Art by El Sexto
They read rather decadent things: Little novels of characters who committed suicide just before the authors who wrote them, second-hand editions as useful as recycled paper, banned books, unpublished pamphlets, raw gems, and etceteras of this style. Of course, reading decadent things made them think that they lived in “an absurd era, of little or no action, as often happens after great revolutions or little catastrophes.” A quote that they both liked very much and that could have come from Silvia, by Gerard de Nerval (Orlando’s favorite), or from Orlando, by Virginia Woolf (Silvia’s favorite). In any case, they loved to be the protagonists of such beautiful and sad desperation. Thus, they were now waiting for the first opportunity to act.
Every night, very late, Orlando called her to say: “Silvia, nothing happens, but it hurts me,” she in silence. Every night, by telephone, Orlando would repeat: “Silvia, I am not me, but you won’t be you again,” she in silence. Until, every night, Orlando assaulted her by provoking her: “Silvia, it is useless to hope for love to come: I wish I never knew you,” she in silence, without paying enough attention to his pathetics.
“Fear kills you, Orlando,” said Silvia’s calm voice.
And then he felt rage. A resentment that drilled everything inside: Spiked worms in his brain, screaming in a schizo chorus of terrible tuning. Orlando shook with a desire to kill her, from behind, without warning. The desire to tear that magnificent skull into a thousand and one pieces with the phone. The pleasure of spitting an obscenity precisely at his love: “Silvia, die!” for example, and hang up the phone without giving her a chance to react. And just like this Orlando did it, angry to the point of imbecility: “Silvia, die!” and hung up without giving her a chance to react.
For two or three minutes he closed his eyes and breathed considerably better. Suddenly he felt like the most desolate and sincere being in the universe. For two or three minutes Orlando read, tattooed on his chest, the acronym of that crazy word: l.i.b.e.r.t.a.d. At last he was free from Silvia, and Silvia was free from him. Without decadent readings or free radicals in their neurons: Beyond wreckage and rescue, almost beyond the stagnation and the revolution. Silvia was finally free from Orlando, and Orlando was also free from her.
Until a cold paralyzed his lungs and stomach, and twisted it to the point of panic and pain. An almost physical mental ulcer. A vomit that pushed his teeth out for being so violent and empty. Then Orlando opened his eyes maddeningly and picked up the phone, capturing all of the helplessness of Lawton, his neighborhood. Panicking, he dialed her number in Guanabacoa, flying over the six keystrokes that separated him from Silvia like a madman.
And when Silvia’s voice answered, Orlando couldn’t even say Silvia. Nor save me. Nor anything else. He could only swallow a dead paste, without saliva, before throwing up a sort of silent cry—his childish way of apologizing: “Forgive me, Silvia,” she in silence. “Forgive me, Silvia, I did not want it to be that way,” she in silence. “Forgive me, Silvia, I did not want it to be that way, or any other way either,” she in silence, already ready to be God and resurrect Orlando with her mercy: The two touching themselves until nausea and the over-voltage of that state-owned telephone line.
All. All of the small hours. In all of the small hours of Lawton and Guanabacoa it happened like this. A miniature tragedy which ended with whimpers and laughter and squeals of delight. All, all, all of the small hours. They wanted to float in the foam of a boring age, and such a delirium seemed entertainingly genial. They wanted to sink in the zero years of the 2000’s. And they suspected an end of something and a beginning of a nothing that, from reading to reading, Orlando and Silvia felt that Silvia and Orlando were about to protagonize.
For Orlando, sitting in the park of Street B was the cruelest way to experience horror. They always went there in Lawton, between flamboyants and sparrows bitten by the national sun. There was an area full of holes built for shelter during times of peace, anti-aircraft pools flooded by decades of rain and fermentation. A block ravaged by barbaric neighbors fighting against their banks, lanterns, and paths. Over the meandering rivers of sewer witchcraft. Over their seesaws and swings with rust and termites. Over the pines stunted by the excessive Cuban light. Over Silvia just arriving by bus from Guanabacoa; her gaze unfocused because of the limitlessness of Lawton.
For Silvia, sitting in Park B was the friendliest way to experience horror, feeling less alone hugging him: Being almost inside of Orlando. And there they headed, noon after noon. To do nothing. To look at each other. To kill the time and the perennial nervous breakdown in which they survived. To tremble and to pass the pages. To read little volumes of paper as deteriorated as the landscape, or wasteland. To feel lost in the readings, unsung heroes that no suicidal writer would write about. They were letting the official names of the years pass by. Without history and time, Orlando and Silvia without names, without past or future: Creatures of a pure, over-saturated present, gasping the air of the barred city. And nothing seemed more exciting than this day-to-day progression without rules or consequences, this cluster of stories bought in bulk from the moths and tedium of a state library.
From Street B, they let the buses, stinking like tractor trailers and liverwort, pass by Porvenir Avenue. From there they counted, as if they were at a lookout on ground level, the drunks without a homeland whose livers hadn’t murdered them yet. From there Silvia and Orlando mutually admired—almost grateful to God, or to the chronic lack of God—having that boring bench to read and entertainingly love each other on and, hopefully, from month to month and from millennium to millennium, privately resist the cruel and friendly experience of such a public horror.
They drove between cars, dodging honks and squealing brakes, mocking traffic lights hanging by their necks, without believing in any message or signal. They had decided that there had been a lesson sufficient enough. For this reason they hated this lovely city: Because of its style of a permanent classroom, of cloistered uniformity, of a little disciplinary school impossible to ignore or transform. They waited for the right moment for each other, before emitting a howl and pouncing, like cunning beasts, on what, who, or for why they could not yet say.
For the moment they drove blindly on his motorbike, a Júpiter with cannibalized pieces of a Harley Davidson. On the Júpiter-Davidson they were merged into a single body, Orlando and Silvia alternatively sticking their nails into each other, depending on who was driving, penetrated on the promise of making themselves free before finally making love: The promise of waiting so as to not feel guilty beneath the shapeless inertia of repetition. For the moment they drove at night, discussing the sights that caught their attention at that time, when they seemed most likely invented, from neighborhood to neighborhood, the barbarity of a map more theatrical than gloomy: An open book abandoned even by its anonymous author.
“Silvia, the lover of Virginia Woolf, jumped off of that roof,” was said on Ñ St. and 23rd. “Orlando, in this encampment the Cuban Nazi Party was founded,” was said on San Lázaro and Lealtad streets. “Silvia, this curved building is a sickle and its tower would be a hammer,” was said on Línea and L. “Orlando, buried under those bronze shoes is the broken kneecap of Gerard de Nerval,” was said on the Avenue of the Presidents and Malecón.
Driving together cheered them up, and chased away the tedium of driving together. Havana was filled with foolish and breathable images, and it seemed fun and rebellious to retell everything again just for them, from zero and even less, without ever stopping for any scenery, and without remembering the next night which detail was false and which was true.
“Silvia, Orlando, the best character of Virginia Woolf, died in this asylum,” was said on Dolores and Acosta. “Orlando, in the ruins of this restaurant the atomic reactor of Jaraguá still operates in secret,” was said on Infanta and P. “Silvia, there is a night of the world when the bay tunnel connects two times with the same shore,” was said on Prado and La Punta. “Orlando, in this church there is a chalice with Silvia’s blood that does not clot, Gerard de Nerval’s worst character,” was said on Novena and 84th.
They drove, taking turns steering, until they were tired, until they were leaning over the exhausted gas tank. Then, they dropped the motorbike in the first State parking lot they could find, took a taxi, paid in dollars, and in twenty minutes each one was back in their rooms: Lying upon the beds they fell onto, the two already ready for the telephone, with that terrible and tender offensive ritual, crying, forgiveness, and pleasure through a cable.
All of the small hours this occurred. All of the small hours. All of them. In Guanabacoa and in Lawton and all over the world: They resisted or pretended to resist. Until a minimal variation was sufficient enough for Orlando and Silvia to unravel this story that was sewn only to be protagonized by them.
In the liquid noon of Park B, Silvia appeared with a revolver. “This is from my grandfather,” she said. “Look at the date on the handle: 1910.” Orlando was motivated: “The year of the murderer comet. In 1910 the twentieth century should have disappeared by its own will.”
Silvia pulled him towards her on the bench. She put Orlando’s head on her lap and leaned forward to cover his head from the zenithal sun. Orlando closed his eyes. The glare was too much, and went through the strands of Silvia’s hair like a silk palm tree or a crystal pyramid. The same heat burned for the entire year. Reality evaporated for them, and it made them angry to exist like this, humid and humiliated, without the illusion of those Novembers described in any random open or closed book.
Orlando asked for the revolver. He licked it. The revolver tasted like ferrous hemoglobin, like a dried salty residue of iodine, even though it was kept far from the sea. He tangentially blew into that century-old canon, improvising the playing motions of a funeral flute: “It feels like this is carved from the tibia of a whore or from the femur of a man who has been shot,” he said without opening his eyes. The sound remitted the lethal tunes of a wedding march. This wild whistle awakened something in Silvia, and when the death relic was returned to her, he heard her make a decision: “It is now or now, Orlando, we can’t be so mediocre and lose this opportunity.”
And, without feeling the need to draw back his eyelids, Orlando knew she smiled beautifully bent over him: Her mouth open like a cave, like the cracked crater from a spring. It was very easy for Orlando to feel Silvia’s joy because, from where he was, he could almost chew the warm steam of her laughter. Silvia’s breath was made of fruits nonexistent in this fierce climate: Grapes, pears, apples, and those rare almonds without shells. Orlando pretended to be a wine taster and in an inaudible voice he spoke to the world, to all, in a cry of war for his love: “We will do it because today Silvia tastes like a murderer comet, a frustrated harvest from 1910.”
So they went to the ground mines of Guanabacoa. They packed a large backpack where the revolver was hidden, floating like a kidnapped baby in a placenta of bullets: A hundred, a thousand, a hundred-thousand projectiles of light caliber. On one side of the cemetery they advanced toward the national freeway, an endless eight-way strip. “The 8 is an infinity symbol, but it’s standing up,” Orlando heard Silvia shout from the back seat. “And also a closed, double S, without claustrophobia but without liberty,” she continued.
Night was falling, and they left behind the rabid divisions of martyred and vulgar names. They passed dairy farms, foundries, high-voltage towers and others for fuel extraction, and also desperate fields of flowers for sale: Most of them were sunflowers, heads twitching like fists at that time of day. Finally, the Júpiter-Davidson’s motor stopped at the decayed mouth of the quarries, with the moon bouncing between the cliffs until falling into the silver lagoon. From afar, the fields of sunflowers looked like a stationary parade that the next morning someone would decapitate. Then Orlando doubted: “Do we do it now, Silvia?” and she replied by taking off her clothes right there, straddling the lukewarm fuel tank.
Orlando was still clutching the handlebars when Silvia pointed the revolver at his neck. Silvia put the first ten or ten thousand bullets in the drum, and loaded the gun with a click-clack. Then she ordered him to undress too. After this, for her, a mocking English phrase was enough to begin the scene that will, in turn, start rolling for the rest of the film: “Run for your life,” laughed Silvia, and she began shooting.
Orlando ran naked like a moon sliver. He fled for his life, but without fear, as had been agreed upon, feeling the pecking whirrs around him: Nocturnal sparrows diving fatally. Underneath his feet, the sharp quartz stabbed him to the bone with each spin, and the drops of blood cooled that beautiful, almost-criminal scene: A red fluid flowed from Orlando becoming frost from the coldness of his sweat.
Many minutes of fleeing passed. A half hour, or an hour and a half maybe. He finally fell, exhausted. Breathing thanks to the sibilants, his pores were little tracheotomies straight to his lungs. Silvia had shot a little less than two thousand bullets, like the year, and now their backpack seemed empty after that rehearsal of an anti-personal mine war. Orlando panted, his sternum wanting to crack, and his asthma competing with the wind’s blades that sharpened the cliffs, shaving the quartz into a diamond. Shine on you Cuban diamond.
He crawled a few feet to the edge of the lagoon. He looked up. He saw a double metal moon. And then he drank twice. The water, or the light, was brackish. He felt nauseous, but he swallowed that moldy fluid, oily and pure, seminal more than sidereal. And then he was completely introduced into that solid sea, still gripping a stone shaped in the form of a handle. Then he felt Silvia’s silhouette, giving him her hand while warning Orlando: “Come, at night the water is more treacherous than the rest of reality.”
He went outward and began to kiss all of her skin, stopping first at her armpits and after at her naval doormat: The shaggy mane that tattooed her pelvis. They hugged trembling, in a half fever, half chill. They cynically manipulated their genitals under the celibate heaven of Cuba, but neither intended to make love. That night still not. The two still lacked enough words for such an act: A tragic luxury and a release. Both of them still felt plenty of panic. So they remained there, onanist-angelical virgins, until shortly before dawn when the whole cosmos looked mauve and then orange, and then yellow and then white, and then colorless and then blue: Cyan-aqua necrotic stripes, where neither day nor night could completely erase what was among them.
The idea was to recover and then do the opposite in broad daylight: Silvia practiced her best style of flight, her naked body under the sun’s rays, while Orlando pointed the remaining bullets, ready to miss. But as dawn was getting higher and higher, a hysterical howling of sirens and speakers came from the other side of the cliffs. The siege had begun, or perhaps, already, the assault.
Silvia and Orlando got dressed before peering over the cliff to view the ostentatious police convoy, drawing cross-country esses between the rows of sunflowers, cutting the throats of their oily heads, scraping a blurred Van-Gogh that, from the height from which they were entrenched, seemed better than any painting or painter. The shootings in the small hours had probably given their game away: Orlando said something like (“This is a land without weapons”) and Silvia nodded with a yawn that he changed into a kiss, just when her lips were at the maximum point of tension (“This is a country without a soul,” she whispered). Orlando thought that, surely, the vapor of Silvia’s mouth was more eternal than the very word “Silvia” that defined it.
They held hands. Paradoxically, their respiration slowed down, as did their pulse and the nervousness in which they survived. And they decided in unison, with a glance, without the need to see each other again, their eyes lost in the horizon, from where the authority was already urging them to surrender without escape and without resistance.
It was the time without time, that of Orlando and Silvia, that of Silvia and Orlando: In any order of anarchy and despair. Neither wanted to erase the acronyms that stood for freedom from each other: l.i.b.e.r.t.a.d.: A puzzle they would never regret, only sure of this under the threat of dawn. Besides, it had been so long since they were hoping for a gap like this, that it was already pointless to forget it or think it again. Now, a first gesture of reaction was enough. An act, an expression, a blow: After living within the words of so much decadent culture, the verb “to act” was now the only verb that was worthwhile for them to spell.
They fled in his motorcycle through the rear gutters, through that archipelago of florid and bland villages that eventually lead to Tarará. And from there, straight through Vía Blanca, toward Matanzas or to the posthumous bridge of Bacunayagua—the altar of local suicides—whether or not they wrote books where the characters killed themselves a little before or after the author who wrote them.
Orlando drove furiously, throwing up asphalt at top speed, while Silvia encouraged him, wedged between his kidneys and his vertebrae, sitting open like scissors on the back seat. They were a little queasy, but they went through the stampede with a euphoric calmness. They fled: Fugitives capable of any action. And this vital energy breathed the vertigo of a free fall into them. At last, it was they who were making things happen. Or at least they were refusing to let them happen indolently. So, at any moment, they couldn’t keep quiet, tripping over plans in unison that neither Orlando nor Silvia comprehended very well, as the 200 or 2,000 km/hr gusts of wind kidnapped their voices.
The motor reverberated like the remaining reality: Its remains of unreality. One thing they both understood that made them laugh a lot, the crazy laughter that escapes in a State ambulance: From now on he would always be Orlando Woolf (“A proud wolf in honor of Virginia,” he said), and she would always be Silvia de Nerval (“A volatile vision of Gerard’s V’s,” she said). Renaming themselves seemed to be the best clinical symptom of the eight, infinite acronyms of the word: l.i.b.e.r.t.a.d.
And it was very strange. The landscape did not advance. Palms, carobs, kapoks, and flamboyants splashed with primary colors. Cows and horses, plows and tractors, old people of centuries and children of weeks, women and soldiers. The lines of the pavement homogenized the sketches of the journey. Everything was flying before their eyes, but the landscape didn’t seem to advance. Orlando Woolf and Silvia de Nerval revolved in a bubble of kinetic exception, in a freeze-frame of any local road-movie: A very strange inertia that, to them, seemed like a habitual ancestral miracle.
The Júpiter-Davidson roared like a dragon’s throat. It spat sparks through the four ports of the exhaust pipe, dragging a string of murky smoke more turbo than turbid. A racing comet on concrete. The White Road looked unrecognizable that morning. Orlando Woolf felt Silvia de Nerval’s lips on his neck, where just hours before she had nailed the deadly 1910 canon: “Cuba is so slow,” he heard her complain: “Love, can you just speed up?” And he loudly explained that the pistons were already about to melt into national plasma. Then they turned the corner of North Santa Cruz and, even though they saw nothing, they both felt a dry blow that shattered the headlights and the lights into shards that covered them in a paste or fine powder.
They instinctively looked back, without stopping. And they saw a kind of blue puppet, zigzagging between the eight lanes; red ink jets were launched from its extremities, drawing an illegible graffiti on the road. “Did we kill a cop?” Orlando Woolf hesitated after such an obvious image. And Silvia de Nerval waited several seconds or kilometers before she responded: “Hopefully we did.”
It made no sense to stop at the scene, and even less for an accident. They were involved and the price of being free was still the same. The rubber of the tires became viscous and, from the crash, they drove without being sure if they retreated forward or if they continued in reverse. In fact, Orlando Woolf now scratched her back, and Silvia de Nerval guided the helm over the fresh footprints of the bike that, without a doubt, were those of their own Júpiter-Davidson a few minutes or kilometers back: The static passage gave them the impression that they were just turning back on their own breaks. They moved in fast-forward upwind, but downwind in rewind.
So they crossed the railroad lines and recognized the outlines of the rickety pines against the light and the flamboyants without birds, cut above the same grass without neighbors or banks or streetlights or paths: An infected slew of infantile diversion machines as threatening as prehistoric dinosaurs. Again, it was the provincial park of Street B, just a couple of blocks from Porvenir Avenue.
Silvia de Nerval didn’t stop. Nor did she even flinch. Nor did she warn Orlando Woolf about it, although he already knew about it, who, in turn, fought against his astonishment that Silvia didn´t notice it, shaking at the steering wheel, traversing a shortcut to the staircase of the State convent. No other explanation was necessary: The naught neighborhood of Lawton reappeared the more they moved away from it. Then Silvia de Nerval tangentially crossed the ballpark, and at once they regained, in wide angle, the vision of those fields of flowers for sale that swarmed in the outskirts of Guanabacoa: Desperate sunflowers in their majority, still with the drooling scars of the police assault from which they thought or sought to be fleeing.
A few more meters, and the Júpiter-Davidson was back at the decayed mouth of the quarries, with the moon bouncing between the cliffs until falling into the silver lagoon. Suddenly, they sensed that the whole escape was only an illusion, because the zero time of the year 2000 returned to them the four, very fulminate acronyms of the century: c.u.b.a. everywhere, c.u.b.a. for all of the ages, c.u.b.a. as gratuitous and obligatory freedom, c.u.b.a. as ubiquitous cubiquity, c.u.b.a. as scaffold.
In fact, they were surrounded by the authorities again and so it was impossible to distinguish. Nor resist, nor escape, nor nothing. It was a cosmic, closed cycle. But Big-Boring more than Big-Bang. Orlando and Silvia aborted their anxious desires to protagonize, like their last-minute surnames. Or precisely the opposite: Each were thankful to be followed and surrounded because Silvia and Orlando could now perform their birth of death, or maybe their pact of life. An act not as gloomy as it was theatrical. The debacle of returning to themselves seemed to be the shortest way to finally be another.
The quarries shimmered. The patriotic quartz crackled furiously in their pupils. From the moon’s milky hole, a rabbit skull grimaced obscenely, despite the rising sun. They felt so alien and so part of it all… So ambiguous, so distant, so final and so close, that this had to be the end…
They settled on the Júpiter-Davidson, the mechanical horse collage with pieces in Cyrillic and English. Orlando was once again at the steering wheel. He accelerated. They smelled the reheated gasoline at dawn, with its most intimate, home-distilled alcohols. He removed the hand break and Silvia stood on tiptoe on the four wind pipes of the tailpipe. The bike reared up, still standing, two-footed doing acrobatic stunts on the rear tire. And, without even agreeing, Orlando and Silvia hurled a dry howl that evaporated the remaining morning dew. Howl. Aullido. Howllido.
They jumped. Only then they remembered that, despite remembering it well, they still weren’t dressed. The bike began to rise in a crazy parabola above the cliff and, once in the air, they discovered that they were as naked as they were during the previous small hours. The military deployment that almost caught them remained below. More than reading it, this was an unread self-dissolving scene, a pose literally taken from a film: Plagiarism of two thousand or so cheap movies, where the script of the final scene jumps over the barrier of verisimilitude. Orlando and Silvia knew very well that it was all just a show. Silvia and Orlando knew very well that, in that instant, precisely because of this, they manipulated the innermost threads of reality.
They heard the fanfare of the speakers and the hysteria of the sirens. From below their pursuers seemed to be a toy army. Above the horizon in the form of a noose, they craved the clouds to be loaded with water and electricity: Delocalized waves in an insoluble, unfathomable equation. The silver lagoon was nothing more than “An uncirculated currency of 1910,” he said: “The spit of an exiled god put in a comet,” he said, “the surface of a mirror with nothing to reflect.”
At some point Silvia stopped screaming in the air and said: “I see nothing from back here.” Orlando immediately consoled her: “There is not much to see.” With a jovial tone: “Down there it just seems like quarries of dead quartz and fields of sunflowers that are about to be executed.” In return, she emitted a brief “hopefully,” compressed almost into one syllable, and then they both laughed, floating in the peak of the parabola, the two weightless but already at the point of regaining the mass lost after their impulse.
Orlando felt that Silvia pushed with her best strength. Her breasts drilled his lungs and came out on both sides of his sternum. Silvia threatened him again through his back: She had him at gunpoint or was devouring from behind. Orlando felt Silvia’s savage hands, placed as opaque lenses under his eyelids, putting her fingers in roots, scraping off his retina. Now he could not even see, perhaps because he didn’t care about anything at all. Not seeing is the best way to stare. Gram by gram, the bike regained its gravity, and descended with avidity to make itself fragments against a vocabulary of heavy words, outfashioned, compressed to a single syllable, or to the whole of an official vocubalario.
And there, the sleepless magic of waiting months or millennia to make love consumed itself. That mortal somersault was the climax of an unfree fall from which they wanted or believed they could flee. That was the only option that, the two blind over the ravine, could finally choose to resist and escape: “Choose, love,” he said: “Dead quartz quarries or fields of sunflowers soon to be executed?” Even though she, for all answers, only penetrated him a little more, until overflowing him inside and filling both bodies with Silvia, after that dizzying and voracious selection: “Of course, sunflower fields forever,” she calmly pronounced. “Even though the fear kills you, Orlando, eternity is still to be exercised.”
The following midnight, after another long and narrow day’s journey of reading rather decadent things, they were consequently convinced that they lived in “an absurd era, of little or no action, as often happens after great revolutions or little catastrophes,”—a quote that they both liked very much and that could have come from Silvia, by Gerard de Nerval (Orlando’s favorite), or from Orlando, by Virginia Woolf (Silvia’s favorite)—he picked up the phone and desperately flew over her six keystrokes. As usual, through the tone of their bundled voices, it was evident that their unwoven story was only now about to begin.
Edited in English by Joshua Barnes
The publication of this story is part of Sampsonia Way Magazine’s “CUBAN NEWRRATIVE: e-MERGING LITERATURE FROM GENERATION ZERO” project, in collaboration with Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, and a collection of authors writing from Cuba. You can read this story in the original Spanish here.