Love and Ghost Lettersby Chantel Acevedo
On the day she is born, Josefina Navarro's nursemaid foretells misfortune. But for the young socialite in pre-Castro Cuba, her life in Havana with her Sergeant of police father is idyllic. That is, until she falls in love with Lorenzo, a penniless man who takes her away to the impoverished town of El Cotorro, and her father disowns her. Josefina comes to wish her
On the day she is born, Josefina Navarro's nursemaid foretells misfortune. But for the young socialite in pre-Castro Cuba, her life in Havana with her Sergeant of police father is idyllic. That is, until she falls in love with Lorenzo, a penniless man who takes her away to the impoverished town of El Cotorro, and her father disowns her. Josefina comes to wish her father dead but regrets it after the Sergeant is assumed killed in a student-led riot. One day, mysterious letters from the Sergeant begin to arrive, telling her the truth about his past. The ghostly letters become her link to love.
Set in Miami and Cuba and covering nearly fifty years of that island's history, Love and Ghost Letters unfolds the lives of the members of the Navarro-Concepción families in the patterns and permutations of memory, and conjures a Cuban setting that evokes mysticism and magic.
“[An] exceptionally fine first novel…. Acevedo shapes each of her characters with clear-eyed reverence, guiding their steps in measured, lyrical prose that is often breath-taking, exquisite…. And this is the author's genius: the line she walks between fact and fairy tale, history and wistful story, the magic that radiates, naturally, from the quirks and coincidences of daily life and what is (often) too easily celebrated--or dismissed--as otherworldly, supernatural.” A. Manette Ansay for The Chicago Tribune
“Acevedo is a fine storyteller…. [Love and Ghost Letters] unfolds with a leisurely pleasure that feels like magic realism.” Christian Science Monitor
“Acevedo, a first-generation Cuban-American, lyrically illustrates the changing social, economic and political landscape in this tumultuous period in Cuba's history. She has filled her novel with enchanting details, down to the red, white and blue paper roses at that first society dance and the recipes Josefina's nanny concocts to make Lorenzo faithful to his wife.” Miami Herald
“[Acevedo's] writing is luscious, painting beautifully tragic pictures. Love and Ghost Letters takes a hard look at how closely wedded love and money are, without turning away from the ugliness of social inequality. The magic of the narrative is in the weaving of the personal with the public with such a poetic sensibility and fluidity of style that the reader is completely submerged into the trials of a Cuban family and the contradictions of Cuban society.” South Florida Sun-Sentinel
“...a quirky, charming story of filial love...a distinctly Latin mystique and a style of writing that juxtaposes the mysterious and the mundane.” Miami Today
“Love and Ghost Letters is an enchanting novel; a heartfelt story, it tells volumes about the intimate life and loves of a family in pre-Castro Cuba. Along the way, it captures, beautifully, the atmosphere and emotions of a time which, both Cuban Americans and many an American reader, will find both reminiscent and fulfilling. A great debut.” Oscar Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love: A Novel and A Simple Habana Melody
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Love and Ghost Letters
By Chantel Acevedo
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Chantel Acevedo
All rights reserved.
When Josefina Navarro was an infant, her fortune was told. The maid, Regla, knew nothing of coffee grinds, she did not throw shells, nor did she have visions. She did what the country people always do — she looked at the tiny fingernails of the baby, at the white flecks embedded underneath, and proclaimed to Josefina's father that the child was to be unhappy and tormented all her life. Perhaps the reason she saw such a future was the time itself, the past century still a part of the island's memory, a place where the poor were fearsomely poor and the rich awesomely rich, with Regla trapped by both conditions. Her employer and Josefina's father, Antonio Navarro, a sergeant of Havana's police who never lost his Spaniard's lisp, was wary of the divinations of his black servant and began the habit of pressing his lips together with his fingers whenever the superstitious maid spoke of prophecy. When Josefina was old enough to understand, Regla would whisper stories of the saints and the sacrifices made to them, she'd fill Josefina's bath with daisy petals and rub honey in her hair when she was ill, and she'd string chains of colored beads and slip them around the girl's neck at night. These were the rituals she knew, and she did all of them to protect the child and to make sure that the long-ago vision would not come true.
Years later, Josefina would spend her nights pulling together scraps of detail from Regla's stories, dreaming of damp little houses with dirt floors muddied with chicken blood and Regla somewhere inside, stamping her feet and praying to the listening saints. In these dreams she always saw a beautiful woman on her knees in the corner of the room, praying through the noise of the sacrificial killing. She liked to imagine the lovely figure was her mother, though Josefina had only seen her in the portrait her father kept hidden in his closet.
In the mornings, Josefina would wonder at the presence of her mother in the dreams, since Josefina thought little of her in the daylight. Her mother had died in childbirth, and Josefina often scolded herself for not loving her mamá more, for not lighting a candle for her on the day of her death, the day of Josefina's own birth. When Josefina was eight, she had come to her father in a guilty, crying fit brought on by a nun, who had said it was a mortal sin to forget your mother, even if you had never known her. The sergeant wagged a heavy finger at her and said that he found nuns to be extraordinarily stupid.
Josefina found herself somewhere between her father's heretic views and Regla's undying faith. She loved the romance of Regla's beads and her African gods, and these were the ones she found herself praying to every year on the anniversary of her mamá's death. At the same time she loved the arrogance and pomp of her father's world, with its music lessons and society dances.
It was at one of those society dances, held by La Sociedad Juvenil de la Habana during the month of May, in 1933, that Josefina first met Lorenzo and finally chose somewhere between her father's world and Regla's. She was seventeen — old enough for the monotony of marriage, young enough that the air around her was still redolent with passion and romantic notions. The dance was held in the courtyard of the society's hall, with hibiscus blooming yellow around the dancing youth and clinging to the iron gates that encircled the building. The society mothers lit the courtyard with torches and made paper roses in the red, white, and blue colors of the flag, tying them to the trunks of the courtyard palms. Silver buffet trays, also adorned with the colorful paper roses, held lobster tails and fresh fruit, diced into perfect cubes. On that evening, Josefina was dancing a long danzón with a boy who was the governor's nephew, when she saw a pale face looking out from a pair of golden blooms outside the fence.
Lorenzo Concepción, whose visage was made whiter by the harvest of black hair on his head that was framed between twisted iron rails, tracked her while she danced. Josefina matched the steps of her dance partner, every shuffle and rotation. While he spoke to her of next month's dance and the space on her dance card that was surely just for him, she watched the white face behind the iron gate as he watched her, too.
Near the end of the evening, she feigned a headache, stumbling away from the governor's nephew. She promised him another danzón and pulled a chair near the white face behind the gate. She slipped the gloves off her hands and folded them, twirled a painted Spanish fan around her wrist, and remembered to press at her temple, frowning, when someone looked in her direction. Often, she'd turn to look at the dancers and would be able to see the white face out of the corner of her eye, and once, she looked at him directly by mistake, then pretended to admire the flowers on the gate, going so far as to purse her lips and pull together her eyebrows as if she were studying the blooms. Though he had moved considerably closer, still the white-faced boy would not speak. She could see his toes, pushing through the green branches of the hibiscus, covered in wet grass. A beetle crawled over his foot. When she gasped at the sight, the foot, as well as the face, disappeared into the night.
I have seen thousands of beetles in my lifetime, she chided herself for gasping, noting how quickly he had gone at her small pant. She picked a fork from a table nearby, sat down once more, and began raking the dirt where the beetle had been, pulling up skinny roots, cigarette butts, and several gnats that flew into the air. And then, as if by magic, the white-faced boy appeared again. And this time, he spoke.
"Why are you getting your hands dirty?" he asked.
She drew the fan open and covered her mouth, keeping one hand over her temple.
"I was looking for the beetle that you frightened away."
"Insects fascinate you?" he asked, backing away into the darkness, his features obscured in the night. She could hear his feet crunching the ground below as he walked away.
"Yes, I suppose," was her reply. She sensed that this approach was no more charming than the former.
He appeared once more, close to the fence, now fixing his eyes on her in a mean sort of glance, and said, "I liked you better when you danced," disappearing into the dark again.
"Please don't go," she whispered. "This was all so dull before."
"I won't leave. My name is Lorenzo, I am twenty and live alone, I have no money, and I drink rum and whiskey. Do you still want me to stay?"
"Then tell me your name."
"Josefina Navarro." They spoke low and hurriedly, hiding in the shadows cast by the lanterns.
"Do you know, mi amor," he began, endearing himself to her with the tender mention of love, "I picked you out from that crowd of girls right away. You aren't the prettiest one, you know."
Josefina had not known. Her chest hurt suddenly when he said it.
Lorenzo shifted his weight on the fence. "It's in the eyes, mi amor. The others, while they dance, look at their partners' groomed eyebrows, search for wrinkles in their expensive dresses — that sort of thing. But you look around as if the shadows themselves were reaching out to take you. Your eyes are huge, Josefina, like a frog, it seems to me. You are scared of something, I can tell. And just then, when you danced that awful danzón, your eyes were bulging out of your face, twitching even, to find something, just like a frog."
Lorenzo's voice had risen in pitch, and his fingers, thin like bamboo reeds, grasped the iron bars. He sensed Josefina's stillness. Her eyes, quite as large as Lorenzo had noticed, seemed larger now, and her forehead was the color of cherry red from her effort to keep from crying.
"Josefina," he continued, "you stared about you, at the shadows around you, and you found me stuck behind this gate." He smiled then, barely a smile, so that only one of his front teeth poked out from between his lips. Josefina stood, not caring who might see her, and gripped the iron bars. She studied the half smile intensely. The longer she stared, the less human Lorenzo looked. He appeared to liquefy before her, into one large mass of inky darkness. Perhaps he was one of the shadows he mentioned, poised to consume her in its fold.
"I won't hurt you. That's what you're afraid of, isn't it?" Lorenzo said, breaking the silence of her hard stare. Before he left he thrust a rusted medal into her hand that he had found on the floor a few days earlier. It was so worn that the saintly relief figure was unrecognizable. He whispered, "For good luck," and "I'll see you soon, my beautiful doll," before dissolving into the humid darkness.
That evening, Josefina crept into Regla's little room downstairs, her crinoline skirt rustling under the bedcovers as she slipped in beside the sleeping woman. Josefina shook her, dangling the medal in front of the maid's leathery nose, and told her the story of Lorenzo and what he had said.
"He's handsome, Regla, dark and long, like a late afternoon shadow." Josefina chuckled to herself with the comparison, so lovely did she think it, but Regla only frowned, remembering the destiny of this girl before her and thinking that shadows were not the way to avert a bad fortune.
Regla held the medal to a candle on her nightstand, scratched at the rust with her fingernail and said, "This, niña, is Oshun, the goddess of marriage," and then, laughing aloud and exclaiming a series of rapid "Dios míos," Regla grasped Josefina's hands, saying, "It is a sign of good luck." She kissed Josefina on the forehead and they fell asleep easily that night, with Regla's heavy arms around the girl, one of her fat hands still clutching the medal.
* * *
The sergeant did not approve of Lorenzo Concepción, of his white shirts with the frayed hems, of his slick hair, of the manner in which the young man always forgot to remove his straw hat upon entering the house, and the way he leaned on the sergeant's car, tapping his fingers on the hood of the new Ford Coupe, one of the few very modern automobiles in the neighborhood, as he said his afternoon good-byes to Josefina. He did not like the way Lorenzo picked wild flowers for Josefina instead of bringing her roses, as a gentleman would do, and how he often divided the bouquet up and gave half to Regla, who would puff up with pride. As for Lorenzo's means of living, the sergeant was even more disturbed. To the sergeant it appeared that Lorenzo was all things at once. In the summer he claimed to work in carpentry, and a few months later, picking his teeth with a fish bone and putting up his swollen feet on the table in the parlor, he claimed to be a fisherman. And when Lorenzo came to the house one morning with a red carnation sticking up out of his shirt pocket to ask the sergeant for his daughter's hand, exactly one year after the dance where he had enchanted her from behind a fence, Lorenzo held his fist to his heart and swore that he had finally found work binding books in the city.
* * *
The proposal had taken the sergeant by surprise, though he could not stay and nurse the blow. He had been invited to a weeklong officers' retreat in the sierras of Pinar del Río province that he could not evade, if he wanted a salary raise for the next year. The hotel where the officers stayed, Hotel Organo, was nestled between two breast-shaped mountains that protruded from flat plains. The policemen who gathered from all of the provinces took many photographs of the formations, pointing to their own copper-buttoned chests, riotous grins on their faces. The valley between the mountains teemed with movement and fretted with the noises of birds in the morning and crickets at dusk, scorning the officers and their crudity.
The night before he left for the sierras, a mountain range he knew as a young boy, when he and his brother first arrived from Spain and were handed rifles, prepared to fight in the war for independence, he stood in the doorway of Josefina's room for a long while. She watched him through sleepy eyes in the bright light of the hallway, his tall figure like a resplendent apparition that pulsed and threatened to disappear. She finally called out to him, "Papá, come in," and he did, sitting on the edge of her bed so that the mattress tipped and Josefina had to shift to maintain her balance.
"Would you like to hear a Tío Francisco story?" the sergeant asked her, his voice timid in the dark. It was the same voice he had used when she was a child, and he told her funny stories of her lost uncle's antics as a boy. The muted way her father spoke of his brother was tender, and Josefina remembered now, in the dark, how well those stories calmed her during tropical thunderstorms that lit up her room like a bursting camera flash, how her stomach hurt from laughter, and how the sergeant never seemed to run out of stories to tell. They were happy, brightly painted stories, but Josefina sensed, even as a child, that there might be more to them, an element of danger, of romance, that her father was leaving out.
"Sí, Papá," Josefina said and put her hand into her father's.
He began, "I've always said your uncle was a Wednesday boy, always in the middle." The sergeant cleared his throat and wiped his mouth with the back of his free hand. "There was this one time when we were about nine years old, back in Spain. There was a hill behind the house with a paved path on it, lined with jonquils that Francisco loved to trample. He had an idea — to ride down the hill on a wheelchair that belonged to our grandmother."
Josefina laughed, because she knew what everyone knew — that riding someone else's wheelchair brought only the worst of luck. She remembered how a schoolmate named Danette, a pretty French girl with unwieldy curls, borrowed her grandmother's wheelchair and rode it to school. The next day, Danette's red-haired cocker spaniel was found crushed to a pulp in the street.
"Because I was smaller," the sergeant continued, "Francisco shoved me into the chair first. He stood behind me, his hands on the handle and his feet dug into my back, as we started down the hill. I remember how the street lamps were a sickening blur as we rolled by. At the bottom of the hill was a road and as we shot toward it, a carriage with a huge, pregnant mare hauling crates of squawking chickens came up the road." The sergeant laughed and so did Josefina. She released his hand to cover her mouth, as she always did when she felt her giggles were becoming loud and gaudy.
"Francisco broke his leg when he landed underneath the fat mare and I tore my elbows open." In the dark, the sergeant lifted his shirtsleeve to show off the scar. Josefina could see nothing in the shadowy room, but she nodded her head.
When the soft, familial laughter died down, the sergeant straightened his back and cleared his throat once more. "Mi hija," he said, "I was never able to change Francisco. He was reckless until the day he died."
"Tell me how he ..." Josefina interrupted, but the sergeant, his voice no longer timid, would not be interrupted.
"You cannot change a foolish man, even when he is still just a boy. You will not change Lorenzo." The sergeant stood, and the dreamy apparition that Josefina had seen in the doorway was gone in him.
"There is nothing I want to change, Papá," Josefina said and covered herself with a blanket, though the heat was stifling. The sergeant left without another word. He was always that way, in complete control, Josefina thought. She closed her eyes and forced herself to dream of Lorenzo, and the thought of him thrilled her, like an ice cube sliding slowly down her back.CHAPTER 2
The sergeant, at first, did not want to leave his daughter alone in Vedado. He thought of her little room with the balcony that faced east. He thought of her open closet that always spit out dresses and pumps when the doors opened, and of the pianoforte he had given her for her fifteenth birthday, tucked into a specially built niche of the room. He could even hear the tinkling strains of "Clair de Lune" as his daughter played at night. And above all this, he imagined Lorenzo walking in through the front door after sundown and staying with Josefina all night in that very room amid ribbons and porcelain dolls. He believed that Regla would never know, so often did she close herself up in her quarters chanting to her saints. Still, he left the maid with instructions.
Excerpted from Love and Ghost Letters by Chantel Acevedo. Copyright © 2005 Chantel Acevedo. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Chantel Acevedo is a first-generation Cuban-American whose childhood combined American modernity with traditional Cuban values. She attended the M.F.A. creative writing program at the University of Miami on a James Michener Fellowship. She has won two Fulbright Awards for secondary education.
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