I have discovered, after writing five novels, that my characters take on lives of their own. They have pre-novel lives and post-novel lives. I get to know them in ways somehow more intimate than the real people in my life. My book of short stories, Anyone Can Die, was a joy to write, because it gave me a chance to reconnect with the central characters in my first novel, A World I Never Made. I just finished a sequel, called The Fifth Man, to Sons and Princes, my third novel, in which the Massi family lives and breathes again.
The story that appears here, “The Land of the Devil”, is one among three still unpublished stories that I wrote after the release of my second novel, Blood of My Brother. It is a prequel that stands alone as a brief glimpse into the soul of a tortured young woman. Isabel haunts me and will, my heart tells me, appear again in future work. — Jim LePore, March 7, 2013
Isabel did not, could not, pay attention during Alvie Diaz’s funeral mass. She stood and kneeled and recited her responses automatically, the choreography of the ancient rite written indelibly on her heart since age five. Patricio, Bryce, Dan Del Colliano and now Alvie. Whoever she touched, died. Her presence in the church was a desecration.
“Herman said if we touch you, we die.”
“Do you want to touch me?”
“Here.” Isabel undid the top two buttons of her blouse. Edgar and Jose Feria, Herman’s pubescent panthers, stared at the top of her breasts, sexual hunger dimly but perceptibly glowing in their flat, stoney-black, serpents’ eyes. Isabel smiled. She knew Herman’s rules. But would his two new animals obey? Stefan was in the kitchen. If she screamed and ripped her blouse open, they would die.
Why hadn’t she?
After the funeral, there was a buffet at El Pulpo, the restauant where she worked and lived in a small room in the attic. She had no choice but to go. Trapped again. No passport, no money, no car. A phoney driver’s license in the name of Isabel Sanchez-Hill in her wallet. Alvie had offered her a room in his tiny house, but she had refused. If the Ferias tracked her there, Alvie could get killed. But now the nut-brown, wrinkled old gardener with the child-like smile was dead anyway, of a simple heart attack in his sleep. Her only real friend, besides Bryce Powers, in the last eight years.
“Who cut your hair, Isabel?”
It was Maria Perna, the hostess at El Pulpo. Lost in thought, standing with a soda in her hand near the back of the dining room, she had not seen Maria approach her through the crowd.
“I did,” she answered.
“It must be re-cut.”
“Because it is a dead giveaway.”
Isabel did not answer. Maria had kept her distance in the three weeks she had been working at El Pulpo. A respectful distance, perhaps a wary distance, but whatever the motive, she was glad of it.
“I’m not prying,” Maria said. “You will be recognized by whoever it is you’re running from regardless, but you will stand out much less if you got a decent hair cut.”
“Can you do it?” Isabel had left the El Pulpo premises only once in the last three weeks, to buy clothes and supplies at Elena’s’s Miscelanea on Eighth Street.
“No,” Maria answered. “But El Florida is just around the corner. I will go with you.”
“Now. We will slip away. We have paid our respects. I know the owner. She will fit you in.”
“I am not afraid of the people you are hiding from.”
Isabel did not answer. She adjusted the Florida Marlins cap on her head and looked at Maria through her dark glasses. After Alvie’s stone marker had been installed in October they had made the ten minute trip every Monday, when El Pulpo was closed, to Miami Memorial Cemetary to say a prayer at Alvie’s grave and eat a small lunch at a metal table bolted to the ground under a huge banyan tree.
“Shall I tell you why?” Maria continued.
“Did you know that in 1960 Castro appointed Che Guevara head of the Cuban state bank?”
“My father was a journalist. He wrote a story asking how an avowed communist revolutionary, not Cuban, and accused by many of cold-blooded murders, qualified someone to run a state bank. Two days later my father was shot by a firing squad. I saw it on TV. I was eight.”
“And this makes you fearless?”
“Two days after they executed my father, my brother was dragged from our house and was never seen again. My mother’s hair turned white. She was thirty-eight.”
Both women remained silent as a young man in the blue-gray dress uniform of the U.S. Air Force walked by carrying a Christmas wreath with two miniature American flags sticking out of it on top at rakish angles. They watched as he approached a grave site enclosed by a low wrought iron fence and placed the wreath against the stone marker. His dress cap now tucked under his arm, the young man stood for a moment looking down at the grave stone, then put his cap back on, saluted and left, walking in the opposite direction.
“How did you escape?” Isabel asked, when the airman had moved on.
“My uncle flippd an old Chevy over and made a boat out of it. He attached an outboard motor. We were at sea for twelve days. The Coast Guard picked us up. When we touched Ameican soil we were free.”
“When was this?”
“So you stayed in Cuba for thirty years?”
“I had to wait for my mother to die. She was never the same and could have never made the crossing.”
“What was that like?”
“I was not allowed to go to college. Or work. I was watched. I carried my father’s pistol with me at all times. In my bag, in the waist of my skirt. If they had tried to take me, I would have killed them.”
“I still hate them. I would kill Fidel and Raul without hesitation if given the chance.”
“What about Angelo?”
“I will meet him in heavan, with my parents and Tomas.”
Isabel remained silent. She knew where this was heading, surprised only by Maria’s patience, this being their eighth or ninth outing. Hidden behind her cap and sunglasses, slumping in the car, the trips to the cemetary were her only excursions out of the restaurant. She was grateful for them. But she had made no bargain, had promised nothing in return, and would give nothing.
“Who are you running from?” Maria asked. “I would like to help you if you will let me.”
“Angelo knows people in law enforcement, if you need their help.”
“What are you doing on Christmas?”
“Is the restaurant closed?”
“I would like you to spend it with us, Angel and me and Sam.”
“What will you do?”
“What do you read?”
“Books, magazines. The waiters bring them to me.”
“Would you like a television?”
“It will be my Christmas gift.”
“How long will you be staying?”
“Until I save enough money.”
“Where will you go?”
Isabel did not answer.
“What is your nationality?” Maria asked.
“I am from hell. The land of the devil.”
Isabel scanned Maia’s face. It displayed no shock, no reaction at all, really. The kindly, beautiful little Cuban woman seemed if anything absorbed in thought, as if realizing something for the first time, contemplating its meaning. “If you ask me any more questions, I will have to leave now, tonight,” Isabel said.
Maria, gathering the wrappers and napkins from their lunch, touched Isabel’s hand. “I will throw these away,” she said, rising and heading toward a trash receptacle about fifty feet away.
Isabel rose as well and went over to the wrought-iron grave sight that the airman had visited. Above the wreath she could see the inscription: John Thomas Harrington, Jr. Born May 27, 2004—Died June 3, 2004. A child. An infant. She had expected a military person, a war hero, a veteran. Not an infant. I cannot tell you, Maria, she said to herself, tears in her beautiful blue eyes, thinking of another death she had caused, this one a direct killing. You would not understand and you would also die. Forgive me.