My name is Ignacio Agüero and I was born in the late afternoon of October 4, 1904, the same day, my mother informed me later, that the first president of the republic, Estrada Palma, arrived in Pinar del Río for a parade and a banquet and a long night of speeches at the governor’s mansion. Cuba had gained its independence two years before and despite the Platt Amendment, which permitted the Americans to interfere in our country from the day it was born, the citizens of Pinar del Río poured into the streets to welcome the president.
A brass band played on a wooden platform decorated with ribbons and carnations, and children scampered about in their Sunday finery, clutching pinwheels and balloons. Angry cigar workers pressed through the crowd, shaking placards protesting the high foreign tariffs levied on tobacco. My father, Reinaldo Ureña, a lector who read to the cigar workers in their factory, marched among them.
Back at our whitewashed cement house, shaded by the crown of a graceful frangipani, my mother was readying herself for the festivities when she felt the first of my violent kicks deep inside her. She sat down at the edge of the bed and slowly rubbed her stomach, humming a Mozart sonata whose soothing effect on me she had previously noted. Instead the kicking intensified, followed by a series of rhythmic contractions. Mamá was all alone. She would miss the parade and the suckling pig and the ballroom lit with candelabras.
No sooner had she settled back on her matrimonial bed than Mamá spotted the shadow on the far wall. Straight ahead, standing guard between the open shutters of the bedroom window, was a Siguapa Stygian owl. My mother did not know its official name then, only that it was a bird of ill omen, earless and black and unmistakable. It was doubly bad luck to see one during the day since they were known to fly about late at night, stealing people’s souls and striking them deaf.
Hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo, it called to her as she breathed a voluminous breath that caught her very center. She grabbed the etched glass lamp on the nightstand and threw it with all her might, but it fell short of the owl’s luminous eyes. Suddenly, the pain inside her spread upward and downward like two opposing tidal waves and despite her fear or because of it, she delivered a nine-pound four-ounce baby boy.
The owl remained still on its perch until the placenta spilled forth in a rush of blood. Then with a dark flap of its wings it swooped forward, plucked the sodden organ from the floor, and flew with it like a rumor out the window once more.
Later, my mother learned that the bird had flown low over the president’s parade with her placenta, scattering the crowd and raining birthing blood. Even President Palma, trembling with fear, crossed himself twice before jumping headlong into a flowering Angel’s trumpet bush, his crisp linen suit spattered with Mamá’s blood.
Word of the incident quickly spread throughout Cuba. Mamá told me that for once the priests’ and the santeros’ interpretations were in accord: the island was headed for doom. Since then, the Siguapa Stygians are no longer so common in Cuba, killed over the years by superstitious country folk and the disappearance of the vast, unlit woods that once had concealed them.
From the start, my mother blamed the Siguapa Stygian for my tin ear, although she was grateful it hadn’t flown off with my hearing altogether. Both my parents were accomplished musicians, and, as a child, I studied the piano, the violin, the flute and the oboe, but I never coaxed more than rudimentary sounds from any of them. This was a heartbreak for my parents, who had hoped we might one day form a trio.
Pinar del Río was a steamy backwater in those days. Its cultural amenities included a theater with a red tile roof, where my mother and father and I attended an occasional concert, and a natural sciences museum—a dusty back room in a deteriorated municipal building—that had on exhibit a rare cork palm, a species indigenous to Cuba that can be traced back two hundred and fifty million years.
The Sierra de los Organos loomed to the northwest, and though the mountains were far off, they managed to stamp the town with their somber mood. Tobacco fields stretched in every direction: on the vales, on the hillsides, on the mountain tops and on the sheer sides of the mogotes, limestone bluffs which the workers ascended and descended by means of ropes. Although there were pineapple fields nearby and orange groves and acres of sugarcane, nothing competed with the supremacy of tobacco.
My father, as the lector of El Cid Cigar Manufacturers Company, was revered for his intellect and his splendid renditions of the works of Cervantes, Dickens and Victor Hugo. For two hours every morning and then again after lunch, Papá read aloud from an assortment of newspapers, novels, political treatises and collections of poetry. While the workers occasionally voted on what they wanted my father to read, more often than not they left the choice to him, a testament to their utmost confidence in his taste. For twenty-one years (not counting strikes, holidays and illnesses), Papá stood at his lectern and read to the hundred or so workers seated below him. Most of them smoked continuously as they listened to him, stripping and sorting and rolling the finest tobacco in the world.
Papá had a deep, sonorous voice, cured to huskiness over the years by the sheer volume of smoke he inhaled. Although he nursed his throat regularly with honey and lemon, he refused to yield to the temptations of the microphone which, he was convinced, distorted the robust timbre of his voice. In the afternoons, when he customarily read from novels, townspeople gathered outside the factory with their rocking chairs and embroidery to listen to the intriguing tales that drifted through the open windows.
My father was particularly proud of the literary name that was imprinted on the factory’s cedar boxes and its gilded cigar rings. Once a year, an occasion for which he would dress up in a jacket and waistcoat and his patent leather spats, my father read in its entirety El Cid, that great medieval epic poem, moving even the stolid factory director to tears.
What most people did not know was that my father was also a superb violinist. Many who heard his serenades from the street or in the nearby square assumed that the music came from my father’s phonograph, prized by the town as evidence of its collective sophistication. Papá did not discourage this assumption. The violin was a link to his past, to his own father, who had lived like a pauper in the hills of Galicia carving fine, sturdy fiddles that nobody bought. My father’s father had grown demented in his last years, convinced that he was descended from the great violin makers of Cremona, which had bestowed upon the world the successive geniuses of Nicolò Amati and Antonio Stradivari.
I have often wondered why someone of Papá’s talent never sought to make a larger impression on the world, why he had so whittled down his dreams, for dreams he must have had to abandon Spain. It seems to me now that Papá had exhausted his lifetime’s supply of adventure on his one voyage across the Atlantic. The hardships of that trip must have sated him, cured him completely of any further scheming. By the time he’d arrived in Cuba, my father wanted nothing more than to reclaim the stability he’d so recklessly left behind.
During brief nostalgic lapses, Papá recreated his favorite dishes from Spain. He made his own sausages, complaining that the local chorizos slept on his palate, and he taught himself to bake perfect empanadas, plump with spiced ground beef. When he cooked codfish and white bean stew, his eyes watered in happy relief. One winter, he planted a dwarf olive tree in our backyard, but despite his painstaking care, the sapling never bore fruit. My mother, seeing how homesick Papá was for the verdent hills of Galicia, often encouraged him to return for a visit. But Papá shook his head and said, “My fate was decided a long time ago.”
That is not to say that my father was a melancholy man, not at all. Most days he awoke with an exaggerated sense of purpose. His readings engrossed him enormously, and as he strode to work, his throat fairly rumbled with anticipation over what the morning newspapers might bring.
It was my mother who was the moodier of the two. Her name was Soledad and she knew better than anyone the meaning of solitude: that the beginning already implies the end, and that at the end we understand only the vague dimensions of our ignorance. As you get older, you question the utility of your life.
Years later, I learned that Mamá had had a child out of wedlock long before I was born, a little girl named Olivia who’d drowned when the Guamá River overflowed one rainy September. I remember my mother was always saddest in September, and to this day it seems to me the bleakest of months.
My father liked to boast that he’d arrived in Cuba with ten pesos in one pocket, a volume of verse by the great Romantic poets in another and his handmade violin. For one month he played his caprices and sonatinas, collecting coins on the streets of Havana, interspersing his concerts with the more mundane requests of passersby. One day, a young widow spat at him on the Paseo Prado. Her husband had been killed in the Spanish-American War and she could not stand to hear Papá’s Castilian accent.
The desk clerk at my father’s pensión recommended that he become a lector on account of his orotund voice. A week later, Papá got a job in a cigar factory in the Vuelta Abajo region of Pinar del Río. His first day on the platform, perspiring with nervousness and encircled by cigar smoke and the scrutinous eyes of a hundred workers, he began to read:
“In a village of La Mancha the name of which I have no desire to recall, there lived not so long ago one of those gentlemen who always have a lance in the rack, an ancient buckler, a skinny nag and a greyhound for the chase ...”As a boy, I often wondered how Papá had endured those first months away from home, surrounded by strangers, a refined misfit among coarser men, a man whose first purchase in Cuba, after much sacrifice and diligent saving, was a gramophone and a thick black record of the Witches’ Dance Variations by Paganini.
In time, my father met Soledad Varela, a local flutist ten years his senior. It was a Sunday afternoon and they were attending a concert by a chamber music quartet from Havana. In fact, they were the only ones in the audience. Mamá sat in her wide-brimmed straw hat. Papá smoothed the Panama in his lap. She liked the way his mouth moved, his unseemly moustache. He liked the way she held her silence, unafraid, weighing her words like silver on her tongue.
It turned out they had much to say to one another, about the muddy-sounding flute and the violin tuned half a note too high. They continued their conversation after the concert, beginning a three-day courtship that ended in Pinar del Río’s town hall. Mamá was thirty-one years old and by then had refused proposals of marriage from suitors women half her age would have coveted. But in Reinaldo Agüero of Galicia, a newcomer not long off the boat, she had found her match.
From my parents’ first meeting, my future was born and the very moment I am living was predetermined. From my parents’ first meeting, two more people walk the planet in search of solace, two more people with Papá’s first loneliness echoing in our breasts.
Music is my earliest memory, earlier than sight or smell or touch, earlier than consciousness itself. My parents spent many evenings playing duets, for which they were technically suited, if not temperamentally. Papá worshipped the magnificent Carnaval de Venice, while Mamá preferred the stateliness of Beethoven’s adagios or the more restrained brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s Danse Russe. I remember how the mood of our house was colored by the music in it, as if the notes themselves could brush the air with paint.
Although I was not musical in any conventional sense, I could, at an early age, accurately imitate the calls of every bird in the woods around Pinar del Río. Our neighbor, Secundino Robreño, used to coax me into the forest to help him secure doves for his poultry cart. I warbled with such proficiency that within moments, dozens of birds dropped from the trees to welcome his shotgun. Secundino repaid me with sticky candies from his pockets, usually less than fresh, or a handful of spent bullets.
During one of our expeditions, I discovered the nest of a tree duck in a hollow stump north of town. Inside were four eggs and, fortunately, no mother yaguasa in sight. Secundino offered me twenty cents apiece for the eggs, a fantastic sum at the time, but I refused him and decided to raise the fledglings myself. I gathered the eggs carefully, placing one in each trouser pocket, and held the other two in my cupped hands. On the way home, balancing on the balls of my feet, I whistled the yaguasa’s one-note song to soothe the unborn chicks.
In those days, people used to gather tree duck eggs for profit. The nests could be found in clumps of regal bromeliads or in the crooks of trees upholstered with thick Spanish moss. Common folk and fanciers alike used to raise the yaguasas among their own domestic poultry because they broke up barnyard quarrels and whistled at the approach of strangers. Tree ducks, I daresay, were an avian blend of bouncer and rural guard.
My yaguasas grew to be quite elegant, with lovely long necks and the hauteur of fine geese. Of course they were excellent watch ducks, too. In fact, my mother credited them with saving my father’s life during a particularly fractious strike at the cigar factory.
Early one morning, two men I did not recognize knocked on our front door. The taller one carried a tree limb studded with nails. The shorter one, unshaven, had pineapple fists. It was apparent they had come to teach my father a lesson for his leading role in the strike.
No sooner did Papá come to the door than my ducks raced from the backyard, whistling and squawking and scattering feathers. They attacked the men with the resolve of old hens, viciously pecking and scratching them until the thugs stumbled away in a daze. No one ever came to disturb our peace again.
Sadly, the once-abundant yaguasas have disappeared along with the island’s lowland forests. With luck, one might still spot a few in the remotest regions of the Zapata and the other lesser swamps. At night, they fly out to visit the palm groves of cultivated plantations and eat the palmiches, the clustered fruit of the royal palms.
Neither of my parents had any inclination toward ornithology, so it was all the more remarkable that they encouraged in me a preoccupation so far removed from their own. They indulged me with frequent drives into the countryside for my field observations. On one trip near Bailén, I spotted a pair of sandhill cranes, already quite rare when I was a boy. They were digging in the scorched earth of what was probably their former breeding grounds, digging with their bills for roots or beetle larvae in land that had been cleared to plant more sugarcane.
On another trip to the Lomas de los Acostas, I caught my first sight of a red-tailed hawk. It was known locally as the gavilán del monte by the peasants who lived in the huts high on the open savanna hills. “Gavilanes del monte! Gavilanes del monte!” the women cried from ridge to ridge when they spotted the hawks. Then they turned to warn their own chickens, who scurried, terrified, into their coops.
Every spring and fall, I searched the trees for the many migrant birds that lingered in Cuba en route to and from South America. I studied their migrations and imagined flying in their immense flocks, darkening the unreachable parts of the sky. They would travel at night, billions of them, at altitudes too high to be easily observed, taking their cues from the sun and the stars, wind directions and the magnetic fields of the earth. That, I decided, was how I’d fancy travelling.
During the winter of 1914, a record number of American redstarts and black-throated blue warblers nested in Cuba. The trees around our house positively shook with their commotion, disturbing my father, who had fallen ill with yellow fever. His temperature soared, he vomited continuously and could barely lift his head from the pillow. After several days, jaundice set in. Still, the birds continued to bicker and sing.
My mother and I took turns reading aloud The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, to which Papá had frequently turned when troubled: “Think of the universal substance, of which thou hast a very small portion; and of universal time, of which a short and indivisible interval has been assigned to thee; and of that which is fixed by destiny, and how small a part of it thou art.”
Mamá soothed Papá’s fever with cold cloths and held his hands for hours, as if trying to transmit through her fingertips the vitality of her own life. She made Papá codfish and white bean stew and gave him black Spanish olives to suck. Slowly, his health improved, although it left him in a permanently weakened state.
On his first day back to the cigar factory, Papá’s step was plodding and tedious, and I was certain he could not walk the entire mile to the outskirts of town. I accompanied him, bracing his elbow. Friends greeted him along the way, ignoring the sweat that rolled from beneath his hat, and this seemed to encourage him.
When at last we arrived at the factory and Papá, with great difficulty, climbed the three steps to his platform, the room erupted with hoarse cheers. “A-GÜE-RO! A-GÜE-RO!” the workers chanted, clapping and stamping their feet to the rhythm of our name.
“Please, hijo,” my father finally turned to me, his voice barely audible. He raised his palm to the crowd and the room became silent, muted by smoke and the sweet smell of cedar. “Read for me today.”
He handed me a heavy book, its red leather faded, its spine broken from so many readings, and I took his place at the lectern. I turned to the first page. The smoky air made my eyes water. Words scattered before me like a frightened school of fish.
The workers strained toward me. My voice was small, hesitant. Down below, a paper fan fluttered. I reached the second paragraph, and stopped.
“Go on, Ignacio,” my father whispered.
“There was a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there was a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes that things in general were settled forever.”
My parents celebrated my fourteenth birthday the way they did every important event in our lives, with ceremony and fanfare. Papá baked me an almond torte with marzipan parrots he’d ordered from a sweet shop in Havana, then the two of them serenaded me for an hour like a pair of mariachis. Mamá sang in her squeaky, scratchy way, so unlike her mellifluous speaking voice, and Papá slowly forced out his baritone until “Happy Birthday to You” sounded more like a speech than a song.
I’d expected a gift but none so spectacular as the full-color, single-volume British encyclopedia: Birds of the World. One thousand forty-three pages in all. Years later, this exquisite volume was stolen from my office at the University of Havana. The illustrations turned up in markets throughout Cuba, framed in cheap wood and sold for pennies to guajiros as decorations for their homes. I know this because I bought several of the illustrations myself in Guardalavaca and Morón.
After dinner, my father and I walked through the balmy streets of Pinar del Río, stopping here and there to greet a friend or admire the binoculars in the window of the new camera shop. This aimless strolling went on for an hour or more, unusual for my purposeful father. It seemed that Mamá had instructed Papá to discuss with me the ways of nature—me, a keen observer of the animal kingdom since I could walk! Papá coughed and strained uncomfortably with his words until I found myself waving my hands the way he did when he was impatient or anxious.
“De acuerdo,” he said. “But in case your mother asks you, tell her we’ve spoken.”
Since his bout with yellow fever, Papá often asked me to substitute for him at the cigar factory. I was no longer so nervous before a crowd and the cigar workers complimented me on my voice—not nearly as sonorous as my father’s, they said, but high and distinct as chimes. It was not what I wanted to hear, but I accepted their praise just the same.
On one such day, I organized the morning’s reading: two local newspapers, a movie magazine, the latest newsletter from the International Cigar Workers’ Union and Papá’s favorite recipe for Galician-style scallop pie. My father had taken to sharing his culinary expertise with the cigar rollers, who greatly appreciated his cooking tips. Once when Papá had tried to demonstrate how to prepare the perfect torta a la española on a portable burner, the director stopped him mid-lesson for creating a fire hazard. A banner reading NO COOKING ON THE PREMISES still hung, frayed and yellowed with smoke, in the back of the hall. In the afternoon, I would continue with the Spanish translation of La Bête Humaine, which Papá had begun the week before.
After lunch, a new employee walked through the factory doors. She was the very image of a voluptuous carnival reveler I’d once admired in a nineteenth-century engraving. The young woman, who wore a gingham dress and a starched white kerchief, took a seat in the front row and removed a circular blade from her purse. The foreman brought her a large pile of tobacco leaves. She was a despalilladora, whose specialty it was to strip the stems from the leaves.
Up on the platform, all my old nervousness returned. I felt as if the despalilladora alone sat below me, judging me with her lustrous eyes. I cleared my throat and began to read:
“At eleven fifteen, dead on time, the man on duty at the Europe bridge gave the regulation two blasts on the horn to signal the approach of the express train from Le Havre as it emerged from the Batignolles tunnel ...”I felt exceedingly hot, stifled, but there was no window I could open, no place I could turn for air. I noticed that the despalilladora did not smoke cigars but that she inhaled the smoke deeply, with satisfaction, as if the wisps encircling her were fresh breezes from the sea.
“... soon the turntables clanked as the train entered the station with a short note on the whistle, squealing on the brakes, steaming and running with water from the driving rain that had been pouring down all the way from Rouen ...”A distressing prickliness spread through my body, starting in my chest, where my heart knocked loudly, then to all my extremities at once. In an instant, my skin was coated with sweat and every vein in my body jumped with blood. Down below, the despalilladora stared at me, her eyebrows raised in concern, her circular blade poised in midair.
I awoke flat on my back in the offices of El Cid’s general manager. My mother stood above me, passing a hand over my forehead. It smelled good, of vanilla, of the creamy soaps she used. She helped me sit up, straightened my collar and tie, then looked me full in the face.
“You’re in love, Ignacito,” Mamá whispered so no one else could hear, and held me tight against her.
Nothing came of my obsession, which lasted the better part of a year, except that I missed many days of school spying on Teresita Castillo. My sentiments, opulent with insecurities, bred in me a humorlessness so severe as to border on pathos. How could I laugh when I feared more than anything being laughed at myself?
I learned that Teresita had recently married and moved to Pinar del Río from another part of the Viñales Valley. Her husband, Rodolfo, a slight man with an unexpected, sinewy strength, drove a truck for a box factory and was gone for days at a time on cross-country deliveries. I imagined saving Teresita from this unworthy mite, offering her a life by my side, but I had just then started high school.
Each time Teresita and I met—never by chance since I knew her schedule down to the minute and occasioned to see her several times daily—she asked about my health, as if I were somehow sickly or prone to fainting spells. This ate at me more viciously than any acid, which in my despair, I also thought of swallowing. If I could not win Teresita’s love, I would settle for her pity. Pity, I’d learned from reading so many of Papá’s novels, often proved a fertile, if shallow, soil for romance.
Such foolish thoughts, such a foolish heart! It would be almost comical if looking back I did not feel a twinge of the anguish I’d once felt.
My mother was kindest to me during this time, which is to say she left me alone, asked me no questions and made certain I ate despite my distraction. Papá was less comforting. He lost patience when I pestered him for details about my beloved. I wanted to hear only superlatives about Teresita Castillo. That she was the best despalilladora in the factory, the quickest and most efficient with her knife. That she was the kindest of all the cigar workers, the most generous of heart. But my father would not condescend to tell me what I wished to hear.
During the time I was in love with Teresita, Papá did not ask me to read for him at the factory. My mother must have ensured this with gently pointed threats.
Shortly before Easter, Teresita confided to me that she had an infestation of bats in her roof. What marvelous luck! Of course I knew all about her bats from my constant spying, but I did not let on. Most Cubans in those days were quite tolerant of bats—a simple fact of life, after all. This was very unlike the attitude prevalent among Americans and even a few Europeans who erroneously credited bats with all manner of antisocial behavior. Still, the number of bats in Teresita’s house had grown immoderate and the stench too pronounced to ignore.
I arrived at Teresita’s house just before nightfall, dressed in my father’s borrowed waistcoat and jacket, looking more appropriate for a state dinner than a mass extermination. She invited me in, wisely ignoring my appearance, and offered me something to drink.
“A whiskey, if you have it. Or a cognac. Por favor.” I immediately regretted this.
“Would a little rum do?” she asked me, straight-faced. I wanted to kiss her in gratitude.
“Yes, yes. Thank you.”
I took small, burning gulps of the liquor.
“This is about the time they begin stirring,” Teresita said. I stared at her, uncomprehending, my face and chest on fire. “The bats,” she emphasized. “Can’t you hear them?”
In fact, the bats were squeaking and scuttling above us with a rapidly intensifying clamor. A moment later, the sounds melded into what sounded like the buzz of a gigantic beehive.
“There they go!” Teresita announced above the din. “Mira!”
Outside the window, a stream of bats poured into the air, forming a huge gray-black whirlpool. Around and around they went as hundreds more took flight, circling at high speeds before flying off in every direction.
“Tedarida murina,” I said. “They’re the best flyers on the island.” I wanted to tell Teresita that the bats were the second-most plentiful in Cuba after molossus tropidorhynchus, that they occupied much the same position among their kind as swifts do among birds, that their long narrow wings rowed through the air so rapidly that the bats oscillated from side to side, that their habitat extended to Jamaica, Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico.
Reluctantly, I told her how to plug the roost openings with straw and cement, where to place the rat poison for maximum fatalities, what to do about the persistent stink. It made me sad to tell her all this. On my way home an hour later, still slightly drunk from the rum, my love for Teresita Castillo began to fade.
That summer, partly to console me for love’s failure, my parents drove me to the south coast of Cuba for my first solitary expedition. From there, I connected with a steamer that ferried me across the Batabanó Gulf to Nueva Gerona, the capital of the Isle of Pines. Before I boarded the ship, Papá handed me a wicker hamper laden with foods he’d prepared himself: shrimp tartlets, fresh bread with anchovy paste, lamb sausages and a still-warm seafood stew. It occupied twice the space of the satchel I carried for my entire trip.
As I crossed the turquoise waters of the gulf, past archipelagos of tiny islands with fanciful names, I thought of what the first explorers must have felt at the sight of a new horizon, at the roar of possibilities in their heads. How they imagined the vast riches that awaited them, all there for the taking with only a musket and a strong pair of hands.
On the steamer, an American woman with two young children befriended me. She had been living on the Isle of Pines since 1913, when her husband had bought a grapefruit plantation. On warm summer nights, she sighed, the aroma of citrus coated every particle of air. Señora Crane recommended I visit the Punta del Este caves. They had recently been discovered by survivors of a shipwreck, she explained, and contained paintings from pre-Columbian times. In the biggest cave, pictographs of red and black concentric circles were connected by arrows pointing east.
In my exalted state and the Isle of Pines’s unforgiving heat, I found it impossible to sleep. I calmed myself with nightly swims along the northern beaches, brilliant with black sands. It was on my fifth night, lazily floating in the ocean, that something mammoth swam by me, grazing my leg. I panicked, quickly calculating the odds of a shark coming so close to shore. That afternoon, I had cut my foot on a hunk of marble at Bibijuagua Beach, and the wound was still raw.
Cautiously, I paddled my way toward shore, keeping my injured foot above the water as best I could. I reached the beach, breathing so hard I thought my lungs would collapse.
It was then I saw her. Her ridged back and the enormity of her flippers made identification easy, especially in the moonlight. She was over eight feet long, a half-ton of slow magnificence. The leatherback turned her wrinkled, spotted neck and gazed at me, as if gauging my trustworthiness. I could see her eyes clearly, the inverse widow’s peak of her beak. She proceeded up the beach, dragging herself with her front flippers, stopping every few feet to rest. In her wake, she left a long wide ridge of sand.
It was exceptionally rare to see a great leatherback on our shores. The turtles breed primarily off the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa and lay their eggs in the shallow waters around Ceylon. Even then I knew that a leatherback turned up in Cuba no more than once every several years, and almost never to spawn.
When the leatherback found a nesting site, she sunk herself deep into the sand, rotating several times until she had shaped her hollow. Again she faced me, as if warning me to come no closer. Then she continued to dig her egg pit, using one flipper and then the other, curling the edges inward to force up more sand.
After what seemed interminable digging, the giantess brought her hind flippers together, craned her neck forward and began to sway slightly to a private rhythm, finally laying her eggs in the sand. When she was done, the exhausted mother filled in her pit. She patted the sand until she erased all traces of her nest, then wearily made her way back to the sea.
All night I searched the waves for a sign of her, but only the steady surf answered my scrutiny.
At dawn, a fat scavenging gull dropped onto the leatherback’s buried nest. I cursed the bird and threw a fistful of sand at it. A moment later, more gulls appeared, suspended in formation overhead, and a stray dog nosed its way down the beach.
What choice did I have? I sat on the leatherback’s nest all that day and all the next night, guarding the eggs from predators, guarding the eggs for her. I imagined her babies racing for the surf later that summer, and I still wonder sometimes how many of that hatch survived. Perhaps only one or two. Those turtles would be fully grown by now, parents themselves, idly traversing the seven seas.
The Nature of Parasites
The Great War had been over for a year when I left Pinar del Río for the University of Havana. It was the days of the “Dance of the Millions,” when the price for sugar had soared so high that many Cubans became millionaires overnight. The rich erected marble palaces along the Prado and other fashionable neighborhoods of the capital and in the late afternoons, they could be seen cruising their fancy foreign cars up and down the Malecón.
It was a time of unseemly extravagance, and it had little to do with me, a sixteen-year-old scholarship student from el campo. Few in Pinar del Río had benefited from the sugar boom. At El Cid, where my father continued to read at his lectern, half the cigar workers had lost their jobs to falling tobacco prices. Those who remained were fearful of losing them to the new cigar rolling machines from America.
Papá, as usual, was involved in union policy and wrote editorials for the Boletín de Torcedor, the cigar worker union’s newspaper, extolling the glories of revolutionary Russia. What relation this had to the workers’ daily concerns was a mystery to me, and Papá and I argued frequently over what we considered each other’s misguided politics.
By then, Mamá had developed arthritis, which curtailed the hours she could teach flute, and I saw in her reddened joints the nascent disfigurements that would plague her last years.
It was understood that I would work while I was at college, and within a few days I found a job that suited me perfectly: night usher in a movie house on Avenida Galiano. It was a garish theater, in keeping with the times, and I was required to wear a uniform festooned with enough braids and tassels to command an entire battalion. The work itself was easy and the perpetual darkness accustomed me to working at night, an invaluable advantage when I began to research bats in earnest.
Most nights, after guiding patrons to their seats, I joined the projectionist in his fetid cubicle, where I studied as best I could. The movies, mercifully, were silent in those days, although I still had to contend with the melodrama of the organ. Occasionally, I would peek through the projectionist’s window when the music rose to a crescendo, but I never understood those who would choose to sit through this dark make-believe when the whole world was waiting outside.
In the spring of my freshman year, the renowned Dr. Samuel Forrest of Harvard University came to Havana to teach a course on tropical zoology. Word spread quickly of his need for a field assistant, and the best graduate students signed up for an interview. Although I hardly expected to capture such a coveted position, I, too, signed up to meet the great man.
The next week, a dozen hopeful young men milled outside his office. For three hours we waited as one shaken student after another emerged from his interrogation. “What does he want?” those of us who had remained outside asked. But the only clue came from one exceedingly frustrated student: “He wants your opinion on the universe!”
“Please sit down,” Dr. Forrest said wearily when it was finally my turn. He was quite obese and his eyes, blue as a quail dove’s features, were accentuated by a high lineless forehead and woolly mutton chops.
“Could you tell me, please, Señor Agüero, which of our brethren in the animal kingdom you most admire?”
I thought at first I’d misheard Dr. Forrest, or that he was in a mood to test my humor. Why else would he ask me so facile a question? He looked up from his notes and blinked impassively, hardly expecting, it seemed, a remotely suitable response.
There were many creatures I was particularly fond of: the tree ducks that had saved my father’s life; the regal hawks of Cuba, circling their inspiration beyond the mountain tops; and of course, my lovely leatherback who one humid night on the Isle of Pines entrusted her eggs to my care. Instinctively, I knew not to mention her to Dr. Forrest, to hide my sentimentality at all costs.
“Parasites,” I offered.
“Parasites?” Dr. Forrest seemed surprised. He smiled tightly, out of amusement or disdain I was not yet certain.
“Yes, sir. I believe they are the most original of all animals.”
“Go on,” he said, serious now, as if he were trying to gauge my audacity.
“Consider intestinal worms, or beetles, or even fleas for that matter.” I grew bolder. “A good parasite must exploit a host that is larger, stronger and faster than it with minimal disturbance. Every fiber, every function of its being is inscribed with this necessity ...”
“—of quiet boorishness.” Dr. Forrest smiled more broadly.
“Precisely,” I laughed.
He leaned forward in his chair, tugging his left mutton chop. I continued, encouraged by Dr. Forrest’s unwavering attention.
“The difference between us and lower life forms, I believe, comes down to the fact that humans have developed a variety of receptacles and containers for their needs, and animals have not. It seems to me that building vases or suitcases or skillets indicates a unique human ability to plan for the future, to predict the behavior of matter in ways wholly distinct from animals. A bee, after all, has been constructing its same tiny cell for one hundred million years.”
“Very interesting,” Dr. Forrest said. “And now a personal question, if you don’t mind, Señor Agüero. Are you a Catholic?”
“No,” I answered quickly. In fact, I’d been trained by Papá to be suspicious of all organized religion. Only later did my father come to realize that politics, too, could be a form of religion in extremis.
Then Dr. Forrest stood up and thrust a fleshy hand toward mine. “This concludes our interview, Señor Agüero. It will be a pleasure working with you.”
That night, I quit my job at the movie theater.
For the next six months, I accompanied Dr. Forrest as he criss-crossed the island by boat and train and horseback. Everywhere we went, Dr. Forrest bemoaned the ruin of Cuba’s lowland forests. Although the island could not support the luxuriant foresta real of Central or South America, he said, its vast areas of calcareous soil once sustained a heavy and varied sylvan growth. The only true forest remaining in Cuba then was in the higher mountain ranges of Oriente province, to this day so steep and inaccessible as to offer refuge to many treasured species.
Sadly, it was mostly in the cities and their environs that we could appreciate the charms of the island’s tropical flora—the broad groves of royal palms, the great red-green mango trees offering the densest of shades and every variety of exotic flower. Although there continued to exist large areas of granatic and serpentine savanna lands in Cuba, these were unfit for agriculture. With their groves of jata and cana palms, these regions were home to only a relatively meager bird and animal population.
I remember well our first trip into the heart of the Zapata Swamp, the relentless rustle and hum of its invisible creatures, the air thick as pudding in our lungs. I followed Dr. Forrest as he eased one foot in front of the other across the surface of sawgrass and bulrushes, the formidable mass threatening to engulf us at any moment.
On another trip, Dr. Forrest asked me to collect ordinary house bats at an abandoned cavalry barracks outside Matanzas. Dr. Forrest intended to preserve a series of their embryos so that he might study the early development of their teeth. Protected with heavy gloves, I managed to fill two sacks with live bats and return to the Hotel El Mundo, where I left my restless cargo in the bathtub.
“After we have had our luncheon,” Dr. Forrest said in his proper, drawling Spanish, “we shall kill the bats and search for their embryos.”
During our meal, Dr. Forrest was expounding on the finer implications of Freud’s theories when a terrible clattering and commotion came from the hotel kitchen. In an instant, the chef, two assistants and a waiter came storming through the swinging doors pursued by a swarm of molossus tropidorhynchus. Dazed by the light, the bats buzzed and dropped over the banquet tables, splattering soup and sending the cutlery flying.
“Naturen expellas furca, tamen usque recurret,” Dr. Forrest said, shrugging off the incident. He was fond of philosophizing in Latin.
On another expedition, camping in the back country of Sancti Spíritus, Dr. Forrest was pleased to catch an iguana for our dinner. Now I knew that in Central America, where Dr. Forrest had spent a considerable portion of his career, iguana meat was considered a delicacy. But I found my repugnance difficult to overcome. You see, when iguanas are hung to dry, a brown gurry like coffee grinds runs from their mouths, reminding me of my father’s yellow fever vomit.
That night, Dr. Forrest roasted the iguana over a camp fire and offered me a slab from its back liberally sprinkled with salt. I could hardly refuse. I swallowed the meat whole, barely allowing it to slide down my throat. Then I excused myself, hid behind a white ixora and disgorged my meal on its splendid snowball blossoms.
Despite these and numerous other mishaps, Dr. Forrest always treated me as a friend and a competent colleague. In time, and with his patient encouragement, I became one. My debt to him is immeasurable. The modest successes I enjoyed under his guidance nurtured my confidence as a scientist.
Dr. Forrest had begun his vocation in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when great scientific advances had kindled the enthusiasms of thousands. Darwin’s theory of evolution. Mendel’s law of heredity. The identification of light as an electromagnetic phenomenon. The law of the conservation of energy. The development of the spectroscope. When Dr. Forrest came of age, it was science, not politics or economics, that held the key to conquering the universe. Science was his mission, and soon enough, it became mine as well.
Perhaps my most satisfying discovery under Dr. Forrest’s tutelage came toward the end of his stay in Cuba. It started one May evening at the University of Havana library, where I came across a page of field notes tucked inside a 1907 edition of National Geographic magazine. The notes, which had no date or name attached, were written in a clear, minuscule hand and stated that in the scrub between the Morro Castle and the little fishing town of Cojímar a deep pool could be found containing shrimp that “looked as if they had been boiled.” This struck me as curious because all the cave shrimp I had studied with Dr. Forrest were pallid. Only deep-sea shrimp sported the dark red color the notes described.
The next day, I set off in search of the mysterious shrimp. The morning air was warm and I walked briskly to hasten the adventure. I felt rather ridiculous relying on the anonymous notes, but Dr. Forrest had taught me that no expedition was ever futile. Over the years, he had happily followed many a campesino—he counted them among the finest observers of nature—with only a vague promise of observing something new. Dr. Forrest dismissed no clue or wild tale without first investigating the matter personally.
I hurried to the edge of the harbor and hired a rowboat to take me across the bay to Morro Castle. I landed at the steps on the shore near the Battery of the Twelve Apostles, then trudged through the coastal forest of beach grape trees until I came to a broad area of bare rock. In the middle was an open basin of the purest water where, it appeared, the roof of a cave had fallen in. The depth and crookedness of the channel made it difficult to see beyond a foot or two.
I stirred the water with the long-handled net I had brought and before long, tiny crimson shrimp came out of their hiding places and swam closer to the surface. The shrimp were striking, their wispy legs tipped in white, as if they had accidentally stepped in paint. Over and over, I dipped my net, but the creatures were nearly impossible to catch. After several arduous hours, I finally secured twenty specimens.
That evening, Dr. Forrest seemed impressed with my shrimp. He sent them off to a Miss Barbara J. Winthrop, an authority on crustacea at the United States National Museum in Maryland. Before long she wrote back, identifying the shrimp as a new genus. She had also taken the liberty of suggesting a name for them: Forrestia agueri.