Introduction by Cleyvis Natera
Patricia Engel is the kind of writer other writers love to envy. How could we not? There is a steady, consistent, and exquisite control in her prose. There is her rare ability to craft extraordinary situations out of this ordinary world that, read on a bad day, could drive some of us to fling our laptops across the room. There is also such unexpected beauty in her sentences that those of us bound to roll our eyes at such displays of mastery (SHOW OFF) could end up with permanent cornea damage. As someone who strives to imbue humor into what would otherwise be joyless scenes, I often find myself cursing aloud (DAMN YOU, ENGEL) even as I begrudgingly hit a knee in startled delight. I must be honest here: I’m still working on getting over my envious ways. Engel’s latest, The Faraway World, may have set me back some. But I suppose we can agree there’s enchantment in surrendering to an expert working at this level. Especially, if it is in service of looting some of her magic.
As I read “The Bones of Cristóbal Colón,” I was struck by how some people are lucky to never know true longing. Elena, the protagonist, cannot count herself among those fortunate few. She has been forced to contend with missing people she once loved who are now gone –a complicated mother, a beloved dead sibling, and a cowardly lover who chose the wrong thing. Amidst grief and an aimless life, Elena is thrust into action. The grave in which her brother’s remains rested has been ransacked by grave robbers who believe that the “most precious of all [bones] to procure were those of a man of God.” In the events that follow, Elena must interrogate the decisions she has made, especially those centering Marco, the cowardly lover who suddenly reappears in her life.
In 2019, I had the pleasure of attending an Alexander Chee lecture at Bread Loaf’s Writers Conference titled “The Protagonist as Antagonist.” The focus was complicating a story through deepening the role a character plays— by making the protagonist the antagonist to the antagonist of the story. The illustrative example Chee provided is James Baldwin’s John Grimes from Go Tell It On The Mountain, who is both the novel’s protagonist and also acts as an antagonist to Gabriel, his father and the antagonist of the novel. While reading “The Bones of Cristóbal Colón,” I recognized in Engel’s work the excellence Chee called out in Baldwin’s. Like John Grimes, Elena is strikingly original but also carries a complex and profound role as protagonist.
Almost everyone in this story has a malfunctioning moral compass. The transformation we witness in Elena isn’t rooted in a new realization in her, but rather a realization in us, as readers, when we recognize that she draws strength from her own shortcomings and contradictions. For instance, Elena resents Marco for having abandoned her, yet we know she’s the one who refused to leave with him when he asked. The fact that she remains steadfast in her loyalty to Cuba, a country brimming with class inequality and loss, even as that loyalty costs her the love and happiness she might have had, fills us with tenderness. That tenderness is complicated by the certainty that Elena’s agency is what brings about her unfulfillment, even as that agency is what is required for her to be true to her own existence. In essence, she is the antagonist to her protagonist self.
– Cleyvis Natera
Author of Neruda on the Park
A Love That Will Bury Me Alive
The Bones of Cristóbal Colón by Patricia Engel
The caretaker calls from the cemetery to tell me Joaquin’s skull and most of his larger and longer bones are missing, but the thieves left some smaller pieces in his grave and I should come by later this morning to collect them.
He says he was the one who made the discovery at dawn.
“The police have already come and gone. They say there is nothing they can do. None of the guards saw anything and nobody knows where to begin a search for stolen bones.”
I drop the mop I’ve been pushing around the cracked floor tiles of the apartment, the peeling blue walls slashed and embered with sunlight.
“I thought my brother would be safe there,” I say. “The only way into the Colón is through the gates or over the twelve-foot wall.”
“No one is safe from this world’s horrors, mi señora.”
“But Joaquin’s grave is only a few meters from the chapel and the main guard post. How could this happen? There is supposed to be dignity in death.”
“You are right, but we should not be so surprised, mi señora. There is always a risk on this island when it comes to bones. Your brother was, after all, a holy man.”
I finish washing the floor before leaving for the cemetery. I can’t bring my brother home to a place of filth. I feel La Virgen Desatanudos watch me from the altar my mother made for her on a corner table long ago, the porcelain statue set behind a glass bowl perpetually filled with sugar water and coins, never flowers, because my mother believed flowers inside the house invite death.
I dust the Virgin off and rearrange the photos at her feet of our family’s deceased. Pray to her, and the Virgin will undo all of life’s knots, my mother would say, but it always seemed to me that miniature woman cloaked in red and blue only brought us new ones.
Tourists who’ve come to see the great tombs of Havana’s city of the dead watch me pull what is left of Joaquin from the hard soil, pushing away worms. I choke on air pregnant with dust and particles. I cover my mouth with my hand as I sift through my brother’s sarcophagus.
The caretaker, a small man of about eighty whom they call Chino, says the thieves must have come hours before first light, when cemetery guards take naps instead of patrolling. He found the stone slab shattered into three pieces and pushed off my brother’s tomb. Left behind are small bones that could be mistaken for rocks, smooth and jagged. I place them in the basket I normally use for the market along with a shred of white cloth I find in the soil from the shirt we dressed Joaquin in for his burial.
I wanted to have my brother cremated, but our mother said it went against the code of living and dying. A man as good as Joaquin should never have to face flames, she said, especially when we had a good family plot, six generations old, still carrying our last name when the revolution had erased it from everything else that once belonged to our clan. Our mother’s grave, a gray concrete sheet set between her son and her husband, is still new, yet to be stained by the coming summer rain.
A young cemetery guard comes by to offer condolences.
“I am very sorry. You must feel as if your brother has died twice.”
I recognize him by the thick beaded bracelet he wears for Changó. On one of my weekly visits to lay flowers at my brother’s and parents’ headstones, I passed a family mausoleum, its iron door propped open by a shovel. Inside, this same young guard lay stretched on a tomb as if it were a bed, taking a nap.
I remember it was on one of the slim arteries of the road to the cemetery chapel. I’d gone there looking for the statue of Amelia La Milagrosa, to touch her hand and the baby in her arms, circle her tomb backward, and ask for blessings in love.
Farther down the road I saw other open mausoleums made into storage sheds, where another two young guards sat on buckets around a raised flattened grave, using it as a table on which to have their lunch.
The year my brother was ordained, the priest at the parish at Regla was murdered for his poor box by the married couple that worked as the church’s custodians.
His replacement priest died of a heart attack shortly after his arrival.
A few months later, a Spanish priest who ministered to prisoners and the insane was burned alive in his car and left on the side of a road near Bauta.
They don’t send you to a labor camp for being religious anymore, but people still say it’s bad luck to be a priest in Cuba.
Joaquin had a career as a government lawyer until he joined the first seminary that opened since before the revolution. He was ordained at forty-five, a man of the cloth for one year until his death.
Our mother said he was poisoned. Joaquin, a child who was never sick, who resisted every virus and plague that hit the tropics, even as I lay ill for months with dysentery or infections in the bedroom we shared. He died of what the doctor called an amoeba, probably from eating dirty beans or rotten pork. His face whitened, his skin thickened, sweating so much that the sheets slid off his bed.
His voice faded, his eyes blackened, and in his last days, he could not see or speak. We whispered to him. We sang to him.
Our mother told him our father was waiting for him in heaven. He died young too, from a brain tumor that stole his memory and movement before finally taking him, though our mother said it was a gift because he wasn’t aware that he was dying.
Once home, I hold my brother’s bones in my lap and call his former parish, where he served until his death, to see if they will offer him a place of rest, but they don’t want him. The new priest says if the Paleros who took his remains find out they’re in the business of burying holy men on their grounds, the church will become a target of bone theft too.
I call a dozen more churches, some far beyond city limits. Most claim their land is already overcrowded with the dead, their plots already stacked with two or three coffins.
“I just need a corner for my brother’s bones. There’s not much of him left.”
“You have our sympathy, compañera, but there is a waitlist for every centimeter of our soil.”
“He was a good man. He did not deserve this fate. Please help us.”
Only two or three churches say they will consider my request and let me know.
The revolution created shortages of every kind: food, medicine, housing for the living and the dead, food, and, especially, a shortage of faith. But our mother said faith is a wave that recedes and returns, as sure as the tide forever threatening to swallow our island.
I place Joaquin’s basket of fragments on the altar beside La Virgen Desatanudos so she’ll look after his bones and undo the knot of finding a place to bury my brother’s remains. It’s what my mother would want. She would say there is no place for bones but in the earth.
I open a bottle of rum and pour a glass for my brother and one for the Virgin. I pour another for myself, sit on a chair across from the altar, and drink my rum all at once. It warms me, creates a buzz in my ear that echoes through the apartment, mingles with the talk and traffic rising of Calle Neptuno and the clattering labyrinth of Centro Habana.
I pour another glass. Then another.
When the phone rings a few hours later, I expect it to be a nun or a priest with news. I have not moved from the chair. If my mother were here she would be making promises, striking deals with the saints to get what she wants, perhaps offering three hours a day for the rest of her life on her knees before the altar, or volunteering me, her only daughter, to be a nun, to replace her lost son as a servant of God, the way she encouraged me to do since I gave up working because all jobs pay the same around here—essentially nothing. But I make no such promises.
A male voice, as familiar to me as my brother’s.
“Yes, it’s me.”
“I know it’s you.”
He laughs soft, nervous. This is how I am certain it is Marco.
“I’m in Havana. I hoped you would see me.”
My voice has fallen far into me, blocked by the eleven years since we last spoke.
I listen for sounds behind his voice, but there is only silence. From my end, he can surely hear the noises from the street below my windows, the upstairs neighbors banging away on the barbacoa they’re constructing to make more room for their family.
“Elena. Are you there?”
“It’s not my intention to disrupt your life or to cause you any problems. So many years have passed. But I want to see you, Elena. Just to talk to you. I won’t take much of your time. Will you meet me this afternoon after you finish work?”
I don’t tell him I haven’t had a job in years.
“Yes. I’ll see you.”
“Come to the Triton at five o’clock. I’ll wait for you on one of the stone benches by the water. Promise me you’ll come, Elena.”
“I promise,” I say, and pour myself another glass of rum.
The first time my brother had to preside over a funeral was at the cemetery in La Lisa. A family was burying their father in a community grave along the wall separating the cemetery from a tin and clapboard slum because there was no money for something better. Joaquin told me there were no flowers in this cemetery, no caretakers to pull the weeds and clear the garbage, and no guards protecting the graves where feuds and rivalries between families were regularly settled by vandalizing each other’s plots, revenge found in the splitting of headstones. Some grave slabs were broken, others painted with symbols, and others covered in blood or chicken bones.
The rumor was that most of La Lisa’s graves were already empty.
It was nothing like the Colón cemetery, Joaquin said. So beautiful, with its immense marble statues, soaring winged angels, mausoleums the size of houses; a concrete Garden of Eden where we’d be fortunate to be buried even though we believed our deaths a long way off.
Then he told me how Cristóbal Colón himself has never been laid fully to rest. His bones went from Spain to Santo Domingo, then here to Havana, and back to Spain, an unending international battle to claim his remains.
Nobody knows for sure where his bones are now.
In death, the great discoverer was left without country.
Joaquin and I laughed about this.
It wasn’t uncommon to hear of a grave being robbed. Sometimes entire burial plots were stolen; resold after it was determined they’d had no visitors for a decade or two. And when the descendants of the deceased returned to the patria from wherever they’d taken their exile, they’d find their names scratched from the headstones, new names and new corpses in their ancestors’ place.
We also heard stories, because there were so many, of graves being ransacked by Paleros, not for whatever treasures coffins may hold but for bones; human feet to make their spells run after and catch their victims, a skull with which to give the spells wisdom and intelligence, hands so that a spell may reach and take hold with the force of a fist. The most coveted bones belonged to esteemed, wealthy, or high-ranking citizens. But the most precious bones of all to procure were those of a man of God, especially that of a bishop or a cardinal, but since those were rare and few, the bones of any priest would do.
I teased Joaquin that now that he was a priest his bones would be worth more than that of the average cadaver. Paleros and grave thieves would fight over his skeleton just like countries fought over the bones of Cristóbal Colón.
But he insisted he would be safe in the cemetery.
“No Palero with any sense would bother with bones of a late-ordained priest whose own sister falls asleep during his sermons,” Joaquin told me. “I may have been called to serve the Lord, Elenita, but I am no holy man.”
There are three hours between Marco and me. I am still filthy from my brother’s excavation. I shower, carve the dirt out from under my nails, and examine myself in the mirror to see how I have changed. Marco will compare me to the Elena he knew at thirty-three, the Elena he left. The Elena who did more with her days than sit around playing cards with herself, shuffling between the neighbors’ apartments where we talk only about those who left the island, wondering what their lives are like now. I wear the same dresses I did then, my hair in the same cropped side-part style. I wear the same jewelry; pieces inherited from my mother, left to her by her mother, among the few things our family held on to rather than sell, even during our hungriest years. But my eyes have surely dropped; my skin has certainly thinned. My body has softened, and my curves have flattened. I want to be beautiful today but even after two showers, I feel I still smell of death.
I see us there on the beach by the Tropicoco hotel, Marco’s last day in Cuba though he had not yet told me so. He’d left me for another woman two years earlier but still saw me, still told me in his heart I was the only one, and when I asked why he’d chosen another he said these were things I’d never understand because I am a woman.
And I said, “Because I am a woman, there are things I understand that you never will until it is too late. You will regret having left me. You will wonder all your life if you chose wrong. You will be haunted and unable to feel peace in your heart. The moments in which you hate your life with her will grow and multiply, and you will doubt any child she gives you because it was not born from me, from you, from us.”
We were hot on a blanket he’d brought for us, cradled by the soft sand. He watched me speak. He nodded. He said he believed me. But it didn’t change anything. He’d already decided.
The next day I wondered why he hadn’t called as he normally did. My mother said he’d finally had the integrity to stand by one woman and leave me alone. My brother comforted me as I cried. He later came to me with the news a neighbor passed on: Marco had left the island with her. They’d gone to Ecuador, where she had family, where they planned to start a new life even if it meant never coming back.
The botero ruta is congested. I have to wait for a spot in a taxi, and it takes three car changes to get me to the Triton. I see Marco, his body turned to the ocean, waves smashing over rocks and rolling onto the concrete walkway lined with benches. He turns as if I’ve called his name, though I haven’t. He walks toward me, still tall but wider and thicker than when he left. I feel I’ve shrunken when we are before each other. He leans to kiss my cheek as if we are distant cousins. I avoid his eyes. I don’t want him to see I am crumbling.
We sit on a bench. He’s brought a small bottle of rum with him and offers me some, which I take, though I am already swaying.
Marco notices. “Elena, are you drunk?”
I shake my head, then nod. “A little bit.”
I tell him the Paleros stole my brother’s bones from the cemetery last night and I had to collect the bits they left behind this morning.
“Dios santo,” he whispers. “I didn’t know your brother died. How is your mother handling it?”
“She died too. Two months after him. Pneumonia.”
“Elena. I don’t know what to say.”
He can say he is sorry to hear it. Or he can say what we know to be true: long before he abandoned me for her and for Ecuador, Marco told me he wanted to leave this island and asked if we could find a way to do it together.
I said I could never leave my brother and my mother. I didn’t believe in the fracturing of families in the name of immigration; I didn’t believe the myth that a better life awaited elsewhere. I believed we were born to our island no matter its fate and our duty was to make the best of it, offering it our lives, even if it means we are the ones who are sacrificed.
In the years since, I would look back on that conversation and blame it for our undoing, blame myself for my rigidity, then blame my brother and mother, for leaving me here alone.
Instead Marco tells me this is his first trip back since he left eleven years ago. He is a citizen of Ecuador now. He lives in Guayaquil where he manages a Cuban restaurant. He has traveled to Panama, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, and Chile.
“I wish you would get to travel somewhere someday, Elena. You’ll see any place is better than here.”
But then, as swiftly as a cloud covers the sun, his face changes from bravado to melancholy.
“I do miss this coast though. Where I live I see the Pacific, but it’s not the same. I miss our currents. I miss the beaches. I miss our place by the Tropicoco.”
He slips his hand under mine so that our palms press together.
“Will you go with me somewhere?”
“Someplace beautiful. Someplace you’ve never been.”
He has a car he’s rented. A modern French model with air conditioning and an electronic radio. I push the buttons while he drives down the Malecón, but all the stations play the same boring music.
“You can’t imagine how it is outside of this island,” he says. “More radio stations and television stations than a person could watch or listen to in a lifetime. You can never get bored of anything.”
He parks the car by the Parque Central and leads me to one of the hotels on its periphery, behind huge Yutong tour buses, through a lobby crowded with foreigners.
We go into an elevator and when we come out we are on the roof of the building, Havana spread out below us, broken buildings and plastered-on azoteas, mosaics of flesh tones and muted blues, an Atlantic breeze curling around us, dividing us from the noise below.
There is a swimming pool and a restaurant up here, and many foreign men having drinks with what look to me to be young Cuban women.
Marco leans against the wall, and I stand beside him.
“You look beautiful in this light. Just as I remember you.”
He touches my face, the same way he did the night we met. It
was at a party, when I used to go to parties. He found me in a corner
and asked me why I looked so serious. “I bet I can make you smile,” he said, touching my face, then lightly kissing my cheek, and before I could think to ask why he’d done that, he’d gone for my lips.
He touches my face and kisses my cheek, then my lips.
I think this cannot be. I am not here. I am still in my home, before the Virgin’s altar, staring at my brother’s bones, small and white as seashells.
“Elena, how is it that I feel no time has passed between us? I feel the same today as I did the night I met you and every day until the last time we saw each other.”
I don’t have words, only hope this is the moment I have begged for: Marco’s return to me.
“Tell me,” he says. “Do you feel the same way?”
I say yes, because a morning spent digging in my brother’s grave, beside my parents’ tombs, must mean this could be my last evening on earth.
When Joaquin lay dying, a young woman often came to see him. She sat at his side and looked at him tenderly while he could still see, and when he lost his sight, she would cry silently into his bedsheets.
“Who is she?” I asked my mother and then the ladies of the parish office, but nobody would give an answer. It was the church janitor who told me the woman, twice divorced and childless, came to my brother for almost daily counsel.
My brother’s last sermon before falling sick was about how God rewards the just. We must not give into temptation. We are sinners and by sinning we will fall.
The woman came to the burial, and before she left, I stopped her and asked her to remind me, because my memory was hazy, how it was she came to know Joaquin.
“I was in love with your brother.”
I suspected this much but was still surprised she didn’t lie to me.
“Was he in love with you?”
“I don’t know.”
I never told my mother. She wanted to believe Joaquin pious, not a new priest struggling with the worldly delights he vowed to leave behind. Joaquin is a man of divine grace, Elena, she would say. He is not weak, like you.
Marco has a room in this hotel. This is why he brought me here. He admits he has been in Havana a week and stayed with his parents. He told them he was leaving last night and even had them take him to the airport for a teary farewell. Instead he went to the ticket counter and changed his departure for two days later. When he was sure his family was gone, he left the terminal, took a taxi back to the city, checked into the hotel and waited until morning to call me.
“Why did you wait until morning?” I ask.
“I wanted to be sure.”
“And are you?”
We are in his hotel room, with a small balcony overlooking the park, a room only foreign money can buy.
I sit on the small sofa near the window, and Marco, on the edge of the bed facing me.
“Come sit by me, Elena.”
I shake my head.
“You’re afraid of me.”
He sips more rum and passes me the bottle.
“Have you ever been in a hotel room this nice?”
“Yes,” I say, which is true. I met a man once, not long after Marco left, a Spaniard I forced myself to sleep with on the first night as an antidote to the loss.
In those days it was easier to meet men. I was a teller at the Casa de Cambio on Obispo and just on the walk from home to work and back, I’d meet a man or two on the street. But around forty, it was as if the lipstick I put on each morning made me invisible.
I thought I would find a man to marry after Marco. Most of the women I know marry two or three times, at least once for love, and maybe again, for convenience, companionship, or opportunity. I didn’t expect my future would open wide into nothing.
Since I won’t go to him, Marco comes to me, sits on the small sofa, which is not very comfortable, sliding his hands around me. He kisses me, and I let him. We are both drunk, but it doesn’t matter.
Eleven years that felt like sleep, I think, closing my eyes, just as he tells me he has waited for this night for so long and lived it already many times in his dreams.
In bed, he is more forceful than I remember, perhaps because he is heavier now, dense and crushing as he pushes into me, yet we are familiar to each other as if we never parted, as if he were mine all along.
We lie together afterward, the bed warm as if we are still on the sand by the Tropicoco, under the summer sun, as young as when we met, still limber, still intoxicated by the uncharted future.
He speaks into my shoulder.
“Everything is as you said it would be.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said I would never be able to stop thinking of you. You said I would always wonder if I made the right choice in leaving you. You said I would love no one as I loved you. You were right about everything.
Marco’s wife has always known about me. He was careless. He left letters I’d written him around the room they shared in her parents’ house. These were letters in which I’d pleaded for him to be with only me, saying I didn’t understand why he’d decided we were an impossibility, when we agreed our connection was both primal and otherworldly. Among the papers were letters he’d drafted to me, describing nights we’d stolen away up to an azotea, or to an empty beach on the city outskirts, anywhere we could go to be alone; letters in which he told me he could not leave me no matter how hard he willed it, that even if the world saw him with her, he would always be with me.
She would not abandon him but she forbade him from seeing me. For a few months, he obeyed, and left me to wander through Centro Havana, my face the color of the peeling concrete walls, my eyes as sullen and dark as the holes through our neglected streets.
Until he came back to me.
Giving me up was the hardest thing he’d had to do in all his life, he said. So hard that he would never be able to do it again.
Until he left our island.
We are deep into the night, resisting sleep in order to keep every moment of our shared darkness alive.
“Marco. How is it that she let you come back to Cuba alone?”
It’s been eleven years, but she must have known the risk.
“She didn’t let me. She came with me.”
When they were already at the airport, about to pass the security point to wait for their flight, he begged his wife for one more night in Havana. He needed more time with his family. She had to get back to her job, so he knew she couldn’t stay too.
“I even cried,” he says. “They were real tears. I told her to give me one more day and I would be on a plane to Ecuador tomorrow. I said, ‘I followed you to another country. Let me have one more day in mine.’ She finally agreed to leave alone.”
My brother used to say Marco was the worst kind of liar, because he manages to be dishonest even when he’s telling the truth.
In the morning, Marco and I eat breakfast together in the hotel restaurant. There is food spread along a long counter, more than I have ever seen in one place. Hot food, cold food; piles of bread, bowls of fruits, platters of cooked eggs, and every kind of cold meat.
Marco laughs at me as I take it in.
“It’s called a buffet, Elena. You can fill your plate and come back for more as many times as you want.”
We sit at a table for two by the window. At other small tables I see more foreign men with girls, faces wiped clean of last night’s makeup.
“Look at us,” Marco says. “When I left the island, it was still against the law for Cubans to stay in hotels.”
I chew buttery bread that melts on my tongue, more delicious than anything I have ever tasted.
“Things are changing,” Marco says, though to me nothing has changed.
When I leave this hotel I will be hungry again, but there will be no boundless buffet waiting for me. There will be only the food of the ration card, what is left in the markets, what I’m able to purchase with whatever little money I have.
“You can even buy and sell property now,” he says, as if I am the only Cuban at this table. “Of course few have the money for that but it’s still a big change that you now have the right.”
I bite into a piece of cooked dough with a burst of chocolate inside that slides onto my tongue, so creamy and rich I almost tremble.
“We’re thinking of buying an apartment here for ourselves to use for vacations. We can rent it to tourists when we’re not using it. It will be an investment.”
I don’t remember ever eating with such pleasure, such novelty.
He watches me. When I finish my bacon, my plate clear, and put down my fork, Marco asks if I’ve been listening.
“So what do you think?”
“You watch Cuba like a movie on one of your TV channels. From far away, you see changes. If you’d stayed here, you would see life is the same as it has always been.”
“I’m trying to tell you I’ll be coming back here more often.”
“For vacations. I heard you.”
He shakes his head. “You don’t understand, Elena. It’s all for you. I have been waiting for this day. Eleven years won’t pass again. We’re not young anymore. We don’t have as much time ahead of us as we’d like to think.”
“You don’t have to tell me that.”
He insists on driving me home on his way to the airport even after I tell him I can walk. Every time we pause at a red light, he leans over to kiss me. When we arrive on Neptuno, I ask him to come upstairs for a minute. It’s been so long since he’s walked within my walls. We used to avoid my home because my mother and brother were there. He leaves the car by the curb and asks the children sitting in the doorway of a building across the road to look after it. He is no longer accustomed to the routine of climbing so many flights of stairs. His face is red by the time we reach my door.
The apartment is cast in greenish morning light, the rings of Joaquin’s and the Virgin’s rum glasses reflecting halos on the walls.
I lead Marco to the table holding the Virgin, and show him the basket containing my brother’s bones.
“May he rest in peace,” Marco says, making the sign of the cross.
“That’s a stupid thing to say when obviously he didn’t.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say in a case like this.”
“You know, my brother never liked you. He said you have no character. He said you are incapable of being happy because you are so greedy. You want it all, but what you have right in front of you is never good enough.”
Marco is surprised but nods.
“Your brother was a smart man.”
“You had to leave your country in order to leave me.”
“The only reason you’ve managed to stay married is because there is a sea between us.”
“Aren’t you even going to argue with me? Tell me I’m wrong.”
He shakes his head. “No, Elena. Everything you say is true.”
I sit on the chair and face Joaquin and the Virgin.
I can feel my brother’s simultaneous disapproval and mercy.
The telephone rings, and I hear a woman’s voice.
“This is Graciela,” she says. “You may not remember me. I came to see your brother when he was ill. I heard what happened to him at the cemetery.”
She confesses she’s stopped going to Mass since my brother died. She’s had a crisis of faith. She doesn’t know what she believes anymore. But a woman from her apartment building works in the rectory of a church in El Romerillo, a half-abandoned and very poor parish.
“The priest says Joaquin’s bones are welcome to rest there, and they promise to look after them.”
One knot undone.
“Joaquin,” I whisper to his bones when I hang up the phone, “I’m going to drink your rum for you and then I’m going to take you to your new home.”
I take his rum into my mouth, but I don’t touch the Virgin’s.
“Tell me one last bit of truth,” Marco said to me before he left me in my doorway.
“Tell me you haven’t loved anyone since you loved me.”
“If I told you that, it wouldn’t be true.”
“Then tell me you loved me best. Despite what we are. Despite what I’ve done to you.”
“I have loved you best. Despite what we are. Despite what you’ve done to me.” I separated myself from him, stepping backward into the apartment. “But Ecuador is your country now.”
He moved forward, pulling me into another embrace.
“This will always be my country. My island will always be you.”
We kiss and kiss, and I feel as if we are being buried alive together.
An old priest welcomes me into the church in El Romerillo. He is small and pale and bald, with pink spots of cancer and burned moles on his forehead and neck and hands.
Graciela is here too, slimmer than I remember her, in a long lavender dress, as if she’s here to attend a wedding.
The priest takes us to a small garden behind the church. We walk along the brick ledge where he has already made a hole and set within it a wooden box, its lid removed.
I take the bones from the basket and the scraps of cloth that remain in my hands, remembering the dirt I struggled to wash off my fingers, and regret that I didn’t let the stains wear on me a little longer.
I cover the box with the lid, and the priest recites some prayers for my brother.
Graciela weeps. I can’t help but reach for her hand.
After we cover the box with soil and the priest sprinkles it with holy water, giving the final blessing, he motions to the naked earth around us and tells us this garden looks empty but its full of the shards of bone from tombs robbed all over Havana, rescued and given refuge here.
He tells us he was ordained as a young man, before the revolution, and has seen this island through its many incarnations. He has had opportunities to leave. He has family abroad who invited him to live with them. He has traveled to Europe and all over the Americas. He has had many chances to defect, but he always returned to his country.
“Padre, why did you choose to stay?” I ask.
The priest looks to Graciela and to me, then to the ground where we’ve just buried Joaquin.
“Because I could not bear the thought of dying somewhere else.”
When I return home, I find my apartment darkened by nightfall. I think of Marco, in a place so far away I cannot even imagine it, yet somehow, still here with me, so close I can taste him, as if our night never ended and I’ve not been sentenced once again to waiting.
I think of my brother’s bones, tiny pieces in the priest’s bare garden, the rest of him likely already set in a pot, buried in a forest waiting to be put to work by his new masters.
I think of the bits of him left in this home; clothes, books, photographs, letters to our mother and me. I think of my mother, grateful that she did not live to handle her son’s bones the way I have, to feel the minerals of his existence within her fingertips.