Home > The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba(9)

The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba(9)
Author: Chanel Cleeton

   I’ve done nothing wrong in all of this, and yet, while I thought Berriz would be exposed for the villain he is, it seems as though I am the one they seek to punish, my crime that of telling a Spanish soldier the world isn’t his for the taking, I am not his for the taking.

   If they catch me, I’ll surely be killed.

   I head deeper into the hills, quickening my pace, casting a glance over my shoulder every so often to ensure no one follows me. My feet slip against the ground, and a few times I nearly fall, but I continue on, my body aching, heart heavy.

   As I walk on, the sky begins to lighten, daybreak dawning.

   Each sound that fills the air around me sends a chill down my spine. Without the cover of darkness, my chances of being caught rise dramatically.

   Am I to be thrown in jail? Sentenced to the firing squad?

   Up ahead, there’s a little ravine, and I quicken my pace as I near it. I crouch in front of it, cupping my hands together, already relishing in the sensation of the cool water sliding down my throat, but when I try to scoop the liquid, it’s a dark brown color, too murky to be drinkable.

   A sob escapes my lips as I wipe my hand across my face.

   My body is covered in mud, my limbs sore from the hills, adrenaline crashing through me.

   The sun beats down on me, exhaustion setting in, and I gather some of the nearby branches and brush. If I can’t find drinkable water, at least I can build a shelter.

   But even as I begin propping up the branches, I know it is for naught. There is nowhere I can hide on this island that the Spanish will not find me. And how long before they punish my family in my absence?

   I don’t know what awaits me at the house I share with my sister Carmen and my father, but there’s nowhere left to try to escape.

 

* * *

 

   —

   The journey back to the house feels as though it takes much longer than it should, tears of frustration filling my eyes as I battle exhaustion. I listen for soldiers, but all that greets me are the normal sounds of the island.

   As I near the little village that has been our home, it’s still early, not a soul in sight. Maybe the soldiers are out searching for me, or perhaps they decided to rest after a long night once they came to the same realization I did—that there’s no possibility of me escaping this mess.

   Our little house tumbles into view, and for a moment instinct nearly takes over, and I yearn to run away.

   I square my shoulders and continue on.

   When I reach our home, there are blessedly no soldiers to be found, but Carmen is pacing the length of the bedroom.

   “Where have you been?” Carmen exclaims, throwing her arms around me. She looks worried and exhausted.

   For a moment, we reverse our roles, and whereas I am normally the one who cares for our family, now I lean into her embrace, drawing strength from her presence, relief filling me at the sight of her unharmed.

   “I went to the hills. I thought I might escape the soldiers, but it was so dark, and I was so tired, and there was nowhere to go.” A sob escapes, and then another one. “What am I going to do?”

   “I don’t know. Everyone is upset. The Spanish are very angry.”

   Dread fills me. “What has happened to Berriz?”

   “The soldiers came and rescued him. They rounded up all of our friends who came to your aid, Emilio and the others, and they’ve thrown them in jail.”

   I close my eyes, offering a prayer for my fiancé and for all those who helped me. For my father. For myself.

   I pull away from Carmen, struggling to maintain calm.

   “They’re going to throw me in jail, aren’t they?”

   “I don’t know,” Carmen replies, but her words are at odds with the tone of her voice and the somber expression in her eyes.

   So be it.

   Whatever happens next, at least I prefer it to being Berriz’s mistress, to accepting his advances.

   “Well, I suppose there’s nothing to do but wait. I’m going to take a bath and change into clean clothes. Eat some breakfast.”

   “And if the soldiers come?” Carmen asks.

   “Then they come.”

 

* * *

 

   —

   My hair is barely dry when two soldiers knock at our door.

   There’s no opportunity for us to say good-bye to our father, to gather our things, before Carmen and I are shipped out on the Nuevo Cubano steamer to the mainland of Cuba with a boat full of other prisoners.

 

 

Three

 

 

The prison the Spanish send us to, the Casa de Recogidas, makes our living conditions on the Isle of Pines seem like paradise. The prison is located in one of the rougher sections of Havana, surrounded by crooked alleys. The walls are high and thick, topped by stalwart parapets, the windows barred, a military barracks directly behind the structure.

   The Catholic Church founded Recogidas over a hundred years ago as a shelter and place to reform women. I’m not one to question the Church, but whatever their original intentions, the reality is a nightmare.

   Our journey was an arduous one. On the Isle of Pines we were treated with a measure of respect because we are ladies, but from the moment we boarded the steamer bound for the Cuban mainland, soldiers insulted us and jeered at us. My wrists are still sore from their manacles chafing my skin.

   When they boarded us on the train to carry us to Havana, I fervently hoped that revolutionaries would attack the train and rescue us, but we weren’t so lucky. Instead, I gazed out the window as immense tobacco plantations, sugar fields, and towering palms passed us by, the countryside decorated by the occasional stone fort.

   At night when I dream, it is of my childhood, of our house in Cienfuegos where we all lived as a family—my sisters, father, and I. In the courtyard of our home, there was a great fountain. The water leaped and sparkled in the sun as though it was alive. I used to dance in the courtyard and reach out, as if I could command the water, catching it in my hands, bidding it to stand still and talk to me.

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