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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Knife in Cuba

In The Dark
Piotr Wesolowski

Groping and dragging his feet past cracked, edgeless steps, he followed a dark narrow staircase that led to the exit downstairs. A broken banister trembled under his unsure hand - some of the wrought-iron posts were loose and needed to be mended. Here darkness reigned complete, darkness and stench – tonight was yet another night of blackout in Havana.
Cada vez que miro
A mi mulaton
No se que pasa por mi
No me puedo contener
Y le digo asi
Mulato tienes en la cintura
Una tembladera que arrebata
Mulato, tiene tu dulce boca
Una risa loca que me mata
Muove la cintura mulaton de mi vida
Que me muero yo por ti
(-) Omara Portuondo

This house, just like most houses on the seaside, was crumbling, gnawed away by the sea breeze, erosion and neglect. In this neighbourhood, at times, entire walls collapsed revealing shabby households with little furniture, broken, fake antique chandeliers and here and there, left behind, a picture, strangely, never ever of Fidel, but very often that of Ché. Stained walls and a portrait hung askew, left behind, spoke too of people’s sympathies, or fears.
Hungry dogs wandered and sniffed around the debris at night, before dawn, before bricks, broken sinks, a pissing pot with a large hole and of no more use, and a rocking chair with no support, were removed or most often just sealed with a rope and left there to rot.

People had to move then and move on with their lives , live with their friends, sisters, in-laws, brothers, leaving their former homes – exposed, shamelessly bare naked, half-empty rooms stacked up one atop another like in the house of some destitute dolls.

She humiliated him, should not have said what she said, he thought on his way down, if she never said that he wouldn’t have had to cut her. He had watched her, he’d seen her before finally, earlier that night, they met.

The place was busy and loud with music, live Negro music: the band was one woman and three men. The sound was rough, they played rumba – men beat the drums and the woman sang - and the people danced. The dance floor, the pit, was filthy with mud (it was December and it had been raining). The place was smoky and it stank of sweat – some men wore greasy, tattered pants and tank shirts only, some were bare from their waists up, wore no shirts at all, just torn discoloured pants and unlaced boots, and some, too, were barefoot.

This was Friday night in this barrio, a remote part of town; here once were brothels, today, under Castro, prostitution was outlawed; besides, under Castro, no one could afford it.

She asked him to dance and they danced, then they drank: she drank lukewarm beer, kept for her on the bar and not in the fridge; she had a bit of a sore throat, was maybe coming down with a cold. He drank cheap local rum.
Later in the dark corner, she leaned hard against his shoulder, put her plump Negro hand on his thigh, just beneath his loin, pressed her thick lips against his ear and whispered: ‘Let’s go my place,’ and ‘ and show me some good time.’ He agreed, but then she changed her mind and ordered more drinks and he was disappointed. She drank more, too much now, upset a full glass of beer, got the whole table wet. She was so drunk and she said: ‘C’mon, cari_o! Get me out of this filth. Get me out of this place.’

They got up, body against body, amidst the mocking glances of the crowd – it’s still not all right to see a woman drunk in these parts of town – they left the place and the music, the smoke, mud, filth behind, and walked onto the street where it rained.
‘Can we go to your place, amor?’ she asked, ‘Mine is a real mess tonight. Had a fight with my husband. He broke a few things, you know. I mean, he broke a few chairs and things.’
‘We can’t,’ he cut her short and lied: ‘I live with my mother.’
He didn’t reply.
‘Don’t worry amorcito. We’ll go my place. It’s alright’
‘And him? Your husband?’ he asked to make sure.
‘He left and won’t be back. No for long, I hope.’
She embraced him, kissed him on his mouth, but he pushed her away, firmly but gently.
‘You sure it’s all right? You’re sure he won’t return?
‘No worries, carajo,. Tonight I’m a free woman. Come up this way to my place and show me how much you want me. Let’s have a great time.’

They reached the entrance to an old house, first row of houses off Malecon – broken windows, exposed bricks, dilapidated walls. They entered; she pulled his arm along the dark hallway, he followed her blindly.
‘It’s dark here,’ she apologised, ‘Fidel cut the light again, but, I guess, it’s better that way; this place is real ugly.’
‘I see nothing,’ he said.
‘Just follow me and watch your step,’ she warned him, ‘And don’t mind the stench.’

But the stench – the place reeked of urine, mould and damp and disinfectant – aroused him; he thought now of when he was a boy and spied on women through a hole in the public washroom’s wall, in the park by his home in the East where he had lived once.
‘Watch, too, the handrail. Don’t lean on it. It’s about to fall. C’mon. Just one more flight of stairs. C’mon,’ she pleaded now, ‘Not like this. Wait. Not here.’
He felt the warmth, and the sweat on her thick thighs beneath her skirt and between her legs.
‘Wait!’ she implored, but laughingly, ‘What a man. Que hombre. Wait!’
‘I’m just looking for the key,’ he chuckled yet he felt almost revolted, sick to his stomach. He hated the way she spoke, smelled, he even the way she felt.
‘No key here, amor. Hush! The door’s open.’
‘Open,’ she repeated, ‘No thieves in this barrio.’
‘No thieves?’ he asked, surprised.
‘Not one. They would starve here to death. Nothing here to steal,’ she laughed in her vulgar voice but ‘Hush,’ she said, bit her tongue, she was the one who talked, and she stopped.
But he knew her - of her rather, of her kind; most women in these parts sold and bought, did some contraband; they had money.
‘But I want in.’
‘No key’s here, honey. Wait and I’ll make it worth it.’

She laughed again in that awful voice of a whore but stopped again, put her hand over her mouth, then on his and whispered, very quietly: ‘Hush! I don’t want anybody talking. Hush, Hush! Be quiet!’

He was at the top of the stairs again, it was still dark, maybe even darker; he was no longer a thief though, as before, he was now a murderer. He struck a match, once, twice, to no avail; his fingers, his hands were wet, wet with sweat or blood, he wasn’t sure. Never before had he felt cold blood, it was always warm when his nose bled, or when he had once swallowed a glass shard and let out blood for a week from his anus. What he felt then was warm. This, what he felt now, was cold, too thick for sweat,; yes, it had to be the woman’s blood. It felt disgusting. It smelled revolting.
He groped down through the dark staircase down leaning gently like a blind man on the banister that rattled and trembled. This was too dangerous – the rattling was, and, besides, the whole railing could fall off and tumble down anytime. He let go of it. He moved his hand along the damp wall. He moved his feet slowly; no running; he had to be quiet: "I don’t want anybody talking," she had said he remembered. He needed to leave this place unseen, just as he had entered; he had to flee quietly.

But they were seen, he thought suddenly, at the bar. And some men, for sure, knew her there. Or knew of her. They may even know him, he wondered, by sight of course; he had only spoken once to ordered drinks – beer and cheap local rum.

"Hola,. Que tal?" he recalled now a man say, but then again, his mind was blurred with alcohol and smoke then, maybe he only thought he heard the man say that, maybe the man said nothing, maybe no one even noticed when they were drunk at the bar and later when they left. But maybe when they danced and kissed later, some watched and envied him, some men like women that big and that black. ‘Damn it,’ he said in his mind, ‘I’ll have to leave, I’ll have to leave the city for a time. Maybe I’ll go to the East and live after all, for a while, with my mother.’
‘And work?’ he shuddered. ‘They’ll suspect something if I don’t show up. Or, maybe they won’t. And people here, in this neighbourhood? They’ll think it was her husband. Maybe someone saw them fight; they’ll think it was him who cut her. But why did she have to wake up? he wondered in anger.

She fell asleep soon after… no, nothing happened; she was impatient, she lay there waiting, black fat legs spread wide (he imagined) and he had too much rum and was now helpless.
‘Rotten luck,’ she murmured, turned her large body to one side, facing the wall and before she fell asleep she added ‘Carajo’ through her teeth. She, too, drank too much, had bad breath, coughed a while, had sore throat, she had said earlier, and was falling sick. He was not upset with himself - her smell and all –besides, he was not there for pleasure; this was his night out to rob, to steal.

She had asked him to dance; he was handsome and knew that – strong body, dark hair, greased, slicked back behind his ears. He was a Mulatto and women liked him. He, too, knew his trade, knew how to get women take him home, show them good time and then rob them blind in the dark. Well, it didn’t work that good tonight, she was fat and ugly, but fat like that…. must have something stashed. All he had to do was to find it.
‘What are you up to? What you’re doing in the dark?’ he heard suddenly. She was awake. He was surprised, scared; he didn’t answer and that was dumb, that gave him away.
‘Thief! Thief! Thief and impotent!’ she screamed and tried to grab him, but he pushed her down and covered her mouth with his huge hand- he had huge hands. With his other hand, he reached for a knife which he had ready, just in case, and stabbed her body three times and with each blow she fought harder, but he held her hard, he was strong, yet she twisted her body, wriggled like a snake- wet, slimy, as if with each blow she gained more strength, but then, suddenly, she stopped. He no longer felt her breath on his fingers. He felt nothing and he slowly let go, first of her mouth and then of the rest. And he was startled at how fast life leaves the body after it’s dead. He wasn’t scared. Not at all; after so many close calls, at last, he killed; he felt relieved. The void, the emptiness in his heart, maybe in his soul, was now filled, he felt as if his thirst was finally quenched. And yet he had thoughts, no scruples, no remorse, just thoughts, or afterthoughts. He reflected on how in so little time he progressed from being a thief, to now this: a murderer, and on how little he had to say, or do, or decide in regard, on how one thing led to another, or rather, how everything led to one thing: death, murder, and how he felt, no, quite the opposite, on how he felt nothing, not a thing.

Souls rotted here fast, crumbled away, like these drab, neglected homes where entire walls collapsed at times and exposed people’s lodgings, so now and then, as a matter-of-factly, paying no special heed, you could see their tattered souls, dwarfed, insensitive hearts, hearts like his, now. Maybe they’ll blame the husband; he had, after all, she said, wrecked the place, sought maybe and never found what he found and held now in his hand, in his pocket. But he knew women, he knew where women stashed money and things, he knew his trade. He felt no guilt, or fear, he felt a relief only, a sense of fatum, of no cause and effect, a strange feeling of helplessness and inconsequence. Yet he felt good. ‘Everything will be fine,’ he thought as he left the building and was back on the street where it was dark and where it still rained.

© Piotr Wesolowski January 2009

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