Tuesday, February 5, 2013

CUBAN QUEEN . . . Final installment (Part 3) is up today. (scroll down)

This magnificent, unique, and eerie piece is the CUBAN QUEEN painted by Jack E. Guth of Jerome AZ.
I first saw this haunting painting about eight years ago (2003) in the Jerome Grand Hotel. I was stunned! This painting “spoke” to me on so many different levels. My immediate reaction was to begin writing a short fiction piece inspired by the “Queen.”

Last week I dusted the cobwebs off the Queen, and posted Part 1 of the story on my blog, Part 2 went up last Friday, and Part 3 went up today. If the painting intrigues you, please check out the story, and see what the Queen inspired in me.


Cuban Queen . . . . Part 3. (finale)

Esmeralda stands in the middle of a dirt road; the immediate area around her is bathed in an unforgiving, red glare. Uneasy, she turns to her right and the glare melts into darkness as the road tunnels its way into a thick, gray, forest. Esmeralda’s first inclination is to take refuge from the harsh crimson light. Walking toward the canopy of trees, she instinctively knows that she is headed back in the direction from which she came.

With every step her confidence soars, and she finds comfort in the shade. Still, a twinge of paranoia, a thought of possible ill intentioned pursuit, causes her to stop and check the road behind her. Once she ascertains that she isn’t being followed, Esmeralda focuses on the far side of the gleaming red zone that bisects the road. What she sees is an apparently normal, sunny, rolling country-side dotted with trees and other vegetation.

Before her eyes the scarlet zone wavers and liquefies, assuming solidity in the form of a bright yellow stucco wall. There is a wide gate of ornamental wrought-iron. Both wings of the gate are open and inviting. Through this portal Esmeralda can see people, laughing, happy people, moving, dancing and, if her ears aren’t playing tricks, singing.

Esmeralda doesn’t have to think about it, she has already spent her whole life traveling the dark road; she immediately strikes out for the gate. No hesitation for Esmeralda, a last long, loping stride and she has crossed the threshold. The light seems to triple in intensity, or perhaps her vision is just that much more acute for all her senses feel magnified. She feels young, strong, energized and joyful.

Taking advantage of her sharpened eyesight, Esmeralda surveys the surroundings. She is standing in a large orchard, and there are tables scattered as far as the eye can see. The tables are all occupied, and Esmeralda can easily recognize the features of most of the revellers. Her father, her mother, off to one side strumming his guitar her grandfather. Dancing to his music is a beautiful child, hers and Nando’s daughter, Christina, not quite five when pneumonia took her from them.

Smiling, Esmeralda moves toward them only to have a man step into the walk-way, blocking her path. Eyes meeting hers, he says,   “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Esmeralda stares at the man, a man so ordinary, so common in appearance, he could be anyone of the hundreds of miners, cowboys, or laborers she and, later in life, her girls had serviced. A man with the face of thousands, and he stood between her and happiness.

Close to defeat, Esmeralda asks,   “Are you the one?”

“The one?”

“My tormentor. The one that would keep me from happiness.”

The man’s laughter is soft, gentle,   “No Esmeralda, I am here to welcome you. This is where you belong.”

As he speaks the man takes Esmeralda’s right hand and they walk into the huge orchard,   “No one belongs here, in this particular place, more than you do Esmeralda. In effect, this spot is you.”

As they walk, though no one has spoken as yet, many of the people smile in greeting. With every smile Esmeralda’s sense of belonging grows, the power of her serenity expands. Yet something is nagging at her, and the moment she resists the euphoria of her surroundings she knows what is wrong.

“Am I permitted questions?”

“Are you permitted questions? Esmeralda, this is your place, you need not be ‘permitted’ anything. Do, or ask as you will.”

“Where is Nando? I don’t see him. Truly this cannot be my place without Nando.”

As she spoke a cloud darkened the sun and the orchard clouded over. Still holding her hand, the man walked Esmeralda back to the gate. Pointing to the dark road through the forest, he said,   “Nando is on that road.”

“I don’t understand why is he not here with me? Do you think this could be a place of joy for me without Nando?”

“Listen to me child. Your Nando travels on that road as we speak. He is destined to complete his journey, and this, dear Esmeralda, is indeed his final destination. When you awaken in the morning Nando will be lying at your side.”

Esmeralda searches the man’s face but can find no trace of guile. Relieved, Esmeralda says,   “Then I will be truly happy, but why did we not arrive together?”

“Loved ones seldom do. The time spent in waiting is usually not more than the blink of an eye when judged by your standard of time. It will be a little longer for you.”


Frowning, the man says,   “Well Esmeralda, you cheated. Took a short-cut, and now you are here early, hence you must wait a little longer. Nando still must complete his journey.”   Smiling again, he ads,   “Perhaps if you cannot sleep tonight you might want to spend the time with Christina, or any other, or even all, of your loved ones.”

Esmeralda sighs, smiles and tilts her head back gazing at the, once again, sunny sky,    “No, I will rest, and wait for Nando. Where can I lie down?”

“Come, I will show you.”

“Wait. What of Nando? In his time, how long will the journey take him?”


“How many years?”

“That isn’t for you to know.”

“You said I could ask questions.”

“As many as you like, but I don’t have to give you all the answers.”

“You don’t understand. Nando is like a child. I was wrong to leave him.”

“You didn’t know your journey would end here.”

“I didn’t know, but I suspected. I made preparations, I didn’t really believe I’d need them, but I made them. I was willing to take that chance, I abandoned Nando. I don’t belong here.”

The man laughs,    “Fortunately, mortals don’t make those decisions. Trust me, you belong here.”

“What if I leave, take the road back? Will I be able to reunite with Nando?

“Esmeralda, you have a knack for asking unanswerable questions.”

“Then I will find my own answer.”

When Esmeralda tries to remove her hand from the man’s grasp he responds with a squeeze. Esmeralda is jangled by a electrifying jolt that goes from her hand, through her shoulder, and reaches her jawbone before its energy fizzles out. Staggered, she summons all her strength to yank her arm from the hand of the man.

Esmeralda is through the gate and streaking like a cheetah. She hasn’t even hit her full stride and she is already enveloped by the canopy of trees. Suddenly, she can hear the man’s voice in her ear as if he were by her side,   “Stop, Esmeralda. Stop!”

Gritting her teeth, pumping her arms harder, lifting her knees higher, she accelerates. Nothing, nothing will catch her. Abruptly her movement is mired, her breath is cut off, and she is forced to a complete halt. When she tries to move it’s as if her limbs were bound by heavy chains.

Standing in front of her, once again blocking her way, is the man. Smiling, he says,     “Blind obedience is vastly over-rated. I have always favored courage, courage  born of unselfishness. Because you have chosen the harder path, you will be taking two gifts with you. You may go.”




Esmeralda opens her eyes to bright light. Nando has opened the heavy wood shutters and sunlight fills the cantina. Straightening in her seat she sees her cigar butts overflowing the ashtray, her empty rum mug lying on its side. Contradicting this visible evidence of her debauchery is the clean taste in her mouth, and the clearness of her head.

Looking across the room she watches as Nando works stacking crates of canned goods. His movements, no longer labored and spastic, are quick, and smoothly efficient. Esmeralda smiles as she hears him singing softly. It’s an old tune, one that he used to sing to her before they made love, and surprisingly, he remembers every word of every verse.

Standing, Esmeralda removes her Panama and begins to undue the complicated French-braid that holds her long, thick, hair up. She revels in the strength, and dexterity of her fingers as the braid becomes undone. She runs them through her mane as she drapes it over her shoulders. Smiling, she holds her hands in front of her and flexes her long, strong, fingers . . . all ten of them.

As she crosses the room, walking toward Nando, Esmeralda takes great joy in knowing that even though a life has only one end, it can have many new beginnings.


                                                       The End

Friday, February 1, 2013

CUBAN QUEEN - - - - part 2

It hadn’t taken Esmeralda a day to find her obeah-man. A bell had tinkled when she passed through the door of the Harlem store-front. The man, who came from behind a curtain to greet her, seemed unimposing as he glanced at her, then stepped past her to lock the door and hang a ‘closed’ sign in the window.

Again walking past her, the man motioned her to follow. Esmeralda found herself in a small room lit by a single candle. A table and two chairs took up most of the floor space. The man held out a chair for Esmeralda, and once she was seated he leaned over her and blew out the candle. She could feel his breath on her cheek, and the scent of him seemed to surround her along with the darkness.

When he spoke his lips brushed her ear,   “You have no fear.”

It wasn’t a question, but after considering for a moment Esmeralda replied, “None.”

Electric lights came on to reveal her host, now seated across the table.  “Good. You are a serious person.”  Smiling, the man continued,  “We don’t need any false theatrics, and I like to see who I’m dealing with. Give me your hand.”

Reflexively, Esmeralda holds out her left, the undamaged, hand. Scowling, the man says,   “Give me your HAND.”

Holding her maimed hand, the man’s eyes look down at it.   “Look at our skin. You think of your skin as black, but next to mine, hah! I am from Cat Cay, black! You, you are Cuban.”

“I came from Puerto Rico.”

Raising her hand, the ruined edge to his lips, the man hisses,   “Child, you can’t lie to me, not about the small things, certainly not about significant ones, for I am obeah.”

“Forgive me, I meant no disrespect. Yes, I came from Cuba. I was fourteen, I came in a small boat that sank. I swam the last two miles to shore. When I landed I had not one peso, only the rags on my body. I needed no help then, or in the time since. Until now. Now I need help, your help. Let me tell you what I require.”

“Do not tell me what I already know. You need justice, but you want revenge. The price of justice is high, but the price you will pay for revenge is the highest of all. Are you willing to pay the price?”

“I have money, not much, but I can get more.”

“I don’t speak of money, gold, jewels, things. I’ll ask you again, are you willing to pay the price?”


“Yes? You haven’t asked what the price might be.”

Glaring at the obeah-man through slitted eyes, Esmeralda squeezes his hands with all of the considerable strength in her deformed hand and snarls,   “I’m willing to pay the price, whatever it may be.”

Smiling the man says,   “Good, child. You may call me Batiste.”

As Esmeralda relates the details of her situation Batiste busies himself by, moving around the perimeter of the room, pulling items from an intricate network of shelves and drawers lining the walls. He places the small objects into a soft leather pouch the size of a lemon. Occasionally he interrupts with a question.

“This man, the one of power, he is an islander, no?”

Esmeralda replied,   “No, he is said to be a Sicilian.”

“Ah, yes, yes. As I said, child, an islander. Sicily is an island girl, an island where the spirits are as recognized, respected, and feared as they are on your Cuba or my Cat. The spirits may be known by different names, in different places, but they are known none the less. If this man was born on the island of Sicily he will understand.”

“He must have been. The Siciliano’s English is even more broken than mine.”

They both laugh when Batiste says,   “If that is the case, then our man is most certainly island born.”

A few more items and Batiste’s little package is complete. He pulls tight the drawstrings, and, after knotting them, hands the pouch to Esmeralda. After gently kneading the sack she says,   “This skin is very soft, nicely tanned. What did it come from?”

His face blank, the obeah-man says,   “That is only one of many things you do not need to know. Something you DO need to know, do not open the bag, do not view what is inside. To do so would be disastrous. Heed me well.”

Staring at the pouch Esmeralda asks,   “What do I do with it?”

“Give it to the Siciliano.”


“Speak these words . . . ‘I ask only for that which is rightfully mine.’”

“That’s all?”

Batiste grins,   “Well, after you speak, you might slowly make the sign of the cross in front of his face. Of course, you should use your maimed hand for this.”

“That will strengthen the spell?”



“Your deformity will be a reminder to him of how brittle we all are in the face of the spirits. Now, I begin to tire of your questions. You either believe, or you don’t believe. If you don’t, then you have wasted both your time, and mine.”

“Forgive me. I believe, now more than ever, but please, one more question.”

Batiste nods and Esmeralda says,   “I believe that your magic will enable Nando and I receive what he fought and bled for. But, what of our vengeance on those who took from us that which cannot be replaced? Isn’t there more to be done, special spells of some sort, to bring about their destruction?”

“Ah, you mean dolls? Dolls made with hanks of their hair, and fingernail clippings? Dolls to stick pins in, and perhaps to set afire?”

“Yes. Yes!”

“Child, meet my eyes. I will allow you to look inside for a moment. Now look. Do you feel my power?”

Speechless, Esmeralda can only nod. Batiste continues,   “This man, this Siciliano, he will know. He will feel the power, and he will know the grave danger he is in. Do you think he will feel kindly toward those who placed him in such peril? He will repay you, and your man, the money that is rightfully yours. He will also repay those who caused him to be cursed. I assure you girl, the way the Siciliano will deal with these men will more than quench your thirst for vengeance.” 

The obeah-man hadn’t exaggerated his power, nor that of his magic. Esmeralda and Nando, who carried two heavy satchels filled with currency, were escorted to Grand Central Station by two of the Sicilian’s most trusted men. By the time their train pulled into Chicago, the papers were all flying banner headlines about the mob related killings that had shaken the East Coast fight game to its core.




Watching the smoke twisting upward, expanding, glowing, taking on the red of the bar lights, and finally dissipating into the shadows of the rafters, Esmeralda knows the time has come. She butts out her cigarro, and then unscrews the bottom of the silver vial from its cap. Not hesitating, she dumps the vial’s contents into her rum, and stirs the concoction with her finger.

Three fiery gulps and the mix is gone, down her gullet and settling in the pit of her stomach, radiating a pleasant warmth. Lighting her last cigar, and uncrossing, then re-crossing her legs, Esmeralda slumps down in her chair and remembers her final visit to the obeah-man.




Finding a cab at LaGuardia had been easy. Finding one that would take her to Harlem was another story, until Esmeralda decided to approach only black cabbies. The day was cold, bleak, and ugly. The snow covering the grass and trees lining the Parkway was pretty, no different from the white blanket that had coated Cleopatra Hill early that morning when she left the mountain. Once she crossed the bridge into Manhattan, the snow became a filthy gray slush that colored the entire city to match the dismal sky.

It seemed to Esmeralda that it was the same bell that tinkled, announcing her entrance to the store. The store itself hadn’t changed a bit over the years, nor had the man who stepped out of the rear, walked past her to lock the door and hang the ‘closed’ sign, just as he had decades ago. Of course Esmeralda knew this wasn’t Batiste, perhaps a brother, but most likely it was his son.

After following the man into the rear of the store, she once again finds herself, seated, and facing him across a table. Esmeralda says,   “I would speak with your father.”

The man smiles,   “Ah, my father. While it would be possible for you to do so, the process involved is a difficult one, and totally unnecessary. You will deal with me.”

“I think not. Your father helped me once, now it is his help I seek again.”

“No my Cubanita, it was I, Batiste, who helped you then, and I, Batiste, shall help you now.”

“If you are, indeed, Batiste, the years have treated you well.”

“Batiste I am, and girl, the centuries have treated me well. Now, tell me what you

thought of your first airplane flight.”

Esmeralda laughs and says,   “Oh yes, I forgot. The obeah-man knows all.”

“Some things never change, and they never will. Now child, the flight.”

“I was not impressed. A fast, stupid way to cross the country, meant for stupid people. If men were intended to fly they would have wings.”

Taking Esmeralda’s hand, Batiste says,   “Men were destined to fly, girl, but only a few. These few, they don’t need foul smelling, roaring monsters of tin to soar, any more than they require baubles to be wealthy.”

“These are things I know nothing about. I do know that when I return, to my home, to my man, to my business, I will take the train. I will rest. I will eat. I will drink, smoke, and look at the countryside and see what I can remember of earlier trips and bygone days. I am in no hurry.”

Batiste shakes his head,   “Now you are in no hurry, but back then, you burnt through your life as if it were gunpowder.”

“We all make mistakes in our youth. Some of us more than others. I am, as you know, one who has made more than my share. Certain mistakes have taken a heavy toll on me, made me weary before my time. Weary and fearful.”

“What is it you fear?”

“I have, with your help, taken vengeance. Vengeance born of hatred, and extracted in a terrible fashion.”


“I now believe this act of revenge to be my greatest mistake.”

“Do you blame me?”

“Of course not. I made a choice, I agreed to pay a price. You helped me at my request, and warned me of a retribution.”

Esmeralda can read nothing in Batiste’s expression when he says,   “And now you whish to renegotiate, perhaps even to renege?”

Esmeralda’s eyes flash,   “I am tired, not weak. I stand ready to reap what I have sown. My life has not been as I had hoped, and it is only recently that I realized that the fault is mine.”

“Have you not made your conquests, achieved your goals?”

Esmeralda’s laugh is bitter,   “Every last one.”

“Yet you find the result disappointing. Why is that child?”

“Conquest is the drug of those made weak by their vanity. As for my goals, they were those of a greedy child.”

Batiste wrinkles his brow,   “Perhaps it isn’t fair for the powerful and mature woman to take on the debt of the weak, greedy child. And yet, these kind of debts must always be resolved. Which of course, is why you are here.”

“Yes, here to square things, now. It is the waiting, decades of it, that I can no longer bear. I would end it now, today, whatever the payment may be.”

“What if I told you that the waiting is part of the payment.”

Esmeralda slams her fist on the table and begins to speak in a harsh, guttural tone,   “I have waited . . . .”

She stops, draws a deep breath, and then continues in a normal voice,   “Forgive me Batiste. If I must wait, then wait I shall, for eons if necessary.”

“Arrogance always extracts a tariff all its own. But, I see by your control, you have learned something about that. Good. Perhaps much, if not all, of your debt has been resolved.”

“How so?”

“There are other worlds where pain is currency, and suffering is gold. In some matters pain offers absolution for some of the mistakes it drives us to. If pain and suffering are the gold of other universes, then love and devotion are their diamonds.”

“Pain has been a life long companion, but not only to me. It would appear to be a credential for membership in the human race. If pain offers absolution we must all be nearing sainthood.”

Batiste laughs,   “It isn’t the pain itself that holds absolution, but rather one’s reaction to it.”

“Batiste, you are familiar with how I reacted to the most painful moment in my life. I sought you out for your powers as an obeah. I had you put those powers to use in the destruction of half a dozen men. Does this type of reaction qualify me for absolution?”

“I am not the judge of these things, but remember, pain isn’t the only currency, love and loyalty count for more.”

“My loyalty has always been to myself. Love? I once loved a beautiful boy called Nando. The boy was growing, changing into a magnificent man, even as I was becoming a woman. Nando the man was stunted, turned into a perpetual child, by the greed of a few animals.”

“So, Esmeralda, let us review your greatest sin. You came to me in your time of pain and fury. Together we brought the existence of a group of monsters to the attention of a greater monster, who consequently destroyed them. Your lack of loyalty? Lie to yourself, if you must, but do not lie to me. You have kept Nando by your side all these many years. You have cared for the child, and you still love what remains of the man. Your tears betray you.”

“Does that mean that my debt has been paid in full?”

“As I said, I am not the judge of these things. I will tell you this, there are other worlds, and there are judgments for us all when we reach them. I can help you reach these worlds, but I can not say what may await you when you arrive.”

“Are you speaking of heaven and hell?”

“The unknown Esmeralda, heaven, hell, or perhaps something totally incomprehensible to us. Or possibly simply a great vacuum, a void.”

“You said you could help me to reach these worlds, can you help me to return?”

“Do not negotiate with me girl. I can only arrange your passage, one way. Whatever transpires when you reach your destination has nothing to do with me. I have told you all that I can. Let me give you something before you leave. You needn’t decide now, in fact weigh your decision carefully as it will be final.”

When the door to Batiste’s shop closed behind her Esmeralda wore the silver chain that the obeah-man had just placed around her neck. While the chain itself had a certain warmth to it, the vial it bore was cold, a frigid sliver of ice snaking it’s way between her breasts.



Even as Esmeralda screwed the vial back into its cap her eyelids had become excruciatingly heavy. Forcing them up she tried to turn her head, it was hard, too hard. As her chin settled on her chest, her lids again began to droop. Straining for a glimpse of Nando, Esmeralda can see only the red glow of the bar lights.


The third, and final, part of CUBAN QUEEN will be posted on Tues 2 / 5.