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?”
“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
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. Panama
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.