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Gradually they are herded together on the sports field-the smell of bruised grass, mixed with the new smell of olive green gabardine. They are kept standing at attention beyond the limits of their strength. Finally they fall, one by one or in groups, casualties of the effects of the vaccinations in their backs, exhaustion from the drawn-out processing when they arrived, and this punishment by the sun. Too much weight for their eleven years, which is the average age of the thirty elements in the platoon, the hundred and twenty elements in the company, the five hundred elements in the battalion-the new boys of 1969.
The runway of a former military airport is now a kilometer-long strip of blazing hot gravel that runs between the gigantic barracks and the mess hall. Another five hundred meters diagonally across the landscape lie the classrooms. Out on the periphery, the sports field and the parade ground. Beyond that, and all around, the vast woods of pine and casuarina, the high-tension line with its eternal menacing whine, and the fences that stand between the pride of being in the school and the ordinariness of being some guy in the street, a hippie bum, a little faggot with tight pants or long hair.
He cannot seem to get rid of his little-boy sadness-or, from underneath his fingernails, the black shoe polish. His relief valve is fighting. There is always a good reason handy. And when there's not, he invites some friend of his to trade a few punches with him, as though they were really getting it on. If he can find another boy who needs to let off a little steam, they go out behind the showers. There, where nobody will step in, they immerse themselves in the ritual until they both drop, exhausted. Then they return to the classrooms all smiles, their arms around each other despite the bruises and black eyes, like the buddies that they are.
The principal (the "director") is a captain who gives the impression of an easygoing sort of guy. He also has an intelligent face, which is the perfect cover for his rigid mind. The battalion commander, a hero of the war of liberation and many other combats, managed to make lieutenant only because he lacked every possible degree of culture. Nothing saves him from being called a "limping caravel" as he drags his skin-and-bones self around on a leg rendered useless by a bullet. The battalion political officer is the perfect caricature of a Neanderthal, incapable of pronouncing his own name without making a mistake, incapable of treating a subordinate with respect or addressing a superior with dignity. His occupation: stuffing the refrigerator in his office with the food he steals from the students' mess and then wrapping it with twine, knotted so he'll be able to detect any tampering. The company commander is a sad sack who fought in all the wars without being promoted past corporal until the day he came to the school and formalities required that he be given a sergeant's stripes. The platoon leader, another sergeant, black to the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands-even his gums black-has emerged from some cane field to become, within a month, an infantry instructor, a position he obtained because he knows how to read and write.
They are "elements." The boys who will be made men so they can defend la Patria. Their parents' pride. A few more years and they'll be officers in the various services, men of courage and chests full of medals. They bear the entire weight of this pyramid and the full brunt of its harsh rigors. Some come to resemble the machinery that depersonalizes them. Most simply bear up, waiting for the moment they can have their revenge. Others can't take it, and they choose suicide, or their bodies can't take what their spirits refuse to accept and they crumple on the parade ground or fall casualties to accidents in the field. One fakes madness and eats mud out of the mud puddles or sings at the top of his lungs as the sun comes up. That one there hits an officer so they'll expel him, and he lands in the stockade. Those over there make as much trouble as they can think of, so they won't get their passes and for months on end won't see the city, which they hope will make their parents, moved to pity, come take them out of the school. It is a mute struggle that goes on for three, four years. The most seasoned warriors are barely sixteen years old.
Most of them feel themselves not so much the students' teachers as their allies against the strict code of military discipline. The female teachers are also the greatest-in fact, only-temptation in this closed, secluded, and solitary place. There are no female students, so every female smell, seductive image, or sweet word possible in this place comes from those girls who cannot be more than twenty, twenty-two-the very peak of ripeness. And the boys are calibrated to catch the slightest vibration of those fallen angels. One sensitive student can't resist; he holds the hand of the girl-teacher who speaks to him with calculated sensuality, brings up inflammatory topics so distant from the classroom subject yet so appropriate to the tense and lustful atmosphere that fills the room. That other boy lacks the self-confidence needed for that, so he contents himself with dropping a little mirror on the floor so he can look up under the charitably short skirt. Other boys peek over the shower walls, hoping to discover a breast unfettered and offered up to the air, the light, their gazes. One of the oldest boys, a daring lad, tries to seduce a biology teacher with dark skin and blue eyes, and she allows herself to be seduced. When the story reaches the ears of those same officers who hound the girls with their brute lecherousness, the two are expelled from paradise for immoral behavior. Seduction aside, all the teachers are good friends. They get the boys alcohol from the infirmary or bring them cigarettes from town. One night they cover for several students who escape to attend a pop concert. But the officers get wind of it and give orders that in the future, teachers are to wear olive drab and are not allowed free passage in and out. And so they break the last link to the noisy, rowdy life that goes on outside the fences, beyond the woods.
Enormous expanses of red powder and gravel, with little pools of water. All the harshness, all the severity of the weather in these few acres. Then, the cement floors polished with burlap and kerosene, the walkways lined with rocks painted over and over again with white lime. The latrines, two footprints in a mound of dirt, with a horrible hole between them. Little concrete partitions that barely shield the sides, while along the front pass mockers and voyeurs. The showers, a huge room with a line of showerheads along each side. And everywhere humidity, infection, immodesty verging on indecency. Cleaning the barracks that holds a hundred and twenty people is four elements' daily detail. Make the bed so tight a coin will roll across it, or else a hundred push-ups. Track down and destroy the dust in every corner of that desert. Keep your overalls spotless, the overalls worn the whole week long-for sports, for military exercises, for working in the barracks, in the classrooms, in the mess hall. The zinc roofs, white-hot griddles in that implacable flat plain. The blue sky, sometimes menacing or openly enraged, always a handy chalkboard that they can secretly draw their favorite dreams on. And the clouds of soft, fine mineral powder-blurring, blinding, stinging, prodding.
Nature and its sounds. The wind that never stops hissing in the tops of the pine trees and the casuarinas, as it catches on the corrugations of the roofs and especially in the thick high-voltage lines that pinch off the farthest corner of the school. The sound of the wind causing a mute dread at every hour of the day and night. And panic at sunrise. Once in a while, there is the rumbling sound of lightning or the drone of a plane from the military airport nearby flying low over the school grounds, seeming to mock the slowness and tedium of that place below. Or the bell, with its periodic clanging marking out time. The clamoring, echoing world of the school. The sounds of the school, and of absolutely nothing else.
On rare occasions, routine is broken by an assembly for the whole school or practice for some upcoming parade. One winter night, the parade ground is filled with all fifteen hundred elements, formed up in ranks and in strict silence. Into the cold, teeming air pours a voice from the loudspeakers, giving the play-by-play of the final game of the baseball world championship. The national team against the enemy. It is a patriotic act to listen to the game. At the last minute, our team wins with an explosive home run. But not everyone joins in the celebration. Many boys have been half asleep for a good while-standing there, not daring to request permission to return to the barracks. No officer would have given permission for such a thing anyway. No allowance can be made for ideological weakness.
He would be a wonderful student if he behaved normally. He has average intelligence, but his parents insist that he be the best in everything. He makes up for his shortcomings by constantly buttering up the officers and putting down his classmates. At the end of his four years, his record is one of the best. But on his record there are also reports of puerile attempts on his life and beatings received from the fifteen hundred enemies he has so scrupulously cultivated.
Group by group, they march into the classrooms, which are still like ovens shimmering with the heat accumulated throughout the day. They march in single file and come to a halt, each boy alongside his own desk. When the order is given, they sit. Their pupils slowly adjust to the yellowish light of the three bulbs that pretend to illuminate the entire school. Soon, two boys come in with a big box of books, which they distribute randomly around the room. The Volokolansk Highway, A True Man, or volume 2 of Les Misérables. No one protests, no one says a word, no one tries to choose the book he wants. No one stops reading, or pretending to read. The book begun today will be broken off the next night by another. History Will Absolve Me, The Three Musketeers, or The Battle of Stalingrad. The title is unimportant. This book, too, will have to be put aside when the sergeant suddenly orders everyone to stand at attention and march out of the classroom. The ritual is continued every reading night, once or twice a week. A good soldier has to be well educated.
His parents sent him to the school to put a little "life," a little "spirit" in him and to make him strong. In his absentmindedness, his daydreaming, his quietness, they've seen a trace of weakness, and they have sent him here to make a man of him, in the military life. He is thirteen years old and speaks perfect English. All he's interested in is books. He skips formations to go out and lie in the grass somewhere and read. He's not interested in science, hygiene, or sports. He is neither graceful nor funny, and his only friends are two or three other lunatics who attend the school in the same absentminded way that he does. He is unmoved by push-ups, by corporal punishment-by punishment of any kind. Don't worry, even if they stand me up before a firing squad and shoot me, they'll never make a soldier out of me, he says, turning his eyes and mind back to his book.
Guinea grass chokes the fields of lemon and orange trees. The rain turns them into swampland. The legion of little olive green figures sinks into the loblolly of grass and mud. Across the sea of vegetation, pickaxes and mattocks look like the arcs of a huge school of flying fish. The blades fall furiously, cutting down the plants, amputating their roots. One, a hundred, a thousand times, the same act-in the sun, the rain, the mud, the insects, the hunger, and under the omnipresent eyes of the sergeants, always ready to shout, insult, give demerits, deliver a beating ...
The ongoing wrestling match between adolescence and the young manhood growing stronger every day can be seen in the boys' features. Sometimes in the eyes and ears, sometimes in the fuzz that soon will be a beard, a mustache. The big hands, the disproportionate extremities. And in all this sprouting, burgeoning growth, the shaved head-a terrible mockery that hounds the boys and brings them to bay with dismaying regularity.
The platoon marches into the lobbylike room of the Quonset hut fitted out as a barbershop. There are three men brought in from town-strangers, to avoid any possibility of special pleading. Coldly, implacably, their machines mow down the hair-that last trace of rebelliousness, as the officers see it. The sergeant major, the platoon leader, or the lieutenant, depending on how the "crusade against ideological diversionism" is going, calls out the victims by their number. Elements 603, 604, and 605-in the chairs! The operation is uniform and impersonal. They are three numbered creatures who take their seats in unison before the barbers, whose hair is clipped to the scalp in unison by the barbers, and who rise in unison from the barber chairs, looking as they are intended to look-like Uniform Man. Nothing personal, nothing distinctive. Just obey. Orders are followed, not discussed. Followed, not debated. Followed, not argued over. But this time, the machinery skips a beat. In the long count, four elements are missing. Someone asks permission to report that they are hospitalized. The sergeant hesitates, then notes it down. Everyone knows it's not true, but this time not even the worst snitches dare denounce them. The breach of discipline is too serious. The four boys hide in the surrounding woods and do not return until the whole company's hair has been cut. They, and those who secretly carry them food and water, have held out and gained three more weeks of proud life.
In these four years, all the humor generated by humankind is worn away. But his wit disappears neither out on the parade ground, nor in the cane field, nor even in the periodic fights when he takes more than he hands out. A rip in his uniform gets him a demerit and a warning to sew it up on the spot. Here comes Element 851 with a sock sewn to his shoulder, like the epaulet of some distinguished generalissimo. He manages to avoid punishment and bad grades by making people laugh. Years later, his laughter is cut off in a helicopter downed by enemy fire in a distant war.
1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... and 1 ...
The shoe leather smacks the pavement and the footsteps echo like the discharge of artillery off the walls of the colonial houses. The radiant faces, the eyes fixed forward, savoring the pride of their martial spirit, just as they've been taught. People say even the army doesn't do it as well as they do. Their skin vibrates with each step. The onlookers marvel-the girls, picking out the most gorgeous ones; the relatives, trying to find their boy in that multiple-exposure picture in motion. They see the tip of the iceberg. They have no idea of the thirteen daily formations, the kilometer-long marches to the mess hall-left, right, left, right ... The leaders compete by showing the pedigree of their trained animals. Orders called out, the cadence more and more exacting: "ONE ... TWO ... THREE ... FOUR ... and ONE ... TWO ..." and the sweat running down their backs until the thick fabric of their dirty uniforms absorbs it as voraciously as the boys when they fall upon the mess, chewing their hatred of the lieutenant, fanning their feet and heads against the terrible heat and the exhaustion.
Excerpted from New Short Fiction from Cuba
Copyright © 2007 by Jacqueline Loss and Esther Whitfield. Excerpted by permission.
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