March 7, 1961 Bahia de Cabañas Cuba
The older brother moved first. More competitive, faster, he grabbed his swim fins, mask, and spear from the backseat. He dashed down the slope. The younger one hooted after him, not caring so much to win a race to the water. He knew his luck ran better; he would catch the most fish, as always.
“Rodrigo!” his brother called to him up the hill. He walked carefully, barefoot over the limestones and scraggy shells. “Slowpoke!” Manuelito made a show of putting on his mask and fins at the water’s edge. He held up the spear, then splashed ahead. Rodrigo watched his brother kick, chopping froth behind his fins, to be first into the bay.
Rodrigo sat unconcerned in the sand. He wet the fins to slide them on better and spit into his mask. He stepped into the water, pleased at the flatness of the surface today. The sun shone from straight above, the visibility underwater would be ideal.
Rodrigo walked until the water rose to his knees. He kneeled forward and let his buoyancy take over, then propelled himself with a kick of the fins. He gazed down and ahead; the shelf of sand fell off quickly to deeper water, to the small coral reef only fifty meters from shore that was off-limits.
Schools of yellowtail and blue creole wrasses swam to meet him with curiosity. When Rodrigo offered nothing of interest, they dispersed. He paddled along the surface watching the sand bottom slope away. When the depth reached eight meters, the outskirts of the reef began to appear, small brain coral heads and elkhorn coral, sea whips and sea fans. Rodrigo and Lito did not know this reef so well as the ones of Bahia Honda fifteen kilometers west. Those were closer to their home and not the private preserve of Fidel Castro. But the boys had speared wonderful Nassau grouper in this place twice before, and had not been caught or bothered by anyone. They decided to come again today, a perfect day.
Staying on the surface, Rodrigo kicked until the reef beneath him grew denser. The tops of the coral lay ten meters below him, the sand bottom three meters more. He swam a wide circle, looking for Lito. For minutes he did not see his brother; Lito was the stronger swimmer and could stay down fantastically long. But Rodrigo had eyes for movement, a knowledge for fish his brother could not match. While Lito thrashed about on the bottom, lunging into holes, chasing, and stabbing, Rodrigo cruised, quiet and belonging on the reef, until his spear betrayed his intent.
He saw bubbles dribble out of the coral. Lito was in a crevice, chasing something. His brother emerged empty-handed, cheeks puffed with the last of his lungs. He did not speak when he surfaced beside Rodrigo but only gulped air, then propelled himself again to the bottom. Upside down, Lito looked up to Rodrigo and held his hands apart, to imply a medium-sized grouper.
Rodrigo drew a deep breath and dove. He kicked easily, wasting no motion or air. He settled on the sand beneath a jagged brow of the coral. Here in the blue depth the greens and aquas muddied to gray, orange faded toward bilious brown, and when a spear caught a fish in the heart, the brilliance of blood was never more than rust.
Rodrigo waited, releasing no bubbles. He held himself on the bottom with a hand gentle on the reef, to break nothing. He listened to the grinding rustle of sand on the other side of the coral wall where his brother worked to corner his grouper. Rodrigo stayed patient, knowing Lito might spook something out of the reef his way.
He exhaled a slow stream of bubbles to ease his lungs. Smaller denizens of the reef came to investigate—some grunts too little to take, a spider crab peeked at him then retreated. Rodrigo peered into the shadows at the bottom of the coral to be certain no morays lived there.
A burst of Lito’s bubbles boiled out of the coral. A metallic thud sounded. Lito had loosed his spear but the noise was metal striking rock. Lito had missed. Rodrigo caught a flutter to his left; a grouper sped into the open trailing frightened puffs of feces. He watched his brother rise out of a crack in the reef, loose spear dangling at the end of its tether. Lito reeled the lance in and kicked to the surface for a quick breath. Rodrigo loaded his spear in his own hand, pulling the long shaft back, stretching the rubber belt anchored around his wrist.
That moment, a large blackfin snapper ambled around the corner of the coral head not two meters from Rodrigo’s fins. The fish had seen Lito, had watched the grouper escape, and decided to follow suit while the predator was away. Rodrigo rolled to his side, swinging the spear into play before the snapper could react. He let go the long shaft, the sling launched the spear forward; the tip pierced the snapper just behind the gills. The fish went crazy. Blood inked the water in the ragged circle the snapper danced, tugging the lanyard at Rodrigo’s wrist. He hauled the fish in, grabbed the still shivering lance, and showed it to Lito who was nearing the surface. His brother shook a fist down at him. Rodrigo had struck first.
Lito took a breath and headed back down. Rodrigo kicked to the surface, to take the snapper to shore to put it in the cooler in the car. A small barracuda arrived to watch, keeping its distance, intrigued by the blood.
The snapper weighed on Rodrigo’s arm. It flicked its fins, desperate to get off the barbed tip of the spear. Rodrigo felt every spasm of the dying fish through the shaft. He lifted his head above water to take a breath and look to shore.
A man stood in the sand on the edge of the water.
The man saw him and waved both arms. He was big, stout in a green guayabera and khakis. He wore something around his neck, sunglasses. No, binoculars.
Rodrigo lifted his mask to see better. He snorted to clear his ears, then heard what the man was yelling at him.
“Get out of the water!”
Rodrigo licked his lips, salty. Under the surface, the snapper struggled.
“Fidel!” the man shouted, pointing at the road.
Rodrigo raised a hand, to say he had heard and understood. He pulled the mask back over his eyes. The snapper wriggled, refusing to die. Rodrigo took a deep breath and dove to fetch his brother. There would be trouble if they were caught fishing in Fidel’s private cove. Of all the mala suerte.
He spotted Lito on the bottom, on the trail of the grouper. Rodrigo could not catch up to his brother quickly if he dragged this snapper along. He couldn’t wait for Lito to surface; his brother could stay down minutes—too long, with Fidel on the way. Without regret, he pushed down the barb and slid the fish off the lance. The snapper fooled itself that it was free and kicked once. That exhausted it; the fish rolled over dead.
Rodrigo surfaced, to move faster and put himself above his brother. Below, Lito crept hand over hand along the reef, not as sensitive as Rodrigo to the life of the coral, thinking only of the grouper. Unseen to Lito, his grouper scampered out the other side of the coral, staying low across the sand flat.
Rodrigo kicked hard. If they were found here, there was no telling what Fidel would do to them. Fidel was a man of the people, a revolutionary, but he liked his sport and this was his reef, everyone knew that. The brothers might be taken out of school and put in jail, they might have to serve in the militia. They could lose their father’s car. Rodrigo had no more time to count his fears; his brother was swimming over the top of the reef, suspecting now where the grouper had fled. Rodrigo, fighting to control his breathing after the fast swim over the surface, took a breath and dove.
Lito was in the sand flat now, on his knees staring after the grouper, deciding whether to give chase again. Rodrigo saw him shrug and look up. Lito had still not seen him.
Rodrigo figured his brother was about to rise. Instead Lito turned his mask downward again, at the sand. Just a few meters to his right, a perfect conch shell lay in the open, the pink of its belly so bright the water could steal little of its hue. Lito flattened on the bottom and flipped his fins to glide to the shell. Rodrigo hovered behind and ten meters above, worried. This wasn’t the time, with Castro bearing down on them, for his brother to be collecting shells.
Lito set his hand on the conch. Rodrigo, without a full breath in his lungs, considered surfacing to see if they were already caught. Before turning for the surface, Rodrigo admired the shell his brother had found; it was large, filling Lito’s hand lifting it.
An explosion ripped out of the sand. Rodrigo erupted away in a torrent of foam and mad water. He was catapulted past the surface of the bay into the air, his mask torn away, the fins gone. He landed on his back still holding the spear, but he let that go and it trailed away on its tether. He brought his hands to his head, to quell the pounding in his ears, behind his eyes, from the pressure of the blast. He could not shake off the black dots in his vision. What had happened? What had Lito touched? Rodrigo opened his mouth wide and, with pain, drew in all the breath he could hold to dive for his brother.
Without his mask, the water was a confusion. Whipped-up sand clouded what little he could discern. Rodrigo panicked. He kicked for the surface, gasping. He looked at the water he treaded in and saw the brown stain. He screamed, “Lito! Lito!”
A stinking mist hovered on the surface. Rodrigo kicked to lift himself higher, to see and shout through the haze. Dead fish bobbed to the surface. He thought to yell for help, and spun around to face the shore. The man who’d called to him was gone.
Rodrigo turned back to the open bay, fighting tears. The water began to settle from its terrible roiling. The shock that struck first in his chest swelled into his arms and legs with the pricks of needles.
Through stuffed ears, he heard a splash. His eyes flashed across the surface. In the haze, twenty meters off, a hand rose, then dropped.