The merchants of the small harbor town in Matanzas notice the odor first. It rises from the basin of the landscape and settles over the surrounding rim. The smell is so pungent and acrid that tourists are starting to flee clogging the roads and crowding the airport, nervous in their frenzy. Everyone senses something is wrong and not knowing the threat is scaring them.
At the island's gateway, men unload a 1959 Station Wagon, guiding kegs down a ramp. A second vehicle belonging to Carlos Samper stands waiting as he surveys the area patiently from inside the car. Carlos Samper, an avid fisherman and dedicated environmentalist, is not the type who blindly follows a cause, but a true, born naturalist.
Concern seems to cross his face as he scans the land, water, and skies. The terrain has been studied down to the last detail. On the clipboard in the seat beside Samper, the words Malathion and Malaoxon appear in large print.
Escobar opens the passenger door. “It will be a beautiful thing, you’ll see. Our own Eden respected and admired by the world.”
Samper rubs his eyes and nods to his friend. “One can only hope. But we should have waited for all the tests to come back. Rushing things only brings nightmares. And I’m not so sure about using our gifts for the defense…”
“Only as a precaution, Carlos. Trust me, will you? I’m your best friend.”
“And my only friend. But I fear it’s in the wrong hands…”
“It’s a strategic defense initiative, Carlos. The United States is so hung up on nuclear arsenals that they’ll never see this coming. While they are dictating to the world what they can and cannot do regarding the use of nuclear weapons, we will have our own little spin on things. Don’t give it a second thought. With capitalism, technology and other high tech inventions they are already halfway there in ruining their eco-systems. We are going to give them a helping hand should they ever come after us. We have a right to defend ourselves, brother. And if we can kill these damn mosquitoes in the process…”
“This doesn’t sit well with me, Escobar. I don’t like it but I will do my duty for my country. Now we have a bigger problem. We should have done more testing. I feel this is already beyond our control. And that smell, it is the smell of death!”
From her open window Alicia Samper watches the movement of her hometown come slowly to a halt. There is an increase in the girl's breathing that has her gasping for air. She turns to her bed and proceeds to lie on her stomach; her head pressed sideways against a pillow. The cross she wears is a jet-black coral amulet safely tucked beneath her. Laurie, Alicia’s mother, looms over a pot of black bean soup simmering on the stovetop. Carlos Samper walks in through the front door in a fury; his hands clenched and the muscles in his jaw bulging. He slams the door shut behind him. Mother and daughter both jump.
“Close all the windows right away, they are aerial spraying again in a couple of minutes, ” he says.
“Carlos, are you crazy? It must be 90 degrees in the shade today!”
“No arguments just do as I ask.”
He begins to shut all the windows of the small home. In her room Alicia is starting to feel a little better. She looks over at the large tank holding the baby Claria fish, Hector. The slate gray -to-olive coloration with a white underbelly is the result of an albino variation. Hector watches her as he pokes his head through the feeding door at the top, his feet stuck to the glass.
“I love you, Hector.”
Hector seems to respond to her voice as he continues to watch her intensely.
“We will always be together, Hector. Won’t we?”
Alicia places her fingers on the glass tank. Hector responds by propelling and enfolding his body around her fingers as if it were interweaving into one cohesive whole.
The little girl laughs.
“Silly fish! Silly, Hector!”
October 21, 2009
Alicia stands at the waters edge. Her heartbeat moves her soft white gown as if a spider crawls beneath the fabric. She kneels at the bank, the bridge high above to her right, a towering monolith drenched in moonlight. Matanzas...
…glows radiantly against the night sky. Everyone has their lights on, whimpering, holding machetes, rusty rifles, and their children tightly to their chests.
“Father, help me!”
Her fingers toy with loose, damp soil. She draws the protective sigil her Aunt Maria has taught her in the earth. She wishes her aunt walked with her.
It’s too late. No one is safe. Many are taken. Wind blows in from the sea, rippling the bay’s dark waters and floods the land with the stench of death. The Cathedral bell rings and far off people scream.
She walks along the waters edge until she reaches the beach. Her foot sinks into warm, wet sand and she kneels, dipping her finger in it. Behind her, the resort sits quietly; blood stains the walls bearing images of hands and faces, it trails to the sea in jagged, squiggly lines.
Alicia finds a stick and uses it to help her walk, overcome by her confusion and exhaustion. Her stomach growls as she passes by pineapple trees while planes burn the night sky, dropping chemicals. “I’m so hungry.”
But there is no food left to eat. Like locusts, the Claria have settled over the island tip, sucking up what remains, dragging it beneath the ocean’s false calm. After the food has gone…
A phantom, low to the ground, snaps the air to her right. The force of its jaws snapping closed blows wind against Alicia’s legs. She raises the walking stick to use as a club. “Don’t come any closer.”
It chitters and wags its tail, which sends her mind reeling over images of people flailing for their life’s last breath. The monster sniffs the air through the murk she believes it nods its head as if it understands that she is special -- she is Mother.
Alicia chokes back a sob, praying for daylight to break.
Closer, another scream shakes the night. A young couple runs nude along the beach. The Claria…
…darts passed Alicia in a blur of lizard muscle--fat fish eyes, mouth open, full of teeth dark and ragged.
The couple runs forward and the woman’s fingers dig into the man’s torn shirt, trying to keep up with his frantic pace and failing. She falls. The man falters, his eyes are wide and white in the moonlight; his breath comes in torn gasps, his tan skin is shivering. He looks farther down the beach from the direction they’d come. The woman moans and tries to get her hands beneath her.
“Diablo,” the man cries.
A blur of movement jumps behind the woman. It lands on her back and tears at her neck. It braces her legs with its tail and goes rigid like a tree, its pronged feet pressing against her sides. Her ribs break and she screams, high and loud. The beast’s head whips back, wet with ocean, her blood slings from its lips in a wide arch that splatters over the man’s chest.
He stumbles forward and meets Alicia’s eyes, raising his hand as if to beckon her for help. Tripping over his feet, he lands in a heap, his teeth clacking as the point of his chin hits the sand.
“I can’t help you. I’m only a child.”
The beach stirs with chittering as the Claria call to one another. There are hundreds of them now. Hector. The chemicals. Darkness spawned of man and God’s creation. Those bred of land and sea.
The woman lays there motionless as a blotch of dark sand encompasses her. The man curls into a ball and covers his face with his arms as the Claria swarm and descend upon his body, eating him alive; pieces of flesh and rivers of blood envelope the dampening sand.
From a distance, water splashes as it surges, revealing the half-eaten remains of Laurie Samper.
Alicia buckles and drops her stick. She wants to stand, wipe the wet hair that remains from her mother’s face, but she can’t move. All she can do is sob.
“I’m sorry Mommy but Hector didn’t do this. He wouldn’t do this! Not to us. We’re his family. Mommy talk to me! Mommy!”
Inverted torches and symbols of death stretch beyond the edge of visibility, over the bridge, alongside the plaza and beach, moving at a quick march beneath the electric haze of a neon sign, not stalling for a moment. The smell of gasoline mixes in with the foul stench of rotting carcasses and sugarcane. A small convoy of commandeered vehicles rolls up on the other side of the beach from the opposite direction. There is silence right before the sound of heavy artillery.
Alicia staggers down the waterfront…
“Hector! We have to hide!”
The little girl’s cries crescendo in between the loud popping, hissing, chittering and screaming sounds emanating from the once beautiful and popular beach in Matanzas…
Strong winds carry smoke over to the nearby Capitol City of Havana, arousing curiosity. As the streets grow darker and emptier from the carbonaceous matter in the air, the caves of Bellamar in Matanzas start to fill with different variations of Claria fish. The trickling stream that runs the length of the cave system becomes a perfect haven for them.
In Montemar National Park, the biggest area of swampland that is usually filled with many rare types of wildlife shows no signs of life and neither does the nearby Crocodile farm. Even the soft, incessant buzzing of bloodthirsty mosquitoes has stopped.
Trudging up the low, gradual base of a mountain, through a series of rising peaks and intervening valleys, the small group of mysterious civilians and military enforcers make their way to an outpost where others are supervising everything via radio. The red, white and blue flag of Cuba hangs as a symbol of a disembodied voice while little clumps of families and solitary people wander in at different speeds from various directions.
Carlos wipes his eyes, remembering the family he has lost. The flood of death is so thick he can’t stay in his home. He chokes on his pain as they ride toward the base. His long time friend is sitting next to him, his brow knitted with worry.
Escobar motions him over as the jeep leads the foot soldiers up the grade, a mountain blocking half the moon, waiting. Carlos leans in, strains to listen over the rumble of the motor as the incline becomes harsh.
“You’re thinking of your family, yes?”
Carlos can still hear his wife’s cries -- her ghost.
“My family is dead. No, I don’t think of them. What could I do?” He lies with a straight face.
Escobar raises a thick black eyebrow and waits; his teeth a flash of white as a flare lights the sky.
Carlos continues, “I fear for them. The blood. They are gone.”
“But you never saw their bodies. You don’t know. They could still be out there.” His voice, even loud, is soft in tone. He pats Carlos’s knee and slows the jeep as the mouth of the cavern yawns before them.
Two armed guards stand in the towers on either side of the entrance out of the Claria’s reach. Escobar stops the vehicle and climbs out, the soldiers far behind them.
“I don’t know why they waste their time with those things, ” he says, pointing at the towers. “The stupid fish don’t travel this far inland.”
There is a strange sense of silence, painful and scary.
“This is a shame, but yet it must be done.” Carlos sighs, his hands tremble. He gives the order and signals; the guards raise their rifles.
“What is this?” Escobar frowns.
“You killed my family! And many more.”
“I did no such thing. I strived to make this a better place for everyone. Abundant in its richness, beautiful in--”
“You created the chemicals. You drove the Claria insane with bloodlust. You and Castro used our own people as guinea pigs for testing biological warfare and weapons of mass destruction to use against the United States! I’ve forgiven you for so much already. For so much!”
“You’ve got it all wrong, Carlos, my dearest friend. Please, order them to put their weapons down.”
Carlos’ sorrow rises and falls in ebbs as colored as the crystal ocean. He knows that part of what Escobar says is true. An image of Alicia flashes across his mind. His arms are around her, holding her after birth. Escobar is there too in the cramped room, holding Laurie’s hand, like a loving brother.
His shoulders sag and air rushes between his teeth. “I paid them for justice. Everything I had saved for my daughter’s future fills their pockets. I am sorry, I can’t undo this.”
“Carlos, listen to me…”
The guards let go with a burst of gunfire and Escobar’s body jumps as blood splatters the rocky path. Carlos’ ears ring with a madness he can’t smother. He holds Alicia’s cross in his fist, and squeezes it until the edges pierce his palm. “Forgive me.”
Inside the cave the general stands huddled with others like him, men Carlos knows but doesn’t understand. They nod. The general asks: “He is dead?”
Carlos sits on a crate labeled: Explosives.
“Good. Dead men don’t talk. If any of this gets out, we can blame someone else, some other country.”
The men sit at a gray steel table and study a map. The walls, high and black, slick with water, shimmer beyond Carlos’s eyes. He wipes the tears away. “Your plan won’t work.”
The general wipes his mouth, his hand steady. Carlos envies him and wonders at the same time: who have you lost?
“We have nothing else, Samper. We must destroy Matanzas. It is the only way.”
“My family is dead.”
“I understand. And you should want vengeance.”
“Against what? A monster that doesn’t know it does wrong?”
The General folds his hands in his lap and looks around the table, at his men. His chin drops and he stares at a place only he can see. When he looks up, he frowns, the skin at his neck heavy with age, remorse. “If the soldiers line the perimeter and detonate everything at once, there will be no escape for the Claria. We can’t let them flee to the sea.”
“And what makes you think they haven’t done so already?”
Carlos smells rotten meat.
Overripe rhythms and forced laughter bat at the mouth of the cave. Aunt Maria draws some Santeria symbols on the ground. She is now surrounded by a group of fellow practitioners as Carlos approaches.
“What are you laughing at?”
“Look at you, Carlos. You’re like a little newt gasping for air.” She laughs, raising her eyes to the ceiling in acknowledgment.
“Delusions are indulging, Carlos. I know about your delusions. And so do they. The Spirits. You’re not going to die from it, but are you prepared to do what you have to do? Poor Laurie, she trusted you. And Alicia…
And Escobar, I always wondered how you’d feel about the man who has slept with your wife.” She laughs again and in her is an innate attractiveness. She looks so much like her sister Laurie, it rattles Carlos.
Maria starts to rise and Carlos grabs her by the arm.
“Keep your insane ramblings to yourself, understand?”
She smiles at him and continues to walk over to a makeshift table, retrieving a bottle of rum. The practitioners swirl around her, moving clockwise in slow paced steps. Their words are incantations that echo as they dance, spreading cornmeal in a circle that glows bone white in the torchlight. They all grow silent, as if waiting for The Spirits to speak.
Chitters fill the cavern, screams and gunfire break the silence down hill; there are flashes of lights that jar the eye. Aunt Maria’s smile fades. Her eyes are black, lost in shadow. “You must pay for your sins. Redemption is a gift even when it costs you everything.”
Carlos tries to swallow the lump in his throat; his hand on his aching stomach. His heart tells him to beg for her protection, to be allowed in her circle, but part of him understands that it is not his place, and only sorrow waits for the hand where he played in the massacre for Escobar’s death and the death of his family.
“I didn’t mean to harm Laurie. But when I saw her there in his arms, imploring his protection, worried about his safety…how much can one man take? How much? She always loved him! I thought in time she would come to love me as much as she did him, but that never happened. I didn’t mean to kill her!”
Maria shakes her head in disgust as she gasps in terror.
Behind Carlos, men scream, their fear ripping at his ears. He grabs sticks of dynamite from the closest crate as the general and his men fall beneath a wave of writhing shadows. The Claria rend flesh and suck marrow as men cry in their death throes. The gunfire outside dies and the hillside grows thick with silence.
They’ve come in through underground. The tributaries.
Carrying the sticks of dynamite, Carlos runs outside. Maria and the women inside the circle chant, sing, and pound their palms against the dirt. The guards in the towers are long gone. "Fools. They must have tried to help those making their way to this death house." He tears his shirt off and makes a sling to carry the explosives. Carlos climbs the tower’s ladder. From the high perch he sees the day's first light, pink and orange, burning across the ocean's still waters.
The fish born of land and sea now pour from the mouth of the cavern, eyes dark and heads snapping left and right, nostrils flaring. Circling the base of his fort, they jump and snarl and, even though Carlos knows they can’t reach him, his heart is heavy with what has been lost.
"I don't know who I am anymore. What does it matter now?"
The sky stretches baby blue in the east as the blackness of the bloody night recedes. He leans his back against the tower's waist-high wall. Corpses litter the hillside. Aunt Maria and her kind sing in staccato; their voices a constant ache in his ears, engaging The Spirits. Carlos peers over the edge of the wall.
"It's an omen."
The Claria curl into balls soaking up the sunlight.
"They can’t reach me. But I can’t escape. All is lost. Everything!"
He sobs and digs his fingers into his cheeks until blood drips from his chin.
The Claria stare up at him with hungry eyes as ripples move beneath their flesh and at first he believes they are preparing to drop more spawn. Bones push at their shoulders from beneath. Carlos sucks in a breath; sweat stinging his eyes as a soft breeze presses his shirt tightly against his chest carries the stench of burning. Their wings form and some run, trying to take flight, stumbling, clumsy in their effort.
"No! Oh God, please! No!"
Looking north he sees the dim mass of Florida’s coast.
"What have I done?"
“Are you prepared to do what you have to do?” Maria's voice echoes through the corridors of his mind.
Squeezing his daughter’s crucifix, he pulls his lighter from his pants pocket, sick with knowing. He lights one of the sticks and throws it as far as he can. Body parts fly with the explosion and blood splatters against the heavy foliage on both sides of the path. But, like dragons, some of the farther ones are gliding, oily wings beating the wind, ever evolving.
Carlos lights another stick and closes his eyes. Laurie and Alicia are within a bright room, inside his head as the sweat on his hands soaks into the rough skin of his lit explosive. His wife and daughter wave him forward as sparks from the burning wick sting his arms like hornets jabbing his flesh. Tears slick his cheeks. The Claria swarm the land, the sea, and the sky. The near-silence is deafening as they engulf the tower.
The blood chilling scream of a little lost girl is heard echoing through the cave system, an innate command that completely subdues the demon fish...