Snowy Egret 61(2): 13-26. Autumn 1998.
Horwalito Garcia Hernandez on the Isle of Pines, Cuba. Photo taken in 1950s by the author
by William R. Stimson
I don't know how my mother, who had been on welfare in Miami before we moved to the Isle of Pines, Cuba, got it into her head that we needed a maid. We didn't even have our own place yet, but had just started renting the abandoned Sundstrom house from the Millers. Now that I think back on it, I can't imagine what my mother did with her time all day, anyway, stuck way out there in the middle of nowhere. Maybe packing our lunch boxes for school every day got to be a chore for her in the mornings when she liked to sit down for her quiet ruminations at the kitchen table over coffee and cigarettes.
The only way I can figure, looking back at it now, is that the girl was going to get married soon (that much she managed to convey to my mother right at the start), hoped for a little extra money to make her wedding as special as it could be, got wind that a new "Americano" family had just moved into the Sundstrom's old place, and simply showed up at the door one day asking for employment. Yes, that is the way it would have had to be. For my mother, things just happened. So the whole scene of the little "guajiro" peasant girl with profuse black hairs everywhere -- on her arms even and on her legs -- standing there at the front door dressed in her best clothes, speaking Spanish, when my mother did finally get the gist of what the girl was saying, would simply have presented itself to my mother's mind as an idea -- a novel and fascinating idea: to have a maid, and for only a dollar and a half a day.
The way my mother would entertain such an idea would be to do it. And so the next morning we had our first domestic servant, busying herself unsurely in the kitchen packing our lunch boxes. Her name was Maria, Spanish for Mary, my mother's name, and even this became the basis of a very complex conversation in the confused kitchen that morning. Nobody could butcher Spanish like my mother. She would take me to the barber in town and tell the astonished man to "Chop off his pumpkin" when she meant to say that he should cut my hair very short. So, in all fairness, I suppose Maria had her hands full trying to understand what it was my mother wanted her to do.
The big shock came around noon when we opened our lunch boxes at school. What Maria could do to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich spoke volumes about the cultural chasm between the United States of America and the Republic of Cuba and, when I think back on it now, my brother, my sister and I had all the information we needed right in our hands at that moment to have told the State Department a few things, years before the Cuban Revolution or Fidel Castro or any of that.
Of course, when we got home we made it known to our mother that there was a problem. If she didn't lend us her full ear, it was because something far more pressing had come up: it was barely past three in the afternoon and Maria was already serving up dinner, when in fact it would be several more hours before we even got hungry. It's only fair to point out here that the girl couldn't have been more than 14 or 15.
It was the same every day after that and we had a crisis on our hands: what to do about Maria. Well there wasn't much we could do. The girl was dizzy with love and then, when we met the lucky man, we were all moved to pity her, for he had such an absolutely huge mustache and was in no other way distinguished at all. So she and her strange habits became a part of our daily life and we were fully as eager as she was in counting down the days til the big event. It came soon enough but not before Maria did the one thing that was to have a lasting effect on our lives forever, and thus repaid us many times over for any small kindness we may have managed to show her. My horse had stepped on a sharp rock and was limping a bit. Maria enlightened us: that it didn't have horseshoes was the problem. My brother's horse did have horseshoes but, Maria informed us, they were worn alarmingly thin and, besides, she pointed out, one of them was starting to become a little loose. We would be needing someone to shoe the horses. Maria assured us that her brother knew how to do that.
And there was Horwalito, the next day at our door. He came riding up to the house on his yellow bicycle that was just a little bit different than other people's bicycles and I couldn't for the life of me explain exactly how, but maybe it was because it was a little bit better kept. Everything Horwalito had was just a little bit different than if somebody else had something like that. His hat for instance. It was the type of hat a plantation owner would wear. It had a flat brim that dipped a little in front and was flat on the top with a thin leather belt around the base of the crown. Horwalito's hat was Horwalito's hat. Nobody else had a hat like that.
It's hard to explain the effect that the appearance on the scene of a man like Horwalito had on our little household. For one thing, he was a man. This in itself set up a whole different dynamic about the place for my mother was, as she never tired of reminding us and everyone else, "a woman alone with three children." But it was more than just that he was a man. There was something about Horwalito. He wasn't like other men. He was different.
Appearancewise, he was a handsome man, a classical Spaniard. He had prominent cheekbones, cavernous eyes, a hooked nose, a simple tidy mustache. His manner was like a cowboy and an Indian combined. The singular thing about him was that he did everything from the heart. My mother was about forty when we got to Cuba (she stayed forty the rest of her life). Thinking back on it now, I would say Horwalito was about 30.
He set to work shoeing the horses right out in the yard in front of the house. You couldn't help but be impressed by the way he handled horses. He was so gentle but he wasn't afraid. My gray mare started in with the bad habit she had of biting and kicking. Horwalito set her straight real quick with the sudden start of a motion. The motion didn't need to be finished. The horse got the point and didn't try anything like that again.
The horses were in the habit of bluffing us when we saddled them. They would puff their stomachs out fat so that later when we were riding along the saddle would get loose and start slipping over to one side. They couldn't bluff Horwalito. They'd try to puff up. Horwalito would hitch in the "cinturon" strap all the tighter and knot it down firm. It was like horses and Horwalito were two parts of one thing that had grown up together and knew each other through and through. And it was like that with him and me too, in some strange way that I guess I sensed immediately, it was like we were both of the same substance. I know now what it was: he was the first person ever who really saw me. The me who I really am, he was the first, and for so many years, the only one who ever saw that. And it was because I was someone like him. That was why.
Of course that's the sort of thing one only realizes later, a long time later. At the time I couldn't involve myself enough in what he was doing, although I was very careful to keep my safe distance for it seemed to me intrinsically dangerous to be around horses' feet. But he was immediately at home with the impossible situation and, while answering all the questions I couldn't speak in Spanish but just sort of intuited out at him, he effortlessly got the gray mare to submit one foot at a time as he hammered the squarish horseshoe nails right up through her hooves, bending and clipping the nail points that came out the topside with a few simple tools he had spread out on the grass around where he worked. Now my horse, freshly shod, walked with a clippity clank on the gravel. With a clamper he yanked the old nails right out of the bottom of my brother's horse's hooves and then put new horseshoes on just as he had on my horse. It was all so astonishing and seemed to have just breezed by, like a strange and mysterious world that one got a glimpse of in passing when, all too soon, the job was finished. Both horses were done and Horwalito was packing up his tools.
I guess I was the one who kept him on there involved in conversation, to the extent you can have conversation with someone when learning words for things in their language is mostly the extent of the conversation. Maybe I asked him if I could ride his bike. And then my brother and sister wanted to ride it. Or maybe it was his dog, Nay. I had instantly fallen in love with Nay, whom I immediately understood. Nay wasn't a dog like other dogs who would hang around like dogs hang around and lie about like dogs lie about. Nay kept his distance. He cut a wide circle around other dogs or other people and stayed away from anybody but Horwalito. He knew what world he belonged in and what world he didn't. I wish I had known then what that dog knew because it took me the most of my life to find that out for myself.
Nay was a beautiful thin nosed dog with longish mostly blackish hair. This dog had never been tamed. That is, his spirit had never been broken. He had only found a good friend in Horwalito. He was quiet and evasive on the outside like a wild animal. But inside you knew he was free and beautiful. I took the considerable effort to try to make Nay my friend but as I approached where he was lying in the shade far off under some bush, he would imperceptibly vanish like a mirage before me and reappear over by some clumps of grasses at a farther distance. In the end, it was Horwalito who intervened and called the dog over to where he was. The dog obeyed but not without a considerable reluctance, as if he sensed what was forthcoming. Horwalito put his big arms around the dog, like later he was to do to me so many times, and held him there tight while I approached. That's how he introduced him to me.
I can't tell you how honored I felt. I held out my hand for him to sniff. He smelled and then smelled some more, making what kinds of calculations dogs make when they smell. Then, still seemingly only in obedience to Horwalito's urging, he gave me a desultory little lap of his tongue before bolting free again and reappearing somewhere in the far distance. But to my utter amazement some time later I found him right at my side and when I held my hand to him he gave it a tender little lick like we had been friends for life. What Horwalito did was make me feel special, for the very first time in my life.
With all this, probably a fair space of time had passed after Horwalito had finished with the horses and before my mother actually got around to paying him. And somehow in the course of just a few words between him and her it was arranged, for in the end good sense must prevail, that he would come back tomorrow. After all, the back porch of the house was sagging badly and missing a few planks.
When he had finished reconstructing the porch, a few days later, there was the pig pen out back that needed to be fixed and so it was decided he would stay on a few days more to work on that, even though we had no pigs, and it was not even our place that my mother was having Horwalito fix up. Then, what with one thing or another, he was coming every day.
In the end there was nothing more for Horwalito to do about the place but cut the grass, though it was St. Augustine grass and stayed short by nature. This task he accomplished by standing bent over and swinging his long machete in an arc flat to the ground. Periodically he would rise and sharpen the blade with the file. I think it must have been as much to relieve his back as anything else, for when I tried to cut the grass like that again and again under his careful tutoring I found it a totally unbearable way to do that job. Besides I remember almost cutting my leg off.
When we did buy a farm of our own a few miles down the road, Horwalito came with us. Horwalito, in fact, was instrumental in getting us the little "finca". He knew some people who had already moved into town and wanted to sell their place. The price was good: $1,000 for 16 acres. A pretty little wooded stream cut slightly at a diagonal down the west side of it. Up on the hill towards the center was a thatched "bohio" Cuban peasant house, which we later built on to make our house. The entry to the place was from a gravel road that ran along the east side of the property and just continued back into nowhere. It didn't strike us as strange, for a few weeks, how well-traveled this little road was, and at what seemed to me sometimes to be odd hours of the night.
The mystery was cleared up when we learned that down that road lived Maria La Curandera. Maria wasn't the only curandera on the Isle of Pines. Horwalito knew quite a bit about these things somehow and the dark country nights would become a little frightful sometimes when he would confide some of the bloodchilling tales of what went on, especially down in the vicinity of the inaccessible South Coast where unexplained lights were frequently seen just offshore at night and where there lived one old woman who was much feared by the people there. If she wanted one of your pigs, you gave here the pig. Otherwise, she'd put a spell on them and all your pigs would be dead by morning.
Maria La Curandera was a different kind of healer, entirely, than this old woman. The truth was, Horwalito informed us, that many people came to her from town when the doctors there couldn't help them. He seemed to know quite a few specific cases. Horwalito took us back up there once to her house. Maria La Curandera was a sweet old woman with long white hair and a very quiet manner. She obviously had a great deal of respect for Horwalito. Horwalito made sure that we saw the little chapel that occupied a front room of the house. The whole room was filled with Catholic statues of Maria Madre de Dios and Jesus and the Santos. These were arrayed about an altar that occupied a prominent position in the room. On the altar there were candles.
One day, when I was working alongside Horwalito clearing a strip that was to be an extension of our vegetable garden, he espied a little tuft of some plant that looked like any other weed to my eyes. He quickly pulled it up from the rich black earth, careful to get the strange white roots, forgot entirely for the moment what we were doing, and cast his eyes knowingly about the vicinity for any more of this same kind of plant. He discovered one or two more clumps, harvested them just as he had the first and stored the whole bunch down in the cool shallows at the edge of the arroyo in the shade, wrapped up in some big leaf. At the end of the day, when he was mounting his yellow bicycle to ride home, I noticed he had the little clump of herbs with him. When he set out for home that evening he didn't go the way of the front road, the short way, but turned north, and took the long back route that led by Maria La Curandera's house. Later I noticed that he frequently took this way home. The people around there didn't pay a lot of attention to Horwalito. But when he spoke about certain things they listened very carefully, I noticed.
This wasn't the Sundstrom's place and there was plenty for Horwalito to do. A good part of the 16 acres needed to be cleared, to start with. And then the land needed to be planted. It was a strange and wonderful farm Horwalito helped us make. We had every kind of plant and tree and fruit from lemongrass to sweetsops and every imaginable kind of animal from guinea hens to peacocks.
Horwalito helped us procure a bunch of turkey chicks which we raised. They got bigger and bigger until they were all young adults. Then one day I remember running to my mother and Horwalito yelling, "Look! A turkey is flying!" They came hurrying out to see. There the young adult bird was winging around in circles, joined now by several more. We all just stood there in amazement, looking up as all the other turkeys one by one joined in and our entire flock of turkeys flew around and around the farm in wider and wider circles. Then they all veered abruptly off and headed south. We never saw them again.
"So then they can fly..." Horwalito remarked with childish astonishment, like he had just learned something of special interest.
When we started building the house, Horwalito just sort of gravitated away from the land to where all the excitement was up at the construction site. We had brickmasons in from the town but promptly Horwalito, who started out just hauling sand or mixing cement for them, took on the task himself after they'd left for the day. In no time at all, my mother was able to dismiss the expensive brickmasons. Horwalito sufficed fine. So our house turned out to look quite a bit different than any other American house on the island. Still it was beautiful to us. Horwalito did almost all the work on it himself.
He loved children and made a point of taking my brother, my sister and me out with him the day he brought in the thatch for the roof. He had gone out a few days earlier with his machete and hacked off cabbage palm fronds in a big area over across the road farther down from the school. When we got there on his slow lumbering oxcart with long pointed poles sticking up all around its edge, the whole landscape was covered with the big fan-like leaves, sweet-smelling and pale dry green now from lying in the sun on the bushes, on the grass, on the ground, everywhere as far as the eye could see. By the time we rumbled on home toward the end of the day we rode atop a high mound of palm fronds extending right up to the top of the tall spiked poles that Horwalito had securely impaled them on. Perched way up on top, we towered high above the road. The powerful broad-bodied oxen ambled slowly along, straining under the load when we hit an incline, goaded now and then, should their enthusiasm wane, by a long stick with a tiny pointy nail at the end. Horwalito let me take the reins but in no time at all I had us in trouble. I could see then, when he took the reins back, that it was no easy chore, controlling the huge oxen just by knowing how to tug at the lines to the big rings through their noses.
For a man who knew so many things and how to do so many different kinds of work, Horwalito still sometimes was more like a child than I was in certain ways. That is to say, he still had an innocence that was incredible to us who had come down from Miami. For instance, a short while after our house was finished the new power plant was built and electricity came to this part of the island for the first time. We'd had electric lights for several days when suddenly it occurred to us to plug in our TV for the first time since we'd left Miami. It was a big clunky affair in a mahogany cabinet. There were wooden doors that closed over the front of it so we'd sort of forgotten that there was a TV set in there. Well, would you believe it, no sooner we plug the thing in than presto there's a faint picture on the black and white screen. "Come Horwalito," I remember scampering about excitedly, "Come see!" for he was sitting in at the dining room table with my mother as was their habit by now during her long ruminations with coffee and cigarettes, discussing the affairs of our little "finca" and just about anything else that came up. He obligingly let me tug him into the other room. By then my brother, fiddling with little knobs and buttons in the back of the set, had gotten the picture perfectly clear. Then it occurred to us to turn the volume up and there was sound.
What happened to be on was a commercial for Fab detergent. A Cuban mother, white sheets in hand, was pouring out her heartfelt conviction that in her experience this detergent, and now she held up the box, was the only one that could get her sheets so white. Horwalito just sat there for a moment in a transport of amazement at the spectacle he was witnessing. He had never seen television before. "What do you think?" I pressed him, "What do you think?" But he just kept gawking in amazement at the little woman on the screen. Then he turned to me, deeply moved and, with a childlike innocence, said in the way of someone who had just learned something and was trying to get it straight, "So Fab then is really the best soap to use."
"No Horwalito! You can't believe what they say!" I reprimanded. "This is only an advertisement," I instructed him like the little professor I sometimes became with him, "They just want you to buy something."
I guess I rather frequently assumed that role of his little tutor. I remember once he admonished me in grave and alarmed tones that bananas shouldn't be taken with milk for they didn't mix and it would curdle the blood and the person would die. This took place when we were seated at the breakfast table, for as a matter of course now my mother would invite him in for morning coffee when he arrived for work. I had been slicing a banana over my corn flakes and milk. I assured him that it wasn't so what he said, and that I'd eaten bananas over cereal many times. But he would not hear of it. He knew for a fact that it was true, a person would surely die if bananas were eaten with milk. I promptly ate a banana as I drank a whole glass of milk to show him that it wasn't true and see I wasn't dead. He got quiet and looked down at the table. Suddenly I saw that what I had done had hurt him. He was only trying to help.
At a later time a fuss was made over the moon. It was in a special phase and it was "cold," the moon was, when it was in this phase, and so if I went out in it I should cover my head with a gunny sack otherwise I would catch "the Grip." Instead of protesting, I just let him hold the gunny sack over my head like he was holding one coweled over his own head until we got "safely" in the back door. What does it matter after all what's true and not. Maybe it signifies more that somebody cares enough to try to do right by you. And Horwalito had taken us all under his wing in a very special sense.
When our chickens were being stolen, Horwalito slept over, bedding down on some sack cloths outside, back by the chicken coop. In the middle of the night there was a commotion. We heard yelling. He had trapped the culprit inside the chicken pen. Then in the dark there was a scampering, a scuffle. The man had fled. But Horwalito had seen who it was. Our chickens were never bothered again. And I think he accomplished this without anything being said.
One day one of the Millers' macho truck drivers made fun of Horwalito in front of us on account of his clothes. Horwalito's mother made his shirts and pants from the empty cotton cloth flour sacks that "guajiros" bought for a pittance from grocery stores in town. The truck driver strutted about in his cowboy hat and flashy town-bought clothes. Shortly after, that man found his wife was cheating on him while he was away in his truck delivering Miller's grapefruits to the docks. He made a big fuss and kicked her and the little girl out. Horwalito quietly commented that the man was making a fool of himself and should have just quietly let the whole thing blow over. Sure enough, within the year the pretty young wife and little girl were brought quietly back from the mother's house in town. Horwalito had a woman's wisdom. His was a knowledge of the heart. It wasn't that he wasn't strong. He was strong but he was also intelligent. And sometimes the others mistook this for weakness.
The Millers, for whom that truck driver worked and from whom we had rented the Sundstrom homestead, were the big American landowners in this area. They made their money from grapefruit and had a packinghouse of their own right behind their house. Their house was the biggest in the region -- a boxy pointy-roofed two storey wooden shingled house with a big clunky front porch. It was perched right up on top of the highest hill in the district and always surrounded by a clutter of bicycles, souped-up cars, trucks, toys, and things. "Things" was what their life was about.
Down the road a little from the Millers' house, at the bottom of the hill, lying in a low flat fertile area, way back from the road, was Horwalito's father's house. Horwalito and his brother still lived there with their parents. It was known throughout the region how hard Miller had tried to buy out Horwalito's father. Horwalito's father wouldn't sell. I think the neighbors respected him for this, or at least I did. He was a peasant straight from the Old World and he was like a rock on the land. You didn't move him. He and the land were one. I got my first sight of him in the field beside the path back to the house the day we went for banana plants. His feet were deep in the black earth of a freshly plowed field. It was incredible how hard he was working for a man who was obviously very old. It was the first time that we ever went over to Horwalito's house. We would have to have a banana patch on our farm, Horwalito had decided, for "fincas", after all, had banana patches. What did we know! All this was new to us. And so here we were at Horwalito's house to get little sprouts from his father's banana trees.
They said Horwalito's father was crazy. I saw that soon enough for myself. We were all back by the bananas, cutting the little shoots to plant over at our place. The old man came over to where we were. "You have a lot of bananas," I said to him to make conversation. "Oh this isn't the least of it," he assured me, and then went on about the other bigger banana plot he had on the moon.
"The moon?" I queried, thinking I had got the Spanish word wrong.
"The moon," he assured me, pointing meaningfully with his finger up at the faint orb in the sky, "The moon! Yes! The moon. I work up there at night when everybody else is asleep."
He and his wife had come over from the Canary Islands when they were newlyweds and settled right here on this farm. They'd been here ever since. They were old now but still very strong and vital. Horwalito's mother was a very special and sweet woman, a rare creature. One of her eyes, I forgot which one now, was pointed up fixedly as if it were constantly gazing at the moon. My mother later told me the story. One day in a crazy rage Horwalito's father had strung a rope around her neck and had her hanging in the well. Horwalito had got home just in time to save her life but one of her eyes had already gone up like dead people's do and it never came down again afterwards.
We also met Horwalito's brother that day. He was big, fat and blustery, a Batista prison guard who swaggered around like a self-important pig in his ugly blue uniform. Interestingly enough, the uniform completely vanished after the Revolution and he kept a very low profile, and made a big point of acting like he was everybody's best friend. Horwalito's brother was like his father, a crude brute. Horwalito took after his mother who was quiet, sensitive and intelligent.
It was years later before I happened to go to Horwalito's house the second time for some reason or other. In the interim my father had come down to pay us a visit on the farm. My father was a horticulturist. As soon as he got out of the car from the airport he went right over to our one oversized portulaca plant, spreading low with its many tiny rose-like flowers in the sun, and decimated the thing into countless pieces which he stuck in the earth all around. Then he got the hose and watered them all down. "If you have one, you have a thousand," was all he said with a disapproving tone that we hadn't done this long ago. And the young turpentine mango tree down by the arroyo he unceremoniously hacked to the ground affixing to its cambium layer little buds he'd brought back from the delectable apple mango tree we'd showed him up back on the hill at the old abandoned homestead. My father grafted a number of fruit trees while he was down on that visit. Horwalito watched him carefully and I explained to Horwalito what it was about. "You see the green layer under the bark, that is the cambium, you make sure the two cambiums touch, then you can have any variety of tangerine, or orange or mango that you want." After my father had gone, I noticed that Horwalito and my mother were grafting little fruit trees all over our farm. The second time I went to Horwalito's house it was the same except that everywhere there grew the choicest and most impossible to obtain citrus varieties that you never saw except on rich people's farms. Horwalito's father was very proud of what Horwalito had done and personally gave me a tour of all their fine new fruit trees. No talk of growing bananas on the moon this time. Horwalito had done something more exciting, more far-fetched.
Often when I would get to the breakfast table sleepy-eyed for my morning bowl of corn flakes, my mother would already be there over her morning coffee sitting with Horwalito. It wasn't at all uncommon for her to be just sitting there in her bra and panties. She walked around the house like that. I remember several times I admonished her that she should put something on, but then it just became a thing that was taken for granted. But sometime around this time, which was maybe several years after we'd been in our new house, there was a strange episode. I happened upon my mother and Horwalito. Horwalito was acting funny. I'd never seen him angry before and he was strange, as though this is how he got when he was angry. The energy didn't explode out but imploded within. He seemed hurt and withdrawn. It was twilight and getting dark, which made the scene all the more strange. Then, all of a sudden, he just ran off into the pine woods across the gravel road and kept going. He had left his bike.
I don't know exactly the sequence here but there was also something peculiar with my brother Johnny. I remember my mother sternly lecturing him. He just sat there sullen and frozen, adamant in his silence. He was strange for days after that. Then he ran away. It's unfortunate, when you think about it, to be on an island when you run away; but apparently he didn't consider that. He ran away anyway. Horwalito remembered last seeing him going down the back road. We went looking for him in the car. It was night time by then. We drove along the bumpy rutted tracks of that back country road with the headlights on high but couldn't find any sign of him at all. By now, things were right again between my mother and Horwalito and Horwalito led the search. It was late at night by the time we came upon Johnny walking along the road. When he got in the car, he was completely silent. Horwalito didn't say anything either. After that my brother always referred to Horwalito as 'the hired hand" and displayed only the most odious contempt for him. I had no idea what was going on but the whole thing kept getting worse. Finally, my mother sent Johnny up to live with our old neighbors the Wiegels in Miami and attend high school there.
Johnny was tall and handsome like a young sapling, growing straight and strong. I have a photo from about this period where he is standing, arms at his sides, bolt erect, beaming proudly and triumphantly at the camera; and I am slouched in sunken defeat like a poor sickly little tree that had been permanently overtaken and overshadowed by its older neighbor. So when Johnny left for Miami it was like cutting away the big tree and letting the light get down to where the scraggly little sapling might have a chance at it for a change. That's the way I felt anyhow. But in another sense I had gotten light all along. I don't know when he started doing it, but Horwalito would always grab me in his big strong hardworking sweaty arms and hold me close to him in a sort of a bearhug like I had once seen him hold Nay. I struggled fiercely to wiggle free but as often as not he prevailed. And then I just sank back defeated saying, "Let me go Horwalito. Let me go please." But he'd just hold me a bit longer without saying a word and then when something had happened that only he knew about, he would release me.
I remember along these lines that once I had asked my father if I could kiss him. He was on one of the little visits he made every so often to where we lived in Miami before we moved to Cuba. He was seated in the car, the door wasn't closed yet, just about to leave. He got stiff and informed me factually in the tones of a detached observer who was above it all, "Son, in our culture men don't kiss." Lucky for me, in Horwalito I later met a man who wasn't restricted by what was regarded as proper for a man to do in his culture, but could find the compassion in his heart to hug a bucktoothed little boy who felt he was so hideous and unlovable.
In time Horwalito traded his bike in for a second-hand yellow motorcycle. He was in demand all over the island. People everywhere wanted him to come graft their fruit trees for them and teach them how to do it. He traveled about far and wide and became very well known and did a lot of good with my father's university education.
I guess I had a feeling it was all going to end soon. I have boxes and boxes of color slides I took during this period. My brother came back to visit during summers and holidays and then returned to Miami. I pressed my mother to make all sorts of car trips because I wanted to see all parts of the island. It happened on one of those trips.
We were down in one of the forested hardwood hammocks at the edge of the everglades that divided the north part of the island from the South Coast. Like always, I was looking for orchids. Horwalito had come with us like he usually did as a guide and because he had never been to any of these places either. We all got separated in the dense jungle somehow and then we were together again. Horwalito and I had huge armfuls of orchid plants. My mother reported that she had passed the time pleasantly sitting under some tree and that it was nice, there weren't any bugs or anything. On the way home though she developed an irritation. Her skin was red. Some bug must have bitten her. It was dark. Horwalito helped me with the orchids and then had to leave. The next day was Sunday. He didn't come to work. By the morning my mother was in a frightful shape. She had a rash all over her body. I drove with her into town. The doctor couldn't make head nor tail of it. He said there was nothing that could be done. "Just wait til it passes," he advised. I believe he gave her Vicks Vapo Rub for her throat because her tongue and throat were also swelling now. When we got home, she lay in her bed all through the day swelling up like a balloon.
By the time Horwalito arrived Monday morning, her eyes were swollen shut and she struggled to breathe, making a frightful wheezing sound with each inhalation. "Guao de la Costa" was his immediate pronouncement. Years later I found out this was a tree which science calls Hippomane mancinella . During World War II a whole German submarine crew was wiped out on an isolated beach on Trinidad. They'd come ashore for a breather and had made the mistake of eating the yellow, apple-like fruits. Some books said that you could die just from sitting under the tree when it was shedding pollen, as the pollen would get in your respiratory tract and eyes. This was apparently what had happened to my mother.
Horwalito and I jumped on his motorcycle and we were off to Maria La Curandera's. Maria and Horwalito conferred. Horwalito poked about here and there gathering up this herb, that bark, some other root fiber, and then when Maria La Curandera had given him the O.K. we were off again on the motorcycle back home. By the way I had seen them working together, I knew now for the first time that Horwalito knew almost as much as Maria La Curandera and that he was her chosen apprentice. It was to him that the old woman had been passing down all her knowledge of the healing ways of a curandera. I got the feeling this had been going on since he had been a little boy and that she had singled him out early as her successor. Horwalito, our Horwalito, was a curandero, and we never even knew.
He made a wood fire back behind the garage and arrayed all the different plant materials he had brought with him in little piles around it. He mounted a galvanized washtub on some big stones over the fire and filled it half way up with water. Then he went searching around down by the arroyo for certain other sprigs and buds. When he came back, the water was hot. He put all the plant materials in, swished it around and went to get my mother. I ran along by his side, for I was not at all so sure about this whole thing. My mother was even less so than me. And in fact he lifted her bodily out of bed, protesting and pounding weakly at his face with her poor swollen fists. She was terrified, forbade him absolutely to do it, but was too weak to prevent it for she could hardly breathe. Would you believe he took all her clothes off and set her down right in the hot tub of water.
"Quema," she protested. "Quema," she cried (her way of saying in Spanish that it burned her). I tried to reason with Horwalito myself as to whether he was absolutely sure this was the right thing to be doing.
He was too busy to pay any attention. With an old tin can he dipped down into the broth and poured the hot infusion over my mother's head. My mother held her head down so it wouldn't get in her eyes, but he told her to raise her head because he wanted it to get in her eyes, in her mouth, everywhere. Steam rose up from the tub and enveloped her in a foggy mist which had the strong smell of an herbal mixture. He kept instructing her to breathe it in deeply.
"I can't breathe. I can't breathe," she protested.
"Breathe! Breathe!" he kept insisting. It was a strange sight. This dipping and pouring went on for a long time.
In the morning my mother was very embarrassed and quite obviously better. The swelling had almost completely gone down and the residual redness was gone in a day or so. I guess I suspected way back then, long before I even learned about Hippomane mancinella , that my mother might have died that day had it not been for Horwalito.
They were in love, my mother and Horwalito. There could be no doubt about that now. Maybe because it showed too much was why she felt she had to send my sister and me up to live with our father in Miami. The excuse was that because of the Revolution, the American School was to be closed. But letters we got from our friends showed that the school remained open for a year after that.
I wrote to Horwalito and he wrote me back. He had only gone to the third grade. It was his mother who had taught him to write. I'm not sure what schooling she'd had. He wrote with a very distinctive script and spelled out words phonetically, not by any knowledge of spelling. My name, "Billy," for example, he spelled "Vile." His letters would begin, "Querido Vile," Dear Billy.
How different things would have turned out if my mother had stayed there with Horwalito. He was such a remarkable man. He was so good for her. My mother supported the Revolution but maybe she got afraid. A woman who lived a ways down the road was found murdered in the ditch in front of her house. She had been a sweet and harmless old widow, killed, it seemed, only because she was American.
I don't know exactly why my mother showed up in Miami all of a sudden the following year with nothing but what was in her handbag and a tightly folded wad of American bills inside of a menstrual pad smeared with ketchup. (They had actually made her strip to search her at the airport). Before she left, she had sold Horwalito the farm for a dollar. Word later reached us that the Revolutionary Government had made him move out of the house and installed a well-to-do Communist lawyer there instead. They did give Horwalito permission to work the land though.
I don't know what happened to Horwalito. The last letter I ever got from him had a black border and informed me that his mother had died.
My mother didn't fare well. She just started slowly getting stranger and stranger in her mind. At first, it was almost imperceptible. But later on it became pronounced. I think that happens to you when you make a wrong choice that in the end you find -- maybe the discovery comes too late -- that you cannot live with. On a trip up to visit her sister in the Catskills once, the story came out of what had happened that stormy evening with Horwalito and my brother. My brother had followed Horwalito and my mother away from the house. She had kept turning back yelling to him to go away. You can imagine, two lovers running through the tall grasses in a terrible hurry and in such a transport of abandon that they became careless. Then Horwalito and she were making love in those same tall grasses just beyond our back fence by the vegetable patch.
"Mother! Mother!" my brother's voice called out from close by.
"Go back to the house, Johnny!" she had demanded urgently of him. "Go back, Johnny!" she kept repeating. But he hadn't gone back. He'd come right upon the two of them there and seen.
Maybe my mother had finally come to feel humiliated that this had happened, or fear other people on the island might find out and view her as doing something beneath her station. I have no idea why she left our home in Cuba to come back to the United States -- where, in a matter of weeks, she was waiting on customers at the counter of a bagel shop on Coral Way.
Sometimes after work she brought by a bag of unsold bagels and left them off at the ugly second floor walkup where my brother, sister and I now lived with our father. My mother rented a shabby little room along a hallway of such rooms on the second floor above some old stores at a nearby intersection. It was decrepit place that smelled of mold -- the last resort of people whose lives were broken or who had lost their way.
I would have kept writing to Horwalito except that I couldn't fathom how to explain to him how things could have possibly gone so hopelessly wrong.
I have never been able to get back to Cuba. None of us have. My mother has since died, and so has my father. If Horwalito is still alive he would be an old man now, about the age his father was, back then. If I ever do manage to get back there, and if I ever could find him again, I would just like to hug him back for once, and hold him tight for a little while -- if that makes any sense -- like he did me so many times. I would just like to tell him I know my mother loved him, I know it for a fact and I don't know why she never went back to him, because I know he was waiting. I know he would wait for a long, long time. He was that kind of man.