DEATH IS NOT ALWAYS THE WINNER
I. THIS IS HOW YOU DIE
Why am I not dead? Why are these people keeping me alive?
It was dusk, the loveliest hour of day and the worst for prisoners.
This hour bore memories of homecoming, of children and women, of nights bursting with music and laughter and love. For men in prison it was the hour of deepest sadness, crawling with the stench of other men and the joy of well-fed fleas.
Rodrigo knew he might die at any moment. They could take his life in the next thirty minutes or they could let him live another thirty years. Those whom they had sentenced to death, they often kept alive. As for the man they reprieved – the moment he drew breath with a free man’s attitude was the moment he might lose his life.
He was dancing with a paradox that reached into infinity.
How many angels can sit on the head of a pin? How many human lives can palpitate under a sword?
Rodrigo knew the sword was over him. His was not the everyday sentence of death which all humans face. It was an exceptional sentence befitting his exceptional life. Not good, not bad, he thought. Just exceptional.
Be an exception. Join the conspiracy.
He repeated that phrase to himself like an advertising jingle.
What a ridiculous thing his humor was! At times he felt he had no right to it. He had had no special aptitude for quotidian life. He had never quite managed to hold a regular job. Much of the time he had had no idea what to say to his wife. His sense of direction was so poor he often lost himself in neighborhoods he had known since childhood.
Still, he had become a conspirator – and in situations that would make most people die of terror he didn’t simply survive, he fooled around.
If you don’t tell us what we want to know, we will send you to the firing squad! the chief interrogator screamed at him.
To which he had answered: Sir, you have threatened me with death so often that if you put me in front of the firing-squad and ask how I feel, I will tell you what the Chinese gentleman said: “Una ’peliencia má!”
As a boy Rodrigo had heard Chinese vendors along the Malecón, Havana’s ocean boulevard, speaking in their peculiar accents. When he addressed his interrogators and said Una experiencia más – “One more experience” – in that pidgin accent, the interrogators grew cold with fury.
It seems you do not care about saving your life at all, the chief interrogator declared. We have nothing more to discuss. The sessions are over.
How insane to resort to humor at that moment! How could he have been so cavalier with his life? Even if he wouldn’t protect himself, how could he have been so thoughtless to his wife and kids?
No! He mustn’t think like that. Saving his life was not the game he had chosen to play. If that were his game he would now be wearing a grey suit, working in a yanqui law firm.
He reflected back to the moment that defined his life and prefigured his death.
It was a clear night in April 1961, pleasantly cool, with enough and not too much of a moon. He was sitting stone-quiet in a fisherman’s shack, a hand on his rifle, an eye on the grenades and machine guns to make sure they were in reach. His comrade Alejandro was asleep on the floor beside him. They were waiting for their target to appear across the river. The trap was perfectly set.
In a while Rodrigo would sleep and Alejandro would watch. It was their third night in the shack. The prey might arrive any moment or might not come for three days more.
That man’s movements were unpredictable. For almost a year, in vain, Rodrigo had tracked him. Then, by luck born of industry – as luck nearly always is – Rodrigo had learned of his very private, very brief, and rather regular meetings along this quiet stretch of river in Havana.
When security guards arrived to prepare the meeting-place, Rodrigo would see their faces. If some of them happened to cross the river they would see Rodrigo’s. He and Alejandro would fire, and those guards would take the bullets and bombs for the one they were protecting.
With a bit more luck the guards would not come across.
For the one about to conquer, it had been a thrilling and terrible ride to this place. He had fought for seven years to undo a tyrant, only to see that his risks and pains had served to put another tyrant in power. So he began to fight again.
Through these two wars he had killed other men. He had caused the deaths of people close to him. His constant exposure to danger had brought grief and despair to the ones he most loved.
Now, with a gunshot, he would redeem the suffering – all he had caused, and all he had borne. He would put himself, his family, and his country to rights again.
The idea unsettled him.
How simple it ought to be, this trigger-pull. He had lived past the rough stuff – the missions he would never have accepted had he known how arduous they would turn out. All that was over. He was about to win. He should feel triumphant. Why didn’t he? What was churning inside him?
“Hey! Remember us?” a host of feelings cried out from within. “We’re your friends!”
Here he was on the verge of a new life, and the expiring one pulled at him more insistently than ever. Faces living and dead, situations that had been or might have been, feelings he’d admitted and others he’d ignored were dragging him under water.
His oxygen was gone. He was drowning. As the waters closed over his head
he put his mind’s ear to the tumult and the waves brought him a clear, unvarying
message: “This is how you die.”
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