the future arrived, always in the present. She said I could never be a revolutionary. They bring about change and build a new future.

Bad things had been going on back there on Cuba’s beaches when you might face a Russian T-34 tank. Or in Santiago. In the whole Southeast. In Cuba in general. And I’d been caught up in it all. Yet I didn’t go to Playa Giròn. How I’d just wanted out of it all! On the one hand I wanted to escape from the provinces where I’d been a prisoner since birth. But escape meant exile and betrayal. Bitter images of those millions of gusanos de Miami, the worms, drinking café escaso on Collins Avenue and Flagler Street and Little Havana. Oh, I celebrated. Like a victorious militia man I rejoiced at the victory over the Gringos. The CIA army of gusanos smashed. Oh, the elation. The celebrations. Captured invaders: 100 plantation owners, 67 landlords, 35 factory owners, 112 businessmen, 194 ex-Batista soldiers. Should I have celebrated the executions too? I didn’t know if I had the right. Yet, I’m Cuban, not a water-wading gusano in the Bay of Pigs.

The story was the same at the Sorbonne: I didn’t really want to study and commit myself to the task of becoming a famous architect. But it was easy to acknowledge to those silly academic advisers that I would like to be one. A conceptual architect.

Dunya was right. Dunya always knew. Dunya had always been right. Now where is she? She was part of it all. Though absent from my vision in this bizarre situation, she must be there in the impenetrable shadows, near but distant from this condition of living only in my eyes. Yes, Dunya had always known that what I really wanted was freedom ... freedom from restraints and limits.

From the time Dunya got her first soloist job in the Stuttgart Ballet I was her manager. Germany! I didn’t go back to Cuba when Castro’s revolutionaries crushed the old and brought in the new. Neither gusano nor hero, I stayed in Europe. Found Dunya and devoted myself to our career. Oh, yes, our career! Above all, my career. Is that where I am now? Is this Germany?

Dunya and her amor sinfin! Amor eterno. She’d been my life. Always. From the moment of her flight to Europe my existence in Santiago turned black. Onyx black. Her amor eterno for me wasted away like the thousands of acres of our estate.

Where oh where am I? Havana? Paris? Germany somewhere? Our estate just dwindled away. Taxed out of existence. The old trick: hyper taxation; rapid confiscation. By Batista and his Gringos. They’d always hated Santiago. Hated the whole Oriente. Stole their sugar cane, stole their coffee beans, and let other crops die.

But I couldn’t live without her, without what Dunya had given me since we were still nearly children. Only to me. the snob, as she called me when I derided our provincial roots. My obsession with her drove us both crazy.

The once elegant finca in eastern Cuba was going to ruins, the staff reduced to the cook-chauffeur and the gardener do-it-all. Padre had capitulated. Surrendered in face of the fiscal machine in corrupt Havana. Twelve long hours away. Hours as hard as the climb to the top of Acatenango Volcano. And still not far enough away for the old man who refused to move to the Capital as most other landholders of the Southeast had done. Sitting in his study where he lived his life of ex-landowner, scribbling useless orders and pointless instructions for non-existent employees. Or reading dreamy histories of Old Cuba, and waiting to be served his favorite mouth-pinching constipation-exasperating fried green plantains, the once vigorous land owner, a tall and handsome man suddenly came to seem older than he was. I, his only son, was surprised when I realized the old man in the book-lined study was only fifty-two.

The servants whispered to me. Every day they whispered warnings. ‘He’s aging too fast. He can’t live on bananas ... and he can’t shit. Plantains are turning him inside out.’ As if a son could make things right. The son had no voice. Anyway, they were crazy in Havana to destroy the provinces which fed them.

Dunya gone, my father wasting together with our former lives, at one point I faced the dilemma: escape to Mexico … with Dunya. And there join that mad man Fidel and his brother Raul. To change things and be a hero. Or go to Europe with Dunya. But after her departure there was no choice. I had to abandon my father, the finca, the Revolution and go to Paris in search of my Dunya.

Dunya? How to explain her. Even her name rang crazy. Her father had read Crime and Punishment to her mother during her pregnancy and both parents had loved the name. As I did. I read the book too … just to know. Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya, was compassionate, while Dostoevsky’s protagonist, was arrogant and egotistical like me. Dunya and I loved each other, as did Raskolnikov and Dostoevsky’s Dunya: she selflessly; I possessively. We grew up together. We learned sex together while we were children in the capital of the East. Life was meaningless without her.

Dunya was compassionate but not selfless; she chose to escape to make her own life! “I have to have more than the Cuban provinces,” she said. “My talent merits the fame and glory that await me over there.” Mexico was no solution. She would leave me for Europe and for the dance. Our love life was not her first priority, while I, the only son, was obligated to see things through to the end..

“Padre, you do realize they’ve taken most of our land and we’re reduced to this country house, three riding horses, a few cows and a vegetable garden, much of which those crazy Cuban crows eat. Havana and Batista stole the rest.”

“But the Yankees paid us well, hijo!”

“Bah! Money in the bank! In which currency? Pesos? And if it all collapses? What will your millions of pesos be worth then?”

“Son, don’t think like a landowner! Times are changing.”

“Papà, I mean another kind of change. There are people over in Mexico, Cubans who want to change things much, much faster. This little we have left is not going to last forever. You know them, the Castros. Why not give them a hand now? I read that even the Chicago mafia diversified its investments. The Castros get some too. You can do the same.”

“Nothing lasts forever, hijo. We get old and we die. But meanwhile we have to get you into the university in France so that whatever happens you can take care of yourself. We’ve got money to spend! I’ve got money in Mexico and some in Europe too. I was always thinking ahead.”

Okay. But you have to think about Mamà and yourself. If the revolution comes here you might lose the little you have left here in Santiago and your bank accounts in Havana too.”

Like Dunya’s parents, my father had good reason to fear that loud knock on the door late at night. The “Santiago crowd” they were called. Castro supporters. Everybody preparing for the Castros’ return to make their revolution. There was little difference between Batista’s police and the Tonton Macoute, the zombies, we could nearly see across the straits separating us from Haiti. On a good day you could imagine you see the island of evil. In reality, Santiago’s hate for Havana was not so much for political reasons. Both fathers hated the Batista bureaucracy in Havana as much as the American mafia loved it. And Havana tolerated no disobedience in the provinces. Pay the protection or perish.

Still, Santiago fathers, Havana fathers, fathers in the provinces knew no more than did Havana politicos about what their children’s generation was thinking. What we and the Castros were thinking.

Dunya and I were children when our bond was sealed. In Santiago de Cuba. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old. She danced in her studio. No parental controls for compassionate, passionate, unlimited Dunya. I brushed her hair and squeezed her feet when she had her first periods. Oh, how I brushed her long hair. How she danced in her studio-love nest. Our story passes slowly or maybe fast before me now and I keep wondering if the white and green and blue figures saw it too when we made children’s love in Dunya’s bed in her studio in Santiago.

Ours is a story, the story I love most. Our Santiago story. Reliving it makes it live now in this fixed state of white and green and blue confusion and the dark shadows filled with both promise and threat. The kisses, the fumbling, the touching of our secret parts in the tropical evenings in the shadows in her studio in Cuba. Our love scents filled the air. The air of Oriente province, where the light breeze comes in from the sea every passing day.

The two children, clearly Dunya and I, now march across my unmoving, unclosable eyes and then their figures too vanish into the shadows. My real self reaches out for her. And for the first time I know: it has always been my story more than ours. Now it is over. I belong to this massive whatever it is that has overcome me. Now I just wish one of those deformed phantoms would step out of the tunnel and close my eyes for me. Once and for all.

Fidel Castro