― Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux
Cecilia helped Father Teodor bring the tea cups and tray back into the kitchen. She dried after the priest washed. Cecilia glanced out the kitchen window, with a view to where Abuela Cecilia had returned to her bed and breakfast. The building sat behind a low, concrete fence. It was a two-story, yellow, Victorian-looking structure that brought to Cecilia’s mind Thomas Wolfe’s description of his mother’s boarding house in Look Homeward Angel. She was eager to go over there and continue the discussion with her new relative.
Cecilia asked Father Teodor if he wanted her to wait while he washed up before dinner. “No, no, you go ahead on to the house. I’ll be along in a few minutes. I’m sure Cecilia has everything all prepared, and is likely just finishing up the meal. I’ve shared dinner with Cecilia and her guests many times. You are in for a rare treat.” So Cecilia grabbed her things and headed down the street to the B&B. She knocked on the front door, but quickly realized the door was ajar. She walked into the foyer, and saw a wooden staircase in front of her, and the sounds and smells of cooking coming from the kitchen to the left and in the rear of the house. Just then a young man came down the stairs and greeted her. “Hola, Señorita. You soy Manuel. Bienvenido!” Manuel pointed up the stairs, and motioned to her to follow him. Cecilia walked behind him, up the stairs to the 2nd floor landing. Manuel took a few steps, and then pointed to a doorway to his left. Cecilia looked inside and found an empty bedroom, spare but clean. She quickly surmised that this was where she was to sleep that evening. Cecilia said, “Gracias, Manuel.” He nodded and walked back down the stairs.
The room was connected to a small bathroom with a shower. Cecilia wondered if she had time to take a shower before dinner, and decided to risk it. It took the better part of 5 minutes for the shower head to discharge hot water, but when it did she simply enjoyed a few moments of warmth on her back and shoulders. She quickly got out of the shower, dried herself and put on a fresh change of clothes. In 10 minutes, she was back downstairs, looking for the kitchen and the other Cecilia. She found the kitchen in the center rear of the house. It was a large room, filled with hanging pots, some copper and some cast iron. Cecilia was laboring over an 8 burner, restaurant-sized gas stove, filled with bubbling pots. There were two brick ovens built into the wall adjacent to the stove, and the smell of freshly baking bread came from the bottom oven. Abuela Cecilia nodded to her, and pointed at the large pot on a back burner. “Esto es La Sopa de Ajos Auténtico. Mira.” She lifted the top from the pot, and a lavish odor of olive oil, broth and garlic filled Cecilia’s nose and made her instantly aware of how famished she was. “Tengo mucha hambre,” Cecilia managed to recall the few words of Spanish that meant I’m hungry. The old woman smiled, nodded and said “Pronto.” That sounded good to Cecilia. The rest of the meal appeared to be laid out on a sideboard at the far end of the kitchen, and Cecilia pointed at the food and then to the dining table immediately adjoining the kitchen. Abuela nodded, and Cecilia began to take the food out and place it on the long, cloth-covered table. Bowls of fresh fruit, a loaf of fresh bread already cool from the brick oven, and avocado salad were placed in a straight line in the center of the table.
Within 10 minutes, Father Teodor, Father Rodolfo, Cecilia, Abuela and Manuel sat down to dinner. Abuela ladled the steaming garlic soup into stoneware bowls in front of each of them. As they began to eat, Father Teodor and Rodolfo spoke in rapid Spanish about local church gossip, from what Cecilia could gather. Abuela and Manuel were silent, allowing the two priests to enjoy their conversation. After the soup, the avocado salad was passed around, and Abuela took fresh bowls from the dining room sideboard for the diners. A pan roasted chicken was the highlight of the meal. Cecilia had never tasted anything so delicious, even though her mother was an exceptional interpreter of Cuban cuisine. “¿Que está esto?” Cecilia asked Abuela. She smiled at Cecilia’s basic and incorrect Spanish, replying “Eso es Pollo Asado en Cazuela.” Father Teodor interjected, “Abuela Cecilia follows the old recipe that includes a cinnamon stick. She even adds a thimbleful of cognac from a small bottle I brought her last year when I returned from a visit to some old friends in France.” The younger Cecilia ate with gusto, practically smacking her lips and licking her fingers. “Esto es magnifico!” Abuela just smiled.
When the dishes were cleared, Abuela Cecilia brought the cognac, and placed a drop in each of their tiny glasses. Clearly this was shaping up to be a special occasion. Father Teodor raised his glass to the assembled group, saying “A la Familia.” They all raised their glasses and sipped the cognac. Younger Cecilia was beginning to feel the exhaustion creep in, and was anxious to hear the rest of the story. Father Teodor could sense her anticipation, and looked over at Abuela. “Abuela Cecilia, continué con su historia.” Abuela nodded, saying something in Spanish to Father Teodor. He translated to the group, “Cecilia says she has malanga pudding for dessert, but perhaps it can wait a bit while we digest our meal?” Everyone nodded, and Abuela suggested they go to the back porch where it was cooler.
The back room was filled with small tables, and chairs of all sizes and shapes. Netting surrounded the porch to discourage flying insects from disturbing their conversations. Abuela took the peacock chair against the back wall of the house, and put her feet up on a small footstool. Clearly this was her place to relax from her efforts in the kitchen and caring for her guests. She inhaled deeply, and began to speak in her soft voice and careful enunciation. Father Teodor again took the seat immediately to her right to translate.
“When we last spoke, I told you that your grandfather and two other officers were shot by Batista’s men for the crime of caring about their families. Their bodies were rudely thrown into a cart with wheels, and taken down to the basement. There, an undertaker was charged with cleaning up the bodies for return to each of their homes. Batista was a fastidious man, and believed that when these fathers, sons and brothers were returned to their loved ones, they should look like they are sleeping.” Abuela scoffed at this notion, but Father Teodor encouraged her to go on. “The other two soldiers were dead, and the undertaker dealt with them first. Then he put your grandfather up on his table. As he did so, your grandfather moaned. The undertaker, who as it turned out was a family friend, realized that your grandfather was gravely wounded, but still alive. He put your grandfather back into the cart, covered it with a sheet, and wheeled it out of the basement. By this time it was late at night, and the guards were not paying attention as they should. The undertaker took your grandfather to the home of his friend, who was a doctor. The doctor, at first afraid to treat your grandfather, eventually took pity on him after the undertaker explained why he’d been sent for execution. The doctor took your grandfather, now barely holding on to life, back into his surgery, removed the bullets from his chest and neck, and gave him antibiotic and morphine. The doctor told the undertaker that he was too hurt to be moved, so he kept him at his home for nearly two weeks. After that, the undertaker returned, and took your grandfather back to Oriente, to his parent’s home. By this time, his mother had been told that her son was dead. When the undertaker brought him home, alive but still recovering, there were no words to express the joy she felt. I was still in Havana, still believing that he was dead. Your great grandmother sent a friend to tell me all that had occurred, and I thanked God and these brave individuals for saving him. I immediately asked the chef for two days off, even though it was the winter season, and we were very busy. I told a lie, that my mother was very ill. He said I could have only two days, but that was enough for me. I ran home to Oriente, and to your grandfather’s arms.”
Abuela paused at this point, and even in the dim light, Cecilia could see that her cheeks had reddened a bit. But she continued on, and Father Teodor translated. “We realized that it was just a matter of time before informers in the village found out your grandfather was alive. The next time the firing squad would not be so careless. We knew we had only a brief time to be together, and that we would have to find a way to smuggle him out of the country.” Again she paused, and exchanged some words in Spanish with Father Teodor. He nodded at her, and then he spoke directly to Cecilia. “Your grandmother wants to tell you the whole story, but she knows what she is about to say reveals a sin. I knew of it, because of the confessional. I assured her that God has long since forgiven her sin, and she must tell you the rest of her story.” Cecilia nodded, sensing what was coming next. Father Teodor nodded at Cecilia, and she began to speak again. He spoke her words in English. “I was sure that when your grandfather left Cuba, I would never see him again. I could not bear the thought. This man was the love of my life! So, the last evening, we..we..we lay together and I gave my whole self to him. We spent the entire evening in one another’s arms, knowing that it would be the first and the last time we would be able to be as man and wife, but without the sanctity of marriage. There was no way we could endanger the local priest with that secret. So your grandfather left, and nine months later, our son was born.”
This was very confusing to Cecilia, as she thought her mother was her grandfather’s only child, and that her mother’s mother had died of cancer ten years’ before. But she stopped herself, afraid that if she interjected, the thread of the story would be lost. But by now it was after 11, and everyone was tired. Cecilia knew there was more to the story that clearly involved Father Teodor, but everyone was so tired, she said “Maybe we should finish the story in the morning. I know you are very tired.” Teodor translated, and Abuela nodded. They all rose from their chairs, hugs were given all around and the two priests left. Cecilia said goodnight to Abuela and Manuel, went upstairs, changed into her nightdress, laid down on the small bed in the corner of the bedroom, and fell into a sound sleep.