By Eduardo Cervino
UNCLE FELIX occupies my memory files’ oldest folder. When I open it, his tall, dark image rises in my mind, slender but strong like a fishing rod. His hazel eyes reflect the nobility of his heart. From my point of view, just four feet above the ground at the time, the crispy nest of white hair around his face blended with the lower clouds in the sky above.
My grandma had a ragged sepia image from 1850 showing Felix as a child. That was the year when lightning struck the town’s courthouse and his birth certificate went up in flames. With the passing of time, nobody in the family could be sure of his age. I had my seventh birthday in 1947, and the family figured Felix was over 100 years old.
To those who knew him well, it was appropriate that fire was associated with his birth certificate. The family was certain that a man with his endurance and character wasn’t a son of woman, but had been shaped at the hands of Shango, the African god of thunder and fire.
Felix was the illegitimate son of my great-grandfather, who took care of him the same as he did his other children. Later on, my grandfather gave him land, and Felix set out to build a farm. The story goes that he labored from sunup to sundown. After finishing his house, he urged his prized oxen, Golden Nugget and Silver River, to plow the land and he planted his first sugar crop.
Alone, he raised herds of animals. Fruit trees and vegetable beds followed. When his labor bore fruit, he asked for the hand of his sweetheart.
By 1947 this was ancient history, and I was a child vacationing at the family farm.
On a December morning, one of Felix’s sons saddled Uncle’s fifteen-hands horse and brought him to the house. The gelded bay listened to Felix’s voice and knelt. The years had taken their toll, and Felix could not swing his leg over the saddle without the horse’s collaboration.
The son, nicknamed Cashew, like the seed of the marañon trees growing on the farm, lifted me to the rump of Coffee Bean, the horse. We went on at a steady Paso Fino gait, smooth as a rocking chair. Coffee Bean clopped into town fifty-five minutes later, the musical rhythm of his hooves turning heads. And my uncle’s reputation for kindness inspired those watching us to doff their hats and wave.
Earlier that day, Orestes, another of his sons, had ridden to town on a mission to ensure the safety of the old man from a discreet distance, without infringing on the independence of his proud father.
At the town’s general store, Coffee Bean knelt again. We dismounted. Uncle Felix’s friends flocked to him. After small talk, a demitasse of coffee, sweet treats for me, and water for the horse, the store owner and my uncle got down to business.
Felix’s Christmas goodies list made me salivate. Cheeses, cider, bars of sweets, different types of sausages from Spain, a few bottles of wine, and a single one of Bacardi rum. Uncle Felix did not approve of hard liquor at any other time of the year.
We could harvest vegetables on our land, including creamy Cuban avocados the size of an American football.
I ran around the huge warehouse while they talked. On one of my forays among the horses tied outside, I was sure I saw Orestes a block away. Back inside the store, I stood by Felix’s leg.
“Uncle, I saw Cousin Orestes in the next block by the barber shop.”
“I’m sure you’re mistaken, son. And don’t you mention this to anyone at the farm.”
I turned my head and pointed in the direction I’d last seen Orestes.
“But Uncle, I saw him.”
Felix lowered my arm, smiling but with a firm gesture. “This is important, son. Pay attention. We have not seen him!”
I know now the charade had been ongoing for years, and continued until Felix’s death, two years later.
A week later, December 24, 1947, the traditional Cuban Christmas dinner we call The Good Night took place at the farm. The rest of the family had arrived from Havana. A few neighbors from adjacent farms joined us for the occasion. The women brought homemade dishes, and the men’s guitars hung from their saddle pommels.
We gathered at the long makeshift table. Wide, gleaming smiles reflected the kerosene lamplight. Smoke, sweetened with the dripping fat from the pig, drifted from the roasting pit next to the nearby cluster of palm trees.
“My God, Felix, how big was the pig?” a neighbor asked.
“About 150 pounds before we removed all the crap in. . .”
Felix’s wife, younger by twenty-five years, intervened. “Okay, dear, we don’t need the details.”
Three hours later, nothing but the pig’s pitiful head and bone scraps lay on the metal tray. Some men loosened their belts. I went to wash my hands, accompanied by laughter and tuning guitars.
Eighteen years later, December 1965. Cuba was enduring the latest bloody political upheaval in its history. These had included three liberation wars, two coup d’états, and various gangster vendettas.
We held The Good Night dinner at my mother’s house in Havana. The Castro revolution had confiscated the family farm. A weary happiness pervaded the city. No Christmas decorations anywhere that I could see, other than Grandma’s nativity scene in our dining room.
I had purchased a small roasted pig’s hindquarter on the black market at an exorbitant price. My sister had a bottle of nondescript rum with which to spike the lemonade. The rest of the menu consisted of rice, black beans, and a simple lettuce and tomato salad. No olive oil, no avocados, and no spices for the salad.
Our cousins still living in another province could not scare up enough gasoline for their 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air to join our celebration.
Grandma, Mother, my sister Alicia, a nice widowed lady friend who lived alone two blocks away, and I had a cozy private dinner. This year, my dog didn’t get the hambone. Mother saved every scrap for future bean soups.
A 78 rpm record of Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas from 1945 softly filled the dining room. After dinner, we moved to the living room. I danced with Grandma and my sister to the The Platters’ Only You. We chatted, avoiding the subjects of the political turmoil and scarcities of the moment.
The grandfather clock rang twelve times, and the curtain fell on the last Christmas I would spend on my native island.
I lay awake some time that night. My thoughts spilled over with memories of past Christmases.
Uncle Felix’s image rose. Sixteen years earlier, he and Coffee Bean had taken one more trip to town. On their way back, a brief thunderstorm drenched them. Pneumonia claimed Felix’s life that night. He left us the same way his birth certificate had disappeared from this world, amidst thunder and fire.
Nobody ever rode Coffee Bean again.
Eduardo Cerviño, a Cuban-American writer, architectural designer, and painter, has published four novels and numerous short stories. He has participated in more than 100 art exhibits in the US and abroad. He is currently working on Crocodile Island, a semi-autobiographical novel. His extensive travels have taken him to Europe, North America, Central America, and South America. Learn more at his website.