Cuba, 1963. Hurricane Flora, one of the deadliest in recorded history, is bearing down on the island. Seven women have been forcibly evacuated from their homes and herded into the former governor’s mansion. There they are watched over by another woman—Ofelia, a young soldier of Castro’s new Cuba. As the storm rages and the floodwaters rise, a cigar factory lector named Maria Sirena tells the incredible story of her childhood during Cuba’s Third War of Independence; of her father Augustin, a ferocious rebel; of her mother, Lulu, an astonishing woman who fought, loved, dreamed, and suffered as fiercely as her husband. But stories have a way of taking on a life of their own, and soon Maria will reveal more about herself than she or anyone ever expected.
Chantel Acevedo’s The Distant Marvels is an epic adventure tale, a family saga, a love story, a stunning historical account of armed struggle against oppressors, and a long tender plea for forgiveness. It is, finally, a life-affirming novel about the kind of love that lasts a lifetime and the very art of storytelling itself.
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Waiting for the Sea to Come
My next-door neighbor, Ada, treads through the sand wearing plastic sandals that flap against her hard heels. I hear her before I see her. She's come to my back porch to warn me of a storm in the Atlantic. It does not matter to Ada that I can see for myself the ferocious churn of the sky, like a black mouth opening and closing, and the white, teeth-like caps of the waves. She has a television, and has become the ears of the neighborhood, watching reporters all day, then, broadcasting the news from house to house. She says the storm began off the coast of Africa, that they named it Huracán Flora, and that already, in Haiti, the sea itself had been wrenched away, revealing a sunken ship for a moment before the water came crashing back down. The storm is said to be bigger than all of Cuba, and Ada says I should be worried.
"You needn't have come," I tell her, and point at the sky. "I don't need a television to tell me what's coming. Cobbled sky," I say, but don't finish the old adage — cielo pedrado, piso mojado. Cobbled sky, wet ground.
The pregnant clouds race one another in the sky. In the sand, blue crabs scuttle towards rocks, forcing themselves into nooks and crannies. Ada and I watch them for a moment from my back porch. The movement in the sky and on the ground is disorienting, and I feel a touch of vertigo.
"They're opening the old governor's mansion in Santiago to those of us on the coast. For safety's sake," Ada says, reaching out her hand to me as if I would take it, come out of my chair, and abandon my house to the winds.
"Me quedo aquí," I tell her, and face the sea again.
"What would Beatríz think?" she asks me, her mouth pursed.
My eyes prickle, and I blink them hard. "I haven't heard from her in weeks. She's an Habanera now, didn't you know?" A small crab makes its way towards my foot, as if it wants to get into the house. It opens a tiny, cobalt claw at me. First Ada's outstretched hand, then the crab's claw. I am besieged.
"Déjame," I say quietly. The roiling surf is calming. I feel right by the sea. "And besides," I say then, completing my thoughts aloud. "I won't step foot in that mansion."
Ada groans and sits beside me. The wicker couch creaks and the wind whips her skirt about. She is seventy-three, nine years younger than I. But nine years seem to be just enough to make a difference. Ada's ankles have not yet begun to swell just from sitting. She has not yet discovered the disquieting tendency to fall over for no good reason, as if the earth has tilted suddenly, playing a child's practical joke on her.
"Beatríz will come for you," Ada insists.
"That is an old dream, Adita," I say, and lay my hand over hers. My daughter is a woman of the city now, or so she says. She has become the kind of person who sets foot in a house and immediately begins to criticize it. "That old rug has holes in it, Mami," or "Why don't you dye your hair?" Once, I asked if she was ashamed of me, and she waved her hands in the air as if performing a magic trick, and said nothing.
"It's coming here, to Maisí," Ada says. "We must go." She grips my hand hard, stands, and tugs, trying to lift me.
"Déjame," I say again, more forcefully this time.
"You want the sea to swallow you?" Ada yells. The crabs still at the sound for a moment, then resume their crawl across the beach.
"It might be preferable," I say, and Ada's eyes film with tears. Were she to walk into my bedroom these days with the kind of confidence she bears when in my house, as if every room were hers as well, Ada would see the dozen unfilled doctor's prescriptions on my dresser. But she only searches my face for an explanation I do not give her.
Once more, I say, "Déjame," and this time, Ada leaves without a sound, though I can tell, by the way her arms are moving, that she is wiping her eyes.
Ada will be back, I know. She will take the time to pack up her cottage. Her daughter-in-law, Panchita, will come over with her grandsons, strapping boys with piercing blue eyes. Ada, who never brags about her great-grandchildren, knowing that it would hurt me, will shuffle behind the boys, touching them on the shoulders to get their attention, her eyes swallowing them up. They will load her valuable things into their car (for Ada's son, Miguel, owns a bright blue '57 Ford Fairlane that roars up and down the street, startling me each time), and drive west, keeping inland, getting as far as Matanzas, maybe. I will watch all of this from right here, this seat.
I plan on not moving at all.CHAPTER 2
The Mermaid's Daughter
Of course, I have to leave my seat by the sea sometime. I feel hungry, and fire up the stove. I chop up a ripe plátano and fry it in oil. There is day-old rice on the counter, which smells fishy, the way rice does after a few hours, but it is good to eat. I throw the rest of it out onto the beach, and the crabs, which are still mid-exodus, stop over the grains before trotting on. I can hear them under the house, scratching, digging, burrowing. I lie awake in bed listening to them.
I do not sleep that night, though it feels as if I'm dreaming. In truth, I'm merely remembering, and what I remember is a story my mother told me long ago about another storm.
Her name was Iluminada Alonso. Her friends in Santiago de Cuba called her, affectionately, Lulu. Lulu's water broke the morning of my birth, on a July day in 1881, on a ship named Thalia that had left Boston Harbor two days earlier, bound for Cuba. The dribble of her fluids mingled with the seawater that had splashed on deck. She had not told anyone about her pains all night, thinking that if only she ignored them, they might go away. After all, Lulu did not want to give birth on a boat, so many miles from Cuba.
But there came a moment when my mother could no longer pretend.
At dawn, Lulu had climbed above deck, gasping for air. She'd gripped the handrail, felt the water between her legs, and cried out. The crew, unaccustomed to women onboard their vessel, and paralyzed by the idea of a pregnant woman, shouted among themselves, calling to my father, Agustín Alonso, who emerged from below deck with shaving cream still on his face. He saw Lulu on the deck, alone against the sea and darkening sky, and understood.
Lulu said that three marvelous things happened at my birth. When she told me the story, she looked out beyond my face, as if she were seeing them again, and as if she knew that the days when wondrous things happened without explanation belonged only in the past. The first marvel was a storm that came that morning, suddenly, and with few clouds feeding it. A mass of darkness, from which lightning flashed, and rain poured down, hung above the ship. But around the edges of that murky mass was the blue sky of summer, so the sun shone even as it rained, and the water glistened as it came down. People still say that when it rains and the sun is shining, the devil's daughter is giving birth. They believed it then, too, and this gave the sailors pause, so they dropped anchor and scurried below deck. Lulu said that her pains came and went with the lightning, as if the heavens were delivering something, as well.
She remembered Agustín arguing with the captain, a Spaniard, who raised the Spanish flag each morning on his ship. When has saw his wife in labor, Agustín had run to his trunk, dug out a crinkled flag, and thrust it in the face of the captain. "My child is Cuban, not Spanish," he'd said. Lulu and Agustín had been in Boston that summer, meeting with leaders of Cuba's revolutionary movement. The flag was a new design, and meant a great deal to Agustín.
My father forced the flag into the captain's hands. It was roughly sewn, and made up of blue and white stripes, and a single star on a red field. The captain opened the flag, then crumpled it, and tried to shove it in his back pocket like a used handkerchief. "The authorities will hear of —" he began to say.
Agustín had no choice but to thrust his pistol under the captain's jaw.
Lulu remembered the sight of a skinny cabin boy climbing the mast without ropes, taking down the Spanish flag, and attaching Cuba's new colors above the sails.
"Put it down in the ship's log," Agustín had demanded, "that my child was born free."
There were no women onboard the Thalia, and so Agustín delivered me himself, on a straw mattress brought above deck because Lulu could not bear to go into the dark belly of the ship.
"¡Luz!" she'd yelled. "I need light!"
She'd kicked at Agustín, and scratched his face when he tried to drag her downstairs. He gave in at last. He peered between my mother's legs and yanked me out. He used the short knife he kept tucked in his waistband to cut the cord. That same knife had gutted a Spaniard during the first war, my father told me often, his eyes twinkling. The three of us cried out together into the thick, stormy air. Then, it was silent. The rain stopped. Later, the bloody mattress was thrown overboard, and Lulu says she watched it floating, following the ship for a while as if it were being towed.
Then the second strange, marvelous thing occurred: three gulls lighted on the mattress, picking at the afterbirth that clung to the fabric, clucking at each other as if in conversation about something important, then diving into the water. Only then, Lulu says, did the mattress sink. As for the gulls, Lulu watched and watched the sea, scanning a swath of water the length of the ship, but she never saw them emerge.
Lulu died believing that our blood and that of the three gulls mingled with the sea, becoming an offering that led to the third and strangest marvel.
My father had wanted to name me Inconsolada after his mother, who had died long ago. Lulu, having borne a long "I" name all her life, chafed at the idea. In addition, her mother-in-law had been a heartless woman. The name itself meant "inconsolable," and it seemed like a curse.
"Give me a few days," Lulu had said, as the Thalia sailed steadily alongside the eastern coast of the United States. Agustín did not press the matter. The ship's captain had threatened to have him arrested once we returned to Cuba, and so Agustín was busy bribing and flattering the man, getting him drunk on rum during his breaks, in the hopes that he would not remember whether Agustín had actually pulled a gun on him that frightening morning, or if he'd just imagined it.
Finally, one afternoon, the ship rounded the tip of Florida, and within a few hours, was in sight of Cuba. The island appeared like a low cloud on the horizon. Inspired, Lulu carried me unsteadily towards the ship's bow, to glimpse our homeland. The sea was calm and crystal clear. Dolphins played a few feet away, their polished backs breaking the surface again and again, like extraordinary fruit bobbing in the water. Lulu says that the dolphins dove deeply suddenly, and in their foamy wake, a ghostly white hand emerged, then another, then, finally, the dark, wet head of a lady rose from the water. Lulu could not describe the lady's face, or whether her skin was fair or dark, or if her ears peeked out from her long hair. She said the lady's features shifted as she spoke, so that her eyes would grow narrow, then large, her mouth would widen and reveal savage teeth, then the lips would soften, becoming plump and purple like a bruise.
The lady did not speak, though it felt to Lulu as if she had marked me, claiming me for herself. The lady had lifted her arms and beckoned with a small flick of her wrists. Lulu shook her head, and the lady seemed to frown with a mouth that changed its shape so often it appeared she was trembling. Lulu closed her eyes and when she looked again, the lady was gone, but my mother still did not relax her hold on me.
She had studied to be a teacher in Havana, could read and write better than most, and knew well the temptations of nymphs, and the dark dangers of sirenas, who sang to heroes and lured them from their ships. She thought, too, of la Virgen, who appeared to black slaves at sea near El Cobre, home to Cuba's nickel mines. Because she did not know what form of divinity she was dealing with, Lulu took no chances and named me María Sirena.CHAPTER 3
The House on the Edge of the World
It is dawn, and Ada has returned to my house. I don't think she slept either. I can hear her knocking on my front door. Beyond that are sounds of her great-grandchildren bickering over a trunk full of fabric scraps. "Leave it behind!" one of them shouts, while the other curses at his brother in colorful slang.
"María Sirena!" Ada yells between knocks. "There's still time!" she is saying. The wind has strengthened overnight, but the racing clouds have slowed their pace. Perhaps the storm is turning.
I rise from bed, cross myself, and open the door for Ada. She hugs me hard.
"Vámonos," she says firmly.
I stamp my foot, like a child. Why can't she understand it? I made this decision long ago, not to fight death a single moment more. I have an ache in my stomach that will not go away. When I touch the place just inside my hip, I feel a tender, warm knot there. I can feel the danger of it in my heart, which pounds whenever I let my mind linger on the pain. Ya. Basta. I am not brave enough to drown myself. I have had enough of guns during the war, and this latest revolution, and have no desire to see a gun again, much less shoot myself with one. But I don't fear death. I am ready to welcome the storm. Let the sea lady from my birth claim me as she'd threatened long ago.
"You want to die," Ada says at last, her eyes wide and horrified.
"I've lived too long," I whisper.
"You like playing the martyr?" Ada asks, her hands on her hips. I say nothing, and stare at her sandals.
Perhaps Ada reads the shame in me, because she says, "If you die in this storm, I will stand on this shore and tell everyone hunting for your corpse that María Sirena Alonso de Torres was a good woman who raised a smart daughter. And just like that," Ada says, snapping her fingers, "I will undo your martyrdom!"
Ada turns, walks out the door, and slams it closed behind her. A little puff of air strikes me, and it carries Ada's violet perfume with it. I will miss her. Most afternoons, Ada comes over with her crochet needle and yarn, and sits on the porch with me, her fingers turning purple with the tightness of her grip as she makes delicate rosettes for fabric corsages, which she wears on Sundays. I love listening to her stories, how her voice harmonizes so well with the soft murmur of the sea.
Lately, Ada has taken to talking about her childhood. It has been a nice turn from talking about the news, and the new revolution, and those bearded men, the Castristas, in charge of everything now. She and I had watched the executions of Batista's supporters on her television for only a few minutes when I begged her to turn it off. "Didn't we see enough of this during the war?" I said, meaning the War of Independence, to which Ada replied, "I don't remember a thing, Sirenita." She was only eight when the American ship, the Maine, exploded in the harbor in Havana, but she liked telling me an old family story about her elder sister, how the boom had shaken her inkwell right off her desk, how the ink had splashed her white leather shoes, and how her mother had beaten her that night with a switch of palm for ruining them. Apparently, they told the story at Christmas every year in Ada's family, and she laughed in the telling, as if it had been a great joke. I still feel sorry for Ada's sister, though the woman is long dead.
My memory of that day is altogether different. Just turned seventeen years old, I spent that winter day in 1898 holding my son and nuzzling the soft fuzz of his hair. I can smell it still, that baby smell, and my throat clenches at the memory.
The sky has blackened again, and the clouds are round and heavy and so dark that it feels like night. But it is still early in the morning. The neighbors are busy taping up their windows, marking the glass with big Xs out of duct tape, in the hopes that shattered glass will not get too far. Some have managed to find sheets of plywood, and are busy covering up windows, bringing in potted plants, and standing at the bus stop with their things in suitcases and plastic bags, waiting for a ride to the shelters in Santiago.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Distant Marvels"
Copyright © 2015 Chantel Acevedo.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
1. María Sirena’s mother Lulu had the spirit of a true revolutionary, but as a woman, lacked the social position to fight for the cause. What does The Distant Marvels suggest about the place of women in history?
2. Why is Agustín so determined to keep Lulu and María Sirena in his life when he expresses so little affection for them?
3. After living a strangely sheltered life as a child prisoner, at the age of fourteen María Sirena is thrown into a world of conflict. Is there a singular moment in the story when she becomes an adult, or is it a gradual transformation?
4. How has motherhood shaped María Sirena, softened or hardened her remembrances, and changed her perspective on herself as a younger woman?
5. Does María Sirena ever get the “cosmic justice” that Dulce claims the world lacks? What might that justice be?
6. Do you think it was reasonable for Mireya to blame María Sirena for her son’s death?
7. What is the relationship between María Sirena’s ailing physical body and her vision of herself as a young woman? What does The Distant Marvels suggest about the relationship of the physical body to the life of the mind and the spirit?
8. How does the Casa Velazquez serve as a metaphor for the dramatic changes taking place across Cuba?
9. What aspects of The Distant Marvels recall the form of a fairytale or an epic?
10. What relevance does storytelling have in contemporary life? Is it a way to preserve valuable history, or a way of obscuring the cold facts ofhistory?
11. Is it possible to look objectively at one’s own history? How objective or subjective is María Sirena’s tale?
12. What does The Distant Marvels suggest about the relationship between the individual and history? How much of an individual’s life is shaped by the history that precedes them, and how much power does an individual have to shape their future?
13. At the end of The Distant Marvels, do you think that María Sirena has forgiven herself for what happened to her mother, Mario, and Mayito? Did she ever deserve blame for their fate, and if so, does she deserve forgiveness?
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