“Cachumbambé” – Michael Díaz Feito

I.

 

¡Ño! Here I’ll write civilization, which in South Florida is a recent arrival (this, recién llegado, is also my mother’s euphemism, substituting “rafter” or balsero in civil conversation): A phalanx of coontie millers chopped the yellow sedge, tunneling a thoroughfare to Biscayne Bay, and Monmouth grew around this wet thoroughfare, populated by millers, homesteaders, shrimpers, spongers, a hotelkeeper, salvagers, squatters, speculators, fugitives—and in winter, tourists.

They pose for a photograph. An inner V of three women and an outer V of their three husbands in straw hats, with a Seminole, raising a dead alligator tied to a rod, at each end, against a background of palm trees and the pink hotel, which is silver in the gelatin print. These women are weary. Their black sleeves balloon at the shoulders. Buttoned-up bodices narrow their waists and their necks. Under broad-brimmed hats and heavy eyelids, they look left to a hibiscus beyond the frame, where brown anoles fan their dewlaps on the flowers.

The Cubans lugged trunks of cigars, pamphlets, and clothing. They sunk in the thoroughfare. Its green mud, though littered with limestone gravel, shifted, sucking in. Arístida Perejíl y Acosta dropped her trunk. She wiped her trousers. She adjusted her jipijapa hat. She approached the tourists’ photographer. Her partner, Kiko Bencomo, smiling, lifted her trunk beside his and watched.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Is this the hotel?”

“Yes. It is.”

“Ah,” she said. “No sign, sir?”

“Our guests know where they are expected.”

She flushed. “Then,” she said, “you are the hotelkeeper?”

“Yes.”

Kiko groaned impatiently. He turned, lurched off, leaped onto the hotel’s veranda, slapped both trunks against its boards, grunted boastfully. Evander Davies, the hotelkeeper, gasped. The posing tourists gasped. Arístida said, Negro de mierda. Then she signaled Evander again and asked, “So may we rent two rooms?”

He said, “Only one is vacant.”

The dining room’s décor: five wallpapers—pale blue, yellow, printed with hummingbirds, red striped, pink—stuffed hummingbirds, a fiddle, crocodile crania, mirrors (gilded frames), alligator crania, a pewter bust of George Washington, potted orchids, crosses, a glass chandelier, strung sponges, chinoiseries, a daguerreotype of Andrew Jackson, velvet cushions, and an embalmed barracuda. The hotel’s black Pomeranian dog, Vigilant, paced the room. The lady tourists sipped tea. Kiko slurped beef stew. Arístida handed him another napkin, hers.

Kiko said, “Perejilita, mira. Estas mujeres yanquis se parecen a esos pajaritos montados. Están secas. Oye. ¿Me oyes? Necesitan que se las singuen bien. ¿Sabes por qué? Para que vuelvan a animarse, coño. Qué triste. Qué risa.”

Kiko cackles. He wipes his stew-soaked mustache with her napkin. To Arístida, his fat fingers, stained by tobacco, always seem lard-glossed. Y él se parece a un enorme chicharrón con pelo rizado y patas, she says. A redheaded tourist, Minnie White, gazes at Kiko, who continues blustering, gesticulating. Arístida reads her. Una dama digna y seguramente indignada por este guajiro vulgar. Y con el cabello de luminoso rojo y los dedos de rosa. Una dama tan fina y tan rosada como la Aurora. Sí, para mí ella se parece al rosicler hermoso. Es el rosicler de la Florida. She was classically educated.

“Oye, Perejilita. Oye.”

Arístida flushed. “¿Qué coño quieres?” she snapped.

Vigilant bounded toward her, snarling and barking. Kiko cackled. He pulled a cigar from a guayabera pocket, lit it, and chuckled out cinnamic plumes of smoke. Another tourist, Eunice Crawford, stood. She said, “Would you please lower your voices!”

Their husbands rushed into the room. They gripped their wives by the arms and glared at the Cubans. Then the tourists whispered. Henry Crawford finally said, “Eunice, a vulgar man is not to be heeded in any language.”

Now Kiko flushed. Vigilant kept barking.

In their room Arístida unpacked, passing Kiko a stack of pamphlets. He nodded. Then he collapsed by the foot of the bed, yanked a pistol from his waistband, tucked the pamphlets under his head, and soon slept, snoring. Holding a bundle of linen and a portfolio, Arístida sat at the desk. The portfolio carried a letter of introduction and a printed speech, both of which had been prepared in English for the junta’s Key West delegates by the party secretary, José Martí. She studied his speech, soon hers.

At its end she snorted. ¡Pero yo puedo dar un discurso mejor que este chiquito! she said. Bueno, por lo menos en inglés. She put a pencil to “Ladies and Gentlemen.” She hesitated. Untying the bundle of linen, her grandfather’s pistol revealed itself. She fingered its muzzle, seeking inspiration, and suddenly recalled the redheaded tourist, Minnie White. Una tiene que fajarse por la pureza. She revised Martí’s speech.

Her grandfather’s pistol: a Spanish percussion pistol with a patinated and blood-speckled hilt; a pewter side-plate in the form of an extended forearm and fist; a hammer shaped as a horse’s head; a cannon muzzle wrapped by a knurled ring; and gold inlay along the barrel, marking the smith’s work:

De Herras.

Por Isalgué en Santander

Año de 1837

With this pistol, after poisoning his wife’s coffee, setting fire to his sugarcane fields,
freeing his slaves, and settling again in his favorite chair, a wicker rocker, her grandfather, Arístides Acosta y Isalgué, in Camagüey, in that white manor, shot himself, protesting the Pact of Zanjón, as well as the Spaniards’ shameful investigation. That was a proud day.

 

II.

 

Kiko pissed in the chamber pot. Rising early, he left Arístida sleeping. Finishing his fifth cup of the hotel’s coffee, he said, Demasiado aguado y amargo. Then he traversed the thoroughfare. He promoted Arístida’s noon address. Grinning, he distributed cigars gratis. Singing, he distributed pamphlets. Locals laughed when he barked in acceptable, if heavily accented, English. In awe of his kinky hair, a barefoot girl reached for Kiko’s head. He stooped to let the girl wrap her thumb with a big curl. He juggled cigars. He performed as he had been paid to perform.

In a live oak’s shade, Kiko rested, sighing. Two anoles lay among the tree’s roots. With interlocked limbs, twitching, they snapped their little heads in spasms. They watched Kiko without slowing their swiveling. He took them by the tails and raised them, still gripping together, toward his eyes. To him the anoles said, ¿Por qué nos miras? Singamos. Es tan simple. He agreed.

A tablecloth of Seminole patchwork covered the saloon’s long table. Kiko, alone at the table, traced this tablecloth’s patterns with a lonely finger. The room smelled like pine sawdust and sulfur. He finished a sixth shot of rum. A pasty-faced man sipping sherry, Brahnson Lovelace, suddenly slid beside Kiko. Wearing a top hat with a pink band, a pinstriped suit, a polka-dotted waistcoat, a pink cravat—this dandy had a round, recessed chin, and he smirked. He slurred, “How do you do, you fattened bandit?”

Diogenes Teufelsdröckh writes about men who “like moths, may be regarded as Cloth-animals, creatures that live, move, and have their being in Cloth.” Inspecting this “Dandiacal Body,” he only finds “a new modification, adapted to the new time, of the primeval Superstition, Self Worship,” in feckless individuals, that is, wealthy men. I think he underestimates the threat. Dandyism is not just wealthy navel-gazing, nor is it benignly masturbatory. Dandies inexorably ingest silk, cotton, and wool, and epitomize our endless consumption as they effect it. Teufelsdröckh likewise neglects the supernatural horror of the Dandiacal Body: disembodied fabrics, abiotic and auto-assembling, swarming, voracious.

Brahnson says, “I am ruminating. I have finished ruminating. A mulatto freebooter comes from Cuba to fleece tourists for the sake of sedition. That’s the yarn of yourself! I am magnanimity. I advise you to avoid fancy. Family, a fancy plaguing you dagos. Like a nest, the family is a vomitorium. Sloshing there, the bamboozled spirit spoils. Nonessential. Politics, another fancy. The chimerical controversy! Nonessential. Earn silently, I say. Use your only asset, this swarthy sweat. Coin is real. Coin can edify. But if you continue agitating our tourists, then goddamnit, I will fuck your lady friend, and I will eat you.”

He lifts Kiko’s rum bottle. He nods to his valet Floyd, who slouches by the bar.

Wheezing, Floyd walks to Kiko’s side. He opens his jacket, showing a pearl-hilted  revolver. Kiko says, “Wait!”

Floyd draws the revolver, flips it, and hammers Kiko with the hilt. He drops off the
bench. He grasps the tablecloth. It slides from the table, swaddling him.

 

III.

 

At noon, the set time, Arístida mounts an orange crate in the thoroughfare. As ordered, she wears the uncomfortable gown. It has leg-of-mutton sleeves and is green. She awaits an audience. No one watches, because no one is there. A flock of ibises bobs in front of her. She is hurt. She says, Ni mi rosicler ni siquiera Kiko me escuchará. Pero aunque se había recibido el golpe mortal, el Cid montó a Rocinante y se lanzó a la lucha. Ahora soy yo el Cid de los mambises. She reads her speech to the staring ibises. It was a good speech.

Standing at the bay window by his desk, the speculator Brahnson Lovelace, saturated in sunlight, folded Arístida’s letter of introduction and looked up. His office was plain and new, with undecorated walls of unvarnished pine. To Arístida, seated before him, he said, “So?”

“We know about your new schooner,” she said. “Four masts!”

He inhaled noisily and nodded.

“We want an old schooner.”

In a brisk exhale: “No,” he said.

“Let us set a price.”

“No.”

“Ah,” she said. “I bring a gift. Príncipe de Gales!”

She slid forward a glinting cigar box, gold- and green-hued. His fingers drummed it in waltz time.

He said, “No.”

“It is just, our cause. Quote your own Henry Clay—”

“No.”

“‘An oppressed people are authorized, whenever they can, to rise and break their
fetters.’”

He smiled. He gently pushed back the cigar box.

He said, “I only smoke Henry Clays.”

“But in Santo Domingo you were a filibuster!”

“No.”

“Why then did you reply to our telegram?”

He shut his eyes. “No.”

She jumped up, balling her skinny fists.

They stood silently.

‘“Ere fancy you consult,’” Brahnson said finally, ‘“consult your purse.’”

Outside the office, Floyd released Arístida’s arm. She said, “¡Me cago en la mierda!” She opened the cigar box, grabbed a cigar, bit its butt, and spit.

Pushing her shoulder, Floyd said, “Go.”

She scowled. She hurled the cigar box into the thoroughfare. It thumped mud.

Wheezing, Floyd struck a match and lit her cigar. He winked solemnly. The cigar’s spice kindled Arístida’s tongue. “Now go,” said Floyd, “else we call the sheriff.”

Hoisting her skirts, Arístida trudged toward the bay, spewing smoke and saying, ¡Fango! ¡Fango! ¡Fango!

I’m surprised. The Miami River had rapids by Northwest 27th Avenue. It was a short-lived wonder for el Norwes, for my father’s Allapattah: after the railroad’s arrival in 1895, the rapids were dynamited for dredging. Dredge-arms stacked silt in bone-white barrows on the banks. (If I marvel at their destruction, do I restore our rapids?) Monmouth’s thoroughfare spilled its water, so the speculators sold their drained plots to the newest city, Miami. Jersey cows soon grazed the yellow sedge. But without its flowing water, Monmouth stagnated, birthing more mosquitoes than before, and they drained the Jersey cows like wine bladders. Along with shitty sewage, floating cow carcasses spiked the Miami River. I was taught that mayaimi means “sweet water” in Tequesta, because the river’s water was often drunk. Yet the Spaniards christened it Río Ratones. That was the rare name meant to last. Bebamos.

Passing some tourists sipping on the veranda, a Seminole (Doctor Pantherteeth) and Evander bickering in the foyer, and Vigilant sleeping on the stairs, Arístida reached their hotel room. She heard sobbing. She damned Kiko and opened the door. The bed squealed. Minnie White was jostling Kiko, who sobbed under her red hair, which blanketed his head. Her gleaming white nakedness silenced Arístida. Kiko emerged, hissing, “¡Vete pa’ la mierda!”

Arístida stared until Minnie saw her. Then she went to the desk. She unwrapped her
grandfather’s pistol. Kiko said, “¡Cierra la puerta, compay!”

Vigilant yowling, fumes of mercury fulminate, two gunshots, a thud, shrieking tourists—Arístida rushed downstairs, clutching her pistol. Evander crouched over Doctor Pantherteeth, whose blood flooded the foyer. Dropping a revolver, he shook his head and said, “He hit the dog. He hit the dog.”

Tourists circled Evander, soothing him and helping him stand. Vigilant licked Pantherteeth’s lips. Arístida turned. Kiko was on the stairs. Buttoning his shirt, he said, “¡Ño!” and then he said, “¿Oye, a qué hora salimos para San Agustín? Nueva York nos espera.”

Coontie (Zamia floridana), a cycad, precedes the Triassic period, thriving past extinctions. A slow growth of waxy leaves like bronchioles, coontie once formed a continuous cover slowly breathing by the feet of South Florida’s longleaf pines. A cone protrudes out the coontie’s center. The pith of this tumescence—female or male, because like us it’s dioecious—is poisonous. Only after a long milling is coontie, or Florida arrowroot, purified into edible starch. Monmouth’s founding millers had uprooted what they found waiting. Unwilling to wait for its leisurely growth, they didn’t plant coontie. So it’s gone. But I saw one buried unmarked in a cement bed by Miami’s city hall. Before us, Seminoles, evading the U.S. army in the Everglades, survived on coontie. The plant’s name is derived from their conti hateka, or “white bread.”

Scraping by mangroves’ salty stems, Arístida seeks a secluded bay shore to weep at dusk. Crabs plop into wet land, splattering muck on her catching gown, which is already pierced. The moon is up early. It is big in the branches. A hissing possum halts Arístida’s progress. Its eyes glow. It sees her. It says, Te llamó compay. ¿Qué más quieres? Its jaws open, showing rows of small needles. She gives it her grandfather’s pistol. The possum clenches its teeth on the pistol and drags it under a mangrove’s feet.
 


 

Michael Díaz Feito is a Cuban American writer from Miami, Florida. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The Acentos Review, Jai-Alai Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, theEEEL, and Flapperhouse. You can find Michael’s work at michaeldiazfeito.com and follow him on Twitter @diazmikediaz. He currently dwells in Inwood, Manhattan, with his girlfriend Naomi and their dog Finn.