Vignettes

Is childhood memory a reliable source? Up to what extent can we separate our own memories from the social imaginary from which they derive? Where are the boundaries between reality and memory?

***

(Camaguey, Cuba, June 1986)

There was a small cemented backyard at Javier’s home and whenever it rained the yard immediately flooded. Hundreds of yellow leaves from the pepinillo tree piled up, clogging the drain. Come on boy, bring me the broomstick and let’s finish this quickly! his grandpa would say. Javier, while helping, listened to his fantastic stories:

At one time, in Argentina, I caught a Polar Bear with my bare hands. And the walrus! Did I tell you about that walrus that chased me around an iceberg in Finland?

***

It takes 21 days for an egg to hatch. Every morning Javier visited the henhouse in the backyard. Every morning he checked the eggs, one by one. And then one day, at the break of a magical dawn, he noticed a tiny beak breaking through its white eggshell. He stayed there for endless hours, with the hens and their chicks, until his grandma called for breakfast.

***

-Javier Antonio, dinner is ready!
-Подожди пожалуйста бабушка, я играю!
-Oh, dear! Are you speaking Russian to me?
-Wait, please, grandma, I’m playing. It’s the war. Look, grandma, my soldiers are fighting the bad bear. See? Their train derailed during the last bombing. But here comes the Krasnaya Armiya. Sasha is riding his tank. Look, they’ll free Stalingrad. And then Sasha will come to Cuba. And we’ll become cosmonauts. We’ll travel to the space station Мир. We’ll play in the snow. We’ll…

***

Grandma read stories from a book she had made from cutouts of Soviet magazines. Squirrels, hares, and wolves inhabited Javier’s imagination. After the rain, she sent him out onto the large backyard to collect Apazote leaves: Go, find me some leaves, I want to make a pot of cocimiento (tea).

***

The large backyard exhaled a strong smell of moisture from its dark soil. Escaping the flood, fresh earthworms crawled from their tiny holes, only to be plucked by white hens huddled closely together. Soaked white hens beneath the May rainfall!

***

Thunderstorms mesmerized Javier and grandma always whispered the same age-old expression: Saint Peter is rearranging the furniture in the sky! Javier always imagined the same scene: an old bearded man dragging an enormous cabinet all over the clouds.

But the hailstorms amazed him even more. Javier would run to the edge of the doorway and catch the pieces of ice. Kiddo, don’t do that! you’re gonna get sick if you eat the hail! But Javier didn’t get sick. The white hens and their white eggs survived every storm. So did Javier: he survived every storm from his childhood.

***

Power outages hit the city every night. A single candle lights the room where the family gathers together. It’s a big dark room. Grandpa plays with his hands in front of the candle. Big crazy shadows are projected on the wall. Javier glances at them trying to figure out the shapes. Then he panics. A pair of shiny eyes stares at him from the darkness: sad, glaring eyes. Beware, little boy, don’t gaze for too long: a little wolf has entered the house.

***

-Grandma, when is mom coming back? Is it cold in Moscow? Will she bring me snow when she comes back? I want her to bring me snow in a little blue box! And how ‘bout if she forgets her coat (the big one you made for her)?
-You cannot bring snow to Cuba, Javier Antonio. It’s just water. Frozen water in the clouds. And it melts; yes, it melts down like everything else in this life.

(to be continued…)