That same afternoon, her neighbor, Rafael, drove Violeta to El Caney, a small village 4.5 miles northeast of Santiago. The name “Caney” meant longhouse in Taino, the language of a tribe of Indians by the same name that first settled in this part of Cuba; eventually the Tainos spread to other parts of Cuba, building camps in Las Villas and Havana province.
Although the Indian population disappeared from the island because of the cruel treatment it had received at the hands of the Spanish conquistadores—those who refused to convert to Christianity were burned at stake—the influence of the Tainos were still apparent in the bohios (huts) that campesinos used for houses. These humble structures, made of thatch roofs, had openings for doors and windows, which allowed all kinds of weather, from sunny to inclement, to enter and treat the bohio’s inside as its playground.
In front of one of those bohios Rafael stopped the car. Helped by Milagros, her trusted helper, Violeta stepped out of the vehicle in a sleeveless, black cotton dress she had changed to after returning from La Colonia.
A woman, dressed in a long, white tunic appeared at the bohio’s door; her dark, leathery skin attested to constant exposure to the sun and years of hard living. Her smile, however, reflected the contentment and purity of a princess in a fairy tale; and Violeta needed a fairy tale now. A happy ending. She remembered taking Pablito and Ricky to see La Cenicienta, Walt Disney’s Cinderella. Pablito had insisted on staying through the second showing. He wanted to see the film twice. Ricky on the other hand had slept through it all. “No, I wasn’t sleepy. It was my eyes that kept closing.”
“I was expecting you,” the woman said.
Violeta nodded. “It’s been a long time.”
A long time since La Cenicienta. An eternity since she had not heard from her sons. A while since she had visited El Caney.
Since her school days Violeta had developed a passion for the occult, but often guilt because of her strict Catholic upbringing would stop her from delving too deeply into Santeria. This practice, however, was like an addiction she couldn’t shed, and many times, particularly at moments of great anxiety she would turn to it for consolation.
“A long time,” Violeta repeated.
While Milagros stayed outside, joining Rafael under a palm tree to avoid the blistering sun, Violeta entered the humble bohio, where on one side of the room, four wooden chairs and a table made from the trunk of a tree served as living room furniture. On the opposite side, a mattress resting on the dirt floor indicated the bedroom area; the two sections were separated by a white sheet, now half drawn, hanging from a wooden rod.
Violeta sat in one of the rustic chairs, facing the woman.
“Qué me dice, mi señora?” the woman said. “I got up today and saw you here. I knew you’d appear somehow.”
“Ay, Doña Ana, necesito ayuda. I need answers. I can’t sleep and when I do, I have the most awful nightmares. I’m trying to find my house but can’t. It’s gone. Like in a fire. And I can’t ask anyone what’s happened because. . . because. . . my voice is gone too.” Violeta gasped for air.
Violeta’s gaze went to the floor near the entrance where a pile of rocks covered with twigs served as Doña Ana’s cooking area. Even though the make-shift stove was not lit, the sight of it reinforced Violeta’s disturbing nightmares that included her home reduced to ashes. “Doña Ana…” Violeta said, a trembling arm reaching out in the direction of the stove.
“Nada, nada, you’re safe here. I have a present for you.” Doña Ana pointed to a paper bag that sat on the floor next to Violeta’s chair.
For a moment, Violeta seemed confused. “A present you said?”
Doña Ana pointed to the paper bag again. Violeta picked it up and peeked inside, “Mangoes. . . Bizcochuelos. My favorite. Sweet as honey.” For the first time since she arrived, Violeta let a smile escape from her lips.
“You never leave el Caney without getting some to take home. I told you I knew you’d be here today.”
“They are loved everywhere. Outside of Cuba. Maybe even Ricky and Pablito are. . . Please, please tell me about them. Are they okay?”
“Sin prisa. Sin prisa“. From a pocket on the left side of her tunic, Doña Ana fished out a sheet of paper and short yellow pencil and handed them to Violeta. Write down the things you want answers to, tear the paper, and drop the pieces in the water.” The woman pointed to a glass waiting on the table next to which sat a wooden ashtray holding a half-smoked cigar. Behind it stood a white, thick candle.
Violeta knew the drill. She wrote four names, Ricky, Pablito, Diego, and Carmina. Meanwhile Doña Ana lit the candle and then her cigar. She inhaled deeply, held the smoke in for a few seconds, then let out plumes of smoke from her mouth and nostrils while she adjusted her ample figure in her chair.
When she finished writing, Violeta dropped the pieces of paper in the glass.
“Someone’s trying to do you harm,” Doña Ana said, her gaze on Violeta’s face. “This person’s trying to erase your past.”
“And my future. Diego?”
“Let’s wait and see. Haven’t looked in the glass yet. I could just tell from your eyes.” She paused. “The last time you were here…” As the words flowed from her mouth, Doña Ana’s gravelly voice became the high-pitched sound of an elderly woman.
“Violeta,” the voice cried out as if it were calling from another room.
“Lucila, oh, Lucila, I miss you! I’ve nothing now. The boys are gone… and Diego, for all I know is gone too…I still want to take care of you.”
“You were good to me… I couldn’t stay any longer…but I’m always with you.”
As she said this, Doña Ana kept pulling at something around her throat. Something that seemed to be chocking her.
“Violeta, Diego doesn’t deserve you. He is my son, a kind son, but not a good husband to you,” the voice said haltingly. “You were a dutiful wife.”
Doña Ana’s body began shaking as though reacting to an earthquake, or suffering from chills and a fever. Lucila continued to speak, “Pablito, mi vida. Ricky, un beso para tu abuela.” The voice got fainter until it was replaced by Doña Ana’s natural voice.
“My neck, what happened?” Doña Anna said while massaging her neck. “Who came in?”
“Mi suegra, my mother-in-law,” Violeta said. “Lucila had a pearl necklace and she always asked for it, even at the end, but then because she could hardly breathe, she often would try to pull it off.”
“I didn’t know she had…”
“A few days after the boys left. I believe she waited so she could say goodbye, but it was not to be. They don’t even know yet.”
Doña Ana took the cigar from the ashtray and relit it. She took a puff again, held the smoke in for a moment, and exhaled watching the trajectory of the smoke as it swirled in the air.
“Let’s see what we have here,” Doña Ana said, lifting the glass from the table and giving it a quick, side glance. With a small twig she picked from the floor she twirled the pieces of paper around. She took each piece out, one at a time.“Yes, Diego…and…you wrote Carmina?”
“Yes, they’re having an affair. It’s been a while. But who cares about Diego and esa puta? what about my boys? My boys? You haven’t told me. What did you see? Please, please tell me.”
“It’s not your boys you should be worried about.”