Isle of Pines, June 1965
Again this morning I walked across the open field outside our house, down to the ocean. Once, when I was eleven, I looked into one of my mother's black notebooks and read from her angular hand, "Life is not a walk across an open field." But in this field, for now, the only ambushes are specters.
I stood for a minute or two on the beach, staring abstractedly at the water breaking in high white waves. My head was still fuzzy from sleep. Small clear lines, transparent hairs, floated annoyingly in front of me, and yet inside my eyes where I couldn't get at them, like mistakes in theory or flaws in character. The brightness made my head hurt. The ocean meant nothing to me this morning, empty of correspondences. I turned and started back through the tall scratchy grass that grows along the edge of the field, by the fence.
Today I stopped halfway up to watch the prisoners, leaning forward with my hands against the thick strands of wire mesh, testing one of the sharp barbs with my fingertip. I drew a drop of blood. Sometimes a small sharp pain breaks through the fuzz in my head, focuses my attention. The fuzz remained; my finger stung. I placed my hands carefully between the barbs, my head down so I wouldn't be recognized. I was dressed in fatigues, as the guards would be--probably I'd be taken for one of them.
The prisoners worked among young trees with long thin waxy leaves, orange trees I think. They were shoveling fertilizer into the dry earth around the roots, mixing it under. The revolution is in growing things, you said; each tree a soldier of revolution. Heat wavered up from the mounds of black earth in the wheelbarrows, a warm sharp smell that I like. The day was just beginning, but circles of sweat were already spreading under the men's arms, and across the backs of their gray shirts. I thought of a phrase: there's no way to put an end to prison, except to make the whole island a prison, each man in the care of every other, as guerrillas are, each man his brother's keeper, teacher, guard. (--Hard to imagine the country where one could use that in a speech!) I put my fingertip to my mouth and sucked a drop of blood from it: it was less salty than I expected.
One of the prisoners turned from his comrades and picked up a long green leafy weed with two pale-red flowers on its stem. His eyes closed, he pressed the flower against his lips for a moment, as if feeling its pleasant soft texture. With a few quick bites he ate both flowers, and an inch or two of stem. He dropped the stalk to the ground and returned to his shoveling. They must not have enough to eat in the prisons. The pollen from the grass began to make my nose stuffy, so I headed back to the house.
Walter--comrade, bodyguard, keeper--was sitting on the porch. He said hello in his painful raspy voice. Nodes had grown on his vocal cords during the war and had had to wait for the victory of the revolution to be cut away. His voice now is a harsh whisper he hates the sound of; he doesn't talk as much as he did in the Sierras. I said hello, and he returned to his reading.
He had on a newly laundered olive-green uniform, and sat tilted back in the shade of the veranda, keeping himself fresh. My friend has become a fastidious man, almost prissy. He takes care of himself in such a way that he hardly sweats. He has become a smart dresser too. Seven years ago, when he joined my column in the Sierras, he was a raggedy grimy boy in a floppy straw hat and torn pants. He appeared one day, barefoot, his feet so small that there was nothing in our stores that fit him but a pair of Celia's shoes, hand-tooled Mexican boots, women's shoes, an occasion for mockery. Walter enjoyed the jokes and the boots, made the shoes his trademark and his charm against danger. (Floppy straw hats already identified--and protected--Camilo.) The magical boots were the beginning of his interest in clothing. He wears such small fancy things still, and always slightly alters his clothes to show his taste. A dandy with limited resources. Today he has folded back the sleeves of his shirt in huge cuffs, to give them a little style. (It did look good, I thought.)
I stopped near the steps, and thinking of our talks stared at Walter, focusing my meditation on him. He was eating sunflower seeds and reading The Charterhouse of Parma
. He had come to the Revolution illiterate, perhaps seventeen years old (he lied about his age, about everything), a boy who told stories about himself, arduous adventures, narrow escapes from the police on his way to us, true romances, fabulous crimes he'd committed, very odd jobs he'd done. If you said you were a baker, he would start a story saying, "I was a baker for a while, too," or "I played cards with a baker once. He was a sharp. But cleverly I . . . ," or "I went out with a vicious baker's daughter. But she could do things with her tongue that . . ." He told his tales in a goodhearted way, not expecting to be believed, not offended if you didn't believe him. He wanted to interest you; he wanted you to like him. If you accused him of lying he would smile, as if pleased by your cleverness in seeing through him; and for some reason (I never asked) he would spit in his hand and wipe it on his pants. (In those days he was quite slovenly. He has rewoven himself as if he were one of his own stories.) In a few minutes he began telling you another myth, in a high-pitched, excited voice, an unbroken thread of words. He hardly took breaths, afraid of losing your attention; he never paused for invention (quite common among liars, I've noticed--the products of the imagination suggest their own continuations in a way life does not). If you again pointed out some preposterous contradiction (he had just said he was a baker in Santiago, when now, at the same time, he was having an affair with a gangster's wife in Manzanillo), he drew breath for a second, and then explained the problem away in a rush, restitching the fabric boldly, implausibly, a grotesque yellow zigzag across a red mass, trying to turn the figure of a woman into the outline of a city. ("Did I say I knew a woman like that? I mean one who came from there.") He got on the nerves of some comrades in those days: perhaps they felt his incredible lies showed a contempt for their intelligence. Perhaps his constant interruptions annoyed them. Maybe he talked too much. No longer. The Revolution had demanded the sacrifice of his voice, and in return it had taught him how to read. Now he spent his spare time following other people's fictions.
Walter is a small strong black man; compact-looking, self-possessed. I turned him into a picture, an unshaded drawing. I rubbed away at his skin, the way you might erase a sketch, smudging him, making a dirty whiteness, destroying his outline so that a human form was barely recognizable. But this was amusement, rhetoric, not a real imagination of his dying. I made a bloodstain appear on his clean shirt, but it looked too much like wax. I made the stain melt, spread like sweat across his shirt, from the center of his stomach (but I couldn't, in my mind, see the expression on his face, the shock, the pain). I had him rise and stumble forward, take the positions of some of those I have seen die, one pose after another, like bits of film cut together, a little jump between each image. Walter's long thin fingers grabbed at air; his slender body lay on the ground with his legs open; his body lurched forward and upward, as if struck from behind; then, spliced in by accident, there was an image of a dead child, his head shaven for lice, lying in a grassy field like the one behind me, his skinny arms bent akimbo underneath him; then Walter again, his small body about to fall into the dirt, his head with its high smooth forehead lolling to one side. His chair gave a little wobble. He stuck his hands out for balance, and caught my eye, surprised to find me still standing there, staring at him. I stopped my experiments (do I want him, my friend, to die?). It was a pointless game.
"What's the story?" Walter said, raising his eyebrows, and cocking his head to the side. He put his hand into a small brown bag by his chair and popped a few seeds into his mouth.
The sound of his voice made my throat feel dry and scratchy. "I was thinking about the prisoners," I lied, gesturing to the fence, "the ones putting in the fruit trees over there. I saw one of them eat a flower"--as if that would make my lie more credible. I felt ashamed of what I had been doing to his image: killing it over and over, and magically making his chair wobble.
"Not prisoners," Walter said, omitting as he often now did the noncrucial parts of his sentences. "Volunteers. Young Communists. Didn't you see the women?" He was undoubtedly telling the truth. Only the ornate fiction, the wordy picaresque, had ever interested him. And he didn't tell stories anymore.
"Well, appearances are deceiving," I said, sententiously, wondering what that made of my aphorism about prisons.
I went in to my work, my writing, my self-criticism. On the way I reached into Walter's bag for a few salty seeds,
For a moment, when I came into the shadows, spots of light with blue centers bloomed on the bedroom furniture, the gray metal cot, the straight-backed chair. It reminded me of something you had said about my rhetoric (as opposed, say, to yours): that too much light can blind a person. I held up my hand. The gray-and-white seeds were visible in the center of my palm, but parts of my fingers were gone, eaten by spots of light. A metaphorical point for you. Another game. ("Make shadows," you might have said, "so they can see what they wish." "But you know they're deceiving themselves," I would say. "And later we'll have to deal with them anyway." You turn away, "Let them think what they wish. Later we'll be strong enough to deal with them as we wish.")
I write in my bedroom, on the desk that was here waiting for me, a long white board standing on two sawhorses. It faces the window that looks out on the field and the ocean. The prerevolutionary owner of the house, a Yanqui, has left a memento on the wall by the bed: a copy of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," mounted in a plain wooden frame.
Self-criticism, to overcome that rhetoric that make the world go away in a flare. To overcome my pride, egotism, to see things plainly, to break these stones, to bring this old m to an end.
"To bring this old man to an end"--it's already too rhetorical. Cross it out.
Self-criticism: crossing parts of myself out, rewriting myself. Instead of killing myself or my comrades, a metaphorical way to sacrifice myself.
"Sacrifice myself"-- ore rhetoric! Cro it out.
Endless redefinition instead of the activity itself.
The boy with his head shaved lying in the field. My mother once shaved my head that way. He could have me killed. My plane could disappear, out to sea.
Impossible! We're married for life. (My mother once brought a pistol to the breakfast table, laid it down by her plate. I was fourteen. It was an absurd charade, to show my father how serious she was about her position in some political argument. But what if, while I watched, she raised that pistol and pointed it at his forehead?)
Impossible. It's waiting like this. It makes me crazy.
My finger throbs a little where I pricked it.
The stuffiness in my nose is liquid on my upper lip. My lungs strain and hurt. When I was a child
I have to get my inhalator.
I am thirty-seven years old today. The time has come when I must think about my future as a guerrilla.
Walter baked a cake for us, for me.
At breakfast Walter told me that he had heard over Voice of America that I am dead. (Walter is insomniac. When he is too tired to read, he lies in the dark and listens to the voices on the shortwave radio.) Last night informed sources murmured of a serious split in the ruling circles of Cuba. Castro has purged me, executed me, as I have executed so many. So end tyrants. Perhaps, reliable sources whisper (and Walter rasps), it was for my criticism of the Soviet trade agreements; perhaps for the failures of my policy of industrialization--it is known that Castro is critical of my "idealistic stand" on moral incentives; or perhaps he and Raul are jealous of my following. Informed sources are uncertain; they had their ears to the door, but the voices were indistinct. The actors emerged and one of the players was gone. A dumb show. They conjectured a plot.
The only certainty is that I am dead.
Fidel Castro, Premier of Cuba, is silent, neither confirming or denying.
Fidel is silent. The afternoon of our talk, after the ride from the airport in which we each shouted and punched the air, ended in silence, that to some uncanny silence of his, when he joins the world of mineral things, when the most talkative of men, whose life is a stream, river, torrent vapor cloud stream, etc., of words, shuts up; when his gestures, too, his hand reaching out and upward to punctuate a point, to squeeze a shoulder, come to an end. His hands lie open by his sides.
We sat facing each other, neither of us speaking, on the crow's-nest platform he had built in the middle of his room. (To reach it we walked up a circular metal stairway that winds about a thick metal pole. The pole supports the wooden platform.) Fidel sat in a rounded wooden desk chair on rollers (a triumph for someone to have gotten up that ladder), and I made myself comfortable in a small straight-backed wooden chair. We were eight feet off the ground, talking, smoking; not talking. I looked down at his room. His single bed was neatly made, the blue and red blanket tucked tight. (He rarely sleeps here. Uneasy in Havana, he travels all over the island, wandering, in a caravan of jeeps. And in Havana he prefers others' beds.) Iron weights were scattered on the floor, dumbbells, a rowing machine, baseball bats, baseball and boxing gloves, the wide white cross-weave of a trampoline. Fidel does not want to get fat; or old; or die. The trampoline was useless for exercise, though; books were piled all over it. Books were everywhere, books on farming, on soil science, on cattle raising, books on crop hybridization, books half read, books stacked on the seat of the rowing machine, with red ribbon place-markers sticking out from their pages. Books on the red reclining chair and on the wobbly leopard-skin footrest, books opened and spread face down on the floor, their spines cracking. Scattered about among the wilderness of books were the musical instruments he has tried to play from time to time--a guitar, a bright new brass trumpet, an accordion. (A one-man mariachi band!) For a bad moment I looked about, at the scattered books on agriculture, and the musical instruments he had abandoned (each time he gave up on the project before he had learned to play even a simple tune. Not enough time, not enough patience. There is only one instrument for him: the crowded plaza, his orchestra); and I thought of the factories--my ministry's responsibility--many of them idle or half used, hobbled for lack of raw materials or trained workers, or spare parts. The Revolution was an old engraving I saw once, as a child: a pensive bearded man, a broken god, with a ruined city in the background, a collection of useless instruments around him, a magic square whose impotent charm means nothing beyond itself, a pile of books under his elbow on the spectral unproductive science of alchemy, that promises so much and accomplishes nothing; only one tool: a reaper, instrument of some dubious harvest.
Excerpted from The Death of Che Guevara by Jay Cantor. Copyright © 2005 by Jay Cantor. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.