It’s night and I’m not twenty-three, but eight. I’m scared. The house looks like an old ship, about to sink into this cold, solid downpoo.
I’m getting out of my bed. The floor freezes me and I’m barefoot. The dust is staying under my feet, as if it were the hand of a ghost. It’s the same powder that sticks to my skin, tongue and lungs. A dense powder that, however, is fine and fast, and climbs coldly down the planks until I get into my grandfather’s bed, who has fallen asleep after eating.
My grandfather lies like a dead man, like a soldier who has been defeated and returns from battle.
From his past life there are pictures left: he has my face; loves beer and friends; likes the serene order of glass containers, in his pharmacy; he likes coffee.
I’m sure he’s made food in his veteran cauldrons of many wars, with the awkwardness of a man without a woman. Beans that he has dusted, chosen and cooked himself patiently, alone.
His loneliness is an omen of my loneliness.
For the men of this family have been marked with the sign of castaway, of exile, that is, of man far from things.
That very absence of everything lies with him and warms his sheets, because he has learned to love her. I go and wake him up, because he’s not dead yet and I’m still eight years old. He has three years left to sleep, cook his beans and tell his man’s stories alone.
I say: Grandpa, I’m afraid; and he takes advantage of the cold, nap and downpoo to tell stories. Words come out of the throat without force, because he has not been able to give up sleep. And yet those stories take away my fear and scare away dust outside the mosquito net, beyond the bed. I play with the world of words my grandfather is building for me. He builds it as the one who collects decks over each other, without order, as if it didn’t matter.
Then the words go away, and everything gets undone inside the water and dust.
Now it’s April, my grandfather’s already dead and I, as you can see, am eleven years old.
My mother folds her sheets, her clothes, her objects, and put them in a window that we’ll put away. Because the dead man gives up a lot of things and none of them work for us. The dead man has built a world of useless memories and those photographs that leave us must burn them.
Suddenly, my grandfather’s jaw opens as if he wanted to shout one last story to save him from death. But he can’t: they tie a handkerchief from his jaw to the top of his skull.
That white handkerchief is his silence.
I remember my little brother warning us to let the old man sleep, that he doesn’t like to be disturbed after lunch. And everyone explains that it’s for his sake, because a tooth hurts and we’re waiting for the dentist. Then my mother takes him out of the room, covering his eyes with one hand.
But my grandfather doesn’t expect any doctor. He hopes, perhaps, that eternity is composed of his own words, and that they will let him order an infinite shelf of glass knobs, which never break. A paradise of transparent and blue glass.
Twenty-three years are back, and I’m still in the same old house. It’s night, I’m cold and I can also say I’m afraid.
None of these things have changed, not even the dust of my ghosts.
Now that I lie in the same place where he slept for eighty years, I feel more than ever the weight of his inheritance: he has left me his stories, his photos and the breathing of an old house, made of boards smelling of shipwreck.
I want to go back to the time when my grandparents were young, to see how they lived the island of boleros, the scissor sharpener, the barber and the apothecary. I want to go back to the time when my grandparents’ marriage was announced in one of the town’s thirteen newspapers, just before the milkman passed by handing out his white liters, on a slow, red bike.
Surely that island, like that town and those newspapers, can only exist in memory and in the things that mothers keep in storefronts.
It seems that, at the beginning of time, Cuba was piling up on the sea and the boxes of lost objects, forgotten by families. Fans, cutlery, Soviet projectors, American radios, rifles, typewriters, loose papers.
Cuba is an island that floats over its old things.
My grandfather came to this island with a castaway passport. He brought the seed of his relatives and began to build a house, my house, with the roots and what he was finding. Perhaps this house is the perfect metaphor for describing my family: a century later the wood is compressed and hollowed out upon us; trembles with the downs of the tropics; he shares his shingles with other houses in this town and has broken under hurricanes.
Every Cuban grandfather carries a book with the inventory of his pains, similar to the ancient chroniclers of the Indies. It seems that only words can save them. Because words, like memories or misery, cannot be deceived.
Every day, Cuba becomes the island of grandparents. The island of youth is now on the other horizon, the continent, where we must go while there is time and we are reached by forces. Because the truth is, we’re so scared.
A fear that grows as we see our grandparents parade in a long queue of increasingly gray walkers, who lie in their boxes of old things, in their storefronts, in their souvenir drawers and moth.
That scares us away. Because we know it’s our turn tomorrow to shake hands with time and death. And it that death catches us without having done anything here, where there was much, much big to do.
But here we are, in the meantime: the heirs of canoeing, machete, cane and tobacco, literacy, grey five-year, special period, sweat, accountant; with all the hangovers of red wine, daiquirí and vodka; with all the experiments exhausted, the flags worn out, the salting being too historic and too smart. Open to the world, young, vigorous and empty.
Waiting for the day to come for us to leave to see if the other Ithaca appears on the return. An island that is no longer a castaway terminal, but the homeland of men who return from Troy, with fatigue in their hands and wanting to caress a woman. On that island I want to wait for old age and sleep my grandchildren, as my grandfather did, and also his grandfather before him.
May every word be a spell that sets Cuba in the mapping of the blessed islands and protects it from cataclysm and hurricanes; where no more time machines or tricks need to be invented to anesthetize underdevelopment. After all, on this island of salt and boats is where we have to live, die and tell the story that saves us.