The Empty Shoes
gosh! when did this happen? Heaven knows. . . . A while back, no date I can remember???everything was always so much the same that it was really difficult to distinguish one month from the next. Oh, but January was different. You know, January is the month of the upitos and the bellflowers, but it is also the month when the Three Wise Men pay us a visit.
The grass by the window was tall enough for their horses, and my shoes, a little bashful because they had holes in their tips, were there, waiting, openmouthed and a bit damp with evening dew.
It will soon be midnight.
???They will come after you??re asleep,??? my cousin had whispered in a confidential tone. ???And they will leave your gifts on top of the shoes.??? When I am asleep! But I couldn??t fall asleep, I was hearing the crickets chirping outside, and I thought I heard steps too; but no, it was not them.
To sleep. I had to fall asleep, but how? My shoes were there on the windowsill, waiting.
I have to think about something else so I can fall asleep. Yes, that??s it, I??ll think about something else: ???Tomorrow we have to trim the flight feathers and fill the water tank. After that I??ll go by the brook and bring back a basket of honey berries. . . . I should not have brought down that nest that had two naked baby birds with gaping beaks and a look of fear in their eyes. . . .???
I woke up. It was so early that only a few scant rays of light were coming through the window. Almost blindly I walked to the window. How many surprises, I thought, were awaiting me. . . . But no. I touched the moist leather of my shoes: they were empty, completely empty.
Then my mother came and kissed me in silence, caressed my wet eyes with hands tired of washing dishes, nudged me softly to the edge of the bed, and slipped the shoes on my feet. ???Come,??? she whispered then, ???the coffee is ready.??? Then I went out and got soaked with dew. I had some flight feathers to trim.
Everything was so beautiful outside. So many bellflowers. So many of them you could walk over them without stepping on the earth, and so many upito flowers covering the ground that you couldn??t see the holes in my shoes anymore.
The Glass Tower
ever since he had arrived in Miami, after the veritable odyssey of escaping his native country, noted Cuban author Alfredo Fuentes had not written a single line.
For some reason, since the day he arrived???and it had already been five years???he had found himself accepting all kinds of invitations to speak at conferences, to participate in cultural events or intellectual gatherings, and to attend literary cocktail and dinner parties where he was inevitably the guest of honor and, therefore, never given any time to eat, much less to think about his novel???or perhaps story???the one he had been carrying around in his head for years, and whose characters, Berta, Nicol??s, Delf??n, Daniel, and Olga, constantly vied for his attention, urging him to deal with their respective predicaments.
Berta??s moral integrity, Nicol??s??s firm stance against mediocrity, Delf??n??s keen intelligence, Daniel??s solitary spirit, and Olga??s sweet and quiet wisdom not only clamored for the attention that he was unable to offer, they also reproached him constantly, Alfredo felt, because of the time he was spending with other people.
Most regrettable of all was that Alfredo hated those gatherings, but was incapable of refusing a gracious invitation (and what invitation isn??t gracious?). He always accepted. Once there, he would be so brilliant and charming that he had earned a reputation, particularly among local writers, as a frivolous man who was something of a show-off.
On the other hand, if he were to turn down invitations to such gatherings at this point, everyone (including those who were critical of his facile eloquence) would consider it evidence of inferior breeding, selfishness, even a false sense of superiority. Thus, Alfredo found himself caught in an intricate web: he was well aware that if he continued to accept the endless flow of invitations, he would never write another word, and if he didn??t, his prestige as a writer would soon fade into oblivion.
But it was also true that Alfredo Fuentes, rather than being at the center of those obliging crowds, would have much preferred to be alone in his small apartment???that is, alone with Olga, Delf??n, Berta, Nicol??s, and Daniel.
So pressing were his characters?? appeals and so eager was he to respond that just a few hours earlier he had vowed to suspend all social activities and devote himself entirely to his novel???or story, since he didn??t yet know exactly where all this might lead him.
Yes, tomorrow he was definitely going to resume his solitary and mysterious occupation. Tomorrow, because tonight it would be practically impossible for him not to attend the large party being given in his honor by the grande dame of the Cuban literary circles in Miami, Se?ora Gladys P?rez Campo, whom H. Puntilla had nicknamed ???the Hayd?e Santamar??a of the exile community.???*
This event, however, was not merely cultural, but also had a practical purpose. Gladys had promised the writer that she would lay the foundation, that very evening, for a publishing house that would print the manuscripts that he had, at great risk, smuggled out of Cuba. Alfredo, incidentally, didn??t have a penny to his name and this, of course, could give him a tremendous financial boost, as well as help to promote the works of other important but still unknown writers less fortunate than Alfredo, who already had five books to his credit.
???The publishing project will be a success,??? Gladys had assured him on the phone. ???The most prominent people in Miami will support you. They will all be here tonight. I am expecting you at nine, without fail.???
At five to nine, Alfredo crossed the vast, manicured garden toward the main door of the P?rez Campo mansion. The scent of flowers swept over him in waves, and he could hear pleasant melodies emanating from the top floor of the residence. As he listened to the music, Alfredo placed his hand
*Hayd?e Santamar??a was the director of the government publishing house, La Casa de las Am?ricas, that decided which books would be published in Cuba. against the outside wall of the house, and the stillness of the night conspired with the garden and the thickness of the wall to give him a sense of security, of peace almost, that he had not experienced for many years, too many years. . . . Alfredo would have preferred to remain there, outside the house, alone with his characters, listening to the music from far away. But, always keeping in mind the solid publishing project that would perhaps one day allow him to own a mansion like this one and that could also mean the future salvation of Olga, Daniel, Delf??n, Berta, and Nicol??s, he rang the doorbell.
Before one of the maids (hired specially for the reception) could open the door, an enormous Saint Bernard belonging to the P?rez Campos lunged toward him and began licking his face. This display of familiarity from the huge dog (which answered to the name of Narcisa) encouraged similar shows of affection from the other dogs, six Chihuahuas who welcomed Alfredo with a chorus of piercing barks. Fortunately, Gladys herself came to the rescue of her guest of honor.
Fashionably attired???although rather inappropriately for the climate???in an ankle-length skirt, boa, gloves, and a large hat, the hostess took Alfredo??s arm and led him to the most select circle of guests, those who would also be most interested in the publishing venture. Gladys, at once solemn and festive, introduced him to the president of one of the city??s most important banks (in his imagination Alfredo saw Berta making a face in disgust); to the executive vice president of the Florida Herald, the most influential newspaper in Miami (???A horrible, anti-Cuban paper,??? he heard Nicol??s??s voice saying from a distance); to the governor??s personal assistant; and to an award-winning lady poet (???A couple of serious bitches,??? Delf??n??s sarcastic voice piped in loud and clear). The introductions continued: a distinguished minister who was a famous theology professor as well as the leader of the so-called Reunification of Cuban Families. (???What are you doing with these awful people???? Daniel shouted desperately from far away, causing Alfredo to trip just as he reached out for a famous opera singer??s hand, and fall instead directly into the diva??s ample bosom.) Gladys continued with her introductions as if nothing had happened: a famous woman pianist, two guitarists, several professors, and finally (here Gladys assumed a regal bearing), the Countess of Villalta. Born in the province of Pinar del R??o, she was an elderly woman, no longer in possession of lands and villas, but still holding fast to her splendid title of nobility.
As he was on the point of bowing discreetly before the countess, Alfredo sensed that the characters of his budding opus were again urgently demanding his attention. And so, as he kissed the lady??s hand, he decided to search for the pen and paper that he always carried in his pocket, in the hope of being able to jot down a few notes. But the countess misconstrued his intentions.
Copyright © 2001 by Reinaldo Arenas Translated from the Spanish by Dolores M. Koch. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.