By Kim Suhr
The sling of machetes creates a rhythm in the background. Swinging my hips to the beat, I turn it into a tinny bass line, my tongue clicking out a melody, pursing, rounding, mooning my lips to change the timbre of the sounds. Silently, I work out the lyrics finding rhymes for loss and miracle. That’s a difficult one. It takes a whole row of slicing sugar cane before I give up and rearrange the line to put miracle in the middle and end it with you. So much easier to rhyme.
Under the Havana sun, my back aches, and my right hand is numb from swinging my machete. I stop every so often and hold my hand above my head, so the blood can roll back down into my heart. I wiggle my fingers silently playing the song I have just composed about Miranda dancing on the sugar-sprinkled ceiling of the night sky. I particularly like the refrain, “Miranda, your eyes are the stars/your hair is the breeze/you rock me to sleep/you set my soul free.”
My fingers halt. I shouldn’t be composing at all much less a song about another woman. I can hear Papá mutter, Sueño tonto, about my foolish dream even though I have never told him of my desire. I make sure to do my performing in private when he is working his shift at the airport.
He came home proud this morning. “The one I worked on last night once flew Frank Sinatra, and it’s going up in the air today because of these hands.” He held them up so I could give them a good look. The palms were clean, I knew, because I’d watched him wash them, but they carried darkened stains from years of motor grease, metal filings and filthy tool handles. They trembled lightly and the middle finger of his left hand was permanently bent to the right, the result of a flywheel that had come unstuck at the exact moment he’d reached in to loosen it. His younger reflexes had pulled it out before the hungry machine could devour it and our livelihood. Reflexes that slowed with each passing year.
“Learn to do something with your hands, Luisa, and you will always be important. Necessary.” He took the fork from my grasp and set it on the counter, held my fingers in front of his face. “They are just like your mother’s.” My hands made a fist. He gently loosened them like lily petals opening. “Long slender …” For a moment he looked disappointed. He turned them over. “Here. Here they are like mine.” He traced a path around the calluses. He looked at me. “Have you made yourself necessary at the plantation yet? Do you harvest the most cane in a day?”
“No, Papá.” I grabbed the fork and fluffed the rice. “I make a good rhythm, though.” That was true. When I swing my machete, it is as if I am a steady clock. On days when I am composing a song with a rumba beat, I can cut twice as much as I do when a ballad needs to come out. Then all is slow. On those days, the field supervisor, Señor Fernández, visits me repeated times between bundles to see why I’m not working faster.
He offers reasons for my slow work. “Are you not well today?” His hand lingers on my shoulder for a beat. “Out at the clubs last night? A little hangover, eh?” His palm makes a small circle before he lifts it off my sweaty skin. I tell myself it is just friendly speculation but there is sadness in his voice when he suggests I was out dancing with other men. I push down the resentment before it can rise any higher. He just wants to get your blade moving, Luisa, so we can end the day with a reasonable harvest.
No matter what he says or does on ballad days, though, there is nothing that will speed up my cutting. A ballad is a ballad and there is no rushing it.
On other days, when salsa music courses through my veins, the supervisor wears a smile. I surprise him by having a bigger pile than any of the other cutters, in such a short time.
When Papá talks of making myself necessary, I cringe. Necessary would mean a lifetime in the field, just as Papá has “necessaried” himself into stained hands and bent fingers. So different from my own. I can still straighten mine when I put my machete down for the day. I don’t know how much longer that will be true, however.
When I think of this, Miranda’s song gets louder in my ears. These last days, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. More and more, I’ve been finding excuses to stop at the market to watch her. Standing at the plantain bin, I hold up two fruits in front of my face pretending to compare their sizes. In reality, I concentrate on the rhythm of Miranda’s movements as she tends to Abuela Martinez’s items. It is impossible for me to ignore that her rhythm matches exactly the beating of my heart.
As if she has heard my thoughts, Miranda looks up from her work and our eyes meet. She smiles politely.
I notice she has a dimple in her left cheek. Her hands, unaware of the score, have not missed a beat continuing to place the final items in the bag. When she gives the old lady her change, I imagine I feel the soft brush of her hand on mine. I study her eyes. How to describe them? Are they ebony? Onyx? The color of the midnight sky?
I conjure her voice. Does it sound like a steel drum? The rolling of the wave? Next, her skin. The color of Chocó con leche, creamy, smooth. I want to taste it on my tongue, savor its melting on the way down my throat. I feel the shudder that will follow this and sense a longing I can’t describe with words or with music. Still, I need to try, so it will not swallow me whole.
So far, I don’t think I’ve raised her suspicion, but I am afraid I will. Afraid I will scare her off. In fact, my longing for her frightens me. At times, when my blade has been swinging to the rhythm of her song, a whole row has passed, and I don’t remember making even one cut. I feel moistness between my legs and sweat between my breasts, and I yearn for her tongue to wipe it away.
What if my blade were to slip while I am miles from the field in Miranda’s embrace? I could slice my leg, lose a hand. This longing could be risky for more reasons than it just being wrong to desire another woman.
Instead of this danger making me more cautious, it makes me want her more. My breath comes in quick pants. My heart pounds to the bass line of her song. She is inside me in more ways than one and I know that the only “necessary” is to touch her.
As I begin what I know will be my final row of the day, I try to hum away the memory of Maria Famosa whose father found her swimming with Carmen Pérez under the old bridge. From what I could stitch together, the girls were swimming after the clubs had closed, not wearing anything at all, and— the gossips’ silence showed more disapproval than their words.
If Mamá had not already gone, I would have asked her why. “Why would her papá be so angry? I have swum there many times with my girlfriends on the way home from school.” I would tell her we were careful, laying our uniforms across bushes wearing only our underwear. I close my eyes and take a quick breath as I recall the water’s ripples reaching my hips, then my ribs. Feel the explosive gasp when I plunge my head under, come up laughing, spitting fountains of water into my girlfriends’ ears.
“Why, Mamá, would Señor Famosa split Maria’s eye like a plum, snap her thumb almost clean off and send her beyond Sierra Maestra to live with cousins she does not know? What happened to Carmen?”
But since Mamá was not there to answer my questions, it is only now that I recognize the invisible line the girls stepped over that warm night in July.
“Luisa?” The staccato voice and hand on my shoulder startle me. A kite emerging from the fog, I scan the landscape to see where I will land. I turn, automatically lowering my machete to my side. “Luisa!”
“Oh, pardon, Señor Fernández!” I look at his chin, reluctant to look into his eyes. The last time I ventured there, I found only sadness and could not compose any songs for a week.
Now, I cannot avoid it. He has one hand on each of my shoulders and is bending down to look into my eyes. “Luisa?”
I nod, look around the field to avoid his gaze and find that the two of us are the only ones here. The other cutters walk in twos and threes toward their bicycles. It is odd to think that I completely missed the sound of the whistle, the others’ sweet exhale as they stood up straight, hands on either side of their lower backs, stretched. Missed the end-of-day banter while sheathing their machetes. Where have I been?
Then I remember. “Señor?”
“Luisa, the others have gone. It is just the two of us.”
I am about to apologize for my absent-mindedness again. Even though I don’t want to work my whole life in the fields, I know I must keep the supervisor happy with me and with my work. With the growing tremor in Papá’s hands, it won’t be long before my pay will be what stands between us and the Our Lady of Charity soup line.
But I can tell instinctively it is not my job that is in jeopardy. It is something more primitive than that. I pull in some extra breath to begin my apology, but his firm hold on my shoulders silences me. I try to avoid his eyes but realize he will stay silent and let us stand here until we send out roots like the sugar cane before he will speak without my eyes upon his. What I see there is fear. And hope.
And a brand of longing I have only recently started to understand.
“You are—” He clears his throat, straightens his spine. “I would like—”
I must stop this but his eyes will not release mine.
“Luisa, will you let me see you home today? I’d like to meet your father.”
At once I feel the air pulled out of my lungs. How can he not hear the pounding of my heart? Why does he not cover his ears at its volume? I must find a way out of this. My head says no. My heart screams no. What part of me hesitates?
It is my hands, the ones that will be responsible for caring for Papá after he can no longer manage the aging fleet at the airport. As if watching a movie, I see him, his right side paralyzed by a stroke. At his bedside, I hold a napkin to his chin while I spoon soup into his slanted mouth. I don’t know how long I will need to care for him, but I do know it will be much easier if we have someone else who can go to work each day, bring home a supervisor’s pay. In the slow blink of Papá’s good eye, I see his shame and his gratitude. His knowing.
Now I see it.
This is what made Mamá leave. Or at least her version of this. I can feel her, a prisoner with her back against the rough wall as the firing squad lifted their rifles to their shoulders. I feel the rush of relief she felt when the triggers clicked and, still, she stood. For the first time since she left on my tenth birthday, I know how she felt that starry evening when she walked toward the market knowing she would never return to the needs of the too-old husband and the demanding child. For the first time, I know her.
“Luisa?” My name is a plea. The supervisor steps back slowly. His face has lost its color. “P-p-por favor?” He shows me his palms. His eyes race with terror. “Luisa?” he whispers again then backs slowly away.
Confused, I step toward him. Then I realize the source of his fear. There is a machete between us. It is mine.
Immediately, I drop the tip, but its message has been delivered. As Señor Fernández hurries away, I release the handle of my machete, gently massage the blood back into my fingers and play the refrain of Miranda’s song on my imaginary guitar as I walk toward the market.
Kim Suhr’s work has appeared at Foundling Review, Staccato Fiction, and Grey Sparrow. In addition, her writing has aired on Lake Effect at the NPR affiliate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Kim is the director of RedBird-RedOak Writers and Red Oak Young Writers, organizations dedicated to supporting writers through critique groups, workshops, camps and camaraderie.