What will happen to Magda in our absence?
What will I tell Ana? The rest of my friends?
“Nothing,” my father says when I ask the question aloud. “You are to say nothing to draw attention to us.” His words are directed toward all of us, but his gaze rests on Beatriz.
Maria appears caught between excitement and fear—to be thirteen again.
My hand drifts to my stomach, to the life beneath my palm, that tiny life fluttering inside me. I can’t hide the secret much longer. Once we’re settled in the United States, I’ll have to tell my family about the baby, need to face this additional change in my life. But not yet—
Not until we make it through this next challenge, this next shift in fortunes.
So now we will go and inhabit the country that has shaped our destinies whether we wanted it to or not. There’s an irony in the fact that our casinos and hotels are filled to the brim with Americans, and now we will flood their country in a similar fashion, looking for some sanctuary from this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.
“We leave tomorrow,” my father decrees.
My sisters are crying now, attempting to muffle their tears, to keep the rest of the house from knowing our plans.
“We will go as tourists. It is the only way. You will treat this as a trip abroad; you can each take one suitcase with you. Anything valuable will have to remain behind.”
“What will we do when we get to America? Where will we stay? How will we live?” Isabel asks.
Is she thinking of her fiancé? Would I leave if Pablo were alive? I don’t know. I share my father’s fears, the sense that we are no longer safe or welcome in our own country—my brother’s dead body lying on our doorstep is a testament to that. I am afraid to bring my child into this world—our child—afraid of what the future holds.
America is an unknown looming before us, but it can’t be worse than this.
* * *
• • •
The house is silent for the rest of the evening. My parents have retreated to their bedroom, Maria has gone to bed, and I’m fairly certain both Beatriz and Isabel have snuck out of the house, perhaps to say good-byes in their own fashion.
I pack a suitcase, surprised at how easy it is to condense one’s life into a small container. Of course, it’s much easier when one’s valuables must be left behind. Once I’ve finished, I change into my nightgown and robe. My jewelry box full of every single piece of jewelry I own save for one rests on top of my dresser.
A few minutes later, Magda enters my room.
“I see Beatriz and Isabel are out and up to no good,” she complains.
I can’t help but grin at her indignant tone. The city is falling down around our heads, but she’s concerned about my sisters’ reputations.
I don’t think I’ve ever loved her more.
“How are you feeling?” she asks, sitting next to me on the bed and rubbing my back like she used to when I was younger.
I rest my head on her shoulder, my hand settling over my stomach. I’ve noticed myself doing it more and more, catching myself mid-motion when I’m out in public or around others. I tire of all the secrets I keep locked up inside me.
“Better. Thank you.”
I can’t cry.
I take a deep breath, steadying myself. “I would like to give you something.” I walk over to the dresser. My fingers shake as I hand her the jewelry box. This will be one of our secrets, like so many before it.
“We’re going on a trip tomorrow. To America.” My father will likely tell the staff tomorrow morning, but I’ve never thought of Magda as anything other than family.
She takes my hand, her fingers trembling. The timing of our trip is clearly not lost on her.
“We might be gone for a while.” I cannot cry. “And I’m not sure when we will return. I would like you to have this.”
Magda shakes her head, tears welling in her eyes. “I couldn’t.”
I attempt to paste a smile on my face, try to hold back the emotions threatening to spill over the floodgates.
“I want you to.” I take a deep breath. “I want you to take it and go to your family. They’re in Santa Clara, aren’t they? I want you to use it to get out if you need to. To take care of yourself and your family. One day Fidel and his men might come for this house, for everything in it, and if they do, I want to know you are safe. That you have the freedom to do as you please.”
“Please. Please take it. I will worry about you the entire time I am in America if you don’t. These are troubled times, and I want to know you have security in them. Please.”
Tears spill down her cheeks. “This is everything. This is far too much.”
“It’s not nearly enough.”
There is no price you can put on all the nights she rocked me to sleep, the times she held me when I was sick, wiped my tears, held my hand. There is no price I can put on the nineteen years she has loved me, stood beside me, been like a mother to me.
I wrap my arms around her, holding her close, as she has done so many times to me, while her shoulders shake, while my heart aches.
“I love you,” I whisper.
“I love you, too,” she says. “And one day I will hold your baby in my arms, just as I held you when you were a young girl.”
It’s hard to let go.
* * *
• • •
“I need help,” I say over the line.
“What do you need?”
I think if I told Ana I had to bury a body in the backyard, she’d bring a shovel.
“Can you come over?” I ask.
Thirty minutes later I meet her in my backyard, beneath the enormous banana tree we’ve played under since we were little girls. We’re both dressed in our nightgowns and robes. It isn’t the first time we’ve had a late-night adventure such as this one, although in our younger years our exploits were limited to sharing secrets about boys we liked. Now I’m asking her to be the guardian of the box holding my greatest secret.
“Is something wrong?”
“We’re leaving tomorrow,” I whisper. “Going to the United States.”
I don’t say the rest, some words simply too painful to utter—I don’t know when we’ll return.
Tears well in her eyes. “Elisa.”
I swallow. “We can’t stay.”
She nods, her knuckles white as she clutches the lapel of her robe. Everyone knows what happened to our brother now.
“I’m not entirely surprised. You certainly aren’t the only ones.”
“Your parents?” I ask.
Ana shakes her head. “They want to wait, see what happens in the next few months.”
I can’t blame them for that. It’s hard to leave everything behind you, not knowing what will greet you when you return.
“I will miss you,” she says.
My throat is hoarse. “I will miss you, too.”
She hugs me, and the familiarity of it is both a balm and salt in an open wound. This is home. How can I leave?
Ana releases me, and I wipe away the tears that have fallen on my cheeks. Her gaze sweeps over the box behind me, the makeshift shovel I stole from my mother’s flatware collection. This isn’t a wholly original idea—two hours ago I watched from my bedroom window as my father crept out in the night and buried items a hundred or so yards away from the palm tree—but it’s the best one I could come up with on such short notice.
“So what are we doing?” Ana asks, a sad smile on her face. “Digging for buried treasure?”
It’s exactly the sort of trouble we would have gotten into when we were younger, digging up my mother’s prized flowers and pretending we were pirates—I blame the French corsair for the inspiration.
“No, burying it.”
I pull out the box I pilfered from my father’s study—inside I have placed my most treasured possessions, my memories, the only pieces of Pablo that remain.
“If something happens, will you dig this up for me? I don’t know what else to do with it, and I don’t want anyone to find it. Can you keep an eye on it for me?”
I could give it to Ana to hold on to, but who knows where her family will end up, how the winds of change will eventually affect them, too. If the madness of this revolution has taught me anything it is that the affairs of men are impossible to predict; I prefer to rely on the constancy of the earth beneath our feet. It doesn’t care whose blood spills onto its soil or whose boots march upon its grass—it is Cuba, impervious to those who profess to control it. The earth cares nothing about revolutions.
“Of course,” she replies.
Ana grabs one of the instruments, a laugh escaping from her lips. “This is one of your mother’s serving spoons, isn’t it?”
I almost laugh at the absurdity of it. Two Havana debutantes in our robes, using my mother’s finest silverware to dig in the dirt in our backyard. And at the moment, I can’t think of a better use for it. This seems to be a year for the tragic and the absurd.
We speak in quiet voices as we dig, the roar of the ocean drowning out our words. We speak as only lifelong friends can, carving out a moment of peace in these fragile times—
I am forever fortunate for the corsair’s decision to build his home on this street, on this block where one day a rum scion would do the same, providing me with another sister.
When we’ve dug a nice-sized hole, I set the wooden box inside. My hand drifts to my stomach. Will I bring my child back here to dig it up with me? Perhaps I’ll make a game of it—buried treasure indeed.
I cover the box with the cold earth, clutching the dirt in my hands until my fingers are caked with it, until it sneaks into the crevices under my fingernails. One day I’ll bring our child here. I’ll show our baby the letters we wrote, the ring its father slid on my finger, give it this part of our history, our love. The earth will guard my secrets, preserve this piece of Havana for me, my memories—