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IN THE EMBRACE OF THE ALLIGATOR – short fictions by Amanda Hale

Published by Thistledown Press, Spring 2011.

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In the Embrace of the Alligator

In the Embrace of the Alligator - A portrait of the Cuban town of Baracoa, clasped by a fist of rivers flowing from mountain to ocean. In this series of linked fictions, unified by place and a cast of overlapping characters, Karina travels the length of El Caimán, the alligator which is Cuba, sweeping from Havana to the reptilian eye of Baracoa, where she meets Onaldo, an Afro-Cuban writer who becomes her lover. Their affair inadvertently reveals more than she could ever have imagined of the mysteries of Cuba as she learns on the streets, between the sheets, and in the kitchens of Baracoa the real story behind the smiles and the music.

Pedro Iván tumbles from his balcony in a moment of disbelief; Mirian Zelda guides the souls of the dead until the mysterious disappearance of Marek Svoboda; Yolanda waits for her posting to Venezuela with a mixture of longing and dread; Mario, a gay man, serves a seven year sentence for dancing with his foreign lover; Linancia falls into the necessity of life as a jinetera; Lorenzo grins as he remembers his life behind the wall in Leipzig. As the veils fall one by one Karina falls deeply in love with the true and hidden life of El Caimán.

This is one of the best collections of stories I have read. As a Cuban myself, reading In the Embrace of the Alligator has been like looking at myself in a mirror. It made me laugh, it also brought tears to my eyes, and sometimes it made me feel angry and ashamed. I am amazed by Amanda Hale's grasp of Cuba's reality, and by her remarkable insight into our culture. Tomás Aquilino Lopez – writer and art curator.
Written with warmth, compassion and understanding, In the Embrace of the Alligator is one of those rare glimpses into the real Cuba, its people, and its stories. Eva Stachniak, author of Garden of Venus and Necessary Lies.

MIRIAN ZELDA DREAMS
A sample from this collection of 26 stories. Also see "The Death of Pedro Iván" in Poems & Stories.

Mirian Zelda dreams of the dead every night. Her house adjoins the funeraria, and her patio, bordering on the funeral parlour's drainage system, is filled with cascading flowers and foliage. When José Manuel sluices his embalming table a gob of bloody water gushes and splashes, divides into rivulets and runs, soaking into the dark earth, irrigating the roots of Mirian Zelda's plants.

Her bed tonight is drenched with golden light from the full moon flooding through her open window. It is too hot to close the shutters, and the fan is broken. She lays herself on her belly and drops like a stone into a dream in which she covers the corpse of Bismar Sanchez, carried away that morning in the midst of a hernia operation. His heart simply stopped beating and, despite the efforts of the medical team, refused to be revived, so they sewed him up, his soul already departed on its quest for freedom. In her dream Mirian Zelda feels the rhythm of Bismar's blood pulsing against her body, a wetness spreading under her belly.

When she first moved into #19 Jose Martí, Mirian Zelda had woken with a silent shout, her blood racing each time the dead entered her house, but she had quickly accustomed herself to these nocturnal visits, and once she recognized herself a host for the dead she opened like a lover, offering her body as a last communion.

At her door in the front sala is an altar with offerings to Elegguá, guardian of the crossroads. His head - a hollow coconut with mouth and eyes made of cowrie shells - rests by a half bottle of rum, a thick cigar, a slice of coconut meat, and a vase of hibiscus which Mirian Zelda renews daily, picking the fleshy flowers with their quivering stamens from her own patio.

Hardly a day goes by without a funeral, and sometimes there are two or even three, the names and interment times of the dead written in chalk on a blackboard by the door to José Manuel's office. No matter who comes to honor the dead, to weep and do penance for past ills, to lay flowers on the coffin and pray for the soul of the departed, it is to Mirian Zelda that the disoriented souls turn in the night, seeking the refuge of a host who will guide them home.

The familiar smell of Bismar is mixed with an antiseptic hospital smell as Mirian Zelda gathers him in her arms, carrying him home to the cementerio high on the hill above Baracoa. Bismar hovers over his family grave in the shadow of a great stone angel and sees his bodily remains interred within a concrete skin, thin but firm, to be broken open in two years when the bones will be secreted into a small sack placed in a niche of the tomb. Interments are rapid in Baracoa, a race against decomposition, but his soul will not be rushed. It lags behind like a reluctant child. "Not yet, please, I'm not ready, I didn't think it would be so soon." Life the blink of an eye. All his unfinished business, his new lover, her swelling hips and shapely bottom …

It is almost dawn when she returns, eyes heavy-lidded, skin permeated with the smell of death, and stumbles into her bathroom where the shelves are thick with creams and perfumes, powders and soaps. Some are gifts from foreign guests, but often the fragrant packages will appear on her doorstep or at her altar to Elegguá, mysterious acknowledgements of her nocturnal life. She adorns her body with Healing Rose cream, Magnolia Essence cologne, powder soft as the woodland violets clustered on the lid of the box.

Mirian Zelda washes the night from her body and emerges from her bathroom refreshed, but behind her glimmering green eyes dwell a clamour of souls. Despite her cleansing rituals each dream leaves her with a residue of fine dust upon her own soul. When Pedro Iván had fallen to his death from the 4th floor, climbing from one balcony to another to break into his own apartment because he'd forgotten his key, slipping insensibly between parapets in a haze of alcohol, Mirian Zelda had held his broken body for three nights, unable to guide him home. She'd feared his soul could not sustain the shock of separation from his body and might be lost forever. She wonders now, for the first time, who will guide her home when her time comes.

She is a woman in her prime, full and handsome with radiant eyes and red lips. Sometimes in the evening, as she sits in her front parlour, she places a hibiscus behind her ear to adorn her lustrous hair, which curls onto a flawless neck. She has thickened with the years but anyone can see that she's been a stunning beauty in her day and is still, in her age of maturity - a creature of the night with a variety of lovers she could never have imagined.

The trouble with Pedro Iván was that he'd been right in the centre of his life when he'd fallen. Forty-two years old and everything unfinished – the bottle of rum sticking out of his back pocket, the half-eaten sandwich on the kitchen table, a bus ticket to Baracoa in his wallet, a date with his new girlfriend that very evening. He'd fallen on the eve of a new year which had held all the promise of a future he was just about ready to inhabit. Pedro Iván had vowed to give up drinking. As he fell he'd been filled with disbelief, a disbelief which endured, making it impossible for him to accept the final destruction of his body. Even though he'd known Mirian Zelda most of his life, his soul's flight to her house was impersonal. And when he was driven out of her dreams, homeless and helpless, by the more recently dead, clamoring for their own safe passage, he began to haunt her.

This very afternoon as Bismar's soul whirls to freedom and the lifeless body of old Flora Rojas is laid out for viewing, Mirian Zelda rocks in her chair in the front parlour. She never sleeps during the day. She runs a casa particular, a bed and breakfast for tourists. She has three rooms and the house is full now with a newly-married couple from Switzerland, two Canadian girls, and a middle-aged Czech who has arrived this very day. He looks, Mirian Zelda thinks, rather predatory. She will keep an eye on him. She runs a strict house.

An aroma of fried chicken and garlic fills the kitchen and wafts down the corridor into the front room. As it creeps into Mirian Zelda's nostrils her mouth waters, saliva slipping down her throat. She begins to feel drowsy as though someone were tugging at her, trying to pull her down, irresistible. Her eyes roll up into her head, the irridescent green disappearing under heavy lids, and suddenly there's a jostling in her body, a multitude of lights and movements in front of her closed eyes. A small man jumps up and down, a red halo enveloping him with his dark mustache and familiar face. Ah, Pedro Iván, his lips moving soundlessly. Mirian Zelda stretches out her arms to him, but he won't come. She is enveloped by his anger, his refusal to be guided home. She wants to wake up, she cannot believe she's asleep, but she's paralyzed, held under, suffocating.

When she wakes finally the room is dark and she's sticky with sweat. She raises her hand to wipe her brow with trembling fingers. All her muscles ache.

On this night she's afraid to sleep and lies wakeful until two in the morning. When she does sleep finally it is old Flora who comes, her gentle soul seeking a final reassurance. One second she's in Mirian Zelda's arms – the touch of her skin dry and crêpy with a sickly smell of funeral flowers in dank water – then she's gone as Mirian turns in the darkness, trying to hide from Pedro Iván.

When the Czech doesn't show up for breakfast they leave him to sleep, his place still set at the table, his plate of fruit in the refrigerator. By afternoon Mirian Zelda ventures a sharp knock at the door. Everything is silent but who knows, he might have a chica in there. She opens the door and finds the room empty. She laughs at herself and thinks no more of it, until the next day when he is still absent. She puts the word out, but no-one has seen him, neither at La Trova, nor at La Terraza, nor at El Patio. He can't have left without paying because all his things are there – clothing, shoes, a handsome suitcase, a gold watch, books and papers… He is obviously a man of substance, not just a backpack tourist.

On the third day la policia are alerted. They examine the Czech's room, pack the suitcase with his things and take it to the station for safekeeping. After all, Mirian Zelda has to rent out the room – it's high season and she's already lost 60 pesos and the price of three breakfasts and dinners on top of it.

La policia visit all the tourist haunts asking questions, making notes, but no-one has seen a dark-haired Czech with a mole on his left cheek, 42 years old, tall and slim, wearing jeans and a white cotton shirt, with running shoes and blue socks, answering to the name of Marek Svoboda. However, as word of the mysterious disappearance spreads through Baracoa people begin to involve themselves, searching the bushy shorelines of the beaches, keeping a sharp eye on the clusters of tourists in Parque Central. Women with faces pulled tight by their hair-rollers speculate on their patios – "Perhaps a love tryst with a chica in el campo … or a sudden heart attack brought on by high blood pressure, the unaccustomed heat … poor fellow, he must have drowned, that's why there's no trace. It's a curse on the house of Mirian Zelda – a death in her house, but no body – what will she do now with that room?"

As the weeks pass and the mystery is still unresolved it slides slowly into legend. A young woman swears she saw the handsome Czech rise dripping from the shores of Rio Miel one moonlit night as she was walking home along the Playa del Caribe. "He must have been enchanted by a Taíno maiden," people say, "and stepped back 500 years." Others accuse the girl of lying to get attention. Someone says he saw the Czech dancing in La Trova, a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, dancing remarkably well for an extranjero. Another says he's seen Pedro Iván, a bottle of rum sticking out of his back pocket, walking by the Rio Duaba. Memory marries with imagination and flowers with great variety, but no-one really knows, they just talk, their words entering the water like stones, creating ever-widening circles on the smooth surface, eventually disappearing.

Mirian Zelda scours the Czech's room top to bottom, puts fresh sheets on the bed and sleeps there herself one night to cleanse the room. She sleeps deeply and peacefully, and just before waking she has a gentle dream in which she sees the Czech walking down Calle Jose Martí, past her house, past the funeraria, with an expression of willing surrender on his face. He looks like a lover. He looks the way she feels as she receives the disembodied souls into her care.

But, after this night, she receives no more visitations, neither from Marek, nor from Pedro Iván, nor from the steady stream of departing souls next door. Mirian Zelda does not know exactly what has occurred - she knows only that her work is over and that someone else is guiding the souls of the dead.

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