La Habana, Cuba, May 29, 1943
On the rapid, windy flight from Miami to Havana, I sat beside a Galician widow and whispered to her as she slept. In my best grammar school Spanish, I hissed that I was a filmmaker, savoring the words finally spoken aloud. No sound, black and white film, my preference. On the tray table, my prayer card of la Virgen de la Pieza sat balanced against my cigarette case, the virgin’s face creased, the card’s corners rounded. The widow slept, mouth open, dentures slipping back. I eased her fan from her lap and practiced opening and closing it with only a flick of the wrist. I’ll be filming alone, deep in the campo, I said, miles from where any tourist goes. I didn’t mention Claude, but I repeated I and alone enough that he might as well have stood over us in the aisle, clinking his brandy, winking at the stewardesses in their matching skirt-suits and banana-printed cravats, his hand gripping the back of my seat. After my cigarette case was empty, I sucked on the end of my braid. I promised Claude, I’d never cut it. After my second drink, I sniffed the prayer card, but it had long lost any identifying scent.
The widow woke just before we landed, on the sharp descent between ocean clouds. When I wouldn’t let go of her fan, she cupped my hands in hers, thumbing the bare base of my ring finger, smooth from the two years when it carried a wedding ring. Perhaps she could sense Claude as well, because she looked behind us and though her smile remained it contorted in on itself, like she was tolerating a nasty smell. She took the fan from my fingers, opened it effortlessly, and lay it down on her lap. The painted lace depicted a formal tea scene, invisible when folded, of two women serving cakes. Behind them, a giant dog floated. The widow’s hands were covered in rings, large and gaudy, some paste, but her wedding ring was real, a small, opaque ruby circled by diamonds, the gold band thin as a nail clipping. She removed the ring and slipped it onto my finger.
I’m a filmmaker, I repeated, to hear the words again, to see if she had been listening, faking sleep, but she was silent. Her ring caught on my knuckle, she spit and rubbed until she’d pushed the band to the base of my finger. If she had spoken I would have resisted her gift, not out of any moral reason but because I didn’t want it. Her silence acknowledged the selfishness of her act. With the ring, I fear Claude is somehow more likely to catch me.
CAMERA OPENS ON:
A woman’s face (Angela’s, if she’ll let me film her), her eyes open. It is unclear whether she is lying on the ground or standing. Her long braid unraveled, her hair frames her face like she has fallen into a hard, dark pillow. Slight tension in the neck, chin flung back. From this angle she might even be headless, blinking out her final moments.
Church alcove, incense smoke rises. Votive candles flicker as if a door has opened behind them.
A man’s legs, slowly walking down the center aisle. The shadow of his legs on the pews.
The woman’s face. Her eyes closed. She is sleeping on the dark stones of the church floor. White dress, satin, plastered to her, ruffles around sleeves and hem. She is barefoot, black hair loose, make-up smeared, not virginal. Strings of beads around her neck and wrists.
Man’s shadow, in profile, on confession grate. He walks with a hand outstretched. Votive candles gut out.
Woman’s hand clutching beads, hands closing and opening.
Man’s shadow over woman’s body. Man kneels.
Woman wakes. Sees him. Pulls herself up, using pews to support her weight. (Slow motion—filmed in reverse so that movement of hair does not match her body’s gestures. Dream time, agonizingly slow.) She takes gulps of air, as if she had been underwater. Runs out of the church. (Real time returns.) The man stalks her, not hurrying. We still see only his shadow. She opens the door. White light from outside, white light fills the screen. Man’s silhouette in doorway. He steps out of church. Church doors close. No light.
La Habana, June 4, 1943
In terms of the script, the man chases her out of the church and into the bright light. She is back in the church by the end of the film, but I want it to feel like ages have passed, all the possible footsteps and rump sashays, back before pleated skirts and churches, legs framed by white ginger flowers, feet treading the same ground as the elusive almiqui. She’ll return to the church, but I want the scenes to linger and build so that when she finally opens the door again it feels like she’s been reborn.
Does he catch her? His shadow falls on her, but does he?
I know there are certain scenes I need. The scene in the jungle, the night market, the church. If Angela refuses, I can set up a tripod. I can pay men to walk towards and away from me. I can kill a chicken and smear my hands with its blood. I can carry my own camera. But there are specific angles I don’t know how I’ll catch.
La Habana, June 7, 1943
This city glitters with film stars and little moons trying to lock an orbit. They all know Claude and they’ve heard of me, they say, squinting a little and trying to guess which woman I am, the former wife or the current lover, but even of those choices there are long columns of names to pick from. I slide past them, not wanting to dance where they can see me, and I buy a train ticket to bring me over the mountains to La Pieza, a tiny village with one of the oldest churches on the island. The church has been mostly destroyed by mold and hurricanes, the wars of independence, but the miniature of the virgin remains in her alcove, her eyes flat and dark. La Pieza’s virgin is only as big as the palm of your hand, yet she once had a purpose, the last stop on a centuries-old pilgrimage.
Angela has gone ahead of me—she’s studying the island’s dance traditions, making field recordings. Good research for the role I hope she’ll take. She says she’ll bring me to some of the more public religious performances and perhaps, with time, to others.
I don’t want Claude to know I have arrived on the island. I hope he thinks I am still caught in Miami, still debating whether to leave without him. I want him to believe my silence is petty, female. I used to be silent for days. Awake in bed and him asleep. Gnashing the pillow, gobbling up comforters. Once, after we’d married, I disappeared for a week—used up all my welcome sleeping on friends’ Murphy beds—and when I returned he made no mention of my absence. As if I’d been out on an afternoon errand and he’d been able to get a good bit of writing done. Soon he’ll learn where I’m headed, but I want to get there first.
Dust, palms, sea snaking by the train window, June 8, 1943
I want a woman watching the film to enter and be swallowed by it. I want the film to have a specific purpose and function, a specific shape to a specific vacancy. You see the swaying palms, you watch the woman watch the men, and then the palms sway on the inside of your skull, projected there, you are the woman clenching her beads, you see her and know yourself to be her. Lost inside her, you forget her and yourself and you move in this new world.
So far the script is just notes. I write the scenes when I can catch them, but sometimes writing is like stripping skin and spinning it through a needle. It clogs, it hurts.
La Pieza finally, June 9, 1943
I arrived in the dusty town—just a widening in the road before it meets the ocean, a few crumbling colonial buildings flanked by thick jungle and rattling sugarcane—and Angela showed me to the little room she’d secured for me, overlooking the sea wall. A green rectangle with an iron bed, green lizards and an iron balcony, ceilings receding far out of reach, catching exhaled heat. An old man brings us café con leche and white bread flakey with lard.
Angela, raised between Miami, Tampa, and La Habana, with her dark hair wrapped in a bright scarf, her gold hoop earrings, her wide peasant skirt, looks like she belongs. We drink warm rum in her room with the shutters closed. The acrid smell of green coffee beans on a roasting pan slinks up the stairs. She points to the ring the old Galician woman gave me and raises her eyebrows.
I thought you left him.
It’s not mine, I say, But I can’t get it off.
She turns up the volume on the field recordings. She won’t let me speak of Claude.
Will you take the role? I ask her. Will you play the woman?
Her silence the most solid answer. I need her, you see, and she knows it. But long ago I promised not to write about her, not to film her. I promised and I broke that promise. Many times, she reminds me.
We talk instead about the men she’s met here, who all propose marriage. When I rise to leave, she says, I hope you didn’t come here looking for a shoulder to cry on and a warm body to hold. You’re dear to me, but I’m not doing that again. I have my own things to carry.
I got you this room, she says, but I didn’t come here for you. It’s my home too.
La Pieza, June 10
My equipment is impossible. It is less the weight of my Bolex, my arms have grown used to holding her above me or at my hips, but everything else. The tripod, the case, the lenses, their hatred of the unavoidable humidity, the reels of film, their tendency to unravel and smudge. I spent everything from Claude’s last two checks on my Bolex, and she is a marvel. I’ve practiced holding her steady, practiced the slight movements to change an angle, to alter a mood. When I can shoot with nothing else but her on my shoulder I am more agreeable. I fade into her clicks and whirs, my lids suturing to the damp eyecup, my mascara smearing on the viewfinder. But usually more is needed.
Angela takes me to the sugarcane fields and the streams where women wash clothes. I film the women walking down the dirt road through the palms, the sea wall behind them. They wear bright scarves on their heads and balance woven baskets on top of the scarves. Bananas, wood, dried corn. Some dressed in all white—the newly initiated. I know what the colors of the beads they wear mean—allegiance with a particular godhead—but little beyond that. When I try to film the beads, the wrist twists, the shirt sleeve slips, the hand moves up to brush me away.
Angela can get past the blank stares and silences of many of the others in town, but I speak and cannot reach them. There is something hurried about me, something wasteful in my energy to capture this and that. It smacks of the country I was raised in and cannot shake.
La Pieza, June 11
At night I go over that idiotic fight with Claude at Marlo’s before I left Chicago. It was about the artists he and Marlo are newly enamored with. The Primitives, Marlo calls them, The Innocents. All their work is the same and their stories are the same, though they purport to be different people, and one of them is even a woman. Their eyes are big and blue and sad or big and blue and joyful, either way always blue and always about to brim over. They say they know nothing about art, though each of them attended an academy in New York or, worse, the Continent. Marlo brought out their paintings for us to admire—the faces imitations of West African masks, the landscapes copying Aboriginal paintings. I told Marlo what I thought of them.
You cannot pretend to be innocent, I said. I waved my wine glass dangerously close to the paintings. They’re thieves and they know it!
Cielo, Claude said in his horrible accent, we all steal, even you.
I turned from him and spat on the nearest painting. Claude grabbed me, he told me I’d gone mad, and I pretended it was the art that I hated, that made me writhe against him. He twisted me, and I howled and bit. Together with Marlo, he carried me out of the apartment and left me on the sidewalk.
Two of the Innocents stood there, waiting to be let into Marlo’s salon. They were languorously frightened, clutching each other’s skinny waists, eyes soggy as expected.
Don’t worry, I hissed. Your precious thefts remain unharmed.
Marlo leaned out of the balcony window. I won’t throw down the key until you’ve calmed yourself, he said.
We’re hungry, the Innocents cried.
I’m off, I shouted, I’m already gone.
La Pieza, June 15
Angela will bring me to a dance tonight. A celebration in honor of Shangó. I must be silent, and I cannot bring my camera. But that is why I am here, I tell her, to bring my camera.
Not yet, Angela says, You must wait until you are trusted.
She comes to my room at dusk with two other women, both much older than us and dressed in bright red dresses. I am not to have eaten and I must carry gifts, offerings both for the people dancing and the gods they dance for. The women check my pockets, as if I could hide my camera there. I gesture to it, locked away in its heavy black case under my bed. You would know if I carried it, I want to say, with it I am unmistakable.
We walk through the town until the scent of the fish market is interrupted by the scent of green and smoke. We approach a house almost buried in grasses. The women tell me to close my eyes.
La Pieza, June 16
They say that here, in La Pieza, if you ask in the right way, if you carry the right gifts, you will receive God. Bearing down on your body, convulsing and riding you. You are no longer self, but horse for gods to gallop into the jungle, dig at the roots of the palms until your fingers bleed, dance and then run for the sea. God might drown you, there is that chance, but more likely she will let you keep dancing. The gods prefer devotion to the suffering they are capable of bringing on the body. When the gods press into your skin, they silence you, they empty you of yourself, push you out through your fingertips, and there, at the distance between skin and air, you disappear. It must be such a gift to jump out of one’s skin. Not a haunting, but a transformation to salt on the air, spread over a crowd of outstretched tongues.
La Pieza, June 17
What I didn’t tell the Galician widow on the plane:
That, though my mother was from the island, I’ve never been.
That, like a woman in a tale, my mother was once a priestess, and, also like a woman in a tale, she was revered in her old land and ignored in her new one.
That none of the scenes I’ve written for my film are actual rituals. I imagine stages, what I think I’ll see. The scenes are flat because of this, empty. I feel I should know them. But why? My mother left her altars behind when she crossed the sea, married, refused to speak of who she was or had been. I close my eyes and try to hear her singing, conjure the sound of beads clinking on her wrists, her voice wrapped in cigar smoke, but I hear only what I think I’ve lost. I’m trying to remember, but it’s something that’s not mine.
I asked my mother nothing when she was alive. Nothing of any importance.
CAMERA OPENS ON:
Two old women washing clothes in a stream. Their heads are covered and their feet bare. They dip the clothes in the stream and then lash them against the stones beside their feet. One woman smiles up at the camera.
The woman from the opening shot stands near them. An old woman smiles and beckons her closer. The woman reaches towards the pile of wrung-clean clothes on the rock. The older women shake their heads, one crooks her finger and beckons the woman towards the water.
The old women stand on the shore, edging the woman into the water. She looks behind her and sees that the opposite shore is far away. The current is fast. The two old women hold out their hands, smiling. They step towards her, as if nudging a child gently into bed.
I fear Claude is getting closer. I think I smelled him last night at the night market, in between the plantain stalls. I buried my face in watercress to shake his stink, but it remains. He must have discovered my ticket stubs, or asked Moné or Marlo where I was going. He’s not here yet, maybe one town over, maybe still in La Habana, whoring it up.
Claude, perhaps I did not make myself clear. I am making the film alone. You are not invited. It was not your name on the grant. It was mine. It is not you who is writing the script, it is me. I am the one whose history is buried in ground I know nothing about. You are not her.
The night before I left him—though he did not know there was any extra importance to my stance, my pert lips, my clean fingernails—I told him: I dreamt of a white figure walking through the whole world, starting on the streets, at market stalls, in narrow shops. He enters a home and another, each from a different land—India, Bangkok, slipping his fingers round the insides of a wood-slat tent, pushing back the hide door of a yurt, into Buddhist monasteries and Shinto shrines. Grabbing what he wants, one thing here, one thing there, wrapping himself in tapestries, slinging a Yoruba mask over his shoulder, joyful, elated, the world at his fingertips, the world an oyster, he a knife, silver and pry. He empties the object of all meaning. He leaves dust in his wake.
I know it’s Claude I smell. His body leaking into the sea air, letting me know he’s landed.
CAMERA OPENS ON:
The woman walking through the market. Neat piles of bananas and mangoes, malanga and yuca that smell of dirt. People move behind and around the stalls, a daily ritual, conferring and debating. It is earlier than the church scene—a few days or lifetimes before. She wears a tight black dress, sweats in the heat. No shoes. The camera is positioned at the opposite end of the market. At first she is just one of the crowd, but she sees the camera and walks towards it in indolent steps. She moves closer, closer, and then she walks past. The camera turns with her. Only then do we see that she was not following the camera, but two men, sugarcane workers, carrying their machetes and walking back towards the edge of town. She follows them down a long dirt road, with high grasses on either side. She runs a few steps to keep up with the men, but never gets too close. If they see her, they do not stop or look back. They turn off the road and into the dense brush.
CAMERA CUTS TO:
Late afternoon, the men have returned to town. The shadows lengthen in front of the three figures. The woman’s shadow comes close to grazing the men’s heels, but never quite manages contact. The men do not look back at her.
The torchlights of the night market. The men’s faces are clear beneath the lamps of the stalls they stop at, light bouncing off their cheekbones and foreheads. They bend over cages of pigeons and whisper to the birds. The woman stops behind a stall selling lentils and chickpeas in burlap bags.
The men walk out of the market and into the dark street. Just before they leave the torchlight, they turn to the woman. They know she has been following them. They make no reply to her question, her incessant footsteps, legs swishing after them. They answer neither yes nor no.
La Pieza, June 20
Expectant mothers, grieving mothers, all mothers used to walk barefoot to see La Pieza’s virgin. Like them, she is pregnant, waiting for a prayer. They would walk down the dirt roads, through the swamps, over river stones and rough gravel, the mosquitos landing on their skin. The longer they walked to get to her, the louder their prayer. The virgin was a window. They pressed their faces to the open air.
My mother was from La Pieza, and she carried this worn prayer card of la Virgen de la Pieza in her purse, even after she had given up all the other idols. I didn’t know she carried it until she was already gone. For a few months the card smelled like her.
I try to retrace the steps to the ritual. Angela says I am not to do this, but if I can film a bit of the cold fire, the footprints in the dirt, then I won’t have lost so much time. Angela shouldn’t have worried. I’ve traced the perimeter of the town several times, but I cannot find the trail the women led us down.
CAMERA OPENS ON:
A muddy river, men and women in white wade into the water, it stains their clothes. The camera is positioned above as if on a bridge, a spy. The people plunge into the water and sink deep, first their torsos, then shoulders, finally their white headdresses disappear into the rushing current.
La Pieza, June 27
Claude’s scent burrows into me, but I want to coat myself in my own stink instead. I want to be possessed by myself alone. I close the windows during the day, and I let the room bake, even the green lizards leave and the June bugs emerge, believing it’s night. When I open the windows, it feels like I am swimming. I buy more mangoes than I can carry and pay the boy with the pigeons to help, but on the way home I see a stand of bananas, each fruit only as long as your thumb. I give some to Angela, but I keep too many. I eat with my hands. I tear off the skin of the mangoes and the flesh swells under my fingernails, stringy and orange. I eat and eat. I eat so many bananas that I can’t stop myself from shitting all night long, and the old man who brings the café pounds on the door of the latrine, first in anger, then sympathy. But in the morning, I’m still hungry. I want my skin as soft as the bananas’ skin, my eyes as soft. I am waiting to smell only like them.
Claude, are you on that one dirt road that leads to this town?
La Pieza, July 1
Angela says if I want to film the rituals, I cannot do so as an outsider or a guest. The rituals are private, she says, and a secret. That is the problem, I say, I want to film them because they are a secret.
Yes, Angela says, but some are more secret than others. Some can never be captured and taken away, some, however, could be.
Take me to those, then.
They won’t let me, Angela says. They are less secret, but even so too secret for an outsider, an uninitiated. One who had been seated, however, she would not be practicing theft to film them, she would be guided by God and could not commit evil. She would be a part of the ritual and therefore she would remove nothing, she would merely be carrying the ritual with her.
How long would that take?
Months, Angela says. A year. But you must mean it for life. Otherwise, it is theft.
I do not argue because of course she is right.
Theft, she continues, is only permissible under certain circumstances. It must be intimate. It must hurt you too.
But Claude is coming closer, I say. I do not have months or a year.
CAMERA OPENS ON:
Woman’s face on the wet sand. A wave washes over her face and shoulders. She arches her neck in pleasure.
Wider shot: the waves over her body, she turns slowly in the sand. Her hair is soaked, braid wrapped around her neck like wire.
The man runs his fingers down the woman’s spine. He cups her feet in his hand.
The woman’s face below water. She opens her eyes.
La Pieza, July 2
I return to the church. The Virgen de La Pieza is unimpressive as everything you’ve worked hard to reach. My fingertips hovering just above the canvas, I trace the virgen’s lips, her outstretched palms, I move my hands slowly around the sooty frame. I want to hook my nails under the painting, into the crumbling stone. To pry the painting out of the wall in one sure jerk. It would fit in the palm of my hand, and I am hungry for it, the way looking at an infant’s chubby knees makes you gnash your teeth. The church is empty. But it would cost me nothing to steal this painting, and I am the one who needs to pay. The reel can be looped, Claude. How do you steal yourself?
La Pieza, July 5
My room is empty. I can no longer bear the heat. I walk across the hall to Angela’s. She is playing one of her field recordings and dancing to it. She adds a pirouette and a jeté to the intricate footwork she has learned here. On her table is a telegram to me from Claude. I read it quickly, but I already know what it says—it was sent from La Habana.
Angela is not silent to teach me a lesson about Claude, she is speaking only to herself. She forgets I’m there. The shutters are closed, but a thin stripe of yellow light bisects the room. She dances in and out of the light, her feet kick up dust.
She is crying. She sees me and stops dancing. She stops the field recording. She stands in profile in the light, her tears bright. She starts dancing again. She is still crying, and for reasons she won’t be sharing. I get the Bolex and film her. I move close, to catch the shimmering drops of tears on her cheeks and sweat on the brim of her upper lip. The shadow made by her chin over her collarbone, the shadow on her face of her arm rising slowly into the air. Her body is speaking and not to me.
In her room, Angela takes my Bolex, and spins the camera on me. With one hand she balances the camera in the crook between her neck and shoulder. With the other she unravels my braid and runs her fingers through my hair. This seems to last hours, my hair so long, I promised Claude I’d never cut it.
Angela takes what she wants. I know the lighting is perfect.
The woman kneels on a jungle path, knees in the spongy dirt, hands clasped in prayer. Between her hands appears a sugarcane knife. She grips the knife and reaches for her neck. She saws at her braid, the knife catching and stuttering until finally she has cut straight through.
The woman’s open palms: her thick braid stretched across them, still as a sleeping snake.
Dense forest growth. The woman emerges from the leaves, pushes aside giant, wet blossoms. The water stains her skirt, drips from her chin. The ground beneath her is unstable, holding millennia of secret, animal pathways.
The woman breaks through a layer of leaves to a clearing. Soft grasses beneath her feet. We see her fully for the first time. Around her neck, she wears the thick braid of her own hair.
A collapsing house, several stories tall, with a courtyard in its center, surrounded by the jungle. A ceiba tree grows out of the courtyard: its buttress roots spread over the open ground, its branches reaching through the bare roof beams, up into the sky. But the front door of the house is freshly painted, and crisp swaths of bright fabric hang from the windows. Smoke billows from the courtyard and out the door.
The woman on the porch, between the narrow columns and intricate shutters. She looks into the camera. Jasmine vines cast shadows on her face. She brings her hand to the half-open door. Hung from a nail on the door sway strings of red seed beads, cowrie shells, a wreath of herbs. She unwraps the braid from her neck and balances it on the nail, weaves the beads into and around her hair. She pushes the door open and steps inside the house.
The door ajar, the woman gone. Instead of shadows or an empty, collapsed room, the door opens to the sea. The waves crash slowly on the shore.
I am your sea wall, Claude. When you meet me, you will break on me.