Reina Agüero, cleaving to a telephone pole with thighs strengthened by many
such climbs, is repairing a high-voltage cable outside El Cobre, a copper-mining
town in eastern Cuba, when another storm blows in from the Cayman Trench.
Lightning, intricate as a skeleton, shatters the afternoon hum of the Sierra
Maestra, illuminating the pitted, open-cast mine in the distance. Reina
Agüero wipes one hand, then another, on her regulation jumpsuit as she works
her way down the splintered pole. Her tools clang reassuringly from her belt. In
the evening, she will climb the coconut tree behind the government hotel and
mingle its milk with a little rum. She hopes the concoction will finally permit
her to sleep.
Reina Agüero's insomnia began last summer, on the
thirty-seventh anniversary of El Comandante's attack on the Moncada Barracks. On
the road, traveling for la revolución, it is especially difficult to rest. The
beds are unpredictable, too soft or infested with fleas, and the days are
lengthened by extra work. As a visiting master tradesman, Reina is expected not
only to repair the balkiest electrical equipment in rural Cuba but also to
conduct seminars for local electricians and suffer nightly ceremonies in her
honor. Generally, she eats too much fresh pineapple at these events, upsetting
her sensitive digestive system.
A cluster of electricians applauds as Reina
descends the last few feet of the pole. The ground is saturated with weeks of
unseasonable winter rains. Together she and the men slip and grapple their way
down the hill toward town, a quarter of which is newly lit by her effort. Reina
is drenched, and her jumpsuit clings to her still-curvaceous form. She is
forty-eight years old, but her body appears many years younger. She ignores the
men who linger behind her, mesmerized by the size and swing of her buttocks.
Reina is five feet eleven, a good four inches taller than most of the men with
whom she works. Her mouth is large and flawless, with barely discernible corners.
The most daring of her colleagues call her Compañera Amazona, a moniker she
secretly relishes. Often, Reina selects the smallest, shyest electrician in a
given town for her special favors, leaving him weak and inconsolable for months.
After she departs, black owls are frequently sighted in the ceiba trees.
the way back to her hotel, Reina stops in at the Basilica del Cobre. It is Gothic
and gloomy and unwelcoming, like so many Catholic churches, but Reina has heard
of the impressive curative powers of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the
island's patron saint. Reina doubts that La Virgen, with all the tragic ailments
laid at her feet, would bother about a little sleeplessness. But Reina is
desperate. She's tried every soporific--herbal teas and sleeping pills, even
sweet-potato plasters for her head--all to no avail.
Not even the usual
rigorous lovemaking with Pepín Beltrán, her lover of twenty-four years, exhausts her sufficiently into slumber. Last week, during a dusk-to-midnight session,
Pepín's face went slack as he dropped dead asleep beneath her pleasure.
Afterward, she lay awake in the dark until she could perceive every crack and
crevice in the ornate room. Years ago, it had been her father's study, one of
eight chambers in their commodious old apartment in the Vedado section of Havana.
After the revolution, the government rented out the remaining seven rooms to as
Pepín blamed the anarchy of books in the study for Reina's
insomnia. There are over three thousand volumes on the carved mahogany shelves,
stacked on the marble floors, and on six lavishly decrepit armchairs. Many of the
books were written by her father: A Naturalist's Guide to the Pearl of the
, Reconsidering Bats
, The Owls of Oriente
, In Search of Erophylla
, and his classic, Cuba: Flora and Fauna
. A former china closet serves
as a display case for his most cherished skins, rare birds and bats long extinct,
specimens he himself stuffed with arsenical soap and that looked as fresh and
alive as on the day he'd shot them.
Pepín begged Reina to clear these relics
from their love nest. But Reina refused. Nothing had changed here since her
father's death, forty years before.
Reina stands before La Virgen's
shrine in the back of the basilica. Hundreds of candles burn to her in pleading
and thanksgiving. Centuries of offerings are piled into wobbly, glittering
towers: medallions and military badges from those who survived wars under her
protection; crutches from devotees to whom she gave the strength to walk; ancient
tiaras, chalices, Egyptian silks, and wedding rings donated by pilgrims and the
miraculously healed. The brown-skinned Virgin presides over these offerings in a
cream satin gown, a gold lamé cape, and her crown, poised and soothing as
her Yoruban name: Oshún.
"Bless me, Virgen, for I have sinned," says Reina,
kneeling before the saint and awkwardly crossing herself. She barely recalls the
prayers she learned as a child, the rituals of the Protestant boarding school she
and her sister were sent to after their mother died. "Well, I haven't sinned
exactly, but I can't sleep, and there must be a reason."
A medal from the
Spanish-American War catches Reina's eye. A year after Cuba's independence, her
grandfather had come to the island from the hills of Galicia. Reinaldo
Agüero became a lector in the second-largest cigar factory in Pinar del Río
and was greatly admired for his erudition and his rich baritone. Reina's sister,
Constancia, used to say proudly that this made them true criollos.
very good at this, and you must have a lot on your mind, but I was hoping you
could give me a direction of significance." Reina unsnaps a wrench from her tool
belt and places it next to the medal from the Spanish-American War. "It's not
much, I know. But maybe when you get a chance you could check in on me, okay?"
That night, Reina lies in bed and considers La Virgen's dark methods
of grace. Reina is uncertain of her own beliefs. What she enjoys most is the
freedom from a finality of vision, of a definitive version of life's meaning. If
she could perceive nothing in its entirety, then why not celebrate what she could
grasp with her own senses? Vive de la vida lo sublime. It had been her personal
motto for as long as she could remember. After all, it seemed futile to chase
what was forever elusive, when reality remained so largely unexplored.
presses the musty hotel pillow over her nose and mouth and begins to count. One
minute passes, then two. If she succeeds in rendering herself unconscious, Reina
thinks, slumber might return. Six minutes pass, then seven. After eight minutes,
Reina, fully conscious and supremely irritated with La Virgen de la Caridad del
Cobre, removes the pillow from her face.
After her mother died, Reina's
father also suffered from insomnia. But his was complete and incurable and drove
him to suicide two years after his wife's death. At least, Reina thinks, most
nights she manages to sleep an hour or two before dawn. Her body sighs with one
long releasing breath, and that is the last thing she remembers before the
faintest light awakens her, puzzled and refreshed.
Reina has thought often of
her father's last night in his study, of his double-barreled twelve-gauge shotgun
of Irish make, which is still in its velvet-lined case in the closet. His gun was
ideal for pulling birds out of any but the highest trees. Although her father
never considered himself a killer by nature, he'd been an excellent shot
nonetheless, as effective on horseback as he was crouched low to the ground. Many
of his specimens had found their way into the collections of the world's most
The week after his death, a parcel arrived for Reina and
her sister, Constancia, at their boarding school. In it was a selection of their
father's lecture notes, rare stuffed bats and birds, and a dozen of his books,
first editions, glossy with color plates. Constancia wanted nothing to do with
any of them, but Reina carefully repacked the artifacts and slid them under her
bed. Despite her suspicions, she couldn't bear to leave the work of Papá's
lifetime for beetles and bookworms to devour. "The quest for truth," Ignacio
Agüero had written his daughters, "is far more glorious than the quest for
power." Their father had written this, and then he shot himself in the heart.
It is the fourth of December. Reina is up before dawn. In the
countryside, people are already on the roads and the hillsides. This is a comfort
to Reina, who hates to wake up feeling alone. As the first light filters and
spreads through the darkness, colors seem to her less concentrated, as if
sunlight, not its absence, diluted their strength.
During her long wakeful
nights, Reina mentally inches her way from the periphery of her bed,
reconstructing the world in concentric circles. Everything is at its most
elemental in these circles, pure with the vital sheen of existence. Then a drift
of memories overcomes her, reversing the progress of her life.
On the worst
nights, Reina feels herself trapped as if on a magnetic plateau, with no fix on
the blackness. She confuses the stuffed bats with the birds, and the books with
the extinguished chandelier. She thinks often of her mother, hears her voice
again, feels the warm press of her breast against her cheek. Reina was six years
old when her mother died on the collecting expedition in the Zapata Swamp. How is
it possible that she has existed without her all these years?
Reina has one
more job in El Cobre before returning home to Havana for a two-week vacation. The
incessant rains have flooded the copper mine. The electric water pump dragged to
the site is almost prehistoric and has electrocuted two men since mid-November.
Now not even the most skillful electricians will go near it.
The same group
of men greets Reina in the hotel dining room, over a breakfast of rolls and fresh
papaya with lime. Reina looked them over carefully the day before but deemed
nobody worthy of her desire. They are all much too sure of their allure. This is
a problem in Cuba. Even the most gnarled, toothless, scabrous, sclerotic,
pigeon-toed, dyspeptic, pestilential men on the island believe themselves
irresistible to women. Reina has often pondered this incongruity. Too much mother
coddling is her theory. After the love and embraces of a Cuban mami, what man
wouldn't think he is the center of the universe?
Electricians, in Reina's
experience, are in a category apart. Adept with their hands and making sparks
fly, they often look upon women as something of another electrical challenge.
They are reliable but rarely inspired, which is partly why Reina enjoys reducing
them to helplessness. Gratitude, she thinks, is a refreshing quality in a man.
This is why Pepín Beltrán continues to be her ideal lover, despite the fact that
he's married and wears orthopedic shoes. As an official in the Ministry of
Agriculture, Pepín has nothing to do all day but rustle papers and daydream about
her. By the time he arrives at her room every evening, with a packet of black
market delicacies, he is nearly faint with anticipation. He follows Reina's body
Reina admits to a certain vanity. She basks in the admiration she
receives in her trade and in her bed, in the image of her image of herself. She
is fond of saying she has few specialties but prides herself on doing them
Nobody is allowed to carry Reina Agüero's
toolbox. She insists upon this, forcibly when necessary. It weighs close to
seventy pounds, but Reina carries it as if it contained no more than a pork
sandwich and a carton of milk. Most days she makes do with her tool belt, but the
pump at El Cobre's mine requires more electrical finesse. It is a forty-minute
walk uphill in the rain.
Others from the town join the electricians on their
trek to the mine. Word has spread of the lady electrician's ingenuity, and soon a
colorful procession of El Cobre's truants and elaborately underemployed citizens
follow Reina and her associates up the hill. Salvation or catastrophe, Reina
notices, is always guaranteed to draw a crowd. The rain comes down harder. The
citizens protect themselves with palm leaves and torn strips of cardboard and two
black umbrellas marked propriedad del estado.
Topsoil slides down the hill in
black rivulets. Snakes and mice and a profusion of underground creatures sweep
past them as they climb. The trees are crowded with fretful birds, frogs, and
lizards seeking refuge from the floods. One electrician, a flat-headed man named
Agosto Piedra, steps knee-deep into a pocket of mud and unleashes a string of
profanities so original it makes everyone laugh.
Reina is the first to reach
the mouth of the copper mine. It is an amphitheater of decay. In the seventeenth
century, slaves extracted enough ore from the mine to meet all of the country's
artillery needs. A hundred years later, they turned on their masters with muskets
and machetes and, eventually, through the intervention of the Bishop of Santiago
and La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre herself, were declared free citizens.
It will take something of a divine intervention to get the thick, foul-smelling
water out of the mine, Reina thinks. The pump, actually two pumps clumsily linked
by a series of exposed wires, is sunk in a foot of mud. Reina motions for her
attendant electricians to help her push the pump to drier land, but nobody moves
a muscle. Instead they look back at her, alternately embarrassed and defiant. The
machine has already claimed two lives. Revolutionary dedication goes only so far.
Reina puts down her toolbox. She circles the machine once, twice, three
times, before deciding on an angle. The mud sucks at her knee-high regulation
boots. She takes a deep breath, settles loosely on her haunches. Then, with the
speed and strength of a wrestler, she forces the power of her entire body into
her right shoulder. The machine moves two feet out of the mud. She repeats the
maneuver, so focused she appears in a trance, then again and again until the
whole contraption sits precariously on the lip of the mine. The crowd is silent.
The rain continues to roar down. Overhead, an aura vulture wheels through the
What happens next occurs so fast that nobody present can describe the
events accurately or in sequence. One moment, Reina is removing a side panel of
the water pump with her battery-operated screwdriver, and the next, thousands of
birds flee the trees at once, whirling madly in the rain. The ground begins to
shudder and fissure. Reina jumps on the pump as it begins to careen downhill on a
wave of mud belched forth from the mine. The pump crushes everything in its path,
leaving a flattened double wake of dirt and brambles that stops short before a
giant mahogany tree. Reina sees the tree coming and is almost relieved. It is a
healing tree, she remembers, its bark used to treat rheumatism, tetanus, and
pneumonia. Like the earth, it is violently trembling.
The impact rattles
Reina's spine, breaks her nose and both thumbs, and loosens a back molar. A
tangle of her hair is pulled out by the roots.
Reina is pinioned forty feet
high in the tree's uppermost branches. It is another kingdom entirely. Her pores
absorb the green saturation of leaves, the merciful scent of the earth slowly
ascending its limbs. Above her, the sky blossoms with gray velvet, with the
fading light of long-departed stars. Suddenly, Reina wants her daughter to be
with her, to share this air and the strange exhilaration of height. She would
say: "Dulcita, all the gifts of the world are here." But Reina knows too well the
uselessness of words, their power to divide and create loneliness.
body is sticky with blood and emulsions she does not recognize. Then nothing
matters except an unexpected blindness, her heart's rhythm, and an exquisite
sense of heat.
Excerpted from The Aguero Sisters by Cristina Garcia. . Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.