La Amargura / Bitterness
My father brings home the blood of horses on his hands, his rough, calloused, thick-fingered hands; he comes home from the slaughterhouse where the government places him to kill
old, useless horses that arrive from all over the island. On his hands it comes, encrusted and etched into the prints and wrinkles of his fingers, under his nails, dark with the dirt too, the filth and grime,
the moons of his fingers pinked by its residue, his knuckles skinned from the endless work. Sticky and sweet-scented is the blood of these horses, horses to feed the lions in the new zoo which is moving
from Havana to Lenin’s Park near where we live. Dark blood, this blood of the horses my father slaughters daily, and loses himself doing so. I, being a child, ask how many horses it takes to feed a single lion.
This, of course, makes my father laugh. I watch as he scrubs and rinses dried blood from his forearms and hands, those hands that kill the horses, the hands that sever through skin and flesh and crush
through bone because tough is the meat of old horses. Feed for the lions. So my father, the dissident, the gusano, the Yankee lover, walks to and from work on tired feet, on an aching body. He no longer talks
to anybody, and less to us, his family. My mother and my grandmother; his mother. But they leave him alone, to his moods, for they know what he is being put through. A test of will. Determination. Salvation
and survival. My father, gloomy, under the new zoo tent on the grounds, doesn’t say much. He has learned how to speak with his hands. Sharp are the cuts he makes on the flesh. The horses are shot in the open
fields, a bullet through the head, and are then carted to where my father, along with other men, do the butchering. He is thirty (the age I am now) and tired and when he comes home his hands are numb [End Page 801]
from all that chopping and sawing. This takes place in 1969. Years later when we are allowed to leave Havana for Madrid, to the cold winter of Spain, we find ourselves living in a hospice. The three of us
in a small room. (My grandmother died and was buried in Havana.) Next door lives a man named Izquierdo who wakes us with phlegmy coughs. From our side of the clapboard walls,
his coughing sounds like thunder. We try to sleep; I try harder but the coughing seeps through and my father curses under his breath. I listen to the heat as it tic-tacs through the furnace. My father tries to make love to my mother.
I try now not to listen. The mattress springs sound like bones crushing. My mother refuses without saying a word. This is the final time she does so tonight. My father breaks the immense and interminable silence,
saying, “If you don’t, I’ll look for a Spanish woman who will.” Silence again, then I think I hear my mother crying. “Alguien,” my father says, meaning someone, “Will want to, to . . . (fuck him.)”
And I lay there on my edge of the mattress, sweat summoned by the heat. My eyes are closed and I listen hard and then everything stops. This, I think, is a sound like death. Then my father begins all over again.
The room fills with small noises . . . the cleaver falls and cuts through skin, tears through flesh, crushes the bone, and then there is blood. All that blood. It emerges and collects on slaughter tables, the blood of countless
horses. Sleep upon me, I see my father stand by the sink in our Havana house patio. He scrubs and rinses his hands. The blood whirls and dissolves slowly in the water. Once again I summon the courage to go ahead and ask him
how much horse meat it takes to appease the hunger of a single lion.
Virgil Suárez, who was born in Cuba, is author of Spared Angola: Memories From a Cuban-American Childhood, a memoir and a collection of poems. He is also author of a collection of short stories, Welcome to the Oasis, and four novels, Latin Jazz, The Cutter, Havana Thursdays, and Going Under. He teaches Creative Writing at FSU.