The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton


Prologue





I am surrounded by forgotten women.

            They rail against their jailers, beat the iron bars with their fists until their knuckles are bloody, sit in the corner of the cells and rock, soft cries from their lips, their arms wrapped tightly around their bodies.

            I find myself in prison.

            In the damp that escapes the stone walls, the unforgiving cold from the floor that seeps into my pores and settles in my bones. In the cries that fill the silent night, the clanging of metal, the breaking of hearts, the abandonment of hope. It is always dark, and the endless night cloaks me, and that is perhaps the greatest surprise of all, that the darkness can be a comfort. That it can allow me to disappear, to leave this place and the uncertainty of tomorrow until I am left clinging to one thread to hold on to.

            I will not let them break me.

            I will not let them forget me.

            They call this the Casa de Recogidas. It is a place for forgetting women society does not wish to face, for punishing those who have committed perceived slights against the Spanish, for condemning those who have dared to cast off the yoke of societal expectations. For those who fight for Cuba’s independence.

            We are the abandoned women.

            In the evenings, when I cannot sleep, my heart sick with all the unfinished things I have left behind, I imagine they whisper to me, all those women who lived and died here before me. Their stories become part of me; the strength of the women who endured keeps me going.

            If only I knew how to escape.





1896





One





Grace


“I think you’ll find, Mr. Pulitzer, that as a woman, I’m able to infiltrate parts of society your other reporters can’t access. Why, look what Nellie Bly has done in her reporting . . .”

            I clutch a leather folio to my chest, the little speech I’ve prepared running through my mind once more. As I lean down to right my skirts, I stumble on an uneven piece of wet ground, my shoe slipping, the hem of my dress dropping into nearly an inch of dirty water.

            So much for making a good first impression.

            “Bad luck,” a red-haired newsboy shouts out at me, a mischievous grin on his face and the latest edition of the World in his hands.

            It’s busy today on Park Row, the street that slashes northeast from lower Broadway and houses the major New York newspapers, its proximity to City Hall an attractive proposition for journalists keen to keep up with the inner workings of government. Horse-drawn vehicles form a steady stream of traffic, interspersed by the odd bicycle swerving between them.

            I gaze up at the building that houses the New York World, number 99 Park Row, the endless stories piled on top of one another. The tallest building in the city, it was originally the site of French’s Hotel. Legend has it that back when Joseph Pulitzer was a penniless veteran he was thrown out of the hotel. Twenty years later he returned, his fortune made, and bought the hotel, demolished it, and constructed this building, topping the new edifice with a four hundred and twenty-five ton gold dome. Two miles of wrought iron columns support the world’s largest pressroom, and hopefully, if all goes well—my new place of employment.

            “Why, look what Nellie Bly has been able to do,” I continue.

            I’ve rehearsed my opening salvo so frequently the words have become rote, but it’s done little to calm the nerves inside me. Whereas men go into these interviews needing to be good, I must be better. The crack Miss Bly and others like her have opened for women trying to break into the newspaper industry has made the seemingly impossible possible, but still no easy feat by any measure.

            The various articles I’ve written for smaller papers enclosed in my late father’s leather folio represent the last few years of my life. The topics aren’t as varied as I’d like: plenty of pieces on women’s fashion, some on the care and running of a household from which I borrowed heavily from my mother’s example given my lack of a household of my own, the stray piece of relationship advice, which may seem odd from someone who is decidedly—and happily—single. To my readers, my nom de plume A. Markham is a married woman of a respectable age, her children grown, her days spent puttering around her house and dispensing advice when she is not otherwise occupied with her husband’s comfort.

            I check in with building security, the appointment I made last week the only manner in which I could ensure admittance given the tightly controlled access to Pulitzer’s offices. I hurry up to the eighteenth floor, which houses the newsroom.