Cuban Birds

By: Vanessa Garcia / Winter, 2017

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A story of loss, and renewal

The day Maman discovered the birds, we were sitting on her bed, talking like two old ladies, though I was only seven or eight. We were sheltered underneath her lace mosquitero, which I pretended was a tent in the wilderness.

“Look!!” Maman said, suddenly running to the window. I followed barefoot in my underwear and neon pink t-shirt, which I wore knotted at the waist like the 80s punk-rocker I wanted to be.

“Oh my goodness, look at them,” she cooed, “Look how cute they are.”

There, right in front of us, were three little birds and a mamma bird in a nest on the palm tree just outside the window. Brown and wet looking, so sinewy. They were babies, but they looked like old people. We looked out at those birds for days. Sometimes we'd go outside and try to get a closer look at the nest lodged in the palm. Every day, mesmerized by the birds, I called my mom and asked her if I could stay another day at Maman’s. For about five days my mother allowed it, until she knocked on the door and told me it was time to go home. I said goodbye to the birds, knowing I’d be back to my grandparent’s house soon enough.

This next time, when I walked toward the house, I noticed the nest wasn't there anymore. And the palm tree was different too, missing fronds. Skinnier.

“I have a surprise for you,” said Maman, the very second I walked in the door. She turned toward the kitchen, trailing her long house dress behind her. I followed quickly, asking her what it was. Surprises for Maman usually involved food. Yuca frita or homemade Spanish tortilla, or French fries she'd made from scratch. But not this time, this time there were two of the birds we’d been watching, waiting for me on her circular marble kitchen table. As soon as I saw them, I was overcome with a kind of bubble-gum joy. My grandmother, I could see, had been bathing in the same kind of joy since she'd rescued them.

“Something happened,” she said. “A tragedy. But I saved them.”

She sat down on one of the black iron chairs around the table and the birds came up to her, chirping. They were so small I could fit both of them in my hand. “They're hungry,” she said.

“Don't birds eat worms?” I asked, hopping up to another chair.

“We're not feeding them gusanos,” she said defiantly.

Gusana was what they called her when she left Cuba, she had told me that. Even though I didn’t understand it quite yet, it was a charged word where we lived.

“What do we feed them then?”

“You'll see,” she smiled, getting up, giving me a kiss on the head.

She went about her preparations at the counter. As she did so, she explained what had happened. She'd woken up one morning and the nest was on the ground. She'd given a big yelp and woken Severo (aka: Papan), she said. She thought something had attacked the nest. The mother was gone and just two of the three babies were in the nest on the floor. She'd waited all day for the mom to come back, ironed all of Papan's work shirts and undershirts looking out the window. Because the mother-bird might have been searching for food for them and Maman wanted to make sure not to tear the little ones from their mother, this was important. But then she got hysterical. “Me dio un ataque,” she said. Her heart started beating very fast, and she knew. She knew the mother wasn't coming back and that their other sibling was dead. And she couldn't sit there and watch these little babies die out there without their mother. So…here they were.

When she was done with the concoction she was making, she sat down with a teacup saucer in front of her, filled with tiny, wet balls of bread along with two eye droppers, one for milk and the other for water. As if on cue, the little birds started opening their mouths wide, waiting for the morsels to be dropped in. And in they went.

“I've been waiting for you so we could name them,” said Maman, carefully dropping a little water into one of the birds' mouths, like a surgeon at work. 

I knew their names had to be diminutive and I wanted them to be really good. One of them hopped around a lot and the other one didn't. Which is why Maman said: “I'd thought Saltarín for this one,” she said, pointing at the bouncy one. “Porque salta tanto...” Like a little dancer, she explained.

“Yes!” I loved it. And the other name came immediately. “The other one should be Pirouline!” I said.  Not only did they rhyme, but Piroulines were my favorite dessert – those brown, chocolate rolled wafers you put on top of ice cream. The birds were the same color as those, and just as sweet.

“Pirouline and Saltarín it is!” said Maman.

We raised those birds until they started to fly. Eventually, they were flying all around the kitchen, and then all around the house. The good thing about Papan was that he didn't mind. He knew it was important to my grandmother somehow. Knew more than I did.

“Hello, Pirouline,” he'd say.

“No, Papan, no, that's not Pirouline, that's Saltarín, Papan.”

“Oh, oh, so sorry, so sorry mademoiselle,” he'd respond in his funny Spanish accent, except when he said mademoiselle, which he said in perfect French. Papan had lived in France for a long time with his brother, Pedrito, who I'd only seen a couple of times in my life, that's why he spoke French. Then he'd make a funny face like a Picaresque clown and ask me what I wanted to do for the rest of the day. “Want to come to Avis tonight, mademoiselle?” he'd ask. Not while the birds were around. No way.  “Well then we'll bake some bread on Saturday, I'll show you how to make a baguette.” That I couldn't say no to. It was a good idea, Maman thought – that way we could give the crumbs to the birds.

 

I didn’t know it yet, but it was the past that fed this story into the delicate morsel it became, a past that existed before I was born. The undercurrent of what was happening with our little birds was much darker than I’d imagined, full of a desperate need to repair gulfs. It was about being a Cuban exile. About my grandmother’s mother, whom she’d left behind in Cuba.

 

Maman's mother, my great-grandmother, had always been a mystery to me. I knew my great-grandmother's name, an old-school name: Encarnación. I also knew that I wasn't supposed to talk about her. Papan and mom would both give me a look that immediately shut me up whenever I wanted to know more about Encarnación. There had always been a picture of her in the living room – a woman, I thought, that looked nothing like Maman. A frail woman, delicate and kind-looking, with fifties-style wing-tipped eyeglasses. Not that Maman wasn't kind, it's just that Maman had a different expression on her face, one that was sad and skeptical at the same time, edged with a permanent: “you're not fooling me, asshole,” look.

The photo still sits at the center of a cluster of pictures that Maman keeps on the wall of her living room. This is a different living room now – an apartment, not the house I spent so much of my childhood in – but the photo is in the same exact spot respectively. It's one of those 1970s photo clusters with the frames all jammed together to make the whole thing look like some kind of constellation – Maman's mother the center-star.

It’s been nearly three decades since we rescued the birds, and it’s only now that I make the connection to that center star, pulling everything into its orbit. Because it was only recently that my grandmother agreed to tell me the secret story about her mother.

 

 When Maman left her mother in Cuba she didn't know it would be the last time she saw her. She’d had to escape the island quickly because the Cuban militia was after my grandfather. My grandmother had to get on the first ship she could, out of Cuba, with my five-year old mom and infant aunt. My grandfather, meanwhile, escaped through the Venezuelan embassy. When Maman and Papan were finally safe and sound, reunited in Miami, Maman would call her mother on the phone in Cuba. The phone was a block away from Encarnación’s house and Maman would tell whoever answered to tell Encarnación to be at the phone the next day at a certain time. During those phone calls, Maman would tell her mother that she had a room ready for her in Miami, which was true. Despite the fact that those early days of exile were hungry, factory-work-filled days, Maman and Papan had managed to set up a room for Encarnación in their new apartment. And then it happened.

Papan came home one day and said he had some news.

“Listen, it’s about Abuela.” He used to call her Abuela. “Abuela is sick, doesn't feel well it seems,” he told her. My grandmother’s legs, they went soft. She mustered up words, though they seemed to get stuck in her throat. What did he know about the way Abuela felt, she asked him. 

He knew because someone had come from Santa Clara to the hotel. The old scraggly Cuban came up to the Avis Rent a Car desk and asked: “Is this the Hotel Shelbourne and does Severo Rivases work here?” Because he had a message for Severo that his wife's mother had died. Papan went pale. “Are you sure?” The man was certain. Papan knew he’d have to soften the blow, ease my grandmother into the news. He’d go home and tell her Encarnación was ill, and he’d work up to her death, little by little. This was the plan he made as he drove to their apartment by the Miami River from Miami Beach.

“Me? You're going to fool me? You're going to tell me stories?” Maman said she knew right away. She knew by the look in my grandfather’s eyes and because of how she felt deep down, somewhere in the body that has not been defined yet, the spirit perhaps, some cell in the blood without a name. She got sick immediately. It was bad, she had no control over herself. She knew that in the span of a minute she’d become motherless. “This can't be,” she kept saying. “I have to speak to mamá,” and she got stuck on that, like a needle snagging on vinyl. “I have to speak to mamá.” After Papan finally admitted to her that her mother was dead, she couldn't, she just couldn't, she couldn't understand it. Couldn't take it in, couldn’t make it a part of herself. So it lived somewhere above her like a dark cloud, raining dry and cold on her for years.

“I remember I was out on the balcony one day and it was raining and raining, pouring, and the only thing I could think about – and I got obsessed with this thought –- was that if it's raining over there like it's raining here then all that water was going to seep through the earth and fall all over my mother, and drown her. That was agony for me. And then the sun would come out and I would think: My mother is down there, down there with this heat, this unbearable heat. How can this be? This can't be! I told Severo: I think I'm going crazy. Because very strange things are happening to me. I'm not like this. I'm a woman with a good mind.”

So she went to speak to Father Ibarzabal. She was in such bad shape that he sent her on a retreat the very next day. She went home and told Papan, tomorrow we're going on a retreat. But, no way. It didn't work. The priest would talk and it went in one ear and out the other, and everyone there was laughing and happy and some of the people there, they were sad about some things too but it couldn’t compare. All my grandmother wanted to do was get the hell out of there. They were there three days. Nothing worked, but she kept telling herself: You have to deal with this. You have to be able to deal with this because you have two daughters. And she didn't want anyone else to take care of them or even touch them.

The first psychiatrist prescribed Elavil, and a medication that they didn't yet sell here, which they had to bring all the way from Puerto Rico. My grandmother, a semi-hoarder, still has the syringes she applied the drug with. She had to go twice a week to the doctor. But, again, nothing.

One day, when she was at the psychiatrist's office, she thought: what am I doing sitting here when my two girls are at home? What am I doing? No one can take care of them like I can. And she exchanged the obsession about her mother for this new obsession with the girls. She just kept thinking: I'm on the brink of madness, but I'm not going to go there. I'm not going to do it. What if someone abuses my girls, she thought. No, no, no, no. She went to another psychiatrist.

This new psychiatrist, he told Papan that he was going to give Maman one pill. Just one. He told Papan: Give it to her when you get home. If she sleeps for hours, if she sleeps one day, three days, leave her. Let her sleep. The pill was 300mg of something my grandmother doesn’t have a name for anymore. She took it, but she didn't fall asleep. She told the shrink the next time, when she went back. It didn't do anything, she said. “No, it can't be,” he said. But it could be, because what was wrong with my grandmother was stronger than anything.

The breakdown lasted a very long time. She was panicked that something would happen to her in this state and the girls would be alone. Panic, pure panic. And this was right after having to leave Cuba, and landing in Spain, before being able to make it to Miami, which was like crossing Niagara Falls on a bicycle. It was all weighing down on her now. She didn't want to let the girls out of her sight. She didn't feel OK unless she could see them with her own eyes, all the time. But Jacqueline, my mother, had to go to school. Those school hours were torture. She would drop Jacqueline off at school and stay outside behind a tree with Ingrid, who was still very small. She would hold Ingrid's hand until Jackie would come out of school.

Visits to one psychiatrist after another, all kinds of pills and treatments, back and forth, until finally she got hold of herself. My grandfather’s soft, kind patience trying to guide her away from the trip she was taking into the dark core of mourning.

Even today, once in a while, when something is going wrong, she goes into panic mode, and it takes her back to those early days in Miami, when she learned she’d never see her mother again, unless there was an afterlife.

“I used to not be afraid of anything. I picked up my stuff and left Cuba with a baby and a little girl and just got on that boat and left everything behind. I wasn't afraid of anything. Twenty-three days on the Marques de Comillas, that shit of a boat, without a penny and nothing happened, everyone survived. I did all that as if I were drinking water. Like nothing. And then this, this panic. So there you have it. Suffering. So much suffering.”

That is the true story of those birds. It’s why the essence of those birds always felt like Cuba to me, even if I didn’t know it yet. Those birds introduced me to the loss and longing that would infuse the backdrop of my life through my grandparents – a loss of place, home, and the people one has to leave behind to save themselves and future generations. Through Pirouline and Saltarín, my grandmother was trying to save what she couldn’t so many years before. Because those birds had been left without a mother, and she had to become the mother she, herself, had lost, the mother she couldn’t be to her own children because she was choking with sadness.

One of the birds, Saltarín, died. We woke up one day and his little bird-heart had stopped. Perhaps it was the milk. Years later, I read that birds could not easily digest milk. But the other one, the one I’d named, Pirouline, he made it through. And when he was strong enough, we set him free. We set him out into the world, and we crossed our fingers and hoped his flight would be swift and his journey fruitful. That he would find the nourishment he needed out there, that he could find a home, friends, and family in that great, big wilderness that was Miami. We watched him as he fluttered at our porch a while, flapped his wings up and down circling around us before he took flight, toward places we could never reach, but only dream of. After he flew away, my grandmother put her soft hand on my shoulder and led me inside. “He’ll be alright,” she said. “I know he will.” Even then I had a feeling she was talking about something bigger than a bird that fit in the palm of your hand.

About Vanessa Garcia

Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist
(www.vanessagarcia.org).