“Snapshot from the Revolution” – Fiction by Perry Lopez

Our Lady of El Cobre

Our Summer 2018 issue won’t rise from the deep until June 21, but should you care for a preview of what’s to come, here’s Perry Lopez‘s historical & horrific short story “Snapshot from the Revolution.”

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THE NIGHT WAVES WERE ROLLING TOWARD CUBA, beating their steady pulse against the hull of the yacht. A rhythmic skip and crash in perfect blackness, and all our bodies leaning together. A jump and plunge amidst the rattle of ammunition, the dishing of gasoline in drums that we had lashed to the handrails because the tank would not hold enough to get us there, the sky that was starless, pure blackout, and pressed down upon our heads. Petroleum and sulfur and potassium nitrate, human sweat and nervous breath, the various agents of conflagration—all inert for the moment, jostling together. My finger was on the shutter release. Across my chest there was a double-bandolier full of flashbulbs. Magnesium, the smell of magnesium powder, which burns with near the same quality as sunlight: 5500 Kelvin.

I try not to hear the Giant’s voice, but there it is anyway. Words which he never spoke but instead I gave to him and believed in absolutely, there in that moment of body-terror and doubt, seminal blindness across the Atlantic, which was the power he had over all of us. Have spirit, brother Gusano. We do not need the heavens to steer by, not when we have pinned fresh constellations to the roofs of our minds. Would the man himself have said that? I can see his face speaking the words clearly enough, but cannot say for sure. I have written far too many speeches for Fidel Castro in my thoughts, and now he is dead—idol dead, paper dead—heartbroken at the age of ninety and buried beneath a kernel of corn, as you already know.

So instead take my clearest picture, the only one I know for sure was captured with my own senses. Everything afterward will be lies: Graffiti on their monuments. I remember salt on my lips. Body salt, sea salt, and an accordion crush of lungs fighting for space to expand. The deck was not meant to hold so many bodies. A compression of moncadistas and stark-ribbed exiles on the pleasure boat that had seen happier voyages. Eighty-two men in total, all packed to the gunwales, hustled aboard the North American vessel with its engine that stalled and stuttered like my own flawed heart, sending up the first oily smoke of our revolution, some of them sitting upon the very edges and holding onto the shoulders of their comrades so that they would not fall into the sea. An orgiastic colony of sweaty limbs and whispered confidences—Sierra Maestra, José Martí, the Latifundia, Our Lady of El Cobre, Castro, Castro, Castro—the germ of a new country caught between two great slates of emptiness, the sea and the sky, and a few brave ones sitting atop the crates of grenades packed in straw. A man coughed up vomit to my right and another leaned over the side to dribble his empty stomach across the midnight rollers. From somewhere close to the bow a voice was singing out in a bold, solemn spinto: Cuba, oh Cuba, a bright red flower for Cuba / One which smells not so sweet / Nor which bears aught to eat / Yet will bloom on from Gitmo to Bauta, as his words were sucked away by the wind. Where in all this was Fidel? Where was Che? Which of these darkly groping forms were Raul and Camilo and Almeida? And whose voice was that singing? Never mind. It is wrong to ask. Let them be for an instant like what was promised. A hum of bodies and voices and futures converging.

But in this polyrhythm of heartbeats they had their guns and I had my camera. A 35mm Zeiss that would be the eye through which the world watched our revolution (Castro’s hopeful thinking) and the tool we would wield against Batista’s newspapers. It swung from its strap and knocked against my chest so I raised a hand to hold it still. Already a bruise had begun to form there, a distinct green and yellow impression of the metal case stamped upon my skin. Your press card, brother, said Raul the day before, giving the bruise a rap with his knuckles. Now they will know not to shoot you. A painful blemish that would only grow with time. But for the moment it was best not to take the camera from my neck, I had decided, because if it somehow got lost or broken they would give me a rifle to replace it. One of those old American Nazi-killers we had bought in bulk off the Mexican black market. Rusty barrels with warped wooden stocks—M1 Garands and weathered carbines, Springfields as likely to explode in your hands as kill anyone, a few German Mausers with their dull metal luster—weapons whose history I wanted no part of, yet I think the others were eager to see me burdened with.

Some of the men had already urged as much. Their spirits took a vicious turn after four days at sea in the cramped vessel and several of them had cornered me in the back of the yacht. Open spaces are bad for revolutions, and in all that vacant water and cloudless atmosphere they had turned their eyes away from the horizon and found me there with my camera. Why should Gusano’s burden be so little, they asked. Why should he have to do none of the killing? Is he a coward? Their faces drew close as they took the Zeiss away from my neck, passing it from man to man and judging its heft against the weight of their weapons. I thought for a second they might throw it into the waves and that would be that; I would have to become a Guerilla too. But it was Fidel himself who came to my rescue. “Leave Gusano be,” the Giant said. In the noon scorch our Comandante stood high upon the flying bridge with his body like a stain against the sun and all of us squinting up at him, his wolfish nose and wolfish eyes directed down upon his militia, his arms held out cruciform and his fatigues snapping in the breeze, saying, “The purity of our Mexican must be preserved at all costs. A steady hand and a steady conscience. How else will he take good pictures of us?” This had quieted them and I was left in peace, or at least what passes for peace aboard a boat crowded with barbudos trained to kill their own countrymen. So I waited for the nighttime when we would all be blinded together again.

Thus went our journey across the Gulf and into the Caribbean. Seasick mornings passed into sullen afternoons—sleepy evenings into drunken nights into seasick mornings again. Boredom and fear and flasks of spiced rum that had to be passed from hand to hand with all secrecy because Fidel would be angry if he saw, and Che might even throw one of us overboard as a lesson. There were jokes and proclamations of duty passed around much like the rum, (Your turn now, Gusano. Give us a laugh or else a make us a promise to burn the sugarcane of every rich fucker in Cuba. Promise on something better than your life / Uh, well…have you ever heard the one about the CIA man and the Guatemalan’s wife?), and Almeida even sang us a song or two, but as the fifth day faded little could combat the sense that something was very wrong. The nightmarish sensation that the ship wasn’t moving at all, that we floated in space. Or perhaps that we had missed our mark and driven out beyond Cuba into the empty divide between continents. What else could explain it? We were meant to arrive at the coastal town of Niquero after only four days, and yet there we were: Still adrift. Nothing broke the vast ring of the horizon of which we were always the center; nothing came nearer or farther. We tipped over the waves and watched Fidel as he whispered into the radio. We searched his eyes for madness. Nothing happened. We leaned over the gunwales and aimed our weapons (the men, their rifles; me, my camera) at nothing at all. The Atlantic scrolling away. Good practice. Track that wave there and slowly, slowly. Squeeze. They would say, POW. I would say, Click. And then we would be congratulated on our fine shooting.

But on the sixth day the surf changed, and during the sixth night we could feel ourselves drawing closer to something. Relative motion at last. All was quiet aboard the Granma and no more brave speeches were to be heard. No singing or stories from Almeida. No more rum passed about. No talking at all, even from our leader…This because something massive was moving in the ocean ahead of us, stirring up the breakers while it confounded the Caribbean wind, troubling our Dominican helmsman who fought and cursed at the wheel, sending up great bubbles from beneath the surface that we heard blasting somewhere in the offing, buh-boom buh-boom—the drumming of a saurian heart in the void beneath the water. Why, yesThe Leviathan had finally breached from the horizon! Its huge jaws were agape out there in the darkness—waiting for us with reptilian patience. Who were we to think we could steal upon it so easily? That it wouldn’t notice? It floated up slowly with its limbs all splayed out, up from the bottom of the sea, and for the first of our nights aboard the yacht the men didn’t want to turn on the floodlights. None of us wished to see the beast now that we were so near. (Had we all secretly hoped that we’d missed our landing? That this would be just another pleasure cruise? Another training exercise? That it would be back to the Capital and its idleness?) Still, any one of us could describe it perfectly, blind as we were. The Monstrous Caiman. Koo-bah! Whales swam between its teeth—jagged towers of basalt that broke from the waves in blooms of white foam. Nostrils that breathed forth the Bayamo and the great flocks of seabirds that ducked through the whitecaps. A spine that rose in peaks, allowing the sun to show through in bursts. The sweat that steamed off its back and turned every morning to brass. A mouth—how huge and well camouflaged—that would seem at first like a cloud-mottled sky until it snapped shut on you. And within the beast’s stomach? A place for the digestion of men. An intestinal tangle of green jungleways, constant rain that turned the flesh to pulp, set the muscles to trembling. Fruit that would make you weep for its succulence and then send you groaning to the bushes as your bowels spewed blood and yellow bile. Nights alive with the jabber of goblin bats. A permanent twilight beneath the canopies where the insects busied about their bloodsucking, their ceaseless communion—taking you bit by bit out of your own flesh. Yes, there is a taxation on all life here. A small tithe must be paid each day to the Great Green Caiman whose body you walk across. The Giant’s voice again in my mind: You have been drinking the blood of God your entire life, my good Catholic Gusano. Now it’s time to let Him have a taste!

We would arrive in Cuba by morning, but for now it was like this: Pure speed across the water. Drive the engine, you Dominican madman! You doomed hero, you mighty bastard—oh, what was your name again? How did you die? Never mind. Just burn it all in one last shove! Guide us right down the scaly beast’s throat! This bullet would find its mark, as you already know. It would shatter upon the berms of the bloody Caiman Island and send us out like so many jagged shards of lead to rip away its flesh. To tear apart the face of Cuba. Remake it in whose image, exactly? But then what does the bullet know of the before or after. And what do I? We are all still inside, and all there is for now is the flight. This one roaring instant between gunclap and shattering collision. And was Almeida singing that song again? Was the Giant off somewhere giving a speech? Hmm. Or was it all in my head? But there was no difference, you see. Not then. Not now. Not in this moment of darkness, impending light, with our flesh all pressed together, with our revolution single-bodied and tapering to a deadly point. I could have spoken and it would have been Guevara’s voice. I could have sang and it would have been Almeida’s lovely tenor. I could have raised my hand to my face and felt Fidel’s imperial nose. De muchos, uno. But between the sound of the wind and the agony of the engine nothing else could be heard. Plus my arms were crushed to my side and could not move an inch. All of which makes it a bit strange that the first picture on my camera reel was taken that night. When my finger or someone else’s brushed the Zeiss’s shutter release.

It is as senseless an image as might be expected, yet I have spent more time studying this photograph than any of the hundreds that came after. It remains pinned above the desk where I write. An empty frame that precedes all the endless snapshots of sugarcane fields ablaze at dusk, of sprawled corpses and squat government compounds and Guerillas posing in the brush, of Che atop a mule with his rifle directed toward a distant hill and his furious eyes toward the camera, of mist rolling off the Sierra Maestra, of alpenglow on the summits, of a puppy in a box who we named Karl, of a dozen homemade Sputnik grenades spread out on a mat with the third column arrayed smiling behind, an extensive series of Fidel poring over various maps surrounded by his advisors, each meticulously staged, with his forefinger always tacked down on the linen and his mouth open in some sideways command, a single picture of the CIA spook William Williamson as he came ducking out of our command tent flashing his hideous white tongue, which I have been tempted many times to burn. All of these contained, somehow, in the snapshot captured on our last night aboard the Granma. This photograph which is nothing in itself. Dark outlines fading together, taken by accident.

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PERRY LOPEZ is a copywriter living in Fort Worth, Texas. His fiction has appeared in Slice MagazineFLAPPERHOUSE, and elsewhere.

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